View Full Version : Short Story Challenge #10 - 'It was a queer, sultry summer'

16-07-2008, 11:05:49
Welcome to the tenth CG short story challenge!

As this is number ten, I'm going to make it a special by not going with a user suggestion but instead a snippet of the first line of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. So for this contest, your story should start with the words 'It was a queer, sultry summer', but from then on you are free to go wherever your imagination takes you!

Write as much or as little as you like, but please respect the fact that your peers will have to find the time to read your entry

I don't know if entry dates and suchlike really mean a great deal given that we don't pick winners or anything, so there is no closing date for this challenge.

As always, only one entry per poster.

Comments on stories should be posted in a seperate thread, this thread is for STORIES ONLY

14-08-2009, 12:49:48
Only a year late and too long to fit into one post too...

14-08-2009, 12:50:21
It was a queer, sultry summer, the kind that could you make sweat on a cloudy day. It was uncomfortable to move, uncomfortable to sit, uncomfortable to sleep. Of course the neighbourhood was full of violence, the storms of human discomfort breaking on their fellows. Mrs James at No. 82 stabbed her husband to death with a potato peeler and nobody needed to ask why. The atmosphere was too close and so was everyone in the city.
I had to get out or I’d be the next Mrs James, so I quit the job I hated, threw the few things I owned into the back of the car, and drove as fast as I could out of the city.

I had an Uncle, Aunt and three cousins out in the west, raising tomatoes in a dustbowl, and I figured that at this time of year, they must be looking for hired hands to harvest their crop. They’d help out a member of the family, I was pretty sure. I thought of the endless green and red fields beneath a dry blue sky and I felt the car carrying me towards them and was happier already.

Along the way, I called my parents to get my Uncle’s number.
‘I have to get out the city,’ I told my mother.
‘You do what you have to do. Didn’t you like your job?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘What was wrong with it?’
‘It just didn’t agree with me.’
‘Well you do what you have to.’

I called my Uncle, the phone ringing forever before someone answered. My aunt spoke, and when I told her who it was she responded cheerfully enough. I hadn’t seen her, my Uncle or cousins for a good ten years. But she listened as I tried to explain what I was thinking of doing.
‘Well, sure,’ she said. ‘You come on over. We can always use a hand.’
I explained I was in the car, that I would be driving all night and be with them the following day.
‘My, you are keen!’ she laughed. ‘You just come along whenever you like.’

The air changed gradually, the humidity burning away and being replaced by a dry heat that I hadn’t experienced since a trip to Vegas during my college days. Fields became the norm, people became a rarity, the roads got smaller and narrower. Eventually I pulled up at a gas station a few miles from the farm and got directions for the final stretch.

I arrived.

I got my first sight of the harvesting then, the hunched bodies of the pickers amongst the fields, bobbing up and down. I drove slowly past, watching their busy movements.
At the end of the field the tomatoes were bagged and emptied into a series of hoppers, ready to go straight off to the supermarkets. A cute blonde in denim shorts and a white t-shirt stood by the hoppers, watching the workers closely. I pulled up and wandered over to the fence, leaning over and watching the proceedings. One or two of the workers looked over in my direction, and eventually the girl turned round and saw me. I waved a hand and she came over.
She was tan and lean and her hair was real blonde, not bottle blonde like the girls in the city, but blonde with the sun and with herself.
‘You looking for something?’ she said.
‘Is this the Lewison farm?’
‘Sure is. But if you’re looking for work you need to head into town. We don’t recruit direct.’
‘This is your place?’
‘My parents’
I nodded, smiling.
She looked at me quizzically and then at the car and then something fired in her head.
‘Oh Lord, you’re Stevey aren’t you?’
I nodded.
‘Well, don’t you look different. I thought you wore glasses.’
‘Contacts,’ I said, pointing to my eyes for no reason.
‘Uh-huh. So how about I take you up to the house?’

Amber was in her final year of High School, before heading to college to study Business. She was a smart girl with the self-absorbed confidence of teenagers.
‘That the place?’ I said, looking up at the large old white house. Compared to the city flats it was a palace. Its age was a virtue rather than a fault and it shone with an attention to care and cleanliness that reminded me of my mother’s touch.
‘You guys are doing ok, huh?’
‘Guess so. But you wouldn’t know it the way pop talks.’
We pulled up and Amber led me round to the back of the house, where an Alsatian bounded out to greet us.
‘This is Jake’ she said.
I rubbed the dog’s head and then the back door opened and my Aunt appeared, smiling.
‘Well look at you!’ she said, as happily and genuinely as you could like.
Amber went back to the fields and once she had me alone, my Aunt grilled me for a good hour. I guessed my mother and her must have decided something was wrong and they would get it out of me. I was honest, I told her I was going nuts in the city. She wanted more but there wasn’t any.

My Uncle came in about six o’clock. He was older, more tan, more wrinkled and more grey than I remembered. I expected that, but you can’t really imagine how people will look. When we are young, age is too vast to make sense of. It looms ahead of us, a grey cloud on the horizon.
‘Well how are you, young man?’ he said, extending a hand. His handshake was looser and softer than I was expecting.
‘I’m ok, thanks. Sorry about the short notice. I hope you can help me out.’
‘You’re not in any trouble are you, son?’ he said.
‘No, not at all. I guess I just got tired of the city. Needed some fresh air.’
He laughed and looked at my aunt.
‘Well let’s see how you get on, you might want to head back once you get some dirt under your fingers.’
I smiled, as I hoped he expected.

He was followed in not long afterwards by his two boys, big, strong, healthy lads who I remembered as crude, bruising jocks. They had changed some since then, but not too much. Jacob, the eldest, roughly my own age, had a wife and young son, and lived a few miles down the road. Bart was finishing up a degree in agricultural studies at the state college. He lived with his uncle and aunt but roomed at college during term time. He passed that information on in a way that made it clear he was having a much better time on campus than on the farm.

I had expected the dinner conversation to revolve around tomatoes. Sadly it mainly revolved around quizzing me. About my life, about the city, about the world outside of theirs that I seemed to have exclusive access to. The craziness, poverty, celebrity and dynamism of the city that I took for granted was nothing but a TV show to them, even to the kids.

After dinner we talked about the living arrangements for a bit, and after forcing the issue I got them to agree to let me pay some token rent while I roomed with them. At around ten the conversation stopped.
‘Well, we turn in pretty early here, son,’ my uncle said.
‘That’s fine by me,’ I said. ‘I’m beat from the drive.’
‘If you’re going to join us tomorrow, breakfast is at six thirty, then in the fields for seven thirty. Reckon you can handle that?’
I nodded.

They gave me Jacob’s old room, which had turned, as all such vacated rooms do, into a storage room for all the crap they couldn’t bear to throw out. I threw my bag on the bed and then took a walk outside the house to smoke a cigarette before I turned in. The upstairs lights blinked on and off as the family went through its bedtime rituals.

I heard a noise behind me and saw Amber walking towards me with the dog.
‘He’s your responsibility, huh?’
‘Birthday present when I was eleven.’
‘Pretty late for a walk.’
‘I don’t sleep so much in the summer.’
‘Smoke much?’ I said, offering her the cigarette.
‘Not here. Mom has a better nose than Jake.’
I walked with her down the path a little way and she let the dog off the leash. He ran off into the fields immediately.
‘What’s he chasing?’
‘Oh all kinds of things. Rabbits, Prairie Dogs. He don’t catch nuthin’ anyhow.’
We watched the rustling of the stalks as Jake ran amongst them.
‘So how come you drove all the way out here?’
‘The city was driving me nuts.’
‘Everyone thinks you’re trying to get away from something.’
‘I am, but not what they think.’
‘So you don’t want to live there any more?’
‘Fuck, I don’t know. I just need some time to think life over.’
‘It’s plenty quiet here.’
‘You must be busy anyway, with school and stuff’
‘Oh sure.’
‘You got a boyfriend?’
‘Uh-huh,’ she nodded, blushing a little.
‘He keep you busy?’ I said, laughing.
‘Fuck you.’
I kept laughing.
‘Come on, let’s be friends,’ I said, offering her the last of the cigarette.
She looked me over, pouting, then took it quickly, smoked the rest in a long drag and ground it out under her sneaker, then kicked dirt over the top of it.
‘Ok, friends.’
We shook hands, and then she clapped for the dog to come back. He looked tired and happy. I felt something of that as I lay down in bed.

14-08-2009, 12:50:57
The next day I had the full, punishing experience of picking tomatoes under the burning sun for ten hours. The other pickers were a mix of locals, drifters and migrant workers. I shot the breeze with a few, heard a few life stories, a few sob stories, shared a few jokes. I learnt more than I ever hoped to know about the systems, mechanisms, techniques and pitfalls of tomato picking. I got blistered fingers, sunburnt arms and crashed into bed in the evening without a struggle. Then the next day I did it again. Then again.

The day after was Saturday. Sunday was a day off, and the boys said they would take me out on the town on the Saturday night. I was red and beat and all I could think of was hitting the sack, but I knew I’d need a beer before long so I told them sure.

Saturday evening my Uncle paid me my week’s wages. It was one of the worst wages I had ever picked up, but I was living on a shoestring, it could last forever for all I knew.

Town was less hick than I imagined. There was a sizable mall, restaurants, bars, movie theatre, the lot. That was pretty much what made me hate it. I was looking forward to some small-town, everybody-knows-everybody thing. Maybe that happened somewhere else. Maybe it didn’t really happen anywhere at all any more.

The boys were pretty much what I expected. They knew a lot about sport, farms, cars and a whole bunch of other stuff I was kind of on the periphery of. They were good guys, just not my scene. They both got drunk and we had some laughs anyway. At some point we piled out and caught a taxi home. I waved the boys goodnight and stopped outside for a final cigarette.

After ten minutes a set of lights appeared down the road. The car stopped a long way from the house, and I saw Amber getting out. She walked quickly the rest of the way. I waved at her as she approached, and she walked over, her hands tucked into the pockets of a hooded top.
‘So, my brothers get you drunk?’ she said.
‘They did their best.’
‘Not good enough?’
‘Not quite,’ I said smiling. ‘But Jacob is hosed.’
She laughed.
‘He’s out of practice. His wife keeps him on a tight leash.’
‘So I’ve been hearing all night.’
She laughed again.
‘So where you been?’ I asked.
‘Oh, out with some girlfriends.’
It sounded like a lie, but it was nonchalantly delivered.
‘Sure. Pretty late huh. Your parents ok with that?’
‘It’s the holidays. They’re ok. They sleep heavily.’
‘So do I these days. I’m beat every day’
‘Which is better than sleepless in the city anyway.’
‘Enjoying it huh?’
‘Not really.’
‘Show me your hands.’
I held the cigarette between my lips and held my hands out, palms raised, towards her. She reached out and took hold of them. Her hands were soft and warm.
‘They’re callousing. It’ll be better then.’
‘So how come yours are soft?’
‘Only the fingers. My palms are like an oven mitt. I’ll attack them with cream once the summer’s over.’
I laughed.
‘Girls are so practical. I’ll just have cracked hands for the rest of the year.’
‘Nah, it’s gonna take a little longer to ruin these city boy hands,’ she smiled.
She took another look at them and we both knew it was too long to be holding them and she let them go.
‘Well I better get to bed,’ she said. I nodded a yeah and we walked up to the house together.

Sunday, I found out, was a church day. My Aunt was keen on church. My Uncle didn’t seem keen but I guess he had to go because of her and he seemed to think everyone else should suffer too. The kids had some ready-made excuses that sounded tired as they were trotted out, and my Aunt gave a disapproving shake of her head but accepted them anyway. Jacob and his wife and son were going, because the kid had to be baptised somewhere and now he seemed to think he owed it to the church to keep turning up. No one seemed to think I would be going, which, if it was God’s way of showing me what he could do, was almost good enough to win me over.
They left and I slept.

In the afternoon we watched the game. I wasn’t so much of a football fan, but Bart was crazy for it. He was still playing ball at college, and told me that Jacob had once been a real prospect as a Tight End.
By half time my limited enthusiasm had disappeared completely. My head was pounding and I suggested a walk.
‘The game, dude,’ Bart said, gesturing towards the TV.
‘I gotta get out,‘ I said. ‘My head’s killing me.’
‘I’ll come,’ Amber said. ‘You look like you’re gonna cry.’
She was nearly right. Going outside didn’t help so much either. What I wanted wasn’t fresh air, or stale air, or any air at all. I wanted oblivion. But oblivion is hard to come by on a lazy Sunday afternoon on a farm.

We walked down through the fields, empty of pickers. There were acres upon acres of them, fields I had never seen. Eventually we emerged onto the edge of the family plot. The land fell away there, down and down in hard scrubland until it turned green as it approached the distant curves of a river.
‘Pa wants to buy all that someday.’
I nodded weakly, and she laughed at my misery.
‘What happened to all your big talk, mister?’
‘What?’ I said, a little snappily.
‘I thought you weren’t drunk last night.’
‘I wasn’t. This hangover isn’t fair at all. I haven’t even done anything to deserve it.’
‘Poor you,’ she teased.
I smiled at my own self-pity. It was a start. Some of the pain was gone.
‘Can we walk down there?’ I said, looking at the river.
She looked at me sceptically.
‘Sure. If you can make it.’
‘It always looks further than it is.’
She laughed.
‘If you say so.’

The walk was more tiring and brutal than I thought. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and let Amber talk. As she talked the river got nearer and nearer and I began to think about how good it would be to dive in, to feel that cool, crisp water all over. We got near enough to see it, cutting its way through the hard land, wide, slow and shallow. The sun hammered down on it and us and it looked bright and cool and clear.
‘I’m going in.’
‘I gotta get in,’ I said, and drew my shirt over my head.
‘Oh my God. Don’t take all-’ She covered her eyes and I laughed as I disrobed hurriedly before her. I ran quickly and recklessly over the hard, dry ground, then throwing myself into the river, wincing with the shock of the cold water, plunging into it and immersing myself completely, my head emerging finally with a cry of shock and pleasure.
‘Oh my God. You’re insane,’ she said, laughing, from the bank.
‘Come on, get in,’ I called.
‘You’re crazy. You’ll get a disease.’
I waved her over. Her face said she was thinking hard. I laughed and started to swim slowly around, feeling the cool water taking the pain away.
‘Ok turn around,’ she shouted, walking towards the river’s edge.
I laughed, theatrically covering my eyes as I turned away from her. The next thing I heard was a gasp as she edged into the water.
‘See, it’s beautiful!’ I said.
When I heard her splashing around I took my hands from my eyes and saw her swimming in a lazy breaststroke in the deeper water.
I stayed a respectful distance, and we both swam for a little while, occasionally catching each other’s eye and smiling. I thought of how impossible this would be in the city.

We swam closer, splashed each other a little. The nearness of her nakedness was difficult to ignore. My head was wild with hangover and the sun.

We played the game again as we got out, both of us covering our eyes as the other dressed. We laughed at the stupidity of being wet in our dry clothes, but the unflinching sun soon began to burn the moisture from us both.
‘We’ll go back a different way,’ she said, ‘You should see the butterfly grove.’
She walked us along the river a little way, then cut back into the scrub land. We walked for a few minutes, the only sight being the occasional small and hard-barked tree.
Suddenly the ground was peppered with dark green bushes, all blazing with delicate white flowers with amber centres. And all around them, flying in every direction. there were dozens and dozens of butterflies in dozens of colours, more than the eye could follow, a snow storm in rainbow.
‘Isn’t it beautiful?’
I could only nod.
‘We used to play here as kids. Mom and Dad told us “No” so many times - “It’s too far from the house”, but how can you keep children away from something like this?’
We walked through it in wonder as the storm swirled around us. I thought every child should see something like this.

The different route back took us up a steep incline before we reached my Aunt and Uncle’s land. We scrambled up the slope, our feet, slipping on the hard, loose dirt, holding hands to steady each other and panting with the effort. At the top, we stood close, breathing hard, tired but smiling with the exertion.
‘Walk turned into quite a hike,’ she said.
She was so beautiful at that moment and I reached out and held her arm softly. She looked at me straight and didn’t move my hand. Her open mouth drew my eyes like the flowers to the butterflies.
She had a boyfriend. And more importantly she was my cousin, which might have meant a hell of a lot of something to a lot of people, but didn’t mean a hell of a lot of anything to me.
So I don’t know what it was that stopped us. But something. And I let go of her arm and coughed, my mouth suddenly dry with the heat and tiredness.
‘Jesus, I’m thirsty,’ I said.
We walked back the rest of the way in silence.

14-08-2009, 12:51:22
Another week passed and now my hands were getting calloused and I was as tanned as I had ever been. I was getting sick of it all. Amber and I hardly spoke. I hardly spoke to anyone.

That next weekend, I wanted to head into town for some more drinking, that was all I could think about. But it turned out that one weekend in a month was more than Jacob was allowed, and Bart was out of town visiting college buddies.
‘I’m trapped!’ I pleaded to my fellow tomato pickers. They took pity on me, and I arranged to go out with a few of them in town for some drinks.

The pickers were good people, most of them regulars who had worked one field or another in the area for many years. They knew all the places in town to get cheap drinks and large portions. I found something final and fatal about the way they had got into low-income and temporary work. This wasn’t a choice for them, it was their lives, and whether they were happy or not they were stuck with it. They tended to speak to me like I was the same and I felt bad because I knew it was just a game for me.

It was in the third or fourth bar that we found ourselves in that we ran into Amber and her boyfriend. They were out with friends, all High School kids full of life and laughter. She was only too happy to introduce her cousin from the big city and I had enough drinks in me not to care about being the novelty act of the evening. I played the fool with some of her friends, cute girls with the same honest good looks as her.
Eventually I got to talk to Amber’s boyfriend. He was a good-looking kid with some kind of rock thing going on. He was in a band and we got talking and shared some music talk and I knew he was ok. I started to feel like an a$shole for thinking of trying it on with Amber. I thought of his life and her life and the lives of the tomato-pickers and I knew I was just some fraud who had no respect for any of them. The town and the state were closing in on me. I drank plenty more to push it all back.

As the bar shut and we drank up, I asked Amber if she had the number for the taxi firm.
‘He’s driving,’ she said, motioning to Scott.
‘He’s had a few drinks.’
‘That’s the way it goes out here.’
‘I’ll take a cab then.’
‘Come on, we do this all the time. He’s fine.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Come on city boy, this is how it goes here. Everyone’s driving home.’
Sure enough, my fellow pickers were piling into a pickup and driving back to their lodgings.
‘Ah Fuck it, come on.’ I said, heading for the parking lot.
I made Scott go back and get a glass of water and smoke a cigarette before we got in. He laughed and complied. I had some idea it would help. I wasn’t thinking straight either.

We made it out of town without a problem and soon found ourselves back on the dusty backroads. I had no idea if the drink was affecting his driving or not. It’s hard to tell if someone is driving straight on a bent road.

In the end, after a bouncing, lurching ride that made me feel dizzy and nauseous, we reached the house. Scott parked the truck down the road like he had before, and we spilled out. I shook his hand firmly and sincerely and left the two of them to their goodbyes.

As the engine started and I heard it backing slowly away, Amber caught me up.
‘See, no problem,’ she smiled, looking pleased with herself. For some reason it royally pissed me off.
‘Christ. You need to get away from this.’ I said. ‘Don’t live your life out here.’
She was taken aback momentarily, but she was a snappy kid, she looked me straight in the eye.
‘You’re giving me advice? That’s cute. Remind me what the hell you’re doing out here?’
‘I don’t know. I’m going back.’
She was shocked for all of a second, then her jaw was set hard.
‘Holiday’s over, huh?’
‘Don’t act like it means something.’
‘Wow, you’re a real bastard.’
‘You know something? I could care less what you think about me. I am an asshole. But you’re a nice person and you’re a hell of a good-looking girl and it’s not right for you to be stuck out here. The world’s got more to offer you than sunshine and tomatoes. Go and break some hearts in the city for God’s sake.’
‘Jesus! Don’t you think I have ambition?’
‘It doesn’t matter what you have as long as it’s out here. What are you gonna be, the world’s greatest tomato picker?’
‘My God you really hate us huh? Do you really have such a boner about the city?’
‘Yeah and there’s a thousand things there that mean a whole lot more than anything in all this dirt, and as long as you’re a fucking redneck you’ll never know better.’
‘You bastard,’ she said. ‘You bastard.’
She was confused and upset and mad. I had gone too far and didn’t know what I was saying anyway and now I couldn’t think of anything else to say either.
She began to cry a little. I dropped my eyes, rubbed my forehead.
‘Shit. Look, I didn’t mean that. I don’t-’
‘Go fuck yourself!’ she screamed, red-faced, red-eyed, and heading off to the house.

I wandered the fields smoking and swearing for an hour or so, then went to bed.

At breakfast the next day I told them I was leaving. I bullshitted it off, told them I’d been accepted for a job back in the city. Whatever I said would be getting back to my parents and I really didn’t need the hassle of explaining the truth.
I couldn’t really look any of them in the eye. I gave my speech to my breakfast plate and went upstairs and packed up.
As I left, my Uncle paid me up what they owed me and wished me luck. He shook my hand and I did look at him and his eyes were searching but not judging. He, like his family, was a good, honest person, and the truth was that I felt bad being around them, like I was bringing them down to my level.

I felt a lot better the minute I was on the highway. I thought of the sounds and smells and hustle and bustle of the city. I thought of the thickly-accented voices of the streets, the slow-riding cops, the horns of cars and the smell of a hot dog stand. I thought of all the pretty girls walking the summer sidewalks.

I made it through the rest of that summer without stabbing anyone with a potato peeler.

11-09-2009, 09:34:51
That very last sentence should have been your opening sentence :)