The Ray Bradbury Challenge If you’ve been keeping up, (and I hope that you’ve been reading or writing or doing anything but keeping up with my blog) you’ll know that I’m taking Ray Bradbury’s advice and writing one short story a week for a year. I think it’s important to get the words on paper and I think that Ray Bradbury did too. I think that he knew that writers mostly want perfection from the first draft and that what kills more writers than critics is the fear of being bad, the inability to allow themselves to pour letters onto paper from their hearts and their souls and know that they all won’t be good. I want to be perfect. Well, I want my writing to be perfect. I want to dazzle and amaze and know that my stories will be touching hearts for as long as Homer’s have. I don’t want to tell bad stories.
But to tell good stories I’ve realized that I have to tell the bad ones too. The days I’ve skipped writing are days when I’ve sat down and I don’t like what comes. The stories might be bland or the words bad, but I stopped and pushed my pen away and told my muse that I could wait him out. Days would go by and sometimes weeks before I would concede and pick my pen back up. Who knows what I missed out on because I wasn’t willing to write something bad before I wrote something great?
This week I wrote a story that I don’t like. It isn’t a short story that I would share or even save if it weren’t for me opening my big mouth about writing and posting one a week. I wrote it, went back and edited it, and still this is as good as it’s going to get for awhile. Though I don’t enjoy showing the world my worst (who knows, I still have 49 weeks to go, it could get worse) I am happy to put myself through this phase of my writing therapy.
But please do me a favor if you’ve never read one of my short stories before and pick any one but this one.
Thanks for reading Happy writing!
The air was just starting to turn crisp, Mama said it meant we’d have a harsher winter than the last one, but I sat on the porch anyway, playing with my paper dolls, waiting for Daddy to get home from work. Betsy and Kathy were fighting over something inside the house and I could hear Mama scolding them both for it, then telling them to get in the kitchen and help set the table for dinner. Drawers opened and closed with a smack, plates clattered together and made their way to the table in the arms of my sisters. “Where’s Alice?” Mama asked. Kathy told her I was outside, “Without a coat.” Betsy said. “Go and find her and tell her it’s time to help get dinner on the table.”
Footsteps tapped across the room and down the hall from inside the house.
I set my dolls down and raced off the porch, through the brush and down the hill, hoping to get out of sight before I was forced into helping with chores. I turned around and saw that no one was coming for me so I slowed to a walk just in time to hear the rattling sound of Daddy’s Indian coming around the bend. When he saw me he slowed and I waved. He brought the motorcycle to a stop beside me and scooped me up.
“Where are you off to Sugar?” He asked as he tapped the throttle. I had to speak up over the engine and told him that I was waiting for him. “Well I’m glad you did.” he told me and smiled looking at the road. Something felt wrong. He didn’t talk as he drove up the drive or look at me at all. He smiled, but I knew it wasn’t real.
By the time we made it to the bottom of the hill that led to our house my sisters were coming down the front steps, racing one another to get to us. He lifted me from the bike, gave me a kiss and put me down just in time for Kathy to launch herself into his arms. He moved unsteady when he picked her up and I noticed that he was trying to keep weight off his right shoulder.
“Would the three of you let your Daddy breathe?” Mama said standing outside the screen door with a dish towel in her hand. No one said anything to her so she repeated herself and rolled her eyes when Daddy looked up and pushed his lips out, “Aw Honey” he told her, “I don’t need all that much room to breathe.” She looked at him without saying anything more.
I waited next to Mama on the porch and Daddy, started toward us surrounded by a buzz of one sided conversation from Betsy and Kathy about their day and who said what at school and why Kathy didn’t like the teacher but Betsy thought that her short temper was easily redeemed because of her stylish clothing. “Oh don’t be stupid Betsy,” Kathy said. “Anyone with enough money can buy nice clothes, Mama says you can’t dress up dumb.”
I saw Daddy and Mama exchange smiles they meant to hold back and Daddy bent down and looked both girls in the face when he told them that they should be easier on one another and on their teacher in particular. “You don’t know what makes her the way she is.” He said to Kathy like she was 20 instead of 10.
“Yes Daddy,” both girls said then ran inside, past Mama who shouted after Kathy not to call anyone stupid where she could hear it again.
“She may be right” she said to Daddy who came up the steps and stood beside her after both girls had gone, “Betsy cares too much about looks and not enough about sense.”
“Sugar,” Daddy said to Mama with a smile, “How could you think any child of yours would lack sense is beyond me.” Then he smiled wider and kissed her. She smiled then hit him on the shoulder with the dish towel and said “Don’t you be sarcastic with me William.” I went inside before them in time to catch Mama ask him what was wrong.
“I’ll tell you later,” He said.
“Did you hear from either of the boys?” Daddy said nothing and went inside.
I knew she called her little brothers the boys but I couldn’t think of why Daddy would have heard anything from them. They lived in Georgia where Mama was from, and got into all kinds of trouble with the law down there that Daddy had to go down and sort out, but I hadn’t heard of Mama talk about any in over a year.
Fried okra sizzled in the skillet, and Mama flipped it one last time while the rest of us sat around the kitchen table telling Daddy about our days in an uneven chorus of exclamation and laughter.
“One at a time girls” he said patting Betsy’s hand in his own. “Now Kathy tell me more about that spelling test you took. Alice, I want to hear about Math next alright?”
“Alright Daddy.” I said.
“Kathy” Mama spoke while Betsy was winding up her story. “Hop up here and help me pass out the food.”
“Why don’t you go on and help too.” Daddy said.
Our dinner hour stretched into two as we sat around the small table and individual tales of the day merged into something more full of life than anything any one of us had lived alone.
When the table was cleared and the dishes washed Mama said, “Alright girls, it’s time to get to bed.” Each of us kissed Daddy on the cheek as we flew by the table and down the hall to the bathroom. Holding the last wet plate I would lose the race, but be far enough behind to hear Daddy tell Mama, “After you get the girls to bed we need to talk.”
Usually Daddy came into our room with a kitchen chair and sat next to one of our beds while he read to us. Mama would sit on the end of my bed and knit and listen and occasionally glance up from her work to give Daddy a look if the book proved to be too adult for the three of us. I don’t remember what any of the books were about, though sometimes now I hear a string of words put together and can almost hear my Daddy’s voice and I wonder if he ever said those words to us at night, looking down at the pages of some old book. He never missed a night but that one. Mama didn’t say anything until Kathy asked and then she just kissed her on the forehead, brought the heavy quilt up around her shoulders and told her to sleep well. Betsy looked at me and I shook my head. Neither of us asked. The two younger girls were snoring by the time Mama finished with prayers and shut the door. Sleep came slow to me as it always did in those younger days when my mind took 3 hours longer to slow down than my body did.
I could hear the grandfather clock ticking away the seconds in the hallway and the pull of the brass chains before the hour rang low 9 times. There was none of the usual conversation in the kitchen, I couldn’t hear Daddy’s paper crinkle as he turned the pages or Mama picking through her sewing box.
“William” Mama said in a whisper that seemed loud breaking through the silence. “Will you tell me what’s bothering you?”
I could hear him sniffle like he did when the pollen got bad in the spring then a chair scratch on the floor as it was pushed back from the table. Mama’s footsteps moved and I realized Daddy was crying. He cleared his throat and put the paper down. “I killed two men today.” he said and then was quiet again.
“They had hostages.” He didn’t sound like Daddy. He sounded like Kathy when she’d fallen and broke her leg last summer and had to be carried to town and have her leg set right again.
“I tried to avoid it” He said. His chair pushed back from the table and I heard his heavy footsteps fall in an uneven cadence on the wood floor. “They wouldn’t listen.” He hit his hand on the table.
“I couldn’t —” His thought left unfinished. “It had to be done.” I could hear him clear his throat, his heavy breath like he’d just run up the mountain and down again.
Mama said nothing and didn’t move. He’d killed men before, sometimes a police officer had to. I slipped from bed and crouched by the door wondering why he sounded like he was breaking.
“They killed a woman.” He didn’t seem to be talking to Mama. “I think it was an accident, but I don’t know.”
His voice went back to itself in the span of a moment and he said again. “It had to be done.”
I could hear Mama’s soft steps move across the kitchen, and Daddy’s move to her.
He said something I couldn’t hear, the soft hum of his low voice and then the sound of Mama’s crying. I closed one eye to look through the crack in the open door. They stood by the stove, her head resting on his shoulder, his arms wrapped around her wide frame. It was a picture I’d seen so often in my 13 years but one I always felt rude for enjoying. It didn’t belong to me.
She spoke in a muffled whisper against him.
“So am I” he said, pulling her in closer. “So very sorry.”
That weekend in the paper I read a story of sweeping heroism. A Nashville officer saved a bank full of hostages then with another officer sped away on their motorcycles and with great risk to their own lives apprehended two of the robbers that escaped with a safe full of money. I read my fathers name several times with great delight.
I raced home, yelling behind me at Betsy and Kathy to hurry on and come with me. The screen door slammed against the outside of the house and Mama came out of the kitchen with a ball of bread she was kneading in her hands. “Excuse me young lady” She started but I cut her off, waving the paper around, trying to catch my breath.
We went into the kitchen to put the dough down and Mama cleaned off her hands and held the wrinkled pages, I knew it was a struggle for her and that she had to read each word over again so I shouted out the most important parts then sat down, my elbows on my knees, breathing heavily.
Mama said nothing but put the paper down and went back to her bread. I asked her if that was why Daddy had been crying and she stopped pushing her fists into the dough for a moment and looked at me with brown eyes, almost black. She said nothing then slammed her fist into the soft dough again.
Her dismissal of the greatest thing that had ever happened to me made me angry and I stood up and walked to stand beside her. “But he’s a hero!” I took the paper from where she’d placed it and looked again. “It says so!”
Mama took a deep breath. “It’s not that easy,” She said going back to her task, punching a piece of the dough down, making another bubble up. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
I could hear Betsy and Kathy coming up the front steps talking about the boys who put the snake in the teacher’s desk at school and wondering if they were at home now getting the switch.
I folded the paper as she spoke, confused and sensing that it wasn’t something Daddy would want to see any more than Mama had. “But he’s the law.”
Mama nodded. “That don’t make it easy Sugar, now run on and go find your sisters. They’d better not be gettin’ their school clothes dirty.”
That night Mama left the house with a suitcase and the promise that she would be back in a week but the week ended and Daddy’s cooking seemed to just get worse. One night after a dinner of half burned chicken he told us that Mama had gone down to Georgia because there had been a death in the family.
“Why couldn’t we all go?” Kathy asked. “We haven’t seen them since summer.”
Daddy told us that they didn’t want us to miss school and that Mama had to be there to help her sister in law with arrangements and receiving family members that would come in from far away. It sounded alright until I was laying in bed unable to sleep and I replayed the words my Daddy spoke. His voice hadn’t been true. The thought was offensive but I knew, he was keeping something from us. I looked for what that something was in the newspaper clippings I’d been saving since Daddy was named a hero by the Police force and the papers. I read them all again, though I knew most by heart. I looked at the grainy pictures of my father in his uniform without a trace of a smile on his face and the picture of the other officer that had been with him, a man I didn’t know. In the piles there was nothing unusual, nothing that made any sense but I felt something I couldn’t name. I knew there was something I had missed. I put the pages away and forced myself to sleep.
The next morning Daddy left for work early with instructions to each of us to be early for school, not late. “Do you understand girls?”
“Yes sir.” We all said with staggering sincerity.
We ate breakfast, I braided Kathy’s hair and Betsy brought in the paper.
“We’d better go.” She said slapping the pages down on the table then turning to leave the kitchen. Kathy pushed the chair into its place and followed behind her. I finished the glass of milk I’d started and glanced at the front page of the paper long enough to see the familiar faces of my uncles looking up at me. I didn’t need to read the words next to their smiles to know what the story said about them. I turned the paper over, put my glass in the sink, walked down the front steps and threw up in the bushes near my mother’s favorite bird bath.
Callie Armstrong © 2014