I wrote “Outlaw” almost a decade ago, and it was published in Grift Magazine #2 in 2013. Unfortunately, gun violence has only gotten worse in America since I wrote it. I’ve republished it on Medium today.
I found this vignette in one of my notebooks. I have no memory of writing it and I certainly have no idea where I was going with it, but it’s cute, so I thought I’d share it.
Sylvie’s desk was in the back of the classroom. Wood top, plastic seat, metal legs. The desktop bore the scars of many years of service. Scratches, gouges, and names carved into it surface. When Sylvie spilled water on it one day, a lot of it soaked right in before she could get a wad of paper towels to clean it up.
The next day when she came in, a branch had sprouted from the spot where she’d spilled the water. It stuck up and blocked her vision of her teacher. She wanted to move but the class was full and there was no place to sit but on the floor. Instead, she bent the branch down out of her way so she could see. Every time the leaves rustled, the teacher scowled at her.
The day after that, Sylvie came prepared. She had stolen a pair of her mother’s pruning shears so she could cut the branch off. But the branch had grown into a shrub. She tried to trim away enough twigs and leaves to look through. With every soft snip of her shears, her classmates gave her dirty looks. And it was no use. New branches grew in as fast as she could clip them. And every twig that fell to the floor sprouted its own growth. By the end of the day, a forest surrounded Sylvie that was so thick that she wasn’t even sure she was still in school.
Just after the new year, I finished the first draft of my last novel, as yet untitled. (It had a title, but the story that emerged made the title obsolete, so I’m still in search of a new one.) I deliberately set it aside for a few weeks to get some distance. Yesterday, I decided it was time to start.
I made some changes late in the novel that will require me to re-arrange the beginning. Some scenes need to be rewritten. Some will be replaced with new ones; others will be cut entirely. I wanted to make the structure visible so it would be easier to understand how changing one scene would affect others.
I first thought I would use the blank wall in my home office to map the structure. Color-coded sticky notes and swim lanes would do the trick. Trouble was, I ran out of wall 1/3 of the way in. Today I transferred the physical notes into a spreadsheet. Manipulating cells isn’t as enjoyable as having something I can touch and feel, but at least this is portable, which will be good when I travel on business.
Tomorrow, I’ll print the entire draft and start reading it and marking it up. For the first time, I’m eager to revise. Usually, I’m so sick of a story by the time I finish the first draft that revision is a torment. I don’t know why this feels different.
Nehemiah stared into the diner from the safety of the unlit sidewalk, watching Margo wrap napkins around silverware. No customers so late on a Monday. That’s why he’d chosen this night. But even without an audience, his stomach gnawed on itself like an animal chewing its way out of a trap.
You need a drink, friend. Steady your nerves.
He recognized the whisper in his mind for what it was. He squeezed his eyes tight.
“Go to hell, Whiskey,” he said.
He ignored the throaty chuckle of his eternal enemy and pushed the door open. The clank of cowbells announced his entrance. Margo looked up, her eyes as big as a startled owl’s.
Her walnut hair was shot through with silver. The harsh, fluorescent lighting made every line on her face look chiseled in.
She was too young to look so old.
How had two years changed her so much? Or had the amber haze he’d lived in for so long before she left made him unable to see her?
“What do you want, Nehemiah?” she spat. The muscles on her neck stood out, cord-like against her skin. Her disgust deepened his shame. Even in his thrift-store jacket, t-shirt, and blue jeans, he felt naked.
He let the door swing shut behind him. The bells clanked again. The place smelled of decades of eggs, bacon grease, and coffee.
“Nothing bad. I ain’t here to cause a scene.” It sickened him to have to say it. His hands trembled, and he hid them in his pockets. “I only want to talk.”
“Well, I don’t want to talk to you.” She finished wrapping a paper napkin around the silverware in her left hand and dropped the bundle into a grey, plastic tub. “You go on and get, or I’ll call the cops.” She picked up the handset of the old red phone on the wall behind the counter.
“Go ahead, if it will make you feel better. I can say what I need to before they get here, anyway.”
She stared at him a long time, brown eyes underlined by dark smudges. She remained still until the dial tone gave way to angry beeping.
“I let you say your piece, you’ll go on and go?”
She hung up the phone. Then she braced her hands on the counter, wide to the sides so that the crooks of her elbows showed.
“Get it over with, then.”
He pointed at one of the counter stools, bolted to the floor as though they might flee if given the opportunity.
“Can I… can I sit down?”
“You stand right there. That way you won’t have so far to walk when you’re done.”
She ain’t making this easy, Whiskey whispered. Nehemiah ignored it.
What have I ever done to deserve easy, he thought.
“I, uh, I came to say—” he began, but his words failed him. He’d written it out this afternoon. Memorized it, so when the time came, this wouldn’t happen.
“Let me guess. You came to apologize. Twelve-stepping it. Is that it?”
“No. I mean, yes. I mean, I’m not doing twelve steps, but—”
“So you’re still a drunk.”
Her words ran up and down his spine like cockroaches.
“I am not. I ain’t had a drop since—”
Since he hurled the bottle at the door after she slammed it for the last time. He had sliced his fingers to ribbons picking up broken glass with shaking hands.
“I don’t even want it anymore.”
“Liar,” she said.
Liar, Whiskey said.
“I don’t,” he whispered. “You ain’t me. Not anymore.”
“Who are you talking to?” She narrowed her eyes. “Oh. Whiskey. Like always.” She crossed her arms and dug her fists into her ribs. “Like it’s some other person inside of you, making you do things.”
His face burned.
The hell with her. Let’s get out of here. You know they’ve missed you at Charlie’s.
No. He was never going to be that man again. He breathed in deep, through his nose.
“I only blame myself.” And then the words he’d memorized came back to him in a torrent, rising so fast he feared they would choke him if he didn’t let them out.
“I did wrong by you. I treated you worse than anyone deserves. I ought not have said the things I said. I had no right. You never gave me anything but kindness and I repaid it with cruelty. I spent the last two years thinking about that. Regretting it. And now, I’m here to say… to say I’m sorry, Margo. I’m sorry for everything.”
Silence pressed down on him like a sack of gravel draped across his shoulders. He had thought he would feel better once he got it out, but his guts still twisted.
Margo pressed her lips into a bloodless line.
“Then you can leave, now.” She plucked a knife, spoon, and fork from a tray and started wrapping them in a napkin.
The cockroach sensation ran up and down his spine again, then down into his legs.
She didn’t even listen.
“You didn’t listen to a word I said!”
“I heard every word you said.” The words ricocheted off the counter, the walls, the floor. “And I heard all the things you didn’t say.” Her eyes shimmered.
“You think I owe you something now. Don’t you? I’m supposed to tell you I forgive you, and you can go on and feel better about yourself. Is that it?” She slammed the silverware bundle into the tub so hard it bounced out. She drew the back of her hand across her eyes, but new tears bubbled up to replace the ones she wiped away.
His mouth gaped, and his mind whirled.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, now you can listen to me. You put me through fifteen years of hell.” She thrust her finger toward the door. “So, you turn around and march yourself out that door, and you keep thinking about that for another thirteen years before you come back and apologize to me.”
All you wanted to do was apologize.
“All I wanted to do was… set things right.”
“Set things right?” She slammed her hands down onto the counter. The tray of silverware rattled.
“You can’t set things right, Nehemiah. Some things, you break them, you can’t fix them.” She sucked in a deep ragged breath.
“Get out!” she screamed.
He slipped out into the night. He looked back, over his shoulder. Margo was slumped over the counter, her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook.
A plume of steam escaped Nehemiah’s nostrils.
Where you headed, friend?
He looked down the street. The neon lights of Charlie’s beckoned. He turned his back on them.
“I’m going home, Whiskey.” He started walking.
“I got another thirteen years of thinking to do.”
I flew home today from visiting my family in Colorado. Unlike Friday’s flight out, when I had extra legroom and an empty seat next to me, I couldn’t write. Wedged into a cramped airline seat next to a guy as big as I am, I couldn’t get to my computer to get it out. Even if I could have extracted it from my bag, I couldn’t have used it. The woman in front of my tilted her seat back as soon as we got off the ground, and the keyboard would have been crammed into my stomach.
Instead of writing, I read. I had brought Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, The Golden House, which I had started reading a couple of weeks or so ago before I got distracted. Other than discomfort, there were no distractions in the sky, so I finished the book. One line jumped out at me:
I need to think and the city is full of noise.
It occurred to me that my life is full of noise, and that noise makes it hard for me to think. Social media. Television. Even work. Noise, noise, noise. If, as journalist William Wheeler said, “Good writing is clear thinking made visible,” then I’m going to continue to struggle to write well as long as I am too distracted to think clearly.
I need to find space and time in which to think so that I can write well. Maybe a repeat of last year’s social media sabbatical is in order. Maybe I should cut back on television. I definitely need to set aside more time for meditation and reflection.
I thought I’d be done with Target Striker by now.
I started writing the novel last year after three months of preparation and research. I began the first draft on June 15, 2016. I finished it 108 days later. Other novels had taken much longer (almost three years for the previous one) and weren’t very good. This time, I was happy with what I’d written. Target Striker was my best first draft yet.
I hired a freelance editor to critique it, and her response encouraged me. The story had good bones, the protagonist was likeable, the supporting cast well drawn. Her biggest criticism was that the financial fraud subplot didn’t make sense. I realized that it had to go. I’d be done in another three months. Four, tops.
As bad as the fraud subplot was, I’d woven it into the story very tightly. Removing even one scene meant having to change others, which required still more changes. Plus, without the fraud subplot, there was one less red herring for my protagonist to chase. He’s a bright fellow. He would solve the crime by page seventy.
Three months stretched into ten months. Granted, I set it aside for six weeks while I prepared my Agile 2017 presentation, but still. I thought that by now, I’d be pitching it to agents while working on something else.
The good news is that I have gotten some traction. A new first chapter works well, and I’ve come up with a replacement subplot that makes more sense and fits in well with the main plot. I hope to be done by the end of the year.
I have a new piece of flash fiction up on Medium. Read “Only a Kiss” and let me know what you think!