Friday, April 19, 2013

Dry Run

For someone like me, economy of words has always been a problem. I never met an adjective or adverb I didn't like. So, having 500-word writing assignments in the creative writing course I took last autumn was a real challenge for me. The instructor's rule was, if you couldn't keep it to 500 words, you could max out at 750. I had one that wrapped up at 749. And that was after considerable editing. 

This one ended up at 699 words. A proud moment, not cracking the 700 mark. This assignment asked us to take a single opening sentence—“Chris began to question the wisdom of this trip.”—and spin out as much of a fiction narrative as possible in 500 words. Okay, in 699 words. The goal was not to finish a whole story, but just get started. We were encouraged to finish our stories on our own. I never did that, but I actually like where this fragment drifts off.

A few notes:
  1. Gudbrandsdalsost is an actual Norwegian brown cheese.
  2. Kum & Go is an actual chain of gas station mini-marts. However, there is not a Kum & Go in Moline, Illinois. That is just a convenient fiction.
  3. Sapp Brothers is an actual chain of truck stops. They have these awesome, giant neon signs shaped like old-fashioned coffee pots. At night, you can see those red pots for miles. 
  4. The "windowless lavender shack" is an actual windowless lavender shack (unless it's been repainted) somewhere between Moline and Chicago. And yes, the signage described is accurate.
So, here's a tiny story fragment for you. Fiction is not my expertise, so the training wheels are still on.

Dry Run

Chris began to question the wisdom of this trip. The Stevenson Expressway could be a slow-moving traffic jam on the best of days, but now, with a jack-knifed tractor trailer splayed across all four in-bound lanes, the Interstate was a parking lot. Chris' fingertips drummed on the steering wheel as she squinted at the wall of Illinois State Police cruisers and Cook County Fire & Rescue vehicles blocking the slick roadway. This was a stupid idea, she cursed herself. All for some damn cheese.

Tor's parents, Bob and Marlene Eriksen, were due in Moline that evening, and this time, Chris vowed, everything would be perfect. Every year, without fail, they arrived from Duluth for Christmas, bearing gifts and Marlene's conservative disdain for Chris, "that girl" who made her son live in sin.

"There's no pleasing Mom," Tor would always remind her the first night, wrapping his arms around Chris's waist and kissing her in the quiet of their bedroom. "Don't even try, hon. Just not worth it." In the darkness, while Tor slumbered, Chris would recall the screaming matches, police calls, and emergency room visits of her parents' fractured marriage. Marlene would never understand it, so Chris just smiled and placated her as best she could, if just for a measure of holiday peace. "Christmas d├ętente," as Tor had proclaimed it after the first awkward year.

And that was why Chris was stuck on the Stevenson in freezing rain, trapped behind a shattered semi and its escaped flock of frozen Butterball turkeys. "Gudbrandsdalsost. Brown cheese," Tor had sighed, scrolling through one of Marlene's myriad emails, jammed with glitter and flashing holiday images. "Mom's obsessed this year with making those little Norwegian pancakes and serving them with jam and this damn brown cheese. She says there's an import store in Chicago that sells it. I mean, it's good and all, but, c'mon. Two hours to Chicago for cheese?"

Chris had her coat on before Tor was done talking. One less thing for Marlene to count against her.

She gassed up at the Kum & Go around the corner from their tiny bungalow, and snagged some caffeine for the ride. The Kum & Go gutbuster soda was always Chris' weapon of choice for a haul to Chicago, and she'd dropped ninety-nine cents for a giant Dr. Pepper before hitting the road. Tor disgustingly referred to her enormous refillable mug as the "Kum cup," and, on that basis alone, she'd considered ditching it for something not branded with the Midwest's most questionable gas station name. A liter and a half later, the cup was empty, Chris was full, and Chicago and that goddamn brown cheese seemed a lifetime away. There was no way off the highway now, and the good Dr. Pepper was knocking on her bladder wall.

Chris tapped her foot, breathed deeply, did some Kegels, and tried not to look at the streams of icy rain gushing down the windshield. She should have stopped at Sapp Brothers' truck stop a few miles back. She should have passed on the gutbuster. She should stop letting Marlene yank her chain. Shoulda coulda woulda. Chris flicked off the radio as an ad urged her to cruise the gentle flowing waters of the Caribbean this winter.

She looked longingly down the shoulder to a windowless lavender shack she'd passed a hundred times before. Black letters, three feet high, shouted ADULT VIDEOS - BOOKS - MASSAGE - HOT SHOWERS - 24 HRS and beckoned lonely truckers and road-weary salesmen with an unsubtle siren call. Chris would have welcomed the filthiest toilet in the joint if she could have safely abandoned the old wagon and slid across the expanding black ice. With her luck, she would fall, pee herself, and freeze to the road among the turkeys. She had a vision of one of Cook County's studliest firefighters trying to peel her off the blacktop, and it made her snort. "Turkeys and urine and cheese, oh my!" She giggled, a little hysteria setting in, but caught her breath as her muscles relaxed. She was not going to turn the Focus into the Pee-mobile. That would just make Marlene's week, and there would be none of that.

 Why yes, I did take this photo!


Chuck said...

I still like the name "Kumbucket" better. :) Nice writing, I never do have any luck with fiction myself.

Erin Milligan-Milburn said...

It's not a lucid time of night for me, so I can't give details, but I love this story beginning and your writing style. You did wonderfully at conveying so much in so few words.

Carol Hiller said...

wonderful title. now write some more. it does not have to be a novel. just let me know what happens. you started it, which makes you in charge of it.


Claire said...

Made me laugh. Brava, M!

I'm really enjoying these. Like your photo too. I'm surprised I didn't see one of those on one of my cross country jaunts - hauls would be perhaps a better word choice.