Gloves Off: Round VII
Terror in a simple, red rose
Today let’s consider Don’t Tell Mom by Maegan Heil. For the original published version, please check here.
Don’t Tell Mom
Yep, you’re really here. Really climbing this set of stairs in Josie The Legend Brambrook’s house. That’s really Josie Brambrook’s butt swishing from side to side. Those are really the metal buckles on Josie Brambrook’s bib overalls making that squeaking sound with every step.
Were those The bibs from Movie Fridays?
Ask her something—not about the bibs—ask her something else. Something cool.
“Your dad’s not gonna be home anytime soon, is he?”
My comments: A good, clear opening, but give your narrator arms and legs, here. Consider attribution that touches on her inflamed lip. I will always hammer on attribution. Also, rethink “Loser” as the next beat. Consider that the narrator’s line should make the reader mentally declare “loser.” Yes, you want to bridge to the dad’s work, but sidestep evaluating things for the reader.
“Nah, he’s in the city demoing out those thingies in your kitchen.” Josie pauses mid-step and taps her temple. “You know, where you chop onions and stuff.”
“That’s it.” Josie snaps her fingers and continues up. “Counterpots.”
At the top of the stairs, she kicks off her shoes. Mine come off too, then it’s down the hall to the door with a taped-up sign. Printed in wobbly crayon, it says:
1. KEEP OUT.
My comments: Still good and clear. And I loved the addled brains that pay off later. My only fear is that—unless the reader knew the writing prompt about radioactivity—the reader would never connect the countertops to the brain fog, the loss of hair, and the glow. You might have to cheat mid-story and explain, “Your father was better off not getting that job.” And stepping harder on the symptoms of radiation poisoning. For instance, when Josie snaps her fingers, her thumbnail falls off. At this, we see she’s missing several whole fingernails, and her fingertips appear raw.
In Ceramics, the single rule is written in chalk: Lights Stay On during Movie Fridays.
How come is last marking period, while our hand-coiled mugs and hidden lid boxes and ashtrays disguised as pinch pots—everything but the five-pound wiener—were firing in the kiln, Mr. Reidenbach asks, Did we know the cost of clay? And did we know clay can be found in your own backyard? And maybe next time Anonymous decides to express him (or her) self, maybe a truck-bed of shovels will be waiting for us instead of a movie.
While Mr. Reidenbach is out getting the TV cart, Wayne Porter hops up onto the oak desk beneath the blackboard and says do we wanna hear a story about these FIPs.
Some New Kid goes, “What’s a FIP?”
And Porter wags his thumb and goes, in a Chicago voice, “Freaking Tourist,” and everyone laughs.
Then Porter goes, “So you know that stream at Barmen Dunes?”
And we all know the one—where the water is waist-deep and the trees are a row of umbrellas. But from Memorial to Labor Day, the out-of-towners are thick, and you can just forget that stream ever existed.
“Must have been thousands of them,” Porter says, “in and out like flies. The ones coming out, just covered—faces, arms, legs—in this brownish, yellowish paste, telling the ones going in how ahh-maz-ing clay is for your skin.”
Porter drags it out for another minute, then gets to the good part. How, what those Freaking Illinois People didn’t know (Got that, New Kid?) was, up until last week, Porter’s dad and all the other rangers had used those very banks—where those Termites were harvesting muck and slathering their skin—as dumping grounds for the honey wagons. And not the kind of honey you got from a bee, New Kid.
The laughter subsides as Mr. Reidenbach returns. He pops in the Donald Duck movie about Fibonacci numbers they used to show back in middle school, then it’s, “Porter—Lights!”
Out go the fluorescents, and ten minutes later, Reidenbach’s snoring louder than the TV on full volume.
Meanwhile, Josie Brambrook crawls onto Porter’s lap, unbuttons the side part of her overalls, and lets him put his fingers inside her.
My comments: Good, good, and good. You keep us in scene. You show us new characters. My only quibble is that you stay in present tense, in this, a flashback. In the paragraph, “How come is last marking period…,” switch to past tense at “Mr. Reidenboach asked, Did we know the cost of clay?” This will confirm the flashback as a flashback. Also, you have cultural precedent from “Radium Girls,” so you can show Josie glowing. It’s a dark room. She’s faintly radioactive. Girls who used radium face creams actually glowed a bit. Step on the radiation, hard.
Also, avoid “ten minutes” later down. Instead tell time more organically. For example, “by the time Donald Duck gets to polynomials Reidenbach’s snoring…”
Still standing next to Josie The Legend Brambrook with her wife-beater tank and her stubble-free armpits as she feels above the door casing for a key.
Inside, purple walls—holidays everywhere—but the carpet is three shades whiter than my socks, and while she shows me around, my feet take turns hiding each other.
To the right, a window facing a lawn of piles, same as my dad’s. Piles of two-by-fours. Piles of six-by-sixes. Piles of OSB. Next to a pile of rubble, a bush with the reddest roses.
To the left, a door. Josie turns the handle.
My dad says that Josie’s dad makes money by cutting corners, and yeah, maybe there’s a few pocks in the paint, but he must doing something right if Josie can have her own freaking bathroom.
Josie sits me on the toilet and gathers my hair into a messy knot on the top of my head like how hers is, and takes a jar from the medicine cabinet. She unscrews the lid and dips a popsicle stick in, then bends down so her face is two inches from mine and smears a swath of something above my lip.
“Ryan Taylor has a dick nose.” Her breath tickles my eyelashes.
My comments: Excellent physical process. I’m with you all the way. Be careful about using “right” and “left” and bumping your reader into thinking. Maintain the trance of physical actions. Instead consider, “to one side a window looks out on a pile…” Or, “To my other side, a door.” Again, step on those roses, hard. They look fake, they’re so red. And while the rest of the yard is chewed up by aphids and inchworms, those roses gleam perfect without a nibble out of them. You might even have a few cut roses in the bathroom, and give them a strange scent. Or show they’re not in water, yet still looking fresh. They have dust on them and still look fresh. Step on those roses!
My cheeks quiver into a smile and Josie’s eyebrows go up. “Don’t get any in your mouth. This shit’s toxic.”
I press my lips together and push two words out the corner of my mouth like an amateur ventriloquist. “How long?”
“Not long.” Josie swipes an issue of Playgirl off the tank, tosses it into my lap, and winks. “Don’t tell your mom.”
My comments: Be very careful of tennis-match dialog. When you ask and answer a question, you lose tension. Instead consider the narrator asking, “Are those roses even real?” To which Josie responds with a non sequitur such as, “Have you seen John Matuszak’s thing?” And tosses the magazine. This can date the story nicely. Your cover model/centerfold will cue the reader.
Also, rethink the mention of the clay being toxic. If you say, “Don’t get any in your mouth, trust me,” and you show Josie has a tooth or three missing, and you depict her breath as rancid, you can create more dread.
Maybe it’s whatever’s in the face cream or maybe it’s how Mom will never, ever know about today, but my skin starts to tingle.
Right now, Josie and me, what we’re supposed to be doing is selling Yearbook ads. Wrong job for a girl who has to type up a script to phone in an order for a pepperoni pizza.
But selling ads turns out to be not so bad because it’s half days all week, and from eight to eleven on four of those days, Josie and me have official permission to by foot, leave the PGHS premises and walk door-to-door downtown selling quarter- or half- or full-page ads.
My comments: It seems late to start a clock: Day One, Day Two, Day Three. Consider just cutting the paragraph, “But selling ads turns out to be…,” because it’s expository and summarizes what you show more effectively—very effectively—in the coming passages. Also, you’ve established several choruses or cues—Pinch yourself, and Don’t tell your mom—so the framing of Days seems unnecessary.
Day One, we make it to the high school parking lot when Josie grabs my arm and crouch-runs us to the passenger door of her lime-green Mustang, shoves me into the seat, and says, “Don’t tell your mom.”
The tires squeal and Josie rolls down both windows all the way ‘cause outside it’s Indian summer, except that it’s March, not October. Josie waits until the school is ants in the back window, then fires up a Camel Light.
My comments: Excellent. Such a great, clear process. My only suggestion is to avoid “is” in the great line “…is ants in the back window.” Especially since you use “are” in the next line. Instead, look at, “the school shrinks to ants…,” or, “the school goes to ants,” or, “the school drops to ants…”
My insides are at the fair, riding the Zipper.
Wait for the arrow to turn green, then left at Prairie Grove’s one and only stoplight. Two blocks of buildings and Bam—that’s town.
Over the bridge, Josie hooks a left into the trailer park.
Speed Limit 25, but the odometer ticks forty-one, forty-two as Josie accelerates toward the fork.
Last second, Josie yanks the wheel to the right, hugs the curve, and screeches to a stop in front of Lot 39.
She leaves the engine running.
From outside, she pokes her head back through the driver’s side window. “Come get me in an hour?”
Josie disappears into the trailer and my legs straddle their way into the driver’s seat. My foot finds the brake and the engine revs—Op—other brake, and my hands are six bowls of Magic Stars shaky as they shift into D.
My comments: This tour of town is wonderful. It demonstrates everything without resorting to “our town was small” or imposing such a judgment on the reader. Instead of the abstract measurement of “blocks” you might look for something more organic or personal to measure by, something that depicts the narrator as much as the town. “The block where dad says the barber rubs your arm with his crotch, then the block where the whole granite lunchcounter had to be ripped out and hauled to a landfill, and that’s our whole town.”
Again, you want to keep the dread present. Radioactivity should be coded into as much as possible. Including the warmth of the driver’s seat, as the narrator feels the body heat left by Josie.
The odometer says fifteen but it feels like fifty back around the curve, left at the fork, and just beginning to cross the bridge when in the rearview mirror, a set of headlights flash.
Behind me, a black SUV, probably one of those unmarked cop cars about to slap me in handcuffs for driving on a permit without an adult. Mom’s gonna ground me. No, Mom’s gonna kill me. No, first she’s gonna make me sit in jail and then she’s gonna ki—
The Black SUV speeds past via the turn lane, horn blaring all the way to the stoplight. My arms are cooked spaghetti, hands barely able to veer into the open spot in front of Schug Drug Store.
Inside they’ve got penny candy. Three aisles of it. Back in third grade, when my best friend was Julie The Talker Pastroni and we both had Mrs. Larry, Julie would crack open her desk just enough for me to see the brown paper bag inside. When the recess bell would sound, we’d race to the blacktop drain and for half an hour straight, pour pixie stick dust down our throats. Empty blue tubes down the grate, then forty trips to the fountain to turn my tongue back to pink before Mom found out.
My comments: Instead of the wild-card black SUV, I’d rather see something even vaguely related to the countertops. We might see Josie’s mother, or her father. Or his truck. Or some sort of hazard tape barring a business. Reinvent the radiation menace in a new way.
And I loved “turn my tongue back to pink.” Very nice.
That same year, Grandma Hutch came to be Room Mom and said in front of the entire class, “Wow your arms are hairy for a girl,” and Mrs. Larry had to give me a bathroom pass until my bus number got called.
When it was my stop, I raced home to beat Mom, plucked Dad’s razor from the edge of the tub, and with six minutes to spare, had all the hair from both arms off and rinsed down the drain.
At school the next week, Julie’s paper sack had inside aloe for the red bumps and a knuckle sandwich for anyone with a staring problem. Three weeks of long sleeves later, everyone had forgotten—Julie made sure of that.
My comments: All excellent. In particular the insensitive remark by Grandma Hutch. And it’s perfect that’s she’s simply “Grandma Hutch,” that’s how you build authority. Be careful of “six minutes” as an abstract. How does the narrator measure time in the afternoon? “With just the last bit of Hee Haw to go…” Syndicated television? Radio songs. Hot water, before the water heater runs dry? How can you describe the narrator’s life by how she measures time?
Day Two there’s snow on the ground, so the windows stay up, but Josie says, pretty please can she again, and my head is nodding, sure.
Only this time, instead of going left at the fork, I go straight, to the other side of the trailer park to watch snowflakes fall on the river. But my mind keeps rewinding back to seventh period last week.
A substitute teacher and a pile of busy work.
We knew the drill—take one and pass it back, and when my turn comes, Ryan Taylor looks me in the eye and says, “Did you know you have a mustache?”
If my name was Julie The Talker Pastroni or Josie The Legend Brambook, I would have thought up something good, like, Did you know you have a ball sack for a forehead?
But my name was Fern Price and back behind my tonsils, one of those sore-throat lumps you get just before you’re gonna cry was already starting to swell.
At home, I ask Mom, can she puh-lease let me do something about this hair.
And she says in France, all the girls have hair on their lip.
And I say, we’re not in France, we’re in Prairie Grove freaking Michigan, where it doesn’t have to be written in chalk to remember that Tony Wright pooped his pants in first grade or that Tasha Sanders picked her nose and ate it in second or that in fourth, Cara Wilmette started her period in a pair of white shorts during Math Facts or that in fifth grade, Bailey Harris went to Stephanie Thompson’s pool party with pubes sticking out of her bikini and had to TRANSFER to Shore Haven after or that in six grade—
“FINE,” Mom says. “Fine.”
My comments: This is so good I keep wanting to make it your opening for the entire story. In particular the paragraph that details all the ways a kid becomes a pariah. THAT’s your narrator’s Body of Knowledge. That’s the central fear and heartbreak of the story. It’s nice that it occurs in flashback in this lull moment. That’s smart. But consider—if at all possible—a new opening that begins:
Mom says in France all the girls have hair on their lip.
And I say, we’re not in France…. (whole passage)… or that in sixth grade—
But my mind keeps rewinding to seventh period last week…
All the lines in current order from, “A subsitute teacher…,” to, “At home, I ask Mom…”
Then ending the scene with “FINE,” Mom says. “Fine.”
Whatever the case, this portion of the story is glorious.
Good Enough Brand Depilatory Cream
Step 2. Apply generously to area to be treated for 4-10 minutes.
Step 3. Rinse with water.
Do not reapply!
Which is more embarrassing? A mustache of hair or a mustache of red splotches from not doing the patch test like Step 1 said.
At the end of fifty-five minutes, wipers on. Snowflakes swished aside. Funny how it can be a blizzard in March, but we haven’t had a white Christmas since the year Julie went away.
Back at Lot 39, Josie asks me, “How many ads did you sell?”
My comments: Instead of minutes, consider measuring time by how deep the snow has become. But not in inches. Measure the snow in footprint depth or what it hides or mentally reflect on the brilliant roses and how they’ll BE RUINED—that keeps the radiation present and sets up a scare when we see the roses unharmed.
Josie sells full-page ads to Schug Drug, The Herald-Palladium, Jack Frost, R&S Liquor, Huff’s Dam Inn, The Journal Era, Don’s Auto, Mike’s Place, and Schrader’s Supermarket.
Day Four, Josie points to the bumps above my lip and says, “What’s up with this?”
And before we leave the parking lot, makes me tell her about Ryan Taylor.
And after we leave the parking lot, heads away from the one and only stoplight and hooks a right on Pokagon, and left down a dirt road to a house with four cargo trailers like Dad’s parked in the drive, except instead of Price Construction LLC, Licensed and Insured printed on the side, it says A+ Carpentry, Free Estimates.
Still here. Still processing in Josie Brambrook’s attached bathroom while outside, on the white carpet, Josie demonstrates the definition of “queef” because I couldn’t find it in the dictionary on Mom’s bookshelf, and she’s got the computer set to where nobody can delete the search history but her.
My comments: All good, but I did bump on “demonstrates.” Does Josie show an online video? Is that why the search history is mentioned? Or, does she literally queef?
The cream above my lip is escalating from tingly to pulsating, but the word of the day lesson is over, and now Josie’s bibs are around her ankles, and there’s popsicle sticks everywhere, emptying that jar over every square inch of her radiant skin—bathing suit parts and all—and now Josie’s asking, Do I want to do my bathing suit parts too, because guys don’t like it prickly down there—and you know, she’s right because also on Mom’s shelf is this book called Wiffee by Jodeee Blome that I used to flip to just the sex parts to read and in this one, the husband refused to kiss his wife down there because it was prick—
Toilet seat up.
Soggy oats. Half-melted marshmallow moons.
The room is spinning. The water is running.
A wet towel. A blurry Josie.
My comments: All good, but beware the dreaded gerund. Consider “The room spins. The water runs.” Just as a way to avoid the “is” and the gerund. It’s a small point, but seems stronger.
“Don’t worry,” the two of her says, “the first time I borfed I thought I had one of those thingies inside of me. You know, those thingies that when they come out all they do is cry and poop and eat?” Josie taps her temple. “What are those called?”
“Whatever they’re called, don’t worry. You don’t need one of those tests where the line turns pink. Borfing’s just a little side effect from my magic cream.”
My comments: Attribution. Especially as we reach the climax, you don’t want to risk confusing the reader.
In the towel is used cream and leftover borf…barf? Borf. In the mirror, no bumps, but my face is glowing.
“Josie…What is this stuff?”
Josie points to the window. “See those roses out there? There’s this clay underneath, behind that rubble pile. Been using it for weeks. Clay is so good for your skin. Omigod, that totally reminds me of this story Porter told me about these Chicago people—”
My comments: Here we can see the roses blooming vividly against the snow. It might take some reworking since the snow wasn’t mentioned earlier, but consider how it would occur as more vivid and unnatural.
“Josie, what kind of rubble is it?”
“From those thingies Dad’s ripping out in the city…”
Josie snaps for the word that’s on the tip of my tongue.
“Counter…pots…Josie, your dad got the Recall job?”
“Mm-hmm.” A slug of cream slides down Josie’s neck. She pats it in place. “Your dad bid on that too?”
My head is nodding. My stomach is turning. “Overbid. By a lot.”
My comments: Whether it’s a snatch of daytime radio news or afternoon television, or a scene with Dad, we need to know a smidgen more about radioactive countertops and bathrooms. Consider a vague reference to Chernobyl or the Love Canal. Again, your reader won’t know about the writing prompt.
“Ahhh sorry…” Josie shrugs. “Dad ditched the Hazmat fees. I mean, it’s not like anyone actually checks to see where you dump this shit. Besides, all those FIPs want is to get it gone and get it gone cheap. Anyhow, have you seen those roses? They’re like poison-apple red back there. Like Snow White’s lips…”
Still here. Still sitting in front of Josie, as a dollop oozes from her cheek.
Josie tilts her chin toward the splatter, and the messy knot slides from the top of her head and onto the floor. She scoops up her tangle of hair, places it atop the neon square of exposed scalp, and winks. “Don’t tell your mom.”
My comments: Here you could bring our attention back to the dusty, undying roses in a vase in the bathroom. In the Charles Baxter dread and terror that occurs at the end of Through the Safety Net, we can see the pending disaster in that strange flower. (Baxter shows us a strange tree, which is also an image lifted from Sartre.) Plus the rose as symbol of foreigness and death resonates with the Existentialist symbol that Sartre cites, the famous line about recognizing the strangeness and terror that reside in a rose stripped of its associations.
All said, you’ve got all your elements here. This could easily become one of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read. I’m likely wrong about reworking the opening to include the Body of Knowledge, you seem to have a good instinct about putting it into that lull. All in all, excellent work.
Enjoyed the feedback as always, Chuck. Quick question. It might not be a strong issue you have to deal with but here it goes. How do you deal with jealousy toward another writer? Like watching your peer succeed, get published, and so on, and you want to be happy for them but at the same time it's so hard to when you still haven't really gotten far yourself. Asking for a friend. Alright, I'm the friend lol
When I read submissions, I just think, "Gee, my work is nothing like that, how am I gonna measure up?"
Incredible piece Maeghan! Use Chuck's great advice, though-I read this before I knew about the prompt and was lost. Brilliant analysis Chuck. Was wondering about the "demonstrates" thing also.