As many of you know, I’m about to embark on what I hope will be the final revision for my first novel, Hollow Souls. Given the momentous task ahead of me, I’ve naturally procrastinated all summer, and yet I’m still thrilled by the world I've created, and excited to see the novel in its finished (and hopefully much shorter) form.
So, it might come as a surprise to learn that I’ve already begun drafting my second novel, a coming-of-age, cross-country drama entitled Red Road Crossing, which, as the title implies, has a Native American theme. While my first novel is told in third person, from the perspectives of a mother and daughter, Devi Marconi and Olivia Harper, my second novel will be told in first person, through the eyes, ears, hearts, and minds of five characters: Meg, a seventeen-year-old girl in search of her long-lost mother; Meg's half-brother, Jonathan; Meg’s stepmother, Billie; Meg’s first lover, Indigo; and Meg’s father, Thomas, owner and operator of a vision quest camp for troubled teenagers.
Since I plan to explore such varied voices in my second novel – in a similar vein to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying – I’ve begun to practice writing the voices with which I’m unfamiliar, such as ten-year-old Jonathan. A while ago, I tested my abilities by writing a short story from a young boy’s point of view. Called “351” – and posted on my Ruby Hollow website – the story draws its inspiration from my own childhood fishing trips with my father. I’ve decided to post it here today – just to see what you think about it. Have I accurately captured the thoughts of this boy, or is he too smart for his own good? I’m looking for honest opinions, so please don’t hold back.
My dad's boat is older than me. I know every dent. Every leak. I know how the cushion feels on the green aluminum seat under my shorts. I know the metal side is cold in the morning and burns my hand by noon. Even when I'm back home, I can hear the sputtering motor in my head.
There's a slight breeze as we skim across the water. We're going fast, trying to make the most of the day, so the ride's a bit bumpier than usual. I'm glad for the cushion.
The sun's coming up, and the water's still. Dad's behind me, steering the boat.
“Smooth as glass,” he says. “Fog's burning off. Shaping up to be a nice day.”
I can feel his eyes on my neck.
“You okay, Charlie?”
I listen to the motor and the splashes below. “Wish I could stay longer.”
The marsh comes into view. “I know. Two weeks is never enough.”
What he doesn't say is what I'm feeling. I wish I could live with Dad all year long. He has a small house on stilts, in the middle of a marsh near the gulf. Bought it after the divorce. He uses the beat-up boat to run errands and ride to and from his bait shop on the shore. He's got a few fishing buddies around. He may have a car somewhere, but I'm not sure.
I look forward to our summer visit. We get up early every morning, when the sky's still a purplish blue, before dawn breaks. We head out, whether the radio says rain or shine, to fish for trout or redfish. The redfish are fun to catch – tough to find and even harder to reel in.
We return to his tiny dock by late afternoon, and I usually swim – though when the tide brings the jellyfish in, it's time to get out. We spend the evenings playing cards, taking boat rides, or just talking about stuff. We usually fry up the day's catch, if there is one, and eat it with our fingers. Something I could never get away with at home. When it's dark, we fish some more. The light on Dad's house attracts bugs, which lures some pretty huge fish, and we use his big nets to scoop them up onto the dock. We get to bed by ten or so, and we're up again by five.
It's a routine, but it's ours – those two weeks a year. The rest of the time I live with my mom and stepdad in Chicago.
My folks split when I was seven, and me and Mom moved a thousand miles away. We didn't take much with us. A man up north was waiting, and he had a lot of nice stuff to share. Maybe that's why they split, I don't know.
Dad fought to keep me, but Mom wouldn't let up. I guess when he was eighteen, he held up a gas station on a dare. The gun wasn't loaded, but it didn't matter. He had a record, and Mom brought it up as much as possible, saying he wasn't fit to take care of me, and the judges always agreed with her. Dad used to say it was the stupidest thing he's ever done. But, after awhile, he stopped talking about it, and we settled for our summers.
We're deep into the marsh now. There are seagulls in the sky, screeching and searching for food. I can see other fishing boats anchored in the reeds.
Dad and I haven't had much luck this time around. We've caught a few trout here and there, but often, come suppertime, we've had to thaw out packages of frozen fish from last month's catch. Course, as Dad always says, “A bad day fishing beats a good day working.”
He shuts the motor, pushes his pole along the bottom, and guides us through the reeds. I spot a few swirls near the water's edge, so Dad drops anchor, and we quietly bait our hooks with raw shrimp.
We fish for a long time, feeling a nibble here and there. But the swirls soon disappear, and our luck runs out again. We move to another spot, but it's the same story.
Dad takes us for a boat ride, perhaps to a better cut, but we have even less luck here. Not even a nibble. So we take a lunch break, eating our ham sandwiches in silence. I feel terrible, and Dad doesn't look much better. It's our last day together. My stepdad will be waiting on the shore in a few hours, next to his rented sports car. They don't even trust me to take a plane by myself. Or maybe it's Dad they don't trust.
After lunch, we search for a luckier spot. It's the hottest part of the day, but I'm determined to catch a big one.
A few hours pass, and still nothing. I see Dad glance at his watch.
I cast my line out toward a lonely bunch of weeds. “I wish time could stop.”
“I know what you mean, son.” He smiles.
Maybe a boy isn't supposed to say so, but I love my dad's smile.
The gnats nip at our faces and limbs. My sunburned skin itches in places. But the breeze feels nice. Suddenly, I sense a tug on my line. Often, a nibble can catch you off guard, and the fish is gone with your bait before you've even had a chance to touch the reel. But, this time, I'm ready. I pull back gently and snag him. He puts up a fierce fight, pulling out the line as fast as I can reel it in.
“Got something?” Dad keeps a firm grip on his own pole, eyeing his bobber but watching my struggle closely.
“I think it's a red.” I'm excited, but it's hard work.
“That's it, son. He's wearing out – holy shit! I've got one, too.”
We're playing tug o' war with our lines. I pull my red in first. He's a big guy – nearly twenty-eight inches. The hook's deep inside, but I manage to yank it out, and he falls near my feet. I grab him quick, slimy as he is, and drop him in the ice chest. Dad flops his own catch next to mine. It's a few inches shorter but still beautiful.
“Looks like you beat your old dad this time.”
I'm beaming, worn out but proud. The fish are flopping about, slower now but still fighting to find a way overboard.
Dad glances at his watch again and frowns a little. “I'll have to take you back in a few minutes.”
My throat feels choked. The fish look lifeless now amid the chunks of ice. “Too bad there's no time to eat 'em.”
“Oh, these are too good to eat. I'll have 'em mounted for next time you come.” Dad shuts the ice chest. “Well, let's get going.”
We each take our places – him near the motor, me up front.
The ride's long, but not long enough. It's late afternoon and cool again. The wind blows my hair. Mom'll make me cut it first thing.
Soon, the boat slows down, and I can see the dock, surrounded by seagulls. My stepdad is on time as usual, leaning against the hood of a slick black car.
The boat putters toward the wharf, and Dad ties a rope to a crusty post.
Mr. Chuck, the nice old man who owns the boat launch, stands nearby. “Your son's getting big, Lou. He'll be a man soon.”
“He already is.”
We climb onto the dock. My stepdad watches silently. He doesn't even wave.
Dad opens the ice chest, and Mr. Chuck spies the fish. “Nice catch.”
“Charlie got the bigger one.”
There's an awkward pause. Mr. Chuck knows I'm going back. “You know, Rita just bought me a Polaroid. Haven't tried it out yet.”
My stepdad stands up, waiting, probably wondering what's going on.
Mr. Chuck's back in a flash – well, for an old man, he is.
Dad kneels and reaches for the redfish. We hold them high, though I want to put an arm around him.
The picture soon fades into view. My eyes are shut a little, but we're both grinning.
Mr. Chuck hands it to me. “You gotta remember these moments.”
“Oh, we will.” Dad gives me a hug. “Good luck at school. Call me if you need anything.”
I fetch my backpack from the bow and head toward the car, but I want to turn back.
My stepdad opens the door. I look down at my picture. What a fish. My friend Bryan'll be jealous. As I get in, I see my dad watching me from the dock. He looks sad. I try to smile. It'll be a hard year, but next summer will come eventually.
In 351 days.
9 hours ago