A Writer’s Notebook: NaNoWriMo 2011, week 4

I’m behind schedule, thanks to grading, editing, and Thanksgiving. And with more grading coming my way, I’m going to be hard-pressed to break 50k by the end of November 30. But I’m determined, and with a lot more ideas running around my head, I’m not terribly worried about making the deadline. The weird bit, though, is that I know I’m over-writing this book, and I expect to throw out a lot of the stuff I’ve written just to pad out the word count. When this month is over and I have time to go back and start editing this pile of text, I expect the book I’m actually writing will wind up much shorter.

But all in due time. Right now I’m just aiming to break the NaNoWriMo word count.

from “An Ugly Conversation”

Daniel caught one of the pirate buses outside Corvallis. It was a dark, filthy bus that cut out all light and smelled of chicken manure. The driver didn’t know any English and wouldn’t take Daniel’s money, useless as it was anymore, so Daniel gave him three joints and took an aisle seat in the center. The broken roads were bumpy and intolerable. Once, only twenty minutes into the ride, the bus got stopped by guerrillas, but Daniel made it out OK. As long as he kept his eyes down and his swollen bag hidden, he was safe. In the end, he gave the rest of his weed to the guerrillas, but he stayed on the bus; he stayed alive.

It took six hours to get to Portland. The bus wouldn’t go into town — something about the driver being afraid of cities. Daniel tried to explain bars and prostitutes to him as the passengers left the bus, but the driver yelled and shoved him out the door without listening.

Daniel wandered the streets for a while. It was already late in the night. Or early in the morning, depending on how you looked at it. Either way, it was dark and damp and unsettling. Daniel found an open bar and sauntered in. A whore with three missing teeth walked over to him and put her hand on his crotch, but Daniel pushed her away and asked the bartender if he knew any cheap hotels that were still open.

“How cheap, kid?” the bartender said, his voice thick with slur.

“Real cheap.”

“How much you got to pay for it?”

“I’m tapped out. I want to work for it.”

The bartender laughed loudly, and the whore, who hadn’t gone away yet, joined in while she stroked Daniel’s shoulder. “Pretty little boy like you? What you know about work?”

“I know what kind of work I’m capable of, man,” Daniel replied defiantly. Then he glanced his eyes at the whore and said, “Know what I mean?”

The bartender smiled slowly, exposing one gold tooth and one green one. He reached under the counter and pulled out a foggy beer mug. “Sure, kid. I know what you mean.” He poured himself some watery moonshine from a jar and took a lazy slug from it. He continued, “I tell you where to find your ‘work.’ But it’ll cost you. Understand?”

“Shit,” Daniel said as he looked down at the bar. The whore cackled and walked away. The bartender kept looking at Daniel evenly. “Not for free,” Daniel said at last.

“No,” the bartender said. “Not for free.” He grinned again.

“Fuck,” Daniel muttered.

“Exactly,” the bartender said.

“Fine,” Daniel said. “Where?”

The bartender pointed to a door with most of the word Gentlemen still painted on it, and Daniel shuffled his way over to it as the bartender rounded the bar.

from “The Dusty Shutters of Ourselves Thrown Open”

A soft rain drifts slowly through the thick summer air. The drops are so like they behave like fog, spiraling their way to dew the stone-littered streets.

And a black, opened umbrella bobs along the street four blocks away. It looks like a beetle, the shell of the umbrella shining in the rain.

Closer, a block and a half, a woman stands in a dark grey overcoat, perched absurdly in black heels and teetering on the scattered chunks of concrete beneath them. Her legs are too skinny, her jeans so tight. She looks like a blue heron wading the sidewalk. Before her: clusters of tall grasses that have pushed up through the fractured asphalt bend in a dance with the rain. Behind her: nothing. She waits.


An ocean leaps and licks at a stony shore sixty miles away. By car it was ninety minutes. Today it might take two days, assuming you stopped to sleep.

The wounded moon is working its way toward fullness, the spray of itself not yet visible in those rare breaks in the cloud. There’s a puddle in the new depression on the sidewalk, and the moon skips along that rippling surface to reflect off a window across the street, so it shines inside like a street lamp. Behind that window: a man. Before the man: a pad of paper and a broken antique oil lamp. He is writing. Not words, not meaning, only scratches of a brittle pencil on yellow legal paper. It seems to soothe him, that sound. I can hear it from here, monotonous as a chanting monk. In mid-sentence, pencil already shaking on to another line, he pauses and sighs.

I imagine that he’s writing a letter to God:

“I was thinking of you the other day, sitting out on the fire escape, watching the sun crash-land in the distant, boiling sea. I thought of all the good times we could have had, all the things I wish we could have done. Actually, I got rather depressed. Sipping on your blessed wine didn’t help much, of course.

“Dear God, why don’t you write?”

The letter wasn’t to God, of course. Or if it was, there is no God to read it.

from “Somewhere — an Insistent Harvest Moon”

In the small hours of this morning, I woke to the snort of a something rooting through the brush near my campsite. It sounded like a wild pig. Do we have those up here? Did they migrate here? Or maybe this is just one of those things that broke loose from the zoo and is trying to make its way out here like the rest of us.

After it left, I noticed a huge spotlight lighting my campsite and the south wall of my borrowed tent, and I wondered in my half sleep if a park ranger had come in the night and erected a giant street lamp out on the lake while I slept. Then I woke enough to realize how absurd that was, which is when I thought of the teenagers out on their deck boat. Maybe they’d seen my fire after all, or had spotted me floundering drunkenly on the shore. Maybe they had binoculars — boats like that have all sorts of gear in the hold — and they’d seen my bottle. They assumed I had more, probably buried in the woods like a pirate stash. And like pirates they were coming to pilfer it, to rape me or kill me or both, in no particular order. A boat like theirs, it was bound to have a search light.

I couldn’t hear the engine, but maybe they’d run out of fuel. Or maybe they were smart enough to cut it halfway across the lake and drift in silently.

I lay awake for maybe an hour, trying to hold my breath in intervals so I could hear better, so I could be prepared for their approach, for my own death. But the light never wavered, just rolled slowly, slowly up the wall of the tent.

Finally I sat up. Nothing changed in the light, even when I turned to study my own shadow on the opposite wall of the tent. I reached for the zipper pull and dragged it one link at a time, centimeter by centimeter, around its circular track until the flap fell inward enough that I could poke my head out.

It was the moon.

I watched it for about ten, maybe fifteen minutes, before I convinced myself that the light really was the moon and not a gang of teenagers sailing across the lake. Finally I conceded I wasn’t going back to sleep, and I crawled out of the tent to go sit by the lake in the moonlight. I kept to the shadows, in case those kids really were out there watching me, but I liked peeking through the branches up to that wounded, scattered moon. I could never figure out why the ejecta from the moon always glowed a pale electric blue. Why not white, or gray? Why not red like the sunsets?

from “A Very Good Thing”

Two days ago, Frankie spotted a twenty-eight-foot pocket trawler aground on some new island out here, something not on the charts, coughed up by the sea. I remember fishing with my uncle Bruce, how that guy would sometimes lie flat on a big table of a rock out over the river and watch the fish with his hand held out over the water, his fingers in a claw and the chords of muscle in his forearm taut, and then a fish would swim within his grasp and he’d plunge his fist into the water and snatch the fish out onto the rock. Most of the time he tossed it back. He just did that to prove he could do it. And when we saw this ship aground on this new land out in the middle of nowhere, it reminded me of my uncle Bruce, but upside down, we the fish gliding over the surface and earth below poised, ready to snatch us all at any moment just to prove we aren’t safe out here.

There were men still in the ship. They were out on deck waving and shouting, though we couldn’t hear them from where we were. We tried to hail them, too, but their equipment must have been out.

How they survived out here I still don’t know. I mean the ship and the men alike. We’ve been adrift for about three weeks now, all of us ready to put in but still unsure where it’ll be safe to do so, if it’s safe anywhere. But we’re prepared for a long period asea and have a ship big enough to ride out the tsunamis. This little trawler? It’s a miracle it ever stayed afloat long enough to run aground. It’s a miracle, too, that any of the crew held on and didn’t get swept overboard.

I was thinking about all this as we pulled closer to them. I thought that maybe they hadn’t survived out here at all, that maybe they were new to the sea. That maybe their vessel has survived in harbor, however unlikely that was — they’d have been safer out here — and had only recently put out to sea to try and bring in a catch. I can;t imagine what the food situation must be like on land.

The seabed was jagged and unpredictable, and we couldn’t get close enough to them to do much from the ship. So the Captain sent a towing cable out to them, and they hooked on and braced for the tug back into the drink. They were stuck fast, though, the fractured seabed wrapped around the hull like a cradle, and the strain on the cable was too great. Before we could change course and make some slack, the cable broke. It looked like a bad special effect, like a tentacle of that giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, slow and animal. But it wasn’t slow, it was just thick and wiry, and when it whipped around over the deck it caught Frankie in the thighs and amputated both his legs. One stroke, just like that. He was standing there shouting and then he was lying on his back, still shouting, and though we’d all seen the legs come off and fall the opposite direction as his body, we couldn’t process what had just happened. We all thought he’d just been knocked over. Frankie thought the same thing, kept trying to sit up and hollering at us to help him to his feet. He reached for a handhold on the deck and came up with his own left shin.

The Captain himself scooped Frankie up under his arms, sat him on the anchor well and ripped off his own belt to tourniquet a thigh. Gerry pulled off his belt, too, and the Captain tied off the other leg. The Captain was sobbing the whole time, his face so pinched with his cries I don’t know how he could see what he was doing. But it was long since too late.

Total word count as of this post: 38,178 words.

For more about my NaNoWriMo project, check out my NaNoWriMo page here or my profile on the NaNoWriMo website.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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