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.

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