“Do you think Curtis and Jordan would play if we asked them?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to ask them.”
“Because they’re not careful and it’s my only football.”
“I don’t think they’re not careful.”
“You weren’t playing at the park after the parade.”
“No. What happened?”
“Well, so they had those airplanes, y’know? Those ones that you hook on a rubber band and it goes flying through the air.”
“Like the ones you can get from the arcade at Seventeen Alleys.”
“I know what you’re talking about.”
“So Curtis and Jordan each got those from the fair games and they were launching them right over there by that building. What do you call that building?”
“I don’t know. But they do all the city stuff in there, don’t they?”
“Yeah, like the mayor and everybody.”
“So they were shooting their planes alongside of that building and talking about how they thought they were shooting them high and long enough to go all the way over the building.”
“But Curtis’s dad, he heard them and he told them ‘don’t you do it.’ He told them they’d never get their planes over it and once they got lost on the roof he wouldn’t climb up there to get them back down again.”
“And, well, they didn’t try it right then. Because right then the hot dogs and hamburgers were ready and everybody started to eat. But then after that they went and tried it and guess what?”
“Curtis’s dad was right! They got stuck right on top of the roof and they never got them down!”
“Oh wow. Are they still up there?”
“What? No. Curtis and Jordan went back for them the next day when Curtis’s dad wouldn’t know anything about it. But the point is that they’re not careful and I don’t want my football up on the roof.”
Petey caught the ball once again and paused for a moment before chucking it back to Brad.
“Yeah okay,” Petey said, “it’s just we can’t really play a game with only the two of us.”
“Well we’re playing right now, aren’t we?”
“It’s not a game. It’s just catch.”
“Well…let’s make it a game.”
A game of two cannot have offense, defense, and passing, though. Thus the two boys decided beforehand whether the next play was a run or a pass. If it was a run then one of them would hike the ball back and then try to tackle the other. If it was a pass, then the hiker would tear down the field to get open for a catch. The boy playing quarterback would imagine defenders breaking through the front line and would have to throw it before they got to him.
“Go left! Go left!” Petey called. “I can’t throw so far to the right.”
“You just turn your body!”
Petey lobbed the ball high into the air, it hung high against the sky, then came down to the earth with a squelching splash!
“Oh, you’ve thrown it into the marsh!”
The marsh was the name for the low part of the field where all the water drained to and was a perpetual pond of filth.
“Whoops! I didn’t mean to.”
“Well don’t ruin my ball, okay. Don’t throw it into the marsh anymore.”
“I won’t, Brad. Anyway try to catch it next time.”
The incompletion had been their fourth down and now the other side got their turn to charge it up the field. They were held at the forty, but the boys didn’t make much more headway with their next set of downs.
“It’s fourth down again,” Petey wiped some sweat off his face. “It’s too far to make it.”
“If you hadn’t tackled me so quickly on that last run…”
“What? I’m supposed to tackle you when I’m playing defense.”
“Well you’re in charge of the play this time. What do you want to do?”
“Yeah, I’ll try for the field goal. If I get the ball into the tree there–“
“You’re not kicking my ball into a tree!”
“I mean if I kick it…” Petey rotated slowly, looking for a suitable target, “over the soccer goal. That’s a field goal!”
Brad couldn’t find anything wrong with that, so they lined up for the play. A few random numbers shouted, a hike, a step back, a kick! The ball sailed quickly and decisively. It was in-line with the edge of the goal post, but angled too high. It quickly reached its zenith, plummeted back to the earth like a diving hawk…and impacted onto the corner of the goal post!
The goal post corner was two metal poles cut at an angle and welded together, making for a sharp point. The corner punctured straight through the ball and held it fast like a head on a spike. The two boys watched in horror as the ball noisily deflated, shriveling from bottom to top up until it rolled off to the side and down to the ground. Limp. Empty. Not a ball anymore.
“You broke it!” Brad shrieked, fists clenched into little balls.
“I didn’t mean to!” Petey wringed his hands anxiously.
“Why would you kick it there? It’s the only ball I had!”
“I didn’t know! It was an accident. You know I didn’t do that on purpose!”
“I told you so much that I didn’t want to ruin it! I told you to be careful so much!”
“Let’s go to me home and talk to my mom. Maybe she can fix it. Maybe she could buy another.”
Brad stomped over to the lumpy, brown sack that had once been a ball and cradled it in his arms. “I’m not going anywhere with you, Petey!” he shot back. “You’re a terrible friend…and a jerk!” And with that he stormed away.
“Back already?” Petey’s mother asked as the screen door bounced shut behind him. “I thought you’d be at the park until dinner.”
“I’m back,” he said simply. “Brad is done playing for today.”
“Oh…” she raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Nothing!” he replied in anticipation of the question she hadn’t asked. She raised the other eyebrow but he wasn’t in the mood. “Nothing,” he repeated softly. “I’ve got to go do homework, okay?”
“Whatever you need.”
“I need to do my homework.”
She just stared at him as he bit his lip and looked elsewhere.
“So, okay, bye,” he concluded, then turned and walked up the stairs to the bedrooms.
But before getting to his own room Petey passed by the room of his big brother, Noah. Noah was inside, laying on his bed on his stomach, playing the Super Nintendo.
“Noah?” Petey cautiously advanced into the doorway.
“Hey, bud,” Noah didn’t turn. “Plug in the second controller.”
“No, I have to do homework…Mom’s making me.”
Petey stood another moment in the doorway, silently chewing his lip. “Hey Noah?”
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“So Brad is really mad at me right now.”
“Oh? What happened?”
“Well we were playing with his football together and I kicked it and it fell onto a sort of spike in the park and it popped.”
“Yeah, it was really bad. I don’t think there’s any way to fix it.”
“That’s no good.”
“And so now Brad is being really mad at me about it.”
“Well how do you feel? Guilty about it or no?”
“Yeah, I guess guilty. But I don’t get why, because I really didn’t do it on purpose!”
“No, I’m sure you didn’t. But you know, it’s not a bad thing that you feel bad about it. It was a bad thing that happened, you’re not supposed to feel good when that happens.”
“But I don’t feel bad like I would have if Brad had been the one to kick it. Then I would have felt sad for him. But just because it was me I feel like I did something really wrong.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. I mean I’ve felt like that and I don’t know why. You really feel dirty even though it was all an accident, huh?”
“And Brad’s pretty mad about it?”
“He hates me now.”
“So it’s kind of like how you feel. Both of you are blaming you for it even though that’s not fair.”
“So what do I do?”
Noah shrugged. “I don’t know, man, that’s a hard one. To tell you the truth I was hoping it would make you feel better just by talking about it.”
“Well…it does a little. Thanks, I guess.”
Petey turned to go but suddenly Noah whipped his head around to look over his shoulder.
“I guess if there’s something you feel like oughta do to make things right then do it, just don’t do it because of blame. Either from you or Brad.”
Petey nodded and closed the door.
“Hey Brad, how’s it going?” Petey said cautiously as he approached the edge of the curb.
“Don’t talk to me,” Brad said flatly.
“Hey it’s okay if you need some space, but you have to know that it’s not my fault what happened to your football.”
“It’s not your fault?” Brad raised an eyebrow. “You kicked it into the corner and it punctured. Who else made that happen if not you?”
“I–well–I guess, yeah, it was my fault. But that doesn’t mean that you or I should blame me for it.”
Brad turned to full-on stare at Petey with incredulity. “Are you even hearing yourself right now?”
Petey did, and he had to admit that he sounded pretty ridiculous. He squirmed uncomfortably and wondered why everything had seemed so clear and simple in Noah’s room, but out here it just all got turned around. He wasn’t even sure himself what he meant anymore.
Either way Petey was spared trying to explain himself any further by the arrival of the school bus. The two boys stepped on board. By force of habit Petey followed Brad to their usual row and almost tried to sit next to him, but a single withering glare from his friend sent him to the row right behind.
“If you’re curious, though,” Brad turned in his seat for one last jab, “my dad yelled at me for ten minutes’ straight yesterday because I’d already ruined my birthday gift. Says I’d better not expect anything for Christmas. So thanks for that!”
Then he spun around, leaving Petey to stare out the window, hurt and confused.
“Hey Dad, any extra chores I could do this weekend?” Petey asked that evening.
“Um, yeah, always. How come? You saving up your allowance for something?”
“Yeah, it was Brad’s birthday last week and I want to get him a late birthday gift.”
“Oh you don’t have to use your allowance for something like tha–hang on, didn’t we get him something for on his birthday already? A couple of CDs, wasn’t it?”
“No, it was CD-ROMs, not CDs. They go in a computer and play games.”
“Okay, well we got him covered either way.”
“Yeah, so I know this is extra and that’s why I thought it should come from my allowance.”
An unusually concerned expression came over Petey’s dad and he put his hand on his son’s shoulder.
“Say–uh–is there something you wanted to tell me about the Morris’s?” he asked.
“Are they having trouble making ends meet? Something like that?”
“What? No. I mean–not that I know of anyway.”
“Well this seems like some weird behavior from you, Petey.”
“No, I just–Brad and I were playing with his birthday football the other day and we broke it. I don’t think he’s going to be able to get a replacement for it so I wanted to get it for him. Just to be nice!”
Petey’s dad nodded as he thought it over. “Well alright, whatever you want to do son. I need someone to rake the leaves, clean out the gutters, and tidy up the shed. If I think of anything else I’ll let you know.”
On Monday I shared my history with writing stories, and how I have oscillated between a problem of writing too few words and writing too many. In my very first stories my issue was that I would just say what happened without dressing it up at all. They read like a list of events more than a narrative. Here is an excerpt from the very first story I wrote:
We all agreed and headed off toward some islands in the distance. The next morning we landed on the first one. There wasn’t anything we could profit from, except for some branches that we made into harpoons with our swords. There were three other islands to visit, the next one was like the first. By then we were quite thirsty, but didn’t have any fresh water, so we went on. The next one appeared to be perfect, but as we neared the island three alligators swam towards us, we tried to sail away but they cut us off. Then one swam forward towards us I hacked at his head with my sword, I only managed to get a few cuts when he raised a six-foot tail, and dropped it in the middle of the boat.
This is a play-by-play of events. Even in its moment of action, the fight with the alligator, everything is “this happened, then this happened, then that happened.” It took me some time to understand the importance of giving moments space to breathe, to evoke them rather than tell them, to let the reader experience them directly.
This can be taken too far, though. It would not do for a story to dwell on every moment. One has to filter from all of the things that could be shared in a story to just the things that should be. In writing this current piece I had to fight the temptation to throw in some side-plots to pad out the central narrative. That would be necessary to round things out if this were a larger coming-of-age novel, but it isn’t. It is a short piece about how a young boy deals with one problem and every scene that I’m including needs to be related to that single narrative.
There is still an element of rounding things out, though. I don’t want back-to-back scenes between the same two characters because that would feel weird. Characters need to have an interaction and then move on to somewhere else before they come back together. That might seem like an arbitrary requirement, but if you pay attention it is a commonly followed guideline in most stories. Come back on Monday as we take a closer look at this rule and the reason it exists. I’ll see you there.