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Gloves Off: Round IX
Beware the character alone
Today, a story that’s been on my stack from day one.
In the First Courts of Hell
Mr. Taylor had driven through the night long enough to come into morning but morning hadn’t come. It was still night and his wearisome mind hadn’t a concept of time or the presence to notice he’d been driving long enough for sunrise but that the sun hadn’t risen. He stooped over the wheel, elbows pressed to it, chest pressed to it, his jaw slack and sore at the joints, his brain throbbing from somewhere precise but unknowable. The headlights appeared to make denser the fog that hovered over the road ever since the road descended sharply from forest on the hill behind him into wide swaths of overgrown but treeless cropfields. On both sides of the road stalks of overgrowth hewn by the wind—like the neck of every plant had been broken. The road cleaved the middle of the fields, never curving even slightly, and the car never veered on its flat and unencumbered surface. Out of the fog above the fields emerged high rocky bluffs, and he could see the road would climb out of the ravine soon enough and he would be in the midst of dark wood again. He let down the window and breathed the cold air, but he never could breathe a full breath. Like a yawn interrupted he just couldn’t catch it. Outside was colder than it had been and he was cold so he put up the window and pressed himself to the wheel again, closer this time, balling up for heat from his body and from the weak vents that barely sputtered.
My comments: The first line works like a charm. Morning gets the verb “come,” which is always better than “is.” The second line begins great by stepping on the fact that it’s night—you’ll find that things like daytime v. night, or the weather, need to be stated twice in order to register in the reader’s mind. At least twice. But then we hit a snag… the narrator states that the character is unaware of something.
This makes me wonder who’s telling the story. God? And third-person reminds us that this is a story. Instead, why can’t Taylor be aware of the lingering night? Likewise, can we see all measurements of time and distance—the odometer, the fuel gauge—similarly stuck in time? For a man hyper aware of details—the upcoming phone stuff is brilliant—why can’t he be aware of his perpetual nighttime?
His phone had died and with it his map. It lie on the passenger floorboard where he’d thrown it. He noticed some time ago, though he didn’t know just how long, that he’d been driving a long time. His console read just past six in the morning, but the number meant nothing to him, just as it hadn’t when it read four in the morning, or midnight before. Each passing hour he merely looked at the dimly glowing console and doubtingly spoke to himself, aloud, though not fully conscious of the fact.
“It’s already six?” he mumbled.
He hadn’t noticed the strange run of time, that it had been too long, and that the clock’s exact measure denied the darkness that still weighed incurably upon the earth. It was unlike him to not notice. He noticed everything and every detail—every hair on the bathroom floor and its color and length, every empty hanger in the closet and every slight change in their arrangement, every drawer ajar, every new scent. And time—he always noticed time. The time she left, the time she came home. The amount of charge remaining on her phone, since it so often died while she was out.
“I only had twenty percent battery, I should have charged it before I left,” she’d said.
“You had forty-three percent when you left,” he’d said.
My comments: This constant awareness of foreign hairs and scents says volumes. But be careful of filtering the world through the narrator. You could depict him picking through the hair in the sink drain, sniffing the woman’s hair, etc. Then, after depicting the action, say, “He noticed everything.” Likewise with the broken lines of dialog—the second line contradicting the first, beautifully—why not follow those with, “Her phone so often died while she was out.” First show with action. Then summarize/tell.
Beyond that, can you create an object—a long hair?—some incriminating bit of evidence that can still be with Taylor. That would keep this rival lover present in a physical way.
He noticed everything. But now he noticed nothing of the peculiar details of the long night, only that he’d driven for a long time and thought that by now he should be somewhere. Anywhere. He was not sleepy but the muscles in his hands cramped and his chest ached and his eyes were so dry he squeezed them in his palm, and it had been so long since he’d seen another car—he couldn’t remember seeing one—and so long that it had been only the road stretched straight before his windshield that he recoiled before deadening the brake pedal when he pulled his hand away from rubbing his eyes and saw that he was coming way too quickly to a narrow bridge. The flash of a bleached stop sign in the headlights, then trees in the headlights as the car slid sidewise. The car came to rest with the headlights shining on an old pickup truck parked beside the bridge’s gateway.
My comments: Good sequence to throw our attention to the pick-up truck. Don’t be afraid of going to chaos in moments of chaos. For example, “He reared back in his seat, his head pressed full-on against the headrest, every muscle straining through him to stand on the brake pedal. The front wheels locked up and the whole of the car slew around underneath, the headlight showing him the stop sign, then spinning sideways to show him the forest beside the road, showing him the road back the way he’d came, and at last the all of it, the stink of burnt rubber and the shriek of tires spinning smoke and gravel up into the wheelwells, the sideways throw of the car came to a quiet stop with the headlights falling bright on a pick-up truck parked among the trees.”
My point is that time seems to slow down during such scary moments, so you can use a run-on sentence, repetition, and poetry to create that sense of an extended moment.
The smell of burned rubber. The sudden clarity of the road where its blacktop splayed as an apron before the bridge. The creak of the bridge trusswork in the wind and the truck—black, backed partially into the understory to the side of the gateway. Oak boughs scratched its roof. The smell of burned rubber. Or gunpowder.
He put down the window and put his foot harder into the brake as if trying to press it through the floor and tilted his head out the window and breathed. Burned rubber and the fog like gunsmoke. He couldn’t get quite a full breath. He put the car in park and opened the door—just popped it open and finally took his foot off the brake to hang it out the door and at the same time both doors on the truck opened and two men, an old man and a young man, stepped out.
The old man came around the front of the truck to the young man and took him gently by the arm and helped him walk. Illuminated by the headlights they approached the car and it became apparent that the young man was sickly; the skin under his eyes stretched downward and he moved as if it pained him, like the legs were rubbermade and at any moment might collapse if not for the old man’s grasp. They stopped midway. Mr. Taylor watched them through the windshield. They, lit brilliantly, were together primordial stalwartness and infantine convalescence. Mr. Taylor hunched in the driver’s seat. The old man released the young man and the young man seemed to find his balance.
“Who are you?” the old man said.
Mr. Taylor grabbed the car door and pulled himself up so he was half in, half out.
“I may be lost I think,” Mr. Taylor said.
“Your name. I want your name.”
“I’m Mr. Taylor.”
My comments: You get points for burnt tongue such as “rubbermade,” but you lose points for “primordial stalwartness and infantine convalescence.” In the case of burnt tongue you state things in a more intuitive way that creates a gut, fresh sense of the moment. But with abstracts like “primordial stalwartness and infantine convalescence” you’re forcing the reader to decide what you intend. Why not use this moment of description to give us something about Taylor? How does Taylor see the two men? Do the men raise their hands against the glare of the headlights? How does Taylor see them, as screened through his education and experience—his Body of Knowledge?
How Taylor sees the men should tell us something about Taylor.
“Where are you coming from Mr. Taylor?” the old man said.
“Kansas. I come all the way down from Kansas.”
“Kansas. How far south you going?”
My comments: I freak’n’ love this exchange. It’s the Daisy Buchanan trick from The Great Gatsby of stating everything at least twice. But I will hammer on you to use attribution, if only to give us a hand gesture or a spit of tobacco juice or a squint against the headlights.
“Depends I suppose. You two live out here?”
“Ain’t anywhere to live out here,” the young man said, speaking in a whisper that barely escaped the sound of the car’s engine.
“Well I’m trying to get some place I can sleep,” Mr. Taylor said.
“You might have to go a long way,” the old man said.
“I’ve come a long way. Some civilization too far the other side of this bridge? Where do you live?”
My comments: Again, I love this evasive dialog. It creates tension without resolving anything. But I will hammer on attribution. Taylor is still half in/out of the car. There’s still the fog and the smell of rubber, and possibly the dust. And the burnt tongue within the dialog is excellent.
“We watch the bridge,” the young man said. “Make sure doesn’t anybody try to cross it both ways at once.”
“That’s what the stop sign’s for ain’t it? Anyone blows by they might deserve a crash.”
“It’s not to avoid a crash. It’s just that two people on the bridge at once might bring it down,” the young man said. He wiped his nose with his arm from wrist to elbow.
My comments: Excellent gesture. I read this passage in a restaurant over lunch and instantly tried to wipe my nose with my sleeve, but I always did so elbow-to-wrist. Doing it wrist-to-elbow pulls back the shirt sleeve and bunches the fabric. Now, I want everyone reading this to weigh in. Would you wipe elbow-to-wrist? The fact that you prompted me to perform the gesture proves it’s good.
“Can I borrow one of your phones? Mine is dead.”
“What?” the old man said.
“Do one of you have a cell phone I can use? Mine is dead.”
“I need a map.”
My comments: Great evasive dialog. But… attribution.
“We’ve got no phones. But I know what’s beyond the bridge,” the old man said. “You’d have to go way beyond it to find sleep. But first you got to get over it. It’s an old bridge. It’s ancient as I am. You’ll need to take it easy. You don’t want it to get to swaying. You’ll go easy enough. But it’s a long bridge. Goes way into the fog. I don’t know that you’ll get across and keep your wits with you the way it sags and catches a cadence in the middle, if you get to the middle. It sags and it’s so long there’s a good chance—well there’s a perfect chance that before you get to the other side you’ll see a another set of lights, and if you see a set of lights you better go on and put it in reverse, else if our fellows on the other side ain’t been with sleep themselves at all they might miss the vehicle and put both of you on the bridge at once.
“But even if you make it across the bridge and back on the road, the forest has a radius unfathomable. The trees, you can’t count them. If you make it past one hundred trees, you’ve still got two hundred trees to pass. And if you make it past two hundred trees, you’ve got five-hundred trees yet still to go. And then a thousand. And a thousand-thousand. And if by grace you made it out of this forest that has no bounds, you would have to travel the open road farther yet, through misty lowland like this here, and its range is a continuum, so you’ll never make it across, but if by decadence of grace you traveled the length of the road that has no end, you’d realize soon it was just but a brief ravine through the bluffs every bit like this one, and there you’d be moments later back in hills, back in so many trees they couldn’t be counted. You can travel. But you can’t go anywhere. By God.”
“By God, what brought you here?” the young man added.
My comments: My hat’s off to you for experimenting here. You can get away with “decadence of grace” because you’re putting such words into a character’s mouth. And the repetition of “By God” is a nice bridge between the two characters.
You might add a bit of action within the speech to pace it better. Or add the action between the two parts of the speech. Just something that gives the reader a moment to breathe. The speeches function like Big Voice—telling us something larger than the moments within the story—and Big Voice might need to be grounded with a physical action/process such as the old man rolling a cigarette. Imagine, how would an actor make such a long speech work?
“None of your business. What in hell is wrong with you old man? You palsied like the boy? Tell me where I can catch some rest,” Mr. Taylor said.
The old man looked at the the young man and the young man smiled and his skin the color of the belly of a fish lifted at the corners of the mouth and showed his bloodied teeth and then he coughed a fit and when he stopped coughing the smile was still there.
“I ain’t a boy,” the young man said.
“I got somewhere to be. You gentlemen have the night you deserve,” Mr. Taylor said.
“Won’t we,” said the old man. He turned and took the young man by the elbow and led him back to the truck and they both returned to its interior.
My comments: Good not to allow Taylor the last word. Good instinct. This creates more tension.
Mr. Taylor ducked back into his car and closed the door and squeezed the steering wheel and held his breath until his head trembled and then he slapped the steering wheel with his fist. The bridge’s arches suffered severe rust and were missing many crossmembers and its decking bore the fog for a hundred feet then disappeared in it. He put the car in drive and crept toward it, watching the truck through the window as he passed but seeing nothing through its dark windshield. The truck’s glint in the revenant moonlight no more spectacular than that from a weatherbeaten soda can.
“They don’t know me,” Mr. Taylor mumbled. “If they knew me, well then, we’d see about that smile. You want to know me? No. You don’t want to know. Trust me. Trust me. Trust me.”
He had been saying “trust me” under his breath for some time before he became conscious that he had stopped on the bridge, fearful of its structural integrity under the weight of the car and the gusts of the wind. Its superstructure moaned with each infinitesimal turn the tires made, threatening to come apart any moment. When he started forward again, so gently, the bridge moaned horrendously before the tires ever made even a quarter turn. And before they could make a quarter turn, they had to make an eighth turn, but it would moan then too. Before he could roll the tires at all they must make ever smaller fractions of a turn first, but each fraction of turn, no matter how small, could not be taken, because another distance smaller must be had before that one, and a smaller one before that, and he knew he could not cover any distance. His hands trembled over the wheel.
“But I came this far, didn’t I?” he mumbled.
My comments: A character alone is always a challenge. Keep in mind that the two best times to go into a flashback are: 1. While a character is trying to fall asleep. 2. While a character is driving. Both are natural moments for personal reflection. Science also supports the tendency with delta brainwave studies. Driving can be a very similar state to sleeping.
That said, you might elapse some time here by going to a flashback before the bridge begins to fail.
Wind whistled outside and slipped through every clearance in the car’s manufacture. He was cold and every gust chilled him more and the limbs stiffened and he shifted rigidly about the seat, nearly paralyzed, his mind rampant with fractions.
Then through the windshield he saw in the fog at some indeterminable distance two incandescent orbs unattached to the bridge and unattached to the fog brightening and growing subtly larger. He let down the window and stuck his head out and watched. He breathed the fog like gunsmoke and he coughed. He coughed like he had, after he’d chased him into woods like these: woods that strangled the road and gripped it like fingers, like he did his throat. His breath over his, the blood from his mouth like sap from the lip when he shot him, redundantly, because he had strangled him already until his hands were sore like they were now from gripping the wheel, after he found him with her. The softglowing orbs were approaching headlights from the other side of the bridge. He put the car in reverse and backed up and immediately felt the bump at the bridge’s approach slab and he was as quickly again on the apron where the black truck sat dead in the trees. He parked the car and opened the door and approached it.
My comments: This is wonderful dream-like trick, having the car only a little ways onto the bridge. My guts tells me that you need to pay off the oncoming headlights. They need to amount to something.
Again, if you added a flashback earlier, just as you move onto the bridge, it might make this subsequent murder flashback work more effectively.
Also, who’s using the words, “every clearance in the car’s manufacture”? It’s elegant, but it needs to belong to someone.
“I killed a man,” he said. He punched the truck’s hood with the flesh of his fist till it dented. “I killed a man,” he said. “Get out.”
My comments: This confirms our suspicions, but consider making it more of a general admission. Such as, “I did it.” Or, “I didn’t mean to kill anybody.” Your dialog has been so evasive and wonderful that to overtly say, “I killed a man,” seems clunky.
Two men got out of the truck, but these were not the men from before. These were not old and these were not sickly; these were a breed of unyielding force tantamount to the darkness that would not lift from the earth this night and whose violence manifested in the furious manner with which they pulled from the bed of the truck two spools of rope and forced Mr. Taylor prone on the pavement and bound his arms, his legs. Gagged his mouth. All the while he shouted through the gag, “I killed a man.”
Subjugated they dragged him across the pavement into the grass beside the bridge and forced his head over the edge where the bridge abutments disappeared into the blackness below.
My comments: If I knew who your narrator was, I might accept “a breed of unyielding force tantamount to the darkness.” Otherwise, it risks sounding writerly, and that’s the worst sin in Minimalism. Gordon Lish forbid students from using latinates, meaning fancy-pants words that are too abstract and vague, or “received text” (clichés). You can get away with such high language if it’s appropriate to the character’s point of view, such as with the old man’s speech. But if we’ve no idea who the third-person narrator is, we can only assume it’s the writer being writerly. Another reason to give us some idea who’s telling this story. Be careful.
“I killed a man,” he mumbled, then flailed onto his back and became inert in his terror.
Just one captor looked down on him. The face of the captor was a face of irredeemable features. Hopeless beauty and appalled judgment. The mouth opened and spoke before casting him down from the bluff into the vast space.
He fell, and with the sensation of falling he woke: supine on a gurney, arms in the gesture of a wide hug with the palms up, legs restrained. Several faces hung over his with downcast eyes without penitent. One of the faces came very close and he heard the words:
My comments: Careful again. Who is making the evaluation, “a face of irredeemable features. Hopeless beauty and appalled judgment”?
I applaud you for echoing the cultural precedent of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. You also touch on the Muslim image of a tightrope that the dead must walk to reach paradise. Only the most righteous can cross. All others fall.
“Mr. Taylor is not unconscious.”
Somewhere behind a looking glass for the witness of capital punishment, a crowd gasped. Somewhere, more potassium chloride was loaded into a syringe.
My comments: Be careful of over explaining with “a looking glass for the witness of capital punishment” when you could simply say “behind a two-way mirror a crowd of witnesses gasped.” Allow the reader to recognize the context.
And then he was falling again and the blackness opened up to receive him like the pincers of the stag beetle and the words which the captor spoke before casting him down from the bluff whistled like the wind through his head again and again fomenting his terror: This bluff is pure height—infinity resides below.
My comments: Bless you for wanting to do homage, but this forces you to shift abruptly from a bridge to a bluff. It creates a jarring moment that you don’t want to undermine the climax of the story. Instead, you can cast him from the bridge yet still have the quote state “bluff.”