Three fiction writers, at various stages of career development, submitted material that was suitable for my “blog coaching” project. They are:
The criteria for submitting a story to the Challenge was that it needed work. No polished, ready-for-publication stuff, I wanted promising stories that needed an editorial tune-up. The deal was, in exchange for one-on-one coaching and comments, the writers would allow me to publish their first drafts as submitted. A day or two later, and after a taped phone call with the writer, a transcript would be published so blog readers could compare their own thoughts and comments to mine. During the revising process, the writer being spotlighted WILL NOT READ THE COMMENTS SECTION. Too many voices, too confusing. Later, it’ll be fine…
The stories will be revised in as many rounds as it takes to get it publish-worthy, in my estimation, and then the writer will send it out to an e-zine or magazine. When the story is accepted, I’ll publish the link here and readers can enjoy the final version.
I hope you find this exercise helpful.
And without further ado, here is Keith Rawson’s “Life on the Mesa” published exactly as it was submitted. Keith emailed, “There’s this horror/noir I’ve been shopping around the past few months. I think the story is very solid, quiet, but solid. The problem is I don’t know why it keeps getting rejected? It’s been rejected three times now, and normally I just blow off a rejection and send the next story out. But, as I said, I believe in the story, but maybe I believe in it so much that I’ve got a blind spot as far as it’s concerned. So, as I stared at the rejection, I remembered that you were running your story challenge at your blog, and thought I’d see if you wanted to take a crack at it?”
Let’s see what you think readers. Please make your comments constructive, polite and truthful. I’ll be publishing my opinion in a day or two.
LIFE ON THE MESA
Mac Bolan sat watching the sudden dark grey of monsoon clouds come quickly rumbling towards the mesa with the heavy promise of lightning and torrential rains. It was the kind of weather you prayed for out on the mesa if you were the spiritual type. Water was a commodity; you either collected it in your rain barrels when the monsoons or the occasional errant storm rolled in, or you traveled the 40 some odd miles into town and paid some faceless, soulless corporation twenty or thirty bucks for the privilege of swilling nature’s finest life sustaining gift out of a poisoned plastic bottle, disgusting. Dirigible, as Mac was known out on the mesa, (The nick name derived from Mac’s massive frame, he stood nearly 6’5 and weighed in at close to 350 lbs, and it was a far kinder nickname than the one he’d lived with for 35 years back on the grid, the far less grander Blimp.) had never needed to buy the corporations water, Mac was all about conservation and restraint. Never use more than you need. Mac never drank more than 4 glasses a day and each drop he consumed was a virtual lesion in survivalism.
Mac’s spot on the mesa stretched for nearly 2 square miles, most of it nothing but barren desert flat land for the exception of his little copse of mutated wind battered Texas live oak where he had built his shack. When he’d moved out here 6 years ago, he’d intended on trying to cultivate his piece of the mesa and grow some kind of crop, whether it was corn, or soybeans, he’d even originally toyed with the idea of planting apple trees and starting an orchard. Looking back, he knew now that these thoughts were nothing more than naivety and ignorant idealism. True, Mac was nothing if not an idealist, but realistically you just don’t grow these types of crops without a steady flow of piped in H2o and, of course, the average yearly temperature shouldn’t exceed 95 degrees Fahrenheit with a constant wind speed of 25 plus miles an hour. Mac figured this all out a couple of months after completing work on his shack and actually attempting to plow and plant. No, the only effective way to grow out in the harsh climates of southern Arizona was to build a green house and have enough ready water on hand to maintain what you’re growing, like Cassidy and his clan a couple of miles down the road.
Mac did utilize his plot constructively, but instead of harvesting food, he collected water. One of the truly wonderful things about the big beautiful blue world Mac occupied with the other 6 billion slightly confused human beings who inhabited it along with him, was that the earth was almost entirely composed of water and there was a means of collecting that water, even if it meant snatching it right from the arid sky. This was particular true at night and the pre-dawn hours when dew would from the cool night would settle on the plants and soil of the desert floor. So on a nearly 1-mile stretch of his plot, Mac dug holes and draped tarps (One of the few items he’d leave the confines of the mesa for and venture into town to purchase.) over the tops of the holes. He’d awake every morning before dawn and harvest the thin, wet leavings of the previous night in old milk jugs. Some mornings, there was hardly enough dew to fill a quarter gallon of one of his jugs and some days he wouldn’t have enough containers to store the entire days harvest in.
This morning happened to be one of those mornings. Starting out today he’d only brought along three plastic gallon jugs, but by the time he’d finished, he’d filled nearly five. This is how he’d known the rains were coming. It was a huge relief. He could just spend the next couple of days letting his rain barrels do his job and he could hopefully enjoy a couple of much needed mornings off; which is why he’d spent the past hour simply sitting under the makeshift lean-to of his shack smiling and watching the purple grey clouds come coasting in. But as much as he would have liked to spend the day watching the storms roll in, he still had work to do, plus he was starting to get hungry, so breakfast was very much the first order of business.
Mac stood up from the thick rotting pine log that was his front porch bench, stretching his long beefy arms above his head, each of his overstrained joints crackling and grumbling with his slow, deliberate movements. He took a couple of extra seconds to rotated his oversized head on his practically nonexistent neck before he turned and opened the front door of his shack and was greeted by the ragged terrified screams of the girl. Mac had forgotten to gag her before he’d left this morning, of course she’d been passed out and moaning delicately under her breath. For some reason, he’d thought she would be in the same condition when he arrived back from his morning chores. He stood motionless in front of the girl, letting the door swing shut with deafening wind blown bang, his tiny brown eyes focused on the girls gaping mouth. She had such milky white glistening teeth for a freejack. Most folks who elected to live off the grid, the very first thing that went to pot were their choppers. But this new generation was so healthy in appearance despite the copious amounts of tobacco and marijuana they consumed. But that was a middle class upbringing for you.
Mac could easily see this girl leaving the life after a couple years of living rough and the effects of the pills, powders, and pot finally losing their charm and heading back into what passed as the real world and going to college, getting married, and popping out two or three new consumers with her corporate accountant husband. She’d probably end up very happy—or at the very least pretending she was happy—out in some preplanned community, cut off from her fellow human beings not by distance and space, but by cinder block backyard fences and the suffocating prison of modern suburban living. Maybe she even entertained these thoughts about her current boyfriend, the aptly named Rainbow child known as Knob. Maybe she thought all of this dreadlock wearing, pot smoking, living off the land thing he was into now was nothing more than a phase? Maybe she thought after awhile he’d get just as sick of it and off they’d ride into the happy red sunrise morning.
Too bad Mac had crumpled Knob’s skull with a sledgehammer.
Too bad most of Knob’s fat and muscle was now cured and drying, hanging from just about every inch of available wall space in Mac’s shack; Knob’s still wet bones thrown into an untidy little pile in the corner near Mac’s cot.
Too bad that she would spend the last moments of her young life in Mac’s ill-smelling, unkempt universe; her final words nothing more than guttural animal cries.
Mac turned away from the girl and headed to his small cast iron stove, muttering:
“Are you hungry?” as he knelt down to feed fire two small logs and a handful of dry kindling, rising slowly and shambling over to his small pantry to retrieve his oatmeal and cook pot.
The girl’s name—at least her Rainbow name—was the entirely uninspired Clover Dancer. She and Knob had arrived on the Mesa a little over 2 months ago in a relatively new Ford Mini-van. They had set up their plot about 10 miles west of Mac’s spot near Old Man Grub’s stretch. The two had been friendly enough at first, walking from spot-to-spot and introducing themselves to their new neighbors. The old school settlers were of course weary of the couple, having experienced the abnormal attitudes of the new generation of freejackers. Most of the young kids who came out to live on the Mesa considered themselves hardboiled anarchists; violent and bad tempered, typically sporting drug and alcohol problems. Not that anyone on the Mesa begrudged or discouraged drug use; shit, most of them had come out to the desert because of some form of substance abuse had reshaped their world outlook. But the number one concern was the destruction of both personal and community property due to drug and alcohol use. But the two had seemed harmless enough, and most everyone thought they would make welcome editions to the Mesa. Mac was of the opposite position of most, and viewed the two as nothing more than befuddled shoppers playing at true freedom; but Mac was an isolationist and generally distrustful of everyone, even of long time settlers and who spent very little time around the rest of community for the exception of when he needed to trade for goods such as oatmeal and clothes.
After a few weeks, the young couple stopped visiting their new neighbors, which was all fine and good as far as most were concerned, but then the thefts started happening. The first was Old Man Grub; several of his ripe melons had disappeared from his make shift greenhouse along with a 3 pound bag of organic kidney beans. Theft, although largely uncommon on the Mesa, was an occasional inconvenience. Sometimes an isolationist would fall on hard times and have difficulty asking their neighbors for help and some fruit or meat would go missing. Usually it was replaced along with a note of apology asking for forgiveness: No harm, no foul.
The only problem was that more theft kept occurring, and there was never any meat taken. Meat was easy to come by on the Mesa and most of the men and some of the women were solid hunters, but fruits and vegetables took time and patience to grow; most of the time seed had to be brought in from the town. To most, produce was more coveted and valuable than wood for fire and building materials. It was a well-known fact that the young couple was vegan and had absolutely no interest in meat or animals products. A counsel meeting was held and the decision was made to confront Knob and Clover Dancer about the thefts.
Five of the counsel elders made the trek out to the couples settlement and asked about the stolen food. What they got for their questions was Knob and Clover Dancer laughing in their faces, admitting to the thefts, and pulling guns on the elders and telling them to move off their spot. The elders moved off, hands up in the air and shitting their pants. The next day another counsel meeting was held about what to do about their violent new neighbors. Most of settlers owned guns and were steadfast advocates for the right to bear arms, but most of the counsel was old and on top of that, cowards unwilling to take a real stand against Knob and Clover Dancer. A vote was cast and what was decided upon was to approach Mac to handle the problem.
The same five elders came to Mac’s spot and asked for his assistance in dealing with the couple. They had come to him before when the Gulf War veteran Phil Gustersen had raped Mary Dandy’s 12-year-old boy, Sparrow. They knew what Mac was. They all knew about the time before, before they knew him as the man called Dirigible. They knew about the women in Arkansas, hell, the whole country knew about what Mac had done to those women; they knew about his first trial where he was sentenced to 150 years and his subsequent appeal when the prior decision was thrown out due to Mac’s defense attorney admitting he hadn’t prepared adequately for the trial and how he believed his client was guilty before accepting the case. The elders knew it all, and consider it nothing more than the past. Mac had proven himself to the community as a top shelf water harvester and respected him for his willingness to help the Mesa’s greatest times of need.
Mac readily agreed to deal with the couple, as long as the elders did not bother him for several weeks after they were dealt with, and that they handle the disposal of the couple’s belongings. He would also need use of Old Man Grub’s flatbed. Mac went to Knob and Clover Dancer’s spot that very night. The two were incredibility easy to approach. They had started a large bonfire and were dancing sweating around it as the speakers of their mini van roared with the psychedelic hum of the Grateful Dead. Both were obviously stoned or tripping balls. Mac was able to take Knob with a single side swing, catching the boy just above the right ear with an amazingly hollow sounding thud. Clover Dancer was quick to react but ran blindly into the fire she’d been so exuberantly dancing around only a few seconds before. Mac pulled her screaming from the fire, throwing her to the dirt and then punching her hard across the jaw before she could run again. He walked the mile back to the truck dragging Knob’s corpse by the ankle and Clover Dancers motionless form over his shoulder and drove home.
Mac bound the still unconscious Clover Dancer to the Main support beam of his shack, arms above her head, gagging her with an old sock and heavy twine. She came awake just as Mac was flaying the boy’s corpse from belly-to-throat, and she started to scream around her gag. She passed out a half hour before he made his way out to the water fields. He’d removed the gag because he was afraid she’d choke on her own vomit or the sock itself; it’d been nearly a decade since he’d been with a woman and he wanted to enjoy the experience.
Mac had finished making his oatmeal and turned and faced the girl again. Her full-throated screams was beginning to work a nerve at the back of skull. He wanted to punch her, maybe shatter a few of those orthodontist perfect teeth. But Mac felt the girl deserved a few minutes to get all that great big nasty fear out of her system; to breathe easy an unobstructed. He approached her with his wooden bowl of steaming oatmeal, holding his spoon out mouth level with her, and asked again:
“Are you hungry?”
Once Mac was within of a foot of her, Clover Dancer’s screams sputtered and turned into a kind of breathless panting.
“Are you hungry?”
He began to trace the edge of her left nipple with the tip of his spoon. The small spot of upraised flesh was small and a perfect rosy pink, and despite the terror that gripped her,
It was still hard and covered in goose flesh. In his younger, wilder years, he would have torn this girl apart; fucked her silly until he was raw and sore and then, out of boredom, would have started trying to stick things inside of her: Beer bottles, sticks, rocks, anything on hand really. But now as an older man, all he could think of as he gently circled the girl’s nipple with his breakfast spoon was how this girl and her former stoner boyfriend would keep him in meat well past the coming fall and winter months.
Mac dipped his spoon into the rapidly cooling oatmeal and brought it to Clover Dancer’s mouth, pushing it, jamming it past her perfect teeth, past her struggling dull pink tongue and down her throat.
“Are you hungry?”
Maybe he wouldn’t slaughter her today? Maybe he would keep her around and see if some of the old feelings came back? And if they didn’t, so what, at the very least he could fatten her up a little with oatmeal and a Knob steak or two.
He brought the spoon to her mouth again.
BIO: Keith Rawson lives in the Phoenix, AZ suburb of Gilbert with his wife and daughter. He has had fiction published (or waiting to be published) in such venues as DZ Allen’s Muzzle Flash fiction, PowderBurn Flash, Flashshots, Darkest before the Dawn, A Twist of Noir, Bad Things, Crooked, Pulp Pusher, CrimeWaV.com (podcast), Plots with Guns, Flash Fiction Offensive, and Yellow Mama. He is also working on the final draft of his first novel which is tentatively titled, Retirement