Monday, September 7, 2009

I've begun working on a potential novel. I'm posting the first chapter in hopes of garnering some opinions. My wife has already given it a mixed review, so don't think I am easily offended. It's difficult to tell anything from such a short excerpt, but I'm just looking for some honest input.

Beck Conley lay motionless; listening for the noise she subconsciously believed had awakened her. Several quiet moments allowed a jittery mind to settle. With nothing to fear, her body returned to a peaceful rhythm, chest rising and falling like the bellows of a blacksmith. On the far side of a meadow, she observed a shack. Even as she contemplated moving there, she stood inside. So is the beauty of dreams—more than choosing a destination, the destination chooses us.

A burly man dressed in leather stooped to light a forge. Angry flames hissed and spit in protest, sending an orange flicker of light creeping across the floor. Satisfied with the settling flames, he returned upright and shuffled to the center of the room. His movements were slow and deliberate and soon he found the relocation of furniture to his liking. It seemed a pity the dinner table wore a thick covering of dust where a cloth of should have been, and as it were, a single chair had no match. A broken spindle in the back made for a toothless grin, but the man seemed none the wiser. Although he passed very near her, he did not acknowledge her presence. Becky could only imagine working in such poor lighting conditions had done nothing for his eyesight.

When he reached the north wall, he placed an open palm against it. The ground beneath her feet began to quake and crumble. She sought refuge behind the first piece of equipment she came to, and with only the top half of her startled eyes visible, she witnessed a small structure rising from where the table had been. The wooden floor splintered and an overpowering aroma of stale earth and time settled in her nostrils. As it grew vertically, the bucking and writhing of the house threatened to bring down the tired shack, but with a final quiver the walls exhaled, like the last ragged breathe of an animal lived too long.

The kiosk in the center of the room had four sides, the breadth of each just wide enough for a door. Becky watched as the man lit a torch and disappeared through the door directly in front of her. With the door standing ajar, she ventured from her hiding place. Beyond the entry was a stone staircase leading downward. She reached the last step and moved further down the corridor, as he lit torches mounted along the walls. Becky carefully maintained enough distance to remain undetected. Within the walls of the corridor were shelves that seemed to stretch into forever. Each row contained hundreds, if not thousands of objects. Some were polished and perfect, others cracked and faded, but each uniquely its own. Just ahead, the man paced before them, occasionally allowing his hand to hover, but never pausing too long. To do so would have signaled the value of one more than another. With his attention focused squarely on the shelves he spoke to her.

“Why is it you have tarried so long, my dear?”

Struck with fear of discovery, Becky conformed to the wall. She could not even grasp how she had come to be here, and now the eeriness of realizing her arrival was expected. Becky’s heart leapt to her throat as he turned his torch in her direction.

“Speak to me child, I must hear your voice.”

Devoid the luxury of thinking things through Becky was compelled to answer him as a daughter responds to the direct questioning of her father.

“Perhaps, if you describe what you are looking for, I can help you find it.”

His laugh filled the hallway and came at her from all directions.

“Your voice is the only clue I need.”

The man reached toward the shelf and retrieved an object. Becky could not explain the connection between them, but walked toward him. He drew the object close and the brittle of a laborer turned to velvet. He rocked the object back and forth like a newborn, and as he did, Becky experienced an unsettled feeling deep within her core. As she was now within arms reach, he held the object close for her to see. It was his troubled eyes she could not look past, as if handling such things brought great sorrow.

“It is so very heavy now—filled with unnecessary things, but as with all of them, it is salvageable. Regretfully, some must be broken before they can be repaired. Do you understand at all, my dear?”

Becky felt compelled to nod in confirmation even though she understood nothing. Her gaze returned to the shelves, perhaps objects there were the key to understanding. Her eyes settled upon one housed in a glass container. It looked no different from the rest, why should it deserve such shelter? Suddenly his eyes joined hers as he intercepted her thoughts.

“The one in the case belongs to me—and the one I hold in my hands is your own.”

Squinting of her eyes caused a furrow in her brow to deepen.

“Then I must ask an obvious question. Why do you care for others before your own?”

“Walk with me as we return upstairs and I will try to explain.”

As they walked, he reached for her hand and she gave it to him willingly.

“There are rules, of course. Each of us is provided the opportunity to affect any we choose—but the care of our own depends upon others. Mine sits behind glass because presently there are no others.”

He reached the top of the stairway and opened the door for her. Becky was in a state of confusion, but her mind was clear enough to realize they had made no turns in the corridor, yet had exited a different door than they had entered through. The four chambers were positively interconnected.

He walked to his workbench and selected a tool. Grasping the object with a long pair of tongs, he inserted it into the mouth of the forge. As the flames lapped at the glass, Becky felt a burning sensation in her chest. She watched the olive skin on her arms grow visibly pale, and a nauseous feeling roared inside her. When the discomfort became more than she could stand she launched a frantic search for the door.

Once outside, she knew nothing more than to run. The lush grass of the meadow passed quickly, and each hurried step propelled her further into the woods where the terrain became unforgiving. The darkness belonging to the forest quickly swallowed her trail. Moved by fear, she pressed forward through the brambles, imaging the thorns grabbing at her dress were gnarled hands of the dead. Becky’s mind quickly surpassed the fevered pace at which her legs were pumping, but in the darkness her foot lodged beneath a tangled root. She struck the ground violently, sending debris in all directions. For a brief moment, she was innately aware of the pounding of her heart, how it throbbed in her temples, but as the burly man at the forge loosed his hammer, the object exploded. When the last shard fell to the floor of the shack, the accelerated beating of a heart ceased also.

Her eyelids fluttered before slamming open. She remembered nothing of a dream. Upon hearing it a second time, she was positive the clanking of iron originated just outside her bedroom window. Shuffling towards the source, she parted the louvered shade and observed a strange man working. Glancing at the clock, she recalled their phone conversation. When they spoke yesterday, ‘Smokey Joe’ indicated an early arrival, but surely even a clod realized ‘suburban-early’ knew nothing of 5:17 a.m. Things in suburbia were not so structured. Early did not have an assigned timeslot, it arrived mysteriously, formed from the indecisive minutes between a first and second latte.

She offered a glance back at the bed where her husband Mike still rested. Despite a thirty-fifth birthday, his youthful face barely produced stubble. Perhaps she too could rest soundly if the relentlessness of time had not settled so harshly upon her. Passing years cruelly stole whatever they desired and left only sagging breasts, thickening thighs, and crow’s feet in their wake. As men became distinguished and stately, women simply slid further down the scale of desirability. Such inequitable results, drawn along sexist lines, were a bitter pill. It was much easier to believe superior D.N.A. was to blame because no amount of fretting could change that.

Becky would have preferred the freedom to plan her husband’s birthday celebration alone. She still believed joining friends for a round of golf at Medina or even a foxhunt in France were infinitely more desirable than a silly old-fashioned hog roast. The pool of party planning acquaintances she had accumulated over the years would be of no use. Their talents were many, but certainly they were not magicians. Even a fool realized the variety of apple stuffed in a hog’s mouth was insignificant; eventually the eyes of her guests would settle on the horror of charred flesh, and what would she say to comfort them? Perhaps more than anything, Becky resented her husband’s lack of appreciation for how hard she worked to maintain their standing in the neighborhood. Presently, Smokey Joe’s inconsiderate clanking presented a clear threat to that.

Joe stood over his cooker in a grease-smudged apron. His forearms were thick and covered with coarse gray curls, more resembling fur than hair. Deep laugh-lines began at the corners of his eyes and dipped out of sight beneath outdated sideburns. His cheeks were full like cherry colored dumplings. Only a cigar stub pasted to the corner of his mouth disturbed the conformity of fuzzy stubble lining his jaw. He hoisted the heavy iron lid with ease and stoked the coals beneath. Two measured raps against the baffle set the exhaust pipe belching plumes of white smoke, and his unlit cigar danced when he spoke.

“Sorry ‘bout the noise ma’am, but this here ain’t no Cornish Game Hen—takes twelve to fourteen hours to proper cook a hog.”

In Becky’s mind, taking the life of one of God’s creatures, searing the flesh, and calling it dinner seemed much like senseless killing. Had she not invited him here she had half a mind to phone P.E.T.A., but the careful process by which Joe went about his work gave the notion that it was of cosmic importance. Drawing of coals from one location to another oddly piqued her interest and she leaned closer.

“Ma’am, yer welcome to look all you care, but with that loose fittin’ robe, you’re a wardrobe-malfunction away from havin’ tender parts branded’.”

Becky tended the ‘V’ where the purple robe crossed her breasts. She doubted the furry man realized his naturally offensive air or the sensitivity of the subject. Despite such serious protocol violation, she decided against addressing him directly, instead choosing to fold her arms high across her chest. With barely a moments pause the gravely voice came at her again.

“Daddy taught me to run a tight ship—safety first. What’d the neighbors think if I was rollin’ you around in the grass tryin’ to put out a fire?”

With the mention of neighbors, Becky shifted her attention to a large home bordering the east, but only a security light illuminated an empty stone drive. To the west was Dr. Morrow’s large picture window, but at this hour, it too remained empty. Mrs. Morrow was a sweet woman otherwise, but everyone knew she liked to talk. Becky could only imagine the sordid tales of infidelity circulating poolside if Mrs. Morrow had been perched there.

“Ma’am, I can’t help but notice, you ain’t much on this whole concept—uncomfortable like. Most likely vegetarian or vegan, ain’t ya?”

With arms stiff and chin lowered, Becky had endured enough of his insolence.

“My eating habits are of no concern to you, not to mention my tender parts. Honestly, I cannot recall the last time I found intellectual conversation huddled around a cooker—or a cremation furnace, depending upon your level of enlightenment. I hired you to do a simple job; perhaps I’ve made a mistake!”

A pale sky announced the approaching sunrise and Becky swiveled again to check the homes for activity. A smile crossed Joe’s lips and the quivering of the cigar stub belied an urge to speak.

“Yer a feisty one ma’am, no doubt about that, but you are correct. I’ll tend to cookin’ and leave you to checkin’ on the neighbors.”

Becky adapted the shortening of words, as if mocking the manner in which he spoke would settle under skin.

“What do you mean, ‘Checkin’ on the neighbors’?”

“Jes seems to me, it ain’t much of a life if you go around worryin’ ‘bout what others think. There’s plenty of things in this world to keep people apart, but a very few that draw them together.”

Joe looked beyond the cold green eyes that wished him dead, up the hill toward the sliding glass window. He watched two young girls prancing and dancing with one another. They lived in a place where bedclothes were ballroom gowns and a kitchen was suitable for a promenade.

“Children’s one of them things that draws us closer.”

In a huff, Becky turned towards the home while Joe’s cigar drooped noticeably. He spoke slightly louder as he addressed her back.

“Backwards as you believe me to be, take notice of ‘em ma’am. Encourage the foolish, spontaneous things, ‘cause they won’t dance forever.”

Joe’s voice trailed off awkwardly as his mind began churning out memories. For a very brief time he watched his own cherubs flitting behind the glass, but they were grown now. Fine young women raised in someone else’s home, calling another man daddy. The other man was lucky. Myra was a peach, the kind of woman who didn’t aspire to much, long as she had a man who loved her and a couple of kids to dote over. These were complexities too abstract for a young truck driver, one who spent too many hours chasing dotted lines into the horizon and too few at home. Joe had not intended to ruin a marriage, but naïveté and youthful thinking was no excuse for poor judgment, and so a man who started out hauling hogs, ended up cooking them for a living.

As the hog’s juices began to flow the catch pan required his attention. After returning upright, Joe found the hand of a curly-headed man thrust towards him. He wiped his own against the apron, but instead of reaching for it immediately took the opportunity to describe the importance of a catch pan.

“Don’t ‘spect the misses needs every cur-dog in the neighborhood sniffin’ around. Truth is—dogs really ain’t the trouble—just a bad combination. You ever seent how grease runs straight through an ole hound? He’ll be leavin’ more than he takes, if you know what I mean!”

For a lean fellow, the stranger presented a firm grip, a sign of an honorable man. His eyes were made of a curious blue and twinkled when he spoke.

“Mark Conley—you must be Smokey Joe. Becky tells me you’ve got quite a personality.”

“Good to meet ya, Son, but I reckon she said more than that. Didn’t mean no disrespect, but I ain’t never been much of an attraction to the ladies, even when I was young.”

Joe’s mind wandered as he spoke, leading to uncomfortable pause.

“‘Cept for one pretty brown-eyed girl, but she had good sense enough to slip away. Straight-talkin’ gets me in trouble from time to time. Kinda like an old man ramblin’ about a dog’s loose bowels while yer tryin’ to enjoy a cup of coffee.”

Joe nodded towards the cooker, “Seems a damn shame, but dead critters and me get along best.”

Mark sipped from the cup while he circled the cooker, examining as he went.

“It took some time before Becky warmed up to me. Sometimes it helps to let a woman think they’ve changed you somehow—knocked off the rough edges. You know, made you into something more than you would have been without them.”

Joe drew his thumb and forefinger through the stubble until they met at the point of his chin.

“Seems to me, you kind of a package deal, Mark; eye-candy on the outside but a sharp mind to back it up. No Sir—young and dumb ain’t got no place here, nice house, good wife, and blessed with two fine young girls—nothing but blue skies ahead for you, Mark Conley.”