WRITING A NOVEL: START TO FINISH, ENTRY ELEVEN
Changing Names to Protect the Innocent
Let Me Have It
I went to a writer’s group the other day at the invitation of a fellow writer (I won’t mention the group name because they feel they're pretty special-advertising in the free newspaper and all to have these huge turnouts of seven people) I was tentative in attending as a professional editor had told me I’m searching for feedback too early. I admit, I’m curious. I write something I feel is good, really good, and it’s exciting to see what others may think.
It was a waste of three hours. After awaiting everyone else’s read, I went. I read five pages from Tug, the most recent pages which I’d written in a coffee shop before attending. I had four pages that were relatively polished I was going to read, but decided I’d test this group’s mettle by reading five pages of mostly shit. I read. When I was finished I asked, “Did the words come together right?” The guy who is running the show, Mr. Pretentious in his ill-fitting suit, the guy who critiqued others and read nothing, says, “Yeah. Pretty much, I think you got it.”
I felt like calling him on his bullshit. That’s not critique. I didn’t come here to get jacked off. I came here to get feedback. Instead, I say, “Thanks. That’s good to hear. Anyone else?” Silence. Then, you used the word ‘retire’ three times. That’s it? Really? Waste of time.
So I’m listening to Catherine Rankovic, the editor, and not putting myself out there for feedback. Except this one last time. I’m going to post just a touch of what I read and see what the feedback through here is, if any. Does anyone really read this? If you’re not a writer, a response of THAT’S PRETTY GOOD, or THAT SUCKS DONKEYS, or IT NEEDS SOME WORK will suffice. If you’re a writer, maybe elaborate on the above. If you’re a writer, we’re in this together, why not support one another by being honest, by spending a few minutes in a writer’s groups or providing real feedback when handed something to read or being emailed something to look over.
As far as the progress on Tug goes, I’m going to update my Tug consistency key today, and break 10,000 words. I hope. If the “words aren’t coming together right,” I’ll stop. It’s best not to get hung up on self-imposed deadlines if they weaken the quality of writing.
I’m growing a bit concerned about the closeness of the story. The story, as I’ve said before is my story. As such, a great many of the people in the story are people I really know. This book involves infidelity, death, drug addiction, prison time, fractured families, and other happy things. To use the cliché, names have been changed to protect the innocent. Except, some of these people are far from innocent. Let me rephrase, names have been changed to protect my own ass. It is concerning though, that my story takes place in this town, and I do still need to live here. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe this never gets published anyhow and the only visceral effect it has is on myself. It’s a problem, a good problem, for another day.
BELOW MY SAMPLE FOR EXPERIMENT—HOW POORLY DID THEY CRITIQUE?
Thaddeus and Uncle Johnny sat on opposite sides of the hospice bed like, Thaddeus thought, the proverbial angel and devil would straddle one’s shoulders. Except he wondered which he’d be. The thick smell of Jim Beam rolled from his uncle like the fumes from the latrine duty Thaddeus had been so often saddled with in the army. Even in the dim light from the just lit kerosene heater he could see from Johnny’s red rimmed eyes that his uncle would be retiring into a drunken sleep soon enough.
“You don’t have to stay here, you know. Me and your grandma, we got this. He just gets all real kinda bad nights is all.” Dusty’s breaths came shallow, his death seeming to arrive with every exhalation before another evil breath took in oxygen. Furthering the agony. “All this talking today just sapped him is it.”
“I went looking for you today. I’m tired of hearing all about your help.”
Uncle Johnny feathered back his greasy hair and snorted a laugh. “It’s a good thing you’re a head taller than me, boy. Who do you think is mopping these floors, cutting the grass in the summer, taking grandma to the store? It ain’t you.”
The kerosene heater popped as the metal heated up. Before she retired to bed, Helena had insisted it be lit to keep the chill off Dusty. The wavering flames shot coven shadows of the two of them along the brick façade of the dining room.
“And I know what you’re up to, young one.”
“You know what?”
“Stephanie got on me for that morphine. Your grandma said you was having a little talk with her before coming in. I bet you’d like to tag that fine little piece wouldn’t you?”
“What’s your point? I talked to a nurse.”
“I know’d she gave you some more. She don’t like me, don’t trust me. Some things you just know from looking someone in the eye.”
Thaddeus nodded agreement then squatted over to the heater. He dialed the flames down a notch before stepping in to the living room and waving his uncle over.
Johnny patted Dusty gently on the side and bent to whisper something in his ear. He stood there staring down at Dusty in the heated glow. “I love him too, you know.” He said as he joined Thaddeus in the cool grayness of the other room.
“I know. We shouldn’t talk like this in front of him. What if he can hear? He’s all locked up on the inside there, probably hearing every word.”
“He’s my dad. Let me do it. I swear, I’ll give it to him as ascribed.”
“Thaddeus, please.” Uncle Johnny nodded down at Thaddeus’ pocket. “Fish it out and hand it over. I understand now. I know. I do.” Thaddeus committed a flinch as Johnny’s blackened hand rose out of the dimness toward his face, only to come to a clasp atop his shoulder. “What I done was bad. Please.”
“I can’t trust you, Uncle Johnny. Not anymore.” He stepped out of his uncle’s clasp as tears began streaming down the man’s face. “Go to bed, sleep off what you’ve drank and we can have a cup of coffee in the morning.”
“Fuck you. He’ll be dead in the morning.” Uncle Johnny swiped weakly at Thaddeus’ face, then walked to one of the three standard boxy rooms of the house which he’d taken up residence in since his release from prison.
Thaddeus turned and leaned in the doorway, stroking the bulging of the morphine bottle in his pocket, taking in the calmness of the glowing room. “Let things take their course.” He expected his uncle’s shadow to appear rising up behind him. When it didn’t, “Goodnight, Uncle Johnny.”
“Thad.” Thaddeus tilted his head. “I know you don’t understand, son. I’m in pain too.”
“Goodnight, I said.”
“Fuck you.” His uncle’s door clicked shut.
Despite not being cold, Thaddeus went to the heater and stood over it, playing his hands in the flowing heat. It was only 10:00. The rest of the night weighed on him in a black doom like the evil sick inside his grandfather. It was time for the first dose.
Thaddeus went to his grandpa’s bedside and stared at the old man’s chest. It seemed, again, as if he were dead. He brought a steady hand to the old man’s ribs, rested it there, fingers on ribs—a butterfly on a sun bleached corpse. An exhalation...and, yet again, a hateful intake of air.
He dug the vial from his pocket and again played it across his callused hands. Were it to fall and break he would be crushed. Were it to fall and break he would be elated. Another intake of air, this time jagged. Thaddeus closed his fingers around the vial and turned to the side table. He pinched the sponge tipped stick from the table then placed the vial down. The eyedropper sat there—an unloaded .357 awaiting bullets. Carefully, he drew up the dosage Stephanie had given him. For some reason, he thought of when Miles was a baby and had been sick, giving him antibiotics via an eyedropper. But this wasn’t going to cure anything.
This eyedropper, this tiny amount of chemical infused liquid held a mercy, held a promise to take everything—everything—away forever. All the sunny days, and grassy fields, and blue skies, and lovely man defining black coaling tunnels. And pain. Thaddeus brought the eye dropper to Dusty’s mouth and pulled down on the old man’s whiskered chin. Snaggle-toothed mouth and swollen tongue, breath smelling of a slow ending of all things inside. He was suddenly afraid. Afraid of everything: Uncle Johnny sneaking up behind him and snatching the vial away; Helena padding into the room and witnessing what he was about to do; Dusty knowing what he was about to do and screaming against it—all locked up on the inside; if the old man had “found God” at some coherent, weak point in the day, but had not been read any sort of last rites like they do in the movies because everyone was sure he was recovering…
So he’d read him last rites of his own. With each and every dosage, a last ministry.
“You always kept a good garden, grandpa. I remember those huge red tomatoes you had that one year. They put one in the newspaper—grandma was so proud of them, she sent the Breeze a picture. I remember you complaining they tasted like cat shit from grandma’s cat getting in the garden.” Thaddeus found himself smiling. He pulled down again on the old man’s jaw, his mouth having closed and his lips setting like a bad weld.
Don’t ever be scared…of nothing.
He lifted Dusty’s tongue with the dropper and squirted the medicine in.
“It was a good garden.”
At midnight Dusty’s lips reacted to the eyedropper like a baby to a nipple. And they revisited the streetcar Dusty had told him he’d rode once in Saint Louis while looking for a job. He’d rode his first escalator that day in the Peabody building. Taken in a ball game. Ate toasted raviolis and got drunk off Busch beer.
At two a.m. they strolled across the open fields abutting the western edge of town, shotguns cradled across their arms, icy cold breeze of that day, a minty dip of tobacco in their mouths and their eyes wide for sign of quail, that trilling of spooked bird as they took to the air. The old man had bagged well over the limit and put some in Thaddeus’ pouch so his father could fry it up for supper later.
Thaddeaus worked a crossword puzzle to while away the long minutes in between doses and even longer moments in between breaths. At some point, Uncle Johnny needed convincing, again, that he was really okay to stay through until breakfast.
“Go home, squirt. I can’t sleep.”
“Go to bed, asshole. I can’t sleep either. I’ll be here until breakfast, when grandma’s up.”
Uncle Johnny stood above him, arms crossed, hair a mess, his reading glasses askew and eying the morphine. Thaddeus leaned forward casually and capped the bottle tightly. “Goodnight.” He deposited it into his pocket.
His uncle scoffed and shuffled away. Thaddeus stopped him as he exited the warming glow of the dining room. “Hey.” His uncle turned. The glow from the heater cast evil an yellow onto his lenses. “You didn’t ask how he was.”
“How is he?”
Without a word, he entered the dark of the front room and was seen no more that morning.
And at four in the morning, after revisiting Dusty’s wedding day, the old man breathed no more.