Time and Place: Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” (2003)

Fewer than 500 words.

Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Read it for free here.

I am a firm believer in the adage, “Form follows function,” and thus if a device is present in a story, it must serve a good purpose.

Sherman Alexie’s short story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” begins with a time indication—“Noon” (8)—and we soon find that the time structure is vindicated because the plot and climax depend on it. More than three pages go by before the next time indication—“1 p.m.” (12)—shows up. By that time (no pun intended), we’ve nearly forgotten about the time structure. What reminds us of it shortly before this transition, though, is the conflict that has arisen: the main character, a homeless Native American in Washington named Jackson Jackson (sic), must find $999 by noon the next day to purchase his grandmother’s stolen ceremonial regalia from a pawnbroker. Otherwise, the deal’s off (12). The clock is ticking, and the time structure becomes the device driving the story. This lets us ruminate upon Alexie’s second device: place.

Alexie identifies the places, or settings, in which Jackson finds himself within the prose, instead of tacked alongside the time indication. That’s because Jackson moves between a few places within most of the time slots. Time is the story’s driving factor (nothing tenser than a clock counting down!) but place becomes the story’s tapestry.

We see everything from a 7-11, to a pawnbroker’s shop, to an alley, to a newspaper publisher, to a Korean grocery store, to a bar, and back to the pawnbroker’s shop (and I’m sure I missed one or two). That’s a lot to cover in one story! But that’s the life—we assume—of a homeless man. If we tie that to Jackson’s Native American heritage (whose Spokane ancestors lived there thousands of years before [Alexie 8]), we can think of Jackson living out that stereotypical concept of the wandering Indian living off the land, such as the land is now.

Jackson’s story is a time-driven quest through his native land in search of redemption. There are helpers along the way, like the Big Boss at the publishing house and the good cop Officer Williams, but Jackson is his own worst enemy: every dollar that goes in goes right back out; and yet, he never gives up the search.

Finally, time and place collide as Jackson returns to the pawnbroker. We understand that the pawnbroker’s shop might itself be part of the mythos of this Indian’s quest, for it is not where Jackson remembers it, and no one seems to have heard of it (Alexie 27). He wanders and wanders, and then finds it right in the nick of time. But he doesn’t have the money. The pawnbroker accepts $5—a different $5 than Jackson started with (28)—because it wasn’t about the money at all. It was about the quest.

We are often willing to forgive the hero his sins, overlook his self-bloodied soul, and pardon his empty-handedness if, in the end, he arrives at the right time and the right place.

My review: This is my first introduction to Alexie’s work, although I have heard of him before. I appreciated the honesty and clarity with which this story was written. Cultural-driven literature is not my preference (although one could argue that all literature is culture-driven and it only seems not to be when it’s your own culture), but when a writer makes it accessible—that is, when a writer does not rely on guilt to “move” the reader—I truly appreciate it. I enjoyed this story.

Favorite quotes:

  • “I didn’t break hearts into pieces overnight. I broke them slowly and carefully.” (8)
  • “I love the smell of ocean water. Salt always smells like memory.” (13)
  • “‘Just like a man,’ she said. ‘You love money and power more than you love me.’ ¶ ‘It’s true,’ I said. ‘And I’m sorry it’s true.’” (17)

Work Cited

Alexie, Sherman. “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” The Seagull Reader: Stories. 2nd ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, United States, W.W. Norton, 2008, pp. 8-28.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on

Facebook @ChrisCWrites

Twitter @ChrisC_Writes

Instagram @_chris_chinchilla

Advertisements

Why *The Grapes of Wrath* is worth the read

The Grapes of Wrath is now my third favorite book, behind first The Fountainhead and then Atlas Shrugged. To be clear, I do not agree with or support the politics or philosophy espoused in The Grapes of Wrath which is decidedly collectivist in nature (i.e., communist and altruistic). However, the humanity in the book is astounding. I quote from this edition’s dust jacket:

[The book’s] power and importance do not lie in its political insight but in its intense humanity, its grasp of the spirit of an entire people traversing a wilderness, its kindliness, its humor, and its bitter indignation. (back flap)

Setting aside its politics, the book itself is beautifully devised and written.

The book’s language is wonderful. Steinbeck narrates in clean, descriptive, and heart-wrenching prose, while his characters speak in gritty dialects that make you feel like you’re right there with them. He manages to convey important ideas in very simple language without it feeling phony; quite the opposite, it feels truer, more plainly sincere and human, than anything ever has.

The book’s plot is not quite a plot, which is a purposeful progression of events driven by the values of its protagonist (paraphrased from Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction.) Instead, the book’s protagonists are pushed from behind, from one struggle to the next, where the survival of each struggle is a triumph, but the triumph is undercut by the next struggle. Still, though they are pushed from behind, they are also value-driven, and their values are life, productive work, and family. The constant battle for survival and the overwhelming odds the Joad family faces can make for an exhausting read emotionally…but that only draws you deeper into the narrative, for you feel the exhaustion the Joads feel. While that might not sound pleasant, if you think of it in terms of a novel’s ability to bring you into the story, this novel delivers more than any I have ever read.

Finally, the very last scene is one of the most beautifully melodramatic scenes I’ve ever read in literature. I closed the book with my heart pounding, not sure if I was feeling indignant, triumphant, relieved, or simply, simply, hopeful.

I can’t recommend it highly enough. Even if you hate its politics and philosophy, you can’t reasonably deny its power as a work of enduring literature.

What do you think of The Grapes of Wrath?

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Quick review of *The Catcher in the Rye*

I read The Catcher in the Rye in one day, my 32nd birthday, and loved it. In many ways, it hardly has the makings of a book I’d appreciate. It has no plot and no ending to speak of, and its main character, who whines and calls people phony throughout the book, provides nothing to fill the void, so to speak. But there is a subtle genius to the book’s structure. It has to be this way for it to have the right impact: for it to infuriate you and, at the same time, make you examine people and yourself more closely.

Forgive me if you consider what I’ve said to be “spoilers.” I don’t, because before I read it, this is similar to what my sister, Amie, told me…except she hated the book for the very reasons I loved it. Anyway, it didn’t spoil the book for me; instead, it made me more conscious of it as I read it. I do not enjoy plotless novels and whiny characters, but The Catcher in the Rye is the exception to the rule.

What do you think of The Catcher in the Rye?

View all my reviews on Goodreads

A quick and quiet applaud for *The House on Mango Street*

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

Finished! Lovely little book. I’m not particularly a fan of a novel structured in vignettes, though. It feels incomplete and seems lazy. But only seems. There’s a quiet, shining craftsmanship in the structure that I can’t help but applaud. Separate as they are, each vignette connects to the others with thin and delicate strands that are no accident and which are so easy to break that it requires a master artist to string them up.

The intermixed bits of poetic language sometimes felt over the top, but I let it go because it expresses the writer’s personality in a shy yet intimate way. And she’s no amateur; it’s clear the she’s conscious of the “poetry” that appears in the prose, which means it’s worth a second thought to the reader.

Have you read it? What did you think?

There’s more (scifi) where that came from…

Hey everyone, I really appreciate that you follow my blog. I hope you’ve enjoyed its content so far! Recently, I diverged into writing speculative fiction, so I’ve set up another blog where I’ll publish scifi/fantasy related posts. The first post is up and ready for your reading pleasure! Check it out, be sure to follow my new scifi/fantasy blog, and let’s keep having fun! =D

Finding scifi/fantasy heroes in Hellenistic bronze

Cecil’s Dentist: A Short, Fictional Musing

Source: publicdomainpictures.net

Source: publicdomainpictures.net

I end my writing sessions with word sprints – ten minutes of no-hesitation writing based on a random prompt. Recently, the prompt was, “A dentist is stabbed while he waits in line at the movies.” Without any particular forethought, here’s what came out – a short short story (only slightly edited) – a fictional musing, if you will, on the recent hunting of Cecil the Lion by Dr. Walter Palmer. What’s your reaction to this musing? Let me know in the comments.


Cecil’s Dentist

About 800 words. © 2015 Christopher Chinchilla. All rights reserved.

He shouldn’t have gone out tonight. He knew that now as he stood in line for the movie. Someone would recognize him. Someone traveling along the line, going to meet friends, get some popcorn, see a different movie, or head home after their movie got out. He resisted the gnawing temptation to look up and down the line. The less his face moved the better. Otherwise, he’d attract attention, someone wondering why this guy was looking around so much, someone studying his face for clues, and then realizing his face was the clue.

He shook his head.

It was a lion. A damn lion, 13 years old. Probably had a year left in it anyway, and that only if it received constant attention from specialized veterinarians bottle-feeding it whatever vitamin soup decrepit old lions would need to sustain frail bones and weakening organs. Who the hell cares that he snuck the lion out of its zoo enclosure in the middle of Africa so he could hunt it for sport?

Apparently, everybody cared.

He’d been hiding for three months now. Because of the threats. Social media wasn’t blowing up the way it had at first, though. He hadn’t seen his name on the news sites for a while. But here and there, something would catch his ear. Some random comment on the news about him going into hiding. Some snatch of a curse on the radio from a caller, or some radio talk show host referring back to it—“This-or-that politician thinks he can—” whatever, something like “—target the poor. Who does he think he is? A lion-hunting dentist?” Some comment like that.

He knew he shouldn’t have come out tonight. But he hadn’t been out in months. Theaters were crowded, especially on nights new movies released, but if he wore the right clothes—an old jacket that his wife said made him look bulky, a pair of clunky prescription glasses he’d worn once and then replaced with a sleeker pair, stuff like that—and kept his face down, nobody’d recognize him.

The buttery smell of popcorn waltzed along the line. A group of pre-teenage kids yapped about god-knows-what and did some funky new dance for laughs. He thumbed the glossy ticket in his pocket and wished the ticket guy would just let his line into the theater, so he could sit, quietly, in the dark.

What was that?

A flash, something, something meant for him. Someone had seen him.

He looked up and down the line. Several people walked along the sidewalk, nobody glancing at him. Flashes from keychains and cellphones flickered among the moving people. Maybe nothing. Maybe nothing. Just being paranoid…

He felt the blade sink sleekly into the side of his stomach in a sort of fascinated way. Before he registered it as the attack that it was, he thought first that it must be a very thin blade, sharpened on both sides, and it didn’t feel too bad…he was sort of numb to it. Maybe it was because it had slid into fat—he’d put on a few pounds since he went into hiding. This isn’t so bad, that’s all he thought at first.

And then bright blue eyes met his, eyes that insisted on their own youth and their own righteousness, or maybe it was the high voice of the young man the blue eyes belonged to that insisted on righteousness, who said to him through clenched teeth that he should die the way the lion had, unarmed and unawares.

Justice is a funny thing. The knife twisted a little inside the wound. He thought justice was a human concept, something that belonged to humans, something that applied to humans, and only to them. What conscious understanding of justice did this or that animal species have, except for humans? And not armed? The lion had hunting instincts; it had teeth and claws; it had a powerfully muscular body meant for chasing down and ripping apart other living beings, including small, weak, frail humans. Sure, he’d used a riflescope. In fact, he’d felt a great deal of certainty that no harm would come to him. He shot the lion and hollered in his success.

The young man hollered in his success, and a small crowd gathered around his victim as the victim slid against the wall to the ground, blood pouring out of him, his thumb still absently rubbing the glossy ticket in his pocket.

He looked up at the animal with the bright blue eyes whooping above him. What chance had this animal given his victim? Unarmed. Unawares. And he stabbed stealthily, knowing no harm would come to him.

Will he mount my head on a wall? I don’t know. He’s gone, ran away. Has someone called an ambulance? Oh, are they letting us into the theater now? Someone tell the attendant my ticket’s in my pocket…

END


Note: To be perfectly clear, I do not advocate violence against humans who hunt for sport.


So, what’s your reaction to this musing? Let me know in a comment. And please share this story with others. Thanks for reading!

Newspapers: a Flash Fiction Story

About 750 words.

© 2015 Christopher Chinchilla. All rights reserved.

“Newspapers” first published in the East Jasmine Review, September 2014


For Dad

On a street corner in Hawaii, a little Costa Rican boy sold newspapers for ten cents. Seven in the morning, his arms heavy with headlines he couldn’t read, he watched the bustle as people shuffled along the sidewalks and across the streets and nobody looked down. Some bought papers, but most did not.

A man in a gray three-piece suit with a cocked hat, a short haircut, and a tipped smile walked up to the boy. “Good morning, son!” the man said. The boy stared at the man blankly, then lifted his arms so that the top of the stack of flat clean newspapers looked into the man’s freshly shaven face.

“Ha!” said the man, leaning forward and scrutinizing the headlines, “Weather’s balmy and the governor’s back!” He stood upright and dug in his suit pants pocket. The boy heard coins jingle. The man brought up a clean dime. “I’ll take a paper!”

The boy held up the stack even higher, stiffening his elbows, leaning back at his small waist and dipping his chin to his bare, puffed out chest, gazing up from under his sweating brow at the man with the dime.

The man tossed the dime in the bucket at the boy’s feet. It hit the bottom and another coin with a clink. The man grabbed the topmost paper from the stack the boy held, stuck it under his arm, and strolled away down the sidewalk, whistling.

The boy turned and watched the man go. After a moment, the boy faced front again, chin down, the wind licking his sweating brow, with a lighter load of newspapers on his arms—and no one bought the papers.

“Say!”

The boy turned.

It was the man with the hat, back again, the sun shining over his shoulder and the newspaper still tucked under his arm. “Have you sold a lot of newspapers today?”

The boy stared, then shook his head. His eyes drifted down to the all but empty coin bucket next to his feet, and then to the string-tied bundle of newspapers on the other side.

“You get your share based on how many newspapers you sell?” the man asked. The boy nodded. The papers rustled. People walked by.

“Ever sold them all?”

The boy shook his head.

The man pulled from his pocket a shining silver coin and held it between two fingers. “I’ll take another newspaper!” he said brightly. “And I’ll give you this quarter for it.”

The boy looked up at the coin gleaming in the sunlight.

“But this time,” the man said, “you’ve got to raise a paper above your head—” the man raised his own newspaper high over his head “—and you’ve got to shout,” and he heaved in a great breath and proclaimed into the bustling crowd around him:

“‘EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL A-BOOUT IT!’”

The boy jerked back, his eyes wide. The man looked down at the boy, smiling. “You do that once and you’ve got a quarter for that paper.”

The boy with the newspapers looked at the man and the quarter. People shuffled behind the man. The sun caught the quarter.

The boy sucked a great puff of air into his chest and shouted,

“Extr—!”

It ended in a squeak. He opened his eyes without knowing he’d shut them. The man still stood there, newspaper under his arm, with his hat and his quarter. His thin smile sat gently on his lips.

The boy breathed in again but it caught sharply in his chest. His brown eyes glistened and his face flushed red. He breathed out, lips trembling, arms shaking, his shoulders slumping with the weight of the newspapers—and finally looked at the man. Heads were bouncing behind him. The hand with the quarter in its fingertips disappeared into the pocket. The man’s smile remained.

The man breathed in heartily, lifting his face to the blue sky. Then he looked back at the boy and said, “Gotta go! Weather’s balmy!” He smiled. “And the governor’s back! People’ll want to hear about this!”

The boy watched the man strolling away down the sidewalk again and heard him whistling. Then the boy turned back to the bustle of people on his corner, his cheeks warm and wet. Beads of sweat dotted his brow—the papers were getting heavy again. He looked at the shuffling heads and the balmy sky . . .

“Extra,” said the boy.


Thanks for reading. What’d you think? Leave a comment below!

Cover

The Imp: a 600-word story

About 600 words.

© 2015 Christopher Chinchilla. All rights reserved.


“If you can guess what’s in my pocket, O King,” the girl said, “you can have it.” She grinned. “Well, King, do you dare?”

The King knelt swiftly to meet her eyes. “I can have your head in a swipe if it pleases me,” he said. At his side the Queen kept deathly silent, his threat speaking for both of their majesties. The earthy scent of the girl’s blonde and disheveled hair—the scent of combat—infused truth into her next words.

“You know the battlefield I’ve traversed; you know on what river of risk and strategy I’ve sailed to reach you. And you know,” she whispered, pushing her face into his space, tickling his nose with the vanilla scent of her breath, “what befalls you if I’m taken.”

He slipped his gaze behind the little imp to survey the dark war beyond… Beneath the thundering sky men and horses lie slain; a fortress stood seized on the outskirts; the enemy advanced on all sides across the patchy land. Distant warriors watched for the fate of their girl before the rival King. He could see no escape.

The King looked at the imp. She smiled. “I am a wolf and clothed as a sheep, King,” she warned. “I advance on you with and without—with strategy and without mercy. And I’ll have this war, alive or dead.” She laughed. “What is in my pocket, King?”

He breathed heavily and filled her face with a harrumph. Her face held its glare, devious and daring. He rose to his full height, his eyes yet on hers, but his mind wandered… The war did not go well. He knew it as inescapably as he knew every corner of his throne. And here stood this imp of an enemy before him, enjoying his fall, mocking his threat, caring naught but for the riddle in her pocket.

“What worry should I give to what’s in your pocket?” he demanded.

“What’s in my pocket is what I’m going to do next. What I’m going to do next will be your doom. If you can guess it, I will choose another path and spare you a bit longer…maybe in time for you to save yourself and your ailing army.” The girl’s eyes gleamed. The Queen clenched the King’s arm. The night grew late.

The King gritted his teeth and his cheeks burned. “Am I to have a hint?” he bellowed.

“Look at the whole field,” she said, winking.

His eyes returned to the battle. Another fortress fell. The front lines were now broken. His most agile knight lie dead. His clergy had been captured. What hope in Heaven remained?

Her gentle voice drifted up to him on the dismal air. “I shall unleash it soon, King.”

Trembling, shaking, he looked at her pocket.

“King?” she sang sweetly to his shivering eyes. “King, can you guess?”

He sputtered his guess madly. “You will—!” he trembled, “You will—!” he cried, “You will—kill my Queen!”

“YES!” In a flash the imp somersaulted to his right, brandishing a sleek silver dagger from her pocket, and sliced his dark Queen down dead.

“You said you would not!” he cried.

“IT IS WAR!” she shouted, laughed wildly, then said softly, “Pawn takes Queen. I am Queen now. Check and mate, Daddy.” She kissed her father’s nose, jumped from the board and the battle on her mother’s kitchen table, and skirted off to bed, giggling gloriously.


Thanks for reading. What’d you think? Leave a comment below!

Cover

Coffee in the Afternoon: a Short Story

About 4300 words.

© 2015 Christopher Chinchilla. All rights reserved.

“Coffee in the Afternoon” first published in Fabula Argentea Magazine, October 2014


The blonde woman in the far corner of the café was not the reason he was here, but he wished she were. Her white button-up shirt was open wide at the collar and golden hair fell over her shoulders as she leaned forward, reading the books sprawled open on her table, holding a coffee in one hand and a pen in the other. A blonde curl dangled over her black square-framed glasses as she read. Johnny wished she was the reason he was here.

He hadn’t realized he’d been watching her, his thumb and fingers drumming absently on the café table at which he sat holding a mug of coffee. He knew he was staring after he’d thought she wasn’t the reason and hastily jerked away, splashing a bit of hot coffee over the brim onto the back of his hand. A few drops soaked into the paper of the large, white envelope resting face-down on the table. “Dammit,” he ejaculated, and, reaching for a napkin to clean himself up, he saw Jessica standing at the café entrance, a thin golden crucifix at her throat, looking down at him with her dark eyebrows raised.

Johnny shifted in his chair. With a soiled, crumpled tissue in his fingers, he stood shakily and gestured his wife toward him.

Jessica approached his table in the center of the quiet café. She was dressed stiffly in a blouse and skirt; the severity of her tightly-bundled brunette hair and her thin, straight lips vibrated in her strict movements; he waited as she slung her purse straps over the back of the chair across from him and glided into the seat. “You’ve grown your hair out,” she said tersely.

He reached both hands up to the beanie on his head, the crumpled napkin still in the fingers of one hand, and flattened the beanie down over the brown, curling locks protruding from under it. Stuttering a little, he replied, “Oh. Oh, w-well. After so many years of keeping it down—I thought I’d let it fly.” Over her shoulder, he noticed the evening sun disappearing behind the post office building across the street. A mail carrier stood at the bottom of the flag pole, lowering the flag slowly, letting the rope glide through his hands. Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny saw the blonde woman with the books. She was gazing up now, her chin raised, two fingers brushing her cheek. She was watching the flag come down. Johnny felt Jessica’s eyes, hot and black, and looked back to her. “I—I thought—I’d let it fly.”

Jessica looked down at her lap, smoothed her skirt over her thighs, and looked back up. “I hadn’t realized it had been so long. You’ve been away a while. We’ve missed you. You know that.”

“I—had some questions,” said Johnny. “Had some answers to find.”

“Away from me?” she asked.

“Away from the family, yes,” he answered, his grip tightening over the soiled napkin. He fiddled with it for a few seconds, then finally set it aside, his fingers slightly sticky. The blonde had returned to reading her books.

Jessica let her gaze fall to the porcelain mug on the table, next to the coffee-splattered envelope lying there, which she paid no mind. He felt tingles on the back of his hand where the coffee had splashed. She looked back at him. “Coffee in the afternoon?” she asked disapprovingly. “It gives you jitters.”

“I’m tired,” he answered feebly, his fingers jittering at the smooth handle. It was still hot and he hadn’t sipped it yet. He was still tired. The mail carrier across the street had the flag draped over his right shoulder and was ambling toward the door of the post office. Behind the post office in the direction he walked, the courthouse rose in the distance. Johnny pressed his jittery fingers onto the smooth surface of the envelope in front of him and stroked it softly, staring at the courthouse.

“So,” said Jessica, pulling his gaze to her, “I won’t grant you the divorce you requested.”

He stiffened, his breath catching in his chest. He fought to speak, but the words came out like splashes of coffee from a shaking mug. “Jessica, I’m—not trying—to upset—you—”

“This is your place for solitude, isn’t it?” she interrupted him. Her eyes bounced around the café in which they sat, taking in the soft mahogany tables and earthy green ficus trees, the dark oranges and browns coating the wide walls, decorated with paintings of landscapes and coffee beans and famous dead writers. A large mirror hung on the wall to her right, framing the two of them in its huge border, Jessica’s pale, severe countenance and suited body across from his stubbled, sun-kissed face, his body clothed in a second-hand jacket and jeans. Jessica eyed the patrons too—the newcomer murmuring for her coffee at the counter, the latecomer joining a group of smiling teenagers seated under the mirror, the regular whose fingers tap-danced over his laptop’s keyboard. Jessica looked at him and said with a curled lip, “This is your church now, isn’t it?”

Johnny noticed that Jessica hadn’t turned to see the blonde in the corner.

He shifted in the chair, wondered if his coffee had cooled, but it was yet too hot. “It’s—” he started, fumbling for the words rattling in his brain, pounding in his heart, “It’s a—a place that’s quiet. These people—don’t know each other. I’m not—tied to them. But I can—share this with them,” he said, encompassing the café with a steady gaze around. “It’s just a café, I know—but I can be with people, without—without them being—without having to—to give myself to them.” The liquid in his mug was dark, black, still. He regarded it solemnly and finished, “We can do our own thing, without having to consider each other. It’s peaceful here.”

“Selfish,” Jessica muttered. Johnny looked up. Her arms and legs were crossed, her thin chest very still under her severe gaze. “This is why you want your divorce, so you don’t have to consider me, your wife.” His eyes flicked over to the blonde. She was lounging in her chair, forgetting the books again and gazing out of the wide window next to her, towards the orange sun in the purpling sky. Sprawling, she had a hand at her mouth while the other lay on her jeans-covered thigh, one leg bent up and the other stretched out languidly. Her chest heaved deeply under her white shirt as she watched the sun slip behind the brown stone of the distant courthouse. “You vowed to love me and give yourself up to me,” Jessica said sharply.

Suddenly, the blonde looked at him.

She was smiling, or smirking. But he couldn’t tell if it was for him, or if the smirk had already been on her pink lips before this. But the blonde was looking at him, amused.

“Look at me, Johnny,” Jessica said. His eyes snapped back to hers. “Love me and give yourself up to me, Johnny,” she repeated. “Do you remember that? The family’s been asking after you, Johnny. They wonder where you’ve been. They speculate. They interrogate me. We’re tied together, that’s what these mean—” she reached for his left hand with hers and jerked it up in her grip. On a finger of her hand was a sparkling diamond ring. On the fingers of his hand was the vibrant kiss of a sun tan, smooth and unblemished. There was no mark of the thing left.

When she saw this, Jessica’s eyes went wide, her mouth agape. “So,” she breathed airily, “it has been a long time.” She sat back slowly in her chair, her cold hand dropping from his warm fingers, his hand falling slowly to the table. “Father will be disappointed,” she said. Then an icy tone returned to her voice. “You need to come back, Johnny. The family can fix you. This damaged heart, this lack of faith—we can restore it. There are some things that are closed to the power of man’s reason, to what he can do on his own. You can’t solve this yourself.”

Johnny bit the inside of his lip as she spoke. He hadn’t heard words like this in the six months since he’d left. Now, they clamped his chest tight. He felt as if the pain in his lip was the only thing connecting him to life—the physical pain was preferable to the deathlike fear gripping his heart. The beginnings of a tear liquefied in the corner of one of his eyes. He was shaking. He muttered in a trembling voice, “Until you, I never felt flawed.”

Silence. “Until me, Johnny?” she answered fiercely. “You were always flawed. We’re all flawed. I was your savior—you’re lucky that I was the one on the other side of the door when we met, willing to take you under my wing and introduce you to Father. The only thing you’ve done to save yourself was to open the door at our knock that day. And now you think you were fine just the way you were, behind that door, by yourself.”

He dabbed a dry portion of the soiled napkin at the corner of his eye, meeting her gaze again. “I shouldn’t have opened the door,” he admitted quietly, his voice steadying. “I should have left it shut—then I would have figured out that nothing was closed to me. Eventually. Would’ve seen that the world isn’t so evil. Everywhere you look—everywhere you look—it’s evil. But I’ve looked now. No, it’s not. It’s so good.”

She glared at him after this, an inquisitive air curving her dark eyebrows. She said, “What have you been doing these six months, Johnny? With whom have you been doing it?”

“Writing,” he answered, his chest still tight. “Writing,” he repeated. “Like I always wanted.”

“You never wanted it. You wanted to become a teacher. I remember the night.”

“I didn’t speak the night we sat with Father,” Johnny said abruptly. Her eyes flashed. He breathed gently, lowered his voice. “I didn’t—speak that night. We sat with the family and—and Father decided that my love for words should be my gift—for the family. I was supposed to read that—damned book cover-to-cover and then turn it into lectures for the family—tell them what was wrong with them and the evil world and how Father would make it right—”

He stopped. Jessica’s eyes had grown cold. A thin smile slipped over her mouth. In a long drawl, she hissed, “That’s Father’s job. To decide for us. Do you think you can decide the course of your life without at least his guidance?”

Johnny gulped slowly. His mouth was dry. A young man at the counter called out a coffee and a grinning teenager came and got it.

“Listen to you, Johnny,” Jessica said, draping her arm over the back of her chair and smirking. “You can’t even speak to me clearly.” He let her gaze hold him, feeling heavy in his chest, suddenly cautious. He looked down at the envelope as she continued casually, “Father thinks there’s someone else.” His eyes darted to the blonde. She wasn’t looking at him; she was studying. Had she ever been looking at him? His gaze slipped back to the envelope. Jessica continued, “He thinks you couldn’t really do this on your own. Someone had to be there, loving this little new-you. I was certain there wasn’t. There was only writing, and this place,” she indicated the café, “and wherever you’ve been living. Rented a room, did you?” She sneered. “How could you even pay for it?”

“A guest house,” he said, low. He reached into his coat and, shaking, pulled an item from it. “With this.” He held a pen straight up in the air between them, solid, black, metallic.

Jessica let her eyes rest on it. He saw movement over her shoulder. The blonde was gazing at it, too. He held his breath. “Soooo,” Jessica exhaled. They locked eyes again. “So, my—my. You’ve been writing.” Her gaze was steady, but he thought he saw her pupils shaking. Slowly, he pulled the pen back toward him, but stopped short, letting it linger in the air for a moment—letting the blonde see it a moment longer—then he tucked it away inside his coat pocket. Jessica said, distantly, “Whose name— Have you been using your name, my name?”

“No,” he answered at once. “A pen name. My mother’s name, her first name.”

Jessica raised her chin slightly. “Time away, a place to live, work to do,” she said slowly— “You really expect to have this divorce.”

“I’m—” He paused, exhaled shortly. “I’m demanding it,” he stated.

“You’re disobeying Father,” she said coldly.

“He’s no longer my father,” he said hotly.

Johnny let his eyes dance toward the blonde, hoping to see her staring…but she was studying her books, yawning languidly with her face in her palm, paying him no mind, leisurely turning a page.

Jessica’s eyes hadn’t left his; she made no movement to look away. “I won’t grant this divorce. You’re going to Father and you’ll beg on your knees for his forgiveness, Johnny. That’s what a real man does, he gets on his knees. This boy you’ve become is ridiculous.”

He gripped his mug tightly. The coffee was still hot; no, it was warm; the heat was in his tightening grip. He laid his other hand flat against the envelope, pressing down hard. The heat of his hand rose into his chest. He met Jessica’s stare with his own. Steadfastly, he stated,

“I’m taking Lily.”

If Jessica had looked angry before this, she was now furious. The red flecks in her brown eyes burned. Her cheeks paled. He saw that the hand draped over her chair gripped the wood. Steadily, she began tapping a manicured fingernail on the tabletop. She said, tightly, quietly, “Like. Hell. You. Are.”

“I am—taking Lily,” he responded, gripping his coffee mug, bracing under her glare.

“Lily belongs to us,” Jessica said, not moving except her lips. “She belongs to the family. If you leave us, I’m not letting you take her with you.”

Behind Jessica, the sun had nearly set. Purple hues were oppressing the last vestiges of the orange afternoon. The courthouse had lit up from its base in the distance, gleaming despite the coming darkness. The blonde, he saw, shocked—she was standing, leaning a shoulder against the window, her fingers in her pockets. Her head was down, kicking listlessly at the café floor with her toes…until her eyes rolled to meet his, stealthily. She saw him looking and raised her face up and away from his, gazing toward the courthouse. Johnny pulled the crumpled napkin back into his fingers, and then he looked at Jessica.

“I want her to choose,” he said. “Lily can choose.”

“It’s not for her to choose,” Jessica retorted quickly, “when there is only one right way.”

“Then let her see the wrong ways,” Johnny answered. He was breathless. “I’ll show her all these wrong things with the world, and when she sees that they’re wrong, you can blame me. Blame me for it. I’ll hold the weight of it.”

The blonde turned smoothly and sat down, flipping gently through the pages of a large textbook that was open before her.

“We’ve already been through this with the Judge,” Jessica said, looking upward. “We decided this the day she was born.”

“No,” he said, “we haven’t been to see a judge. But we’re going.”

Swiftly, Johnny opened the flap of the thick envelope on the table and pulled from it one heavy sheet of paper. “Yours is in the post,” he stated, sliding the sheet in front of her. A court date was stamped in the corner. She did not look at it.

“Who’s advocating for you?” Jessica asked, looking downward.

“I’ll be my own advocate,” he responded, his gaze level.

Suddenly, Jessica shot forward, a fist landing on the piece of paper he’d slid to her, as she sputtered, “You haven’t been with her in six months, Johnny. You left the family and you left her in our care. You don’t get to walk back in and take her.” She sat straight. “You don’t know her anymore. She’s become deeply spiritual. She’s corresponding with an important church, reading their materials, contributing prolifically. She’s not the audacious little girl you so wanted her to be, flouting rules and running through the mud, godless except for you, godless like you. She’s hardly outside anymore. She’s pious. You should see how she locks herself in her room and reads and writes. The envelopes she gets and the responses she sends to the Holy Church of St. John’s, she’s never been as righteous as she is now—”

Slowly—slowly, because he thought that if he moved faster, his shaking hand would topple the coffee mug over the side of the table—slowly, he turned over the thick, white, coffee-stained envelope. Blazing up from its clean face was a shimmering, gold-embossed crucifix. Next to it, above an address, were the bold words that read, The Holy Church of St. John’s.

Jessica’s eyes lingered heavily on the face of the envelope, longer than it was needed to read the writing. In the upper left corner of its face there read Jessica’s home address, under the name Lily Flannery, scrawled in green, playful cursive.

Jessica’s gaze hadn’t moved. Johnny reached forward, steadily, and opened the envelope again, pulling from it the bulk of its contents. He flipped the thick stack of white pages over. At the top was a story title, and below it the words by Johnny Alice.

Scribbled across the thin top sheet, in the margins and between the lines, were the playfully cursive green markings that defined Lily’s name on the face of the envelope. This is so funny! said a scribble. Great set-up! said another. Cut the exposition, daddy… said another. There were dozens more. Through the thin sheet of paper, the underlying sheets could be discerned, with heavy green scrawls dancing around the thin, strict double-spaced text.

Jessica was leaning in so close that Johnny felt he need only whisper… “This is my latest story, Jessica,” he breathed. “I have been writing. And I’ve been doing it with Lily.”

Slowly, she raised her pale, tight face to his tanned, blushing cheeks. She spoke severely. “You have not been with us. This isn’t what she wants.”

The envelope was flat now, its bulk having been removed. But as the last bit of orange glow sidled amiably out of sight in the now-purple sky outside, Johnny reached into the envelope one last time and pulled from it the last item, sliding the single sheet of paper filled with green cursive writing in front of Jessica.

 Dad,

I’m stifled here. Everyone is so interested in me and everything I do. And with all this mad attention, I don’t know who “I” am supposed to be! Get me out of it. Tell Mom—tell Jessica—I want out. She won’t believe me. Tell her I want to be with you. I don’t care how you tell her, just make her know it. Make her see what’s real, just once.

Your Little Angel,

Lilith Alice

Jessica did not move. With her head bent before him over the paper, she said gratingly, “She has to trust me.” She raised her face to his. “What can she know at her age? She needs to have faith,” she avowed, biting her tongue between her teeth.

“I’m,” he said, resolute, “taking Lily.”

“Come try it.” She sat up strictly. “I’m sitting in your place. I have the family, our congregation, our Father with me, everyone who knows what she needs far better than you do, Saint Johnny. What do you have?”

Johnny paused, his chest tightening—but it was not fear; it felt like a damning sensation, like he was the one damning her, and that that power belonged to him, to anyone who dared to use it.

He gripped his mug and lifted it to his lips, finally sipping his coffee. Over the brim, the blonde’s eyes met his. The coffee was warm, black, and bold. What did he have? Jessica had asked.

He set the mug down lightly on Lily’s letter.

“Righteousness,” he answered.

In a flash of fury, Jessica stood up so hard that her chair went skidding behind her. She seized the porcelain mug from his hand and raised it high over her head, then sent it shooting to the floor of the café, shattering it into dozens of pieces and exploding coffee in every direction.

The café went silent as John Mayer’s Stop This Train drifted dreamily through the air. The teenagers, the baristas, the regulars, and the stoppers-by all rested their wide eyes on Jessica, shocked. The blonde’s eyes were on Johnny; she was smiling.

“M-ma’am—m-miss,” a young man’s voice mumbled. The shuffle of the patrons rejoined the soft musings filling the air. “M-miss,” said the young barista, “are you al-lright, miss?” The boy had a brush and dustpan in one hand and a towel in the other, setting to work at their feet.

Jessica’s cold eyes were spikes aimed at his heart. In a smooth motion, she pulled her purse from the chair and lifted the straps over her shoulder. “Mmmm, Johnny,” she said silkily. “Johnny, Hell hath no fury like that of a woman scorned.”

Feeling his heart pounding in his chest, he inhaled deeply, and bowed his head to her in acceptance.

Jessica spun sharply on her raised heels and sped out of the café, into the coming night outside.

Johnny put a hand on the shaking shoulder of the boy before him. “It’s all right, son,” he said. The teenagers sitting beneath the wide mirror laughed furtively, murmuring comments about that crazy… Coffee beans ground behind him at the counter. The café resumed its faint hum. Where was she?

The blonde sat at her table adjusting her glasses, reading lazily, smiling and not looking at him. He fiddled with the soiled napkin again, gripped it in his fingers, and stood up quickly.

“Excuse me,” he said nervously as he approached her. The blonde raised her green eyes up to his face. “May I…” Johnny paused. The green eyes were clear, her porcelain cheeks soft and blushing from warmth, her pink lips gentle and full. His heart slowed, and he said in a deep, steady exhale, “May I spend the next few moments with you?”

She laughed out loud. “Well,” she said, chuckling, “I’ll take boldness like that as well as I’ll take a coffee in the afternoon.” She stretched her arms out to both sides and her chest heaved. “And right now,” she yawned, “I need one.” Then she added, “Who is she?” nodding to the table from which he’d come.

He turned. Back at his table, the barista had finished cleaning and stood up. Jessica’s presence was gone now. The barista winked at Johnny. Johnny grasped that the young man had heard their conversation; he’d get their coffees. Johnny turned back to the blonde and her question about Jessica. Who is she? “It doesn’t matter,” he said.

“Then it doesn’t.”

“You’re a scientist?” he asked. The books strewn before her were calculus and astronomy, chemistry and biology.

She laughed. “I’m a student of science. ‘Scientist’ is still a ways off.”

“You were listening,” he said abruptly.

“Studying,” she responded, winking.

“Oh.”.

“Sit.”

“I can’t,” he answered. “My head’s… It’s spinning. I’m thinking of— Hell, you know it. I’m thinking of…”

“Lily,” she breathed. “I know it.”

The barista placed two coffees on the table. “Please enjoy!” he said brightly, then bowed out.

Quietly, staring into the mug, Johnny said, “She’s going to have a hard time of it.”

“Did you know that?” the blonde asked.

He nodded. “We both knew it.” She said nothing. “It’s as if…” He paused, shuddering. “As if my whole world has stopped.”

She was still as she looked up at him. “Well,” she sighed, “they may try to stop it, try their damnedest to get you to stop it…and yet it moves. The world moves.”

“Can I…” He halted, taken aback at the electricity that had just jumped inside him. For the first time that afternoon, Johnny smiled. “Can I take you out for a drink?”

The blonde smiled too. Suddenly, she slammed her books shut, shaking the table and spilling a few drops of the hot coffee over the back of her hand. He reached out with the soiled napkin and wiped her clean. She stood up before him, a head shorter than he. Laughing, she answered, “No! I’m taking you for one.” Johnny beamed.

They split, retrieved their books and papers from their tables, each left two dollars on her table for the coffees, and they met at the café door, waving goodbye to the barista who was smiling after them.

Outside, night had come. The lights of the post office and courthouse blazed through it. “You know,” the blonde said at his side as he opened the door for her, “Heaven hath no glory like a self-righteous man.”

A little shocked, he simply looked at her and asked, “What makes you say that?”

She laughed and brushed his stubbled chin as she walked through the door. “Just the energy from an afternoon coffee,” she said. Johnny smiled, knowing she had reason enough.


Thanks for reading. 

Review of *The Martian* by Andy Weir

Well, I just finished The Martian last night, and all I can say is WOW!

Source: Amazon.com

Source: Amazon.com

Summary (from the back cover): “Six days ago astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm forces his crew to evacuate the planet while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded on Mars’s surface, with no way to signal Earth that he’s alive. And even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone years before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, Mark won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain old ‘human error’ are much more likely to kill him first. Armed with nothing but his ingenuity, his engineering skills–and a gallows sense of humor that proves to be his greatest source of strength–Mark embarks on a dogged quest to stay alive. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?”

What makes The Martian absolutely fascinating is its “real science” science fiction. Author Andy Weir is a self-proclaimed “space nerd” who studies orbital dynamics and astrophysics as hobbies. He dreamed up The Martian when he was developing his own concept of a manned mission to Mars–just something to pass the time, y’know? And something for which he developed his own software. On considering all the disaster scenarios that could face astronauts, he decided to write a novel about it. What he created is fantastic, not only for its real science, but for the structure of the story itself.

In his short essay at the back of the book, Weir says, “I didn’t want my hero to suffer one unlikely, disastrous coincidence after the next. I decided that each problem Mark faced had to be a plausible consequence of his situation–or, better yet, an unintended consequence of his solution to a previous problem” (384-5). That soon became apparent to me as I was reading. It’s the essence of good writing: plot is king! One solution I remember led to such a huge problem it was nearly heartbreaking. I won’t say exactly what happened, but I will say it involved a handheld drill and a power shortage…

Watney himself is a lovable character with a dark sense of humor, which becomes as important to his survival as his scientific knowledge. I laughed with him, feeling the same sense of dark irony he felt, knowing it was the only thing that kept him from going insane.

The Martian surface, too, is given beautiful, haunting attention. There are moments of silence in which the reader gets to survey the harsh, unforgiving Martian landscape through Watney’s eyes, and it gives you chills.

My only complaint is that Weir is not a stylistically gifted writer. However, his writing gets the job done, and the plot is so spellbinding that you don’t care about the writing; you just want to know what happens next!

The Martian is a fantastic, fast-paced, heart-breaking, breathtaking, triumphant read! The Wall Street Journal says it best: “A celebration of human ingenuity” (Weir front cover)! I’d recommend The Martian to all fans of literature, whether or not they read science fiction. For sci-fi readers, though, it is a must-read!

The commentary at the end of the novel suggests that a movie is in the works. I truly hope so!

The Martian is available here. (Note: I receive no benefits from this review or from the link provided.)

Favorite quotes:

  • “It’s a strange feeling. Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t moved in a million years!… I’m the first person to be alone on an entire planet.” (99)
  • “To [NASA], equipment failure is terrifying. To me, it’s ‘Tuesday.’” (152)
  • “I’m not giving up. Just planning for every outcome. It’s what I do.” (192)
  • “Conclusion: I don’t need the water reclaimer at all. I’ll drink as needed and dump my waste outdoors. Yeah, that’s right, Mars, I’m gonna piss and shit on you. That’s what you get for trying to kill me all the time.” (230)
  • “More thinking is required.” (231)

Work Cited

Weir, Andy. The Martian. New York: Broadway, 2014. Print.