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Archive for March, 2010

Someone brought this story up on another post and I realized that I’ve never done a Teaser of it. It’s a segment out of the middle of a finished novel called Other People’s Dead Relatives. The first chapter of the book was published as a short story by Vagabondage Press and a smaller segment of it was pubbed by The American Drivel Review.

***

Dena had finally settled herself, begun to calm her irritations of the day, when her bedroom door opened. She sat up and said, “What?”

“Nothin’.” Geddy crossed the room and went down on his knees next to the bed. Slipping his arms around her waist, he leaned in to kiss her. First, she resisted. Second, she succumbed. Third, she pushed him away.

“Not tonight,” she whispered.

“Why not?” he said in a normal voice.

She put her finger to lips to hush him. “Because I don’t want to.”

He kissed her again, and she let him, let him unbutton the top three buttons on her nightgown. When he tugged her closer, tried to put her legs around him, however, the bed groaned. She pushed him back again, frowning

“He’s right there.” Dena jerked her thumb toward the wall behind her bed. The sofa where her nephew slept was on the other side.

“So come into my room,” Geddy said.

“I don’t want to.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to.”

For an instant, they were still, glaring at each other, she in annoyance, he in frustration. Against her leg, she felt how hard he was, but still she put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him away. With an exasperated snort, he went back to his own room, and a few minutes later she heard the now familiar box springs symphony. It drove her nearly to madness and, kicking the covers off, she stormed through the bathroom and opened Geddy’s door.

“Am I keepin’ you awake, ma’am?” he said. Even in the dark she knew he was smiling.

Honeymoon Suite

Dena snatched the sheet off him and said, “Get up.”  When he was up, with his pants on, she took him by the arm, led him through the kitchen, and up the stairs to the third floor. The honeymoon suite was palatial and sumptuous in the moonlight. Dena had never slept in the bed, and even though it would require her to change the bedding again in the morning, she pulled back the coverlet and pushed Geddy down on the silk sheets.

They went at each other with a rabidity that Dena couldn’t remember having experienced before. It was the sort of wildness she thought she should have felt at all those orgies and never had. When all of the hollering and humping was done, Geddy rolled off her, panting, and laughed.

“Well, alright,” he said.

“Now, that’s what a honeymoon suite is for.”

“I’ll tell you what.” Geddy rolled onto his side, kissed her shoulder, but instead of going to sleep, he said, “You was married. Did you have a good honeymoon?”

“Oh, gag. Let’s not talk about that.”

“I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. I was just curious.”

“Mediocre wedding night. Mediocre marriage.”

“That’s a real shame.”

“Not for you. I definitely would not be fucking you if I were happily married.”

“You better watch that dirty mouth of yours.” He tugged at a piece of her hair.

“Or what?  You’ll wash my mouth out?”

“Might. I know a thing or two about it.”  Dena thought there was an innuendo in there, but then Geddy said, “You know, I can’t hardly believe how you let Cole talk to you.”

“Oh….” Dena had been about to say, “He’s just a kid,” but he wasn’t. She didn’t have an answer for why she put up with Cole’s rudeness. She settled for a lie. “I don’t really care.”

“I ever talked like that to my Aunt Claire, she woulda took a belt to me.”

Wanting to get back to that silly, half-drunk feeling, Dena ran her hand down Geddy’s belly. The sheets were already dirty.

The second time, he had the decency to fall asleep immediately after. Dena lay in her floating bubble of happiness. The one that Cole always popped. Usually, she got her bubble if she went walking in the evening and saw something lovely: a perfect sunset, a budding flower, two romancing lizards, a happy squirrel. She never let herself think about how unlikely it was that the squirrel would survive the summer without getting run over.

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Yeah, I’ve gone all zen on you.

Recently I read a post on Absolute Write in which a writer asked for advice about doing more showing and how to avoid “rushing” through the story. What intrigued me was that the person asking the question, whether she realized it or not, had already figured out the answer. To slow down a story’s pace, show more than you tell. To show more than you tell, slow down the story’s pace.

It made me think of a recent NPR segment on why time seems to go so quickly as we get older. They float several scientific reasons for why things move slowly when we’re young and quickly when we’re old, but the one that stuck in my brain was this: we’re recording less detail as we get older. Like recording a TV show on an old VHS player, our brains are capable of high resolution memory recording, which takes up a lot of tape, and low resolution memory recording, which takes up less tape.

When we’re little, we tend to record in high resolution, because we’re experiencing things for the first time. As a three-year-old, we may be accurately recording our birthday party for the first time. The feel of the rubber band holding the party hat on our head. The smell of candles smoldering on a cake, maybe even the strange waxy ghost of those candles in a bite of chocolate frosting. It’s the first time! We record everything, so the theory goes, hence it seems to take a long time.

It's all a blur

Flash forward to your forty-third birthday party and you’ve been through this routine so many times that you’re barely recording the experience at all. Singing, cake, candles, all in a quick rush of the familiar. Time flies. This is true with a vengeance for the daily tasks of our adult lives. Weeks pass in a blur as we spend eight hours a day sitting in the same office, staring at the same computer.

Fiction works the same way. To slow down the pace of the reading, record at a high resolution. To get more detail, slow down. If your writing feels rushed or the room your characters are in seems like a white box, it’s because you as the writer aren’t letting your characters be in the moment. Maybe you’re rushing to get to the next scene. Use the zen technique of presence. Pretend you’re experiencing the thing for the first time, even if you’ve imagined the scene a million times. Be in the moment. Look around as you write the scene.

And don’t just look, use all five senses. Is there a snag on the plastic fork to scratch at your character’s lip with every bit of birthday cake? Is the girlfriend of your character’s brother playing footsie with the wrong brother under the table? On purpose? On accident? Is there a cloud of cloying bathroom deodorizer wafting down the hallway to ruin the smell of beef bourguignon? Are Grandma’s dentures a little loose and prone to clack when she talks?

Writing affords an opportunity that life never does: a pause button and a rewind button. You can stop the action, go back, re-experience, re-live the scene at a slower pace.

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After a hiatus, I’m jumping back into Teaser Tuesday, with yet another piece of flotsam from my random crap files.

***

Muddaubers

The hill to the preserver’s house was steep and sandy, no obstacle to the brown woman making her way up it.  She trudged against the grade, her eyes focused on the bit of hill ahead of her.  The child, however, glanced up frequently, perhaps watching how the sky, dark with promised rain, leaned down over the yellow stones of the building.  Every third or fourth step, the child stumbled and the woman wrenched its arm to keep it upright.

The preserver shook his head when the woman and child reached the portico.  It had been many years since he had been willing to provide for a muddauber’s funeral.  He mentioned the name of another preserver whose price was more likely to be attainable, and the woman said, “Ain’t here for that.  Looking to find a place for my girl.”  Under the layers of dirt, the child was female then.

“I wouldn’t pay a single coin for an apprentice that young, and a girl for that matter,” the preserver said.

“I didn’t know as whether you could use her as a prentice.” The woman laughed, and then the laugh turned into a deep, bubbling cough.  “I don’t mean to sell her.  You can have her, if you’ll feed her.  It’s all the reason she stays near me.  You can hear that soon enough I won’t be in the way of doing that.”

The woman coughed harder and brought up something into a rag.  The preserver recoiled, as he always did from the living.

“Can she work?” he asked, intrigued despite himself at the prospect of a free slave.

“She knows how to clam.  I guess she can learn anything else.”

“If she can go down to the market and learn the price of imported lavender and how to wash her face clean, I will take her on.”

“And will he feed me?” the girl said.  She had had the hawkish look of someone familiar with hunger.

“I will feed you if you can manage that.”

After the girl was gone, trotting toward the market, the muddauber woman began to make her way back down the hill.

“Won’t you stay to see if she manages?” the preserver asked.

“If she can’t do for you, then she must do for herself from here on.”

The woman walked on, pausing once to double over with the force of the cough that was killing her.

When she returned from the market, the girl parroted back the prices she had been told.  Her face was also relatively clean.  The preserver sent her to carry twig bundles to build up the fires under the nitrate vats.  She did it without question, her small dirty feet busy.  When she finished, he sent her into the dry room to take a message to his assistant.  The message said only, “Tell me what she does when she sees the bodies.”

Her reaction was not even curiosity.  Living on the river, she had probably seen bodies.  They were likely nothing to her, although they were everything to the preserver.  She looked perhaps five and the preserver guessed she might be as much as eight.  When offered food, she ate enough for two. After she ate, he put a blanket under the front table, where he received bodies in the first step toward preservation. The girl lay down on it, but her eyes were tirelessly watchful. Perhaps she expected some encroachment from him, and left on her own, she likely would have been in the hands of a pimp within a day or two.

Such things happened, but the preserver had no interest in them. He saw beauty only in the dead.  The girl was a pair of hands and feet to him, someone who might do work and so earn money.  Nor was his assistant interested in the living, although his passion for the dead went more deeply.  So, the girl slept unmolested, and in the morning, the preserver frowned when she told him her name: October.

“A person can’t go about called by a month.”

“I was born in the eighth month.”

“It won’t do,” he said, and as there was no one waiting for his attentions, he went into his quiet room and browsed through his preservation records, looking over possible names.  When he sat down with his assistant to discuss ordering of supplies, he broached the topic.

“She needs a better name.”

“You intend to keep her?” The assistant saw only the annoyance of a living creature under foot who might require his care.

“For as long as she is useful, but I won’t call her October.”

“What about Tulip?” The assistant did not have the benefit of the preserver’s records, but in his mind he kept a list of those for whom he had felt something special.  So in that way, was he made to feel a bit of fondness for the muddauber girl.  She was called Tulip and each time he heard the name, he thought of that lovely girl, just sixteen, with soft lips, who had died of a snake bite.  Her left leg had been swollen and black, a grotesque of flesh, until it was properly lanced and drained and pressed and painted.  Once she was perfected all over, she had gone to the vats, where the assistant’s love for her faded, and the preserver’s love was born.

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