Three Words

When I was starting (trying to start) The Rope Eater, I did a series of simple, but effective writing exercises with a friend. We sent each other sets of 3 words (reckoning, waver, simple); the task was to write something--anything--that used the three words in any way. It became an easy forum to play with different characters, styles and settings. And something about balancing the three words makes you pay attention and creates enough form to challenge you to unearth something interesting. With nothing at stake, it also made it easy to experiment.

I've started doing that exercise again--the launch of the paperback is making me chafe to progress. Here is a recent exercise, with the three words at the end.

Exercise 1:

The afternoon is one of those in late August when the worst of the summer heat has lifted but there is no quickening of the fall, as if summer might go on forever—one of those afternoons when the light seems to be a part of the water, when the world is sun and water and there is no obstructing air. He does not like to go to the beach alone. The self consciousness he feels amplifies his discomforts and diminishes his pleasures; he feels vulnerable while he swims, like a small child unsure if he will be able to find his parents again on the seething beach. The sand feels gritty, invasive. But, he persuaded himself, the sun is soft and the feel of salt water on his skin always invigorates him. And work will be busy soon. And this is the summer and the sea, why he came. Through the empty years since he has finished college, pleasures have been elusive.

Today he has tried to spoil himself—he bought a cooler, drinks, fancy cheeses, grapes, an odd fruit that is green and red, tapanade—though he has forgotten bread or crackers. He bought a tin of smoked oysters because he liked the label, and the shape of the tin. He has never tried them, but they seemed to beckon from a world of sophisticated tastes that he should be adventurous enough to enter. He tried to think of himself laying them out for a party, of recommending them blithely to a friend not so advanced in his tastes. He wonders how you make such friends.

Opening the tin is satisfyingly complicated—a little key rolling back the narrow lid; something about the bending metal is utterly charming. He feels like people might think he is an immigrant from somewhere—Hungary or Poland, Trieste. The oysters themselves are a startling shade of orange. They taste oily and smoky and less fishy than he had expected. He cannot decide whether he enjoys them, but feels bold for having tried. They probably need a complicated combination of tastes—endive or crème fraiche or a sheep cheese from Portugal. He eats the rest quickly, an obligation rather than a pleasure—the boy's impulse to finish his plate. He looks at the oily, empty tin and its scroll of metal. He wonders for a moment if he could keep it—wash it and put it on his bare mantle. Would that be eccentric or bizarre? He puts it in the bag designated for garbage and licks his fingers.

Another swim and the salt tightens on his skin. He can feel the glow that will be a burn by evening. His apartment has no more in it for him than here, but he decides it would be prudent to leave. He uses the outdoor shower to rinse, beats his shoes out. The sand is everywhere—grinding between his toes, chafing at the neck of his shirt; it sparkles from the back of his hand. He will shower again at home. Families are still arriving—flotillas of shrieking kids draped in bright plastic, weary mothers, knots of deeply tanned pre-teens in suits he finds vaguely lurid on their childish bodies.

The car is searing, but he is suddenly anxious to get home. He shuts the door and feels a burst of sweat on his forehead. The cars coming and going have not settled into traffic—a muddle of late lunches, other destinations, sun burned children, preparations for dinner parties. His car feels oddly quiet and still as he makes his way onto route 28. He turns on the radio, does not listen, is suddenly aware that it is unpleasantly loud and snaps it off.

Beside the road is a girl. Too young for him to be interested, but she has breasts. It takes a moment to register that she is hitchhiking—no one hitchhikes anymore—then that he could stop—then that he would like to help her—to have the feeling of helping. By the time he pulls over, he is far past her. He has rarely driven in reverse; it leaves him slightly queasy.

She comes to the window without saying anything.

"I'm going into town. Happy to drop you anywhere."

"Town is fine," she says, flopping down with a teenager's sense of entitlement. She looks, to him, like every one of those girls—a plump ribbon of flesh spilling over low pants, a brash, illegible shirt clinging to her chest, a simple pony tail like a 5th grader.

"Are you headed to work?" he asks. She grunts in a way he thinks is affirmative, but it is hard to tell. He remembers the abundance of the cooler in the back seat.

"Would you like a drink? There's a cooler in the back."

Suddenly he feels like he has crossed some sort of line—that she would be hitchhiking, that he would pick her up, that he would offer her a drink. She shouldn't be hitchhiking. He is afraid of himself on her behalf.

She offers a brittle smile and reaches back to help herself. He bought a variety of sodas and waters, as if he might have had to
entertain a diverse crowd. As if multiples of one flavor might have palled. He can see from the corner of his eye the way she gulps at the soda, at her thirst, at her body needing it. He will not learn until later that she is pregnant, until he sees her struggling out of a car, in the full thrall of her reproduction. Perhaps she does not know herself yet. She leaves the can on the floor of his car when she gets out. She may have muttered thanks.

His apartment is cool and dark. In the shower, he thinks about that word: apart-ment. The water is hot and then tepid. The afternoon feels like an absence. The cooler is still in the car, and the garbage with its brightly colored tin.

The words: brittle, lick, sparkles


Other Selections:

Tag Team Fiction with Brian Hall: La Morte D'Ina

The 22nd March

For Melanie and Peter