Listening to Sycamore Row by John Grisham.
Reading and writing are tools for thinking, for discovering truth obscured by a cluttered, unquestioning, and gullible mind.
Listening to Sycamore Row by John Grisham.
Here’s how I left my Scrivener project today (left side is the Binder; middle section is the text for Scene 7, and the right side is a character card (a text file) for Hannah Dodd).
To me, there is no more important feature to the Scrivener writing software than the binder. Although I’ve read and studied intensely how to outline a novel in full up front before writing the first word of the story, I always gravitate to the pantsing side of the fence. However, during my past two completed novels, and now my WIP, I’ve adopted a pantsing with a twist approach: from the beginning I don’t know where my story is going, but once it does, and I have a scene in mind, I outline that scene and move on.
Notice in the binder (Scene 7), I created a text file, “Hannah and David do some probing.” And, under that, there are two subfiles (“What if Glenn was supposed to have a meeting at 11:00?” and, “Had neighbor seen something [?]” Notice, the next text file is “Who are Hannah and David?” There are several other text files, but for now, let’s limit this discussion to the above.
Recall, when I start a scene, I know very little. What I do know is the result of asking a simple question: what should happen next? I try to put myself in the story and think logically about what might happen.
Here’s an example (story alert): prior to Scene 7, Glenn has been kidnapped, and the pair who grabbed him returned his Mustang to his home and took his Toyota Highlander. Further, I had just completed a scene where the protagonist (yes, he’s one of the kidnappers!), checked up on Glenn at the barn where he is hidden. So, I thought, what else is going on at this same time? Glenn owns Elkins Hardware; it’s a Monday. The store has opened and Glenn is always there by 6:30. Thus, I decided to change POV and write in third person (previous scenes were in first person).
From my outline, and over three days mind you, this is what I created [I’ll insert some current comments in brackets and bolded]:
“No luck.” David said as he walked inside Elkins Hardware. “Mustang’s right where it was this morning. No sign of the Highlander.”
Hannah Dodd, Glenn’s operations manager, stood behind the front checkout counter and shook her ash blond hair, a habit she’d perfected in high school over twenty-eight years ago. “This is getting surreal. You know he’s a robot six mornings a week: eat breakfast at Grumpy’s, and here by six-thirty.”
David handed Hannah a stack of mail the post lady had handed him outside. He was more worried about his future than his boss’s health or happiness. “If he doesn’t show, will that be it?” A chance to manage a big box store was David’s dream, but that hinged on Glenn’s 1:00 PM meeting [to fit my timeline I changed the meeting to 1:00] today with Home Depot’s Joel Griggs [full disclosure: this character was created by visiting Lowe’s website and borrowing the names from two actual people]. Their fourth in as many months, with today’s seal-the-deal meeting at Atticus French’s law office on North Main.
“My guess is yes, since the City of Albertville is trying to woo the Depot with more incentives.” The business phone rang and Hannah grabbed it immediately. “Elkins Hardware.” She looked at David and shook her head sideways, while mouthing, “Pastor Miller.”
[The above gets us “in the moment.” Now, I delve into my Binder question, Who are Hannah and David?]
Hannah and David were the glue that held Elkins Hardware together, although Glenn naively believed it was himself. David had started part-time in the tenth grade. Hannah, as Gracie’s best friend [Gracie is Glenn’s daughter], had unofficially started in middle school, satisfied with a bag of Planter’s Salted Peanuts and an RC Cola in exchange for sweeping the floors and flirting with prospective customers who looked like they had money.
Hannah’s official hire date was August 13th, 1993, the day Glenn and Gina moved their only child to Tuscaloosa to attend the University of Alabama. Gracie and Hannah had been friends since first grade and were destined to be close forever, including sharing a dorm room at Tutwiler Hall for four years. That had all changed when Hannah’s father was killed in an auto accident and she was left with an invalid mother and an eleven-year-old sister to care for.
[David needs to get to his office. I thought a believable interruption would be helpful.]
“I need some paint.” A customer interrupted David as he walked to the stairwell that led to a row of offices overlooking the front half of the store.
“Hold on, I’ll grab Troy.” After doing so and settling into his office, David called Valerie at the French Firm. “Hey, it’s David at Elkins. Have you seen Glenn this morning?”
“No, and I don’t have time to chat. I’m getting ready for the closing.” Valerie said, ending the call without a goodbye. David had always had a crush on the voluptuous Val, but she still didn’t know it.
[Here’s more about David—hold on, I’m getting to that ‘probing.’]
Gerald, Glenn’s father, had hired David in 1970 as a stock-boy when he finished the tenth grade at Boaz High School. Four years later, with an Associate’s degree from Snead State under his belt, and a growing fascination with numbers, Gerald had moved David into sales for three months before awarding him the lucrative sales manager position. But, it was Glenn who’d figured out David was more valuable as finance manager since he could work magic with interest rates and late fees, not to mention his easy-going, highly persuasive personality.
David sat behind his desk and opened the middle drawer. He removed an eight by ten-inch photograph of the newest house in Hunters Run, only six weeks away from completion, and David’s occupancy. But, and that was a big but, only if Home Depot was coming to Boaz. A sick feeling in his stomach made David want to rip the photo in half. He would have if his desk phone hadn’t started ringing. [Here, you can start to see the importance of that 1:00 PM meeting, at least to David. I don’t have a clue how this twist came to mind. Maybe it was from my Binder/outlining—there needs to be some reason Hannah and David find Glenn (recall, he was kidnapped yesterday afternoon)].
Unenthusiastically, he answered, “David, Finance Department.”
“Is this Mr. Vance?” The voice was old and vaguely familiar.
“It is. May I help you?” David said, wishing he hadn’t been quite so short. However, an old lady, three months behind on her washer-dryer payments, was the last thing he wanted to deal with.
“This is Irene Capps. We talked this morning.”
“Yes mam. You live across the street from my boss, Glenn Elkins.” David sat up straighter and felt a slight breeze of optimism. “Have you remembered something?”
“No, but Charles has. You know I told you I go to bed at 8:00 but my old man stays up till at least midnight.” Irene’s voice was scratchy, like sandpaper.
“Did he see something across the street, at Glenn’s house, last night or this morning?” David instantly thought he was about to learn his boss was bedding the widow Dorothy Frasier, whose husband Frank had died six months ago from Covid. The plain looking but sharp dressing woman had been politely stalking Glenn since the beginning of summer.
“Hold on. You best talk to Charles.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. David thought. While he waited, he couldn’t help but look at the two-story Tudor one more time.
“Hello.” A gruff, let’s-hurry-up voice said.
It took a trio of back-and-forth questions and answers for Charles to tell his story. To David, it sounded like the old man was drunk as a skunk.
“So, let me summarize.” David believed this was the best way to pin Charles down and get off the phone. “A little before midnight, you and Brandon, your miniature boxer, were outside peeing. I mean, Brandon was peeing. That’s when you saw Glenn’s Mustang ease into his driveway with its lights off. Am I right so far?”
“It’s a shitzu.”
“Okay, then you saw a man exit the Mustang and drive away in Glenn’s Highlander. Right?”
“Yep, got her from Second Chance Kennels.”
“Brandon’s a girl?” David often asked irrelevant questions.
“Charles, I’ve got a customer waiting, so let me ask one last thing. Which way did the Highlander go?”
“You hold on while I wet my whistle.” David could hear ice cubes tumbling into a glass.
“Okay, but hurry.”
Two swallows later, Charles continued. “Towards Elder.”
“Thanks, now one more. Sorry. Did you get a good look at who was driving the Highlander?”
“Come on baby, come on.” David’s mind didn’t like the image that suddenly appeared. Was Charles coaxing Irene or Brandon? “Now, I’m sorry. Brandon is a daddy’s girl.”
“Charles, could you tell if it was Glenn driving the Highlander?”
Without hesitating, Charles dismantled David’s theory. “Oh hell no, the guy was shorter, fatter. It couldn’t have been Glenn.”
“Did you determine this when you saw the man get out of the Mustang and walk to the Highlander?” David’s mind scrolled through a list of Glenn’s friends and customers who fit Charles’ description.
“I guess, and when he turned to look at me as he drove away.”
“Okay. Thanks. One last question and I promise this is it.”
Before David could ask, Charles added, “Yeah, that’s what they all say.”
“Is there anything else you can recall, anything at all?” David literally crossed his fingers, eying the English Tudor.
“Hold on, let me think.” David shook his head and hoped he wasn’t going to be so dense when he was old. “Got it. I knew there was something. You want to know what it is?”
Oh my fucking God, David squeezed his right hand to keep from sounding the words, “yes, please.”
“The man’s jacket. I mean the back of his jacket. It had something written on it. In yellow. I couldn’t tell if it was a word or just some letters. But, I know the first one was an F. Might have been ‘fuck off,’ but I’m only guessing.”
David sat and pondered. Falcons? That might be it, the Atlanta Falcons. Or was it Faith? He had seen a group of teens wandering through the Appliance Department a few months ago wearing tee-shirts with Faith across the back. David heard the line go dead. That’s when he remembered the youth was from a church in the valley, Cox Chapel Methodist. Yes, that was it. And the group might now have jackets with Faith highlighted in yellow across the backs.
David returned the receiver to its cradle and concluded he was beyond desperate and was doing nothing but chasing an uncatchable rabbit.
END OF SCENE
As stated, this draft of Scene 7 has taken all week. It’s still a little messy, but you should have seen it yesterday.
One other thing about my writing method. Yesterday, I pretty much had the basic ideas down, but it wasn’t until mid-afternoon’s bike ride that I thought, “Doesn’t David need to learn more from Charles, Glenn’s across the street neighbor?” At that time, all Charles had told David was about seeing a man (who wasn’t Glenn) bring the Mustang to Glenn’s house—with lights off—park it and drive off in the Highlander.
So, biking, I kept thinking, “what could Charles have seen that might be harmful to my protagonist (yes, that kidnapper guy)?” It wasn’t until this morning during reread and pondering that same question that I remembered Marlon (okay, now you know the name of my protagonist) wore his FBI jacket the first night he was in town. Bingo if you have an F. Ha.
Finally, if you ask me how this yellow F is going to play into my story, I’ll have to say, I don’t know. But, hopefully, I’ll find out when I get there. Who knows, it might just appear in the Binder at just the right time.
Magic? No, it’s just pantsing with a twist.
From my latest novel. Available by mid-November.
A dense fog suffocated the dawn. It seemed I could reach out and touch Rachel’s headstone, yet I was underneath the cemetery’s arched stone entrance two hundred yards away. A bird, a radio speaker, my mind, something from above, kept reminding me of my grandmother’s philosophical mantra. “Live and learn and die and forget it all.” I’m sure my dead wife had forgotten everything, but had she discovered forgiveness? Had she forgiven herself for long ago sins, and had she forgiven me for failing to protect her?
The fog lifted and I realized I was in that netherworld between dreaming and awakening, moving my lips but barely sounding the words. “Oh Rachel, why kill yourself over something that happened half-a-century ago?”
I rolled onto my right side and opened my eyes, semi-surprised. The digital clock on Leah’s nightstand reads 3:58 am. It’s early morning, Saturday, and it has happened again. For the eighth straight week.
Last night I had conducted an experiment. I abandoned mine and Rachel’s master bedroom and slept upstairs in our daughter’s room, thinking this would break the two-month established pattern. It had not. I had awoken at the four o’clock hour entangled in the same dream clawing my way to a peace and happiness I knew I’d never find.
Other than the editing of my thoughts and writings—natural for myself, Lee Harding, Yale Law School professor—my first thought every Saturday morning had been this question about my departed wife. It had been almost a year since I found her hanging from an overhead beam in the basement. Her successful suicide had followed her failed attempt via pain pills six months earlier. That was when she’d told me why she wanted to end her life.
I tossed the covers aside and sat along the edge of Leah’s bed. Rachel’s abortion at age 16 was a secret, at least to me. Somehow, I had chalked it up to youthful indiscretion; that’s the short and simple way to restate how I’d adjusted. For Rachel, it was impossible to digest. Or to cast outside her psyche.
I slipped my feet inside my house shoes and exited Leah’s bedroom, grabbing a quick gaze inside Lyndell’s bedroom across the hall. Oh, to go back in time, to happier days, the house bustling with mine and Rachel’s two teenagers, both adopted but happy when we moved to New Haven in 2000 and bought this house.
I did not linger. I descended the stairs, eager to take a shower in the master bathroom before driving to the cemetery. Although I had made progress, this pattern was more than habit. It was an addiction. For the first ten months after Rachel’s suicide, I would begin each day by visiting her at Eastwood Cemetery, always arriving before dawn. Now, and for the past seven weeks, I had painfully reduced my fix to once per week, still arriving every Saturday before sunrise. The next expected step in my therapeutic recovery would be a once per month visit, but I doubted that would ever happen. Neither of us could survive with such infrequent injections: her dose of trust and loyalty I gave her, and my dose of practical needfulness she gave me.
I opted to skip the shower. The house was cold. So was I. It had been an unusually warm fall in New England, and I had not yet switched the unit to HEAT. It was time for cooler, if not colder, weather. I was inside our walk-in closet searching for warmer clothes when I heard my cell vibrating. I returned to the bathroom and grabbed my iPhone, face down on the granite vanity. It was odd my mother-in-law was calling so early. It was only 4:20.
“What’s wrong?” I said, knowing the news could not be good. I normally did not skip a cordial greeting.
“A good morning to you, too. I knew you would be up.” Since my student days in law school in the late 70s, I had been an early riser. Rachel and her mother were close. Rosa’s voice, always pleasant, always proper. Like Rachel’s. Both women had been English teachers.
“Sorry. Morning. I have been up for a while. Are you okay?” Rosa and Rob, in their mid-eighties, retired Southern Baptist missionaries, spent most of their married lives in China. They now shared a three-room suite at Bridgewood Gardens, an assisted living facility in Albertville, Alabama.
“I’m fine. We’re fine. Lee, I know this is short notice, but would you have some time to meet, maybe this morning?” It confused me. I live in New Haven, Connecticut. That’s a long way from the Yellowhammer state. I was unaware my in-laws had been planning a trip.
After an unnatural pause, I said, “sure.”
During the next several minutes, Rosa declared she and Rob were about an hour away, in New Rochelle, New York. Two days ago, they had felt “smothered” and planned a road trip, including a visit to see me. It had been too long. Almost a year, to be exact. The weekend we buried Rachel. Before Rosa ended our call, she said, “Lee, there’s also a legal issue we need to run by you.”
I suggested they come to the house around 7:00 but Rosa would not have it: “I don’t want to rekindle those memories, and practically, I don’t want you scurrying around to tidy up the place.”
I’d agreed and first recommended Denny’s on Sawmill Road, then changed my mind to Bella’s, my local favorite. It was downtown New Haven, near the law school. Although it made for a longer drive for us all, the food would be much better.
The drive to Eastwood Cemetery was only two miles, something Rachel had thought important when she insisted we purchase our burial plots. I would always believe it was more than coincidence she had demanded we complete our “pre-planning” four months before her death.
I turned left and slowed my speed to five miles per hour before passing beneath the rock archway. Beyond the entrance was sacred ground, according to Gordon, the head caretaker of the twenty-seven acres. The gently rolling hills with intricately aligned rows of headstones always reminded me of a game of dominoes, even though any toppling could not start the process given the widely spaced graves.
Even with minimal light, I could see Gordon already busy. He was loading his lawn mowers, weed eaters, and an assortment of tools on his work trailer when I passed the maintenance shed on my right. We exchanged waves, though I doubted he could see mine.
Rachel’s grave was on Gethsemane Trail. Eastwood had used the Bible as its only source for naming the perfectly designed pathways. The major routes, the tributaries—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—formed a square, two running east and west and two north and south, all lying as a circumference on the outer reaches of the twenty-seven-acre tract. The trails sprouted from the tributaries and ran east and west.
I drove north on Luke and turned right on Gethsemane. Rachel’s grave was in the middle, on the upper side of the trail. I exited my Tahoe and removed the lawn chair from inside the rear hatch. The sun was just coming up when I positioned myself to the right of the headstone, just outside the stone foot-markers to Rachel’s plot. The thick grass was reaching for the sky. Gordon, the barber, would be along before noon with clippers and shears at the ready.
“Good morning, Rachel Anne.” She always hated me for verbalizing her middle name. I mostly honored her request while she was living, but now I wanted to be mean. Sort of. Since I would not dare cuss her or figuratively give her a beating, I resigned to the dastard-like greeting.
She did not respond, but continued her early morning duties. I had always had a vivid imagination, and now was no different. I pictured the tall brunette scurrying around the kitchen before another day of teaching high school English, no doubt spreading an extra layer of mayonnaise on the sandwich she would eat at her desk while reading essays or developing lesson plans.
“You’d be proud of me.” I wondered if other husbands, widowers they’re called, visited their wives’ graves and talked to them as though sitting hand in hand in low slung chairs in burning sand watching the ocean waves roll forward.
“Why?” she said, tossing her silky hair over a shoulder as her eyes stole a glance my way. She filled her Yeti with another cup of coffee, grabbed her lunchbox, blew me a kiss, and waited anxiously for my reply as she opened the back door to the deck.
“I’ve agreed to help Professor Stallings. With the interviewing.” My good friend, twenty years my senior, Bert Stallings, head of the law school’s civil torts department, had long promoted women’s rights. Rachel, while living, was not a big fan, but she was happy I had expanded my social network, something I had trouble doing ever since my childhood friend, Kyle Bennett, had gone missing in tenth grade.
“Good.” Rachel was off to Amity Regional High School without asking a single follow-up question.
I poured a cup of coffee from my old green Thermos. I had loved Rachel since the ninth grade. That was my secret. It was not until we were both in college that I had shared my early high school infatuation.
It had happened suddenly, at first sight. It was the first day of school, a hot and muggy August morning in Mrs. Stamps’ English class. I’m sure I was a distant planet to the smart sounding girl sitting across the aisle and one seat forward. Probably, I was an undiscovered planet. Rachel was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. Later, at the midmorning break, I learned from Kyle that she and her brother, along with their missionary parents, had returned from China for a two-year furlough.
It was six years later, at the University of Virginia, we had our first conversation. We had both been students living in Charlottesville for a year and a half, wholly unaware of the other’s presence, before we had our chance meeting in the Student Union. Rachel always called it a miracle. Less than a month later, we had our first date. By the end of summer, after our sophomore year, we married.
Another old memory arrived. During our ninth and tenth-grade years, I never generated the courage to talk to Rachel, much less ask her for a date. Eleventh grader Ray Archer had latched onto her by the second week of ninth grade. That was 1968. Now that I think about it, Rachel and family returned to China before Christmas of tenth grade. No doubt breaking Ray’s heart.
My right leg suddenly cramped. Instantly I stood. The remains of my Thermos spilled onto the ground. I walked twice around Rachel’s grave to relieve my pain. I hated getting older. It was awful to be sixty-six, not that I was in poor health, but because of the mental pressure. I simply could not shake my guilt. Although Rachel had consoled me after her failed suicide attempt and surprise confession, I still strongly believed I was at fault. I should have helped the woman I had fallen in love with at first sight. It was my fault she had not found peace during those stressful six months before she toppled the chair beneath her noose. These guilty, gut-wrenching feelings were like what I had felt when Kyle had gone missing. My firm belief was that I had failed my best friend. After his disappearance, I was alone. I am alone now after Rachel’s suicide. The bottom line is, neither Kyle nor Rachel could trust me as a friend.
I stood for the longest next to Rachel’s headstone. Facing east, I felt the rising sun as though I was two feet from a heat lamp. I removed my hat, keeping my eyes closed. Until the depressing thoughts attacked. I reopened my eyes when the image appeared: toppled chair, rope, the limp body of the woman I loved, the one who kept me at a distance. My dead wife’s secrets proved we had never been truly intimate.
I returned to my lawn chair, this time facing west, and removed the Sand Mountain Reporter from my leather binder. Rachel insisted I read the obituaries from our hometown newspaper. It was Thursday’s edition. As usual, it was thin, two sections, maybe ten or twelve-pages total.
Local deaths were always on page 3. I turned there automatically as usual, hardly glancing at the front page. I started at the top. Rachel insisted I read every one. Aloud.
“Norma Jean Silvers of Douglas, passed away peacefully at home on Sunday, November 1, 2020. She was 93 years of age.” After reading Norma’s civic and social club memberships and leadership roles, I skipped her education, employment, and religious history. I hoped Rachel didn’t mind. The SMR could get rather windy.
Jorene Horton was up next. I lost my place when my iPhone rang. It was probably Rosa reminding me to bring the book she had asked me to mail. That was nearly a month ago, and I was still searching for it in Rachel’s library.
I stood and removed my cell from my front left pocket. It was Gordon, probably using the old Samsung I’d given him Labor Day as a birthday present.
“Hey my friend. Sorry I didn’t stop to chat when I arrived.”
“Not’s a problem. I seed you and hope you’s well.” Gordon was humble, the most decent person I knew. He had been caretaker at Eastwood since he was a teenager. I did not know how old he was now, but he’d told me the only time he’d been away from the cemetery was during the “big war.” Although I had never seen it, Gordon lives alone in a little cabin through a patch of hickory trees on the northwest corner of the cemetery, out-of-sight from the intersection of Matthew and John.
We talked at least five minutes before he asked if starting his mower would upset me. He promised he would be almost out of earshot and would start on the far east end of Gethsemane. Of course, I did not mind.
I would have invited him over for a cup of coffee, but I was all out, and I was only halfway through the obits. I wished him well, but he’d already ended our call.
I checked the time before pocketing my iPhone. It was 6:16. Dang, I had to go. I folded the newspaper and tucked it inside my binder. “Sorry Rachel, I know you’ll understand my rush. Mom and Pop are in town. We’re meeting for breakfast. I sure wish you could join us.”