Thursday, April 17, 2008

Subliminal Subtext

During one of the workshops I attended this fall, we had an assignment to write a scene with no dialogue. I wrote the following, and have always wondered if anybody in the world would be able to figure out what was actually happening in the scene. I don't think anybody in workshop did, but if you're game, tell me what you think the situation surrounding this scene might be and what brought you to that conclusion. Or, if this just seems like a completely jumbled and confusing mess, tell me that too.

This is just a raw snippet from a writing prompt, so you're not going to hurt my feelings a bit if you tell me it's completely incomprehensible.

To make this more interesting, there will be a prize for whoever comes up with the interpretation closest to what I had in mind. Naturally, I haven't figured out what the prize will be, but it will most likely be something from Amazon (I heart you one-click). I will announce the winner -- oh, I don't know -- sometime early next week. So guess away and no guess is too crazy. As a matter of fact, if you guess something better than what I originally envisioned, I'll probably claim it's what I meant to say.

Jeanne folded the invoice from the attorney, pushed it to the edge of the kitchen table past the plate of congealing chicken, mashed potatoes and canned peas, and ran her hands through her hair. Gunmetal streaks dominated either side of her center part for an inch or more, and abruptly transitioned to dark brown like a bad neighborhood divided from a good one. Dick drained the last of a tepid cup of coffee and checked his watch. A pile of black trash bags and a smaller pile of boxes, labeled Salvation Army sat in the middle of the floor, an accusation, a poor man’s shrine or perhaps, just the trash that it was. One bag remained open; a torn flannel shirt coiled around a broken Walkman, the stench of an ashtray and unwashed clothing hiding the burnt kitchen spoon underneath.

The phone in the middle of the table rang, ripping through the silence in the house that had until now been interrupted only by the sounds of the plow blades grinding against the street out front. Jeanne’s hands stopped ruffling and froze, still, as though she considered pulling her hair out by the roots. They both looked at the Caller ID. Department of Corrections. Jeanne’s right hand extended up and at an angle, hovering over the table and giving her the look of an uncertain student, offering the answer to a difficult question. Their eyes met and Dick picked up the phone and pressed the off button to silence the ringing. He set it down precisely, checked his watch again and pushed back from the table. He carried his plate and the chipped mug across the kitchen, stopped to scrape the chicken bones and cold peas into the open trash bag and then placed the dishes in the dishwasher.

Jeanne stared at the phone and dropped her hands to the table top. Dick pulled a heavy parka from a coat rack beside the back door, put it on and began gathering keys, wallet, and cigarettes and pocketed a heavy metal medallion with a triangle and Roman numeral inscribed in the center. He patted down his coat pockets. Jeanne stood, moved her chair to the front of the refrigerator and hesitated, staring at the snapshots of smiling faces held on with magnetic fruits and vegetables, a heavy magnet that said Korn, and one that said Visualize Whirled Peas. She reached out and touched a yellowing photo of the three of them and then climbed up. Dick stopped to watch as she took a dust covered bottle out of the cabinet above and stepped back down. He jammed his hands in his pockets and dipped his bearded chin inside the front of his coat. Her back turned to him, she filled a glass with amber liquid, took a long swallow, wiped her lips with the back of her hand and planted both fists on the edge of the counter in front of the sink. She tried to look beyond the reflection that stared back at her from the dark window. The sound of the clock ticking was interrupted by the compressor in the refrigerator, and the smell of roasted chicken lingered in the tiny kitchen.

The phone rang again as another plow passed by. Jeanne turned to face Dick and he looked away. He reached into his pockets and pulled his keys out, tucked the Big Book under his arm, grabbed the trash bags and walked out into the snow.


Leatherdykeuk said...

My guess is a divorce following the incarceration of their son.

steve said...

My guess is pretty mych the same as leatherdykeuk's. The burnt spoon suggests drugs. There's az lot of ambiguity, though. Is it Dick who's the one who's serving a sentence--perhaps late from a furlough? And I'm totally at a loss about the medallion.

One thing's for sure: Your writing has improved tremendously since you wrote this.

And one pet peeve: I still refuse to accept "transition" as a verb, although I'm afraid I've lost the battle.

Yogamum said...

I think their son (or daughter) is incarcerated. The stuff in the bags belongs to him/her and they are getting rid of it. I don't think they're divorcing just yet. The medallion -- an AA medallion for a certain time of sobriety. Dick is going to an AA meeting -- checking his watch, carrying the "Big Book." Jeanne is still drinking, in front of hims, and he disapproves.

Missy k said...

My guess is the same as Yogamum's -- kid in jail, his stuff they're getting rid of, Dick on the way to AA. My one addition is that I don't think Jeanne is STILL drinking -- since the bottle is dusty, I think the stress of their son's incarceration is causing her to break her sobriety and take her first drink in years.

Tim said...

I don't know what's going on, although there's some heavy doping going on in addition to the booze, if the spoon is any indication. I think he might be leaving her more permanently, and perhaps the call is about him rather than about their son.

But I disagree with Steve -- I really like this writing.


Melissa Marsh said...

I like this writing, too, Lisa, and of course, I think it would be great with dialogue (but then, that wasn't the purpose of this particular exercise!).

My thoughts: the son is in jail and trying to call them, but they refuse to talk to him because of what he put them through. I'm not sure that they're about to get a divorce - instead, I think they're just trying to work through a difficult situation.

Charles Gramlich said...

I suspect as others have said, the son has been arrested for drugs and they are struggling with what to do. I don't necessrily think it's a divorce, but definitely some anger undercurrents.

Ello said...

I thought this was really well written. I liked it! I'm guessing that the son is a drug addict that got caught into a bigger mess, as drugs are likely to do, but protested his innocence and they believed him. They hired a lawyer to try to protect their son which probably cost them more then they could afford only to find that everything that they believed was a lie and that their son could not be protected. They can no longer afford to pay for the attorney and disillusioned by the discovery that their son is a drug addict, possibly worse also, they turn away from him. He is unwilling to give up and continues to call begging them to help him. I don't think she is a big drinker. after all the bottle is dusty. but she needs a drink and her husband understands. but how does the phone ring again? I thought he turned the ringer off. I don't know what the big book is - at first I thought it was the bible. Anyway, really good. I liked it!

Larramie said...

Quite simply, the first ring was that their son had been prepared for execution -- probably injection -- the second ring was that he had died as had their life together.

Billy said...

My thoughts after reading this lean to the more sinister. I think the son is dead or has been killed ... and disposed of. The couple are too afraid of something, so it seems like more than incarceration. The plow is mentioned twice. I think the kid is buried under the street or something. The attorney is calling because they have already been questioned by the police. The dinner was interrupted by the murder, and hence the cold food. The wife seems to be downing a brewski to dull the fear. The husband also has a bottle and seems to be carrying away some incriminating evidence in the bags.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I promise I didn't look at any of the comments before writing this. These two are the parents of a son who's being sent to (or has already been sent) to jail. They've run out of appeals/options/new chances. He's going away for a long time and they're giving his clothes and etc. to goodwill/salvation army because he's not going to be needing them. The phone call was his one (collect) call--and they're too tired to even answer it since they have no good news or hope to give him.

Lisa said...

You guys are good! Now I'm definitely going to have to make the contest winning entry be from a drawing since there are so many good interpretations!

I'll hold off on individually addressing each guess until Monday just in case there are more.

All I can say is -- I wish I had thought of some of these!

Steve Malley said...

I'm left wondering what was wrong with your fellow workshoppers. That scene seems pretty clear to me!

Patti said...

someone, most assuredly their child, a male child just over the age of consent, has died, maybe not even died but has been put to death, by orders of the state, most likely a capital punishment state.

the bags are the remains of that child's material life, a life too painful to be remembered by possessions. out they go.

husband and wife are in uncomfortable agreement over what is next to come. the act of putting the past to rest, or so they will try, yet most assuredly fail.

it's a tale of tragedy that we think can never happen to us, and when it does we are numb beyond words.

just a to read everyone elses thoughts.

Usman said...

Son in jail...clue, call from dept of corr...the pic of 3 on the fridge...the whole atmosphere of despair.
Might be something to do with drugs. Not sure why. That to me seems like the central idea of this scene.
Now I'll go read the rest.

Riss said...

my comment didn't post for some reason...hrmph. I'll condense it. I took it differently. I think her husband was abusive and is now in jail. The attorney was sending her his bill and was calling to discuss charges. The second was her husband calling to swear he's changed. Dick is a guy from the protection center/corrections center/something and is on his way to go work with/deal with the husband. The medalion reminds me of something that the illuminati or an anger management/rehabilitative course would offer. The clothes are her husbands. The spoon-might be drugs, might be a metaphor for her and her life-damaged and in the garbage. She has finally chosen to leave her husband and is taking a drink for courage or something to that nature. I had more here for analysis but Blogger ate it and now I'm in a hurry but I wanted to repost. (c:


My take:
Jeanne is a single Mom of two sons.(photo on fridge is the three
of them)
One recovering, one incarcerated,,,again. It's not her first rodeo, she's despairing.

Dick is on his way to an AA meeting, big book and sober birthday medallion in hand. He's taking his brother's old life to the trash, knowing that he and his Mom can be of no further help to his brother.Rock bottom is here.

It's a good story, which ever way you wrote it, but like someone else pointed out, the second ring of the phone doesn't fit, as he'd already turned off the ringer.

Anonymous said...

here's what I got on my own:
Dick and Jeanne have a child (not sure if a son or daughter) who has been convicted of a crime. They were a happy family once upon a time, but whatever the crime was, it has created a divide between father and mother.

Dick is the ruler of the household. Jeanne is the dutiful wife who submits to his will, or at least has in the past. Dick has more or less disowned his black sheep offspring, and his actions are creating a chasm in their marriage (i.e. the snow plows).

I had to read other entries to see that (1) the crime was probably drug related, and (2) that the Dad is going to an AA meeting (i.e. Big Book).

Dick apparently has also struggled with similar demons (i.e. alcohol). A web search suggests that the medallion might be The Order of the Archangel, "awarded to those who have served with distinction in miliatary strategic capacities". I want to think it belongs to Dick, who carries it to remind himself of his past victories.

Jeanne has kept the bottle hidden from Dick, at least until now, possibly much like she contains her feelings and witholds her arguments, but she is clearly anguished over the forced separation from her only child.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf