Author Topic: Untitled short story in progress  (Read 887 times)

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Untitled short story in progress
« on: November 04, 2004, 09:15:41 PM »
(I decided to take a cue from cbrad and post this taking-a-break-from-screenwriting thing I'm working on. It doesn't end because I'm still working on it, but I figured this was long enough for one post )


He stepped out into the noontime heat and onto the front steps that were baking like clay in the sun. Fissures running like veins through the concrete. All three crumbling at the corners. The middle one he could almost feel give way under the heel of his boot near the edge. A few more years itíd be worn down like St. Peterís foot and he remembered the days when he could take them all at once.

Now to the dirt, once baked into a crust, now crumbled fine as sand from which grass rose in tufts, coming out of the earth brown, turned by the sun before it even sprouted. It had stopped growing altogether in the path that ran from the steps to the fence, and the black ants ran amidst the blades that encroached upon this burrow, finding earth enough to build their gates and safe haven from the footsteps of man. They scurried in their impenetrable patterns now, their whole world trembling. Those carrying loads did not drop them nor did they let themselves be panicked.

He walked to the fence, betwixt whose center firmaments hung a mesh and iron gate. The fence was wood and the color of rust, and the gate was made of rust itself. It did not make a sound as it swung.

He stepped up the slight ridge from the dirt to the asphalt. When the rains came, the water gushed over this rugged crest and left his land a swamp. The ants would burrow deep. One summer he conceived to dig a furrow between his fence and the road so as to divert the waters, and he had imagined coming out after a spring shower to see a moat surrounding his home, no different from a castle. He would have thrown a plank or two across it for a drawbridge, had he ever dug it. It had been one of those endeavors time got in the way of.

His mailbox was on a pylon facing North, perpendicular to the road like all boxes on these rural routes, so that the mail carrier would not have to be troubled to get out of his truck every mile or so. He never had to check his mail; even when he was inside, he could hear the springs of the mailbox hatch whenever it opened. There was a time when heíd oil them, but even then they never lost their voice.  Heíd grown so that traffic did not reach him, and he would never hear the mail truck as it approached or slowed or kept on going; but the whine of his mailbox always made his head turn. Like something in his head was waiting for it.

Heíd heard it not five minutes ago and would have crossed the yard already had he not been ironing his trousers. Hearing it made something jump in his spine, a recognitive jolt to his brain. He finished ironing the remaining leg of corduroy, creasing the plaits. He set the iron on its haunch and pulled the cord from the wall and coiled it. He lifted the trousers and stepped into them and found his belt and slipped it through the loops and buckled it.

Now  the brief catch of a latch and that whine again, high pitched and grating and resonant, and within the mailbox an envelope. He took it out and looked at the stamp; the Virgin and Child; a leftover from Christmas. Black waves of ink across it, and a seal dated six days prior. His name and address scrawled in chickenscratch blue.

The sweat from his fingertips was leaving dirty marks on the envelope where he held it. He looked up and down the black asphalt sticky with old tar. No cars, no busses. No perambulators either. The air too viscous to move. The sky was a blue the grew white around the parameter of the sun, and when he tilted his head just so it became bisected by the black streaks of telephone lines through which no communication coursed. Thatís where the blackbirds sat. Too hot out even for them to fly, he wagered to himself just before a solitary crow lit from its perch and fluttered to the wheat fields that stretched out on the other side of the road. Come dusk, those fields would turn gold; come weather, they would undulate in the wind like waves. Now they were still and brown, like the grass, like the earth, like his pleated pants and tattered boots and the marks his fingertips left on his letter. He remembered when things were green and took the letter inside.

Six months on and the oil evaporated from the air, leaving it now too thin. The birds on the telephone poles too cold to move. The wheat fields long since cut down in their prime, the asphalt glistening with ice, the earth gray with slush.  He went down the steps, concoursed with more cracks, all filled in with ice, and crossed the yard. The fence was gone now altogether. Some ways down the road was a telephone pole, and wrapped around it was the grill of a truck. The truck there too, practically an antique, steam pouring in a steady exhale from its bent mouth, the lip of the hood pushed upward in a cleft snarl. Its engine still rumbling.

His boots crunching the ice underfoot, some of it under the soles and some of it melting and seeping through the tattered seams. His toes curled against the cold. He approached the truck. He stepped up onto the asphalt and now could see the serpentine tracks trailing out behind the truckís resting spot, wavering across the width of the road.

Behind the cloud of steam that was only now beginning to wane, the windshield was splintered into thousands of pieces not yet fallen, and he could not see through it. He walked around to the passenger side door and looked in, past the whorl of frost on the pane. Cozy in the cab of the truck was a man, bundled twice his weight in flannel shirts and quilted jackets. Within the hood, behind the scarf, a red button of a nose and a pair of glasses fogged. Gripping the steering wheel, bare blue hands,  white at the knuckles.  Stubble on his face equally blanched.

Not a movement did he make, not a breath falling or rising his chest nor a shiver against the cold. He was frozen solid, it seemed. His glasses staring blankly.

A tap at the window and the man jumped, startled, and looked up at him. Then he looked at the magnificent web creased into his windshield, and his body could be seen to sigh. After a few moments, he found the keys and turned them but did not pull them from their socket. He began the long process of finding the handle of the door and pushing his weight against it and opening it and stumbling to the ground.

Once extricated, he unfolded to his full height, joints revealing themselves not just at his waist and knees but at his shoulders and chest. Six feet at least. Standing, he didnít seem so thick, and beneath all those layers might well have been nothing but bones. His bare hands were all white now and chapped to the cracking point; he jammed them into his coat. A person from these parts would have known to wear gloves this time of year.

I thought I heard the mailbox, said the one.

I need to say that Iím sorry Iím so late, replied the other.

Together they went inside, where a fire crackled on the stove in the kitchen and an electric heater spread its warmth outward from the bedroom wall and coats could be doffed and hands warmed. Outside, whatever steam the truck had left ran out and it turned as cold as the earth, inside and out.


He walked along the side of the road, shuffling his feet to keep friction with the ice. The fields stretched out to the left and to the right of him like twin seas, the fences bordering them nearly invisible against their vastness. I watched him walking there and thought it a funny sight. Days like this I remembered, sliding on the ice in boots for lack of skates, and angels in the snow.


The bells on the door chimed brightly. One might have heard them a mile away, so crisp and still the air.

Morning Saul, said the man behind the counter.

Morning Jeremy.

Cold one, isnít it.

Youíre not wrong about that. Boy.

He whistled, went on to grab a basket from the stack by the door and proceeding down the aisle filled it with two loaves of bread and cans of soup, a gallon of milk, from the freezer in the corner a six pack of beer.

Getting a lot there, said the man behind the counter.

Well, Hank showed up this morning.

By God, did he really.

Yep, and he wrapped his truck around the telephone pole too, right outside my house.

Well Iíll be. Whereíd he get a truck?

Who knows. Guess Iíll call the Fletchers a little while later to come tow it away.

Theyíll be not making any calls today, I donít imagine.

Oh yeah?

Yeah. Tedís wife, you know. The babyís just about there.

Well good for them. Howíd you find out?

Cary came in to get some cigarettes on his way out.

Well good for them. Good for them, thatís just grand. He went up to the counter with his basket. I might have to just head over and say hi one of these days.

You should. You certainly should. This be all today?

He nodded. The shopkeeper grinned and hit the register.  Well you know, he said, I just got a case of these Richmonds in. What say I throw one in for you and Hank. Thatís a celebration worth having right there, you know.  He reached beneath the counter and produced two thick cigars wrapped tight in cellophane and dropped them in the paper sack with the food.

I suppose it is.  Thank you for those. Weíll surely enjoy them.

Good, good. Have a drink, have a smoke. Whatís it been?

Since I seen him last?

Since he wrote that letter. Six months?

Almost to the day Iíd imagine.

And yeah, how long has he been away anyway?

This time? Twelve years. But itís been near twenty since I last saw him.

Itís a crazy world, ainít it.

That it is, he said as he doled out a wad of bills and some change onto the counter. I about gave up on ever seeing him again, and here he is this very morning, crashing into my telephone pole.

Well, Iíd be curious to know what happened. Youíll have to tell me on Wendesday.

I might be back before then.

I hope heís doing okay. I hope heíll do good this time.

Me too.

My own brother spent the night at county once for stealing someoneís laundry and just that broke my motherís heart. I can scarcely imagine.

Yeah, well. Itís always too long, one way or another. What was he stealing laundry for?

Hell if I know. He was always doing one dumb thing or another. He laughed.

Yep. Yep. He hefted the bag into the crook of his arms and sighed a sigh cusped with expectations of things to come. I guess just hope he knows Iím glad to see him.

The shopkeeper smiled and his eyes twinkled in a way that sort of matched the sound the door chime made.


A perfect world would have seen three of them sitting there that night as the fire warmed the spotted  walls with its pale rose glow. But itís no more perfect than god is good, and Hank and Saul sat by themselves, one on a bench and the other in his rocker. Empty jejune soupbowls on the table between them. Beer cans in their hand, three already empty on the floor. The wind outside howled around the corners of the house and up through the eaves. Through the window, the truck could be seen, all white now, a snowdrift unto itself.

They had nothing much to say now. Hank had already explained the six months away. How he hadnít a cent to his name. How heíd borrowed the stamp to send that letter, and borrowed the truck to make this trip, and how that truckís owner was going to raise hell when he saw the grill.

How he looked for motherís grave but couldnít find it amongst the others and how he wondered if the name had been worn from the granite marker over the years. How he didnít feel his age until he put on real clothes for the first time.

How he was trying his best to do good and was doing all right so far. How heíd be doing better if he could find some place to acclimate to. That was the word he kept using. Acclimate. Maybe itíd be here that it would happen, out in the fields with his fingers in the earth half the year, or putting nails in shoes or stitches in clothes. Things heíd spent time doing. Would Saul put in a word for him, he wondered.

Heck, Hank, youíre two years older than me and Iím good as retired.

I donít feel it and I sure donít look it, he said, and it was true.

You donít know a thing about working a real job, anyway.

Gotta be better than what Iím used to.

I guess thatís so.

He offered Hank his bed that night but Hank said no. He found enough blankets to cushion the ragged sofa, damp with melted frost, carried in from the shed out back. He did offer one of his pillows, and Hank accepted. They both turned in early. Cigar smoke wafting in the darkness of the house. Saul left the bedroom door open, and from his bed through the doorway he saw Hank get up from the makeshift bed and go to the rocking chair and sit in it and rock only as much as he must have thought he could without making a sound. Saul waited and watched for some time, but when he fell asleep Hank was still in the chair.

In the morning, Saul found Hank up first, stirring a pot of milk on the stove.

Whatíre you making there?

Hank smiled and sniffed the steam. Well, he said. I thought Iíd make us some hot chocolate. Itís mighty cold out and it sounded good.

I donít know that Iíve got any chocolate.

Hank nodded. Iíve got some. He lifted a Hersheyís bar, short a few squares, the foil wrapping pushed up around the jagged edge for safe keeping. I  got it at a gas station yesterday. I never got around to finishing it.

He unwrapped the foil and slid the paper wrapper away and broke the chocolate into pieces which he dropped into the milk, now almost boiling. He stirred them and the milk gradually turned a pale brown. The smell of chocolate floated up towards the slanted watermarked ceiling boards, to which the musk of cigar smoke still clung. Together, the scents helped cut the cold.

Saul cracked some eggs in a frying pan and joined Hank at the stove. He took two slices of bread and put them on the grill above the coals. Hank took two glasses, for there were no mugs, and first ladled and then poured the chocolate into them. He took a sip from one and handed the other to Saul.

He sipped his. Itís been a long time since I last had hot chocolate, he said.

We had a cook inside whoíd make it sometimes. Thanksgiving and Christmas and whatnot. Special occasions and the like.

Well heck. I guess this is a special occasion, wouldnít you say?

They took their things to the wobbly table and ate quietly. Both pausing now and then to turn to the window and stare at the near blinding expanse outside.  

I donít remember it being this cold.

Itís always been cold like this. Just the house used to be warmer.

Hank nodded, biting his lower lip, a sign of recollection. He hunched his shoulders forward and scraped his plate with his fork.

So how do you get around, he asked.

I walk.



Thereís nothing around here, though.

Thereís nowhere I really need to go. Go to the store once or twice a week.

I guess we might get that truck fixed.

I thought you borrowed it.

Yeah, well. We can get it fixed and maybe keep it a while.

Well, the mechanics wonít be around today or tomorrow. Weíll just have to leave it be for the time being. He paused and thought for a moment. Anyone gonna be missing it? Hank shook his head.

They finished their breakfast and took the plates to the sink. Saul washed them and Hank took to the towel without needing to be asked. Hank kept his shoulders stooped, like he was doing all he could to keep himself at Saulís height. Steam eventually rose from the sink, after the water had run long enough to get hot. For a brief moment, between the second glass and the second plate, they fell into a rhythm and moved in unison, tandem, like an old fashioned machine, one piston pushing and the other reciprocating with a pull and steam flowing from the engine that powered them both.

They fell out of time with the silverwear, and when all was dry and put away and the sink turned off and the steam dissipated, they became motionless once more. Hank leaned on the counter, stooping even further so that, were Saul to glance at him, their eyes might meet.

A little while later, he asked Do you get the paper here?

Yep. Saul nodded. Itíll be out front, if you want to get it. I usually wait until after lunch.

How come?

I donít know. I guess in the winter itís too cold to go out to get it in the morning, and in the summer itís too hot to do anything after lunch but read.

I guess thatís a good way to look at it. But do you mind if I get it?

Sure. Go right ahead.

Hank put on his boots and his quilted coat and opened the door. He breathed in the cold like it was something to be savored and not closed up from, against. His breath danced before him in the air and fogged up his glasses. He removed them and wiped them and by the time heíd replaced them his breath had clouded them again. After a moment he stepped out onto the stoop. It creaked under his weight, and the creak turned into a crack as the ice was squeezed between the threadbare crevices in the boards. He took the three front steps in one and crossed the yard in not many more. The sun was out beyond the haze today and the tundra of the wheat fields stood out in stark contrast to the blue sky. More cracking sounds rang through the air as the ice on the telephone wires melted just enough to shift. New snow had fallen over night. It seemed to absorb the sun instead of reflecting it, taking its light and keeping for itself, seeming all the richer and deeper and more lovely for it. No less cold, though.

The newspaper was just beyond where the fence once was, in the rift between the road and the yard that was just a slope of snow now, protruding out of it in its plastic bag, held firmly upright in a crust of frost. He tugged at it and retrieved it but did not so quickly turn back to the ramshackle house. He looked at his truck, by now almost part of the telephone pole. He turned in the opposite direction. A person could stare at a landscape like the one now before him and before too long they might forget where they were, lose all bearing. A person like him could get intoxicated just by the sight of all that space.


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Untitled short story in progress
« Reply #1 on: November 04, 2004, 09:46:35 PM »
very, very, very well-written. damn. you're descriptions are really wonderful. i could never come close to that. (love the last few lines there) this feels like the beginning of a novel, or novella. at the pace you seem to be going it could very well be quite a long short story. keep going!

any title ideas yet?


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Untitled short story in progress
« Reply #2 on: November 15, 2004, 08:31:14 PM »
Meant to thank you for reading this ages ago, cbrad, but it slipped my mind.

I've added another 1000 words or so since I posted this...should have been more, but I've been busy elsewhere. I'm also debating whether I should add more punctuation. Particularly with the dialogue. It'll probably end up being a decently-lengthed short story...15,000 words or so (not quite enough for novella status, I don't think). The story's progressing nicely; I know exactly where I want to go, and I'm really enjoying exploring the process of getting there. No ideas for a title yet; I'm TERRIBLE when it comes to titles.


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Untitled short story in progress
« Reply #3 on: November 15, 2004, 10:20:58 PM »
well definitely post more whenever ur ready.

as for titles, yeah, they're tough for me too. we talked about titles today during class actually. my professor was bitching about how many of students turn in stories that are untitled. he says a good title lets you know that the author has some idea as to what the story is about, or where it's going. a story w/o a title, therefore, gives a sense of the author not knowing what he/she wants.

he says a good trick is to take the title right out of a line of dialogue in the story (which at first i thought was kinda cheesy, but it was wonderfully done in eternal sunshine)

so anyway, good luck!


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