Saturday, July 30, 2011

I Wrote a Short Story--Read and Critique, Please?

My primary weakness as a writer of fiction is that I am trapped in the world of novel.  I seem to be incapable of writing anything short ... it all just wants to grow into a novel that might or might not come into fruition.

I'm making a serious effort to work with the "short story" concept, which I've struggled with.  If you're interested, you can check out a couple of my prior attempts here ("Ruffled Feathers"), here ("Fading Bouquets"), and here ("Que Sera Sera").  The following is my latest crack at it.

Please let me know what you think--comments, criticisms (only please don't say, "It sucks" without elaboration), suggestions, general "keep trying ... you'll get better" words of encouragement--all would be welcome and much appreciated.

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                                       "MATRIARCH"
                                                 by
                                          Katie Loud

Carol Butterick sighed with pleasure, careful to make sure that the noise could be construed as pain, discomfort, sadness.  She was, after all, dying.

She allowed her eyes to open a crack, taking in the sight of her family huddled around her hospital bed, as close as the IV stand would allow.  She noted with satisfaction that they were all there, the whole lot of them. They were quiet, and Carol knew that her presence was the reason why.

Nobody was looking directly at Carol--that was clearly too painful for them as they struggled to imagine a world without her.  She had, after all, been omnipresent in all of their lives for ... well, forever, as far as she was concerned.  

Her husband Herman was sitting close to her on her right side, his hand almost touching hers, but not quite.  She was glad.  

Herman looked old and haggard; he was a heavy smoker whose every breath was characterized by the wheeze of emphysema.  The doctor had suggested that Herman use a portable oxygen tank, but Carol had put the kibosh on that right away.  Herman needed to carry her wheelchair from place to place, to help her in and out of the car, to run and do her bidding as he'd done for the duration of their marriage.  That was his role.

Herman was a car mechanic, and he wore his work uniform even on weekends.  It was easier that way, since the garage laundered employee attire; the thought of his dirty, greasy clothes mixing in with hers in the washing machine ... well, it was just not going to happen, and that was all.

They lived in a small, almost stereotypical New Hampshire town, and the Buttericks were considered an odd, even a dysfunctional, family.  Carol didn't mind; it was easy enough to ignore the "Jack Sprat and his wife" jokes and the implication that Herman was what the young ones called "pussywhipped".  

That was a joke; Carol hadn't allowed her husband carnal knowledge of her body since their wedding night.  

He did her bidding, came running when she called, and handed over his paycheck.  She handled the bills, the household expenses, and it briefly occurred to her that someone was going to have to step up and help him out.  She knew for a fact that Herman Butterick didn't have a clue how to do something as simple as writing a check.

Her eyes, still slitted snake-like, moved to the other side of the bed where Amber sat.

Poor Amber, who was the spitting image of her whore of a mother.

Amber was overweight, homely as sin, spotted with acne even though she was approaching thirty, and bound to be a spinster.  Amber had been born dangerously prematurely, and the lack of oxygen following her birth had unquestionably damaged her brain.  Carol's view was that the girl's evident cow-like stupidity was a direct punishment for her mother's sins.

Amber had tried to escape, as much as her limited brainpower would allow.  As Amber's aunt and legal guardian, Carol had ignored the school's requests for special education testing.  Why bother?  The girl was numb as a stump, and nothing was going to change that.

She'd worked as a cashier at one of the town's two gas stations since her graduation from high school with a D- average.  The station's owner, a friend of Herman's, had carefully gone over the cash register with her, had patiently taught her how to make change, and Amber was a fixture at the gas station now.

The year before, she'd moved into an apartment in town with a couple of her old friends from high school.  Carol couldn't remember their names, but one of them flipped burgers at the Burger King uptown, and the other one had a baby and lived on food stamps and welfare money.  

Carol had liked having Amber at home, had become used to bullying the girl into submission.  It was an art form she'd mastered over the years, and besides, Amber had kept the trailer sparkling clean.  Since she'd moved into that hophouse down the road, nobody had vacuumed or dusted or picked up.  Herman wasn't capable of picking up the slack, not with the number of hours he worked each week, and Carol certainly wasn't going to do it.

It might let them onto the fact that she wasn't anywhere near as sickly as they all believed, and that just would not do.  It would lead to all sorts of complications, to questions best left unanswered ...

And anyway, he was back, now, her shining prince, and she knew--knew--that he wouldn't tolerate a messy house.  She'd left instructions with Herman to hire a housekeeper after her death, since she would never make her boy do anything as mundane as housework.

Carol had been married to another man once, when Herman was just another boy from town who was hardworking and came from a family that owned their own land but would never amount to much.

Jerry had been different.  Although possessed of a snake-like native intelligence, Carol Butterick wasn't an educated woman; the word charismatic  was not in her repertoire, although it fit Jerry Melanson to a T.  She had married Jerry without a moment's hesitation, had gone to live in his cabin in the woods without a second thought.  That it didn't have running water or a refrigerator was beside the point--no, what Jerry did to her at night, the way he touched her when he was in a good mood, his booming laugh, those were the things that mattered.

Jerry had a bad temper, and Carol was very cautious not to set off his hair trigger.  Of course, "cautious" was something of a foreign concept to a woman who truly believed herself better than anyone else, a woman who dropped out of school following a fight with another student.  They'd made Carol talk to a "special doctor", and her mother's eyes had widened when the word sociopath was mentioned.  It hadn't been hard for Carol to convince her mother that the shrink was all wet, and it had been with her parents' blessing that she'd left school.

Despite Carol's awareness of and deference to Jerry's quick, violent anger, he spent a lot of nights out of the house, ostensibly because he was out drinking with the boys.  It never occurred to Carol that he was stepping out on her.

So the day that her mother pulled her wheezy Chevrolet into the cabin's dirt driveway and told Carol that her younger sister, Valerie, was pregnant and had named her brother-in-law Jerry as the father was a dark one indeed for Carol.  

Jerry had quickly and, with something close to relief, admitted his affair with Valerie.  He filed for divorce and, as soon as it was finalized, married the now hugely pregnant Val.  To prove that she didn't hold a grudge, Carol had arranged for herself and Herman, who she'd been dating for approximately a month, to be married the same day.

If Valerie felt slighted at having to share her wedding day with the older sister that had tormented and tortured and basically eclipsed her entire childhood, she said nothing.  Valerie was a simple soul, and her affair with Jerry had been based solely on the fact that someone was paying attention to her for once.  

Valerie's baby was a boy, a son she named Albert, and their daughter Amber was born two years later.  

Two years after that, Jerry and Valerie got into a serious car accident.  Valerie received serious, potentially life-threatening injuries.  Jerry received a DWI summons.

Carol, who had largely avoided her sister and former husband other than lavishing expensive gifts on young Albert and, to a noticeably lesser degree, little Amber, swept in to play nurse for her sister.  

There were no questions asked when Valerie succumbed to her injuries despite the best efforts of her sister.  Certainly nobody noticed that the bottle of antibiotics prescribed to Valerie to stop her infection contained the same number of capsules as it had when Carol picked it up at the drugstore.  The numerous painkillers that should have made a woman suffering from tremendous pain feel a little bit better had likewise been untouched.

Shortly after Valerie's death, Jerry was on his way home from a late night at the bar.  His beat-up pick up truck crossed the yellow line and crashed into a small car carrying a family of four on their way home from a picnic at the lake.  He was sentenced to many years in jail, needless to say, and custody of Albert and Amber was transferred to their Aunt Carol.

Carol looked now at the foot of her hospital bed, where Albert was slumped in a chair.  His resemblance to Jerry was striking, and Carol felt a surge of pride ... and a tug of something else as well, deathbed or no.

Albert had been her shining star, the valedictorian of his graduating class, a Boy Scout, a volunteer at the local nursing home, and a three-season athlete.  She had given all of herself to him--all of herself--and, when he tried to protest, she reminded him of all that she had done for him.  It was the least he could do.  Nobody else would ever want him anyway.  If he didn't do what she wanted him to, she would consider sending Amber to an orphanage.

Albert lived under a heavy weight of guilt--the guilt of his very existence which had been at the expense of Aunt Carol, the guilt of protesting her physical desires when she had done so much for him, the fact that Amber was treated like a niece and he was treated as better than a son ...

Carol had not wanted Albert to go to college, but of course a boy of his stellar successes was college-bound. She made Herman buy him a car so that he could come home every weekend, though, and was insistent that he did.

And then Albert met a girl down there in Boston, a high society bitch who clearly thought she was better than Albert's poor white trash family, and suddenly Albert stopped coming home every weekend.  When he did return to the trailer, he brazenly brought the Boston bitch with him.  Carol had no choice but to get the message.

She was disgusted by Albert's weakness as he bought the bitch a diamond ring and wedding plans moved forward, Albert's family left out of all aspects of the planning.  Carol got in her digs when she could--she brought the girl to tears by telling her that she was going to wear black to the wedding, for example--but she mostly had no choice but to gnash her teeth and take out her anger on Amber, who actually showed a degree of gumption by moving out.

The marriage lasted just over a year.  Albert, who'd gotten some hard-core executive job that Carol didn't understand (nor did she need to), had found himself in trouble at work when his aunt (who he referred to as his mother) called him every hour.  He was reprimanded at work, first informally and then on paper.  She continued to call, telling him that she was alone and sick and needed him.

He started leaving work at odd hours to drive the three hours up to make sure that Aunt Carol was okay.  

His wife was not pleased, and between being a failure at work and being a failure in his marriage, Albert started to drink heavily.  He drank as he drove up to the tiny New Hampshire town that was his prison, he spent time with his Aunt Carol, who was the only person that seemed to think he was worth anything, and then he drank all the way back to Boston.

It was inevitable that he would be bagged for DWI eventually.  It happened the day before he was fired from his job, a rising star that fizzled like the bubbles in a bottle of alcohol.

His wife, distraught and confused, was called to bail him out.  She made an appointment for marriage counseling the next day, and for the first time he confessed about the horrible abuse he'd suffered at the hands of his Aunt Carol.  That was the only counseling appointment that he went to sober, and after the third time Albert beat her badly enough to require medical assistance, she filed for divorce.

Carol, who sat in the courtroom holding her son's hand as the divorce was granted, licked her lips like a cat who'd gotten the ultimate dish of cream.  Albert moved back home, and she bought him bottles of wine because that was what he wanted, and he did whatever she wanted as long as he had his wine.

Sometimes, though, the Albert that had crossed the graduation stage covered with gold braid to give the valedictory address, the young man with so much potential who had caught the attention of a bright and beautiful girl and earned her love, tried to stand up to her, tried to say no, both to the wine and to her.

Carol had a history of diabetes, of heart problems, of debilitating blood clots in her legs.  Her history of mental illness was unknown, of course, but Carol had figured out that stopping her medication led to a trip to the hospital in an ambulance ... and the gathering of her family by her bedside.

This was the third time she'd done it, and Herman and Amber looked worried, perhaps even a little suspicious.

Albert just looked resigned.  

His glanced upward, his eyes meeting hers.  She winked at him, a promise of wine waiting at home for him, so long as he played things her way, and he looked away.

She groaned again, an expert at making herself sound pained and long-suffering.  Herman took her hand, and Amber rang for the nurse.

Albert looked away, but she knew it was only a matter of time.  She had her boy back, and he wasn't going anywhere this time ... she knew that it was the wine that held him to her, but that didn't matter to her.

What did was that he wasn't going anywhere.