Work from Lisa

Every morning, Mama complained long distance from the flesh-colored phone on the motel bed stand. Propped amongst the pillows, she kept a magazine open on her knees to flip through if the other person started talking. When it was her turn, she’d make sure they knew about Father’s NASA fellowship and then wait for them to ask if it was that manned Apollo Mission they’d seen on the news.

“Yes, all very exciting, but the girls and I are stranded here at the Sea Breeze for two months. ‘No Breeze’ more like it. Florida in the summer! You would not, could not, imagine. Roaches the size of Mercedes, the sun like some cosmic dagger in a Greek drama.”

That sun—perhaps just the thought, for she spent most of her time in the shade of the pool gazebo—turned Mama’s skin a tender red, an angry glisten on her nose merging with the freckles on her cheeks. Her expression seemed to dance under the red. Lunging, retreating. Such were the descriptors that crossed Geselle’s, the middle daughter’s, mind. A month before, her fifth-grade teacher assigned an end-of-year challenge: ten descriptive words for someone they knew. Geselle started with Mama, but crumpled two drafts and tackled Father instead: distracted, pale, brainy—then phrases that got her paper marked Follow Directions!, but she was still proud of—blue eyed, absent minded, one track minded.

Father was all head, Mama was all—? Body? No, nerve. All nerve. Though a head was full of nerves, wasn’t it? But Father’s were knit together, organized, moving forward in a straight line that Geselle could feel grounding her, solid as stone, while her mother crackled, riding each moment as if it stood apart from the rest of time: near misses, bare wires spitting sparks.

Every morning at the Sea Breeze Restaurant they started out a family: Annie and Fern, oldest and youngest, in the  booth window seats; Geselle across from Father, squinting at the backside of the Miami Herald, wondering but knowing better than to ask— “Stay a child while you still can, Pumpkin, one day you’ll thank me.” But all she wanted to know were little things. Like why was it Sirhan Sirhan, first and last the same? And was the war with the Soviets so cold because of Siberia?

The man who served them had already learned to bring Mama’s soft-boiled egg without asking. She cracked and peeled, took a fork tip, chewed, swallowed, pressed her napkin to her lips and replaced it to her lap, looking down and sighing.

“Will you look at those?” Her freckled thighs spread wide on the vinyl booth seat, white tennis shorts barely restraining them. “And I hardly eat!”

Sitting beside her, Geselle couldn’t bear to look, couldn’t bear not to. She remembered Mama on the phone, calling the thighs elephant-sized, but how big was that exactly? How dangerous?

The only indication Father was listening was a light shake of his paper.

After he kissed the tops of everyone’s heads and left for Cape Canaveral, their mother retired to the shade while the girls swam in the lukewarm, misty-colored pool that the lady at the desk insisted was very sanitary. There was some complicated explanation regarding the chemicals and the power of the sun which Father confirmed as plausible. His field of expertise was physics, not chemistry, nevertheless Geselle was reassured—Father knew so much, his voice so certain, its sureties embraced her even now as she dove into the milky deep end.

Fern was pale and freckled like Mama. Annie blond and tan like Father. They both believed whatever anyone told them, which left Geselle feeling secretly like the eldest. While they pestered– dripping on Mama’s magazines or shivering at the edge of her chaise lounge, their wet seeping into the cloth–Geselle kept her distance, holding her breath underwater, her hair wandering against her face when she turned for another lap. She stayed down so long it made her mother crazy.

“Just like some blubbery whale! How did I wind up with such a child!”

At last, Mama would sigh in exasperation and send them off to the beach, calling out like an ordinary mother, “Annie’s in charge. Be back by lunchtime,”

They never were. They carried oranges from breakfast, packages of saltines, water in an aluminum canteen from Father’s Boy Scout days. Sometimes they abandoned the beach, combined their meagre allowances and went up past the boardwalk into Cocoa Beach for ice cream—three spoons please—or a pickle the size of a hotdog bun that came out of a gallon jar at the Deli Lux. The man behind the counter wasn’t friendly enough to ask if he’d cut it in thirds, so they passed it back and forth taking bites, favoring the ends so that the squashy, seedy middle was last.

If they’d asked Father for lunch money, he would’ve wanted an accounting, and the subject of their roaming all day would have surfaced, so they didn’t.

The beach was not much different in either direction: sand, wharfs, hotel boardwalks, colorful umbrellas and—wherever there were no buildings or parking lots—palm trees, bent and bending under the ocean’s breath. Regardless this monotony, they covered the same four miles each day, never scrimping, one mile in each direction and the returns. They walked barefoot at the very edge of the sea, barely dressed, their matching striped sundresses hemmed high the first night, Mama furiously working a borrowed needle and thread at the little table in the Sea Breeze, saying she wouldn’t have her daughters mistaken for Jehovah’s Witnesses after she’d seen all the short skirts and skimpy bikinis around the poolside.

They carried hotel towels around their shoulders; the two older ones trading off the rattan picnic basket that held their supplies: band aids, aspirin, Benadryl, Coppertone, a broken compass, an ace bandage for emergencies. They adjusted the canteen shoulder strap for Fern. At first this responsibility made her swell with importance, but when she lagged behind, she said it was because water was heavy, heavier than Annie and Geselle realized.

Of course, the canteen wasn’t always full. The ocean’s crashing, then flowing under their toes, the glint on its between-wave-calm engendered thirst: a primal, instinctive urge. Sometimes Geselle took more than the two medium swallows agreed on, or palmed an extra pack of saltines and snuck them into her mouth, letting them soften so her sisters wouldn’t hear the crunch. Other times, she reached to hold their hands, kissed their cheeks tenderly as if they were all still toddlers. Back at the hotel, the girls’ room had two king-sized beds, plus a roll-away the maid took in and out, ignoring its being untouched. They all slept together in the king nearest the window. In the morning its sheets and cover were knotted and wound out onto the floor, the three pillows strewn about as if it were puppies that passed the night there.

Geselle was the storyteller when reality dulled. Annie was the artist, embellishing their sand castles with turrets and fir tree forests made of patient drippings of wet sand. At seven, Fern had yet to distinguish herself.

“Perhaps she’ll be a scientist like Father,” Annie said after they had to drag her away from a dead cormorant even though, or perhaps because, it was well along in the process of becoming home to other creatures.

Apart from dead things—the seabird, bits of shells, stranded kelp—the beach provided little diversion after its initial novelty wore off, and Geselle embellished, losing them on a desert island. At low tide, she stranded them in the Sahara—the beach such a vast expanse that this other extreme seemed possible. They covered their heads like nomads—the motel towels were not capacious enough to pull this off, but nearly so. As the tide returned, Geselle urged them to hurry, retracing step on step before their footprints were erased and they couldn’t find their way back. Which was ridiculous, of course: always the ocean on one side, the highway on the other.

Annie tolerated Geselle’s controlling the narrative so long as she, anointed by Mama, was obeyed concerning practical matters: where to use the bathroom, replenish the canteen, stop and eat their meagre noon meal, deal with a blister on the bottom of Fern’s big toe after they’d sprinted across a dune in the heat of midafternoon.

Mama looked at the toe and sighed, closed her eyes against its weeping redness; then, opening them again, told her daughters to say she’d been there with them. “I would have been, but my skin…. He’s an old worry wart, your father, we mustn’t distract him, he works so hard.”

Geselle did the lying: “Mama had her soak it in the sea.”

Beginning of story, eventually something happens, but still wonder if this is too much setting stage, characterization without genuine progress.

Instructor Response

Thanks for submission. And don’t doubt yourself. You have a marvelous skill with words and description. Remember, any human writing a story is creating something that is their own. There is no right or wrong. And the only valid judgment of the story is whether a reader believes the author has achieved what he or she wants to achieve.

I think you’re writing a character study at this point, using a narrator point of view about a family (real or not) that interests you. You’re doing that just great.

[Beginning of story, eventually something happens, but still wonder if this is too much setting stage, characterization without genuine progress.] I don’t think so. You’re doing well at introducing characters and setting. Your style and skill with language are your strengths and are on full display. Some readers will agree that something should happen early, and it seems to me that you can make things happen easily with what you have, if desired.  You have done very well up to this point.

If you feel a need to start story earlier, that can be done without significantly changing the imagery and characterization you have. What you’ve written is in mostly narrative telling and backstory describing character traits.

You might find the overall story conflict, and insert conflict from the beginning. Is this a daughter(s) against Mama, whether spoiling a “vacation,” someone plotting action against someone, desire to escape thwarted by something, etc. Some obstacle to a desire that is expressed by showing with more action and internalization. More than painting a scene, you’d be showing conflict, thought, and emotion through action and dialogue, and working the really effective descriptions into the story action and still building character. You might also look to instill drama–conflict, action, resolution–in every scene.

Also consider writing in scene to bring the reader into the story. In-scene storytelling is not instinctive to most of us, but it is well worth learning.

I recommend especially the second part of Creating Literary Stories, A Fiction Writer’s Guide. The second part starts on page 79; you can find an example of in-scene writing on page 95. The book is 120 pages, and is available in print and online:

Here is a review that gives a quick introduction to content:

Don’t ever be discouraged. You really write well!! (I hope this helps.)