At the previous stop on this expedition through my childhood writing, we visited steno notebook #3. In addition to the piece of fiction I shared last time and the angsty journal entries I definitely won't be sharing, a couple of other stories from that period are worth pausing at before we move on.
As I've read my old work, some pieces are immediately familiar, and I recall where the stories are going, or more often, failing to go. Others come as a surprise. An untitled story about mornings fell into the second category, and I was pretty engaged and curious to discover what was going to happen. Disappointingly, after seven pages written over the course of a few weeks, the story comes to an abrupt end.
More disappointingly, at the end of this notebook in an entry reflecting on the fiction it contains, I wrote, "Whatever happened to the mornings story? That was a damn good idea with an ending in mind. I'll have to work on it." I regret to say that whatever I planned is lost to the mists of time. It's always possible the rest will turn up in another notebook, but I don't expect it to.
So I present this work with the warning that it's unfinished. That property, along with some stylistic and character elements, makes it a representative example of my (non-death-related) writing at the time.
The sudden onset of bad music at full volume started her out of a vivid dream. Driven by the screaming voices and merciless electric whine, she leapt out of bed and lunged across the room for the clock radio. Her fingers fumbled automatically for the "reset" button, located it, and depressed it. The sudden silence felt as if she had been struck deaf. Then her brain registered the traffic sounds of the city that never sleeps three stories below.
Her mind cleared of the heavy metal noise, she encountered an overwhelming desire to stumble across the room and crawl back into bed. But as she was already at the door to the bathroom, she dragged herself in there instead and turned on the cold water to the shower.
Willing herself not to think, she stepped into the shower stall. The blast of icy water shocked her awake and sent her groping for the hot water knob. The daily struggle for consciousness was over.
Putting the alarm clock at the other end of her one-room apartment had been her father's idea. The moments between getting out of bed and getting into the cold shower were the toughest part of her day. After two weeks in her apartment, with the snooze button at her fingertips and no parents or roommates to make sure she was up, she had been late to work four times. A long phone conversation with her father had resulted in the wake-up solution and the rescue of her job from threats of dismissal.
Her first memory:
There was a hand on her shoulder and Daddy's voice in her ear whispering, "Julie, wake up. Mommy's going to have the baby!"
Three-year-old Julie got out of bed and put on her sneakers. The routine had been carefully rehearsed several times in the past month. Julie picked up her duffel bag, which had been packed and ready for two weeks, just like Mommy's. She took Daddy's hand and went downstairs.
Mommy was putting on her jacket. She handed Julie her windbreaker. "I called Aunt Jenny and the hospital. We're all set," Mommy said.
Daddy brought the car to the front of the house and came to get Mommy and Julie. Julie looked at Mommy's big stomach, but it looked the same as ever. She hoped the baby wouldn't come out too soon.
Julie had never ridden in the car in her pajamas before. It was dark outside because the sun hadn't woken up yet. No one was awake except Mommy and Daddy and Julie and Aunt Jenny and the hospital.
Aunt Jenny came out to the car in her bathrobe. "Come on, Julie, we're going to have some fun," she said. Julie kissed Daddy and Mommy and Mommy's tummy and waved with Aunt Jenny as the car drove away.
"Have you ever seen the sunrise before?" asked Aunt Jenny.
Julie shook her head. Aunt Jenny took her by the hand and led her through the house. She opened the slidinglass door and they went out onto the porch. Aunt Jenny wrapped a blanket around both of them. "Look at the sky," Aunt Jenny whispered, pointing.
Julie looked. Above the trees the sky was white, then blue. The sun was waking up! Slowly, more colors appeared, pink and yellow and beautiful colors she couldn't name. Then the sun appeared, a big ball, pinky-orange.
"Now you've seen your first sunrise," Aunt Jenny said.
Four years later:
Julie opened her eyes and saw dull green. She sat up and remembered: they were camping! Green was the tent, built yesterday by Mommy and Daddy out of an armful of canvas and a bag of metal poles.
Beside her, tangled in a big puffy down sleeping bag, was her little brother Brendan. Next to him was Mommy. They were still asleep. Daddy's sleeping bag was empty.
She struggled out of her sleeping bag and stood up. The tent flaps, which had been zipped tight last night against mosquitos, were unzipped. She stepped out and felt the grass wet on her bare feet.
Daddy sat at the picnic table drinking coffee. "Good morning, Cucumber," he said. "Want some coffee?"
"Dad-dy," Julie giggled. Cucumber was Daddy's silly name for her. "I don't drink coffee."
"Okay." Daddy grinned. "You should have been up a little earlier. You could have seen the sunrise."
"I've already seen it," Julie said.
Daddy laughed. "Ah, my little jaded girl." Julie didn't know what "jaded" meant. "A sunrise is not like an episode of 'The Brady Bunch.' It's different every time you see it. It's worth watching over again. Tomorrow will you get up with me to watch the sunrise?"
Her thirteenth birthday:
Off-key singing woke Julie, not from the radio, but from her family singing "Happy Birthday To You." She pulled the pillow over her head, but only as a joke.
"I made you breakfast in bed," Brendan cried enthusiastically. Julie envisioned burnt eggs and charred toast. She emerged from under the pillow and looked at the tray her brother held. She burst out laughing. The tray held an Egg McMuffin, wrapped in wax paper identifying it, and McDonald's pancakes in their styrofoam tray.
"You're crazy, you know that?" she asked her brother.
Yeah, so, that's all she (I) wrote. It might have been a decent effort if I'd pushed on to that mysterious ending.
The next story is complete, and also shorter. It's an example of one of my minor themes at the time, stories related to travel in some way. After writing this story in my notebook, I liked it enough to type it into my computer, and there's a note about revision, though the final version is only barely tweaked from the original.
The Open Road
A car was freedom. For sixteen and a half years I had waited. My mother says that even when I was a baby I loved to ride in the car. Sometimes when she couldn't get me to stop crying, she would stick me in the infant seat and drive around the block until I calmed down.
When I was five, my mother left me in the car with the keys in the ignition while she ran into a store. I was an observant kid, so I knew just what to do. I turned the key, shifted into reverse, and rolled into the car behind. "Thank God the kid couldn't reach the gas pedal," said the owner of the other car.
When I was fifteen, I begged my mom to teach me to drive. She refused, insisting that she was a terrible teacher. I think she was just afraid that I would leave home if I had the ability.
At last I got my learner's permit and enrolled in driver's ed. "My baby's growing up," Mom cried. But she bought herself a new car and gave me her old one.
A very long six months later I could take the road test. I passed with flying colors. I drove Mom home and dropped her off. "I'm going for a little spin," I said.
"Be back by six," she instructed.
I drove through town, then out onto the highway in my car, with no adult in the passenger seat. I opened the window and turned on the radio loud. Freedom. I thought of driving to California. I might have, too, but I had no money for gas.
I got back at 6:30. Mom was panicked. "I was so worried something had happened to you!" I mumbled an apology about losing track of the time.
The next day was bright and warm. I drove to school, alone in my car. But when I got to the parking lot, I realized that I didn't have a parking sticker. I decided not to go to school.
Twenty minutes later, on the highway with the windows open, I thought of Mom. The school would call her. I remembered how worried she had been yesterday.
I found a pay phone and dialed Mom's office. "Hi," I greeted her secretary. "Will you leave my mom this message? She'll understand: 'I heard the call of the open road. Please tell them I'm sick. I love you.'" I paused. I thought of California. I had my Baybanks card today. Then I thought of Mom. "'I'll see you tonight,'" I finished.
If I'm remembering correctly, I still liked this story enough a couple of years later to use it as one of my contributions to a literary magazine I worked on during a summer program. If I'm also remembering correctly, we called the magazine "Nyctophobia", which means "fear of the dark". A copy of that could potentially surface as I continue my childhood archaeology, but I haven't seen it yet.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Amber Sparks writes at Electric Literature about the pressure for short story writers to produce novels: "I've seen many excellent short story writers make the inevitable and expected career move from short stories to novels, because they want the accolades and the acclaim and the wider audience/money/fame, too. And who can blame them? If you don't move to novels, you risk looking like a small or unambitious writer or worse, a one-trick pony. Some really do want to write a novel, and some write great ones. Some clearly don't have their heart in it, and the novels--even if technically perfect--don't have the soul and the urgency of the short fiction they write. Sometimes critics acknowledge this, and often they don't."