Survivor XV, Challenge 15: Best Served Cold

For this challenge I teamed up with Bret, my former teammate. He wrote a story about a reason for revenge, and I wrote the revenge served cold.

The straight eight roared as Grafton opened up the throttle on his brand new Packard 120. The salesman had told him it could do ninety, but on these back country roads in the early morning, Grafton wasn’t eager to push it over fifty. You never knew when some clodhopper in a broken-down truck was going to be over the next hill. Grafton glanced over at his son sleeping in the passenger seat with his puppy. Besides, I don’t want to wake Cliffy up.
Grafton had been delivering foreclosures, fairly regular for the last couple years. He’d hardened his heart to all the normal pleas, about how they’d been on that farm for generations or how they just needed a couple more months. Seeing the children though, barefoot and grimy, watching their father or mother beg… well, there was no way anyone with his own children wouldn’t feel something. Even worse, today he’d had to bring Clifford along on the trip. Maybe he could get the little tyke to take the pup for a walk and look at the farm animals- he was nuts about that kind of stuff- while the adults took care of business. He reached over and shook Clifford awake as the homestead came into sight.
“Wake up, champ, we’re just about there. You want to see the workhorses?”
Clifford woke and stretched, the pup mirroring the boy’s yawn, bringing a chuckle from Grafton.

*****

Jasper lay in bed, listening to the pots and pans banging around in the kitchen as Alma tried to hide her coughing from the kids. Not for the first time, he wished he could somehow afford a doctor for her consumption. He slid out from under the feed-sack sheets and silently pulled on his boots, ignoring hollow hunger pangs as he slipped out the door of the lean-to, grabbing his hoe and heading for the fields before the harsh sun rose to bake more moisture out of the hardpan.

*****

“Ms. Goins? Ms. Alma Goins?” Grafton asked the woman who answered the door. She was wan and frail, obviously not well.
“Yes, that’s me. What is this about?”
Grafton removed his hat and held it in both hands.
“Ma’am, I’m Grafton Howard, vice president at Woodside National Bank. I’m here about your mortgage. May I come inside?”
Her shoulders slumped, and she somehow became even less substantial.
“Yes, certainly,” her voice was thready and unsure. “Would you like some tea or
coffee?”
“Tea would be fine, ma’am,” Grafton reassured her. “Would it be alright if my son looked at your animals? I see you have a fine team over by the barn.”
Puzzled for a moment, Alma craned her neck and caught sight of Clifford, squatting by the car and playing with his pup. “Oh, that would be no problem. Benjamin!” she called back over her shoulder. “Ben! You go on and show Mr. Howard’s son around- you can finish your ‘rithmetic homework later.”
A towheaded boy about Clifford’s age streaked past the two adults, gaped in awe at the shiny Packard, then introduced himself to Clifford and the puppy. Grafton waited long enough to see them headed towards the barn, then turned and stepped inside.

*****

Jasper straightened up and leaned on his hoe, pulling his handkerchief from his pocket and tilting his hat back to wipe his forehead. Ten acres done, good work for one day.
His steps faltered as he came around the fence line and saw a man tacking a yellow sheet on the door of the house.
“Hey!” Jasper hollered. “You there! What are you up to?” He broke into a run, brandishing his hoe overhead.
“Whoa, whoa, mister!” yelled the man at the door. “I’m with the bank, just here to set up-”
Jasper let out a roar and leapt, chopping down with the hoe. The man dodged and ran for his car. Jasper tripped on the edge of the porch and went ass over teakettle into the vegetable garden, getting tangled in the tomato cages. He managed to fight his way free just as the car pulled away. Alma and the kids were looking at him through the back window, sadness in their eyes.

K: This felt like classic exposition. It would work just fine, I think, if it was followed by a couple thousand words, but it spent so much time setting up the situation that it denied us the chance to live in the situation. I’d cut nearly all of this and start with the “ass over teakettle” bit and tell the story from there. As it is, Part II benefits from all the setup done here, but as a standalone story, it doesn’t have the punch.

DK: Here I liked the cutbacks between the characters (although I’m not entirely sure I like how it paid off, but I won’t apply that to part one) and the way the differing perspectives are established. This is a solid example of developing characters who come into conflict without having malicious purposes on either side; just people in situations and circumstances trying to get by doing what they have to do. BRONZE

MG: This is the first of these part-ones that feels almost exclusively like set-up for its part-two. It makes it very hard to not view it as a segment, as a clause rather than a complete sentence. As a set-up, it’s adequate. Well described, good character studies. Nothing that feels compelling though; no dramatic arc really, and nothing unexpected. If it turns out to be the perfect set up for a wham-bang second half, that’s going to be an unfortunate result of this team’s choice to write their story in such a way. But you can’t know until you read that second part, can you?

Beau

Four times FDR had been elected and four times Grafton had voted against him. But he’d be damned if Social Security wasn’t about to make his life better. His father, unable to work the last two years due to a bad back (and a bad constitution) recently turned sixty-five. And that meant an income.

“We’ll come see you Sundays. We can go to service together.”

His father grunted.

“You know, Dad, with my promotion at the bank I’ll be in town more. Maybe Clifford and I can meet you for lunch at Howard Johnson’s.”

Dad’s response was to walk out to the porch. Grafton sighed. This wasn’t easy on him either. He followed.

“Uh, Dad, I thought you should know…oh shit!”

*****

The farm had seen better days. Nothing took to the soil anymore. Perhaps a better farmer could have saved the land, but after Alma’s passing…well he just didn’t have it in him.

He worked here and there, and a few townsfolk who still remembered Alma fondly took pity on him. His belly was full, though his spirit was empty save a dull anger that bourbon could no longer keep at bay.

This morning, however, was different. Strolling down Madison Avenue, Jasper found himself whistling “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie.” It used to pull him through a hot day in the field. Today it put a bounce in his step. A passerby would assume him lost in daydreams, the only reasonable way to explain why Jasper walked right on by a yard with two frantic men holding a cocker spaniel, its neck split in two by a rusty hoe.

*****

From the back of the garage he watched Clifford in the front yard throwing a baseball up in the air. He loaded the Browning Auto 5 and checked the sights.

“Grafton, you’re being paranoid!”

Jesus! Thank Christ he didn’t have his hand on the trigger when Evelyn walked in.

“It’s been over six months since…the incident,” she said, drying an already dry dish bowl. “Sheriff Tucker said it was probably just one of those Mexican drifters on reefer.”

He tried hard to patient with her. “Mary, I tell you. I made a lot of enemies when I was foreclosing homes. Now look, I can protect myself. But I’ll be damned if I let anything happen to Clifford.”

“Oh sweetie. I worry about you. I…hey, is that one of Cliff’s friends?”

“Huh?” Grafton looked up from his shotgun. An old man was chatting with his son, an arm around his shoulder. Out of instinct, Grafton walked out from the shadows to greet him. Two steps into his stride a flash of recognition washed over him. He lifted up the gun.

“Take your hands off him or I’ll blow your goddamned head off!”

*****

The interrogation room was profusely warm. Jasper seemed unaffected.

“Okay, one more time, for the record. Name?”

“Jasper Brown.”

“Address?”

“18 County Road 34. Lamar Township.”

“Marital status?”

“Widowed.”

“Occupation?”

“Unemployed farmer.”

The sheriff took a deep breath.

“Did you kill Grafton Howard’s dog on June the 22nd?”

“Who’s Mr. Howard?”

Sheriff Tucker stepped out of the room, exasperated. Deputy Johnson was waiting for him, giddy as a schoolboy.

“Whadya got?”

“You ain’t gonna believe this, Sheriff. So I checked with the county, and sure enough he’s Jasper Brown.”

“But?”

“But everything else he said is phony as a three-dollar bill. Never been married, no kids.”

“What about the address?”

“County said it’s real alright. Belongs to an Elmer Keats. I just got off the phone with him.”

“I suppose Elmer ain’t never seen our guy.”

“That’s the crazy thing. Elmer bought the farm from his cousin, Alma I think her name was. Said she hired Jasper in the summer of ‘29, but they canned his butt cuz he kept scarin’ the kids. Talking to ghosts and stuff. Apparently he still comes by and tills the field, until Elmer catches him and scares him off.”

“I’ll be damned.” Tucker rubbed the sweat off his neck. He grabbed the telephone and dialed the operator.

“So do you think he really killed Grafton’s pup?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps. But it doesn’t matter now. Operator? Can you get me the asylum in Columbia?”

K: All in all this story has me asking more questions even after two authors have tackled it. It’s not a bad choice to leave me wanting more, but I’m questioning whether I even got enough. I would have preferred the first story paid off the Jasper angle while the second half focused on everything else, if possible, for a better dramatic effect. Again, this isn’t a bad set of ideas (like, at all) but any story going for drama this week has a high bar to live up to.

DK: I struggled a little with the reveal about Jasper. It seemed to me like it robbed the full story of some of its impact. Again, I think the broader concept is a good look at a conflict with reasonable sides that gets a little distended by the fact that Jasper shouldn’t even have been there.

MG: Man, this twist gave me whiplash. It’s not communicated all that clearly, and the timing of everything is very hard to determine. I guess I understand what went on here, but the revelation of Jasper’s true relationship with Alma is so utterly illogical that it feels like a complete ret-con, and an utterly inorganic one at that.

And that my friends, end my season for Survivor XV. Without immunity, seven of the twelve remaining players decided I was a serious threat and ousted me, one challenge after the merge. Officially, I wound up in 12th place. It’s been fun. Hopefully I’ll be writing fiction again soon.

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2 thoughts on “Survivor XV, Challenge 15: Best Served Cold

  1. Bummer Beau that you got ousted, I really look fwd to reading your stories. I can depend on your future participation in Survivor XVI, yes?

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