Sunday, September 18, 2016

"T" - a creative writing exercise

The following is a writing exercise/project resulting from two "found objects" sent to me by the writer's group proctor. The exercise requires you to use the objects as inspirational pieces and to write the piece in one sitting. Minimal editing is allowed, but no worrying over the work is permitted. Reference the objects, write the piece, send it on.

Since I am really trying to be a more betterer writer, the only way I will ever do that is to just write. It's been a while so I was a bit rusty, though it felt good to put fingers to keyboard and just write.

Please note: There are many familiar names to people in my life. The names are only used as a convenience. The narrative is a complete fiction from beginning to end.

The objects given to me included a photo of an old house and a metal T-strap, used in building cabinets and structures.

Thanks for reading.


I heard the trucks before I saw the flames on the horizon. As I stood on the sidewalk in front of the motel the local chief, the only paid employee of the town’s fire response team, stopped his red pickup in front of me.

“It’s your dad’s place, completely engulfed. Hop in.”

Keeping my eyes on the distant glow I thanked him but said nothing else for a long while. The old farm was a good thirty minutes from town on the two-lane.

“How’s the old man doing, Terry?” he asked. “Taking your mom’s passing pretty hard we hear.”

“Frank, I’m not sure how you’re supposed to take the death of the only woman you’ve ever loved,” I said, never taking my eyes off of the fire, now detectable with each breath, its light becoming brighter with each mile.

“Hell, didn’t mean it like that. Yeah, it’s gotta be damned hard. Wife and I been together for 35 years and It’d kill me if I lost her. They were married for what, fifty-something?”

“Sixty-something. Sixty-seven years last October.”

“That’s a lifetime for most folks. Can’t imagine.” He found dad’s mailbox at the end of the long dirt drive and made the turn. “I reckon that her service tomorrow will be a fine affair. She was a special lady. We all loved her.”

The Window Rock, North Carolina Volunteer Fire Department arrived just a few minutes after us. The engine company and snorkel truck’s crews piled off, scattering in a well-rehearsed dance of pulling hose, hooking up to the farm’s hydrant and spraying water onto the crumbling structure within minutes. Volunteers or not, the chief and the crew seemed to know what they were doing.

Chief Frank barked commands into his radio, “Hey, let the thing burn, just keep the fire on the south side from engaging those oaks. Martha, watch that east side so it doesn’t spread to the hardwoods. It’s drier than a popcorn fart back there and we don’t want to call those state boys to help us. We got this.”

As the crews hurried about in choreographed chaos, I walked to the north end of the big place, looking to see if I could find dad. I suspected he had much to do with this, keeping a promise to her made years ago and oft repeated “Mary, built this house for you. Only woman who will ever live it.”

When the farm began to fail because of hostile market conditions and suspected price fixing orchestrated by the larger, newer commercial farms gobbling up the family-owned businesses throughout the flats and foothills, he vowed to keep body, family and home together by any means available. After I left Window Rock for college, practically running, my visits became less frequent and shorter. The house that Harley built, built for Mary his long suffering wife, was now becoming the promise fulfilled, two days after Mary left this world.

I spied dad as I rounded the northern edge of the house. He seemed to be standing too close to the fire as he watched flames lick the early evening sky, first black and now grey smoke rising up alongside. “Dad! DAD!” I yelled over the crackling and groaning of the house. “Here, dad, come back here with me, you’ll lose your arm hair with this heat,” I said, pulling him away.

The fire continued for many more hours. Neighbors stopped and brought lawn chairs for me and dad as we all watched and listened to the house die.  Sandwiches and sweet tea appeared as more folks arrived. Many of them stood behind dad, hands gripping or patting his shoulders, his forehead kissed by the widow June who lived three farms down as June’s great-granddaughter leaned on his lap, all of them mesmerized by the sights and sounds. Not much was said between all in attendance except the occasional complements to the fire fighters who contained the destruction to just the structure. Trees, dry grasses and an out shed remained untouched.

The Window Rock Fire Department declared the old, two-story wood structure completely out well after dark. Neighbors, their children and a few folks I did not recognize began to return to their cars, many of them giving dad a farewell handshake or hug as the chief walked up to us. “Harley, did you set this fire?” he asked without ceremony or hesitation.

“You know I did, Frank. You probably should have known I would before another day or two passed.  The place didn’t have insurance, so you can’t charge me with arson for profit.”

Looking back at the heaped black ash, “Harley, I gotta charge you for the cost of us coming out here. No arson here, and we might work for free but these trucks don’t.”

I stood up and said, “Chief, just let me know the costs involved, I’ll take care of it.”

Dad rose quickly, “The hell you will! Boy, this was my doing and there’s a few thousand in the bank and this property is worth something after you sell it when I’m gone.” Turning to the chief, “You hear me, Frank, don’t let him pay a single penny of those bills. I pay my debts and keep my promises.”

Martha, the Window Rock High School P.E. teacher and engine company captain walked up to our small gathering, cigarette dangling from her lips, “Chief, what do you want me to put down for the cause of fire? We got accelerant here and there.” 

She looked at me, brushed away a wisp of hair protruding beneath her helmet, and squared her strong shoulders as she offered me a truly gentle smile. “Good to see you again, Terry. Let’s catch up after your mom’s service tomorrow.”

I nodded as Frank looked over the scene and then looking at us. “Lightning strike, Martha. Act of nature.”

“Lightning strike? There wasn’t a cloud in the sky! This fire was set on…”

Interrupting her, “Goddammit, Martha. I’m the chief of this fire department and if I say it’s a fucking lightning strike, it’s a fucking lightning strike. Tell the guys I’ll meet them at the tavern. Start a tab. Beer and pulled pork on me.”

Shaking her head and walking away, she called out to the crews to finish mopping up and for everyone to get the hell out of here.

As the fire truck’s rotating yellow and red lights began to fade, the fullness of night enveloped dad, me and Frank. “Harley, you go into town with Terry and get yourself a room. We’ll catch up in a day or two.”

Taking two large flashlights from his yellow turnout jacket, “Here, take these Terry. It’s black as pitch out here. Don’t bust your ass tripping over those oak roots and all this debris.”

The chief’s truck was almost to the highway when dad grabbed one of the flashlights. Switching it on, the bright LED bulbs cast a grey blue light over a wide swath. “Son, I need to find some things. I set this fire before I remembered to grab them.”

There was nothing much left of the place. The smell of wet, smoldering ash filled the air with a finality of purpose that was impossible to escape. “Dad, there’s nothing here. It’s all gone. What in the world are you looking for?”

“Boy, do this one last thing for me. Just look for anything that would survive this. You’ll know it when you see it.” Without further explanation, he walked unsteadily into the soggy, mess. Small wisps of smoke seemed to appear as his flashlight swept across the blackened remains with each of his uncertain steps.

Following, without a clue as to what the hell I was supposed to look for, I kicked at the ashes and partially burned beams finding only an occasional reflection of a brass door knob or hinge. As my pants and sneakers took on more black, conversations and shouts were dredged up from a time I hardly acknowledged. The arguments were not frequent, but they were loud and when I was younger, terrifying.

The sounds of mom crying, sobbing almost uncontrollably it seemed, accompanied with a lamp, mirror of water glass smashing to the floor or against a wall were heard at the end of the hallway, just two doors down from my small bed room.  Months and even years would pass between these fights and though I never knew their reason, I had always blamed Harley. The ways of my parents had always been mysterious; smiles, embraces and stolen kisses by day, anguished screams and broken furniture at night. Resolutions to remain single were taken early in life, and so far, it was one of the few resolutions I kept.

Dad had always worked hard and mom did most of the home chores when she wasn’t sick in bed. Her illnesses of unknown origins were not only met with me feeling bad for her, I hated her to be sick, but it also meant dad would be cooking dinner that night and would be attempting and generally failing at making me a lunch that wouldn’t embarrass me at school.

Dad’s shouts intruded on my uneasy venture on this memory path, “Son! Terry! Over here. Help me. Bring your light, boy,”

Hurrying as best I could without falling face first into the black muck, I found him with flashlight in hand squatting over a small mound of rubble. “Shine it here, son. No, here!” he directed.

Poking with his always present pen knife, he picked away bits with its open blade at what may have been a small jewelry or keepsake box, evidenced by a portion of fine inlay work on what was once its lid. I recognized his handiwork immediately. Always the craftsman with wood, he not only built a house using dovetail and wood pin joints but he was known as a skilled furniture maker as well. Surely, I thought, this box was a gift to Mary, perhaps when they were young.

“I was a fool. I should’ve taken this from the house before…before it burned.”

Probing deeper, his blade made the sound of striking metal. Reaching in, he pulled a small, flat T-shaped bit of weathered steel, its shine lost to time.

“Found ‘em, by God. This was our room, knew I’d find ‘em,” he said as he gave me the thing.

Turing it over in my hand, I asked, “What’s this T-strap, dad? You never used T-straps to hold anything together…”

Shaking his head, “No, it’s not a T-strap, it’s a ‘T’…it stands for ‘Terry”…it’s your letter.”

Returning to his task, he pulled other letters from the ash. “Yes! They’re all here, S, R, J, L and Q. I found Q!”

He handed me each letter in turn. Each of them about three inches in height, their hand wrought and forged nature evident as I brushed them clean.

As he painfully rose, his 85 year old knees almost locking up, “These are our babies, Terry. Sally, Roger, Jane, Lorraine and Quincy. Quincy was the first and we thought it a fine name. Oh, and of course you, Terry.”

Knowing full well that I was an only child I asked, “Your babies?”

“The babies we lost. The babies who died before you were born. You were our miracle baby. Didn’t think we could have any and had given up hope of any children when you happened. It was the happiest time.”

Taking my well appreciated hand, we headed to his old truck, “Time you knew. Time you knew it all. Let’s go to that motel of yours. I need a rest.”

Driving back into town, dad talked as I ground the gears in the truck’s standard transmission.

“When I married your momma, we planned on a big family. Five or more, she wanted a houseful. But the good Lord seemed to have other plans for us.

“We lost Quincy when he was just two days old. He was sickly and the doctor was surprised he lasted that long. Sally came next, stillborn. Roger stayed with us for a week, Jane and Lorraine just one day. Buried each one beneath those oaks where they shaded the house you grew up in.

“I made each of those letters to go above the headboards of the beds I would build. Your momma’s sewing room was going to be a bedroom and the winter storage room next to your bedroom was also planned for our big family that never came to be.

“Your momma, my sweet Mary, didn’t handle it very well. She’d think on them babies, resting just outside under those oaks and have her own brand of fits. She’d cry for hours, curse the world and the Lord and me all at once.  I’d do my best, Terry, to calm her but sometimes she just couldn’t face the morning.

“It always happened at night and when she came out of it all, you’d never know how terrible she felt the night or two before.”

As we neared the front of the motel, he fell silent for a while. “There are things that happen between a husband and a wife that you just don’t share. Nobody’s business. Not yours either, but now you know.”

“I’m dead tired, son. Let’s get me a room and get me out of these wet clothes. Got a bag in the back with some extras and my suit’s at the cleaners for Mary’s service. Get that for me in the morning and help me get out of this old truck.”

Grabbing the duffle he always kept behind the seat, I walked around to his door and helped him into my room. I’d get another for myself in a bit, I just needed to get dad into bed.

The next morning dad got into his clean suit and attended his beloved and troubled wife’s funeral. Kind words were spoken by many in the small community of her amazing pies, cookies and church work. Hymns were sung and prayers prayed and tears shed by all, including dad.

Before her casket was closed, I placed a number of small metal letters under her folded hands, the hard, cold flesh holding onto cold steel. It was a life that didn’t turn out as planned, but was crafted with love and warmth, sufficient and full.