As you may have guessed from an earlier post I have been sending my stories to magazines hoping to get one published. Some of the stories have appeared on this blog, some haven’t. I’ve received mostly rejections, as expected. But the rejection letters have been so nice. I had expected them to be terse, get lost letters. Instead they let me down gently and encourage me to keep trying. And the fact that one got accepted really gave me a lift. It gave me the feeling that I truly have said something worth listening to rather than just spitting into the void. One story that has appeared here before, Do This One Thing, was sent to a contest. It didn’t get chosen, but I got a message that for $15 they would give me an in-depth critique. Why not? I always welcome anything that can make my writing better. The critique ran almost two pages. They liked the story and they liked my writing. Their main issues were with the structure of the story and after reading what they said, I saw it also. An early comment was about the 3 items an opening paragraph needs to establish. Here they said something I found very nice:
(3) in a well-defined time and place. This opening hits a home run with #3, because I think it does a great job making me feel like the story’s environment is both distinct and believable.
So, I sat down and rewrote the story, using the critique as a guide. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to weave in the part of my original story that they liked so much. Maybe I’ll just save it and use it in another story. This is the new version. I guess you could call it Do This One Thing Again.
Do This One Thing
I pulled off my straw hat and mopped my face with my damp bandana. Squinting, I looked up. The bright August sun appeared to be nearly directly overhead. Near enough to take our lunch break, anyway.
“Time,” I said loud enough for both Sam and Lonnie to hear. They were both within a few yards, chopping cotton like me. We were in the big field north of the Bass Woods. Off to the south, just beyond the hedgerow was Sam’s house. We could have gone there to eat, but we saw no sense in walking all that way. Closer by was Miss Alice’s home, the old Garris place. While a simple two-story farmhouse, it boasted details that made it stand out among its peers. Things like delicate curlicues on the porch columns, fresh painted clapboards and shutters, a clipped privet hedge surrounding the front yard. Old Miss Garris didn’t get around much anymore, but she made sure her home reflected the style she had always embodied. It was near sixty years after the Great War and a couple after what they were calling a World War, but Miss Garris was still the lady of the manor, ready to serve tea on the verandah. Surely, she wouldn’t mind the three of us stopping to eat lunch under the shade of one of her elms. I figured I should ask before we drew water from her well, just to be polite.
Lonnie, my wife’s Uncle Lonnie, trudged over to sit under the shade of a tree at the edge of the yard. At 40, he was getting too old to work in the fields all day. My cousin Sam and I, both in our 20s, each did twice the work of Lonnie, but he needed to feel useful. Sam sat beside Lonnie.
“Let me pay our respects to Miss Alice before we pump the water,” I said to them as I headed up the back porch steps.
Getting no reply to several raps on the door, I was unsure if I should look in. Miss Garris was a little hard of hearing and I didn’t want to alarm her. Or if she was on the chamber pot, it would be embarrassing. But she was very old and might have fallen and need some help. I knew a colored girl comes in about once a week to help with cleaning but wasn’t sure when that was.
Lonnie and Sam were near enough that I could talk to them from the porch without shouting.
“When’s the last time you saw Miss Garris?” I asked them.
“She won’t at church on Sunday,” Sam said. “Somebody said she was feeling poorly.” For some reason I suddenly felt a shiver run down my spine.
“Reckon we ought to go in and look,” I said. There are no locked doors in our
neighborhood. We all trust each other. I opened the door a crack and spoke into it.
“Miss Garris. Can you hear me? You all right?” After a few minutes with no answer, I pushed the door open wider. As soon as I got the door open, I ran back into the yard and threw up. She was definitely dead and after several days in the August heat she was smelling. As I wiped my mouth on my sleeve, I heard Lonnie and Sam muttering to each other.
Dammit, I thought. I’m sorry old Miss Garris died, but it would also make us lose a day of work.
“I guess one of us needs to go fetch either the doc or Sheriff Stephenson,” I said, rejoining them under the elm.
“Why break off work? Let’s finish the field and then go get the doc. The old lady ain’t going nowhere.” Sam’s comment was practical if cold hearted.
“Naw, that ain’t right,” I told him. “That old lady deserves more respect than that. Plus, I don’t think I could work knowing a dead body was just a few yards away.” Lonnie nodded his agreement. He and Sam gathered our tools to take back to my barn. I headed off to Gumberry. It was only a mile or so through the woods and there was a telephone at the general store.
They had her funeral the very next day. The preacher told me she had been dead at least three days and was far gone. He said he didn’t know if they would ever get the smell out of the house. They even had the funeral out by the graveside instead of inside the church. Prim old lady that she was, I know she’d have been embarrassed by all the mess.
That night was hotter than ever. Mollie and I didn’t have any covers on the bed and all the windows were open. We even had the front door propped open to catch any breeze it could. Mollie had insisted that I install screens in the windows and a screen door at the front of our cabin so we could open it up at night without letting in mosquitos and other varmints. On nights like this I was happy I had listened to her.
From where I was lying in bed, I could look through the door and down the long lane to the main road. I could see low-lying mist down by the end of the lane. It just drifted back and forth with whatever breeze caught it. After a bit it seemed the mist was drifting toward the house. As I watched it, it seemed to get thicker. Suddenly it took form and I could see it was a woman in a white dress standing outside the house. I froze in terror. I saw her put her hand on the doorjamb, lift her skirt and step into the house, walking through the screen door as if it weren’t there. I immediately recognized it as old Miss Garris.
She stood there looking at me a minute. Then she walked over to the bed and reached down and touched my hand. Her hand was so cold. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t move or make no sound. She said, “Lloyd, they didn’t find my will. It’s in the Bible in my study. You need to tell them. Do this and you won’t ever see me again. You don’t do it, I’ll be back. I’ll haint you.” She disappeared suddenly, and it released me. I set to squalling.
Mollie said I liked to have scared her out of ten year’s growth. She said I was yelling and wrenching around; raving about ghosts. She soothed me, saying I just dreamed it.
“There ain’t no such thing as ghosts, sugar,” she murmured to me, stroking my brow as she held me. Even drenched with sweat in the hot August night, I still shivered in fear.
“But it was so real.”
“Dreams usually are, honey. Just go back to sleep. I’m here and won’t let nothing happen. You’ll see. In the morning, it’ll all be gone.”
“But she said she’d come back and haint me,” I whimpered.
“Shh, honey. Mollie’s here. Go to sleep.”
The next day, I went to the general store, and Doc Moore happened to be there. I told him a lie. I said Miss Garris told me before she died that her will was stuck in a Bible in her study. I knew he wouldn’t believe me if I said her ghost told me. It turned out there was a second will in a Bible in her study. And like she promised, I’ve never seen her again. And I want to keep it that way.