This is the second part of Bookmarks and Writing Prompts, where I’m adding two vignettes every week over four weeks from a first draft that came via a self-assigned writing prompt. If you missed part I, check it out here.
You might also want to check out Steve Almond’s This Won’t Take but a Minute, Honey. It’s a back-pocket book of half flash fiction and half craft essays on the psychology of the writing process that I’ve recently added to my reading list. The book isn’t widely available but can be ordered at Harvard Books. According to reviews, Almond’s take on writing is definitely worth knowing and will enrich your writerly life.
And now for the next two vignettes and developmental questions and thoughts, which are below.
The five year old girl spied a single feather at the bottom of the slide.
“Birds carry diseases,” her father told her from a bench nearby. “Leave that disgusting thing alone.”
Her mother wiggled next to him, trying to control her biting words ready to leap, because he wouldn’t let the girl do anything. Daughter couldn’t play in dirt or sand because of the threat of ringworms, couldn’t take her shoes off on the grass because there might be bugs or glass or sharp twigs that would cut like glass. She couldn’t run around bare chested ever – not even when she was in diapers, store bought ones at that when she had wanted to use cloth – because Daughter might catch a cold or someone might call the cops. And his alarm for everything was wearing Mom out. “Oh jeez,” Mom finally said in his direction, resting a hand on the top of her yet again very pregnant stomach. The collar of her sleeveless shirt fluttered in the breeze. “It’s just a feather. We can clean it if you want.” God knows she had enough disinfectant wipes and hydrogen peroxide in the overstuffed diaper bag he insisted on packing. It was like he thought they were visiting a bacteria farm built on top of a landfill, instead of going a few blocks to the park.
“Come here, honey,” Dad sang to the little girl, trying to lure her away from the potentially infected object. But she went for it anyway, picking it up and twirling it between her thumb and forefinger while looking at it sideways beneath her bushy bangs, as if to decide whether or not she could call the ruffled grey and blue thing pretty.
Go. Yes. Go! Her mother silently cheered from the bench, happy her daughter’s curiosity wasn’t trumped this time by her father’s worry.
“Oh, god. Stop. No,” Father called sternly as he uncrossed his legs, planted his sneakers, and walked toward the slide.
Daughter darted around and behind him and made a dash to her mother on the bench and Mom proceeded to take the feather for safekeeping, showing the girl that she tucked it between the cardboard pages of her favorite book peek-a-booing out the open bag, the one with Clifford on the cover.
But the way she clung to Mom as not to meet her father’s face, her own buried in Mom’s lap, made Dad pause a minute. Maybe he was being too careful, too rash, he thought. Maybe he could rethink some of his germaphobic ways. Perhaps. Because he was starting to realize – as he realized children make you realize – the parts of himself that could use a little tweaking, a little loosening up. Bottom line, he just wanted to keep her safe and protect her childhood as all fathers want to keep their daughters safe and protect their childhoods. Wasn’t that a good thing? He felt like she was growing way too fast. Today it was feathers and tomorrow it would be lip gloss and choking-hazard jawbreakers. Could he get a grip? He knew he had to get a grip.
Then he remembered it was Mom’s fault, always letting the girl get away with everything. He’d say no. Mom would say yes, and that would be that.
They argued right there near the sandbox Daughter wasn’t allowed to go in, right in front of other kids her size whose parents were on the other side of the jungle gym not paying attention at all. And she told him some of those choice words that were anxiously awaiting a good time to fall out, like that he could be a “controlling ass wipe” sometimes. Then he stormed off and left Mom there to sigh and shift and hope strangers didn’t overhear. He took a couple laps around the water play section that wasn’t operating, because all parks in the area wouldn’t turn on the water in that section, it seemed to him, until, ironically, drought season was in full effect. He walked it off. These little spats, he thought, weren’t enough, he told himself, to justify his reckless thoughts of abandoning ship. They always had disagreements, although lately they were having them more often, but they were a family dammit, just like any family with their, at minimum, seven to nine forevermore irreconcilable differences, big or small. He looked towards Daughter who was standing near Mom, her large stomach protruding against the sky, and thought of the new member of their family on its way, his way; it was a boy. And he told himself that they’d just have to get their shit together.
On his fifth lap, he stopped and crouched down almost at eye level to Daughter and gave her a hug and delivered a quiet lecture on contagions and diseases, not that she seemed to understand most of what he said. Then he walked to Mom and Mom gave him a hug and they forgive each other. They even held hands on the way home as the girl jumped over cracks in the sidewalk underneath towering palm trees and pointed at ice cream trucks driving by that played garbled Disney theme songs. All was fine again.
They were the boy’s spoon-lifts when he was four, used in his unsteady hands to crane globs of Malt-O-Meal near his innocent, wide-lipped mouth until the babysitter intervened, because only sometimes did he make his target. “You can’t eat that way,” she told him as the spoon spiraled around.
His adults were elsewhere: work or the store or wherever else adults went, but most likely work since they’d recently moved into a new house, and he’d heard his father say more than once, “Someone has to pay for it. Your mother surely can’t.”
“Untie it, silly,” his sister said from across the table, her frizzy hair covering most of her face.
And when he didn’t comply, the babysitter shifted her thin body, pulled her elbows from the table, and raised her voice about it. “Give it here,” she told him. Then everyone sighed as two large drips of hot cereal hit the floor.
At seven they were lassos, swung at the bodies of his sister’s American Doll and his Rescue Heroes action figures, and at hard metal cars, the plastic tips whipped against before bouncing back. He sat on the Tweety Bird blanket his sister had given him. “How do ranchers do it”? he asked, wondering why his floppy rope of dingy synthetic fibers wouldn’t cooperate to bring back the object he’d hurled across the room. But his sister was asleep on the couch and Mom was in the other room on the phone with Aunt Jewel. Something had happened, because Dad hadn’t been home for two days.
Eventually, he just tied up the thing before he threw it, ensuring its return the way he wished he could do with his father.
Once when he was ten, they were handcuffs.
In a reclined pool chair set direct in the scorch of the sun, his father dosed intermittently, drowsy from beer. The boy and his friend stood at the deep end.
Dad felt good about Son making friends in his complex where he brought him for visits, because he wanted him to be comfortable since bringing him to live there was something he wished to do. “I’ll jump in,” he heard Son say over the heavy waves of heat and stout. Nothing out the ordinary. “But if it’s been 30 seconds,” the boy continued, “no 20, you jump in to get me.” Everything’s still okay.
“What if I can’t carry you up?” his friend asked.
With his eyes still closed, Dad wondered what game they were playing.
“I can kick so it’s easier.” The boy’s certainty was reassuring, and Dad shifted his legs over the plastic slats and put an arm across his face to block the sun.
“Houdini would probably tie his legs too, not just his hands. Wouldn’t he?
He threw himself from the chair and ran to the side of the pool where Son was panting and slumping himself over the concrete and tile.
“You didn’t tie it right!” the boy shouted at his friend, as his soppy body lay out.
Good, Dad thought, pulling the wet shoestrings from his boy’s wrists. Then he looked the boys over. “Time to go in,” he said.
At 13 years old, they mostly got used for their intended purpose.
“Mom, have you seen my shoestrings?” Son asked. “I hung them on the chair.”
“Here’s one,” she said, forgetting the other was languidly snaked inside some Sexton.
“What can I do with one?
“Check around on the floor. Maybe it fell.”
He went down swiftly, forearms flexed, showing his developing muscular build. With one leg stretched out, his eyes quickly darted beneath the chair and desk over electric cords and stubborn dust. God he’s getting so big, she thought. How much she was missing with him living at his father’s apartment. That bum, taking away her baby like that. And then a Sexton quote, not verbatim but close enough, that she wished she’d known of before she got married: Don’t bite unless you know whether it’s bread or stone.
One second. Two seconds. Three seconds.
“Oh yeah, I know where it is. Here,” she said, pulling the shoestring from the fold and losing her page.
Pressing questions and thoughts:
1. Clearer relationships. Between these two vignettes and the ones posted last week, I’m starting to see the parents’ relationship clearer. Good. But there’s more discord and incompatibility than anything else. Things don’t have to be written in equal measure, but I am beginning to wonder what brought the couple together in the first place. During revision, I could lay in some good amidst the bad and complicated, or build a scene that shows them together in a different light to offset the reader’s potential wondering as well as my own. It might even complement the larger theme of “bookmarking” moments in their lives, if I do decide to keep it.
2. Back to the bookmarks. In last week’s post, I mentioned that the bookmark theme might disappear in later drafts, and “Shoestrings” is a prime example of why. In this vignette, the theme feels even less organic than it does in some of the other ones.
Really, it’s the structure of this vignette; it’s just not working well with the theme. There are four sections within it and the object appears once within each section, while the sections are used to chart the boy’s childhood in stages. This takes me be back to the question of physical bookmarks versus digital ones, because It feels more like a grouping of similar information instead of holding one place or moment within their lives as seen in the other vignettes, and it’s sticking out to me as the odd duck. When revising, I’ll most likely rewrite this vignette to follow the structure of the other ones more closely. And I’ll do it first from the boy’s perspective, since I see an opportunity here to better understand what he thinks and feels about what’s going on with his family.
3. Observing narrator. I’ve tried to maintain a close third omniscient narrator, but in the first three sections of “Shoestrings,” the narrator feels like a removed observer, which I think distances the reader from the characters.
There’s a thousand and one debates on this topic probably happening in some distant land right now as you read this, but in my humble opinion, breaking a POV pattern can work to a story’s advantage if it’s done with intention and purpose. However, “Shoestrings,” unfortunately, isn’t a good example. The lack of consistency and purposefulness of the narrator in “Shoestrings” convinces me further that rewriting the vignette from a closer third of the boy’s perspective, for starters, is a good choice.
4. The know-it-all narrator. I mentioned using an omniscient narrator who tells the story through a close third, but my narrator’s also opinionated. In “Feather,” for example, while the narrator narrates through the locus point of the mother’s perspective, the narrator steps in to say a few things. Here are the sentences I’m referring to: “God knows she had enough disinfectant wipes and hydrogen peroxide in the overstuffed diaper bag he insisted on packing. It was like he thought they were visiting a bacteria farm built on top of a landfill, instead of going a few blocks to the park.” I like the snarky remarks and notice they are present throughout all the vignettes. My natural inclination is to write in more of the narrator’s opinions and treat he or she or it like the unseen and unnamed character it could be. But it might be necessary to curtail the commentary since I have multiple perspectives in this piece that are already competing and yelling at me to decide whose story it is. But more on this next week.
For the next two sections along with questions and thoughts, check back next week. If you’d like to leave a comment, please do so below.