Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Woods, Draft Two

My last assignment focused on polishing prose. Here's a re-write of a story I wrote a few months ago...

The peace of daybreak finally settled over the house that had roared with activity throughout the night. Erin’s sheet now loosely shielded her from the cool air streaming through the rickety fan in the window.

Before drifting to sleep, she fought with the the shrieking voices of her parents’ party downstairs. She tangled with the sheet clinging to her body. No matter how hot or humid her room would get, a sheet couldn’t be sacrificed in the night, for Erin knew ghosts would feed off the bare skin of those who slept. But now it was morning; it was quiet; and she was safe once again.

Saturday. Erin loved Saturdays almost as much as Christmas morning. Dad would be disassembling and assembling motorcycles in the garage. Mom would be stripping the beds and making the house smell like laundry detergent, even with a cigarette burning in her ashtray. Cliff, her little brother, would be playing with his tractors and attempting to escape from the confines of his “Moma.”

Erin snuck down the creaky stairwell, hoping to be the first one awake. But the smell of coffee and pungent smoke hit her as she curved her way to the kitchen.

“Morning, Sweetie.” Her mother held little Cliff on her hip and took a swig of coffee before clearing off her father’s breakfast dishes. “Did you sleep well?”

“It was so hot last night! Why can’t we get an air conditioner? Jo Jo’s family just got one!” Erin snarled, remembering the tortuous night.

The comment was ignored as a discussion on gas prices began. Cliffie blew spit bubbles through his tiny lips, and murmured an unintelligible language of two-year olds. Erin poured Rice Krispies and three heaping spoons of sugar in the bowl that had been laid out for her. She ate three bites of the dry concoction before the telephone interrupted her feast. She jumped up to grab the receiver, connected to a new extended cord which allowed her to speak privately in the laundry room next to the kitchen.

“Hello? Yeah, I’m ready!” Erin’s breath accelerated. “Did you call Tina yet?”

Erin ran back upstairs to dress in her Lucky Charms cereal box t-shirt and pink shorts. After slipping on her tennis shoes without socks, she planned her escape.

Quietly, trekking through the house, she made it to the backdoor of the kitchen. “See ya. Going to the railroad track, so I better not bring Cliffie with me today.”

“Be careful, Slick.” Erin’s Dad looked up before the screen door screeched shut.

Her mother quickly came to the doorway, watching Erin climb her pink bicycle that was nearly too small for her already. “Come home for lunch, Hon. Don’t forget. Please.”

Erin peddled her bike through the quiet town. Already the humidity was threatening to rob her of air the fresh morning air.

As usual, she was the first one at their special hideout. Twenty yards past the railroad track marked the entrance of a wooded area on the edge of town. A large tree stump served as their headquarters. As Erin waited for her two best friends, she found comfort in the chattering of birds and insects. Hopefully she wouldn’t see any snakes. She monitored the ground closely for any slithering motion.

Something glittered in the grass near her feet. Erin kneeled to study a thick piece of green glass. After digging the piece out of the ground, and setting her discovery on the stump, she searched for more. Eventually, she excavated ten pieces of glass, ranging in colors from green to brown to translucent.

Finally, her best friends Jo Jo and Tina appeared. All three girls wore their Lucky Charms cereal t-shirts with varying shades of pink shorts.

“What in the H-E-double toothpicks?” asked Tina while studying the broken pieces of glass.

“Treasures,” answered Erin nonchalantly as she kept searching.

Jo Jo shrugged and sat on the stump. “Looks like pop glass to me.”

“Now it does,” answered Erin as the fervor of her dig intensified. Tina kneeled next to Erin.

“What are we doing today? Riding bikes?” Tina asked hopefully. She always wanted to ride bikes.

“Too hot.” Jo replied, before joining her friends on the ground.

“Then what?” Tina looked up at Jo, who was now digging up her own piece of glass. “We could…build a Barbie city? No, that’s getting boring. Play ball with the boys? No, Joel’s too mean. Have you finished writing your movie, Erin?”

“No,” Erin sighed. “Besides, I need the boys for a few parts. And with ball starting...” Erin trailed off, feeling discouraged about her movie project.

“How about…a swim in the Nishna?” Tina stood up to count the pieces of glass.

“After lunch,” Jo Jo answered. “We’re busy now.”

Every summer, as soon as the river tempered, the town kids stalked through the weeds covering the bank and cooled themselves off in the muddy waters. Every mother in town winced when their children returned from the shallow Nishnabotna River. No child was allowed to enter a house until thoroughly rinsed from a garden hose and examined specifically for ticks.

“Okay, but if I see a snake I’m going home.” Tina always threatened to go home. Jo Jo never wanted to go home.

“Aha!” Erin pulled a rusty tuna can out of the ground and then placed it next to the bounty. “A trove for our treasures.”

Erin stomped toward the railroad tracks and picked up three large pieces of river rock. Holding the rocks in her t-shirt, she ran back to camp. After giving each of her friends a rock, she began to crush the glass on the stump. Tina and Jo Jo smiled at each other and joined Erin in the task. The final product was placed into the rusty can once the glass was reduced to small, but not inscrutable, multi-faceted jewels.

“Jo Jo, what will you do with your riches?” Erin asked, in hopes that Jo Jo would talk. She always wished Jo Jo would talk more.

Jo Jo shrugged, while Tina took the floor, “I know! I’m getting a really cool car. A red convertible. Then I’ll buy Mom and Dad a nice car, so they don’t have to drive the green bomber.”

The girls laughed, since they had all been passengers in the loud, muffler-less Chevy Impala many times. None of the families had new cars, but the green bomb was the ugliest of them all.

Erin watched Jo, who still didn’t answer.

“I’m going to buy shoes,” Erin jumped on the stump as she spoke. “and party dresses. No one at my parties could smoke though.” Erin imagined an affair like those she watched on “The Young and the Restless” – something much different than their parents’ parties of barbecue and beer.

Jo smiled and kept crushing. Then with a shriek, she dropped her rock and began to suck on her finger.

“Jo Jo! You’re bleeding!” Tina and Erin ran to their friend’s side.

Jo closed her eyes tight, as she always did with the anticipation of pain. Tina delicately pried her friend’s slightly bloody finger.

“It’s not bad.” Jo felt embarrassed.

“We should go back and get a band-aid,” directed Tina.

“No,” Jo responded emphatically. “I’ll get in trouble.”

“We all will,” Erin added. But they all knew that Jo would be in the worst trouble if her Dad found out.

Jo wrapped her finger around her t-shirt and looked at her friends. “You know what I think we should do with our treasure? Forget dresses and cars. Let’s see the world! We’ll snorkel off the Yucatan Peninsula, shop on 5th Avenue in New York City, ski in Steamboat, climb the Eiffel Tower, see the Parthenon in Greece, go on a safari in Africa…”

Tina and Erin often listened to Jo describe places they knew nothing about. Jo’s mother had been a flight attendant before moving back home to marry her high school sweetheart.

Erin interrupted Jo. “Hey! Let’s have lunch at Jo Jo’s! Your mom can tell us stories about the places she’s been.”

“Can’t. Mom’s working today.”

Thoughts of the world were quickly replaced by grumbling stomachs. None of the girls wanted to go back to their own houses for lunch. So after a few minutes of waiting for a solution to appear, Jo suggested, “We could go to Granny’s.”

“Tang with 7-Up,” Tina added.

“Let’s go,” directed Erin. “Ride fast by the ball field. Maybe the boys won’t throw rocks at us today.”

“Wait. What about the diamonds?” asked Jo.

“I know.” Tina found a soft spot in the earth and started digging a hole with her rock. Once the hole was big enough, Jo placed the tuna can in the hole. Erin covered the treasure with the loose dirt. The three friends smiled at their accomplishment, then jumped on their bicycles to race toward Jo’s grandmother’s house.They easily whipped past the ball field without being tortured with name-calling and pebble-throwing; the boys were in the middle of a double-play.

As they sped through the pebbly main street of town, a muffled sound of a thunderous engine settled in the air. The girls made a sharp turn at the t-section to hear the revving of the engine getting louder.

“Car!” Erin yelled to her friends who performed the drill of slowing down before scattering to the soft edge of the road. Generally, all kids came to a complete stop to watch a car drive through town. Today was no exception.

Initially the girls were blinded by a deceiving silver flash, created by the sun’s reflection. Then a bright yellow sports car broke through the aura.

“Wow!” Tina exclaimed. “It’s gotta be a Camaro.”

Trucks, station wagons and sedans were common place in the town that housed blue-collar families working as machinists, secretaries or waitresses. Sports cars were rare.

The girls watched the car pace nearer, eventually stopping next to the parade of bicycles.

“Dad?” Jo squinted her eyes in disbelief as the driver rolled down his window. “Who’s car is that?”

The girls parked their bikes to gain a closer look.

“I was right! It is a Camaro. Is it brand new?” Tina felt the smooth paint job.

Jo’s father couldn’t hold back a smile. “Oh, no. It’s two years old. 1978. Think your mom will like it, Jo Jo?”

“Dad? Are you kidding?”

All three girls stood back, eyes wide open.

“Nope. Bought her today.”

Jo looked at her friends in wonder. Erin smiled incredulously. Tina smirked.

Jo ducked her head in the window. “Can we have a ride, Dad?”

“Not now, Hon. I’ll take you girls out for a spin later.”

Then the three girls watched the rumbling, yellow machine drive away.

“How are you and your brothers gonna fit in that?” Tina asked.

“I think it’s very cool,” Erin offered her friend.

“I hope Mom likes it,” Jo stated under her breath. “Wonder what Granny will think.”

The girls made their way to Granny Annie’s, who seemed to have predicted guests. Ham, bread and potato chips were set on the table. As the girls sat down to devour their sandwiches, Granny Annie mixed Tang and 7-Up.

“Guess what, Granny?” Jo talked with her mouth full. “Dad just came home with a brand-new, well not quite brand-new, Camaro!”

Granny stopped pouring the 7-Up and looked up, with a gaze directed to nowhere. “Test-driving, I suppose. Just dreamin. Your daddy’s a dreamer, alright.”

“No. He bought it.” Jo continue to chew. “He told us.”

The girls kept talking and laughing, not noticing the subtle change in Granny’s attitude. Granny set the drinks on the table, kissed Jo Jo on the head and said, “There’s ice cream in the freezer. Help yourselves when you’re done. I’m going out to the garage to talk to Gramps, okay?”

“Bye, Granny. Thanks for lunch.”

Granny Annie left in a hurry to tell her husband about their financially-strapped son’s recent purchase. Despite Granny’s reaction, excitement was the only emotion ruling over the three girls. Even Tina, who felt a bit jealous, was encouraged. If Jo Jo’s family could afford a Camaro, certainly her family could too.

“Should we go back to the hideout? Or should we go swimming?” Erin asked.

“I’m kinda thinking that those diamonds are lucky. Maybe we should go back to the hideout.” Tina decided that it was her turn to dig up some luck.

Erin nodded and lifted her cup of Tang and 7-Up. “A toast – to the diamonds in the woods.”

The three girls raised their drinks to each other, gulped ferociously, and slammed their plastic cups on the table. “To the woods.”

And with a fire kindling in their eyes, they set off to the woods to find more diamonds. But when Jo came to the street that led to her house, she stopped.

“Jo Jo? What’s wrong?” Erin turned her bike around when she realized Jo wasn’t behind her. Tina was still pumping her bike, racing her friends to the woods.

“I’m gonna head home,” Jo looked up the street to her house. “I better finish my chores before Mom gets home.”

Erin sighed in disappointment. She sensed the joy leaving her friend.

“Do you want us to help you, so you can get your chores done real fast?” Erin asked while she noticed Tina still driving to the woods.

“No. If I get done, I’ll come out and find you. Thanks anyway.”

Erin watched Jo peddle to her home. Then she turned to catch up with Tina. There was much more for the girls to discover in the woods.

And they would discover much more.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Woods -- First Draft

All was quiet, except the steady hum of the fan blowing the cool morning air through the window. Somehow, Erin’s bedspread had made its way back over her body in the night. Before she had drifted to sleep, the heat had made the sheet barely tolerable. But a sheet couldn’t be sacrificed, in case ghosts decided to feed off her bare skin. A silly thought in the morning. It was never silly before bedtime.

Saturday. Erin loved Saturdays best, even during summer break. Dad would be disassembling some motorcycle part in the garage. Mom would be stripping all the beds and making the house smell like spring, even with a cigarette burning in the ashtray. Erin would have no responsibility toward her younger brother today.
She snuck down the creaky stairwell, hoping to be the first one awake. But the smell of coffee and smoke hit her in the dining room. Her parents were already drinking coffee and reading the newspaper.

“Good morning, Sweetie. Did you sleep well?” Her mother asked, as she did every day.

“It was so hot last night. Can’t we please get an air conditioner for the upstairs? Please? Jo Jo’s family just got one.”

The comment was ignored and gas prices continued to be discussed. Erin sat at the table and poured cereal and milk in the bowl that had been laid out for her. She ate three bites before bouncing out of her chair to answer the ringing phone.

“Hello? Yeah! Did you call Tina yet? Five minutes.”

Erin ran back upstairs to dress in her Lucky Charms cereal box t-shirt and pink shorts. She brushed her teeth without flossing and ran to the door to put on her tennis shoes without socks.

“See ya, Mom. See ya Dad. Tina, Jo Jo and I will be at the railroad tracks. Don’t tell Benny, please.” Erin’s little brother had a way of showing up wherever she was.

“Be careful, Slick,” Erin’s Dad looked up before the screen door slammed shut.

Erin peddled her bike through the quiet town. Already the humidity was beginning to threaten her refreshed soul. As usual, she was the first one at their special hideout. Twenty yards past the railroad track marked the entrance of a wooded area on the edge of town. A large tree stump served as a table, and often the chairs as well.

As Erin waited for her two best friends, she listened to the insects and hoped she wouldn’t see any snakes. Unlike Tina, she monitored the ground closely for any slithering motion. Tina refused to look at the ground. Joanne didn’t search out, nor did she avoid seeing snakes. She didn’t like them, but they didn’t scare her either.

Something glittered on the dry, native grass near her feet. Erin reached down to pick up a thick piece of green glass from a soda bottle. Setting the glass on the tree stump, she bent down to look for more. Eventually, there were ten pieces of glass on the stump, ranging in sizes no bigger than two inches. Most were green, but a few pieces were brown or translucent.

Eventually Jo Jo and Tina joined her. All three girls wore their Lucky Charms cereal box t-shirts. Tina wore purple shorts that she insisted were pink. Joanne stuck to code with her pink shorts.

“What in the world?” asked Tina while studying the broken pieces of glass.

“Treasures,” answered Erin nonchalantly as she kept searching.

Joanne studied the pieces. “Looks like pop glass to me.”

“Now it does,” answered Erin.

Joanne began searching the ground with Erin.

“What are we doing today? Riding bikes?” Tina asked hopefully. She always wanted to ride bikes.

“Too hot!” Joanne answered.

“Then what?”

Joanne and Erin kept searching the ground, waiting for Tina to answer herself.

“We could…build a Barbie city? No, that’s getting boring. Play ball with the boys? No, Jimmie’s too mean. Have you finished writing your movie, Erin?”

“No. Besides, we need to convince the boys to be in it.” Erin was writing a play with the intention of having the town kids perform for their parents.

“How about… swimming?”

“After lunch,” Joanne answered decisively. “We’re busy now.”

Tina sighed. She was going to be forced to look at the ground. “Okay, but if I see a snake I’m going home.” Tina always threatened to go home. Joanne never wanted to go home.

“Perfect! I wondered where we were going to hide them.” Erin pulled a rusty tuna can out of the ground, then placed the can next to the bounty. “I think we have enough. Be right back.” Erin walked toward the railroad tracks and picked up three large pieces of river rock. Holding the rocks in her t-shirt, she ran back to camp. After giving each of her friends a rock, she began to crush the glass on the stump. Tina and Joanne looked at each other and smiled, then joined Erin in the task. Once the glass was reduced to small, but not inscrutable, sparkling jewels, they were placed in the tuna can.

“Jo Jo? What are you going to do with your riches?” asked Erin first. Erin always wished Jo Jo would talk more.

Joanna shrugged. Tina responded immediately.

“I know! I’m getting a really cool car. A red convertible. Then I’ll buy Mom and Dad a nice car. Something better than our green bomb.”

The girls laughed, since they had all been passengers in the loud, muffler-less Chevy Impala many times. None of the families had new cars, but the green bomb was the ugliest of them all.

“I’m going to buy shoes; high-heeled shoes of every color to match my sequined dresses. We should have fancy parties, don’t you think? But no one could smoke or drink! We’d only serve Tang with 7-Up.” Erin imagined a party like those she watched on The Young and the Restless – something much different than their parents’ parties of barbecue and beer.

Joanne smiled and kept crushing. Then she shrieked, dropped her rock and began to suck on her finger.

“Jo Jo! You cut yourself!”

Joanne closed her eyes tight, as she always did when she anticipated pain. The other two girls stopped working to pry out their friend’s injured finger. Tina delicately held the finger that continued to seep blood.

“It’s not bad.” Joanne felt embarrassed of the tiny cut.

“We should go back and get a band-aid,” directed Tina.

“No,” Joanne responded emphatically. “I’ll get in trouble.”

“We all will,” Erin added. But they all knew that Joanne would get in the worst trouble if her Dad found out.

Joanne wrapped her finger around her t-shirt and looked at her friends. “You know what I think we should do with our treasure? Forget the dresses and cars. Let’s see the world! Erin, Tina and Jo Jo will snorkel off the Yucatan Peninsula, shop on 5th Avenue in New York City, ski in Steamboat, climb the Eiffel Tower, see the Parthenon in Greece, go on a safari in Africa…”

Tina and Erin had often heard Joanne talk about places they knew nothing about. Her mother had been a flight attendant before moving back home to marry her high school sweetheart.

Erin interrupted Joanne. “Hey! Let’s have lunch at Jo Jo’s! Your mom can tell us about places we should visit!”

Joanne became serious. “Can’t. Mom’s working today.”

Thoughts of the world were quickly replaced once the girls realized their stomachs were grumbling. The sun had crept into their shaded meeting spot and the shouting of boys playing on the baseball field could easily be heard throughout the small town.

Neither Erin or Tina felt like going back to their own houses for lunch. So after a few minutes of waiting for a solution to appear, Joanne suggested, “We could go to Granny’s.”

“Tang with 7-Up.” Tina added.

“Let’s go,” directed Erin. “Ride your bikes fast by the ball field. Maybe the boys won’t throw rocks at us.”

“Wait. What about the diamonds?” asked Joanna.

“I know.” Tina found a soft spot in the earth and started digging a hole with her rock. Once the hole was big enough, Joanna placed the tuna can in the hole. Erin covered the treasure with the loose dirt. The three friends smiled at their accomplishment, then jumped on their bicycles to race toward Jo Jo’s grandmother’s house. They easily made it past the ball field as the boys were in the middle of a play.

As they sped through the pebbly main street of town, a muffled sound of a thunderous engine settled in the air. The girls made a sharp turn at the t-section to hear the revving of the engine getting louder.

“Car!” Erin yelled to her friends who performed the drill of slowing down before scattering to the soft edge of the road. Generally, all kids came to a complete stop to watch a car drive through town. Today was no exception.

Initially the girls were blinded by a deceiving silver flash, created by the sun’s reflection. Then a bright yellow sports car broke through the aura.

“Wow! Look at that car,” Tina exclaimed. “It’s gotta be a Camaro.”

Trucks, station wagons and sedans were common place in the town that housed blue-collar families working as machinists, secretaries or waitresses. Sports cars were rare.

The girls watched the car draw closer and eventually come to a stop.

“Dad?” Joanne squinted her eyes in disbelief as the driver rolled down his window. “Who’s car is that?”

The girls hopped off their bikes to take a closer look.

“I was right! It is a Camaro. Is it brand new?” Tina felt the smooth paint job.

Joanne’s father attempted to hold back a smile. “Oh, no. It’s two years old. 1978. Think your mom will like it, Jo Jo?”

“Dad? Are you kidding? Are we getting it?”

All three girls stood back with eyes wide open.

“No, Honey. We got it. I bought it today.”

Joanne looked at her friends in wonder. Erin smiled incredulously. Tina’s smirk reflected her apparent jealousy. Joanne ducked her head in the window to get a closer view of the interior.

“Can we have a ride, Dad?”

“Not now, Hon. Later. I’ll take you, Tina and Erin out for a spin.”

The three girls watched the rumbling Camaro drive away.

“I wonder how you and your brothers are all gonna fit in that.” Tina noted.

“I think it’s very cool,” Erin told her friend.

“I hope Mom likes it,” Joanne said with trepidation. “Wonder what Grandma will think.”

The girls made their way to Granny Annie’s, who obviously predicted guests for lunch with lunch meat, bread and potato chips already set out. As the girls sat down to devour their sandwiches, Granny Annie mixed the Tang and 7-Up.

“Guess what, Granny?” Joanne talked with her mouth full. “Dad just came home with a brand-new, well not quite brand-new, Camaro!”

Granny stopped pouring the 7-Up and looked out the window.

“Test-driving? Just dreamin, I suppose. Your Dad’s a dreamer.”

“No. He bought it. He told us.”

The girls kept talking and laughing, not noticing the subtle change in Granny’s attitude. Granny set the drinks on the table, kissed Joanne on the head and said, “There’s ice cream in the freezer. Help yourselves when you’re done. I’m going out to the garage to talk to Grandpa, okay?”

“Bye, Granny. Thanks for lunch.”

Granny Annie left in a hurry to tell her husband about their financially-strapped son’s recent purchase. Despite the anxiety felt by Granny, excitement was the only emotion ruling over the three girls. Even Tina, who felt a bit jealous, was encouraged. If Jo Jo’s family could afford a Camaro, certainly her family could too.

“Should we go back to the hideout? Or should we go swimming?” Erin asked.

“I’m kinda thinking that those diamonds are lucky. Maybe we should go back to the hideout.” Tina decided that swimming now seemed boring.

Joanne nodded and lifted her cup of Tang and 7-Up. “A toast – to the diamonds in the woods.”

“The magical diamonds in the woods,” Erin corrected.

“No, the magical, mystical, friendship diamonds in the woods.” Tina finalized the toast.

The three girls raised their drinks to each other, took big gulps, and slammed their plastic cups on the table. Now they had orange mustaches to match their Lucky Charms cereal box t-shirts.

And they each had the twinkle of hope in their bright, young eyes.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fiction Assn #5

In this assignment, we had to write a series of three scenes, with a focus on plot and the beginning and ending of a scene...so a little more preview to my next novel...

Red sucks, she thought.

Li stood outside one of Soho’s nascent, and highly acclaimed, art galleries. Inside the window sat various sizes of canvases, all splattered with the same hue of red. Tired of being disappointed with another rising artist, she dismissed the idea of entering the shop and turned away.

“Excuse me, Miss? Would you care to see a private viewing of the artist’s works?” An English accent projected from the entrance. “I’m not closing right yet. Especially for such a pretty lass.”

Li turned to face the unshaven and messy-maned greeter. The black t-shirt and raggedy jeans confirmed, in her mind, she was facing the artist. Initially tempted to toss a polite smile and walk away, she remained frozen when she caught sight of his troubled, ocean-blue eyes.

But she kept her composure and with a sigh, confessed, “I wasn’t sure if this was an art gallery or a Gap outlet promoting their Red collection.”

“Ah,” he responded with a slight chuckle. “Apparently, your shoes have gotten the best of you on this early evening! I imagine those platforms can only take the concrete sidewalks for so long. Even if they are...what brand, I dare say? Jimmy Choo?”

Now she really wanted to walk away, but how could she let him have the last word? Her mind scrambled for a comeback, but nothing witty presented itself. Perhaps it was the dull headache from too much wine last night. Or perhaps her feet really did hurt too much.

“Sir?” A matronly pair of ladies stepped in front of Li. “Are you the artist? We’d sure like to see your work if you’re not closing!”

He flashed a smile at Li, then took each lady’s arm. “I’d be honored to reveal my artistry to you and your lovely friend.”

Li watched him escort the ladies inside and paused only a moment to reconsider her initial impression of the art. When had she become such an art snob? What happened to that wide-eyed art history graduate who would have given the artist a fair chance to prove his brilliance? Now, her opinion was based on a ten-second review of a window display.

After a few pedestrians bumped into her, Li went away in search of a coffee shop.

***


Ackley Dunstan excused himself momentarily before beginning his private tour for Gladys and Beverly. He poked his head out the door to see the silhouette of the tall, Asian lady wearing a floral summer dress headed toward Sixth Avenue. He’d hope to find her later.

Despite his quicker-than-normal art showing, the tour proved to be fruitful. Gladys and Beverly, smitten by the polite and handsome Englishman, each made a purchase for $3,000 a piece. Ackley was relieved to divest of some of his earlier works.

After wishing his new fans well, and accepting a raincheck for dinner, Ackley locked the doors and immediately got to work on his next project. Dashing to his art supplies, he carefully selected a sharpened charcoal pencil and a fresh Wilko sketch pad. Then he sat down on the floor to draw.

Within minutes, he tore out the sheet and exited his gallery, ready to begin the second part of his project. Intuition made him feel optimistic about his chance for success.

With drawing in hand, the artist headed toward 6th Avenue, in search of a coffee shop. He predicted she would choose “Twilight Java,” his personal favorite. But when he found himself in front of a Starbucks, he was compelled to take a quick glance. Just in case.

He took a step inside, still amazed to see the line up of people in the ubiquitous franchise. Just as he began to feel relieved about not finding her in the coffee shop, he saw her, standing near the back exit. The excitement of seeing her completely erased the relief of not seeing her.

Afraid somehow she might escape, he barreled toward her as she wiped her fingers with a napkin.

“Hello again,” he addressed her back, admiring her long, black hair. “I’m wondering if you might assist me in an experiment?”

She casually glanced behind her, “Are you talking to me?” Once recognizing the face, she added, “Oh, you are talking to me, aren’t you?”

He extended his hand, keeping his gaze intently on her face, “Ackley Dunstan. And you are?”

She quickly wiped her right hand on her dress, in hopes of eliminating all frosting, before extending it.

“Li Vo. How can I help you?” She focused on the man’s eyebrows, in an attempt to avoid direct eye contact.

Ackley brushed his forehead. “I’m sorry. Do I have something on my head?”

Li laughed and looked away. “No.”

“That’s a relief. When I’m trying so hard to impress.” Ackley motioned to an open table. “Will you do me the honor? Can I buy you another cup of coffee? A pastry?”

“No, thank you. I imagine I’ll be up all night, as it is.” Li’s eyes popped as she spoke, seeming to regret her choice of words.

Ackley understood the innuendo and did her the favor of ignoring it. “A dose of Tylenol PM does wonders in offsetting caffeine.”

Ackley gestured for Li to lead the way. As she gracefully floated to the designated table, he breathed in her essence. A lovely essence, he thought.

Once they sat down, Ackley fiercely studied Li’s face. Feeling slightly uncomfortable, Li asked, “Is there something wrong?”

“Incredible. I wasn’t even close.” Ackley muttered. “Quite an embarrassment, really.”

“I’m sorry,” Li interjected, “I’m not following you.”

He laid out his sketching of a face resembling Li. She picked up the drawing, raised her eyebrows, then faced Ackley.

“Is this supposed to be me? Or is this someone you know who happens to look like me?

Ackley took the drawing and laid it on the table between them. “Well, if I were to draw sunglasses on this woman, she’d be a fairly good impression. But I’m not Superman, and have no ability to see through dark sunglasses, worn by a particularly stunning woman outside my gallery. Especially in the evening when the need for sunglasses had long passed.” He studied her eyes again, with less ferocity. “Actually, there’s no way I could capture your eyes. The most talented artist in the world couldn’t capture your eyes.”

She looked away, pulling her hair back, as if in a ponytail. When she glanced up again, she let herself smile at the charming man.

“Your eyes seem too large to come from China. Is that your lineage?”

“No. Vietnamese. My parents are from Saigon.”

“Of course. ‘Vo.’ I once knew a Vietnamese couple with the same last name. I’m sorry not to catch that.”

She smiled at the apology. Most people she met grouped all Asians together. It hadn’t really bothered her, since she grew up in the Midwest and couldn’t tell a German from a Dane.

“I owe you an apology as well,” she shifted the conversation into a confession. “I didn’t give your artwork much of a chance.”

“Are you a critic?” Ackley asked with great interest. “Honestly, it didn’t occur to me that you’d be a critic. Seriously, I’m not trying to bribe you for a great review.”

Li nodded. “No, no.” Li smiled again. Certainly her attitude fit the part of a critic. “Actually, I’m only in New York for a short while...oh, hold on.” Li’s Blackberry beeped. While she typically didn’t respond to anyone while she traveled, she always checked her caller ID to ensure there was no emergency.

“Oh, no. Oh my God.” She furrowed her brow as she read the text message.

“Li? Are you okay?” Ackley gently touched her arm.

She looked up in a daze. “I’m sorry, Mr. Dunstan.” Li stood up and picked up her bag. “But I need to go home. Someone I know passed away. Yesterday, actually.”

Ackley stood up and put his arm around Lis’ shoulder. “I’m so sorry. Are you sure you’re okay? Can I take you somewhere? On my scooter?”

Li gradually became aware that Ackley was holding her. “No. But thank you. You’re very kind to offer. I need to catch a flight back to Omaha, right away. I’m sorry. Perhaps on my next visit I’ll tour your gallery?”

“I hope you do. Are you certain you’re okay?”

“I’m okay. I mean, it’s not a family member or anything. Just someone I knew from being on a committee together. He was a kind, older gentleman.”

Ackley nodded before facing Li and extending his hand. “It was a pleasure to meet you. If only for a few minutes.”

“A pleasure to meet you as well. I’m sorry for the brevity.” Li nodded and briskly approached the exit.

“Li?” Ackley shouted out.

She turned to address her new acquaintance.

“One quick survey question, if you please.” He scratched his head, waiting for her nod to proceed. “Guggenheim or the Metropolitan?”

“What do you think?” she asked, anxious to hear his guess.

“The Met. You’re a Met girl.”

She smiled, waved and walked out the door.


***

“I no understand. You make trip back for dis guy funeral?” Han shook her head as she opened a bag of green tea leaves.

“Mom, I told you already. We served on the zoo’s board of directors together.” Li handed the infuser to her mother, who immediately put the utensil aside.

“You not know how make good tea.”

Li shrugged and sat down, still dressed in the suit she wore to the funeral. “Paul was a pillar of this community. I had a great amount of respect for him. Everyone did.”

“So whaat? You act like you date him or something?” Han looked at her daughter, waiting a response. “You date him? Or something?”

“Mom! No! He was, like, old!” Li threw her arms in the air. “Every time I mention a man’s name, in any context whatsoever, why do you always assume I’m screwing him?”

“Shhh!” Han replaced the top of the tea kettle to begin her own method of steeping. “No raise your voice so loud. I got neighbors, you know.” She shuffled to the table, setting out two ceramic tea cups. Noticing her daughter’s angry expression, she sat down to face her.

“Here’s an idea, Mom. Why don’t I call you every time I screw someone. Then you won’t have to ask.” Li crossed her arms and peered at the dainty woman sitting across from her. Li knew her mother’s delicate appearance was deceiving.

Under her breath Tran replied, “You no need be snippy. I just worry.”

Now Li felt bad. “I know. It’s just that I happen to have a lot of friends who are men. But that’s all they are - friends. We’re not in Vietnam, Mom.” Li placed her hands over her mother’s, and was immediately embarrassed by her own, expensive French manicure. Han’s wrinkled hands and nails reflected years of hard work in restaurants and nursing homes.

“Men and women never be friends. No matter Saigon or Omaha.” Han stood up to check on her tea. “I no trust none your man friends! ‘Cept Jason. I like Jason. He gay right?”

Li could no longer see the point of continuing the conversation. The discussion about men would ultimately lead to questions about her own father, which her mother would answer diligently, and inconsistently. Sometimes Li’s father was an ace pilot for the Vietnamese Air Force. Sometimes he designed airfields.

As Li considered conversation options, her Blackberry beeped.

“Ack! Dat your phone again?” Han resented Li’s attachment to the device. “How can curator be too important? No one dying, right?”

Li checked the “urgent” message from her assistant as her mother opined.

“CALL ACKLEY D TO ARRANGE VISIT TO OMAHA. CELL # ATTACHED.”

The artist had found her, with nothing but a name and a city. She should have been concerned, but she wasn’t.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Fiction Assn #4

This week we focused on voice. Today I introduce you to Li's mother.

I wait for my daughter. It be our last conversation. I so sad, and grow more weary waiting. Morphine drip into my blood. I watch ugly, cruel clock on wall. She be here soon though. I try be patient. 



Footsteps coming, like fancy shoes she wears. I try not weep now.


“Mom!” She runs to me, kissing my head. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t here sooner. My flight back from New York City was completely hellish. I missed a connecting flight. Then it took forever to... Oh, it doesn’t matter. Why didn’t you tell me you were sick? How long have you had this pain?”



“Wasn’t so bad,” I lie. She be mad if she knew. “Doctor take it out anyway. I good now.”



Her face no believe.



“Mom, I spoke with the surgeon.” My daughter comb through my hair while she speak, like my mother comb when I a child. “It had to be painful in your tiny belly. The tumor was bigger than a grapefruit.” 



She sigh hard and stop combing. I see tear fall down her pretty face.

“The cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, Mom.”



I be strong now and sit up. My belly split, but I ignore.



“Li,” I touch her face. “You everything to me, you know? I love you more than I supposed to love you. But I tell you truth now. Truth about your family. About your father.”



“My father? The truth?” Li ask me. 

Her eyes confused. I hold her hands and try take deep breath.

“You know picture I give you? Of your father?”



“Of course,” Li nods and smiles at me. “I keep it on my desk. It’s the only thing I have of him.”



“Li,” I squeeze her hands, “he not your father.” 

She pull her hands away and stand up. I know she be upset. 



“Not my father?” She throw her hands up. “So, the Vietnamese militant is just some stranger, sitting in my hand-carved mahogany frame?”



“He no stranger! He your uncle, my brother. You not waste good picture frame.” I explain, but she not care.



“But what about my father? Please tell me he really was in in the Vietnamese Air Force, and all those stories you told me are real?”



“Li, Peanut. Sit down by me.” I soothe her, though fire burn in my belly. She sit and I take her hands again. “That better.” I hear clock tick. Time run out soon. “You come from wealthy family in Saigon.”



“Wealthy? Rice farmers?” 

This make me laugh, but pain stop my laugh.

“No rice farmers. My father, very rich exporter. Ancestors make friends with French people long time ago.” I lay back. “Baba love me. Though I only a girl. Oh, how he spoil me!” I close my eyes and see Baba’s treasures. I now in my beautiful bedroom is Saigon. “He make Mother so crazy.” 



“Mom?” Li squeeze my shoulder.



I open my eyes. I must finish. Soon.