Just finished my second entry into NYC flash fiction. Given my performance in the first round (13th) it's unlikely (read: nearly impossible) for me to move onto the 3rd round, even if I get first place with this submission. That said! It was still a huge amount of fun. The prompt I had this time was Drama / A Moving Van / A Surfboard. Just like the first prompt (Comedy / An Escape Room / A Mousepad) it really forced me to go outside of my comfort zone.
Had a very interesting discussion with some friends about exactly what constitutes "drama". I think that my understanding in 48 hours can be summed up as "interpersonal conflict and character change (positive or negative)". I found it very helpful to think first about the change that I wanted my characters to experience and then constructing the rest of the story around that. I thought it would be interesting to include both my first draft and my eventual submission. It's strange how they're both so similar and so different.
The Long Drive Home
Heat billowed off the asphalt river in shimmers. A proud yellow orb hung in a stagnant azure sea. Urban stars glinted in glass windows and off the endless ribbon of sand. Two men dressed in tan polo shirts and black shorts carried a kayak into the back of a moving van.
"Keep it level."
Brackish sweat blown away by ocean breeze, etched trails of salty grit in Mike’s leathery olive skin. Ridges of sinew traced familiar paths through his meaty forearms. A sulfurous, sickly musk rolled off of him in walls and waves.
Exertion glistened on Malik’s satiny umber skin. The tan cotton uniform stretched taut against his bulging shoulders. His teeth, like sculpted pearls, were constantly visible in a grin that radiated through his cornflower blue eyes.
Malik stepped backwards, past a teak armoire topped with a gilded urn. Mike followed, up the loading ramp, grunting as he strained at his girdle. Together they hefted the kayak up onto a small boat rack, nestled between a surfboard and a jetski.
“Is that the last of it?” Malik asked.
“Still have to clear out the guest house. Guy should be along with the key in...” Mike checked his watch, then looked up and down the road. “Should be along any minute now.”
“So we wait?”
“Don’t we always?” Mike chuckled, and pulled back his lips.
“I’m going to go fill up my water bottle.” Malik moved to leave the truck.
“Hey Malik,” Mike stepped between the jetski and the armoire, blocking Malik’s path. “You uh… you ever been surfing?” Mike pointed at the board.
“I haven’t, actually. Never really had time for it.” He shrugged in mock apology, but the nuance was lost on Mike. “I know, I know, that makes me a bad Angeleno, right?”
“What about kayaking? You ever been kayaking?”
Malik rolled his eyes. “No, never been kayaking.” He stepped forward, trying to push past Mike without damaging anything.
Mike didn’t budge. “What about the seadoo? You ever use one of those?”
“No, I’ve never used a jetski.” Malik threw up his hands. “Man, I’m from fucking Victorville. I’ve never even seen the ocean till today.”
“I know man, I know.” Mike splayed his hands out in front of him, trying and failing to placate Malik. “It’s fucked up, right? We spend decades shuttling stuff around, and never ever get to use it.”
“Do not pull me into your shit Mike. Is this why you called into work at the last minute?”
“What’s the big deal? This trip is insured. We’re just moving some trust fund baby’s stuff back to her dad’s place. Jennifer, I think was the name. He won’t even notice.”
“The answer is no. Don’t say another goddamn word about it or I’ll report you.” Malik glared at Mike, striding forward, trying to squeeze between him and the jetski. Mike stuck out his arm, his heavy hand pressed against Malik’s chest.
“Come on man. You gotta cut me a break. I’ll owe you one, I swear. I just- I gotta do something right for my kid.”
Malik grabbed Mike by his lapels. “Don’t you dare blame this on your kid. No eight year old needs a fucking jetski.”
“Every eight year old needs a jetski. Imagine, just imagine what your life would have been like. What you could have done with yourself if you had all of this growing up.”
Malik pulled Mike close, his face
“You’re a coward. A greedy fucking coward hiding behind a child.” Malik’s fists clenched, his knuckles digging into Mike’s windpipe.
“Thirty years I’ve worked this job. For the last ten years I’ve taken every bit of overtime there was. I worked sixty, seventy hours a week. I gave my son everything I could give. I did all that, and he’s just the same as you. Everything in this truck is something that I could never give him.”
Malik pushed Mike away. “You’re a goddamn fool. Locking yourself away from your kids like that. No jetski in the world is worth more than a father. A decade from now he won’t remember even half the shit you bought him. He will remember if you showed up. If you put in the time to build a life with him.” Malik jabbed at Mike’s chest.
Mike checked his watch and chuckled. “Too late.” Tears welled up in his eyes. “It’s incredible Malik, really. You’d be a great father. Better than I ever was. Almost made me believe I could do it, too. It’s a shame that we’re not all built like you are.”
“Your son is eight. I don’t know what you did, but he needs a father. I’m not giving you an excuse to get yourself locked up.”
A tear rolled down Mike’s cheek. Malik strode forward, trying to force his way past. Mike grabbed Malik’s shoulder. He wrenched his arm away. It smashed into the armoire. It wobbled, and the gilded urn rolled off.
Ceramic shards scattered like mice against the riveted gunmetal floor. Ash spread in streaks against the floor. A heavy piece of cardstock fluttered to the ground ‘Jennifer Ramos’ written in embossed calligraphy.
Mike wiped the tears from his eyes. “Ah, a shame. That urn was nice. Looks like we have no choice now, right? Unless you want to explain… this.” He grinned at Malik.
“How? How could you possibly still go through with this? As a father, as a man, as a human being. These aren’t just things! Can’t you hear? God is begging you to spend time with your son.”
“I told you. It’s too late. You’re not the only one who thinks I should find a way to spend more time with my family. Today was… was supposed to be my custody hearing. I woke up this morning and I.. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t fight for him. I know I’m no good for him. You know I’m no good for him. I thought that this could be… a goodbye present.”
“I quit. Make your own choice. I won’t save you from that.”
A Father's Love
Mike and Jamal are two movers. Today, Mike calls in at the last minute to help Jamal with a move and asks for his help to give his son the perfect gift.
Under the crimson sky of a rising Los Angeles sun, two men in tan polo shirts and red shorts pulled a surfboard from a black, glass obelisk resting on the canals of Venice. They marched toward a moving van, ‘Quotidien Transport Services’ painted in flowery letters across the side.
Mike was a heavy older man wrapped in girdles, braces, and sweat. The stench of regret rolled off him in walls and waves. Jamal was young and toned with cornflower eyes and teeth like sculpted pearls. He stepped into the van, past a teak armoire topped with a gilded urn. Together they hefted the surfboard into the corner of the truck, nestled between a kayak and a jet ski.
“Is that the last of it?” Jamal asked.
“Still have to clear out the guest house.” Mike leaned back, stretching his back with a raucous chorus of percussion.
"The owner coming then? Jennifer Ramos, right?" Jamal asked.
"Not her. Dad's coming for some reason. Bet she's busy chasing boys in the Bahamas." Mike laughed at his own joke.
“I’m going to go fill up my water bottle.” Jamal moved to leave the truck. Mike jumped up to stop him.
“Hey Jamal!” Mike shouted, blocking Jamal’s path. “You uh… you ever been surfing?” Mike pointed at the board.
Jamal stared at Mike warily. “I haven’t, actually. Never really had time for it.” He shrugged in mock apology, but the nuance was lost on Mike. “I know, I know, that makes me a bad Angeleno, right?”
Mike waved him off. “What about kayaking? You ever been kayaking?”
Jamal rolled his eyes. “No… I've never been kayaking.” He gestured for Mike to move.
Mike didn’t budge. “What about the sea doo? You ever use one of those?”
“No, I’ve never used a jet ski.” Jamal threw up his hands. “I’m from fucking Victorville. I’ve never even seen the ocean till today.”
“I know, I know.” Mike placed a meaty hand on Jamal’s shoulder. “It’s fucked up. We spend decades shuttling this stuff around, and never ever get a taste.”
Jamal put up his hands defensively.
“Hey, I get it. Hell, this hunk of wood probably costs more than I make in a year.” Jamal knocked on the armoire. “Just not on my shift.” Jamal tried to step forward, but Mike’s hand bore down on his shoulder.
“What’s the big deal? This trip is insured, the dad is rich. Jennifer is a trust fund baby. Just look at this stuff. Maybe surfing’s not your thing, we can sell the board. Sell it with the art, the jewelry, hell maybe there’s something really valuable in all those stacks of letters.” Mike’s lips slid back in a smile that made Jamal’s stomach turn.
“Fuck, is this why you called in at the last minute?” Jamal locked eyes with Mike. “The answer is no. You say another goddamn word about it and I’ll report you.”
“Come on. Cut me a break. It’s for my kid.” Mike pleaded.
Rage flashed across Jamal’s face. He grabbed Mike by the lapels. “Don’t you dare blame this on your kid.” Jamal’s lips curled. “You’re a coward,” he spat. “A greedy fucking coward hiding behind a child.” Jamal’s fists clenched, his knuckles digging into Mike’s windpipe.
Mike choke-chuckled. “Ah you’re young. You don’t understand. You don’t have kids, I can tell.” He cleared his throat. “You see a jet ski, I see opportunity. Imagine what your life would have been like. What you could have done if you had all of this growing up.”
Jamal’s face twisted, fighting to hold back the venom on his tongue. He pulled Mike close. “You’re a goddamn fool. No jet ski in the world is worth more than a father.”
Mike chuckled, and tears welled up in his eyes. “You’d be a great father Jamal, really. Better than I ever was. Shame we’re not all built like you.” Mike sniffled. Jamal loosened his grip on Mike’s lapels. “Someone like me though? No kid is going to turn out alright with a dad like me.”
Jamal sucked his teeth and looked away, then turned back with a heavy sigh. “Look man, no eight year old needs a jet ski. All this rich people shit? It all turns to ashes in the end. The only thing you have to do is show up.”
A tear rolled down Mike’s cheek. “Too late,” he croaked.
Jamal shook his head and dropped Mike. Mike stumbled, and his right hand shot out to steady himself. He grabbed the armoire. It wobbled, and the gilded urn rolled off.
Jamal jumped forward, knocking Mike to the ground as he caught the urn. He turned it over in his hands, checking for damage. He saw ‘Jennifer Ramos’ scrawled over it in golden script. “Hey Mike, we’re uh… we’re bringing this stuff to her dad, right?”
“Yea, why?” Mike rolled onto his hands and knees.
Jamal showed him the urn.
Mike laughed, “Guess she’s not in Jamaica.”
Jamal shuddered. “What is wrong with you? Come on, please, can we just do the job? Her dad is going to be here any minute.” He set the urn back on the armoire.
“What? I figured you’d be happy about it. I mean it’s a victimless crime. It’s just like you said, she couldn’t take it with her, so why not get some use out of it? Are you in?” Mike stood on his knees and held out his hand.
“How? How could you possibly still ask me that? These are a father’s last mementos, not some toys from an executive’s summer home.”
“I told you, right? It’s too late for me. I’ve been… an awful father. I skipped my custody hearing for this, not that it would make a difference.” Mike wiped his eyes. “Please Jamal, please. You know. You’ve seen for yourself. This van, it’s more than I could ever give him as a father.”
Jamal felt his world crack as he realized that Mike was right.