Elephant-Sized Story In A Peanut Shell

Gabrielle Idlet (gidlet@gmail.com)

There’s a free website called Grooveshark that streams a panoply of songs by whatever band or artist you plug into its search engine. You can listen to Tom Waits or Charlie Parker while you’re cooking or balancing your checkbook.
Last week I typed in X, a punk band I used to listen to when I was a teenager. A few songs into the stream came “The World’s a Mess It’s In My Kiss.” I had forgotten that song. John Doe and Exene Cervenka scream “Go to hell / see if you like it / then come home with me.” I loved that band. I jotted “The world’s a mess it’s in my kiss” on an index card and taped it over my computer.
The macrocosm in the microcosm, the big story in the small one. Last week in writing workshop we explored writing about large themes in small stories, no easy task. It’s quite difficult to do without being heavy-handed, but the writers in the room wrote really interesting pieces. We were working on political themes, social issues. The world is a mess. How do I put it into a kiss, a piece of writing that’s an exchange from me to you?
It’s critical, as a teacher at my MFA program always said, to stay away from “idea-driven fiction,” writing with a spelled out message where characters are stick figures sketched to illustrate the point the author is making. But telling a story to say something big is worth doing.
Sometimes the small story, the moment, can capture a life at a certain time. The right details suggest the world that surrounds the event being narrated. For the following piece, “Gladewater” by Tom Wilkerson, I gave participants paper and pens and had them draw a scene with their eyes closed. The idea was to get a strong visual recollection of the event without judging themselves as artists by what was on the page. Then they were to write the small story that went with the picture.

"It is nighttime somewhere in north Texas. We sleep in the backseat of our '49 Ford sedan ... There is the sweet smell of cigarette smoke and alcohol, a faint odor of gasoline and an occasional glare of headlights splattered on our windshield." — from Gladewater" by by Tom Wilkerson

‘Gladewater’ by Tom Wilkerson

On vacations we drove at night. Less traffic, my father said, less chance of accidents.
It is nighttime somewhere in north Texas. We sleep in the backseat of our ’49 Ford sedan. My father drives, my mother naps in the front seat with a roadmap in her lap. It is summer but cool outside and our windows are rolled up. The road is a smooth two-lane blacktop. There is the sweet smell of cigarette smoke and alcohol, a faint odor of gasoline and an occasional glare of headlights splattered on our windshield. As the oncoming lights approach, my father presses the dimmer with his foot. It makes a clacking sound that vibrates the floorboard.
My neck hurts. I am dreaming. We are flying a jet airplane deep in space. We have been traveling for 300 years.
Captain Jack pushes the side vent open to let his smoke escape. It makes a blowing sound when it opens and a sucking snap/click when he closes it and twists the handle to lock it.
We slow down. Our headlights shine on a sign that says, Gladewater. Pop. 2370. We continue to slow as though approaching landing strip. The rubber sound on the blacktop gets louder. We glide to a stop.
“Where are we? “ my mother yawns.
“Gladewater,” says my father. “Do we turn onto 271 or stay on 80 west?”
“Just a minute, Jack,” says my navigator mother. The map unfolds. Crinkling paper annoys him, as does her delay answering.
“Dammit, Dorothy, which way do I turn?”
“Please, Jack. I’m looking,” she says meekly.
“Goddammit,” my father shouts, “Can’t you read a goddam map?”
It is a rhetorical question she knows not to answer. He reaches for the map, taking his hands off the wheel but careful not to spill his beer. Rustling noises follow loud muttering.
Suddenly my head snaps sideways into my brother’s shoulder and we are spinning in a tight circle. Sister collides with my brother and me and we are squeezed together by a giant fist. The front doors bang open. The Ford grinds and squeals and lurches to a stop.
I hear something metallic smack the road, rolling away. Now it circles in a wide arc and now the circles sound smaller. The hubcap spins like a coin on edge, slowly at first but faster as the spin flattens. There is a crunching, hollow echo, faster and faster and then silence. My father’s beer bottle rolls out the door and shatters on the blacktop.

Writing Challenge
Write 400 words about something you have done undercover. Send in your piece for possible publication in a future issue of TFW.

*No portion of “Gladewater” can be reproduced without written permission from the author.

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