I stowed my bag, then put my iPhone, noise canceling headphones and a copy of The Moon and Sixpence into the pocket in front of me. Delta flight 33, a non-stop from JFK to LAX, is my favorite flight that doesn’t land on an island in the South Pacific. I was in 17C, an aisle seat in the exit row and planned to spend the next six hours with my legs stretched out, reading a whole book in one sitting. I ran my hand along my arm from shoulder to wrist admiring the feel of my white linen shirt, wondering if they sell linen socks and boxers in SkyMall. 

I catalogued passengers boarding the plane, wondering who would be next to me. Model, great-grandma, librarian, peanut vendor, pomade, Kathy Bates. When I saw Clinton DeShields turn the corner onto the plane, I knew he would be in 17B. Let me be direct about this. He’s enormous. I heard his breathing from 20 feet away and smelled the sausage gravy on his breath from 10. As he waddled down the aisle, he looked up at each row number then down at his ticket. He stopped next to me and we looked at each other.

“I’m in B,” he said, pointing at the seat next to me. I didn’t say anything, just stood up.

“I need to leave the armrest up. Otherwise, I don’t fit.” I nodded. He lifted the arm rest and sat down, taking a long time to attach the belt extension. When he finished, I sat back down. There was no way for me to sit in the seat without our shoulders, arms, and legs touching.

“What line of work are you in?” he asked.

“I’m a consultant.”

“Oh. A consultant. That’s pretty cool. Fashion? Interior design?”

“Technology.”

 “Not much on the small talk, huh?”

I reached for my headphones, which he interpreted as a cue to elaborate at length about his educational background. During taxi and takeoff, he relived his tenure as editor of the Yonkers High School Yearbook. During our ascent to 30,000 feet, he ate a Reece’s Cup and chronicled his two year stint as Chemistry major at Skidmore in Saratoga.

When the captain turned off the fasten seat belt sign, I unbuckled mine and stood up. He said, “I studied chemistry at Saratoga, but now I’m a writer for The Onion.” I sat back down. Writing for The Onion is my dream job.

“Seriously?” I asked. He nodded yes and I said, “I can’t believe this! My favorite headline was ‘Standard Deviation Not Enough for Perverted Statistician’. Oh and I loved ‘Time Invented to Keep Everything from Happening at Once’.”

“I wrote the one about the perverted statistician! I also wrote the one right after Bush got elected that said ‘Bush Declares That Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity is Finally Over’.”

“I can’t believe this! Let me buy you a beer. How does a Chemistry major get a job at The Onion?”

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Here’s piece number two. At best, I thought it sounded like I lifted it from an episode of The Office. At worst, I was annoyed that I couldn’t make it end.

*****

Are you excited about the conference tomorrow?

Yep. I’m flying out tonight and present tomorrow at 10.

Is this the first time you’re speaking there?

Yeah, I’m doing a demo of our credit risk modeling program. This is where the rubber meets the road, you know? Can you help me with a couple of things?

Sure. Oh, and what time are you leaving today?

Not sure yet. My flight’s at 6.

So you’ll need to leave the office at… what… 3?

I’m not sure yet. Ok, first, have you seen the projector? I want to take a backup.

Uh, the last time I saw it was in the conference room where it usually is.

I looked. It’s not in there.

Did you check the cabinet? When will you know what time you’re leaving?

I didn’t think to check in the cabinet. I have a call at 2:30 and I don’t know how long it’s going to last. Why?

No. Nothing. What else do you need?

What’s my flight itinerary number? I tried to get on delta.com but couldn’t reserve a seat because I didn’t have that number.

I have them email. I’ll forward it. Did I tell you I’m taking tomorrow off?

Yeah, you mentioned it. Are you doing anything?

Yeah, we were planning to take the kids to Nashville to spend the weekend with my parents.

Nashville. Sounds like fun! Do they live near the river?

Are you thinking of Memphis?

Is Memphis the one on the Mississippi? I thought it was Nashville.

It’s kind of a long drive. Takes about 6 hours.

Leaving tonight with the kids? Sounds like a nightmare. OK, one more thing. Can you add some sex appeal to my PowerPoint? Some moving words or something?

Moving words?

Yeah, you know how people make their bullet points drop in from top and slide in from the side?

I don’t… OK. But people don’t really do that anymore.  So if you’re leaving early today too…

People don’t do what?

Have those animations in PowerPoint . Do you mind…

Are you sure?

I am intimidated by writing dialogue. Probably because of a combination of not having it as a natural strength, not being a great listener and not having written much of it.

This week in Stanford.edu W123, we covered dialogue. Armed with some good instruction and writing prompts (Jeff O’Keefe is a great teacher), I set out to face my fears and ended up writing more this week than I have in years. Most of what I wrote was embarrassing (think high school poetry). Also, I only got 4-6 hours of sleep most nights because I stayed up late either staring at a blank screen or writing stuff that ended up being pretty flat.

There were three pieces which didn’t suck, so I’ll post two or three of them here this week. Here’s the exercise which served as the inspiration for today’s post: Write a 500-word scene that is entirely in direct dialogue. Have one character try to get something from another character (for example, a son begging his father to buy him a baseball glove) but create a clear subtext (i.e., the son really wants his father’s love and approval).

*****

Got a minute, Harry? I need to talk to you.

Sure. What’s up?

Can I close the door?

This must be serious. What’s on your mind, Wallace?

It… Well, remember when I told you at my review last year that I was writing a book?

I remember. Are you done with it?

No, that’s why I wanted to talk to you.

What’s the book about?

I don’t know yet, I haven’t started it.

You’ve been thinking about it a long time. Do you have any ideas?

I have some ideas, kind of. I need to… I’m having a hard time getting started because of how busy I am and working here and having a wife and all.

It must be the hand of God brought you in here to talk about this today. I was just thinking about that conversation last night. Listen, I might have a win-win proposition for you. My wife is the only one who knows this, but I’ve been trying to write a book for a while now too.

Seriously?

Yeah, a book about how I started this business by working evenings and weekends for two years while I was at the tire plant. How Georgie and me put it all on the line to quit our jobs and chase our dreams. How there were nights we put our babies to bed hungry and ten years later became the number one tire distributor in Northwestern Pennsylvania. It’s called “Where the Rubber Meets the Road”.

I’m, you know, sure that would be a cool book.

Well, therein lies the rub. The problem is I’m not a good writer. I get in a few paragraphs here and a few sentences there, but it doesn’t pop.

Doesn’t pop?

Right. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

I… yeah, believe me I know. That’s why I wanted to talk to you.

Don’t you want to hear about the win-win? Listen, you want to write a book but you don’t have an idea.

I didn’t say that.

You did. You want to write a book but you’re firing blanks, can’t get wind in the sails. I got wind. I got a crapload of stories that’ll give you that same feeling you get when you hear a plane full of people clap for a soldier who’s coming home from the war. I got a great title. Wallace, I want you to write it for me. You write great around here and I hear your blog is hilarious.

Hilarious? Who told you that? Harry, that isn’t quite what –

Here’s the win for you. I was thinking about our chat because yesterday a publisher came to have breakfast with me and my agent.

You have an agent?

You want to get published? I got a publisher. You want people to read your stuff? They told me this sucker could get picked up by Wal-Mart. Do you know how many people buy books at Wal-Mart? I’m willing to give you a 10% cut and full access to me and Georgie.

Here is my writing assignment for this week: Describe a character’s bedroom for us using the setting to reveal the character. What’s on the walls? What’s in the drawers? Is that surfboard leaning against a third-hand armoire? Is that a sewing machine buried beneath a pile of dirty clothes? Anything underneath the bed? Try to use all five senses. Finish your survey of the room by arriving at a single, especially important object that is connected to a secret that your character has hidden from almost everyone.

Here are my 500 words in response. Hope you enjoy.

***

A German aviator wristwatch with white numbers circling a black face ticked loudly on a mahogany nightstand tucked in the corner between Harrison Miller’s bed and the only window in his room. A breeze drifted through the open window, rustling the heavy khaki linen curtains, allowing sunlight to illuminate the room and cast the shadow of dancing curtains across white walls and the surface of his bed.

Next to the ticking wristwatch was a framed 5×7 – a candid of him, his wife and three boys standing on the dock in front of the candy striped lighthouse at Hilton Head, SC in 1960. Harrison stood in the center with a Winston between his lips, wearing a tight white t-shirt and plaid shorts that revealed his muscular chest, arms and legs. His smiling family leaned toward him. The colors in the picture were fading to one – the sky, the fire engine red stripes circling the lighthouse, the sea, trees, the crisp white of the boats all melting to a single grey.

In a corner facing empty walls was his writing desk. It was a simple table, made of natural wood, with four legs and a 2 foot by 3 foot working area. On the desk was a manual typewriter, a pencil holder with 12 white Bic fine point ink pens (the ones with a black cap) and two paper trays flanking the typewriter. The paper tray to the left had a few hundred blank sheets of paper and the tray to the right had a few hundred pages of unedited autobiographical short stories about his experiences serving as mechanic in Korea during the war.

In the top drawer of his dresser, which he had pushed inside his closet to make room for the writing desk, he kept a manila envelope with a collection of certificates: his birth certificate, marriage certificate, a certificate of appreciation for 35 years of service at Cummins Engine Company, his wife’s death certificate, and a $50 Home Depot gift certificate his grandkids had given him for Christmas last year.

Pushed up against a kitchenette counter was his dining table with two half-full cups of Folgers. Next to the cups was the Autumn Park welcome packet, opened to a picture of coffee drinking residents taken just as they burst in to laughter beneath the Café Yesterday sign which hung above the coffee machine in the dining area.

Between the kitchen table and his bed was a mobile nurse’s station. On top of it was a white cup with his heart medication, a plastic water pitcher, a stack of little blue cups and a binder with patient medical charts which the nurses who worked different shifts used to gossip about the residents.

At the foot of Harrison’s bed were two white nurse’s tennis shoes, with the laces still tied. Next to the shoes were her scrubs, a pair cerulean cargo pants with the draw string undone and the matching v-neck shirt.

I am taking a  creative writing class this summer. Some of the exercises are interesting, so I will post the output here from time to time.

***

I can still taste the blood in that weird place between my nose and the top my mouth. Dad and I climb into his old black Chevy pickup and the doors squeak loudly when we close them. He pulls out of the gravel parking lot and we drive past the school playground. Over there by the tall chain link swings on the edge of the playground is where I got in to a fight with Ricky Dawson today.

Ricky pushed my sister and called her a bad name so I punched him in the eye. He punched me back and hit me a lot more times. It felt like someone throwing rocks at my face, but I didn’t fall down and I didn’t cry until the very end. When he stopped punching me, I tackled him and we fought until a teacher pulled me off and took me to the Principal’s office. Before we went back inside, I looked back at Ricky and he was crying too and his lip was busted and there was blood on his Cincinnati Reds jersey.

When I told Principal Hewson what happened, he told me fighting’s wrong and that Jesus said that we should turn the other cheek. Then he sent me to the nurse’s office so she could clean me up and I could think about what Jesus said till Dad came to get me. When he got there, I could hear Dad talking to the Principal, but couldn’t tell what they were saying because I was still in the nurse’s office. Dad was mad when we left. He told Principal Hewson not to worry because he’ll make sure I get what I have coming to me when we get home.

I taste the blood as we drive away from the school, past the houses and the big green trees on Walnut Street. We drive past Clouse’s Grocery, the gas station then by cornfields which were just tilled and more trees. The Reds and Braves are playing on 700 WLW. My window is rolled down a little and I smell rain even though the sun is still shining. Dad turns off the radio and starts talking to me about the fight. It feels good to have my cheek and eye gently resting against the cool window while he talks. It also feels good to listen to Dad tell me that even though I’m only eight and Ricky is ten and bigger than me, Ricky didn’t win the fight and I’m brave and I can bet my ass that Ricky’s gonna leave Keira alone from now on.

They didn’t say it to my face. They told me through sayings and proverbs and clichés and truisms like “gravity always wins” and “the only things certain in life are death and taxes”. They told me it couldn’t be done. That even trying would be an affront to nature itself.

But they were wrong. It could be done and this morning, it was done. I did it. I stood up to the self evident truth and challenged it to a duel. I spit on the ground at its feet, slapped its face with a glove, raised my clinched fists to signal my readiness for battle. In my bathroom at approximately 10:36am EST on Saturday June 27, 2009, I put toothpaste BACK in the tube.

I am taking a  creative writing class this summer. Some of the exercises are interesting, so I will post the output here from time to tome.

Readers should note that story below contains a particularly nasty word (which the person actually said). If you are offended by smoking, old people or the F word you should not continue reading this post.

****

Charlotte Kauffman massaged her wrinkled hands to ease the arthritis pain. She made a loose fist with her right hand and used it to knead the palm and fingers of her left hand. We sat in wicker rocking chairs, angled toward one another. The wicker made a muted squishing sound as we rocked in silence.

She had stopped talking in the middle of a story about how, in 1952, she decided to transition from acting to directing in what I discerned to be the Manhattan equivalent of community theatre. She constantly rubbed her hands together, stopping frequently to take a long pull from a Pall Mall. She had an elegant and mesmerizing routine of taking a drag from a cigarette, then quickly sucking in to her nostrils a small cloud of smoke which came from nowhere.

I noticed the silence and turned to see that a man named Dennis had captured her attention. He was wearing a black mesh hat with “82nd Airborne Division” written in gold thread on the front. He always wore this hat. He had an astonishing forest of silver and black hair in his ears and eyebrows. He wore thick metal framed glasses and a blue flannel shirt tucked in to black sweat pants. Because Dennis was so short, he was able to stand fully erect as he used his walker to shuffle around. I judged him to be very appealing to the ladies of Autumn Park who would invite him to sit and smoke and flirt.

He plucked yellow and pink tulips from the dirt and held them between his hand and the handle of his walker, which he then pushed back to the sidewalk. He scooted around the front of the porch to its entrance and toward Corrine who was sitting two wicker chairs away from me. She turned her head and pretended to not notice him until he stood in front of her. He pushed his walker aside and held out his white hand which quivered gently. She put her tiny, black hand in his. He pulled her hand to his face and put it against his nose and lips, closed his eyes, kissed it and gave it back to her. He gave her the flowers and she put them in a bag attached to her walker then thanked him by smiling with her mouth and eyes. Dennis motioned to ask if she would join him for lunch. She shook her head no. He motioned again. She reached her hand out and he helped her stand. Their walkers touched several times as they walked side by side through the narrow porch.
I turned back to Charlotte in time to see and hear her inhale a tiny bit of smoke in to her nostrils. She touched her chest gently with the fingers of her right hand and said “Oh that was fucking beautiful.”