Last week I challenged myself to actually do the writing exercises I’ve recommended for others. The first exercise combines two things: one I’ve already done (writing to an illustration, just not this illustration), and the other I haven’t attempted since I was a kid and didn’t even own a typewriter (and the home computer was yet to be invented). This week I give you, warts and all, a short story inspired by this weird old illustration:
And here’s a sample page from the handwritten manuscript, which took up eleven and a half pages in a cheap composition book:
Yes, my handwriting looks terrible, and yes the story really needs help. But this is me taking my own advice, again, to write as fast as possible. This explains the tragic state of the handwriting, the numerous typos, the many instances of passive voice, the lack of some detail, and so on. Given some more time, effort, and considered thought, I’d like to add more description of “the lady,” get just a smidge deeper into Zach’s relationship with his mother, and add some more details of the haircut itself—it’s occurred to me that I should show her shaving the sides of his head.
All in all, regardless of the relative quality of the story in its current form, I’m going to go ahead and call this exercise a success. I found writing by hand to be much easier and faster than I’d anticipated. Again, having given myself permission to write a short, bad short story, I wasn’t getting hung up in the process of getting through the rough draft. Writing this 2259-word short story took about an hour or so. I then spent exactly fifty-seven minutes typing it, while making only a few very minor changes to the text. If you like, you can compare the handwritten text to the typed and cleaned-up text here. It only took me eighteen minutes to clean it up after typing it in.
This exercise was successful not because it resulted in this short story, which may or may not ever be revised and published in any way, but I was inspired to sit down and hand write a short section of a work-in-progress that for reasons unknown I was seriously blocked on. That change-up unblocked me and that important, overdue project is rapidly getting back on track. I can now tell you for sure that this is a way to get unblocked—to switch things up just enough to get you telling stories again.
Anyway, here’s the short story that resulted. Enjoy!
by Philip Athans
Zach tried to get a haircut like the boy in the picture, but he never could describe it right. The lady at Great Clips started out trying to understand but after what seemed like the millionth time he said, “Kind of curly on top, but with a line on the left—I mean, my right,” she started to roll her eyes.
When Zach’s mother intervened the lady said she thought she knew what he meant. Zach’s mother’s only concern was that it was taking too long.
She asked, “What’s taking so long?” exactly four times. She must have had some idea of how long a haircut should take—at least a haircut at Great Clips or a haircut for Zach. Even with the lady not understanding, even with Zach not being able to describe it right, his mother’s own haircuts always took way longer.
With time pressure increasing, the lady started cutting.
Zach wanted to try to help her as she worked, but she’d turned him away from the mirror so he couldn’t see what she was doing. And he couldn’t really help her anyway. He didn’t know what she was doing. Zach would have to trust her.
“What is this picture?” the woman asked him after a few minutes of snipping away. “You don’t have it on your phone?”
“No,” Zach said. He tried not to sigh. “They don’t let you take pictures of the paintings, and any—”
“Who doesn’t?” she interrupted.
Zach swallowed. He glanced up to try to look at her face—he hadn’t actually really looked at her—but all he saw was her arm, droopy fat swaying as she worked her scissors: snip sway snip sway snip sway—a fish flying past his forehead.
“Like in the picture,” Zach whispered—then very quickly said, “The museum . . . people.”
“What, hon?” she asked as she pushed his head to the side with the tips of her fingers.
“The painting is in a museum,” Zach said. “The museum doesn’t want you to take pictures in the museum—to take pictures of the pictures. And anyway, I don’t have a phone.”
“Really? Why not?” she asked. Zach was a little surprised by how surprised she sounded.
“I’m not sure,” he said, risking a shrug under the plastic tarp she’d thrown around him and fastened—too tightly—around his neck. “I think they just don’t want flashes going off. It kind of ruins the . . .” Zach wasn’t sure of the word. He had to stop and think, and he knew she would interrupt him.
“No, hon,” she said while laughing, “I mean why don’t you have a phone? I mean, my little niece is, like, seven, and she has an iPhone 6.”
“Atmosphere,” Zach said. He just had to finish the thought.
She ignored him and snipped a few times. At least a whole minute passed before she said, “Well, you should put one on your Christmas list.”
Zach nodded and she put her palm on the back of his head. “Hold still, hon.”
“Sorry,” Zach said. Then he felt he had to say something else. “Kinda curly on top.”
“Curly on top,” she repeated—somehow making it clear she didn’t really understand those three words. “Got it, hon.”
Zach could tell she didn’t have it—but what could he do?
“So what is this picture again?” she asked.
Zach knew she was just trying to make conversation. He was of two minds about that. It would have been fine for him if she just finished cutting his hair in silence. But he also kind of liked her voice. She had an accent—a Southern accent? Zach thought so, but wasn’t sure.
He finally answered, “It’s an old print, actually. A wood cut.”
“Oh yeah?” She did not care. “What’s that?”
“I think the artist carves the picture into a piece of wood then puts ink on it—on the piece of wood—then presses it onto paper to make the picture. If you look real close, you can see the indentations in the paper—almost like it’s 3D. But just a little.” Zach knew that because he had looked at it real close.
“And it’s in a museum? Is it old?” she asked.
Zach closed his eyes when he felt hair trimmings fall—itchy—on his forehead.
“I think it’s pretty old, yeah,” Zach told her. He knew exactly how old it was—what year it was made at least—but he didn’t want to tell her for some reason. She didn’t deserve to know.
“That’s cool,” she said, and she was humoring him—Zach knew the word: condescending.
She was condescending him.
“It is cool,” Zach condescended back.
“It’s a picture of a boy with curly hair?” she asked, and Zach could tell she couldn’t tell he was being condescending.
“Curly on top, short on the sides,” Zach said. And it was as if a switch flipped in his head. He looked up at her fish-flapping arm again—moving only his eyes—and made an entirely unconscious decision to keep talking.
“It’s a boy in the water—in a lake,” he said, “or anyway I think it’s a lake. It might be a river. But I don’t think it’s the ocean.”
He paused for the length of one breath, if maybe she had some other question to ask in her could-be Southern accent.
“He’s up to his neck,” Zach went on, “or really right up to his chin in the water. And he has a fishhook in his mouth.”
She clicked her tongue quietly four times really fast.
“I guess he does,” Zach said. “You can’t actually see the hook in the picture—just the fishing line going into his mouth. The line goes up to a fishing pole. And the fishing pole is held by a huge fish who’s standing on the riverbank, or lake . . .” He almost said “lakebank” but instead just skipped it. “The fish is fishing for the boy.”
The lady giggled in a way that made it seem as though she was listening. “A fish fishing for people . . .” she said. “I guess that means the fish is peopleing.”
Zach blinked. A little hair stabbed him in the corner of his right eye like a needle.
“Get it?” she said, nudging him in the shoulder with her fist. “Instead of fishing it’s ‘peopleing’?”
Zach forced a smile and said, “Good one,” while tears filled his tightly-shut right eye.
“There are other fish too,” Zach said. His voice sounded and felt different. He cleared his throat.
“Oh yeah, hon?” she asked as she moved his head gently side to side. “Are they peopleing too?”
Zach blinked his eyes open and clenched his teeth. He waited for her to start cutting his hair again, then said, “The other fish are flying in the air.” He glanced up at her arm again. “Four of them are going in one direction, but one is going opposite. That fish is bigger and looks kinda different so I think he’s not part of the school. He also seems kind of . . . surprised.”
Zack swallowed. He’d never said that out loud before and was surprised how hard it was to get that last word out of his throat.
She didn’t say anything. He kept talking.
“There’s a tree on the riverbank, too. It’s kind of in the middle—it seems to be in the middle but it’s off to the left of the picture—left of the boy in the water. There are things on the ground under the tree that—”
“Apples?” the lady asked. She stepped away from him. He could hear her rummaging around on the little counter under the mirror behind him.
Zach nodded. He closed his eyes again. “Yeah.” He let the surprise stay in his voice. Maybe she would hear it. “I think they might be apples that fell out of the tree.”
“Okay, now, hon,” the lady said, her voice sounding more serious now and a little more Southern. “I’m going to need you to hold real still.”
“Can I still talk?”
“Sure, hon,” she replied, “just don’t move your head around, okay?”
“Okay,” Zach said, sitting very still. “There are birds in the water, too. I’m pretty sure one is a seagull—the one on the left of the tree. The other two are on the right side with the boy and I think they’re ducks.”
She wasn’t listening. She twisted his hair around something. Zach could smell something burning.
“It’s my favorite painting,” Zach said. His throat was starting to cry—his eyes weren’t, his mouth wasn’t—just his throat. The burning smell went away a little then came back. “I go to the museum every day after school. I started going just on first Thursdays because that’s when it’s free. But then I started to save up—I used my lunch money or whatever—now they just let me go in. The lady and the man at the counter just wave me through. They’ve never asked me what my name is. They just let me go in. And I go to that gallery—always just that gallery—a gallery is a collection of rooms that have pictures or statues that are kinda the same—the same artist or the same time period or from the same country or style or whatever. I go to that gallery and usually I sit on the bench in the middle of the room and face that one picture and I just look at it for about half an hour.”
Zack wiped a tear from his cheek and the lady hissed and said, “Careful, hon,” and the burning smell got a little worse.
“About half an hour,” Zach said, “every single—”
“What’s taking so long?” his mother interrupted. He could hear in her voice that she didn’t even know he was talking. Zach closed his eyes.
“Well, hon,” the lady said, and Zach could hear the shrug in her voice, “he said curly on top.”
“You’re using a curling iron on my son?” Zach’s mother asked.
Before the Great Clips lady could say anything Zach said, “It’s okay, Mom, we’re almost done. She’s almost done. It’s okay.”
He didn’t open his eyes. He could hear and feel her walking away.
Zach almost said, “Sorry,” to the lady, but instead, his eyes closed, his nose filled with the burning smell, he said, “But the one thing I really have never been able to figure out . . .”
“About what, hon?” the lady asked.
Zach opened his eyes and looked up, but she was behind him—no arm, no flying fish.
“What I’ve never been able to figure out about the picture,” he replied, “about the wood cut.”
He paused. She rolled his hair up again—pulling it a little but it didn’t really hurt.
So he started talking again. “Next to the tree on the left is a lion. It looks like the lion is laying down on the top of—on the surface of the water. But it’s not like he’s floating, or swimming, but just like the water is solid right there—solid enough to hold up a lion.”
The lady waved her hand over his head and the burning smell was gone.
“And there’s another animal laying on top of it—of the lion,” Zach said. “I used to think it was a dog—a dog with droopy ears—but now I think it’s like a goat or a sheep or—”
“A lamb,” the lady said.
“Can I move my head now?” Zach asked—he didn’t realize he was saying it while he said it.
“You’re fine now, hon,” she said. “Almost done.”
Zach wanted to turn his head to look at her, but then she started kind of slapping him on the back of the neck. She turned on a vacuum and started to vacuum the cut hair off his neck and shoulders.
“A lamb,” Zach said, nodding. She couldn’t hear him over the vacuum.
Then the vacuum turned off and Zach waited, taking a few deep breaths.
“What is taking so long?” his mother called from the little waiting area.
“All done, hon,” the lady called back to her. Then she spun Zach’s chair around so he was facing the mirror again. She crouched next to him like a baseball catcher and smiled at him in the mirror. “Curly on top,” she said, “and short on the sides.”
Zach didn’t think he looked anything like the boy in the picture.
“Good?” she asked.
Zach nodded. He smiled and she winked at him in the mirror.
“A lamb,” he said, his voice catching a little.
“It’s from the Bible, isn’t it?” the lady said, standing up and taking the tarp off him and flipping all the hair clippings off his lap and onto the floor. “A lamb lies down with a lion, or something like that.”
“I guess,” Zach said. He knew he was supposed to stand up then, but he didn’t right away. “I’ll have to think about—”
“What’s taking so—?” his mother interrupted, until the lady interrupted her.
“All finished, hon.”
Zach nodded and stood up.
“I guess it’s a metaphor or something, huh?” the lady said.
Zach nodded. A tear made his right eye hurt and walked to the front and then out onto the sidewalk while his mother paid for his haircut.
He waited until the next day, after school, in the museum, to finally cry