John Updike on Thievery

The young people ask me about becoming a writer, and they really haven’t read, not even read bad stuff. They haven’t experienced reading as happiness, as it were. So without some knowledge of what other writers have done, it’s very hard to find your own way, I think. We’re all thieves, I suppose.

TABERNAS – part one

Steven ran quickly, making his steps nimble and quiet. He clutched the bag in his left hand and used his right to peel through the brush along the slope leading down and away from the buildings above. His mind was clear and his body moved steadily, like a machine. He believed completely in what he had done.

In the distance he could hear the blare of sirens from la policia. They were different than los camiones de bomberos, which emitted deeper and longer groaning rings that seemed to match the great size of their truck bodies. For a minute he stopped running and listened to them. His heart competed with their cries. He moved on and passed the water tower he grew up throwing rocks and sticks at with his friends. These days, none of those friends were still around. Most had moved their families away from Tabernas as a way to escape the incessant subjection overwhelming the city. The general belief was that the further away one could get his family the better. Stephen and his family were one of very few below the poverty line that remained.

Suddenly, he tripped. The black canvas bag he had been clutching went careening into the river at the bottom of the gully. It was a mighty artery of water, and it stood as the only lasting object in the great city with force and determination that was not also repressing those who relied upon it. It simply remained, flowing with power.

Steven panicked for a moment. He wiped away sweat from his brow and allowed himself to breathe out heavily to catch his breath. Then he quickly peeled off his jacket and dove into the river. The body took him instantly and he coughed loudly at the frigid chill that it ran through his body. He had grown up swimming in this river, and so with his head down with the same kind of determination found in the river, he swam toward the black canvass, now barely recognizable in the blackened sky reflecting down upon the water. He pushed down the river, moving at an incredible rate. Trees, rocks, and streetlights raced by above. Finally, he reached and felt the now sopping canvass between his fingers. Again he could hear the sirens above.

Forging across the river was never an easy task. To stand and attempt to walk across was foolish and futile on account of its tremendous force. To do so would mean certain death. Fortunately, its course throughout the city was generally quite smooth as most rocks and small boulders had been washed away in a great storm decades earlier. Steven knew he would be safe from these impediments and slowly edged closer to the shore. When he finally made it to the other side he looked up to the Northern hills to gather his location. It appeared that the river had pushed him close to a mile south. This was acceptable, and even charitable since he needed to get as far away from the scene of the crime as he possibly could. Jumping into the river was not part of his plan, but it made for a great getaway vehicle all the more.

Upon the riverbed, time seemed to drip from his hair and brow like water. He had to act swiftly. He darted up the embankment in front of him and made his way north-west into the night, taking back trails and paths known only to coyotes, and local boys like himself.

 

The sun was beginning to rise as he woke. The heavy oak tree above covered him from sight and acted as a suitable resting place before he would make the remaining five-mile walk to his village. He yawned and stuck his fingers in his ears to loosen dried water, and as he did he remembered the canvass. He swung around and parsed the earth and tree frantically. Panic began to pour over him again. He thought of his family, his mother, hermana, and abuelo who would be counting on his return. A small lump that had been working its way into his thigh all night suddenly reminded him of its existence and he shot his hand beneath his legs and welcomed the cool, damp canvass bag back into his possession.

“Aye Dios mío…” he whispered in relief. He gazed around quickly to make sure he was alone and then tenderly brought the bag into sight. He watched it for close to a minute, knowing its immeasurable significance. “El valor de esto es mas de lo que yo pueda comprender,” he quietly said.

The Spanish sun beat heavily upon his long, dirty black hair. Hunger seemed to turn on him and beckoned loudly with frustrated groans for appeasement. Thirst all but glued his throat shut and his head and body had grown quite weary. The canvass bag was indiscreetly tucked between his skin and front-right pocket. While quite apparent, he thought it was the safest place for it to be held. He walked with an awkward limp, and with time a rash began to form on his upper thigh where the bag rubbed. After a short while he desperately wished he could relieve the pain and reposition the bag, but he was out in the open and knew he could not dare the risk.

The vast Spanish desert laid dead and familiar before him. He watched los liebres jump quickly from their holes and into bushes to take cover from the heat. He thought about how this was a daily task for them and that if they could somehow find contentment in it—if they could manage to get by and continue to live and move, then he could too. As often as he could he ducked beneath bushes to try to hide for a few moments from the beating sun.

In the distance he could see a large group of buitres swimming in circles together in the air. Some made quick dives and then seemed to change their minds and swoop back into their circles. Whatever they had found had clearly not passed yet. It was not uncommon to see tens and twenties of these swarming above a single, dying carcass, all hoping to be one of the few lucky buzzards to land a decaying meal. As he neared he began to make out the appearance of the body. He expected a coyote, or even one of the buzzard’s own, but with each step he made out a more defined figure of a human body. The oddity of such a sight was surreal. He recalled the memory of his dying abuela when he was seven. His mother assured him that she would be waiting for him “en el cielo,” which he did not understand. Later that week he came home from school to see a tightly made bed with pillows and abuela’s knitted blankets methodically placed upon it. He never saw her again. As for a dead body, this was something he had never seen before.

As the body came more fully into view he considered simply moving past it. He feared that if it was still conscious it might notice the canvass, which was something that could not be risked. But the closer he came, the stronger he felt a sense to make sure the body was in fact dead. While keeping his eyes on the still, quiet figure, he slowed his step and deliberated with himself.

If it was dead, then his conscience would be clear and he could keep moving. But if it was not, then he knew he would have to help the dying soul. A deep sense of conflict rose up inside of him. If he moved past the body he could help his family sooner, but there would always remain the lingering chance, the haunting idea of a body laying pecked near to shreds whispering, Agua, por favor. He would hear it for the rest of his life. Fine, he thought. I must.

With reluctance he approached. Each step felt like the lightest he had ever taken, his eyes remained on the body, attempting to see if it stirred. He waited for the expansion of the chest, for signs of breathing.

It was a man. His jeans were dirty and tucked into his boots. His long-sleeved shirt was opened to the middle of his chest and a pool of blood had overcome his lower right stomach. The man lay still but his chest rose pathetically every few seconds. Steven took a deep breath as he came into yelling distance. He clutched the side of the bag with his right hand and then called out to the body.

“Amigo, estas vivo?”

No answer. He took a few steps closer. In so doing he made out the pale skin and complexion of the body. This is no Spaniard, he thought to himself.  “Hey! Are jou ‘live?” This time Steven’s voice seemed to rouse the figure. It let out a deep groan, which seemed to confirm to him that the man was cognizant. “Hey jou gimme an answer. Lemme hear jou say something’.” The body still did not respond. The thought of simply walking on crossed Steven’s mind again. The man still had not seen him, and even more important was that he had to keep the canvass from sight and conversation. He kept his eyes upon the man and moved over to a tree to sit and think things over again. He knew of a hospital a few miles west and considered figuring out how to drag the man there and then just leaving him collapsed outside so he would not have to be seen by anybody inside. Surely somebody would walk by and take him in, he thought. I would have done my part in getting him there. That is good enough. Still, the thought of not helping the man at all and simply walking on did retain its appeal. But leaving a man to be eaten by the buzzards did not sit well with him. I must do it, he finally decided. I must find a way to get this man to the hospital at least. Just then the body moved and let out a mouthful of mumbled words Steven did not understand.

“Snapshot”

In my first year of college I took a creative writing course. Blindly reaching, I had an inkling that I might enjoy it but had never fully flexed my creative muscles in that way before. Long story short, I enjoyed the course but entirely lacked the patience required of even the most fundamental kinds of writing. One great sign of that to me was the fact that I barely cracked open my writing textbooks. All the greats concur that in order to be a great writer you must be a great reader (and I would add: in order to be a writer you must be a reader, period).

That all being said, I finally got around to reading one of my creative writing texts. It is a paperback entitled, “Making Shapely Fiction” by Jerome Stern.

What a fool I was. What an utter fool. Stern is a genius, and I thought it better to do what instead of reading my textbooks? Strum a guitar? Talk to my girlfriend?

One of Stern’s central ideas (and clearly implied in his title) is that fiction writing has, or at least can be understood to have, shapes. Just as a visual artist will begin at her canvas with general shapes that she molds and brushes into portraits, landscapes, etc., so too does the fiction writer have the opportunity to employ “shapes,” as it were, into his writing.

For example, one of Stern’s shapes is the “Snapshot.” In this the writer will focus upon single moments (e.g. crises, revealing incidents, or epiphanies) and string them out throughout time. Stern says to think of the story as a series of public and private snapshots, of pictures taken at crucial moments. Real photographs, he says, are silent testimonials (think of writing photographs). The writer is to let the snapshots do the telling instead of forcing circumstance, dialogue, or otherwise.

Here is my “Snapshot”:

Rachel stared down the barrel of her father’s gun. A fine cloth was strewn to its side, doing little to protect and cover the weapon. It sat on its side on her mother’s nightstand and she was crouched down on her knees studying it with her hands behind her back. She turned her head to the side and attempted to line up the point at the top of the barrel with the lever she saw near the handle of the gun. She moved closer, ever so slowly, knowing only the distant sound it made from over the hill in the prairie. Her mother could be heard calling her name from the kitchen. Rachel remained fixated.

School let out and Rachel sprinted home. She huffed quick and chaotically, her arms swung wildly at her sides. Through the front door and into her bedroom, she flung her book bag upon her bed. Her algebra textbook spilled out with two dulled pencils and a calculator. Her face went planted straight into her pillow and she sobbed silently. Her mother could not know. She was so hurt she could die, her makeup smearing the white linen. The day’s events ran through her mind, and she parsed every single second of it. As she did this she began to trade sorrow for anger and fury. Little moans of anguish and ecstatic pain spurted through her nostrils and tightly pursed lips. Tears had all but completely covered her face. Her father was not an angry man, but even he had times when he removed the cherry-handled revolver from its hiding place beneath his bed to relieve stress.

Seven deeply carved grooves hid along the bottom of her wall behind her bed. She had become good at silently inching her bed from the concrete wall without waking anybody up. She doubted many slept so she knew her movement had to be utterly noiseless. Every Sunday, following mass, breakfast, library hour, exercise, and dinner, she made it a tradition to cut and bore a new notch. Knowing how many weeks had passed gave her a sense of sanity. She started as far to the left as she could manage knowing she would eventually need the entire wall. She hid the nail she pried out of a wooden bench in the yard in a hole she made in her mattress facing the wall.

Her graying hair had not flowed so freely in decades. The prairie and her old Kentucky home looked just as she remembered. Each morning she walked alone along the perimeter her father came to own before he died. Her mother’s garden had long-since died away too. All that remained were weeds and dull patches of hardened soil.

Differenced

Across an old oak table,
over coffee and cakes
with legs crossed and eyes throwing back laughter like old friends,
I know I have come to his home at last and at least, alive.
But,
as I gaze around the room I see,
upon walls firmly fastened
and along wood floors steadily running that,
to my horror,
it is not safety,
nor comfort that lay over me.
No, not at all.
And I am
suddenly
quite afraid.
Thoughts are flash-flooding my mind
and I begin to panic,
blood-pumping to hide
and to quickly cover from the calamity.
Pressing back against the wall,
breath quickening,
armpits spilling with sweat like summer,
the room darkening,
walls shrinking,
perception shriveling like a plum mercilessly subjected to the burning sun,
and!
I realize in the wake of such fateful moments, now,
that simply arriving guarantees me nothing, and,
that calling his mine showed more about me than it did about him.
From across the table I found the train of his sight once more.
His old, familiar eyes watching mine,
and waiting.
And I am not sure why, or how, but
they felt like home.
Stop, he quietly said.
And I did.
Be, and rest.
Sitting up straight again in my chair and knowing I could trust him,
I did.
Time seemed to take me by the hand as a sweet companion and I realized, eventually,
that I knew.
I knew that I had come to be differenced,
to be split wide like wood by the swinging force of an axe upon my inhibitions.
And I knew that it had happened.
And suddenly,
my splintered cavities felt filled by something good,
and it seemed to pool up around me everywhere.
And something beautiful,
like love convinced by grace,
came over me too with beckoning allure.
And with time came truth, like rich vines,
patiently wrapping me together again, snug,
and outside me suffocating old veneers.
It is you, he said.  Just you that I want.
I was quiet.
And while you spilled your guts for your entire life to find something that would just last–
something that would not disintegrate,
nor dash to change its mind,
nor stab you in the chest repeatedly when it gathered the knife in its upper hand,
I watched,
yearning for you to loosen your grip, and
to reach out and take mine.