Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A New Version of "Cows Don't Talk, Silly."

I took one of my stories to a Writer's Workshop. The story was one of my personal favorites. The good people at the workshop just tore it to shreds. Yet in the most loving possible way. I needed everything they gave me. I am grateful to all the In Harmony participants.

The first version appears earlier on this blog. One biggest thing I learned at the workshop was the need for consistency, not just in voice, but in place and time as well. Interesting how it never occurred to me the first time.

Here is the new, workshopped version:

Jimmy offered a peanut to the pigeon. The bird cocked her head, deciding if she could trust him. The other birds jumped and strutted in a loose circle around him. He loved the birds, their bird sounds and the fuss they made.

Ever since he started Fifth Grade, Jimmy's mother had begun letting him walk down to the corner market for bread when she needed it. She used to send his older brother, George, but George often came home with a big wad of bubble gum in his mouth or a comic book, and Momma’s change was always short. Anyway, George was older now and had other things he was doing. When Jimmy went for bread, he made sure Momma’s change was right.

When the weather got colder, Jimmy wore his brother's boots to the store. He watched as the birds poked around in the cracks of the sidewalk and picked at the shiny wrappers that blew along the curb looking for something to eat. With fewer plants and bugs than in Summer, he knew they must be hungry.

One cold, grey day, when the first snow had collected in the nooks and crannies of the city, he surprised himself at the market counter with a loaf of bread . . . and a little bag of peanuts. In the little park halfway home, he stopped and fed the hungry birds. They were so happy, he didn't eat any peanuts himself. When the bag was mostly empty, he poured the little peanut hearts onto the grass and the birds jumped all over each other to get at them. He felt good, even kind of warm inside against the cold.

When he walked up the stoop that day, he paused before grabbing the cold doorknob, he could see that look on Momma's face when his brother had stood there chomping on bubble gum and handing her the crumpled plastic grocery bag with the half smooshed loaf of bread inside. In the bag hanging from Jimmy's hand just off the ground, the loaf he'd bought that day was fine. He had carried it carefully, but the seventy nine cents for peanuts missing from Momma’s change was burning a hole in his pocket. He took a breath and trudged in the door in his brother’s too big boots.

Momma was rattling pots in the kitchen making supper. When she came into the foyer, he handed her the bag but looked at the floor. He shook his arms until his puffy winter coat slid off the back of his shoulders and fell on the kitchen floor. The big zipper made a funny clunk on the tiles. The long sleeve of his shirt bunched up as he dug into his pocket for Momma's change; the short change. When he handed her the money, he smiled shyly at her warm face. She dropped the assorted coins into her jar and absentmindedly shuffled the bills, counting them. She worked at another store and counted money all the time. Her hands stopped at the end of the bills and she looked at him; not angry, just blank-like.

She scanned him standing there, her eyes twitching from his face to the coat on the floor. For a long minute, she didn’t say anything. He wasn’t sticky on his face or his hands. His lips weren't smacking on bubble gum too big for his mouth. He wasn’t carrying a comic or some cheap toy. A twinkle passed across Momma’s eyes and the corners of her mouth nearly turned up in a stifled smile.

“Huh, the price of bread went up a little.” Momma said. She tussled his hair and went back to preparing supper.

He stifled his own smile then, and turned to put the coat and his brother’s boots away. Momma seemed to understand that he had done something unselfish, something good. Maybe she didn’t mind, like when he wanted to tell his grade school jokes to her friends. She had heard all his jokes before but always laughed when the friend laughed. He could tell when an adult laughed only to be nice. Momma laughed as hard as she could.

Spring had started to sneak in under the snow. His little park had bits of color again. The grays and browns of Winter started to have little stains of green and yellow around the edges. The birds probably had stuff to eat, but he still brought peanuts every couple of weeks. Momma didn't seem to mind. Today, he had walked a little deeper into the park. The birds knew who brought their peanuts, and they soon surrounded him, cooing and fluttering their wings.

The birds made him laugh. They climbed all over each other and pushed and shoved to get at his peanut treats. Their wrestling reminded him of when he and his brother used to horse around together. When he pitched three peanuts at once, five birds crashed together and rolled around. Two birds, tired of the ruckus, flew up to a tree branch over the cement pathway. He liked it when the birds flew. They beat at the air with their wings and, almost by magic, let go of the earth and went wherever they wanted. Being a bird must be real cool, he thought.

His eyes left the flying birds, and he saw a lady sitting on a bench not too far away. He could see she was sad; crying maybe. Her eyes were moistened with little tears that shyly crept down her cheek. Momma was sad once in a while, and he knew sadness, too. The lady looked down at the path, but she wasn’t really looking at anything. He shook the peanut bag empty, scattering little kernels at his feet. The remaining birds fluttered while the lady wiped a tear off her cheek. When his Mom got sad, he would tell her one of his best jokes. If it was just the two of them, she wouldn’t laugh so much, but Momma would usually stop crying after a really good joke or two, so he knew the jokes worked.

Cutting straight across the path, he put the peanut wrapper in a big green trash can. He brushed the front of his jacket and pushed at the bottom snap until it clicked. The lady sat her coffee cup down and leaned to straighten her coat. He wasn’t supposed to tell jokes to strangers when Momma wasn’t with him, but he wanted to tell this lady a good one. Trying to be brave, he walked toward the bench. The sleeves swished against his jacket and made swishy zoom sounds. His shoes shuffled and scratched in the leftover winter sand. He got to the bench and stood by the lady. Usually a stranger would look at him when he stopped right in front of them, but the lady didn’t move for a minute. He heard her sniffle and slowly she looked up. She tried to smile but just looked at him; puzzled.

“What did the cow say to the farmer?” he asked her. His voice sounded funny in his own head, but he got the whole joke out without a mistake.

The lady’s makeup was bunched up around her eyes, and on one side of her face a smear and a little black line that rolled down toward the side of her chin. She looked at him for a couple long minutes. She didn’t smile, but he saw a wave of friendliness roll across her face like she had borrowed someone else’s happy face, but it only drifted by and didn’t stay put.

“I don’t know. What did the cow say to the farmer?” She had a nice voice and talked softly like some of his teachers did. Her eyes got a little brighter and warmer.

Slowly, with practiced nonchalance and perfect comic timing, he put a fist on each hip and cocked his head like a mother does when she tells her kids something happy. He took a nervous breath.

“Cows don’t talk, Silly,” he said with as big a smile as he could make.

The lady choked and then smiled softly. The choke was more a laugh than a sob, but it sounded to him like both at the same time. She took a tissue from her coat pocket and wiped her eyes. She reached out, still smiling, and stroked the sleeve of his jacket making that same zoomy sound against the fabric. Her smile twisted one way, then the other, and opened up spreading across her face. It was that other happy face again, but now it was happy all over and it stuck.

“Thank you,” she said with a funny quiver in her nice voice.

He felt funny; sort of floating in a way he had never known. There was a little tingle in his fingertips and under his earlobes. This must be how a bird feels, he thought.

“OK . . . ,” he said, “I mean, you’re welcome.”

He didn’t know what else to do, but it felt like he made the lady happy again; just like he did for Momma. His feet crunched as they twisted in the sand, and he turned to go. Two steps toward home, he heard the lady’s voice call after him.

“Don’t forget your bread. Doesn’t that grocery bag belong to you?”

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like the kind of kid you were......And like the guy you still are!!!!


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