Gloves Off: Round XXXV
Putting something at stake
Today we take a deeper dive into The Cornhole Bungle by Joseph Griffiths.
To read the story as originally posted, please click here.
The Cornhole Bungle
“And you are sure we ain’t gonna get caught,” Jimmy says.
My Comments: You get one chance to hook the reader. Are you sure dialog is that hook? Would you consider an ominous gesture or action to precede the dialog? Can you cut the dialog to one word and still instill menace?
For example: Jimmy eyeballed the exit/bartender/security camera, cupped a hand beside his mouth and whispered, “Hurry.” Or whispered, “I ain’t dying on this hill.”
And frankly, seeing how Jimmy goes on to spoil anything, killing him on this hill would be very satisfying, even moreso since it wouldn’t be his foe but his ally that eventually kills him. Because the reader will want his cowardly blood by the end of this story.
As always I favor action over dialog, and an action would suggest the nature of the threat, a policeman? A thuggish bouncer? And the repercussions.
“Would you shut the fuck up,” I say? “Can’t you see I’m shooting here?”
Jimmy clamps his mouth shut with both hands like a goddamn grade schooler caught swearing by his momma.
I roll my eyes, take a swig of beer, and focus on my next shot. Not that either of us is playing very well. Jimmy can’t hit for shit even when he’s sober, and I can’t shake the feeling that something ain’t right.
My Comments: I do like that you used a physical verb for a cognitive process, i.e. can’t shake the feeling. But I’d rather see neither of us is playing well depicted instead of summarized. For example, One red bag’s slung off the side. A yellow bag’s butted against the front. Nothing’s where another throw can knock it into a score. In other words: Show us the shitty lay of the land.
The character drinks beer, but what’s his other hand doing? Holding a bag? Touching the pen in his own pocket? Plant us in his body before you go to setting the scene.
Bobby mentions Jimmy’s momma later, so this introduces the idea of her. As what’s possibly at stake, and a way to reinforce the fact of momma, Bobby could soon mention, “Your momma’s hip ain’t going to replace itself.” That gives meaning to the abstract concept of winning money. Big Win = Momma’s Hip.
More important, here’s where the targeting light needs to be introduced. Not used, but shown as an object. An object that can accumulate dread and meaning. We won’t know if it’s a weapon or a tool. It just needs to appear.
The Ellsworth isn’t exactly high society, and the way Jimmy runs his mouth, I’m worried some fucking loafer will get wise to our plan and try and hitch a ride. I don’t need no fucking tag-a-longs. Fucking town is full of assholes looking for an easy life, and I ain’t no goddamn lottery ticket. Bad enough I got to carry fucking Jimmy on my back, never mind the rest of them.
My Comments: Particularize, please. How is the Ellsworth seedy? Note in Jesus’ Son how Denis Johnson can peg a bar with one good detail, for example how the plywood floor sags and bounces with each step, and patrons can feel the dock pilings that support the place shift as the ocean waves roll in. Johnson also tells us how the haze of cigarette smoke holds the light from the sunset and glows in sunset colors. It only takes one or two details—motion is good, moving smoke or floors, odor is better—to nail the setting in the reader’s mind.
“Fuck,” I say and take another swig of beer.
I turn and yell at Troy behind the bar. “Can you not play something besides this old timey shit? For chrissakes, I can’t hear myself think.”
My Comments: Have we seen the narrator take an action yet? Is he holding a bag? His stance? Is the beer panther piss? Aluminum can or bottle or pint glass? And before you summarize the music, we need to hear some aspect of it so we can decide what it is.
If you introduce the music, Minimalism says you need to keep it present as an element. In the bar, the truck, the next place. Your “horses” need to be consistent and to morph.
Troy looks up and gives me the finger. I have half a mind to go over there, but I don’t need the hassle. Night like tonight, I need to focus.
“You’re lucky I’m in the middle of a game,” I yell.
I’m fucking losing, and that pisses me off. I take another swig of beer, pick up my bag, and toss it at the hole thirty feet away. It lands dirty with a thwack.
“Fuck,” I say.
My Comments: Lands dirty is excellent, but I’m going to ding you for thirty feet. As always, get inside the character. For someone whose whole body had internalized the throwing process, how will his arm/hand “know” that distance? This is your chance to burn the language—toss it a whole-arm… lob it slack half-arm… sail the bag a low half-flat heave—reinvent the language as needed. Your authority relies on how the narrator depicts his expertise at that sport. Don’t skimp on those details.
I turn to look for Jimmy, but he’s wandered off to the bar to order another drink. He’s already fucking trolleyed. Here we’ve got a job to do, and he’s loaded more rounds than a double-barreled shotgun. I take another swig. My fucking nerves are shot to shit. I don’t bother to wait for Jimmy to get back for his turn. Instead, I take one of his bags and send it down the line. It flops in the hole. Just my luck.
“Nice,” says Jimmy as he waddles up beside me.
My Comments: Here’s a chance to unpack a bad shot versus a good one. How would the narrator’s body throw a shot that wasn’t his own? I loved trolleyed. Is that Brit-speak? And I still want to know who’s red and who’s yellow.
“You better slow your goddamn roll,” I say, grabbing the bottle out of his hand and slapping him gently on the face to sober him some. “We got work to do and I can’t have you sloshing around like a leaky bucket and fucking up the plan.”
His eyes are glassy, and I can see his little hamster brain is dulled to a slow crawl. Not that Jimmy is waiting on his acceptance letter from Harvard. The guy’s dumber than dirt, but that’s part of his charm. In my humble opinion, when a job has too many smart boys thinking for themselves, thinking they got all the answers, thinking they know better than the boss, that job is going right down the shitter faster than you can spit. Jimmy may not be a thinker, but that’s what makes him perfect for this job.
My Comments: Be careful with Jimmy. He hooks the reader at the beginning by suggesting the risk, but if his behavior seems too relaxed it negates that tension. What can he be doing that continues to amp up the sense of danger? We spend so much time in the narrator’s head, I’d much rather watch the world—the bartender, Jimmy, others—and determine for myself the lay of the land.
Also, we need to see that targeting light in action.
“Don’t worry Bobby,” he says, “I won’t let you down.”
“I know, Jimmy,” I say and slap his face again. “Cause we both know if you do, I’m going to kill you and your whole goddamn family.”
My Comments: A little menace goes a long way. Instead of I’m going to kill you and your whole goddamn family, you can get better results with Jimmy Jr. won’t see second grade. Imply. Create that gap the reader must complete, and it allows for a participation that will draw the reader closer to the action.
Also, on the body. A man touching another man’s face is the opportunity to sink us into physical details: Jimmy’s breath, the smell of it and the warmth, the texture and warmth of his skin, the feel of his teeth through the softness of his cheek. A unique, well-chosen detail will lodge in the reader’s mind forever. That’s what you want here.
I laugh and take another swig. His glassy eyes sharpen a little, but he knows I’m just kidding.
“Come on,” I say. “Let’s play the hammer and drift.”
My Comments: Wait, you create tension, don’t negate it. Or, negate it with a wink or a nonverbal signal. Nonverbal gives us wiggle room so we can still suspect the menace. As always, cut back on dialog. Instead of, ”Come on,” I say. “Let’s play the hammer and drift,” consider handing over a bean bag and saying, “Hammer and drift.” These are two people who can communicate in shorthand and in signals.
When you create the sense of an insider language, you allow your reader to participate in decoding the gestures and the coded words. Readers love that.
I pick up my last bag, grip it like a Frisbee and send it. It hits the board with a thwack, tumbles to the lip of the hole before it bounces out, and lands on the floor, limp as a pastor’s pecker in a room full of women.
“Fuck,” I say.
Jimmy shouts, “rim job, rim job. You got a rim job.”
He’s dancing from foot to foot and laughing so hard there are strings of snot dangling from his nose like half-chewed maggots. Fucking Jimmy. I cuff him on the back of his head.
My Comments: A good action sequence. I’d push you to cut back on the dialog and use that real estate to show us other details that deliver the risk and menace of the situation. It’s still unclear why Jimmy was nervous in the opening. Who’s watching? What’s at stake? Has the music changed? Keep all of those elements present.
At some point I’m looking for hammer and drift to be demonstrated. Teach us some insider technique, but by showing it.
“Fuck you,” I say. “Would you shoot already. We ain’t got all night.”
“Ow,” he says. “That hurt, Bobby Rae.”
He rubs the back of his head like maybe I injured the hamster inside.
“Quit your whining already,” I say.
He picks up his last bag and moves into place. He’s wobbling on his feet, leaning back and forth, waiting for a high wind to knock him over. He brings his arm up so that it’s level with the floor and drops it again. And does it a second time. And a third. I’m about to crack him upside his head again when he finally winds up and tosses his bag down the line. The way he throws it, I half expect the bag to fall short again, but somehow it strikes the board, pops up against my blocker and back doors into the hole.
My Comments: Excellent job with pops up against my blocker and back doors into the hole. And the build-up of Jimmy raising and lowering his arm was very good recording angel.
Jimmy jumps and hollers
in joy. “I win. I win.”
My Comments: If you simply have Jimmy jump and thrust his fist into the air, do you see how that nonverbal action will be more effective than confirming the win with dialog? Allow the reader to realize the moment.
And I’m still wondering what’s at risk. Why was Jimmy so nervous at the beginning?
I’d smack him again, except it wouldn’t do no good. Apparently, the drunker he is, the better he plays. I let him gloat a bit while we grab our bags and start for the door.
“Come on,” I say. “We gotta go. It’s time to start sheering the sheep.”
He laughs. “Ya,” he says. “Time to sheer the sheep.”
I flick his ear with my finger in irritation. He flinches.
“Are you some kinda damn parrot,” I say. “I know what damn time it is.”
We walk out of the Ellsworth and climb into my truck. I crank her over, and we peel out of the lot heading for Mihamburn and tonight’s score.
My Comments: As always the physical will always work better than the abstract. Instead of gloat, consider the matchstick that he is, he struts around, he puffs his pigeon chest and hooks his thumbs in his armpit, chin raised and looking to make sure the crowd clocked his win. Then deflate him with the flick to his ear. Omit the in irritation because the gesture suggests that.
We spent a lot of time in this truck. One way to make the transition is by linking the music on the truck radio to the music in the previous bar. I’m curious about these cornhole ringers, do they have custom bean bags like pool sharks have custom cues? By particularizing the bean bags you can deepen our idea of this as a subculture. The cultural precedent of fancy two-piece or three-piece pool cues will allow you to describe super-fancy bean bags Jimmy and Bobby compete with. And similar to bowling balls, such bags would have their own carrying case. Very swanky, a down-market bravado.
“So,” I say, fishing around in my pocket for a smoke. “Time to get your head outta yer ass and into the game.”
I light my cigarette, take a deep long drag, and look over at Jimmy who’s staring out the window.
“You hear me,” I say.
Jimmy mumbles something I can’t hear, so I cuff him on the back of the head again. “What’dya just say?”
He turns to me, his eyes shining. “I said I don’t wanna do this.”
My Comments: Jimmy needs to take a leak. Or pick up a dropped reference such as Jimmy saying, “Jim Junior’s going on third grade, not second.” Always avoid stating intention or reservation aloud. By needing to pee, he’s delaying the inevitable. He’s stalling. That will show his hesitation. Jimmy craning around to watch the road behind them will also demonstrate fear and worry. Him bouncing one knee will demonstrate his tension. Look for ways Jimmy can act out his anxiety in that small space.
“Are you crying,” I ask, taking another drag. “There is no goddamn cause for crying. It’s a simple job. All you gotta do is stand there and hold the light steady. It ain’t hard. Hell my grandma could do it.”
“Well, why don’t she then,” he says, his face a mask of defiance. “I don’t wanna.”
“What do you mean, you don’t wanna?” I say. “The whole job is just you standing there, looking dumb, and holding the light so I can get the bags in the hole.”
“It ain’t right,” he says, wiping the snot and tears off his face. “It just ain’t right.”
“Maybe,” I say, giving a little. “But it ain’t all wrong neither. It ain’t like we’re gonna rob the place. We’re just gonna hustle some assholes is all. Ain’t nothing wrong with hustling assholes.”
“It’s cheating,” Jimmy says.
My Comments: Careful, there’s a lot of everything being delivered through dialog. If these two have done this grift before, why does Jimmy object to cheating now? His fear would be more plausible if he were afraid of getting caught and punished.
Consider that the vague concept of cheating carries little weight. But if Jimmy were to say, “I can’t be going back inside, not even for a short stretch. I got enemies inside, well, not enemies but guys who like me too much, if you catch my drift.” And we were to see a tattoo that suggested prison or jail, that would carry lots of weight.
“Again with this,” I say, taking a long last drag of my cigarette. I flick the butt out the window and watch it in the rearview as it sparks on the dark pavement.
“Well, it is,” he says as though I needed to be reminded.
“Maybe,” I say, “but that don’t mean nothing. People cheat all the time.”
We are halfway to Mihamburn, and I don’t have time for his cold feet. He needs to find his fucking backbone.
My Comments: This is an excellent place to state the reward that’s at stake. Not the money or whatnot, but the object that reward will provide: A better car, dental work for gran, Momma’s hip, chemo for Jimmy Jr. Instead of debating the ethics of cheating, consider having Bobby spin the glories of what a win will provide.
“I know you don’t wanna but sometimes you gotta do things you don’t wanna do. That’s just how it is. You know there ain’t no other way to raise the money,” I say. “And it ain’t like we’re gonna get caught. The plan is full proof.”
“You sure,” he says.
“Of course I am sure. You don’t think I’m sure?”
My Comments: Here I’d still like Jimmy to cite real consequences of getting caught. Bobby can cite the upside of winning, while Jimmy cites the downside of getting pinched.
As for the downside, the threat of Jimmy going back to prison would morph the idea of cornhole.
His eyes are wet, but he’s sobered up some. Still, he has a bit of a vacant expression on his face. Or as my momma would say, the barriers are down, the lights are flashing, but the train ain’t coming.
“Quit you’re worrying,” I say. “This is going to be fine.”
“I guess so,” he says.He goes back to staring out the window.
I grab another cigarette and light it. All this talk of failure has me on edge. I’ve gone over the plan from every angle, and as far as I can see, it can’t fail. All we gotta do is get there in time to enter the round, and that will be that. I give her a bit more gas, bury the needle, and watch the lines zip by. We just gotta get there.
My Comments: What’s important is that we get beyond the dialog and into more action. We need to quit debating and see how this scam plays out.
If prison is a real threat, I will buy Jimmy’s weeping. Especially if Momma also has a game, gimpy hip. That’s a lot at stake.
“I don’t know why you gotta go and make it so goddamn complicated,” I say. “Cornhole ain’t complicated. And what we’re doing ain’t complicated. “We’re just bettering the odds of winning, is all.”
“By cheating,” he says for the hundredth goddamn time.
“I swear to god if you say that to me one more time, I’m gonna beat you over the head until it fits through the hole on the cornhole board.”
He looks at me, opens his mouth, and closes it again. He goes back to staring out the window. We pass the rest of the short trip in silence. We need this score. I’ve worked too goddamn hard to put this plan together for Jimmy to pull out now. He’s gonna do his part even if I have to kick his ass the whole time.
My Comments: Attribution, please.
We pull into the Foxhole. Just as I hoped, there are plenty of sheep for sheering tonight. We are gonna clean house. I smile and slap Jimmy on the shoulder.
“Stick with me, buddy. We are gonna make a fortune tonight.”
Jimmy looks at me and smiles weakly. He’s not happy, but I don’t care.
It isn’t until we get closer that I see them. Two pigs are hovering on either side of the door like angels guarding the pearly gates. I recognize one of them straight away. Just fucking great.
My Comments: All good, but reconsider using pigs. In this rural seeming world, I assumed it meant two pig-pigs. In Bobby’s head, what’s another great word for police? Deputies? Staters? That said, I adore the word duster, which I’ve not heard since 1969. Big points for that because you couple it with a verb that demonstrates what it is to readers. Excellent job.
“Howdy, Bobby. Jimmy,” says Officer Dylan Wood with a tip of his duster. “Whatchya boys up to tonight.”
It may just be a damn coincidence that these two assholes are here, but I know there ain’t no coincidences in life. Jimmy and I stop. We say nothing.
“Your momma said you’d be here tonight Jimmy,” says Wood. “Says you were all teary about some plan or other. She called me asking if I’d mind looking in on ya.”
“You told your momma?” I say. “Your momma. Fucking moron.”
“She was asking about all the stuff,” says Jimmy. “She was—”
“What stuff ya talking about there Jimmy,” says Wood.
Fucking Jimmy. Running his mouth again. I want to slap him but can’t.
“It ain’t no thing,” says Jimmy.
“Oh,” says Wood. “Well, if it ain’t no thing, you won’t mind showing it to me and Officer Baldwin here.”
My Comments: Wait up. What is “it”? Are you introducing a key object this late in the story? Your reader will be truly irked if you do that.
Also, you’re too far along to introduce a new character—the mother. She could’ve been planted earlier by Jimmy carping, “My momma says this is cheating. According to momma no good money comes from cheating.” Such references would introduce her as an element from the get-go.
Get Momma in earlier so we’ll forget her. Then she’ll occur as a surprising-yet-inevitable reveal.
He nods at Baldwin, who hasn’t said a word. I haven’t seen him before, but by his stony expression, I’m guessing he got tagged to be Mr. Bad Cop. Fucking pigs.
Jimmy reaches into his pocket and pulls out the light. Hands it to Wood. It’s made to look like a ballpoint pen, and Wood immediately starts clicking it on and off, only he can’t see the light. It’s infrared. The kind the military use to paint targets on terrorists right before dropping bombs on their asses. I paid extra to have the light put in a pen. The pigs pass it back and forth, too stupid to know what it is their looking at.
“And what were you gonna do with this then,” says Wood.
My Comments: Alarms sound loudly. We needed to see this laser light and how it works right from the get-go.
And… if it’s pen-like and has no visible beam, you could very easily just give the trooper a regular pen. Then, after the troopers leave, Bobby goes on to shear the sheep by using the real deal.
“Nothing’” says Jimmy. “Bobby just said I gotta stand there and point it at the hole.”
“Is that right,” says Wood turning his attention to me.
Wood and I go way back. He’s always hated me. I want to punch Jimmy in his damn face right now for running his mouth.
“Well, that don’t sound like nothing to me, Jimmy. Whatdya say Bobby? Care to shed light on this here mystery?”
My Comments: By this point we need to have seen how this targeting light works. That will make us appreciate its importance and potential loss.
Again, if it “looks” like a pen, consider that Jimmy/Bobby have simply handed over a regular pen. They’ll go on to use the actual targeting pen as the contest begins.
“Like Jimmy said. It ain’t nothing,” I say. “Just a pen. I don’t know what he’s on about. I gave it to him to hold onto. You know how he gets.”
Wood looks at me skeptically but ain’t nothing he can do. Jimmy don’t know the whole plan, that’s why I chose him. Course, I hadn’t factored his running his mouth to his momma.
“Yes, I think I do. Still, if it ain’t no thing, you won’t mind if I just hold on to this here pen?”
He isn’t really asking me. He’s already tucked it into this vest. And just like that, my plan is busted. Fucking Jimmy.
My Comments: Either Bobby produces the “real” pen targeting light and goes on to kick ass. Or Bobby kills Jimmy Jr. Or Bobby wins and kills Jimmy, because Jimmy is a very annoying.
“Alright, well,” says Wood. “It was real good seeing you boys. Don’t you worry Jimmy, I’ll let your momma know you’re just fine.”
He reaches out and puts his arm around my shoulder like we’re friends or some shit.
“And as for you Bobby,” he says. “I may not know what all you had planned but if you think Jimmy is the moron, best you have a long look in the mirror. I’m thinking that a guy who spends his days trying to figure out how to cheat at cornhole — a simple game based on four bags, a board, and a hole — that’s a guy whose dock don’t reach the water. Catch my drift?”
My Comments: Okay, if the police officer is going to degrade Bobby to this extent, we need to see Bobby continue on to a big win. Or pay off killing Jimmy Jr. Or Bobby kills off Jimmy’s mom.
Or, per James Bond, cultural precedent would allow for the troopers to drive off with the “pen” and for their patrol car to explode as they leave the parking lot. THAT would make a satisfying button on the end.
He nods to Baldwin, and they both walk away to their patrol car parked on the far side of the lot. As soon as they are out of earshot, I smack Jimmy upside his head.
“Your momma,” I say.
He gives a little embarrassed laugh. “I’m sorry Bobby. She just kept saying cheaters go to hell. I don’t wanna go to hell.”
It’s my own damn fault for partnering with a simpleton. He’s worried about going to hell, and I’m already there.
“Whatever,” I say and start walking back to the truck.
My Comments: Hell no. This does not end here. Flannery O’Connor wouldn’t take a reader this far only to let the story piddle out.
“Ain’t we staying,” he says as he trots along behind me.
“What’s the use,” I say. “Ain’t going to be any score now.”
“We could still play like usual. You never know we might win.”
“We ain’t gonna win, moron. Why you think I went to the trouble of building that laser.”
The Moral of the story: Like Bobby’s daddy always said: no plan survives contact with the enemy.
My Comments: Nuh-uh. Exaggerated neck swivel and finger waving here. You did not just end this story this way. What was at stake? What was the money going to buy them?
Instead of “We ain’t gonna win, moron. Why you think I went to the trouble of building that laser,” Bobby says, “What makes you think I’d give a moron like you the real laser?” Then the cop car explodes.
There’s so much we needed to see up front: How the pen worked, what the win would provide, what getting caught might entail. You’ve got to seize victory from the jaws of defeat, or your reader will feel cheated for spending this much time following these characters—lovable as they are.
That said, I do applaud the “Moral” at the end. It’s a good device that’s seldom used. But consider that it can’t simply confirm or reinforce the ending we’ve seen. It should veer the ending in a new direction. Such as, The Moral of the story: Like Bobby’s daddy always said: Never trust a moron to hold the real deal. Your use of TWO colons in a sentence is wonderfully wrong, I love it.
Or, Exploding pens look like laser pens look like regular pens.
Or, Let the moron hold the pen last so his fingerprints are all over the murder weapon.
What matters most is that we get satisfaction at the end.
Otherwise, a lot to like here. That was fun.