Sunday, January 25, 2015

Steering The Craft, Exercise 6: The Old Woman

Exercise 6 is incomplete at the moment as the story struck me as deserving of expansion and some extra thought, but it may be worth a read for those interested in the writing process, which is, of course, one intended audience of this blog. Will update when more has been written, but for now, version one and two can be found below.

Exercise Six: The Old Woman

The assignment:

"This should run to a page or so; keep it short and not too ambitious, because you're going to have to write the same story at least twice.
The subject is this: An old woman is washing the dishes, or gardening, or editing a Ph.D. dissertation in mathematics, or... whatever you like, as she thinks about an event that happened in her youth.
You're going to write this sketch by intercutting between the two times. "Now" is the kitchen, the garden, the desk, whatever, and "then" is what happened when she was young. Your narration will move back and forth between "now" and "then." There should be at least two of these moves or time-jumps.

Version One:

Choose a PERSON:
a) first person (I)
b) third person (her name/she)

Choose a TENSE:
a) all in past tense
b) all in present tense
c) "now" in present tense, "then" in past tense
d) "now" in past tense, "then" in present tense

Write the story. Label it - Person (a), Tenses (c) - or whichever you chose.

Version Two: Now write the same story in the other person and a different choice of tenses. (Label it.)

Don't strain to keep the wording of the two versions identical, and please don't just go through it on a computer changing the pronoun and verb endings. Write it over. Changing the person and tense will almost certainly bring about some changes in the wording, the telling; and and these changes are interesting.

Within one version, the verb tense may shift, but the person of the verb can't. Stick with either "I" or "she" in Version One. Then use the other person in Version Two.

Additional Option: If you want to go on and play with all four tense options, do.

Another Additional Option: After you have done the exercise as directed, if you want to change the person of the verb within one version (using one person in "now", the other person in "then"), try it.

Here are

Exercise Six, First Drafts of Versions One and Two:

Version One: First person; “now” in past, “then” in present

The steam rose from the bland broth (spices were too expensive; surely the most basic was good enough for the hungry) and coated my face with warmth. It was an appropriate job to have in this chill: cooking to chase the frost away, and assisting those in need during this dire season served to lighten the darker regions of one’s being.
I waved to the next person in line. He looked teenage, pimples and awkward shuffle, appearance unbalanced overall. He was taller than he felt, at least so it looked from the way he leaned into his step. Unless he had some physical defect or injured leg.
He placed three bowls on the counter. I smiled but raised my hand in a palm down of flat refusal gesture. I told him, more likely reminded him of, the one bowl per customer rule. He smiled back and nodded but didn’t remove the bowls.
“There’s me, there’s my family over there. That makes three bowls.” He vaguely pointed behind him.
“Why not bring them up here to the front of the line? I’ll serve you right after the next customer. I want to help, but we have to heed this simple rule to make this work for all of us.”
“Right over there, the two of them, they’re tired, they asked me to get the food and bring it to them. That’s all.”
“I’m sure it is, but…” I rolled my eyes. Did the damn rule even matter? “Tell you what, boy, we’ll bring the soup back to them together, make sure you don’t spill any, okay?” I had another volunteer cover me at the counter while I left with the boy. He led the way through the crowded plaza, carrying two bowls. I carried the third. I kept one eye on him. My son carrying part of our picnic toward the festival stage had walked like that. That must be why I had decided to bend the rules a slight bit for him.

Soft strings promise a performance as we thread through the seated and standing audience, the drinking and sweaty onlookers. His father is sitting near the front, waiting for us. My son looks at me, nervous, his parents haven’t spent much time together for a while, and he had suggested this picnic at a concert. I see the man nod politely at me then take the basket from my son. He starts taking out the food, places it in the middle of the blanket as we sit. We break out the drinks: the beer is smooth and imbued with spices. Unfortunately, the vendor only handed us two. Or perhaps we merely forgot while we chatted non-stop about all the time I had missed while away on research. My son puts a hand on my shoulder, graciously returning to fetch another beer for himself, while his parents enjoy what they have. I focus on the beer. Nothing in particular I want to discuss with my ex-husband at the moment, and a second musician is joining the stout woman with the classical guitar. A grizzly flutist dances around a haunting melody and I lower my eyelids.
Just as the rest of the band enters the stage performance, my ex-husband distracts me with his comment: what’s taking him so long? He stands and walks off. The music is good but the beer suddenly tastes like piss and the crowd feels oppressive. I stand and follow.
That’s how we manage to find our son before he bleeds out. He lays there in the dirt, body jerking in spasms, bottle of beer spilled beside his twitching outstretched hand. “How?” I ask. My ex shakes his head as he scans the scene, leaning in close.

“Hey, you okay? I’ll take the bowl.”
The boy had his arms out, eyebrows arched. I saw the other two bowls on the ground. They were his parents, obviously, I thought, and I worried for them. The elderly father was trembling and used a finger to taste the broth. The woman, much younger than the man but older than the boy, watched me with bloodshot eyes, ignoring the full bowl placed before her. I wordlessly gave the boy the bowl. He spooned some into his mouth, and then spooned some into the woman’s mouth. When the food touched her lips, she moaned and accepted the spoon. Her eyes didn’t seem to register my presence. Even so, they stared ahead as she swallowed.
I settled myself and helped the father. The boy said nothing for a time. They cleaned out their bowls, and then he spoke.
“More?” The boy had gathered the three bowls. I nodded and went to fill the order. It felt like I’d done this so often that it was a memory I relived between more tense moments of my broken life. A regular calm between the storms. That boy had a name didn’t he? Sometimes I felt that we were all losing our names. Each storm strike, another hundred names lost.

I walk to the vendor, a bartender of about the same age as my son, and ask him, with noise to my voice before I sock it to him. My fists have rings on them, rings I take off when I box of course, but I don’t think of that, my son’s shaking and bloody due to this idiot, and my knuckles strike the sides of his face with a lip-curling smack. I feel a sickening smile on my face. He whimpers then growls. I scream at him. “Look at him! You poisoned him! Answer me! Your name!” “Fucking bitch! Get off me!” “That’s my son you’re answering for, you little prick,” and I throttle him as he clutches at my waist pulling me against the counter. I cry in pain, but an angry pain that keeps me fighting. And my ex-husband, claws me off him, telling me officers are arriving and he’ll handle it. I push him off me.
“I’ll handle the officers. You find out what happened before they arrive.” And I left him to it with a stab of my finger.
I halt the officers and I ask them their names. I go into interrogation mode, throwing them off balance as I inquire into their ability to properly perform their duties and demand to know what kind of officers would allow innocent children to get beaten on the street, never directly approaching the question of my son until I am sure my ex-husband had investigated the incident well-enough on his own. I note him following a trail with the suspicious bartender tugged along by hand; I note him returning with an accomplished frown on his face, like when he’d won the argument that we divorce, the argument I had started. “And now officers, you better tell me you’re going to seek justice. There’s my son, lying broken on the street. And you, waltzing around like you have all the time in the day to do so.” The men scurry about. My ex nods curtly and whispers: our son’s got himself some rotten enemies. I whisper back: and they’ve gotten themselves rottener enemies. My ex’s eyebrow knots into an amusing tangle at that.

I gave a second helping to the boy and his struggling family.
“Boy, what’s your name?”
“My name’s Caluid. Remember this time?”
“Your parents… are they alright?”
“They’re fine. I mean, they’re better with the food here. But I wonder, maybe I should take your place. You seem… tired.”
“You are a good kid, aren’t you? But, I’d be exhausted without this. At my age, everything makes you tired. This job makes me a lot less tired than other things.”
“Well, miss, we’re grateful.”
“It’s Halvea. Mind if I join your family for a bit? You all remind me of livelier times.”
“Sure, the extra company might help them. They’re not all there these days – the food helps, but no friends left living now, and I’m only around so much…”
I nodded, sat, and I told him what my son was doing.

Version Two: Third Person; now” in present, “then” in past

Halvea works hard. A cold spell hangs over the city, paired with a sporadic downpour, threatening to bring on flood conditions, especially dangerous in the poorer districts, exactly where the soup camp is located. Yet, when her relatives beg her to stay put, relax, enjoy old age, she ignores them and goes to work. She volunteered for this to help people. More than that, to help herself. Sitting around brought on a dread that working did not. She stands over the soup and the cold melts into warm puddles, those menacing regions of existence are forgotten in the sparkles and shine of directly benefitting other human beings.
An awkward teenage boy shuffles up in line. She studies him and correctly deduces the limp in his walk is due to being uncomfortable with his relatively new height. She signals rejection when she sees the pimply scarecrow bears three bowels. But he assures her that his family is waiting on him to deliver.
She warns him that the rules state that there shall only be one person per bowl and that his family members will each have to individually come forward with their own bowl. She feels like a tool saying it, but it’s true: the rules help everyone benefit from this camp.
“They’re exhausted,” Halvea hears him say, and it gives her pause. Not the pause of recognition – man, I’m tired, too – but a pause signifying a reminder of the past.
Her son left to carry something for his parents once and it failed, miserably, even if it was quite different than this boy fetching food for the whole family scenario she handles for work, it was still a failure she doesn’t want to see encouraged when that memory is stirring in the curling shadows of her mind.
They went to the concert for a picnic at her son’s request. She would’ve rather not have seen her ex ever again, but for her son, none of those overly harsh feelings she prided herself on mattered. He was the warm soup for her soul and she sipped from his cup of healing as requested.

It didn’t heal though. Not in the way Halvea would’ve liked. It might have been how her son wanted it though. Self-effacing as his father was, he must’ve felt some glowing sense of accomplishment at seeing his parents sitting side-by-side like in his childhood. Halvea thought as much as she watched band members warm up on stage, waiting for her son’s return, his father doing the same. He had left to retrieve the missing third beer, leaving his parents with theirs in the meantime. Nice ploy, she thought to herself. Hurry back, she told him. Yeah, son, his father said, glancing at his mother.
The parents enjoy sips from their spicy beer, but they don’t touch the food they’d laid out on the picnic blanket. They study the stage, listen to the good music for a little while, and then they turned to each other.
“Something’s taking him too long.”
His father walked in the direction the son had gone, and Halvea ditched the beer and followed after. They found him in the midst of a seizure. Beer is spilled and there are splotches of blood. The father leans in for clues; the mother scans the area, suspicion weighing heavy on her.

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