Thursday, November 12, 2015

Why Am I Dead?

I'm still trying to do exercises about characterization, but none of the tasks in the Novakovich book are floating my boat.

So I'm making this up as I go along. I started this story out with one of the murder scenes in the 1984 film The Terminator (which is why we never find out who the murderer is in my short story below). 

However, as far as the film goes. Sara Anne Connor's story ends when she dies. From my point of view, there's a lot more to tell.

This is just a draft. If it were a "real" story, it would probably be longer. I'd have to "flesh" a few things out, if you'll pardon the unintentional pun (you'll get it once you start reading the story.) 

I'm concerned that I'm having Sara forgive her husband too quickly and too easily, and that she might be seen as being co-dependent by asking his forgiveness, even though he's done his share of wrongs. I think you'll see my point though, once you've read how Sara's tale really ends.

My name is Sara Anne Connor and I'm dead.

That should be the end of my story, but as it turns out, it's just the beginning.

I didn't expect death to be like this. I was always taught that as a Christian, when I died, I'd go to Heaven to be with Jesus.

But I didn't. I just stood there, looking at my body, collapsed at my feet. I was shot six times by a man I'd never seen before. I answered a knock at my door. I wasn't expecting anyone. I'd just put my baby down for her nap. My little boy was playing with his Tonka trucks on the back patio.

I had the security chain on the door. I wasn't expecting anyone and I thought someone like the Jehovah's Witnesses might be coming around again. I opened the door. He asked if I was Sara Anne Connor. I said "yes". I thought it might be one of my ex-husband's friends trying to find him. Since the divorce, he hasn't been easy to find.

But the man with the coldest eyes I'd ever seen, like a fish, like a machine, slammed the door open, breaking the chain.

I saw the gun and I was paralyzed. I knew I should run. I knew I had to protect my babies. But I froze. I don't remember what I was thinking. It was like I was asleep and watching myself in a dream.

After he stopped pulling the trigger, he turned around and left. He didn't say anything. His face never changed from being impassive and emotionless. He turned around and walked out of my house. Then I looked down and saw my bleeding corpse lying at my feet. I opened my mouth to scream but I couldn't hear anything.

I was vaguely aware that Jenny was crying from her crib. Timmy came running in from the back. I could hear the screen door slam and his running feet pounding across our worn, hardwood floor.

"Mommy! Mommy!" He was yelling and shaking me, trying to wake me up. But I wasn't asleep. I was dead. I felt dead inside, too. Then my feelings came back to life and I started crying.

"Timmy, I'm right here. Mommy's right here," I tried to say. I reached down to him but I couldn't touch him. My hands, my real hands, were lifeless and cold. I couldn't console my son. I couldn't tell him everything was going to be alright.

That's because nothing was going to be alright. My children didn't have a Mommy anymore. Their Dad left months ago, giving up on our family rather than his drinking and gambling (and other women). He wasn't going to raise Timmy and Jenny. He wasn't going to get a job to support them. He wasn't going to spend time playing with them or helping Timmy with his homework. He wasn't going to take them to church.

My babies were abandoned and I don't even know why. Why did that man kill me? What's going to happen to me now? Why didn't Jesus save me? Why didn't he take me to Heaven?

I used to make jokes about attending my own funeral just to see what it was like, to make sure my favorite hymns were played at the memorial service, to hear my Pastor recite special psalms over my grave.

I watched my sister holding Timmy's hand as the funeral ended. Her husband stayed home with Jenny. I watched my sister help my little boy into her car. I knew she would drive him back to their home in Los Alamitos. I never thought she cared enough to provide a home for my children. I never thought that, when he found out I died, Jeff, my ex, would realize Timmy and Jenny needed a family.

I pushed my sister away because she and her husband weren't Christians. I pushed her away when, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how passionately I witnessed to her and told her how coming to Christ was the best thing that ever happened to me, she refused to become a believer.

I pushed Jeff out of our home because he couldn't hold a job but he spent every spare dime we had on horse races and his beer. I tried to get him to go to church with us, the kids and me, I tried. I thought if he could make friends with other godly men that it would help turn him around, help him be a good father and husband.

He didn't want to listen to me either.

Of all the people at church, Pastor Bill, Shelly and the other women in our Bible study group, my spirit, my soul doesn't visit any of them. Only Jeff, only my sister Emily, and of course, my sweet little children. Jenny cries missing me and poor Timmy is so heartbroken and mad at God for taking me away from him and his sister to go to Heaven.

It's been five months now and I'm still not in Heaven. What's wrong with me? Why doesn't Jesus love me? Why am I like a ghost haunting my family?

Dear God, I forgive them. I forgive Jeff for all his faults. I still can't believe I'm watching him go to his first AA meeting. Emily's husband Terry, I never knew, he's been a recovering alcoholic for over ten years now, he took him.

Now I'm watching Emily at her house, rocking the baby in her arms and reading to Timmy from his favorite Bible stories book. Why is she doing that? She doesn't believe, does she? She even started taking him back to my church.

She really does love my children. She and Terry never had kids. I never knew she could be such a good...mother.

I forgive Emily for hurting me by not receiving Christ into her heart. I forgive her for loving Terry more than she loved me. I forgive...

I'm dead. I don't breathe. Why do I feel like I'm short of breath? Why do I feel scared? I can't be hurt. Why am I hurting inside?

I'm already gone from this world. I can't touch anything and nothing touches me. I feel nothing...nothing...

Nothing except sorrow and loss...and regret.

Jesus, please forgive me for everything I've done wrong. Please take me into Heaven. Please take me into your rest.

You aren't going to forgive me, though, are you?

Emily's just put the baby down in her crib to sleep, and she's getting Timmy into his PJs so he can go to bed soon. She's reading him another Bible story about Jesus. What's that he's saying? "When I die, will I see my Mommy in Heaven?"

My heart is breaking for the thousandth time.

"The Bible says that if we repent and ask forgiveness from Jesus and from anyone we have hurt, we're saved and we go to Heaven when we die," she says, comforting him in a hug.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you yesterday, Aunt Emmy," Timmy starts to softly cry. "Will you forgive me?" If only I could take him in my arms. I so love Emily for being so sweet and caring to him.

"I forgive you, sweetheart. I always will," Emily smiles down at him, rubbing his tears away with a finger.

"Please forgive me too, Emily." I hear the words but it takes me a second to realize I'm the one who said them.

Oh God. I am so sorry. "Emily, I'm so sorry for how I've treated you. You're my sister. Jesus doesn't want me to not love you. The years I've stolen from you, years where we could have acted like a family. Years you could have been an Aunt to Timmy. He didn't get to know you, to love you, because I was alive. I was selfish. I was wrong."

"Timmy, please forgive Mommy. I love you and little Jenny more than anything. I kept you from your Aunt and Uncle who really love you, too. I am so sorry. Please forgive me. Jenny, please forgive me."

"Jeff, I've been hurt and angry at you for so long. I thought everything was your fault, like God made a mistake giving you to me for a husband instead of a Christian man. You tore my heart out when you walked out on our children...on me. I was too blind to see I'd pushed you away, too...that I stopped loving you when I gave my heart to Jesus. That's not what he wanted me to do."

"Please forgive me, Jeff. Please forgive me for not being a good wife to you. You really were a good husband and father and you would have stayed, I know you would have stayed...would have stayed and not started drinking, not started gambling, if I hadn't changed so much."

I don't know how long I've been crying. I don't know where I am. I can't see them anymore. I can't see Jeff or Emily or Terry. I can barely see Timmy asleep in his bed or Jenny's sweet little face in her crib.

"Good-bye my babies. Mommy's going away now. I'll always love you. But it'll be OK. Uncle Terry and Aunt Emily love you too, they love you so much. Daddy loves you. I'm glad he's visiting you and playing with you. I'm glad things are going to be OK."

I can't see any of them anymore. I've stopped feeling sad. I love my family, and I know Jesus will take care of them. I believe that. I believe it with all my heart.

I feel so peaceful. Bright light is all around me. I feel warm and weightless. I'm letting go. I'm forgiving. I'm forgiven.

My name is Sara Anne Connor...and I'm going to Heaven.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Transformation by Vision

I've now progressed to Chapter Three: "Character," in Josip Novakovich's book Fiction Writer's Workshop. I've found that describing a scene, particularly from memory, is more difficult than I imagined.

For instance, in writing a very short illustration of The Alley as taken from the 1984 cult classic film The Terminator, I had neglected a great deal of detail about the contents of the alley (I'd forgotten how many discarded newspapers there were, water pipes running up the sides of buildings, the shapes of the buildings themselves). I saw the film again over this past weekend, and realized that I had described mainly the darkness and what I remembered about alleys in general, not this particular alley.

How much more difficult will it be to describe a person and to make that person seem convincingly real? What sort of person should I describe? Should I use an aspect of my own personality, someone I know, some famous or historical figure, a mythic being from some ancient tale of lore...a combination?

In the opening pages of this chapter, Novakovich describes the "conversion" of the Apostle Paul, what changed about him and what didn't. Of course, he takes the traditional Christian view of the Apostle whereas, my own internal image of "Rav Sha'ul" is somewhat to drastically different.

So I have my starting point, I think...

For the basis of the following short character piece, please open a copy of the Bible to the New Testament, and read Acts 9:1-19
"I would never write about someone who is not at the end of his rope."

-Stanley Elkin
His traveling companions gently deposited the Pharisee at the edge of a sleeping mat in a small, rented room just off of Straight street in Damascus. This wasn't how they'd imagined entering the city, nor was Sha'ul the man with whom they had traveled from Jerusalem. Only hours ago, he was a fiery zealot (though not literally associated with the Zealots), breathing murderous threats against the disciples of a Rav named Yeshua, who had died and supposedly been resurrected, vowing their imprisonment or destruction for (supposedly) speaking against the Temple and the Torah.

Sha'ul's once penetrating gaze had dimmed, and wide-open but unseeing eyes had become dulled in the aftermath of the blazing light that bathed their party on the road approaching this city, and a voice only Sha'ul could clearly hear had spoken to him of things astounding and forbidden.

"We will take our leave of you now, my Master," Simeon nearly whispered to the once vital but now strangely shrunken, frail Pharisee. "We need to secure our own rooms." Sha'ul seemed deaf as well as blind for he did not respond. "We'll bring back food."

Without turning toward the speaking man, Sha'ul faintly nodded his ascent as if he could still see the unknown vision from the road. Simeon and his two cohorts quickly escaped the oppressive presence of the now sightless and helpless minister of justice against the religious sect they'd learned was called "The Way." Their once proud mission was reduced to ashes.

Although it was highly irregular, Simeon would send one of their group back to Jerusalem with a message for the High Priest, who, a Sadducee, had consented to issuing letters of authority to the Pharisee Sha'ul permitting him to arrest and remove any disciples of this Rav Yeshua from the local synagogues and return them for trial. Would the Cohen Gadol have any instructions given these disastrous events? What were they to do with Sha'ul now?

"Why do you persecute, me he said," an abandoned Sha'ul muttered to himself in dim light and utter darkness. "Prosecute me? Prosecute him? How was I to know? How was I to know there was substance and power behind these measly group of heretics?" a still crushed and astonished Sha'ul murmured.

"How was I to know that you were the Moshiach, the Son of the Most High, the resurrected one?" Sha'ul abruptly screamed, as much to Yeshua as to the blind heavens!

Hearing no reply nor expecting one, the minutes lapsed and his rapid, ragged breathing slowed. Sha'ul supposed it was the traditional time for the Minchah, the afternoon prayers, and began to daven silently to Hashem, the Most High God, His God, who had abruptly become, if not a stranger, then at least the surprising source of something unexpected, as this new dimension of reality came into focus in the Pharisee's life.

Throughout his prayers, Sha'ul's mind raced in a countering subtext of desperate thought about who he is becoming now that he has been confronted by Yeshua, whose disciples he had condemned and yet how Sha'ul is condemned by the power behind and above the sect of The Way. Sha'ul had always been zealous for the Torah, for the sacrifices, for the Temple. He had kept every Law and tradition of his people in the manner of the Pharisees. He washed up to his elbows before eating every meal, kept all of the precepts so that he was always ritually pure, even when most of the time, he was away from Jerusalem and unable to make Temple offerings.

He was among the greatest of the Pharisees, in spite of his youth. A member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Jew among Jews. He had risen quickly among his peers, but then in those scant few moments of being blasted by the radiance of Heaven, he had fallen from the brightest heights and into total darkness; from the clouds to sheol.

Only his prayers offered faint luminescence, for even now, in his humility and humiliation, Sha'ul's hope was in Hashem, Maker of Heaven and Earth. If indeed this Yeshua is the Son of the Most High...

"How, Oh Hashem? How could I have been so wrong?" Sha'ul's prayers fell in disarray about his feet like wounded sparrows. "How can I put my hope in You when I have been so opposed to him? How could I have been so right and yet discover I've been so wrong?"

Sightless eyes wept bitter tears of contrition and repentance. This is the way Simeon found him when bringing Sha'ul his evening meal, which was repeatedly refused. This is how Sha'ul spent the next three days and nights, weeping, fasting, and praying, until another man who also had a vision, but a much more gentle one, came to Sha'ul's room and introduced himself to the future servant of Yeshua as the disciple Ananias.

Sha'ul was about to receive another revelation, the second among many. The Torah, the Temple, the Priesthood, the sacrifices were eternal. But in Messiah, they could now be experienced in ways Sha'ul had never imagined.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Alley

One of the exercises in the second chapter of Josip Novakovich's book Fiction Writer's Workshop asks the writer to describe a setting from the point of view of someone who has just experienced a death, and another description of the same setting from a person who has just experienced a birth.

As with this assignment and yesterday's project, I decided to adapt the suggestion to something that speaks to me in my own "language."

I'm writing this from memory, although I never let too many months pass between viewings of this particular cult classic. Obviously, I have to develop more of a perspective on these characters than was revealed in the scene from the film I'm about to describe, particularly the first character. I guess that's part of what fiction writing is all about.

The alley reeked of urine, cheap wine, and rotting vegetables as he curled up in the shadows of a doorway behind some garbage cans. Mostly the smell of wine was coming from his clothes, but the majority of the contents of that last bottle made its way into his mouth, to his stomach, his bloodstream, and finally, blessedly, his brain.

His "old lady," the aging widow who occasionally took him in out of pity and sex, locked her door on him tonight because he was too drunk to "perform." "Who does she think he is?" he slurred through intoxication and a mouth missing several teeth. "Why'd she kick me out, the damn bitch?" he whined to himself in undeserved indignation.

This alley near downtown L.A. had been his haven before. If he kept quiet and out of sight, the cops wouldn't hassle him, and neither would the gangbangers who'd have been known to roll a drunk, shove a knife through the ribs, or the really scary ones who were rumored to pour gasoline on a guy sleeping it off, and light him on fire.

But because of wine and apathy, he was beyond being afraid or caring. He pulled the old, torn and frayed Army blanket, the last memento of his service to his country and the catastrophe two tours of duty in Vietnam had made of his mind and his body, over his slight, bent frame, and used his arms for a pillow.

This evening in May in Southern California meant the concrete steps he made his bed were only a little cold to the touch. His thoughts and senses were unfocused and confused, and as he tucked his head under the blanket to avoid the street lights reflecting into his refuge, he felt embraced by a sense of wilderness and familiar comfort.

The blanket held the odors of mold and sweat and mingled with the alley's other fragrances, most of them unpleasant, and while they spoke of abandonment and loss, they also whispered "freedom." No one could tell him what to do or where to go. There were no rules. Comfortably numb, he continued to mutter to himself, occasionally cursing his "old lady," and for one more night, calling this minor corridor off of Pico Avenue his home.

Pain! Bright light! It was like being born maybe. Reese's flesh felt like he was on fire (and he'd been burned once before) as the astonishing illumination abruptly vanished and he dropped into darkness, landing hard on his knees and elbows.

It took his eyes several moments to adjust to the dim light around him after having been blinded by the startling brilliance of his brief but amazing journey. He shook off the pain, disconnected it, even as smoke rose up from his back. Then he looked up and around.

The buildings on both sides of him were whole, not burnt out ruins. Electric lights. Wires between buildings for telephones. The sounds of road traffic drifting in from the street at the far end of the alley. He was in an alley. He stood up and remembered he was naked. "Nothing dead can travel through time," they told him. Anything he needed to complete his mission he'd have to get once he got to the other side, the past, the time before the war.

"Hey buddy, did you just see a real bright light?" wailed a voice to his right. Reese cursed himself for his carelessness. He was a soldier, a veteran of countless battles against the machines, and still he hadn't noticed the frail figure lying in the shadows just six feet away.

Realizing the man was harmless, he looked around again. He'd made it. He was in the past. Reese felt the thrill of success, the thrill at survival, even as he made plans to find Sarah Connor. But first he needed something to wear. The old guy was drunk and wouldn't give him any trouble.

As Reese pulled up the stinking, moist pants he'd just taken from the man still lying in the doorway, a sudden bright spotlight illuminated him. Reese whirled around in time to see two police officers (he recognized them from an old history book he once found in the rubble of a school) getting out of a car and approaching him. He couldn't afford to be detained. They'd have guns. He ran the other way down the alley.

"He's rabbiting," one of the officers yelled as he chased the fugitive, ignoring the other man who loudly slurred, "He took my pants!"

As the two running figures receded in the darkness and the other officer drove away in his car, the older man pulled his blanket up around his shoulders thankful that the cops were ignoring him, and also crushed that he'd suffered yet another insult. He retreated into his despair as if he could melt back into the shadow of the doorway, and the pavement, and the night, and hoped the cops wouldn't come back for him. He just wanted to sleep. He just wanted to feel safe or if not safe, at least isolated from everything. That's what the alley meant to him. But it also meant a dead end, and end of time, at least his time, because a deep fear clawed inside of him, a knowledge that as he slept here he'd probably die here.

Reese's bare feet padded against the asphalt as he ran from the police officer. What was familiar to the owner of the pants he wore was an alien landscape Reese had only heard stories about from the very oldest survivors of the future nuclear holocaust, or seen pictures of in the few books and magazines that had been found in what was left of schools and libraries.

The grey cold light of street lamps, the rocks on the pavement that cut his feet as he ran, the slight chill in the air, the smells of garbage and car exhaust, all spoke of a life and a world that still had hope, that was still alive and free, of a people not yet dominated by the machines. This wasn't home. It would never be home, but if he could save Sarah Connor and somehow stop the Terminator, he could end the destruction of the human race before it ever started. The future's not set. It's just the beginning. All he had to do is survive.

Kyle Reese ran.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Plant

I'm trying to continue to put some good effort into my Fiction Writer's Workshop project and not avoid dealing with "Settings," which is the focus of the second chapter.

I don't think I'll address all or even most of the exercises, and of those I do, I'm pretty sure I'm going to be adapting them for my own use. A lot of what Novakovich suggests just doesn't seem like anything I'd write. I can't explain it, but you wouldn't expect Larry Niven to write woman's romance novels or Dashiell Hammett to write haiku.

Something in a few of the exercises suggests defining the protagonist by his or her environment, as if the person's setting is an extension of the individual's identity or the setting shapes and molds the person...or a little of both.

He was surrounded by a vastness of space and light and sound. "The Plant," as it was traditionally called (United States Postal Service Mail Processing Center, really), could be viewed as one enormous room, like a warehouse, but it was perpetually flooded with light. You could never tell the time of day, which was important since the Plant was in operation all the time.

This is what I used to do for the machine
The machines were always running, and clattering, and screeching (mainly when they were in the process of a high speed malfunction), and hammering, and whistling, and ringing. Some of the workers wore earplugs as a defense, but then that made it hard for them to hear the yelling of their supervisors when something (like the high speed malfunction of a mail processing machine as it turned several hundred first class letters into unintelligible confetti) went wrong.

The space of a football field (he didn't really know it was that size, but it seemed like a good analogy) was consumed with different machines processing different kinds of mail, requiring differently skilled personnel for the tasks, being replaced every eight, to ten, to twelve hours by the next shift in an endless ballet of blue collar precision.

He was where they always put him. As low man on the team, he got stuck with sweeping the mail out of the machine. There were always two people on the machines that processed letter mail, preparing it for delivery the next day, the feeder and the sweeper.

The feeder stood in one spot, pulling stacks of envelopes from bins, neatly and evenly stacking them on the feeder belt, and guiding one stack after another into the machine. The machine was programmed to read the zebra code that had been previously sprayed on the envelopes by another machine and order them in delivery point sequence (DPS). Then, this impossibly long device spit hundreds and hundreds of envelopes a minute into 100 or so slots (he never actually counted them, but they went on forever) up and down the device, and the second person on the team, me, had to quickly walk back and forth across the length of the mechanism, sweeping the slots becoming full into plastic trays stacked on metal wire racks, all containing the zip codes corresponding to the mail.

No wonder he was losing weight. Except for two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch, he was always in motion.

Mail is dry, incredibly dry. His hands were always chapped, cracked, and occasionally bleeding because the paper he was constantly moving from one place to another absorbed the water and oil from his skin like an alcoholic lapping the last ounces of vodka from a bottle. He once tried wearing gloves, but when he couldn't feel the mail, he dropped it, and dropping already sequenced mail is a bad thing.

He arrived at work at 11 p.m. usually, but sometimes sooner if they needed him. They could make him work up to twelve hours a shift, so if he couldn't see a clock (he stopped wearing his watch because he kept breaking it against the metal shelves of the machine or the wheeled wire cages where he stacked the mail trays when they were ready to be loaded onto trucks), the only way he knew it was morning or not was to look up at a skylight fifty feet above his head to see if it was black or blue.

Except for lunch, breaks, or, when the mail was finished being processed and he stacked all the mail in wheeled containers, he never saw anything but the hind end of the machine regurgitating its seemingly unending stream of letters, the racks and trays staged and ready to receive that mail, or the catwalks, support frames, metal ceiling (all white, making the lighting seem even brighter), and the occasional ceiling skylight in those few moments when he dared look up away from the mail, just so he could get a sense of distance.

In spite of the speed at which letters were launched like rectangular projectiles out of the slots and swept into the trays, he had learned to read addresses, recognize locations, and get a sense even of the order in which the mail was to be delivered. When the mail for each zone was trucked from the Plant to their respective local post offices, each carrier could retrieve the mail trays for his or her route and they would be (ideally...occasionally mistakes were made either by people or computers) in the exact order in which each tray and each letter in each tray, would be delivered. All the carrier had to do was "follow the mail."

All the sweeper had to do was run up and down the machine for hour upon hour, moving the mail from slots to trays from slots to trays, back and forth back and forth, ignoring the splitting flesh of his fingers, the maddening clatter of the machine, the paper dust, the dust of unknown origin he sucked into his lungs, the faint small of oil and ozone, and the always too bright flood of lights (light flare generators from every conceivable direction) that made it eternally day in the Plant, regardless of how much his body told him it was night and he should be in bed like normal human beings.

Ready to be loaded onto trucks at the dock
The last envelope was now in the last tray. The machine was silent as a man in a blue coat did something to it at a keyboard. Gangs of people descended upon his racks and he helped them load the trays into the wheeled containers, zone by zone, so they could be pulled out onto the dock and loaded into different trucks destined for different postal stations.

He never saw the docks. The dock people pulled the wheeled racks out to the trucks. His job was done when these containers were loaded. If he was lucky, that would be it and he could clock out and go home. If not, some other job would be waiting, either at a different machine, or maybe some manual sorting of mail the optical character reader (OCR) machines couldn't read well enough to spray paint a zebra code on (he always remembered the one a little girl addressed to her grandpa using different colored crayons).

But today there was silence. Well, not really silence. There were other machines churning, humming, and shuffling. There were people at end of shift shuffling out toward the time clocks, and then the bathrooms, and then out the door to go home. But at least his machine had stopped.

His supervisor gave him "the nod," it was his turn to leave. He looked up. The light from the distant skylight was blue. Someday he would be free. Someday he would walk out into the blue and never have to come back to through the darkness into the hideous bright light. For today, he could at least pretend.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


It's been nearly two weeks since I've written any fiction for my Fiction Writer's Workshop project. Frankly, I've been too busy writing projects for which I get paid to devote time to this "labor of love."

There's another reason I've gone silent, though. Chapter Two in the book is about Settings. In reading the various exercises for the chapter, I really don't find any of them interesting let alone inspiring. I don't remember much about places where I grew up or for the most part, even care about them.

Last Sunday, I was telling a friend of mine about his project, and expressing some frustration at not getting very far. He told me that everything he's read about writing says it has more to do with persistence and developing the habit of writing every day than it does with sudden inspiration or having an idea that "magically" unfolds into a perfect story.

I was reminded of a line from the 1987 film Throw Momma From the Train, "Remember, a writer writes, always." I felt kind of guilty of wanting to "just write" the way some kid who buys a used six-string guitar expects to "just play" the minute he opens his beginner's chord book.

But while I believe setting is important, and a created "world" of one kind or another can take on a life of its own, I'm not sure I can make a setting the main "character" in even a very short story. 

That said, one thing comes to mind. This is the best I can remember of the "incident". It was probably around 1962.

The German soldiers were hiding in a plastic house. It crudely simulated a one room stone structure, but it was clearly plastic. It had been set on fire before, because the roof was partially blackened and melted, with gaping holes showing in several spots.

But that's OK. The soldiers were plastic, too.

Six-year-old Jimmy visited his Grandpa's house a lot now that he and his parents moved back home to Omaha from Spain. Dad was in the Air Force and they moved around every couple of years or so. Jimmy barely remembered living here before they moved to Spain when he was three.  He'd be going into the first grade next month. It would be the first time he was in a school where all the kids didn't have Dads in the service.

He didn't know his older cousin Donny much, but being kids, they played together whenever Jimmy and his folks were visiting Grandpa. Donny played "World War Two" better than anyone.

The plastic house with the toy German soldiers inside was sitting on the cracked, granular sidewalk just in front of Grandpa's house. The sidewalk wasn't smooth like the ones in front of Jimmy's house across the river in Council Bluffs. It was like little rocks had been mixed in with the cement so that it was rough feeling when Jimmy ran his fingers across it.

Tree roots pushed, shoved, and pulled at different places in the sidewalk, so it was cracked and broken, higher in some places, and lower in others. Jimmy's knee still hurt a little because he tripped on a raised part of the sidewalk a little earlier. Mommy put a band-aid on the torn skin, and he proudly wore the rip in his pants as proof he could get hurt and not cry.

Jimmy looked up from the sidewalk as Donny pulled the forbidden model airplane glue and matches out of his back pocket. The two boys whispered like foreign conspirators planning a coup.
"Are we gonna get in trouble," Jimmy whined. "Shut up," Donny commanded. "It'll be fine."

Donny applied a layer of glue from the tube, releasing a nasty chemical stench into Jimmy's nostrils, but he was too scared to complain again. Every warning his Dad sternly delivered about not playing with matches was marshaling his guilt and fear of being spanked. Only the promise of adventure, of playing Americans against Germans with a real burning house kept him from going back inside Grandpa's.

Well, that, and he didn't want Donny to think he was a baby.

Donny smeared the glue with his fingers around the edges of the holes in the dark, gray roof of the toy house. The plastic walls were a lighter gray, almost the same color as the sidewalk, and these bland tones were violently offset by the deep green of the grass on either side of the cement walk.

Donny put the cap back on the tube and wiped the glue left over on his fingers around in the grass. Then he pulled one of the matches out of the match book and scraped the head against the striker. It didn't light, so he did it again, and when it burst into flame, Jimmy involuntarily pulled back a little.

Scene from the TV show "Combat"
Donny's eyes were as bright as the flame as he lowered the match toward the moist airplane model glue glistening on the roof. "Get your soldiers ready to attack," Donny reminded Jimmy.

Jimmy quickly positioned his plastic green "American" toy soldiers in the grass at the edge of the sidewalk facing the front of the toy house, as if they were hiding in a large field.

Each U.S. soldier had a grim and unmoving look in his face. They were posed to attack, but then, they could never change their faces or pose, anymore than they could move their feet from the flat pieces of plastic that let them stand up. Each blade of grass was like an enormous stalk of emerald corn or wheat, offering cover from the enemy who have taken shelter in the abandoned French farm house.

It was like Jimmy was watching his favorite TV show Combat.

The American artillery was firing at the German position. A shell hit the house right on top! Donny lit the glue on fire and quickly dropped the match through one of the holes in the plastic roof. The house was on fire. This was war!