I recently took a little 4-week writing class through Coursera, called The Craft of Plot. I thought I would share my final, 1,000-word writing assignment here.
But first, I also wanted to share the following quote. I’ve been reading The Best American Short Stories of 2011. (Why 2011? Because it was available to rent online through the Chicago Public Library.)
“My advice to young writers is, read this book. Enjoy the stories, admire the craft. Then put it in your backpack and go. As far as you can, for as long as you can afford it. Preferably someplace where you have to think in one language and buy groceries in another. Get a job there. Rent a room. Stick around. Do something. Whatever it is, you will be able to use it in the stories you write later. And if that story turns out to be about grungy sex in an East Coast dorm room with an emotionally withholding semiotics major, that’s okay. It will be a better story for the fact that you have been somewhere and carried part of it home with you in your soul.” — Geraldine Brooks
Here’s what I wrote:
Howard Plans to Ride a Tiger by April Gardner
Howard was an old man. His memories tricked him all the time. He remembered riding a tiger, for instance. He was sure he had once done it – he could feel the tiger’s course fur rubbing against his thighs. But then his nurse would come by with a treat or something to drink. His desire for carrot juice would override his memories of tiger riding. Sometimes, he wouldn’t remember the tiger again until the next day. He could feel the heavy bolt in his hand, and the screeching sound it made as he opened the tiger’s cage.
Howard felt like he was in a cage, mentally and physically. Not only could he not trust his memories, he couldn’t trust anything about himself. He would be halfway to the can and his bowels would explode. Filthy and embarrassed, he would have to wait for the nurse to come by and change him. Life wasn’t good anymore.
Howard knew he was going to die soon. His prediction was practical. He was nearing his 90th birthday. Of course he was going to die soon. Accepting the fact of his own death became easier every day. His body was failing, his mind was failing, and he didn’t have much to live for anymore. His only daughter lived in Europe, because she and her husband both had careers with the embassy. Howard couldn’t remember the last time he had seen her.
With the approach of his birthday, Howard wanted to do something outlandish. As a child, his mother had doted on him, and always made certain his birthdays were gloriously celebrated. There had been clowns and magicians, ice cream bars and chocolate fountains, swimming and games. Try as he might, he couldn’t remember the last time he celebrated his birthday. He and his wife used to treat themselves to a nice dinner and an expensive bottle of wine. After Luisa died, so did Howard’s desire to celebrate. But with his 90th birthday approaching, he devised a plan.
He couldn’t get the image of that tiger out of his mind. Of course, the image came and went. But it would sneak up on him and torment him. Sometimes, he would awaken in the middle of the night. The tiger’s roar would still be ringing in his ears. Trembling, he would go to the bathroom and pour himself a glass of water.
Once, he was sitting in the Great Room, looking out at the expansive lawn of his nursing home. Without warning, the hair on the back of his neck prickled, and he whipped around, certain that the tiger was lying in wait behind him. There was no one in the room, except old Mrs. Pinkle, shuffling along with her walker and her ratty cardigan sweater.
Howard wasn’t usually the type to save postcards or letters, but he had saved one. It had a photo of a tiger on the front. The back was blank, except for his name and address, scrawled in a strange hand. The postmark was from Thailand.
With his life winding down to a miserable conclusion, Howard used the times when his mind was still lucid to piece together a plan. He would ride a tiger again, one last time, before he died.
He wrote out his plan on a piece of lined paper, which he kept tucked between his mattress and box spring. When he remembered, he would pull out what he had written and re-read it. Then, he would close his eyes and repeat it back to himself, trying to plant the words into the small, still-healthy part of his rotting brain.
Once, his night nurse had almost found his written plan. Howard had lost control of his bowels in the middle of the night (after dreaming about the tiger again, he was sure, though he could not recall), and the nurse came to change his sheets. As she pulled the fitted sheet free, the piece of paper fluttered to the ground.
“What’s this?” she asked, bending to retrieve it.
Though he was old and feeble, Howard somehow bent and grabbed the note before she could.
“Never you mind about this!” Howard snapped, waving the piece of paper. “A man has got a right to his privacy, even in a hellhole like this.”
“Mr. Jones!” she exclaimed.
As she reprimanded him for his negative attitude, Howard read the list again, and tried to commit it to memory.
His plan: First, he would ask Brad the orderly to take him on a walk to the corner convenience store. Brad was a big fellow, blond and handsome, but he was dumb, from what Howard could assess. He needed dumb people if his plan were going to succeed.
At the store, he would insist that his bowels were bothering him, and ask to use the restroom.
While in the restroom, he would call to Brad through the door that he had soiled himself badly. He would ask Brad to run back to the nursing home to get him a chance of clothes. Orderlies weren’t supposed to leave the seniors unattended in public, but Howard was certain he could convince Brad to leave him alone for a few minutes.
Once Brad was gone, Howard would leave the store and walk to a bus stop in the opposite direction, two blocks away. He used to wait at that same bus stop to take his daughter to school. The bus route passed right by the zoo.
He would have his “shopping” money tucked into his wallet. Since he wasn’t going to buy anything at the store, he calculated he would have more than enough to purchase one-way bus fare and entrance to the zoo.
Once inside, he would check the zoo map and find the tigers’ pen.
After that, he would admit, his plan got a little fuzzy. He was going to walk to the pen, climb the fence, and attempt to ride the tiger.
He knew he might die. But he didn’t care.