A Lump of Coal

Carl pushed his over flowing grocery cart down the rain slick sidewalk. Turning down an alley his cart bumped and skidded along the dirt and debris that covered ground. Carl often felt like an alley. No one paid any attention to them. They were the recipient of all the unwanted refuse. Only the rain washed it and sometimes it made the alleyway even worse. That was Carl.

He leaned into the cart pushing against the resistance of the rocks and gravel hindering his way. The cart stopped. It refused to move no matter how hard he pushed. He moved around the cart and saw a pair of ragged boots lodged against the front.

“Hey old man. What’s ya got in here?” The young man began tearing at the tarp covering the bulging cart.

“Stop that!” Carl ordered, pawing at the man’s hands to stop him.

“What are you hiding?”

“Nothing. What do you want?” Carl pushed the young man back.

The young man wasn’t small by any means, he outweighed Carl by a good twenty pounds or more, but Carl recognized his expression. He was a bully.

Carl straightened his frame to its full height. He looked down at the spiky-haired man by an inch or two. “You going to steal from me?”

“What do you have?” The kid coughed a dry hacking sound.

“Nothing you’d want.” Carl’s voice hardened. “I’m in the same boat you are. I have to eat at the mission, I sleep wherever I can find a place out of the rain. You want to steal from me, then have at it. It’s been done before and I’ll make do until I can find things to replace it.”

The young man looked at the cart then at Carl and shook his head. “You’re just a dirty old tramp. You don’t have nothin’ I want.” He whirled on a broken heel and walked away.

Carl didn’t feel relief. He felt angry and bitter. It wasn’t his fault he was here. He’d lost his job, then his apartment, then the shelter’s kicked him out. No one wanted a Vet with PTSD. He didn’t drink except when it got too cold and he needed to warm the inside.

He walked the streets like a ghost in the crowd. He was shoved aside, had trash thrown at him and every so often some do-gooder handed him a bill or some change. When he went to the camps, church groups came and distributed little sacks of food and hygiene products. Not one ever stopped and really talked to him.

He hated them all. He just wanted to die. He gave the cart a hard push in anger. It rolled into a dumpster under the familiar overhang, home.

That night as he huddled under the tarp, the rain came down in a steady mist. Before getting into his sleeping quarters he looked around the alley. He was alone. Steam rose from the ground. Thank goodness there wasn’t any wind tonight. He shivered and took off his boots, placing them in a bag between to his body and the building wall, so they couldn’t be stolen.

He’d begun to get warm in his bag when he heard a dry cough. Peeking out between the flaps of his tarp, he saw it was the same kid that harassed him earlier. He watched the skinny kid with a black plastic garbage bag tied around his shoulders, rut though a dumpster. Another cough and Carl could tell he was shivering. These kids needed to go home. There were places that took kids in, shelters. He ducked back inside his sleeping bag.

Carl was warm and at least reasonably dry. He had a new sleeping bag he’d stolen from a thrift shop. Why charge people for things that were donated. That always made him angry when he thought about it.

The cough interrupted his thoughts. “Go away!” he shouted from his cocoon.

The sound of steps shuffling away gave him relief. Then the sound of coughing. Not a couple of hacks but the deep cough of a chest infection. Carl should know, he’d been a medic in the service. Too bad. The kid might be dead by morning.

He closed his eyes and snuggled deeper into the warmth of the bag. A flash of thought interrupted his attempt to sleep. A picture of the first aid kit buried at the bottom of his cart. It was under his old sleeping bag. There were cough drops in it and some cough syrup he’d stolen when he’d had a cold a few months ago.

He grunted and ignored the memory.The kid was a menace. He was going to steal from him. There was no way he was getting out of his warm bag, digging through his cart for the old bag and the kit. Nope he wasn’t going to do it.

Silence fell around him and he relaxed. The rain stopped. An occasional drip from the overhang plunked on his tarp and Carl drifted off to sleep. A sound disturbed his sleep. It came again. He pulled his hat around his ears. There is was again. Why had woken him?

It was the cough. The repeated muffled cough.

Carl swore. Why hadn’t the kid gone away? Why did he have to be somewhere the sound penetrated Carl’s sleep. It came again. No matter how hard Carl tried to ignore the sound, the memory of the kit and sleeping bag hammered his thoughts.

“Okay!” He unzipped the bag, and fought his way out of his tent. Walking around to the middle of the alley he waited for the sound to come again. His breath formed vapor as he waited. The cough came again and Carl followed the sound. He couldn’t find the kid lying anywhere next to the wall.

The sound was muffled and movement of plastic bags. Carl moved to the nearest dumpster and lifted the lid to peek inside. The clouds parted for a moment and the moon shone on the occupant of the dumpster. It was the kid. He didn’t open his eyes. He lay in the fetal position his fists clutched his jacket.

“Kid. Get out of there.”

The kid’s eyes slowly opened and he peered up. “What do you want? Leave me alone.”

“Come on. I have an old sleeping bag and some cough syrup.”

“The good stuff?” His hopeful expression irritated Carl.

“No. Get out of there.” Carl marched back to his cart not waiting to see if the kid followed. He dug down and pulled out the sleeping bag in its plastic protector and the kit. He frowned as another plastic bag fell from the cart. Carl picked it up to find clothes inside. A pair of jeans and a flannel shirt. A new set of thermal underwear completed the contents. Where had this come from? He didn’t remember getting this bag from the mission. He shrugged as a cough sounded behind him.

“Here,” He thrust the plastic bag of clothes at the kid. Go between those dumpsters and change into the dry clothes. I don’t know if they’ll fit.” The kid stood there. He stared at the bag Carl held. “Go on. Take it before I change my mind.”

The bag almost took his fingers off as it was grabbed from his hand. The kid disappeared.

Carl shook his head. What was he doing? Giving his own stuff away to a kid who wouldn’t appreciate it. He pushed the kit back in the cart and tossed the sleeping bag in the direction the kid. “Here’s a sleeping bag. Its stopped raining so you won’t need a tarp.”

Carl wiped off his boots and put them back under his tarp. Before he could get into his own bag the kid was standing there beside him holding the rolled up bag. The clothes seem to fit him as if they were his exact size. Carl frowned. That couldn’t be.

“What do you want now?”

“Nothing from you old man.” The kid shifted from one foot to the other. He adjusted teh bag under his arm for a better grip. “You said you had some cough syrup.” His tone wasn’t belligerent but respectful. It was a change.

“Yeah. You said you didn’t need anything.”

The kid coughed again and the sound grated on Carl’s senses. “Here.” He reached in the cart and tossed the kit to the kid. Not wanting any more conversation, he pulled the cart back to its protective position and crawled into his sleeping bag under the tarp. He didn’t hear anything more from the kid.

The sound of voices woke Carl the next morning. Peeking through the edges of the tarp he saw two squad cars pulled into the end of the alley and a cop gripped the kid in handcuffs. Another cop looked through the sleeping bag and held up the first aid kit. After a quick check, he threw both back on the ground and followed his partner. They left and once again it was silent. Carl sighed and closed his eyes. Sometimes you can’t get a break with a helping hand.

Two weeks later Carl stood in a line waiting for food. The doors would open soon and he’d get his first hot meal of the day. The mission let the homeless park their carts while they ate. They had to exit the building if they didn’t have a bed ticket.

The room quieted and Carl looked up to see two men looking at the assembly with great interest. Carl hid his eyes and concentrated on his food. When the man sitting next to him stood up to see what was going on, Carl grabbed his dinner roll and stuffed it in his pocket. After a brief search for the missing roll the man gave up and ate the rest of his food.

When Carl finished he pitched his plate into the bin and pulled out the metal flask. Holding it out to the woman with the bored expression, she glared at him. “What do you want?”

“Coffee?” He asked softly and the woman whirled to speak to another worker who accompanied the woman back to where he stood. “I’m sorry we can’t fill your container. We need to have enough coffee for everyone.” She smiled with apology.

Carl jerked the container back without comment and walked toward the door.

“That’s him. That’s the guy.” A voice followed him. Soon his arms were grabbed on each side by two men in suits and he was marched around a corner into a room and the door shut.

“What’s going on guys? I haven’t done anything wrong. Let me go.” Carl demanded.

A man stepped into the room and stood looking at Carl. He wasn’t smiling. “You don’t recognize me.”

Carl didn’t bother looking at him.

“You gave me clothes and a sleeping bag.” The man stated.

Carl looked at the man from the new shoes and slacks, on up to the thick wool dress coat, leather gloves and a red scarf around his neck. Standing next to him was an old man with white hair poking below a wool Stetson hat. He didn’t recognize either man but he remembered the kid with the cough and gave a nod.

“You were the only one who ever gave me anything. I know I was rude. I’m sorry. You could have left me to die, but you didn’t. I want to thank you for that.”

“Forget it kid. Looks like you clean up good. Go do some good deeds somewhere and leave me alone.” He started for the door, but the guard grabbed his arm. “Hold on there. The kid wants to do something for you. Let him do it.”

“What’s it to you rent-a-cop? Leave me alone.” He jerked his arm away from the man’s grasp.

“Look, if you don’t want what I have to offer, you’re free to walk out of here. I turned my back on all I had. I thought I knew it all and could figure it out. That night you gave your stuff to me I realized I needed help. I called home and my parents came and got me. I’m going to do better. All I want to do is give you a helping hand. Whatever you need, I’ll help you get it.”

He stood there with an expression Carl hadn’t seen in a long while. He didn’t show pity, He didn’t feel sorry either. He offered Carl help. Carl didn’t realize his feet moved until he stood in front of the kid. “Okay. if it makes you feel better, I accept.”

The kid’s face broke into a grin and he looked at the man beside him. “Let’s get him home.”

That was four years ago. Today Carl works at half way house for Vets. His medic background and classes rewarded him with a CNA license and he is a caregiver. Life has a way of changing you when you least expect it.

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Ted Dekker’s 4 Deadly Mistakes

I received or signed up for Ted Dekker’s newsletter. Maybe I just clicked on something and now I get updates from him.

I haven’t read his books even though I own a couple. I wasn’t in the mood to read that style. If I ever go on another vacation where I get to sit in the sun for days and just read, I’ll bring his two books with me. I know they were interesting when I bought them.

I’m a writer so having a successful writer offer to give me the 4 Deadly Mistakes Fiction Writers Make, I immediately opened the list and began to look at them. I’m not going to copy and paste his work here. I will tell you he receives lots of questions from struggling writers. Good for us he feels empathy to share his vast knowledge with those still learning their craft.

After reading the list, I find I’ve read this list before. I enjoyed the way he explained how to avoid these mistakes.  What I wonder is at what point do people, like me, stop looking for some quick fix, magic wand, incantation, lucky plot pot, or even just a very good mentor to show us how to write a successful book or just finish one?

Having this list is great. Print it and tape it or pin it right next to your computer. Have you suficiently included or avoided these mistakes? I wonder. I found #3 Storytelling to be somewhat ambigous. BE A GOOD STORYTELLER. …RIGHT…

He tells you to be one but doesn’t tell you how to do it. Let me give you a little insight to what I think might help. Have you ever been to your friend’s house after they returned home from a vacation? At one time it was self narrated slide shows. (If you’re old enough to know what a slide show is). Then came the home movies. (They could have been at the same time depending on whether your parents had a movie camera or a still camera). There would be hours of boring footage of roadside scenery, children frolicking in the ocean, fishing, jumping off a dock into a lake, trying to paddle a canoe (that was the funniest part of the whole evening) and your friends waving at the camera before it tilted and fell over. There was no plot, no conflict and no goal. (Other than to get there and back home.)

Basically what I’m saying is a story isn’t a biography of a fictional character. A story isn’t about telling things that happen to that character.  “He went here, then there, climbed that mountain, swam that stream and forded that bridge. ‘{Yawn}  It’s what happens along the way that almost derails the trip, delays it, causes consternation and maybe even incites some fear. That is conflict. The resolution that it all worked out at the end gives the reader a good feeling. BUT! until the end, the writer must keep the reader from any ‘deep couch sitting.’ The reader must feel like they want to jump into the story at any time to help out.

Now the 4 Mistakes are a good start, However, like any good author, Mr. Dekkor never really gives you a full answer or understanding of those 4 Mistakes. You will of course have to buy his new book The creative Way: A Course in Transformational Fiction  when it comes out in March. Which just happens to begin tomorrow.

You can download his PDF of Sell Out and read that.  Until next time. I will try to do thos more often.

The NaNo

October started out with a bang and I began the process of planning out my novel for the National Write A Novel in a Month challenge. I was on fire. The story was about the treatment of Chinese in the early 1900’s in eastern Oregon. A magnificent plan. How do I write a story without it sounding like a documentary on the life of the Chinese during that time period?

I did a lot of research. A friend and I took a trip to Pendleton and Baker City, Oregon.  I learned the Chinese were treated with hostility, distrust and they were tormented. While they came to America, the land of opportunity, to earn money for their families and maybe even have a better life, they were not afforded that freedom.

I chose to make this a fiction about a mixed race young woman who had opportunities growing up that other Chinese didn’t have, but once she reached the age of marriage that relationship with her peers changed to what most of us have studied about the inter-racial marriages of the day. She was shunned. Chosing a career, she headed to eastern Oregon to write articles about miners and mining. While there she learns about the real mine workers and the way the Chinese men built the railroads, their treatment and ultimately her treatment.

I had the story planned and then the last week of October I went on a trip. With no laptop, I had a notebook with some old notes from a previous story I started.  Just to give my mind a break I took the old story and applied all the questions I’d just finished  on the other outline. I wrote and wrote, the ideas and conflict flowing just a freely as the new story.

On my way home, Oct. 31, I looked at the outline for both stories and realized I could write either story. The crux of the problem seemed to be which story was I more passionate about telling? Which one would keep me writing every day? Which conflicts demanded to be resolved and who would show up to save the heroine? As the time to start writing drew closer I had no clearer vision of which story to write.

Saturday, Nov.1 came and I stared at the computer with distaste. I didn’t feel like writing. I didn’t feel like doing anything, really. With that attitude, I decided to sit this NaNo Challenge out. That doesn’t mean I won’t be writing. I have other things in my life that are demanding attention. Writing one of these two stories isn’t at the top and demanding to be told.

I look back at the last NaNo I did. The story flowed. Then two months later I had foot surgery and off work for a month. I wrote the rest of it. I was fortunate to find a publisher who is a great editor and I’m finishing up the last of the edits so it can be ready to publish in January of 2015.

I don’t feel like a failure because I stepped out of the Challenge. It was almost a relief. I’m sure one of these stories will step forward and demand to be told. Until then the editing process will take some time and I need to be ready for new adventures as they come my way.