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Saturday
May312014

Wolf-Ely Writing Project: Day 152

(This is the sixth in a series of posts that chronicle my year-long writing project. I'm writing fiction to explore how wolves and the legalization of wolf hunting and trapping affect residents in northern Minnesota. This post includes a short essay and the beginning of an early draft of a story in progress. For more information about this project, please scroll down to Wolf-Ely Writing Project: Day 1, or click here.)

Last night, I read through one of my stories, "Black Sheep." I’d set it aside for a while because I’d been on the fence about it. I wasn’t sure where I stood with my characters. Had I:

  • Given them enough details to be believable?
  • Spent enough time listening to their troubles, fears and hopes to give them enough cause to act?
  • Been fair to them?
  • Taken good care of them as human beings with all their flaws?

When I finished reading the story, I took a deep breath and said, “I just love this guy!” Even with all his quirks, faults and politics, by the end of the story, I felt an overwhelming sense of affection for the protagonist in the story. Now I knew where I stood with the story, and in that same moment, I realized that I'd grown so fond of so many characters in my stories. With all the danger, sorrow and despair that might visit them, I want so much for them to make it to the end of the story—and beyond.

I never thought I'd feel or dare to think this way when I started writing fiction. When I heard other writers talk about such things it sounded corny...but it's not. It's what living in another person's proverbial shoes does to you. If you dig deep enough, listen hard and long enough, you begin to understand them as a person, and with that comes love.

Here's the beginning of the story...

Black Sheep

Richard recognized his granddaughter when she stepped off the bus and onto the icy parking lot of The Pancake House. At 17, Rose still had those over-sized eyes and black curly hair of the little girl he remembered. Covered in a thin pair of tights, her legs poked out from a baggy matching cardigan like a black, stick-legged sheep. No hat, no gloves, no boots, just leather sandals on her feet and hanging from her shoulder, an over-stuffed woven bag. The rainbow colors had faded, but it was the same one her mother had carried the last time he saw them, 12 years ago in L.A. Rose hugged herself and buried her chin into the sweater’s collar.

As much as he hated to do it, canceling this morning’s meeting with supporters of the proposed copper-nickel mine was necessary to drive the hour from Greenstone to Iron Mountain and meet Rose’s bus. It was a shame Greenstone hadn’t seen a Greyhound bus in town since the end of its mining days, but it only made sense. Greenstone wasn’t on the way to anywhere else except Canada—and even then, you’d have to paddle a canoe through the Boundary Waters to get there. At least he arrived in Iron Mountain on time according to the Miner’s Bank clock flashing 1:15 p.m. and -2°F. What were social services thinking? A few days before New Year’s, below zero temperatures and his granddaughter is dressed for a walk in the park?

Rose looked everywhere but at him. She looked at the other disembarking passengers, the restaurant where orange paint peeled from the siding, and the cigarette butts scattered on the asphalt around her feet.

“Rose?” he called over the noise of the idling bus. The smell of diesel exhaust filled the air. His chest squeezed. He thumped his fist against his sternum. This damn heartburn chose the most inopportune times to act up. He unwrapped the last of a Tums and popped it into his mouth, swallowing it dry. “Rose!” he shouted.

She shot a wide-eyed glance his way. It was hard to tell if it was an expression of surprise or fright, or just the zombie look people got from three days without a good night’s sleep. It was probably a combination of all three. Riding on a one-way ticket more than forty-eight hours on a bus from the West Coast to meet a grandfather you couldn't remember could do that to a person. He waved her over and tugged at the bill of his Marine Corps cap, squeezing his bald scalp as he pulled it down over his forehead. A nervous habit. Though he wore a down parka, heavy gloves and boots, he had to admit the cap was a practical mistake—his ears burned in the biting wind—but without it he felt invisible.

“Grandpa?” Her voice rose with a crackle of hope. Rose looked nothing like her mother, Suzanne, a blond, pale-skinned woman of sturdy German stock. And though he’d never met her father, it was clear that Rose looked everything like him, a black-eyed, oily-skinned Mexican—or Honduran or El Salvadoran—or whatever. Something illegal from across the border.

He wanted to give Rose a hug—not wanted really, just thought he should. It was the right thing to do for a child whose mother just passed away.

“Good to see you,” he said, and bent forward. Her body stiffened when he pressed his hand to her back. She felt as brittle as a dry birch twig. He feared he might snap her in two if he squeezed too tight. She smelled of damp wool.

“How was the trip? Can I get your bags?”

“I don’t have any,” she said. Rose looked away across the valley. She pointed toward the tiers of snow-covered waste rock piled hundreds of feet high and leveled flat along the northwest edge of town. “What is wrong with those mountains?”

“That’s an iron ore mine.”

“You mean,” she began. She scrunched her face with disgust. “Open pit?”

 It sounded like she said, open shit.

“No, an open pit. You don’t have a suitcase? A duffle bag?”

She shook her head.

When Mendocino County social services called three days ago, the heartburn stabbed all day. He went through half a role of Tums. The news was incomprehensible: His estranged daughter had died by carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a blocked woodstove flue—and he was the designated legal guardian for a granddaughter he barely knew. He couldn’t sleep that night. He had his own life. Granted, he had the house to himself. Donna wasn’t interested in spending her golden years fishing for walleyes like he was. She’d refused to follow him to Greenstone for retirement. The nearest medical clinic being an hour’s drive away might also have had something to do with it, that and the fact that his second marriage hadn’t been going much better than his first. But taking a stranger into his home—a teenage girl at that? Well, let’s just say it could only mean complications.

On the drive to meet the bus, he resolved that if it was right thing to do, then he’d better get at it. And now it was clear what the first step would be. Those nitwits at social services should’ve given Rose more than a bus ticket to Minnesota. If they’d had any common sense, they’d have given her a decent coat and a pair of mittens knowing she was coming to the land of 10,000 frozen lakes. At least some real shoes for God’s sake.

“Here.” He took off his parka and draped it around Rose’s bird-boned shoulders. “Wear this. We’ll stop at Walmart first thing before heading home.”

Rose eyed the man-made mountains along the horizon with suspicion.

“Rose.” She turned her attention to him. Her eyes narrowed. “This isn’t California.” …

 

Wendy Skinner is a fiscal year 2014 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.