Monday, December 7, 2009
In which the author, trying to write fiction, runs into a brick wall
I need your help. But first, read this:
The regular scoutmaster had to go out of town on a business trip unexpectedly, so the assistant scout-master, Vernon Tutwiler, ended up having to take the troop of twelve Boy Scouts on the all-day hike and overnight camping trip by himself. He had packed his gear carefully the night before, reviewed various first aid procedures in case somebody got hurt, made sure his cell phone recharger was plugged into the wall, and set his alarm for four-thirty. Crawling into bed next to his waiting wife, Darla Sue, he dreaded the prospect of spending two days with teenaged boys. Darla Sue quickly made him forget all about teenaged boys.
The next afternon, after hiking for hours, Vernon had to admit that he was enjoying the outing even though his feet were aching and he was beginning to get a blister on his left heel. Just before sundown, the boys stopped hiking and erected their tents and dug their latrine and built their campfire and cooked their supper and settled in for the night in a small clearing above Bridal Veil Falls. They had pitched camp near a place where Vernon’s map showed three small waterways, Lowdown Creek and Nogood Creek and Fourflusher Creek, converged. The names of the creeks reminded Vernon of how cowboys talked in the old black-and-white Western movies he used to see every Saturday afternoon in the balcony of the Farr-Best Theater in Gastonia when he was a kid. He smiled remembering the insults cowboys hurled at one another when they had ridden into town hoping to hook up with dance-hall girls for an evening of pleasure but instead got rip-roaring drunk in the saloon and accused someone of cheating at poker and started a fistfight and shot up the place with their trusty six-shooters and got tossed in the hoosegow for the night by the sheriff to cool off and sober up before returning the next day to their thankless jobs of herding three thousand head of Hereford cattle north to the railroad hub in Abilene and loading them into boxcars destined for slaughter-houses in Omaha and Kansas City so that businessmen in cities back east could take their wives out to eat steak in fancy restaurants. Vernon was always thinking things like that; he considered himself to be a deep thinker.
Darla Sue, on the other hand, thought Vernon wasted far too much time thinking instead of what he ought to be doing, such as mowing the lawn or taking out the garbage or getting the oil changed in their Pontiac sedan. It was her only real complaint about him. Her mother, Virgie Perkins Hobgood Dickerson, who lived with Darla Sue and Vernon, thought her son-in-law was a lollygagger and a daydreamer and told her daughter so on more than one occasion. “Darla Sue,” Virgie would say, “I know you love him and all but I think Vernon is a lollygagger and a daydreamer.”
Virgie had moved in with Darla and Vernon two years ago after her third husband, Claude Dickerson, the best of the lot, God rest his soul, died of emphysema because he couldn’t or wouldn’t give up his two-packs-a-day cigarette habit even though she was a good wife and had begged him for five solid years to stop. She had also told her daughter many times that Vernon was nothing but a lazy bum. Virgie was convinced that in the husband department Darla Sue could have done a whole lot better than Vernon Algernon Tutwiler. Darla Sue would just smile at her mother and say nothing because Vernon Algernon Tutwiler did just fine where it counted in the husband department, thank you very much. Behind closed bedroom doors he and Darla Sue did many things that would have shocked both of their mothers but daydreaming and lollygagging were not among them, no, indeed.
The main reason Vernon had agreed to become an assistant scoutmaster was to spend one evening a week away from the grating voice of Virgie Perkins Hobgood Dickerson. The occasional hikes and overnight camping trips that came with the job had turned out to be a mixed blessing: more time away from his mother-in-law also meant more time away from his sweet Darla Sue. According to Vernon’s map, the larger waterway formed by the convergence of the creeks was called Dead Man’s Creek but no one in town knew why. Nobody had ever died there that anyone was aware of. After splashing over the waterfall, Dead Man’s Creek widened into a respectable river that meandered through a few miles of shaded woods and open fields, then snaked between a few scattered farms before finally emptying into Princess Lake just above the town of Mount Pisgah, sixteen miles from the clearing where the twelve boys of Troop 378 and their assistant scoutmaster spent a quiet night.
Vernon awoke with a start just as the sun was coming over the horizon, and he reached for Darla Sue before he realized where he was. He opened his eyes, sat up, stretched his arms, and yawned. He felt a bit stiff from having to sleep on the ground with only a blanket around him; somehow he had neglected to bring a sleeping bag or an inflatable air mattress. The day before had been a good day of hiking and the new day promised to be even better: the sun was shining and the dogwood trees were in blossom. In the big oaks at the edge of the clearing, some mockingbirds were singing their hearts out. It was a gorgeous day and Vernon was certain that, in spite of no sleeping bag and no Darla Sue, God was in His heaven and all was right with the world.
Vernon looked at the calendar watch on his wrist. It was seven-fifteen a.m., Sunday, the twenty-fourth of April. The boys were all still sleeping. He had to pee but he knew better than to use the boys’ latrine. He wasn’t the smartest cookie in the jar but he was smart enough to know that the world had slowly changed since he was a kid and he didn’t want some hysterical mother accusing him of exposing himself to her little darling. Vernon folded up his olive-drab army blanket, pulled his khaki pants on over his gray boxer briefs, slipped his feet into his hiking shoes, and walked a short way into the woods to relieve himself. He was just zipping his pants up when a rustling in the grass a few yards to his left caught his attention. He glanced to the side thinking it might be a deer or a raccoon or maybe even a snake.
What he saw shocked him, and he said, “Holy Christ!” out loud. A gray squirrel was scurrying away from a scene he was not expecting to see: two people, a man and a woman, were lying next to one another a few yards away. The man was lying face down and the woman was lying face up and the man’s right arm was stretched across the woman’s belly. They were both naked. Vernon almost felt like a Peeping Tom peeking into someone’s bedroom window at a couple sleeping in their bed, except there was no window and no bed and it was very clear they were not sleeping because their heads and hands and feet were missing. He moved a little closer to get a better look. On the upper part of the man’s right arm between his elbow and his shoulder was a tattoo of a rose with leaves and thorns, and over the rose the name “Shirley” was written in fancy script. On the man’s lower back just above his round, bare behind was another tattoo, a blue anchor with the words SEMPER FI under it in blue block letters. The woman didn’t have any tattoos that Vernon could see. The bodies couldn’t have been there very long because there was no odor and they had not yet begun to decay.
Vernon pulled his cell phone out of his pants pocket and called the sheriff’s office in Mount Pisgah. The sheriff was his brother-in-law, Royce Perkins. After a brief conversation with Royce, Vernon left the woods and walked back to the clearing. He began waking the boys by calling out, “Rise and shine, it’s daylight in the swamps,” the same way his father used to. “Oh, and fellas,” he said as he roused them, “as soon as breakfast is over, start breaking camp and packing your gear. We need to start heading home.” It was less than a mile from the campsite to the paved road where he had arranged for Darla Sue to meet them around nine o’clock. She would be picking them up in the fifteen-passenger van he had borrowed from the New Hope Baptist Church to take them all back to town. Except for forgetting his sleeping bag, Vernon had planned well. He called Darla Sue and asked her if she could try to be at the meeting place by eight-thirty. When she arrived, Darla was surprised to see her brother Royce’s car. When the boys were all safely in the van and on the road back to Mt. Pisgah, Vernon told her what he had discovered. The only thing Darla Sue managed to say was, “Oh, my God!” She said it several times as they drove the boys back home.
In town there was panic at the news; several mothers vowed they would never let their sons go on another overnight camping trip. By Sunday afternoon the editor of the Morgan County Weekly Bugle, Marlene McLeroy, was toying with the idea of running a headline that said “DEAD MAN’S CREEK LIVES UP TO ITS NAME” in the next issue, but she was overcome by a rare wave of good taste and decided against it. Under the circumstances, she told herself, any attempt to be humorous was clearly inappropriate. She settled instead on the plain facts, “2 BODIES FOUND IN WOODS” in large type, and in a smaller font, centered below the main headline, a sub-headline that said “Decapitated Victims Not Yet Identified.” The article itself contained all the grisly details she could pry out of Vernon Tutwiler and Sheriff Royce Perkins and his deputy, Eddie Harper. Royce and Eddie had arrived at the murder scene as soon as they could get there after Vernon’s call. They had put yellow tape that said “Crime Scene – Do Not Enter” around a circle of trees, and they had taken the two corpses back to the county morgue in a hearse that Eddie had been quick-thinking enough to borrow from his uncle, Talmadge Fairchild, who owned the Morgan-Fairchild Funeral Home in Mt. Pisgah.
“Take me out there, Eddie,” Marlene pleaded the next day, “I want to get a picture of the crime scene for the paper.” He drove her to within a mile of the place in his big Buick and walked her in the rest of the way. He figured she would owe him big-time and he planned to call in the favor when the time was right, like maybe in the back seat of the Buick next Friday night out at Princess Lake. Marlene was thirty-three years old and not bad-looking. Eddie was twenty-six and preferred dating high school cheerleaders when he could get them, but he thought Marlene was worth a shot. “What the heck,” he said to himself, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Marlene took her photo and Eddie smiled all week long until Friday afternoon when he called Marlene and she told him in no uncertain terms, “Not on your life, no way in Hell.” Eddie made a mental note not to be so quick to help people out in the future. He tried to soothe his hurt feelings by telling himself things his mother would have said if she were still alive, like “There are plenty more fish in the sea” and “She’s not the only pebble on the beach,” but looking around town in the cold light of day, Eddie had to admit that there really weren’t that many fish in Mount Pisgah and Marlene was actually one of very few pebbles on this particular beach.
On Saturday morning, the day Marlene’s headline screamed the news that everyone already knew, Sheriff Royce Perkins leaned back in his chair, scratched his head, and reviewed the facts. There were very few clues. No facial characteristics because there were no faces, no fingerprints because there were no hands, and no footprints because there were no feet. The only footprints at the crime scene had belonged to his brother-in-law, Vernon Tutwiler. The county coroner, old Doc Williams, had performed his autopsies and determined that both victims had been about thirty years old before their untimely end, and he had sent off some of their pubic hair to the state lab in Raleigh so that the forensic scientists could get samples of their DNA. All Royce really knew, thanks to a couple of tattoos, was that he had a male victim who was probably a Marine or an ex-Marine, and a female victim who may or may not have been named Shirley. Nobody had been reported missing in the entire state. This one was going to be difficult.
Vernon Tutwiler awoke with a start and sat up in his bed in a cold sweat. Darla Sue was snoring softly into her pillow. The clock said it was five after three, so he let her sleep; his mind was not on middle-of-the-night delight just now. He had had the nightmare again. He had been dreaming that the year was 4735 and he was at his three hundred and ninety-second birthday party. He lived in a thirty-room mansion in the desert with his fourteen wives and nearly two hundred descendants. Someone had handed him a telegram from the president that the returning space shuttle needed to have its landing area illuminated, and he had tried several times to leave the birthday party to go back across the wide Missouri and make sure the lighthouse in York Harbor, Maine, was operating properly, but every time he tried to sneak away from the party, a woman behind him who sounded a lot like Judy Garland would stand up and sing “How can I ignore the boy next door? I love him more than I can say” accompanied by a twenty-piece orchestra. He had turned to get a better look at the singer because even in his dream he knew that Judy Garland was dead, and he realized with a shock that the person singing was none other than his mother-in-law, Virgie Perkins Hobgood Dickerson. What struck Vernon as strange was not that she was dressed in army fatigues, carrying an assault rifle, and walking two Bengal tigers on a diamond-studded leash, but that she sounded so much like Judy Garland. It was at this point in his dream that Vernon found himself awake, sitting up in bed, and sweating profusely.
(To be continued, or not)
So, dear readers, you see my dilemma. Not who killed Shirley and the tattooed marine -- I already know that -- but, more important, how did their dead bodies wind up in those particular woods? I don’t want to impose some implausible deus ex machina solution and I don’t want to introduce aliens or vampires. I prefer an explanation without gimmicks.
Maybe an outline would have been nice, laying it all out in advance as it were, but I don’t tend to write that way. My way is to think for a while (like Vernon Tutwiler), let ’er rip, and see what happens. This method may not satisfy the English teachers but it was good enough on at least one occasion for the great Flannery O’Connor, who revealed that (alert: spoiler ahead) the reason it comes as such a shock to readers of her story, Good Country People, when the Bible salesman steals Hulga’s wooden leg is that it had also come as a shock to the writer. And the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy had its beginnings in a single sentence that occurred to J.R.R. Tolkien: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
So do you think this story has any possibilities? And do you have any ideas about how those two bodies wound up in the woods?