Meat from a Carcass: A Play

I love to read plays, but find them incredibly difficult to write (narrative fiction gives me a greater amount of control to describe the visuals and the action.) Plays also take a very deft ear for dialogue. I think my skills have improved greatly in the intervening years since I wrote this one-act (about 2009), but I have strong affinity for the characters (they all want to do what is “right”, but boy, are they unhappy about it. Robert and Karl don’t compete on an equal playing field, and are both selfish in their own way – but I think they genuinely want what’s best for each other, even if they can’t always let the other shine. They are very brotherly in that regard even if they aren’t related. I think that growing up gets easier when you stop comparing, and learn that a “win” isn’t always a win.

Excerpt from SUCCESSION

(Two young men in an open field. Each has a rifle. They have been target shooting. Their fathers huddle in the far distance):

Karl

You shot pretty well today.

 

Robert

Sometimes I hit what I aim at.

 

Karl

The scope on the rifle favors left. It’s only off by a breath – but it is off. You should know. Fair is fair.

 

Robert

Uh-huh.

 

Karl

Some guys from the shop are going out tonight. I usually hang out with a couple of buddies from high school.

 

Robert

I’m not really feeling up to seeing any of the old faces.

 

Karl

There are a few girls. I think they’re into artists -at least the guys who talk like they’re into that sort of thing.

 

Robert

I’ll see…

 

Karl

I’m glad you’re getting out of town.

 

            (Robert nods.)

Karl

It’s a big deal.

 

Robert

Maybe.

 

Karl

You’ve got to get out of this place. You’ve got to write about all this stuff around here. There are tons of stories, and people, that everybody’s got to know about. Cause it’s got to get told. I mean it’s just as interesting as anything else. You can make that happen. You’ve got the opportunity. Don’t just write some bullshit, okay? Don’t be that guy who just gives the people what he thinks they want. If you could write like a story or movie or something that hits it big. I mean, like, big big. God, that would be something. I could tell people that I know you. I would know what you were talking about. And I could talk to people about it. And it would be important. You could come though this place and it would be a big deal. People would really stand up and take notice for once. You’d be the guy who made it out. You’d be the guy who shared a piece of this place with everybody. Just remember me, okay?

 

Robert

Nothing’s decided yet. It’s just an idea.

 

Karl

It’s a good idea.

 

Robert

You can make things – tangible things. All I can do is talk. What you do is as important as anything else. At least it’s honest.

 

            (Karl nods.)

 

Karl, you can always leave if you want to.

 

Karl

I can’t even get a job on my own in my hometown. How can I do it someplace else?

 

Robert

Hell if I know.

 

Karl

Do you have anything to stick the card to the fence post? A tack or something?

 

Robert

No. Just slip it under the wire. It doesn’t need to stay up there long.

 

Karl

This is stupid.

 

Robert

It doesn’t seem as stupid when you win.

 

Karl

I’m going to miss. If they care so much about competing, then they should compete.

 

George (off stage)

What’s taking so long?

 

Karl

We’ve got it!

 

(to Robert) Don’t forget about me when you make it. Promise.

 

 

Robert

Yeah. Sure.

 

George (off stage)

Hump it over here. It’s too cold for us geezers.

 

(Enter George and Fritz. The group meets. Fritz holds the rifle and two shells. George a pair of binoculars.)

 

Fritz

Karl, you follow Bobby. One man, one shot. Closest to center wins.

 

            (Fritz puts one shell in the bolt-action rifle. Hands it to Robert.)

 

George

What is that? A Big Five rifle?

 

Fritz

Yes.

 

George

It looks okay.

 

Fritz

It’s your shot, Bobby.

 

            (Robert takes aim. Shoots.)

 

George

He nicked it. Caught an edge.

 

Fritz

Karl up.

 

(Robert hands the rifle to Karl who takes a shell from Fritz. Loads the weapon. Waits.)

 

Fritz

It’s your shot, Karl.

 

            (Karl takes aim. Shoots.)

 

George

Dead center. Karl wins. Let’s drink!

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Meat from a Carcass: More Charlie and Max

Turns out I did revisit Max and Charlie – this time digging a little deeper into their living conditions and into Momma and Uncle’s story. I also got to meet Sam the dog. Every kids story needs a dog to follow the action and Sam turned out to be only slightly interested in the children invading his home.

I like the dynamic between the two brothers. Max’s sense of responsibility feels a bit heartbreaking given the situation. Most days he’s the man of the house (and he knows it.) That’s tough on a little kid. Charlie just wants to be like his big brother (that feels healthy and true to me.)

I feel bad for these two kids. Thank God they have each other.

HIDE AND SEEK:

I found Charlie curled up in the linen closet under a spotty old blanket.

“No fair!” he shouted, and let out a big sigh, “You can count to ten faster than I can. It makes the game no fun.”

I told him the game wasn’t that much fun to begin with, but he didn’t really listen. Sam, my uncle’s old retriever, awoke from all the commotion and started up the stairs; his nails clacked against the wood. He wanted out of the farmhouse as much as we did, but with the rain, we were all prisoners for the afternoon. I was in charge: no one in, no one out. 

“You hide now, Max,” said Charlie, “It’s my turn to seek.”

Hiding didn’t interest me, so we both just sort of searched for no one in particular. We had only been at Uncle’s a few months, so there was still a lot to explore. Sam tagged along. 

Under the bed, Charlie found a dime and few pennies, excitement enough for him, but nothing to get me too worked up over. Sam chomped an old hog bone and spiraled down onto a hair-strewn quilt. Charlie petted him for a while, and counted his newly found treasures.

In uncle’s closet, I found neatly-folded dungarees and a pressed black suit. The cramped space smelled like sweat and mothballs, so I closed it back up and left the room. Mother was given the small guest bed; it looked like no one slept there at all. There were only a handful of dresses hanging on wire hangers, and two pairs of shoes. There wasn’t even dust under the bed. There was nothing, save for a bundle wrapped in brown paper. I fished in out and called for Charlie. 

The package was named and addressed, but there was no postage. I didn’t recognize the street (or even the city), but I’d heard the name before: it was my father’s.

“Do you remember him at all?” Charlie asked. 

I didn’t, but said that I did.

At the corners, the package was worn. It looked like one of Charlie’s presents on Christmas morning: opened and resealed. The tacky tape peeled back easy, and a pair of man’s bib overalls slid out. I held them up like a caught fish.

“He was big,” Charlie marveled.

I nodded and handed the pair to him. The pockets were empty. 

“Do you think father misses his pants, Max?”

“He probably got some new ones and doesn’t even think about them.”

Charlie agreed that was mostly likely so, but he didn’t look happy about it. Once we were satisfied, we folded the overalls as best as we could, resealed the packaging, and placed it under the foot of the bed. Sam chewed his bone.

We lost our urge to explore, so all three of us padded back down stairs. When we reached the kitchen, I asked Charlie not to tell mother that we’d been snooping. He liked the idea of having a secret and swore to it.

The remainder of the day was no more exciting than a rerun.

When uncle got home, he let Sam out. The dog buried his bone in the wet soil near the walk path. 

Mother got home late; Charlie was already asleep. She kissed me on the forehead and pulled the blanket tight. I told her Charlie found thirteen cents and that I had missed her.

For a second, she looked happy.

Meat from a Carcass: The Bird in the Barn

This is a self-contained entry, an ultra-short story I wrote several years ago for online publication. In my meat metaphor, this would be considered a slider. I’ve always liked The Bird in the Barn because I like the characters of Max and Charlie – they feel like kids, and they feel like brothers. I visited them at least one other time. The lazy possibilities of their uncle’s farm seemed very comforting and familiar. I also liked the kids’ concept of fairness – it’s a concept I wish more people shared. They’re good boys those two.

THE BIRD IN THE BARN:

“Do you think it’s dead, Max?”

I said I didn’t know and to hush up.

The color drained out of Charlie’s cheeks until he was as ashen as the wind-worn slats on the barn. He pursed his lips tight.

In the trampled hay, placed as delicately as a freshly laid egg, a bird rested, his wings tucked at his side and his eyes black and open. The bird was still.

My boots cracked the dry hay as I slunk towards our find. Charlie stayed put. So did the bird. I held my breath as I forced my hand towards the animal’s tiny head. 

“Max?” Charlie pleaded.

The bird was soft as I stroked its back with my thumb.

“Yeah,” I said, “It’s dead. Probably has been for days”

I walked over and gave Charlie a hug and I felt the front of my shirt grow damp.

When Charlie was through, we exited Uncle’s barn together and latched the big, wooden door. Neither of us talked. As we reached the grass, Charlie broke out in a run towards the house. I took the dirt walkway.

By the time I entered the farmhouse, Charlie was already on Mother’s knee and she had heard the whole story; she kind of smiled and brushed Charlie’s dirty hair away from his eyes.

“Why did the bird have to die in our barn?” Charlie asked.

“Everybody is looking for a place that’s warm and safe to lie down in,” said Mother, “even a little bird. And the barn is as good a place as any.”

“There are spider’s in the barn. It should have died in the house,” Charlie said.

“Spiders don’t bother the birds,” Mother assured, “it knew what it was doing.”

I asked what we should do with the bird – another animal was likely to find it if we left it in the barn.

Charlie’s face soured, and he looked like he would start up again.

“I think a funeral would be best,” Mother said.

Charlie’s eyes grew big and he smiled so that we could see all his teeth.

“But not tonight,” she said, “A funeral at night, just doesn’t seem appropriate.”

Charlie and I agreed.

That night, we scoured Uncle’s heavy encyclopedia by flashlight for a bird that looked like ours – I did most of the looking because Charlie doesn’t read big words yet. The excitement of our search waned and we fell asleep at the foot of the bunk.

After breakfast, under the tall walnut tree, we prepared the bird for his funeral. Charlie dug a hole with the little spade, and I wrapped the bird in tissue paper and placed it in a preserves jar. Mother said some nice words and we buried our friend. Charlie looked real proud to be the one to cover the grave with dirt and pack it tight. I was glad that he didn’t cry.

All that day, I tried not to think about the bird, but that never really works.

When the sun had set for evening, and the stars and fireflies lit the dusk, I walked the pathway to the old barn; Charlie was already inside lying in the hay.

“There aren’t any other birds, Max. I already checked. Six spiders, a mouse, and a couple of June bugs, but no birds.”

“That’s good,” I said.

Charlie nodded, but without much behind it. He had collected all his foundlings into a neat pile.

“Should we have another funeral tomorrow?” Charlie asked, his eyes round as copper pennies.

“No,” I said, “I figure those kinds don’t really get funerals. Just birds, and dogs, and cats, and those-likes.”

Charlie got squinty for a long while like he was trying to sound out one those long words from the encyclopedia. Finally, he tapped me on the shoulder.

“Max,” he said, “That doesn’t seem quite fair.”

“No, Charlie, it doesn’t, but that’s just the way it is.”

Meat from a Carcass: Excerpt from a Larger Work

Some projects live and some projects die. This shouldn’t come as revelatory to anyone who’s ever attempted to write a large manuscript, hell it shouldn’t come across as revelatory to anyone who’s tried to read a long novel. Sometimes it’s best to put a suffering book out of its misery (it saves readers a lot of pain.) My hard drive is littered with the corpses of mercy-killed projects. Turns out I’m a tough critic when it comes to my own work. But I love each of my manuscripts no matter how lumpy or misshapen they are. They certainly aren’t all bad. Parts of them contain my favorite stories I’ve ever written.

I will spend the foreseeable future slicing away the good meat from the bone and bringing to you the choice cuts from my fallen manuscripts. I am reticent to call this process butchering, but when the knife fits…

Some days I will bring you burgers, others fillet mignon, but I will always bring you a piece I find nourishing and one that has stuck with me over the years.

Please enjoy an excerpt from a novel called “The Salt and the Darkness” set in the Oregon Territory just after the Civil War. In it, an exciting and horrified scene is experienced from the medics tent just outside the battlefield. I remember enjoying the section about canon firing procedures and the dance-step quality to it. I remember liking the environment of the field medics and how the scene awed even them. You have to work pretty hard to rattle a doctor.

THE SALT AND THE DARKNESS:

The 75th infantry’s artillery was late to the battle. Two twelve-pounder napoleans took time and manpower to maneuver down the rocky prarie hills, and once they were placed behind the protection of the ribbony creek, they were equally cumbersome to evacuate. Four stout privates muscled the twenty kegs of black powder down the loping grade, stacking them neatly in an easily accessible pyramid equidistant from the two stately canons.

 

The entire set-up took almost an hour to complete, which was far longer than Lt. Dobson would have preferred, but with his final pieces in place, the lieutenant was assured the victory he so desired over the rebels.

 

Dobson gave his Seargant (the Chief of the Piece) authority to begin his platoon’s firing procedures, who in turn ordered his two gunners to their tasks. “Load!” shouted both corporals in near perfect unison, and their men sprang into the clock-like action of loading and pointing each canon. Two.Three.Four. “Sponge!” shouted both Corporals in time. Each platoon’s Number One, shoved his long-sticked bristle brush into his respective canon’s mouth, cleaning it out to the bottom of the bore. Two.Three.Four. Once the Number Two had added the charge, both Corporals gave the order to “RAM!”, and the Number One drove the cartridge round home. Each Number One removed his rammer head and stepped back beyond the width of the caisson’s wheels. Two.Three. “Ready!” The Corporals oversaw the final checks of the primer, and for a full four seconds, no man moved.

 

The entire loading procedure had taken less than two minutes, and in that time, Lt. Dobson noticed a plume of smoke rising on the far side of the creek directly opposite the mounting of the two iron beasts. Rain was an ever-present concern for any black powder artillery; the volatile mixture – which was finicky even under ideal circumstances – was rendered completely unreliable when wet. Even so, Lt. Dobson found himself praying for a summer storm to extinguish whatever brushfire was beginning to blossom directly ahead. He could make due without the use of canons for the remainder of the battle – it wasn’t preferable, but damn it, it was better than the chaos that would ensue if the powder went up.

 

“Hold!” cried Dobson, which was soon echoed by both Corporals. “Do not procede!”

 

The lieutenant called for a retreat of both caissons beyond the safety of the rocky knoll, and the teams set to their orders. Confederates had made it a habit to ambush Union artillery platoons throughout much of the West, making off with countless (extremely valuable) United States canons. Dobson had often watched his own men struck down by the very weapons they had marched with all the way from Ohio, and the napoloeans had proven a particularly prized spoil – highly regarded for their long range and relative ease of mobility. The platoons, at the behest of Dobson, moved the canons first. That would prove a miscalculation.

 

*

 

What stopped Henry from cleaning the remaining gore from his table was the light. It stopped him mid swipe. Even from a quarter-mile, the intensity forced his eyes to slits. Several surgeons dropped their tools, which plunked delicately into the thin crimson pond pooling at their feet like stones dropping into water, and starred. Henry didn’t even feel the bucket slip through his hand – didn’t even remember it was there. And only Dr. Prine turned when it clattered against the wooden operating platform, spilling its ghastly contents.

 

The light drew the medics in as if they were moths; even the patients blessedly spared their mobility crained to see what was happening. It drew them all. And then, with the power of continents, the blast opened its mouth.

 

Henry felt the sound wave hit his stomach like the tide crashes the shore. He felt a rush of warm air shove him backwards, and had to shuffle his feet like a drunk to maintain balance. A wounded soldier screamed, but no one rushed to soothe him. Then it was over. The medics look to eachother as if they possessed an answer.

 

Dr. Prine feared that some of the younger men would retreat to safety over the rocky draw, hell, if he didn’t have a responsibility to his wounded soldiers, that’s what he would do. That explosion was bigger than any artillery he’d ever heard. Prine wanted to give the assistants a reassuring word, to let them know that this kind of blast wasn’t unheard of in a time of war, but found his mouth conspicuously empty. Indeed, the very thought sounded like a lie in his own head, so the doctor forced his mouth into a smile and turned his face to Henry’s. The boy ran.

 

The boy ran towards the explosion.

——-

Check back for more stories both long and short, plays, essays, scripts, poems. Anything I can hack away, I will serve up. Even the fallen deserve their day in the sun.