16 February 2006

1. August 6: 4 miles northwest of Big Moon.

The old man and dog arrived at the boarding house on foot, shortly before dark. They rested in the shade of a sweet-gum, the man sitting in his wrinkled suit, black fedora tilted back on his head. The dog—no bigger than a sack of flour—lay curled on its belly in the fresh-cut grass. In the distance, beyond the railroad tracks and cotton fields, beneath telephone wires upon which hawks perched in wait of twilight, the highway the two had walked ran red with the dying light. From where he sat against the tree, the old man could still see, down the hill, the rusted shape of the pickup, peering out from the edge of a tall field like a tiger in the grass.

They came from the north, shuffling along the shoulder of the road, the dog loping behind on three legs. Its right hind leg was withered and drawn. Every now and then the dog collapsed, and when this happened the old man would stop and wait, face shaded and cool under the brim of his hat. He would open a leather Bible he carried in his left coat pocket to a marked passage in the book of Jeremiah. His lips moved as he read silently, waiting, and when the dog had gathered itself on its haunches, the old man would close the book and walk on. After a moment, the dog would follow. When cars passed, the old man lifted one hand, palm out in greeting, the sleeves of his coat riding high above his wrists. The dog would scamper into the ditch and hide in a stand of field grass. Its fur was thick with burrs and nettles. They never took rides, though several had offered. Not even in the backs of pickups. They had traveled together for most of the day. At noon, they rested under an oak in a green cotton field and shared half a peanut butter sandwich the old man had saved from a diner in Clarksville the night before. He tossed pinches of crust to the dog, which snapped them up and danced away.

At dusk they stopped at a sign posted at the head of county road 312. It read: “Room and Board.” The letters were hand-painted and faded, the wood cracked and scattershot. From here, where the gravel met the asphalt, the old man could see the boarding house atop a small hill, just over the hump of the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the highway. It was a two-story farmhouse with a wraparound porch, a tree, an empty tire-swing. There were two large, plain cars parked in the grass beside the house. He scratched his head beneath his hat and rubbed his eyes. He had not slept in two days. His legs ached, his breath was short, and there were strange, dark shapes waiting at the edges of his vision.

Over the tracks they came to the pickup, or what was left of it. The old man slowed as he recognized the model: a Ford F-100, late 1950s. He stopped. His gaze lingered on the rust-eaten fenders, patches of blue shining through like sky. The windshield lay caved on the dash, crushed by a giant rock still lodged half in, half out of the glass. The seats were torn and flapping; red and blue wires poked from smashed headlights like nerves from a ragged socket; kudzu strangled the tires; and growing in the space where the engine had been, the hood long since missing, probably stolen, was a blooming red rose bush.

The old man removed his hat and ran a trembling hand through his thinning white hair. He was pale. The dog sat several yards away, snapping at flies.

The old man put his hat back on, thrust his hands in his coat pockets as if cold, and made his way up to the house. The dog followed. The old man sat down in the shade of the sweet-gum. He leaned against the trunk. The dog settled down several feet away and panted over its white-tipped feet. The wind gusted and a set of pipe chimes hanging from the porch eaves sang out. A trellis twined with rose bushes skirted the porch, the flowerbed itself hemmed in by large gray stones. There was a flattened, yellow patch of grass where one of these was missing. From an open window on the porch the old man heard the sound of running water, the scratch of a record, the gentle lilt of “Begin the Beguine.” He closed his eyes.

He had been dozing in the shade of the sweet-gum for a quarter hour—eyes opening every now and then to the sight of the truck at the bottom of the hill—when the front door creaked and a woman with gray hair and a blue apron stepped onto the porch. The dog’s head shot up from its paws. Joints popping, the old man struggled to his feet. The woman had a round, worn face, wire rimmed glasses on the end of her nose. She rubbed dishwater from her hands on the hem of her apron. The dog fled down the hill when the screen door slapped shut behind her.

“Yes?” the woman said.

The old man removed his hat and, clutching it by the brim, made a slight bow at the foot of the porch steps. “Ma’am,” he said, voice low and deep.

“Can I help you, sir?”

“Oh, I…we…saw your sign.” He stepped from word to word like a man crossing a fast-moving river one stone at a time. He pointed over his shoulder, toward the highway. “Was hoping you’d…have a bed.”

“Well, I have several beds, none of which is under my tree.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Is it just yourself?”

“Myself and the dog.”

“What dog?”

“That fellow yonder, down in the ditch.”

The woman saw the dog huddled in the tall grass by the road, watching her with hooded eyes. “I have a strict policy against pets. I do not allow pets in my home. They dirty up the furniture and piddle in the floors and I’ll have none of that.”

“No, ma’am. He won’t likely come in…he’s an outside dog and…truth is, we don’t know each other all that well.”

The woman planted her fists on her hips. “Are you—?”

The old man only looked at her, turning his hat in his hands.

“No. I suppose not.” She shook her head, as if to clear it. “Did you walk here?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And you’re from…?”

“Ohhh.” The old man gazed out at the cotton fields, the distant horizon where the sun was almost gone. “All over.”

“And what is your profession?”

“I give a sermon every now and then. I’m good at praying.”

“And that puts food on your plate?”

“Don’t own a plate.”

“I see. And how do you expect to pay for a room?”

The old man met her eyes for the first time. His were clearest blue. “The Lord

will provide,” he said.

“My husband used to say that.”

“He sounds like a…wise man.”

“He died broke.”

The old man held the woman’s gaze, then nodded. He set his hat on his head and said, “Sorry to have troubled you,” and turned away.

He had reached the foot of the gravel drive when the woman called out: “Sir?”

He stopped.

The dog had hobbled from the grass to join him and sat waiting a few yards away.

“We were just about to set down to supper. I suppose, we could use a prayer. Afterward, maybe a hand in the kitchen.”

The old man stood just beyond the reach of the long shadow cast by the house in the waning light. He glanced over his shoulder at the rusted frame of the pickup, the rose bush growing from its empty skull. He clutched the solid, square shape of the Bible through his coat pocket. The dog sat in the road and whined as the shadow of the house touched the old man’s dust-covered boots. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. By the time he reached the porch, the sun was gone, and in the purple gloom of twilight, in a distant field, from a distant wire, a hawk screeched and fell upon the night.

7 Comments:

Blogger The Damned said...

here are two picky things:

“waiting at the edges of his vision”: this line is odd, for some reason it stands out…I’m not sure if it’s the “edges” that’s doing it, but something is off here

“The woman planted her fists on her hips. “Are you—?” The old man only looked at her, turning his hat in his hands. “No. I suppose not.”: okay, I’ve read this twice and I still don’t get what she’s thinking to ask at first...does she want to ask if he’s hungry? A theif? Alone?...i just don’t get it

overall, I think this would make a better opening to the work...it’s less time-oriented than the original porch scene and would ground us in a central place once all the characters actually get there

in general i’m hesitant to put animals in stories because either they’re going to be a hero and die or get killed by the villain...this dog is toast, I just know it

this section also mirrors the mother and andy section well--that this old man and his companion seem to be moving toward/away from something just like mother and child...also, the mom is kinda like the dog, a bit stand-offish

okay, the truck in the road...did they have F-100/150s in 1950? i’m not sure...also, there’s a moment there where the old man actually seems to know THAT truck, not just the model...is that just me reading too much into it or am i right?
--joy

11:01 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Andy,

I have minor suggestions as well, followed by a conclusion I'm reaching at the end of most of my comments:

This is a picky detail, but wouldn’t it be more accurate to describe the sleeve as falling below his wrist—rather than rising above it—when he waves?

Should the sentence, “At noon” be located in past perfect, or whatever that tense is that uses “had”? This is a flashback, right? The last sentence in that paragraph works the way it is, but maybe the next sentence should use “had” with the verb as well.

The sentence Joy mentioned stands out because of the content, the “dark shapes waiting at the edge of his vision.” If you revise it, I would say think about the choice of ‘waiting’ and whether there’s a more specific visual verb you could use there that would suggest that they’re waiting in a certain, physical way. Unless they’re supposed to be entirely immaterial. ‘Haunting’ sounds cliché, obviously, but ‘waiting’—to me anyway—doesn’t quite suggest enough. [Now that I’ve read the end, you might use a verb that subtly links this sentence to the final image of the hawk]

Yes, Joy, the F-100 existed in the late 50s, but, Andy, I have more technicalities—the descriptions I’ve seen show the name without a hyphen, like this: F100, if that matters.

The rose bush is a great image, especially since the truck is later described as having a skull.

Great simile, the fast-moving river.

I agree with Joy, we may need a little more of the woman’s question. It sounds to me like she recognizes him, or thinks she does.

Does introducing the Boarding House proprietor mean you have to introduce her later in a section of her own, or will she remain a minor character? She seems involved and important just because the preacher looks familiar to her, and though this is the beginning of a business relationship, she is cutting him a break despite the similarities he shares with her late husband.

I don’t really have any criticisms. I’m just ready to read more. I want to see where all of this is going. If all of the characters are going to converge at Big Moon, I’m interested to find out why—can it just be an accident, or is some force bringing them there, and if it’s the latter, why and how? And—always—what’s going to happen next?

9:34 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

okay, now that we've got that stupid F100detail out of the way i'm going to have to ask the same question as adam...is the proprietor of the house going to be minor or will she have a story of her own? either way, it's going to be tricky talking about her consistantly...sometimes minor characters are hard to keep minor...know aht i mena? anyway, are the events that are going to happen happening TO her or AROUND her...BECAUSE of her or DESPITE her? i'm very curious and eager to read more of this...
--joy

10:21 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

yikes, i should really proof read these posts of mine...especially when taking codine!
--joy

10:22 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Joy, Adam:

Thanks for the good comments.

To answer a couple of questions, yes, the man does indeed know that particular truck (I'm glad that came across, actually; should I play it up a bit, to greater effect?); this is why he pales. Also, as for the dog, I don't plan on killing it. The dog will make it to the very end. (It's the turtle that's toast, mwha-ha-haaa!)

I do think that sentence about "dark shapes waiting" is a bit pretentious and vague; it's meant to suggest those weird spots that show up sometimes in your vision when you've been sleep-deprived. I'll think of a way to better it.

And the woman--whose question does indeed need more attention (she's about to say something like, "Are you making fun of me?", but no one would actually say that, would she?)--will, most likely, get her own section in the novel. I'm not sure what her story is yet.

In fact, to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure what ALL of the stories are yet. I know the beginnings, I know some of the middle, and I have a vaguely specific idea for the ending. But there's a lot of STORY that just isn't there yet.

Still, I've created enough mystery about that damn truck--at least in my own mind--that I have to keep writing until I figure it out.

Thanks,
Andy

7:02 PM  
Blogger The Damned said...

andy and adam
i've been thinking a lot lately of the idea of writing organically--not growing my own trees and making my own paper/pencils...but just starting with a scene/character/moment and working from there...i say this because it's what i think of when andy says he's not got the STORY completely thought out...i don't see a problem with this at all, i only hope there is enough of it to keep writing...i really want to know about that truck (especially if it's the truck the man has been following/trying to find)...the truck kinda reminds me of randal flagg in The Stand with his black birds...very creepy

no, i don't think any one who doesn't know someone would say "are you joking with me?" unless you're trying to establish her as a brash person who doesn't care what she says

can't wait to see more
--joy

5:36 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

I agree on the losing-control, organic-writing idea, too. The best stuff seems to come out of nowhere, never what you planned for, right? Let the right-brain take over and shape it into coherence later.

What was that Larry McMurtry said on CBS the other morning: "I don't know what the story is till my fingers hit the keys," something like that.

10:03 AM  

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