Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Late Tuesday Excerpt

Kind of late, I know. But you're getting an interesting treat tonight with it. See, normally with a Tuesday Excerpt you get a short bit from a longer piece. But tonight, what you're getting is something else.

Writing is much like any other art (painting, composing, sculpting) in that sometimes the artist has a few false starts before finding a groove. Bearing that in mind, for every story I finish you can safely guess that there were three more started. So what do I do with those three unfinished stories? Well, sometimes they just sit forever, and I find them later and read what I've got and decide it's terrible. Sometimes, I come back and say, "Hey, that's not bad." The only problem is that it's normally a long time before I come back, and it's hard to remember just where I was going to take the story.

So tonight, I'm sharing with you a selection of those false starts. Some have potential (a couple are already past ten pages), some are so so, and some are just terrible. What you may notice is a similarity in theme, or character or plot elements within these false starts, because what I am doing is fine-tuning an idea. Most of what you are seeing tonight eventually became one of two stories; "Special Detail" or "Momentum." There is also one thrown in about buying a used car that I really want to revisit now and try and tweak. So, without further explanation:

===

from an Untitled work, spring 2006

Michael would later reflect on his first job out of college, at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurant at the Mall of America, and wonder if things wouldn’t have been better if he had just stayed there. Not even to advance in employment, from server to captain of servers, to assistant floor manager, to floor manager, and so on, but just to remain a server, and smile, and bring people shrimp cocktails, shrimp burgers, barbecued shrimp, and so on, and earn the tips that bought him the car that got him into so much trouble.

The mob. Don’t think it disappeared. It seems now to be a Hollywood legend, a thing of the past, romanticized to no end by names like Dean Martin, Al Pacino, and so forth. Guy Richie stylized the British mafia as nothing more than a bunch of blundering buffoons. We all had a good laugh, even me and Michael. Roommates, he and I, back at good the good old U of M. That’s what we like to call the University of Minnesota, but I suppose that’s what kids who go to University of Michigan call their school. We used to spend hours watching mafia movies. He and I went as gangsters one Halloween (that’s gangsters, not gangstas). He ended up one in real life. With a capitol G.

We lost touch for a few years out of school. I was dating this girl I met at graduation, and he was using his business accounting degree to sell plates of shrimp to tourists. We got together every once in a while, reminisced annually. Six years out of school, he found a real job at an architecture firm called Ellerbee-Beckett, as their Assistant Chief Executive Accountant in charge of Institutional Projects. Basically, this meant that he was in charge of the money being spent on building more ridiculously overpriced (and ridiculous looking) structures on the very college campus he said, on graduation day, “Man, I’ve had some great times here. I never want to leave.”

As a journalist, I should have caught on quicker, but I was blinded by his new apartment on our fifth annual catching-up-and-getting-smashed meeting. The drinks were free, the food was free, the limo was free. Everybody knew Fran Levinson owned that bar. Everybody was about to find out he owned Ellerbee-Beckett, too.

It would be almost another year before I found out Fran also owned Michael Rose.

“Colin Fairmount,” I answered my phone. It was Craig Jeffries, the editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. A man with a plan. A man with vision. A man who I had been trying to avoid because I didn’t have my story done.

“Fairmount.” He started every conversation with the last name of the person he was talking to.

***

from an unfinished work titled "In Which Colin, Fed Up With His VW, Buys A Used Car" spring 2006

“No, this one isn’t going to cut it,” he said, sizing up the out of place Skoda sitting on the Volkswagen dealer’s lot. The man helping him had a thick Germanic accent that Colin couldn’t quite wrap his head completely around. The man gestured at the automobile—for that is what it was, no odd Eastern-European model could rightly be called a ‘car’ in Colin’s mind—and looked helplessly at Colin.

“What, wrong kind of color?”

Colin regarded the color, something he had been trying to avoid since he first saw it; he had so far focused on the tires, the rims, the hubcaps, the logo on the grill, the bumper sticker which read “I’m not tailgating, I’m inspecting their—“ but was ripped off and so the punch-line was missing, anything but register the sickening day-glow orange paint with the equally eye-twisting fluorescent purple detail work. “The colors are awful,” he admitted. “But that’s not the problem.”

“Custom paint job. The man who trades this car, tells me so. Custom, he said. Premium. Cost him a lot. I gave him good deal on trade in. Do you have trade in?”

“My car,” Colin inserted a sigh here. “Is in Moline, Illinois.”

Three days earlier, on a routine trip to Racine, Wisconsin to visit a friend of his from college, Colin’s car had overheated in the middle of the night. “Your water pump went out,” the stranger on the phone from Middle-Of-Nowhere, Illinois told him the morning after this happened. “So you’re timing belt is, well, you got close to a hundred and fifty thousand miles on there, it was time for it to be replaced anyway.”

“I just got the timing belt replaced. The whole engine just got rebuilt. Why didn’t they tell me I needed a new water pump?”

There was a long intake of breath from the other end of the line. “Well, it’s cause they either got shit for brains,” here he paused, as if for dramatic effect. “Or your water pump looked fine. They’ll go out on you, all of a sudden. One minute pumping water like a heart pumping blood, next minute you’re on the side of the road.” He took a breath, and Colin sensed the man would go on and on if left to his own devices.

“How much to have it repaired?” he asked.

“Shoot, new timing belt and water pump for a V Dub? You want me to do it, you’re talking at least seven hundred parts and labor, maybe more. Not to mention I can’t start today, cause I ain’t even got the parts, gotta order them from Chicago.”

Colin stared out of his hotel room window, eyes unfocused and reliving the previous evening. The check engine light, the temperature gauge buried in the red, way too hot zone, the grinding noise as his engine died. Then the state trooper stopping and calling in the tow truck. The truck taking the car twelve miles in the wrong direction, while he and the state trooper followed. The state trooper being nice enough to drive him to the nearest hotel which happened to be sixty miles away, in Moline. His room, from a four story Howard Johnson or Red Roof or something along those lines, overlooked a plethora of car dealerships, the most prominent of which was a Volkswagen dealer. “Can’t you order them from the dealership in Moline?” To which the inevitable response was that no, he ordered all of his parts from his cousin’s automotive supply in Chicago.

And so Colin found himself at the odd dealership, talking to the odd man, looking at the odd car. “It’s a 1997 Jetta, and it’s in Moline with a broken water pump and a melted timing belt.” He looked again at the Skoda. “I hate this.”

“You take better care of your car, then these things happen, well, they won’t.” The man looked again at the Skoda. “It is good car, reliable. And only used car on lot. You want a new car?”

“No.” That was something Colin found odd, more odd than the mechanic not ordering the parts from Moline, and almost as odd as the Skoda itself; six car dealerships, and not one used car aside from this, for lack of a better term, thing. “How can this be the only used car you have?”

“We a giant sale are having, all of our used cars last weekend. Super Six-Hundred Sale. Once every few months. All dealers here, all owned by same man. He gather all used cars, sells them at the fairgrounds. This is all that’s left.” Colin peered into the interior and saw a yellow and black stripe pattern on the seats, gearshift and steering wheel.

“I wonder why.”

***

from an Untitled work, spring 2006

Brandon

Every morning, when he stepped out of his room and into the hall, he gave a silent command to everybody; stay out of my way, and everything will be fine. He would never have hurt anybody, hadn’t done so off the lacrosse field and wasn’t going to start now. Actually backing up his mere presence with actions would have required more time than was given to him in a day, and that time was precious. Grades needed to be kept up to stay on the team. In the off season, trips to the gym needed to replace the rigorous practices he faced during the regular season.

He slept only four hours a night; classes began for him at eight every morning, even Fridays, and nobody else on his floor went to class on Fridays because they were on the Northeast end of campus, the school of design sector, and they never had classes on Fridays. Design students loaded their Tuesdays and Thursdays with gen-eds and took their color classes and computer animation courses on Mondays and Wednesdays, leaving Friday as an extra day of the weekend. He had deliberately chosen Pennington Hall because it was farthest from both the business college and the lacrosse field. He ignored the nearby gym, claiming the main student gym on the south side of campus was far superior. He didn’t know for sure, because he had never been to the gym attached to Pennington Hall. He ran to practice as a warm up. He rode his bicycle to class on days when it wasn’t raining. He had class until three every day, and returned to his dorm before doing anything else. Studying was done after working out.

He was glad his roommate had never shown up for school.

Nathan

“Hey, guys, we have a floor meeting tonight in the lounge downstairs. I ordered some pizza, I’ve got some soda, we’re going to talk about this semester, okay?” His residents took no notice of him, on their way out. He continued walking to his room. Opening the door, he found underwear duct-taped to his ceiling. A note, hanging from a pair of gray boxer-briefs, read “Nate, you should have locked your room when you left. Call my room when you get back. Love, Brian.”

“Son of a bitch,” Nathan muttered, as he began pulling his underpants off the ceiling, standing on his tip-toes to reach them. Somebody knocked on his door, so he cleared his throat. “Just a second.” The situation was hopeless, he decided, so he stepped out of his room and into the hall and came face to face with Brandon.

Brandon was holding a piece of paper which he shoved in Nathan’s face. “What’s this?” It was a sheet of paper with a drawing of Bart Simpson and his friend Milhouse. Underneath their picture, in bold black letters, were the names “Brandon L.” and “Cameron S.”

“It’s your new Door Decoration. Everybody’s got new ones for the new semester.” Indeed, ever door had a similar piece of paper; Mike D. and Paul T. had a drawing of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. Jeff S. and Jerry N. had Batman and Superman. Nathan himself had Huckleberry Hound.

“Okay, but what’s this?” Brandon pointed to the second name on his sheet of paper.

“Well, come to the meeting tonight at 7:30 in the downstairs lounge, and you’ll find out. Okay? And, pass the information along to any of the other guys you see, please?”

“Am I getting a roommate?”

“Come to the meeting.” Nathan tried to look intimidating, but as his head came to Brandon’s shoulders it was, he decided, probably less than impressive.

“I’ll be working out at 7:30.” Brandon walked away, bumping into Nathan’s shoulder as he passed him. Nathan watched Brandon as he strode down the hall, shoulders back, head high, effortlessly tall and intimidating.

“Shit.” Nathan muttered before returning to his room.

Cameron

Cameron Sound walked into Pennington Hall with only his messenger bag. Everything else he intended to bring along to school was still at home, a mere seventeen miles away. He approached the front desk slowly, glancing around the room; the notice board still declaring that refrigerators must be unplugged over winter break. Dates were given for people driving home, along with destinations and invitations for anyone interested to split the cost of gas. He greeted the guy sitting behind the desk. “Hi, I’m supposed to be moving in here, how do I go about doing that?”

“Student ID?” the person asked. Cameron saw “Jake” on his nametag.

“Here you go, Jake.” Cameron said, handing him the fresh ID he had been given that morning; the shadows behind him in the picture gave the impression of a mullet. Jake checked a list he had sitting beside him on the desk, running down a column with his long, thin finger.

“Okay, Cam, you’re in room E434.” Jake swiped Cameron’s ID through a card reader mounted to the wall, pushed a button on the apparatus and slid it through again. “I just activated your card so it will open the front doors,” he pointed to the doors that were propped open at the moment. “And also the interior doors leading to the east and north wings.” He pointed to doors at opposite ends of the lobby. “Front door is unlocked between eight in the morning and four in the afternoon, but the interior doors are always locked, so don’t lose this.” Jake handed the ID back to Cameron.

“Which door is mine?”

“East Wing, that door there.” Jake pointed to the door closest to Cameron. A blonde girl in a ruffled skirt emerged from the door and looked at Cameron for a second before turning and exiting through the open front door. “Now, if you would just fill out this paperwork and I’ll get your key. Have you met your Resident Advisor yet?” Cameron admitted he had not, and Jake shook his head. “Sorry. You have to sign something for him before I can give you your key. I’ll give it to him next time I see him, or I can call and see if he’s in his room.” Jake handed Cameron a stack of paper Tolstoy would have been proud to turn out and vanished behind a partition.

Cameron began filling it out, sighing at each mention he encountered of “The University” because, he kept telling himself, he was finally moving on, finally getting away from high school. Finally, he was doing the right thing.

Jake came back and sat heavily in his chair. “Okay, your RA’s name is Nathan, and he’s having a floor meeting at 7:30 in the lounge.” Jake pointed at a room with windows all around it behind Cameron. “He says he’ll meet you there, is that okay?”

“Sure,” Cameron said. “Do you have a map of the campus? I’ll just walk around looking for my classes.”

Brandon

“I’m getting a roommate, Emily. Can you believe it?” He ground his teeth into the phone.

“Well, yes, I can; I have three roommates and I live in what used to be the floor lounge. I never thought it was fair you had a double to yourself.”

“I’m not the only one; Rob down the hall has a double, and there’s only three guys in the quad on my floor. Why single me out?”

“It’s not a conspiracy against you, you know.”

“Yeah, well, it could be. I’m going to workout, will you meet me at the gym?” He moved himself to the edge of his bed and swung his legs down. They dangled in the empty space between the top and bottom bunks.

“No, we have a floor meeting tonight, discussing what we’re doing this semester or something.”

“I wonder why my advisor never does anything like that,” Brandon mused. “Okay, well, I’ll see you tomorrow. Did you get into the comp two class I’m in?”

“I’m not sure, I have to go talk to the teacher first day of class. Have a good workout.”

“Bye.” Brandon hung up the phone and dropped to the floor. His telephone, which he had sitting on his bed, took a fall behind him.

He turned and saw that the phone had been ruined when it fell. The earpiece had broken off, the keypad had come detached. It was an ancient phone he had taken from his parents’ basement before coming to college, and he was loath to shell out money to buy a new phone. “Damn it all, now I’ve got to go to the store tonight.”

***

from an Untitled work, spring 2006

After my last gas bill, I had turned off my heater and not turned it back on, so the early January cold intruded my space, nearly freezing my extremities every time I slept. I couldn’t wait to sleep in my old room, with Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins smiling at me from my wall.

The muted television displayed an image of the vice president. Headlines scrawled along the bottom of the screen. Flights cancelled, major universities shutting down campuses, traffic jams out of New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington DC, and Chicago. Schaumburg was only about twenty miles from Evanston, but with a traffic jam, it was likely to take me two hours or more. My phone rang.

“This is Cameron Sound.”

“Honey, it’s your mother. Are you safe?” I glanced out my window at the Northwestern Campus, watching the cars as they periodically pulled out from the parking lot, driving somewhere imaginary that was safer than where they were.

“I’m fine, Mom.” Put up a defense, don’t seem too eager; it’s not your style to be agreeable. You are still rebelling, even though you’re twenty-one years old and should, by all rights, be an adult.

“Are you sure? I’m worried about you. Did you hear that the terror level was raised?” I closed my eyes. What was she doing right now? Multi-tasking for sure. Was she playing Solitaire on her computer? Was she preparing lunch? I heard my mother take a deep breath. Was she smoking again? I saw her chain smoking, sitting in the kitchen blowing the smoke out the window.

“I don’t live in a cave.” I picked at my sleeve. My cell phone rang, but I ignored it.

“Come home.”

My cell phone continued to ring even after I had left Evanston. The sound mixed with honking and the hum of my engine. I ignored it. It rang. I ignored it. It rang and rang. I finally picked it up and glanced at the number that was calling. It was just a number, nobody in my phone book, but it was somebody in Schaumburg. “I don’t know who you are,” I scolded the phone. “I’m not picking you up.”

I set my phone on the console, sliding it underneath the parking brake lever. The Volkswagen in front of me had Missouri license plates and was emitting a rhythmic thumping which shook my mirrors. My phone rang. I set my hand on the parking brake lever and put my thumb over the button. I clicked the button several times, then moved my hand to my gearshift and pushed it from neutral to third, second, first, neutral, first, neutral, and first one more time, before slowly letting the clutch out and pushing down on the gas. The tension of the clutch pushed my foot hard; I slid backwards a few feet before the clutch engaged and inched me forward. I rocked back and forth like this until the Volkswagen pulled ahead, and I followed.

“This is Cameron Sound,” I finally gave in to the phone. Silence. “This is Cameron Sound, hello?”

“Cameron.” The voice sounded nervous. It cleared it’s throat. “Cameron, it’s—it’s Amanda.”

The booming bass from the Volkswagen stopped. My engine ran silent. All I could hear was Amanda’s voice. “Amanda.”

I heard her sigh, saw her sigh, her lips parted, phone to her left ear, left elbow leaning on a table, right hand brushing her hair behind her right ear over and over. I pulled my car forward another car length. “I’m sorry to call you,” she explained. “I’m in trouble.”

What kind of trouble could she be in that it drove her to call me of all people? “Nothing is springing to my mind,” I said aloud.

“What?”

“Nothing. What kind of trouble are you in?” The Volkswagen pulled ahead suddenly, and beyond it I saw traffic begin to flow at a quicker pace.

“Are you near home?”

“On my way,” I told her. “Leaving Evanston now. What kind of trouble are you in?”

“My flight got cancelled. Trains aren’t running, busses are running on a limited schedule and they’re all booked.” Where do I come in? “Listen, I called everybody, my mom can’t get away from work and my dad can’t get down here from Detroit, everybody else I know is in the same boat I am, nobody can head to Lawrence.”

Traffic was moving along well now, and I drove in silence for half a mile with the phone to my ear, listening to her breath on the other end.

“Cameron, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you, it was a last resort, and if you can’t take me, just say so.”

“You want me to take you to Lawrence?” Every time I had to shift, I took my right hand off the steering wheel and frantically pushed up a gear. This is a trick I used to find out if my wheels were properly aligned. I was in fourth gear now, and cruising well.

“You’re the only person who can help me. But you don’t have to.” I pushed into fifth gear, changed lanes and passed the Volkswagen, leaving the throbbing bass behind.

My mother was standing on the porch, waving and smiling and sending a thousand thank-yous heavenward for my safe arrival. I smelled charred wood and vegetable soup simmering on the stove. “I’m not staying,” I told her right away. “I’m sorry.”

“Why not? You’re not going back into the city are you?” She absent-mindedly took a cigarette from a silver case she kept in her pocket and stuck it in her mouth, lighting it with a souvenir Hard Rock Café Zippo. I stared at her.

“Where’s Dad, Mom?” I dropped my laptop bag to the floor with a thud. She took a drag and walked to the cold fireplace, reaching in and opening the floo and blowing the smoke at the burnt wood in the grate.

“He’s at the grocery store. When I told him you were coming home, he went out to buy a case of beer. Whatever that beer is you always ask for.” She flicked the ashes into the fireplace and looked at me.

“Does he know you started smoking again?” She looked at her cigarette, eyelids drawing slowly up, up, revealing the whites of her eyes in sharper and sharper detail. She took a quick puff and smiled at me.

“Stressful day, you know how it is.”

“Must be. Stressful enough to sift through all those boxes of crap in the basement and find your lighter and cigarette flask.” I walked to the bathroom. When I came out, she had thrown her cigarette into the fireplace and was preparing a fire. “Disposing of the evidence?”

“Don’t start. Why aren’t you staying?” She lit the fire starter and stood. “Make sure the fire catches while I go check on the soup.” My mother was like a cigarette herself, leaving me breathless and winded.

“No, I’m not staying. I’m taking Amanda to school.”

I watched the fireplace, the flames licking the stack of wood. “You’re taking Amanda to school?” I could smell the smoke from her clothes as she walked closer to me. “Are you two back together?” Of course not. We broke up two years ago and that was it. I didn’t answer her.

“I’m doing her a favor; she’s got to be back before class starts Thursday.”

“And you’re just going to take a couple of days to drive a girl you barely ever talk to halfway across the country?”

“You smell like cigarettes. I love you.”

She lived in one of those subdivisions which have only six houses repeated a hundred times, each off-white with a brick façade around the door. Amanda’s house had been repainted a soothing baby blue since the last time I saw it. I rang the bell and held my breath as the door opened. “Could you take this?” She shoved a suitcase at me.

“Nice to see you, Amanda.” I opened my trunk and moved my junk around to make room for her suitcase which I assumed contained her entire wardrobe. With a thud behind me, I realized I had been wrong. “Got enough clothes?”

“I didn’t pack the sweater you gave me for my seventeenth birthday,” she explained. “So yes, I have just enough clothes.” This remark was followed by a short lived smirk, which was replaced with a look of disgust. “I’m sorry, that’s really mean of me. I should be more grateful. Thank you for doing this, Cameron.”

She stood, facing me, her hair falling like a black curtain over her forehead and eyes. She wore a long sleeve white shirt underneath a light blue KU tee. Her black boots disappeared into the cuffs of her faded jeans. The left boot rocked back and forth. Her arms were raised, halfway, in a gesture that appeared to be an aborted hug. I stuck out my right hand and took hers. “You’re welcome; I won’t ask for a hug so you don’t need to offer one. Just get in.”

===

Well, there they are. Like I said, you'll notice similar themes and/or characters, not only here but it other stories I've written. Hope this makes up for my recent bad blogging skills...

"All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things." -Bobby Knight

6 comments:

bridget said...

here's an idea you may want to consider. when i first read that you had an unfinished story i thought it might be a good idea to ask others to help finish what you had started. so you start and the first "comment" picks up where you left off, the next "comment" picks up where the first left off and so on. before you know it, you have a finished story! of course, you get to edit the final draft. what'dya think? you can answer this in the weekly "answers to your questions" section!

Christopher G said...

I like this Michael Rose character. He sounds neat. I can relate with him because I worked at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company after graduation, too.

Lisa said...

Cool stories. The last one and the car one I liked especially well. So when are you going to write a story with a "Lisa" in it? :)

Christopher G said...

I liked the Brandon/Nathan/Cameron excerpts, too. I just got done reading Brett Easton Ellis's The Rules of Attraction, and it kind of reminds me of that book a little. Except that your characters weren't snorting large amounts of cocaine, slitting their wrists, and going to orgies. Nonetheless, they were still interesting.

Elliot said...

Well, Chris, remember that these are just excerpts...the cocaine/orgies/wrist slitting might have come in later. The world may never know...

Molly said...

Wait! I need closure on these anecdotes!