THE UNDECIDED WRITER’S SAMPLER

by Gar Anthony Haywood

The family and I just moved into a new home, and because of that, I’m sure I have the sympathy of anyone who’s ever had to place all their earthly possessions in 487 cardboard boxes and then try to make sense of them in a new location.  My life is a living hell of U-Haul boxes right now, so the time to do a real, honest-to-goodness Murderati post just isn’t there.

However…

I would like to take this opportunity to seek your opinion on something.  The following are excerpts from several works-in-progress that I may or may not feel inspired someday to complete.  I won’t tell you much about them — I’d rather leave you guessing as to what these planned books will eventually be about, if in fact I ever get around to re-visiting them.

I think they all have promise, but only one or two deserve the time and attention it would take to round them out into full manuscripts.

Give them a read and let me know what you think.

EXCERPT ONE:

Fourteen years after he was sent to Corcoran State Prison for a murder he didn’t commit, Woodman Graham came home to discover that the only thing he’d left behind that time hadn’t changed forever were his clothes.  Every stitch he owned was still there in his closet, either hanging enshrouded in dry cleaning bags or folded up neatly in moving boxes: shirts, slacks, underwear—even his three pair of shoes.

Of course, nothing but the shoes fit him right anymore.  The last time they’d put him on a scale at Corcoran, Woodman had weighed a meager 207 pounds, more than twenty pounds lighter than he’d been going in, so the old shirts hung on him now like bed sheets with buttons and the pants slid off his waist to his hips, leaving the cuffs to drag aimlessly around his feet on the floor.  Woodman didn’t care.  Aside from his late mother’s house in Inglewood, and the few pieces of furniture his ex-wife Fiona had seen fit to abandon there before departing, the clothes were all he had, so he resigned himself to wearing them until a few months of eating real food for the first time in over a decade could render his 6′-3″ frame formidable again.

For his first few weeks of freedom, his older sister Patrice, who’d packed the clothes and taken care of the house in his absence, was a fixture at his door, as committed to keeping him alive and well as it was possible for anyone not bound by the Hippocratic oath to be.  The big woman’s constant delivery of food and solace were an intrusion upon his depression Woodman found mildly annoying, but he knew better than to ask her to desist.  No one had fought harder for his release from prison than Patrice, nor taken the injustice of his incarceration more personally.  She was entitled to dote upon him, and he was obligated to tolerate the attention.  He knew she would tire of encouraging him soon enough, in any case; all he had to do was wait her out.

Before his arrest, Woodman had been a musician.  A jazz pianist and sessions player who made a comfortable living backing others in the recording studios of Hollywood.  He modeled himself after Bill Evans and was often compared to Bud Powell, and he always had work.  But life behind bars, and the ever-increasing prospect of dying behind them, had eventually stripped him of his need to play, and it had been over six years now since his hands had last touched a piano, despite the fact his old upright was still in the house.  Either to be generous, or to save herself the bother of moving it, Fiona had left the instrument in its customary place in the living room, where it sat all day and night, beckoning to him.  It may as well have been an old couch; all Woodman could do now was sit on the bench before it, arms down at his sides, afraid to so much as raise the lid away from its ivory keys.

He didn’t know if he could make music—of any kind—ever again.

EXCERPT TWO:

Journal Entry – Friday, April 4

She doesn’t know how beautiful she is.  Somehow, they never do.

They look in the mirror and see only the negative.  The gathering lines in the corner of an eye, the soft folds of fat ringing the waist above the hips.  The nose that isn’t quite, the lips that don’t measure up, breasts too big or too small or too much the victim of time.

I don’t see any of that.

I have a gift.  The capacity to find the one physical attribute every woman possesses which can make the heart race or the breath catch in one’s throat.  Hair like woven silk, a mouth that pleads to be kissed, a throat as smooth and elegant as a swan’s.  The magic is always there.  Always.  It doesn’t matter that the rest of her is ordinary.  Her special beauty shines like a beacon for me, and alas, all too often, for me alone.

Some people would say I’m cursed.

But if it is a curse, it is only because my eagerness to appreciate that which would otherwise go unnoticed is so often misconstrued.  It is not an illness or a disease, nor the symptoms of an untreated psychosis, as some so-called medical experts have suggested.  It is merely an added level of perception I share with very few.  I am stronger for it, not weaker, and had C only understood this, she would be alive today.  Fearing nothing, needing nothing.

The new one will be different.

She is smarter than C.  More self-assured.  Like C, she will probably reject me at first, unsure of what to do with someone who could love her so unconditionally.  But then she will do what C ultimately could not, allow me to prove that my devotion masks no sinister intent, and she will open her heart to me.  Gladly, willingly.  She will learn to love me as I love her, and I will at last have found a partner worthy of all the goodness I have to offer.

She must.

Darkness, after all, is her only alternative.

EXCERPT THREE:

The woman formerly known as “the Queen” was driving out to the clinic for her seventh chemo treatment in eight weeks when she decided to go to Los Angeles instead.  From downtown Scottsdale, it was only a difference of about four hundred miles.

Exactly sixty-one days earlier, Margaret Dodd’s oncologist Henry Chow had calmly informed her that she had developed something called an “infiltrating ductal carcinoma,” which turned out to be nothing more than just long-winded doctor-speak for the Big C.  The next thing Margaret knew, Chow was cutting a tumor out of her left breast the size of a dwarf’s fist, then following that up with a warning that the worst was most likely to come.  If surgery had been the end of it, she might not have found this trip to Los Angeles necessary, but surgery was just the beginning of the treatment plan Chow had in mind for her.  Weeks of chemo and radiation therapy were next.

She was only fifty-two years old, shit!  Naturally, she was terrified, but it wasn’t death that scared her the most.  It was the flight from death that really spooked her, this convoluted game of chicken the doctors encouraged you to play with whatever disease was chasing you down without ever offering you anything in the way of a guarantee.  Maybe fighting would work and maybe it wouldn’t—who could say?  Just swallow the poison pill and hope for the best, or pray for a miracle if you were so inclined.

Margaret had seen firsthand what could happen when the tease of remission refused to take root.  She had lost her father and her sister Daphne in just that way.  Between all the chemo and the radiation, they’d died a thousand deaths instead of just the one that eventually took them.  Quality of life went all to hell.  Food, sex, love—nothing gave them pleasure anymore.  Hairless and withered, her father and sister had lived their last days in equally depressing hospital rooms, each nearly lacking the strength to breathe, let alone hold a loved one’s hand tight enough to signal a final good-bye.

Margaret wasn’t going out that way.

For all of Chow’s assurances that her particular type of cancer was beatable, she could see this thing ending only one way, with an IV needle stuck in a withered arm she’d never have the power to move again, and six sessions of chemo into her post-operative treatment plan, this vision of her passing had finally driven her over the edge.  Yes, she was afraid, but she was also pissed, angry enough to chew nails and spit them out as bullets, and the combination of rage and terror she’d been fighting to quash over the last few weeks had become a beast she could no longer contain.

Weary of the vicious circle of lethargy and depression the chemo and her meds had her running in like a hamster on an exercise wheel, thoughts of her old California stomping grounds, and the plethora of scumbags she had come to know there, had been running roughshod through Margaret’s mind.  She wasn’t big on retrospection but hell if the prospect of death didn’t move a person to dwell on her every little fuck up and regret.  Like most people in her former profession, when she had retired five years ago, she’d done so with the sharp bones of a few demoralizing defeats sticking in her craw, and on those rare occasions she gave them any thought, the bitter aftertaste they left behind was still there.  She lost little sleep over such things because they were immutable, moments in time she could neither revisit nor undo, but they irked her all the same.

Now she had an excuse to entertain the wild idea of doing something about them.  She had cancer, and a better than average chance of dying sooner rather than later, and suddenly she couldn’t see where she’d have a damn thing to lose by spending the next few days of her life—maybe even the last few—trying to settle some old scores.  She was, after all, utterly alone in the world.  She had no husband or steady boyfriend to speak of and Early, her only child, lived seven hundred miles away in San Francisco.  If she got herself accidently killed on purpose before her cancer could do the job for her, who would be around to care?  And what in the way of a future truly worth living would she be giving up?  Twenty or so more years of golf and volunteer work at St. Michael’s?

No.  Margaret Dodd wasn’t built for a life in the slow lane and she sure as hell wasn’t built for dying in it.  A big, glorious, blood-red finish—that was what she’d always wanted when she’d been on the job, and that was what she wanted now.  That, and the satisfaction of blowing up some deserving asswipe from out of her past in the bargain.  God knew there were plenty to choose from.

9 thoughts on “THE UNDECIDED WRITER’S SAMPLER

  1. Jake Nantz

    Interesting. I feel for you on the move; hope it all works out. I'll be happy to throw my (unpublished) two cents in, provided it's understood that's about all mine is worth.

    I can't go along with the first, only because of the jazz thing. I know it's not the case, but I've read so many mystery or thriller novels where the protagonist has a thing for jazz or spends his spare time playing a jazz instrument that it just doesn't catch me because it feels cliche. Doesn't anybody love the blues? Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker?

    I like the second, especially since what you have could be a flash-fiction short story, completely contained, just as it is. Would be intriguing to see whose perspective the main story ultimately comes from.

    The third has promise, but needs cutting to get the story moving (sorry, just my opinion). I like her, but would love to know she's Margaret right from the start…as in "Margaret Dodd, formerly known as 'the Queen,' was driving…." I love that it could be a fun revenge romp or it could be a tragi-comedy where she recklessly gets arrested only to find out the treatments worked and she'll spend a LONG time in prison. Either could be fun in its own way.

    I wish you luck choosing, Gar. And with the unpacking. Don't envy you there….

  2. Shizuka

    It's true that jazz has been used a lot in mysteries, but I like the voice.
    And your guy sounds a little numb and defeated and unresentful, which makes me wonder what he's hiding.

    The second sounds too serially-killer, delusional to me. I feel like I've read it before.

    The third is the most unique premise.
    Maybe you can do something like have an experimental drug (illegally) someone can get her, but she has to give up something huge or do something terrible for it.

  3. Lisa Alber

    I didn't get a sense of what the story would be with the first treatment–it lacked a definitive hook. The second one seems commercially viable — the voice was creepy and engaging…Even if it's been done before, well…that kind of thing sells. The third one grabbed me the most. A dying, middle-aged woman kicking some ass? Yeah! I'm interested in her story–sensed a lot of intriguiing backstory.

  4. PD Martin

    I liked them all, but I'm with number 3, too! I really like both the voice and the premise and it gives you lots of places to go. Although if it's a huge seller she might HAVE to go into remission πŸ™‚

    Phillipa

  5. KDJames

    Not sure where you're going with the first one but I don't see any conflict in what you posted.

    I'm not your audience for the second one, just too creepy for my personal taste, but I agree that it could be commercially viable. It would be interesting and different if "the new one" were as messed up as he is and he didn't realize it until it was too late. Something to make it less predictable.

    I love the potential of the third. Go write that.

    Good luck with the adventures in sorting all the things. Hope no one gets hurt.

  6. Erin

    I liked the 2nd excerpt the best. It sounds like a creepy serial killer story and something I would read and enjoy!

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