Today I’m kicking off an event we’ve been very excited about: Comrade Radio Writers’ Week. Each day one of our hosts will share a bit of writing, and maybe a side of themselves they don’t normally get to on their respective shows. My contribution is an excerpt from a work in progress. Since Tales from the Static will be taking a break in July and August, and I apparently have no interest in helping myself by getting ahead on it, I’ve decided to write an original mini-series and release it as eight (I think) podcast episodes. There’s a story I’ve wanted to write for a couple of years, and last year’s election inspired me to create a detailed outline of the whole thing. I’m currently hard at work finishing the first draft, and this post is a challenge to myself to not slack off.
The story is called “Trailblazer”, and it’s about two women. Sandra Wallace is a politician and pundit who made a career of stoking the fear and rage of disenchanted Americans. When a personal scandal ends her run for office, she decides that her road back to success is a cross-country trip with a small entourage to film her encounters with “common folk.” Whit Sadler and her boyfriend Mark are college students on a summer road trip, learning the ropes of their new relationship. After a terrifying encounter, Whit must fend for herself in a hostile countryside. Both run afoul of The Founders, a group that have long connected the prosperity of their valley to something they call “The Original American.”
I’m hoping the story will let me explore themes of otherness and self-preservation, and to write a horror story about women who refuse to be disposable victims. I also want to stretch my podcasting skills, and see what it’s like to produce a straight-up audiobook. There are some things I’ll need to figure out, like how to read a tweet out loud in a way that’s not jarring.
Anyway, here’s the opening of the story. It’s still the first draft, so some things might change before the completed product. Thanks for reading this; I appreciate you taking the time.
Ethan pulled off his baseball cap, slapped it against his thigh and sighed with exhaustion. He scanned the horizon, then pulled the hat back over his mess of straw-colored hair. He knelt, tightened the lace of his left boot, and chucked a clump of mud from the heel. Then, almost casually, he put his fingers around the steel rod and jerked it toward the sky. His shoulders creaked with strain.
“The pole don’t budge!” he whined.
“What in the hell was that, the element of surprise? Stop strategizing and pull the thing up! It won’t stay stuck forever!” His father slapped his own hat against his hip, but in frustration. He was amazed by how the smallest tasks could reveal the fundamental uselessness of young men. The boy wanted to blame the pole, but this here was the stubbornness of earth. Soil is just plain greedy; any man or woman who tried to coax a viable crop from the earth would say the same. Everywhere you looked there was a new something springing up, life choking life in its eagerness to be the one to reach higher and get more. But try to raise something on purpose and the ground just won’t give it up. Now that’s stubborn.
Bracing his hands on the small of his back, the farmer arched until his bones gave a good crack. Then he slipped on his own leather work gloves and placed his hands in line with the boy’s.
“Ready? On my signal, we rock it back and forth. Don’t throw yourself out, don’t yank it like a weed. Rock it and pull up a little. Rock and pull. Understand?”
Ethan pursed his lips in the way that made his own father want to punch him in the face, but he nodded.
They rocked, then they pulled. The thick chains hanging down from the top of the pole began to sway in counterpoint, clinking in time as they rocked.
For a time, the old man and the young man worked silently at the earth between them.
Finally, the ground gave a final suck and the pole pulled free. The boy hefted it and made his way up to the big blue barn. The chains dragged in the grass like defeated serpents, iron shackles agape.
The farmer kicked the dirt around, covering up the scarlet clumps of blood-stained dirt, the dull white of a splintered bone.
In time Ethan returned with the simple oak podium, and they stood it up in place of the pole. Then he sent the boy back to fetch the aluminum folding chairs.
Sandra stewed in the back of the tour bus, in her suite, where she spent most of her time between stops. It was a large space and built for comfort, but she folded herself into the corner, moth-like. She pressed her forehead against the cold window like a child biting into the delicious ache of a loose tooth.
Unfolding her arms, she looked down at the phone clutched in her hand and opened the Twitter app again. She knew for a fact there was no wisdom or understanding to be gained, but when things were going badly she compulsively dug her hands into the steaming mess of social media. It was too hard to resist this stock ticker of self-loathing.
Ed Shelly @skeptical_ed: @RealSandraWallace in Houston did you really say troops need “protection from IUDs”? Don’t know if ur aw shucks ignorance is cute or offensive.
Chris McCoy @whyohwhy50: @skeptical_ed @RealSandraWallace overly sensitive liberals spend 90% of day looking for ways to be offended #TeamSandra #AmericanTrailblazer
For The Ngyuen @viet_nguyen555: @RealSandraWallace @whyohwhy50 @skeptical_ed it’s that kind of wooly-headed liberal thinking that leads to being eaten. #TeamSnider
Dane Lewis @supermundane: The American People should be outraged to learn that a judge can take a unprecedented and unconscionable action like this. You deserved better.
Sandra tapped the little grey star under that comment, turning it yellow. Not that anyone would know. Her real account was managed by a Harvard grad half her age back at the office. When she went trash-diving, it was under the account MissAmerica1st.
lil bitchass danny @whiteosama:@realsandrawallace was so tight meting you in Richmond! I love those glasses!!1! #TeamSandra #MILF
Sandra’s thumb hovered over the little grey star while she read the tweet a second and third time. Then she realized that her phone had no signal, so it didn’t matter anyway.
She pushed her face against the window again, savoring the ache and watching all that sun-drenched green go by. For a few seconds, she saw a young man and woman sitting on the hood of a hatchback on the side of the road. They waved wildly as the bus passed, and Sandra’s gleaming smile and return wave were automatic. As soon as they were out of sight, Sandra came back to herself, and her self-loathing doubled. She closed the waving hand into a fist and breathed deeply. When she had counted down to zero, she got up and made her way toward the front of the bus.
She passed Lily, her eager young assistant, who was seated at the fold-out table and combining pages from three cardboard boxes into hundreds of glossy leaflets. This was a task that Sandra usually did herself, enjoying the meditative motions and the quiet reflection on her own words. But Sandra had been slacking in her duties, and at the last event when Lily twisted her mouth to the side and stage whispered “We should probably get folding more of these things, huh?”, she had delegated. Now Lily greeted Sandra with a grin and a perky shrug of her shoulders, as if to say “See? It’s a cinch!” Sandra returned her smile and silently wished her a hundred paper cuts.
A little further along, Sandra passed her nephew Artie, who was the acting videographer for this little excursion. He was watching Lily, which Sandra could tell by how focused he was on the task he was supposed to be done with already: reviewing the footage from the last stop and cutting up the highlights into easily-uploaded clips.
It had been important to Sandra that this journey include a member of her family, to show that she cared about family, and preferably a young person, to show she cared about the future. Of course Artie had been more than reluctant to join because, her sister had happily informed her, he didn’t want people to think he agreed with her policies. On the environment, or guns, or gay rights or whatever club was most popular at the university last semester. And yet, here he was. Jack had made it happen, as always.
She saw his eyes flicker up to Lily, and down again, and could guess what buttons Jack had pushed.
She settled into the front passenger seat beside Jack, who had driven all night but by some magic had a crisp clean shirt and a perfect knot in his tie.
He gave her half a grin. “Welcome to the cockpit, sir.”
She took in the sight of the road racing toward them, through a windshield so broad and flat that it made the world look like one of those movies that tricked you into thinking you were moving. She stared out at the long line of asphalt, the green on either side, and the wires that swooped from one pole to another beside them. “Hmm,” she said.
“Mm-hmm,” he returned.
She waggled her phone then set it in the cupholder. “No signal.”
He nodded “It’s for the best.”
She knew it wasn’t just an offhanded comment, though it was without judgement; just an acknowledgement that he new her implicitly. He knew what was good for her. She was overcome by a wave of appreciation for this man who just did whatever she needed done, and seemingly only desired the pleasure of a job well done. That and his salary.
“Hey, how did you convince Artie back there to come along?”
“You want to know?”
“I think I know. I want to know if I’m right.”
That half grin again. No teeth, ever. “I said, ‘Your country and your Auntie need you’.”
“Ha,” Sandra deadpanned.
Jack sighed. “I said that I knew he was broke and hadn’t gotten an internship with any of the production companies he wanted. So he could try to grab one of the quickly-disappearing opportunities still remaining at the bottom of the service industry barrel, or he could become a wedding videographer for a couple hundred bucks a pop, or he could sign a confidentiality agreement and produce some actual content. And enjoy the scenery.”
A slight emphasis on the last word told Sandra all she needed to know. “You dog! What did you do, flash a picture of her?”
Jack scratched the stubble on his cheek, the half grin twitching madly at the edges. “I showed him a picture of all of us. From when we picked up the bus. I didn’t point anyone out in particular.”
Sandra sighed in satisfaction. She liked being right.
“It’s funny,” Jack said suddenly, seriously.
“How often you ask me to do something, with the caveat that you don’t care how I get it done, and then after I get it done you ask me how.”
Sandra nodded and bit her lip, studying his profile as he drove. After a long silence she said “Well, you always get the outcome I want, and after the fact I don’t need to fuss about the details. I just marvel at your skill. Win-win for you, right?
Jack nodded, but he was staring into the distance as though he had stopped listening. He raised one hand, the one draped over the top of the oversized steering wheel, and pointed ahead.
Sandra followed his gaze and stared at a sign as it grew nearer. It was a large wooden sign, carved and painted, welcoming them to the town of Hobb’s End. It was like a dozen other signs they’d seen at the entrance to a dozen rural towns, usually proclaiming them the “1993 All-County Girl’s Softball Champions” or the “Cornbread Capital of the South”, but this one was topped with the image of a face. A man’s wide face, with an old-fashioned hair cut parted down the center and a red-lipped grin that stretched from ear to ear. And under the name of the town was the legend “Home of the Original American.”
“Pull over,” Sandra said excitedly, and jumped out of her seat before the bus had started to slow. “Get out your camera, Artie, because you need this image in the next video.”
For the first time in a long time, Sandra was positively beaming. “Mark my words”, she declared. “We’ve found our kind of people.”