Friday, April 19, 2013

Boston Bombing

Well, the manhunt is over and I can rest a bit easier.

My son Ian lives in Boston, but he called me and said that the lock down didn't include his house in southern Boston. However, he had no work to report to. He's a manager in a transportation outfit connected to the Massachusetts Transit which shut down completely.

Knowing Ian was safe helped a lot, but part of my sorrow had to do with the awful violation of the Boston Marathon. I lived for three years in Boston and remembered well the marathon finish line, Heartbreak Hill, and other parts of the route. The bomb pictures, especially of those injured, curdled me.

Ian's dad, my first husband, Tom Henshaw, covered the Boston Marathon every year like clockwork. He introduced me to the race, and he arranged for me to interview the wife of one of the marathoners. Then he helped me sell my story about the wife to the Associated Press. In an odd way, I feel glad that Tom is dead. I'm sure this "news story" would have pained him much more than it does me.

I cried twice, once when I first heard the news and once when the police locked down Boston, my old home, the town that taught me how to bake beans.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Portrait of Matt

a JoLt of CoFFeY

Late Breaking News

My orphan train book, Mail-Order Kid, is a finalist in the Eric Hoffer da Vinci Eye Award, a international contest that honors independent books of exceptional merit. Winners will be announced in a few weeks.

Portrait of Matt

Saturday, I attended the fall conference of the Nebraska Writers Guild in beautiful Mahoney State Park. In its lodge, we learned the pitfalls and possibilities of releasing manuscripts into the world.

For some reason, that made me remember my first publication in 1956. By that time, I'd written for eight years, school assignments and my journal: "Dear Diary. We ate peas again tonight." That sort of thing.

In 1956, I attended Kearney State Teachers College as a freshman. (That school now is known much more impressively as UNK, the University of Nebraska in Kearney.) 

The school's local chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, an English honors society, advertised an essay contest for fiction or nonfiction writers. 

My boyfriend, Charlie, encouraged me to enter. An Upperclassman (sophomore), Charlie belonged to Pi Kappa Delta, a forensic society that idealized the art of persuasion. He also worked on the school's literary magazine, The Antler; it would publish the winning essay.

I liked Charlie's prestige more than I liked his body: tall, skinny, angular. Not cuddly. Since I'd never written a short story, I discounted his persuasive advice to enter the fray, even though I knew he would be one of the judges. 

Then the night before the deadline, this rebellious teenager, Matt, rose in my mind, along with his timorous mother and his overbearing dad. By the time I hit the typewriter, I could see the attic room, the kitchen, the dining room table. Words poured out.

I quit about four in the morning. Typed out a clean copy that next afternoon, and deposited the sheets of paper into Charlie's hands.

When word arrived that I'd won the contest, I felt pleased but not surprised. After all, I knew I'd churned out a perfect story.

Sigma Tau Delta knew how to do things up right: an afternoon tea celebrating the occasion. Charlie announced the smiling winner.

A little later, he pulled me aside and hissed in my ear, "I don't want you to think that you won this contest because your story was so good. It's because the others were so awful."

So I learned the pleasures and the pitfalls of releasing my manuscript into the world. Among other things, I never dated Charlie again.

When The Antler came out, my "Portrait of Matt" still looked good to me, although perhaps not as gripping as Charlie's "Nightmare." 

Here it is, fifty-seven years later, with my current comments at the end. 


Marilyn Coffey

1st Place Winner, 
Sigma Tau Delta Essay Contest

The street was deserted. The setting sun tried unsuccessfully to penetrate the low-hung clouds and brighten the drab buildings. The town was sullen gray. In the distance a glow of light began to pierce the gathering darkness. Shadows were twisted grotesquely; empty beer cans became giant footprints, parked cars, primitive animals. The rattle of an old newspaper blowing down the sidewalk was strangely magnified until it became thunder in the silence.

At the end of the sidewalk, a small wiry lad appeared, eyes downcast. His jaw was set tightly and his face was streaked. Although his cheeks had the smooth unshaven glow of youth, his eyes were those of an old man. Hand banging absently against the picket fence, feet pushing themselves one before the other, he advanced slowly past the parked car. Finally his feet stopped moving. He stood still. When his head rose, he wore on his face the dazed expression of a child who had awakened in a strange bed. His gaze wandered slowly over the dingy buildings, down the empty street and into the gutter. The last rays of the setting sun caught the edge of the empty beer can and sparkled momentarily, then vanished. All was still. The breeze had slipped away and left them alone--the empty street, the beer can, and the boy.

With a sudden awkward movement of his hand, the boy reached for the bit of tin and forcefully threw it down--down the street. It rattled and banged, shattering the silence. He clamped his hands over his ears, as if the noise were suffocating him, closed his eyes and shook his head trying to get rid of the sound. Instead of dying away, the vibrations grew louder.

"Matt! Matt!" cried a voice and, frightened, the boy bolted and ran. But he could not escape the confusion; he could not avoid the voice.

"Matt!" it cried again and again.

Matt awoke with a start, his back stiff from the hard wooden floor. He was aware of the snow, thin and cold, driven like bullets against the attic window. He rolled on his stomach and reached for the blanket he had kicked off.


The voice again! Then he hadn't been dreaming. She was still there, this time shaking the little attic door. Throwing back his head as if he were about to laugh, he grabbed the blanket and huddled in it.

"Matt, it's been nearly a week now. How much more do you think we can take?" She paused as if listening. "Matt. Answer me. Do you hear me? Are you listening? Answer me!"

Matt was motionless. He sat bundled in his blanket without moving a muscle.

"Matt, Matt--" her voice trailed away and the soft sound of sobbing filtered through the locked door.

Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs, then a deep voice called, "Marge, Marge, baby. Pull yourself together. You've got to let him take his own time. At that age, you know you can't push things."

For some time their voices rose and fell. At last the footsteps sounded again, slower this time. Matt waited until the voices became muted, then died away.

"The old man," he said. "He's so big and she--oh, so tiny. I'll bet she's thinner than ever after this week of worry. Especially after last night. Gee, but that was clever. I'll bet I stayed up half the night, just thinking about it. Wonder what time it was. Must have been after two. Oh, yes, surely after two."

Absently, he looked at the erring foot that had crept out of the warmth of the blanket, then, gently, he covered it again, patting it tenderly as if it were a child. Leaning back on his elbows, he thought of the previous events: how his scream had pierced the night, how his mother had run up the stairs crying, "Matt. What is it, Matt?"  Then he had begun to walk across the attic floor, slowly, each footstep resounding heavily. He had nearly reached the door when he fell, his body a clumsy heap on the wooden boards. Since then he had been deathly still. His silence was more terrifying than his screaming and swearing had been the first few days he had locked himself away from the rest of the household.

"How long has it been now?" His voice was just a low mumble. Today must be Thursday. He began counting on his fingers. "Wednesday.Tuesday. Monday. Sunday. Was it Sunday? No. Couldn't have been Sunday for I remember hearing the chimes playing when I woke. Then it must have been Saturday. Saturday. Sure, it was Saturday night and we were arguing over the car, the old man and me. I remember now."

He remembered, too, how their tempers had risen until his father had pounded the supper table. They had both been talking at the same time when suddenly his father had stopped and he had heard his own voice yelling, "You think you're mighty hot stuff, don't you, Pops?"

Startled at the sound of his voice vibrating through the kitchen, he lowered his tone and went on.

"You think you're plenty big, don't you? But let me tell you one little thing. I see you come swinging down our street, puffing on your old cigar, and do you know what, Pops? I'm ashamed of you, that's what. Ashamed to call you my old man. And do you know why?"

His voice lowered and he leaned forward, his elbows on the table.

"'Cause you think you're somebody and you're not. You're nobody. You're nothing at all."

For an eternity they sat looking at each other. Then "Pops" pushed back his chair and rose. He walked to the door and opened it. But before he left, he turned, looked hard at Matt, then spat heavily on the floor. The door swung shut behind him, not quite latching.

Matt was aware of a slight sound behind him and turned. His mother was standing in the doorway, her hands doubled up and pressed against her face, her eyes wide and troubled. It was then Matt had run to the attic and, closing the little door, locked himself securely in.

Now he rose gingerly and picked his way across the attic floor, carefully avoiding the squeaky boards. He reached the window and stood staring out, still snuggled in his blanket. The snow had stopped. He pushed the window wide open and inhaled the cold air deep into his lungs. His teeth smarted from the blast of frigid air. He sneezed, then hastily covered his mouth. His hand reached out and closed the window. Turning, he began to walk slowly, the corner of his blanket trailing behind him. Again he sneezed, explosively. Suddenly he let the blanket slip from his shoulders. Feet oblivious of the squeaky boards, he ran across the room. The little door yielded quickly to this anxious hands.

"Mom? Hey, Mom!" Matt's feet pounded on the stairs, then stopped.

"Matt? What is it?" Matt's mother appeared at the foot of the stairs, her hands in her apron.

Matt swung himself easily to the bottom step where he stood looking down on his mother.

"I'm hungry, Mom. What's good for dinner?"

--Originally published in The Antler, Vol. 2, No. 2, 
pp. 5-8, May 1956, Xi Beta chapter, Sigma Tau Delta
Kearney State Teachers College, Kearney, Nebraska.

You've made it this far! Congrats. And thanks.

Tell me what you think of "Portrait of Matt"? Or share with me an early memory of yours.

Rereading this story felt strange. It seemed familiar but also remote.

I could see that I hadn't yet grasped the idea of starting a story in media res, or in the middle of things.  Now I would make the father spitting on the floor the first scene. That would be more dramatic than my long street scene that turns into a dream. Solving writing problems by turning scenes into dreams is cliché anyway.

As I read the story this time, I kept wondering what Matt ate, or if he didn't. Saturday to Thursday is a long time to fast. I assume he had some kind of chamber pot, or maybe he spritz his urine out the window.

"Was." I used it 19 times. Instead of "His mother was standing" how about "His mother stood." Or "Matt sat motionless" instead of "Matt was motionless. He sat."

But enough of this. When I remember this piece, I don't remember its shortcomings. I remember the jubilance of pulling that all-nighter, dragging Matt and his world out of my mind and on to paper.

 a JoLt of CoFFeY 

 An Intermittent Newsletter
by Marilyn June Coffey