From the Writing Club of 1992: Two Short Stories

In 1992, some co-worker friends and I created my second iteration of a writing club, a template I used again and again to try, often without success, to get creative minds together. In 1992, the group consisted of Pam Young (later Hudspeth), Frank Rodriguez, Melissa Price (later Davis) and me.

I still have contact with these people, and feel that I was right to include them in my intimately creative circle, and I still have admiration for them all to this day.

For this occasion, co-worker/reporter Melissa Price and I agreed, mostly at my urging, to write about a shared experience, the time she and I went to Roff, Oklahoma, to investigate the cause of the town’s mysterious garden damage.

Here are the two stories we wrote based on that day.

 

Several Times

by Richard R. Barron

“This is different,” she blurted. It was the first words either of us had spoken in five minutes.

“Thank you,” I answered, smiling. I wanted her to like it, and therefore like me. But “different” would have to do.

My car bounced hard on the rock-and-gravel road, so I held the steering wheel tightly. Rough travel and I were well acquainted, as I was often sent on assignments in remote locations such as this one.

Melissa and I, as reporter and photographer respectively, were on our way to find a story in Roff, Oklahoma.

Her honey hair danced delicately on her soft shoulders as she stared vacantly forward at the road. The music I so wanted her to like, music I found very beautifuI and evocative, continued to fill my car.

“…how many ways can you say-ee-yay goodbye…?” it sang.

Being with Melissa was rapidly becoming a double-edged sword. Part of me was starting to like her, starting to be charmed by her gentle movement and calm smiles.

Another part of me saw her as a constant reminder of everything that seemed to be missing from my life. She was beautiful and bright and creative. But like everyone else I met, she was from another world. Married since she was 20, she had two adorable
blonde-haired children.

I, on the other hand, had none of that. No wedding ring, no prom photos on the wall, no baby bouncing on my knee. No one waited for me when I got home.

The music continued to play as we rolled up the ranch road that lead to an agri-business headquarters, the second stop in our quest for our story.

“This is called ‘Baby Ray Baby,'” I explained.

“It sounds like a baby,” she answered, frowning slightly. I could tell she didn’t like it.

An hour earlier, she and I sat in the home of two dreadfully poor residents of the tiny town in the middle of nowhere. They were irate, and talked on and on, their serpentine conversation smacking of their small-town manner. They claimed that the local ranch had carelessly sprayed their town with herbicide, killing all the plants, including their formerly prize-winning okra and tomatoes.

"They claimed that the local ranch had carelessly sprayed their town with herbicide, killing all the plants, including their formerly prize-winning okra and tomatoes."
“They claimed that the local ranch had carelessly sprayed their town with herbicide, killing all the plants, including their formerly prize-winning okra and tomatoes.”

I sat quietly on the tattered sofa while Melissa made notes, talked to them, tried to feel their anguish and rage.

I looked around at their modest home. Pale armchairs bracketed peeling end tables, on top of which stood faded snapshots in faded frames, pictures of grandchildren from years and years before.

Directly in front of me in their den was a window that had been covered with a bright red gel filter. Through it I saw the neighborhood; the children playing in the warm spring sun, the men mowing the tall, green grass, the teen-agers driving their hot-rods down the crooked blacktop street.

Everything I saw was red, deep red, like blood.

A red filter meant something to me. As a photographer, I knew how to use gel filters. Red was for more contrast, darker skies, brooding clouds. A red filter produced an extreme effect, and an extreme mood.

Why was it on their window?

The conversation droned. Melissa wrote as they chatted, and I could hear the sound of her pen on the paper. Watching her hand, I noticed she was left-handed, and I smiled, since I was also. Her hands weren’t feminine or pretty, yet something about them was intoxicating.

The house was musty and drearily silent. She and I were the only life in it. As I sat, I got sleepy, and my thoughts began to stumble around here and there, remembering other houses, other places, other moments.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

“Hmm? Oh, sure, I guess.”

We were led out to the back yard to get some proof of the terrible tragedy that was rapidly becoming the talk of all of southeastern Oklahoma.

As Melissa and I walked around the back yard, looking at damaged trees and turnips, I watched her. I thought about her name, a name I’d been saying and writing for years before I ever met her.

Another Melissa…with whom I shared a tender moment one delicate autumn afternoon long before. I took her in my arms and held her close, feeling her warmth, her soft hair brush my face.

Now, suddenly, I thought about how much I’d like to share a similar moment with this Melissa.

“So what do you think, Melissa?”

“I think the rancher was right,” she explained, “I don’t see how the pesticide got into town.”

An hour earlier, she was equally convinced that the rancher was the Devil Himself. Now we were on our way into town again where she would be swayed once more by moist eyed townspeople and their drooping peach trees.

Visiting several more homes and meeting many people, we stayed longer than we intended. The last stop was a large back yard with a host of dead or dying plants. A woman escorted us at first, but almost immediately we were greeted by a much more interesting member of her family. He was hairy and huge, at least 400 pounds, wearing overalls. He was strikingly ugly, from his giant yellow banana-like fingernails, to his giant misshapen earlobes, which resembled leather bags filled with cottage cheese. To accent his charms, he constantly expectorated and muttered about how the doctor couldn’t do anything to relieve the swollen, pus-filled boil on his leg.

He was repulsive. And he was as different from Melissa as anyone could possibly be. I looked back and forth between them. She was so small and soft and pretty, all the things he wasn’t.

Then, as if in some kind of slow motion, she looked at me looking at her. I had no idea what she must have seen in my eyes, but as if I was drawn into her stare, I knew she knew what I was feeling. It wasn’t love or lust, it was a feeling about who she was, and everything she was to me.

As clearly as if I had stopped everything and said it out loud in the awkward silence of the warm May afternoon, she knew how much I was longing. Longing.

We looked at each other for another moment, and then it was time to go. An hour later, the car door slammed as I let her out in the parking lot at the office. She was gone. I looked away, feeling empty.

I started to drive home, and remembered the music still in my car’s stereo. This Mortal Coil. She didn’t like it. I put in the tape, turned it up. A sweet voice filled my car…

“Several times I looked
in your eyes
Several times I saw you
wishing to stop this…’

I drove home thinking of her.

 

In Between Black and White

by Melissa Davis

The first thing I thought as I climbed into Richard’s red sports car was I wouldn’t like his music. He’d told me, in earlier conversations, that he listened to groups named “The Cocktail Weinees” and “That Mortal Coil.” I knew nothing of those bands and didn’t care to.

I listened to real music, like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Later, I’d find out, he did, too. But that day, we listened to the The Cocktail Weinees, and I didn’t like them. Ironically, that first day alone together, I would judge him on that.

We arrived in Roff, a miniature community just south of Ada, with much ado. You see, we’d called earlier —- or, more accurately, I had —- and they knew we were coming. It’s not often newspaper deadlines, in a city 10 times its size, had been set aside for Roff. But the town’s gardens were dying, and on a slow news day in Ada, this was considered worthy.

I asked Richard: “So which approach shall we take? I, personally, think the rancher is guilty. He sprayed pesticide all over their gardens —— though, possibly, he meant no harm — and, really, he should pay. Let’s nail him.”

Understand this, I’m a misplaced leftover from my dad’s generation. He grew up in the Sixties, and I’ve always envied him that. What must have it been like to puff pot openly, to say, “screw you” to your parents, to simply not care about the consequences? It made yelling for the underdog so much easier — a requirement, almost — and I could, at least, do that now.

I did it with gusto. Richard did not. It made me like him less.

“I am here to take pictures,” he said. “You came to write the facts. Someone else will interpret them — and interpret them fairly — if we do our jobs right.”

The fact was, I didn’t know that. Oh, deep down, I knew that was what we were supposed to do. But I had long ago discarded accepted requirements as mundane and senseless. I was not about to change that attitude now.

I pulled out my spiral notebook just as we slid into the driveway of a gardener I’d spoken with briefly on the telephone. Richard gathered his gear as well.

The home was an older one, as most are in Roff, and until three years ago, owned by somebody else. The current residents were an elderly couple who’d chosen to spend retirement watching their grandson play baseball. That, and plant a garden.

“See the leaves,” the old man said, leading us outside and tenderly fingering the wilted branches of a peach tree. “Used to be healthy. All but dead now. we’re still getting fruit, but I wouldn’t eat it. Unsafe. Richardson, across the way, said he ate some okra from his garden and didn’t get sick.”

He shook his head, before continuing, “That’s for him to decide. I know a bad piece of fruit when I see one.”

Seemingly untouched by the pain in the man’s voice —— his name, by the way, was Art —— Richard methodically snapped photographs. I knew already how I would color my story. I wondered if Richard, with his black and white film, would realize the value of doing the same.

“You ready?” he asked, packing up his camera, answering my question. “I’ve got what I need.”

No, I thought, you don’t. But, instead, I nodded quickly, pumped Art’s hand and promised him a good story. Richard never promised someone a good photograph. He just automatically assumed they would assume he would deliver one. He was, after all, the Oklahoma Press Association’s choice for photographer of the year. He didn’t earn that title through mediocre work.

“Where now?” he asked. He clicked his seatbelt together and demanded that I do the same. He always did that, and I hated it.

Once, I contemplated stealing off in his car, driving with reckless abandon down Mississippi Avenue, blaring the radio on Rock 100 The Katt and doing it all without the safety of a restrictive seatbelt.

"Once, I contemplated stealing off in his car, driving with reckless abandon down Mississippi Avenue."
“Once, I contemplated stealing off in his car, driving with reckless abandon down Mississippi Avenue.”

I figured I could get away with all but the last part. And the rest of it wasn’t worth the risk.

“To the rancher’s house,” I said. “We need to get his side of the story. Then we’ll go back and look at some more gardens.”

Richard didn’t even nod. He just drove, content behind the wheel of his beloved car, the binding strap of material that kept him there. The cocktail weinees droned out another irritating tune from his tape deck.

“You like me, don’t you?” I said simply.

No, I didn’t say that; I thought that. It struck me as I turned to Richard in an attempt to persuade him to change the music. I could tell, suddenly, that he knew I didn’t like this group and was disappointed because of it. I could tell that he cared about what I thought. And for the first time in the year that I’d vaguely known him, that made him human.

Richard was not simply an odd, difficult, self-centered, vegetarian, prize-winning photographer. He was all of that with veins.

Smiling, I gave the Cocktail Weinees another chance. I didn’t like them any better.

Richard looked at me quizically. “Why are you smiling?” he asked.

Why, indeed. I had not, I reminded myself, made this newfound discovery known. I had no explanation for my grin. But I quickly made one up, mumbling something about the senseless lyrics that were intruding on my thoughts.

And my thoughts were this: I savored the idea that Richard liked me. That he liked me, as a matter of fact, in a way he should perhaps not like a woman so visibly married. Craig and I had been together eight years by then, half of them in so-called wedded bliss. I had two small children and waved their names constantly in my conversations with Richard.

I did so again.

“Did you know,” I pondered, tossing Richard my most charming smile, “that Heather could very well be the smartest person in her daycare? She’s only 2, but already, she can say her alphabet, correctly identify all her colors and count to 10. I think that’s amazing.”

I spread my left hand out, staring in admiration at the gold wedding band on my fourth finger. It caught the sun, twinkled, caused Richard to squint. I waited for him to comment, either on my daughter or my ring, both harsh reminders of my unavailability.

“You bite your nails,” he said instead, turning into the long, gravel driveway leading up to the rancher’s house. “You must be a nervous person.”

Was I, indeed, a nervous person? Perhaps a little. But I afforded the comment little thought  and no response, before again reaching out for my notebook, the second time this trip.

The rancher’s story was completely opposite that of the gardener. He complained of undue blame, pointed out his hefty contribution to Roff’s economy and sent us on our way. I disliked him immediately. Richard, on the other hand, treated him exactly as he had the gardener. With distance. Each time I leaned closer to the rancher, scribbling furiously on my pad, Richard seemed to take a step backwards. He used his zoom lens, pointing the camera in our general direction but remaining distant enough to silence its click.

Hours later, I would learn he spent two rolls of film at the rancher’s place alone.

“So what do you think?” I asked, tucking myself obediently, grudgingly behind my seatbelt. “Some smooth talker, huh?”

Richard raised an eyebrow and popped Pink Floyd into the tape deck. The first soft strums of Wish You Were Here filled the car, and that surprised me, pleasantly so. His reply did as well.

“He’s convincing,” Richard agreed, “but I think I believe the gardener -— Art, was it? -— I think I believe him more. He was genuine, real. That last guy’s lost touch.”

Then why, I wanted to ask, did you offer them the same aloof treatment? Did you not feel, as I did, the need to throw a comforting arm about Art’s shoulder? Didn’t you want to share in the sentimental stories about peanut butter sandwiches lathered thick with peach jam? You’re a vegetarian. What about compassionate mention of green beans, tomatoes, corn? You could have at least admitted, “Man, that must be a drag,” for Christ’s sakes!

I said none of this, of course. But it struck me that every “real” thought I’d entertained all day had not been spoken aloud. Did I not share them because I considered Richard an unworthy audience? Or wasn’t it more true, I scolded myself, that I shared them with no one?

I bit down on a fingernail and hummed vacantly to Pink Floyd.

The rest of Roff’s gardens proved very similar to the first. There would be no canned tomatoes, no pickled cucumbers, no frozen okra or tangy peach preserves in this older community that so depended on such leftovers in the winter. Theirs was a summer crop completely lost. And inside, I angrily mourned this devastation.

On the way back to Ada, I plucked a cassette from my purse and asked Richard if we could listen to it. It was a well-used tape, made by myself years before but only rediscovered that very morning. Heather had come racing into the kitchen, proudly clutching the TDK in her small, pudgy hand.

I took it gratefully and, of course, did not scold her for having it in the first place. I seldom did, scold her, that is. I loved her unconditionally and wanted her to feel the same. Only for Logan, my recently born son, could I feel anything as pure.

The Eagles’ Peaceful, Easy Feeling poured into the car, and I was immediately transported back to a long—ago afternoon, well before Logan, Heather, even my marriage to Craig.

It was my nineteenth summer, and I had stolen away for a walk with Craig’s best friend, Jay. Days earlier, I’d learned that Jay was in love with me, from Jay’s own mouth; it proved an awkward outing, with music filling the air where our attempts at nervous conversation failed.

That was the first time and completely innocent. I had not lured Jay into loving me, was, in fact, shocked at his confession and disappointed with how it unraveled our friendship. But in later meetings, I would not forget what he said. How he obviously still felt. And I would play it to my advantage.

I wondered, sitting in Richard’s car and again flashing my ring, if that had started it all. I admitted that it had, but not alone. The reason behind Jay’s honesty and, consequently, betrayal of Craig was Craig himself. Craig had cheated on me, and Jay had told, thinking he could do better.

How many men had there been since then? Three? Four? Fourteen? Any that, to at least some extent, was willing to fall for me? Yes, to some extent.

But there was, of course, nothing tangible between any of us. I would never compromise my unwavering fidelity for them, no matter what their feelings were. Some of them thought like I did; others did not. It mattered little to me.

Ironic, that I would pride myself on being so like my father’s generation but, in many ways, avoid what they stood for. Free love, for example.

“Richard?” I asked, shattering the song’s power. “If you thought the gardeners were right, why didn’t you say so? They probably think you’re on the rancher’s side, the way you were acting. They knew I was with them.”

“You approach things differently,” he said simply. “When it’s all said and done, when the paper goes down, we’ll tell the same story.”

By the time we returned to the newsroom, everyone else was gone. It was a Friday afternoon, and reporters, burdened with overtime hours by early week, clear out quickly for the weekend. Since Richard and I had Sunday’s top story in our bags, we stayed.

I wrote two stories. One of them was a hard news account of what was going on in Roff; quick, to-the-point, fair. The other, I labored with for two hours. It was Art’s tale, told with eloquence in the same slow, pained speech pattern of the gardener himself.

A prize-winner, maybe. I clicked my computer off and went to check on Richard in the darkroom.

Funny, I thought as I walked from the room, I felt I knew Art. He was honest, caring, probably true to his wife. And he’d been destroyed by some rancher — deceptively charming and easy to look at — as though he didn’t matter.

I would never hurt a man like Art. Would I?

I made the mistake of not knocking. Richard had a sign on his darkroom door that said, “Always Knock Before Entering,” in order to prevent fatal interruptions in the film developing process. We’d arrived three hours earlier, so I knew he’d already souped the film. I figured I was safe.

And in that sense, I was. Richard had the light on, making prints. Of me. Prize-winners.

Me, talking to Art, smiling with understanding. Me, again, a pained expression on my face as I turned away from the face, also pained, of an elderly woman. Her arthritic hands clutched a shriveled peach.

There were several of local gardeners and the confident rancher, none of which featured me. These were the ones we would use in the paper, because I, of course, could not be the news.

And then there was one without any of them. Its impact nearly knocked me over.  I remembered, precisely, the moment it was taken, though at the time, I was unaware Richard had snapped it. I had looked toward his car, where he’d stood, restless and finished with his work, waiting for me. I’d been angry, I remembered, at Richard’s apparent lack of compassion toward the gardeners.

Yet, I’d seen him, and I’d smiled. A surface smile, anyway, and Richard, the Oklahoma Press Association’s choice for best photographer of the year, had captured everything beneath that superficial grin.

The exasperation. The impatience. The haughtiness. Me.

“You’re supposed to knock,” he snapped, not looking up from his work.

“Oh…” I stood there, mesmerized, staring at myself, the self I’d glimpsed intermittently, in private moments of reflection, all day. The self I only scarcely acknowledged, and never in public.

Me .

“Uh, I’ve got to go,” I blurted and swung out the door before he could stop me.

I punched down on the accelerator of my Dodge and jerked out of the parking lot. The radio blared out the one Led Zeppelin tune I’d never liked. I turned it down.

In the silence, Richard’s comment from earlier haunted me. “I am here to take pictures … Someone else will interpret them — and interpret them fairly —- if we do our jobs right.”

And then, ironically, my internal response. “I knew already how I would color my story. I wondered if Richard, with his black and white film, would realize the value of doing the same.”

The Zeppelin song, though quiet, still irritated me. I snapped it off. And I thought, fleetingly, of my life since 19. I’d wronged Craig and everybody else, save Heather and Logan. I promised myself to do it no more.

Smiling, I clicked my seatbelt together. With a tentative voice, I tried out a few vaguely remembered lyrics from the cocktail weeniees.

I shut up immediately. God, I hated that song.

3 Comments

  1. Also? I had no idea anyone ever perceived you as “difficult”, which kind of makes me glad that you insulted her hands.

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