Sunday, July 11, 2010

Fortune Cookie (an excerpt)

When I opened Fobbit this morning after a two-day absence, I found a note I'd left to myself:  "Write a Lumley section."  Sergeant Brock Lumley is an infantryman who was introduced to readers in the early pages of the novel but now, by page 168, I realized I hadn't brought him back on stage for quite some time.  This is one of the challenges I face with such a large cast: how to make them memorable enough to stick in the reader's mind.  Charles Dickens had no problem with this, and I'm always analyzing his paragraphs to see how he managed to pull that rabbit from his hat.  If I ever find out, I'll be sure to let you know.

For me, Fobbit's characters always there--all of them in a crowded room, chattering at the same time--but I can only write one scene at a time, trying to keep the action as sequential as possible.  Some characters will inevitably get lost in the shuffle.  When I go back over the novel a third time, there will probably be a lot of interior decorating, moving furniture around and tossing some of the crap out into the yard.

But, for today at least, I attempted to pull Lumley out of the shuffle.  This excerpt is coming to you fresh off my brain--which means it hasn't fully matured, which means it might not make the final cut.  But hey, at least my man Brock can live forever here in cyberspace, right?

In principle, Brock Lumley resisted superstition, but if you were to stop him on any given day he was patrolling Baghdad streets with the other eight men in his rifle squad and ask him to open the front left ammo pouch on his flak vest, he’d get this chagrined look on his face, then pull out a fortune-cookie fortune.  On the slip of paper, no bigger than a grass blade, were these words: “Life is either an adventure, or nothing.”

One corner of the fortune had a small dab of brown sauce.  Lumley had often thought about touching that dried stain to his tongue to see if it would bring back that night with Emily.  The sticky take-out boxes piled on the table.  Emily by candlelight.  Pearl Jam and then Aerosmith ripping harsh from the iPod speakers on the end of the table, “Better Man” giving way to “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”  Caught up in the moment, how he reached across the table to slip his fingers inside her blouse.  How she laughed, slapped his hand away, promising “Later” (even though, the way things turned out, there was no “later”).  The acrid string of smoke from the blown-out candles.  Both of them cracking open the fortune cookies at the same time—laughing at hers which promised she’d win the lottery, then sobering up at Brock’s fortune which was sort of a “yeah, no shit, Sherlock” moment for both of them.

He’d held up the sliver of paper and said, “This one’s going with me. Something to remember you by, Em.”

She’d called him a corny bastard and cleared away the take-out boxes.  As he watched her dump them in the trash can, how was he to know that he probably should have been more sentimental, more of a corny bastard?  No way did he see it coming.  No way did he ever suspect that seven months later he’d be thinking of her as his ex-girlfriend.  She was already moving away from him by that point, walling him off in her head, saving herself from the heartache and certain grief that comes with sending your boyfriend into war.  She just couldn’t do it, couldn’t go through a year of that shit, she said later.  If he came back home—legs, arms, and (especially) dick still attached—well, then maybe they’d re-think all of this.  But for now…

For now, Lumley still hadn’t moved on.  And, he suspected, neither had she, despite all of his unanswered e-mails.  He knew he should have long ago forgotten about “dat bitch,” as Staff Sergeant Kinkle advised, but he still held out hope that she was, even at this very moment, tossing and turning in an otherwise empty bed, torturing herself over the stupid-ass way she’d left things between them, agonizing over the just-slapped look on his face, regretting the harsh words she’d thrown at him, and for damn sure regretting the slammed door.  Even as the sun baked him inside his clothes and put him through his own mini-version of hell, Brock Lumley hoped his girlfriend was knotted in sheets and blankets, missing his face, his voice, his hands, and, yeah, his dick.  He tortured himself with fantasies about their reunion.

Until then, he carried the duck-sauce-splattered fortune in his ammo pouch, thinking about all the shit he’d catch from the rest of the squad if they ever found him licking the paper.


  1. I started a long short story/novella about the military that petered out because no one got killed and I needed some real drama. One problem was too many characters, something that works to advantage in movies but not prose. I finally buddied the guys up, just like they do in the real military. Putting them in the same place at the same time but giving them their distinct personalities made it easier for me and, I supposed, the reader.

  2. A military story in which nobody dies is a good concept, Jon. Unfortunately, I sometimes worry that there's TOO much death in my novel. At some point, it all starts running together and sounding the same. Then again, that's how it was over there.