As a little practice in refining the trade, I’ve started taking place in the weekly Reedsy Writing Contest, a weekly prompt and cash prize featuring writers from all around the world.
It reminds me a bit of my podcast about Iron Sharpens Iron that I worked on a while back. Generating stories, and in turn getting them tested and approved by the greater will of the public, is a hard process.
Not gonna lie, part of me expected to just waltz in and win this one easily. Writers often don’t have chances to test themselves against each other, and it’s so subjective that getting hard feedback can be a shock.
But we carry on.
Anyway, here’s my first story, written and inspired by the prompt: “Write about someone trying to learn something that does not come naturally to them.”
Bon’ in sixty fo’, in Lake Charles, Lous-e-anne. A proud boy, proud son, proud father, proud man.
Jim Boudreaux, known by his friends and his neighbors as Jimmy, wasn’t the smartest man, wasn’t the funniest man, wasn’t the baddest or the best, but he was a good man and a man of God.
When he was three, he learned to fish. When he was seven, he learned to drive the tractor, and his father’s big truck, though he couldn’t get it out of first gear until he was 11 on account of the clutch and stubby little kid legs.
At sixteen he played football, like his dad before him, and by eighteen he had a job fixing cars and tractors and machines at the factory, and all sorts of other stuff too.
Jim, or Jimmy as his friends and his neighbors called him, liked to work on machines. There was an order to the way that they worked. Screws went in to the right, went out to the left. If it moved, ya could always tighten it. If it needed to move, you could always grease it up.
Life in Lake Charles wasn’t always that easy. Good times came. Good times went. Jim heard a lot of things from the people who traveled through, and from the people who’d been there long before him.
When things went well, well, people was happy and there was barbecues and dirt-track rallies, there was fishin’ days and long nights of music. At church, people sang songs of praise about the good Lord and all he’d given them.
When things went not-so-well, things were quieter around Lake Charles. There was still races and fishin’ and barbecues, but sometimes those songs of praise hid some whispers bout what they ‘knew’ was really going on.
Jim knew that not everyone liked Lake Charles. When the people with nice cars coming through came to the shop, they always looked around like they was in a museum. Sometimes they said it was cute. Sometimes they made jokes that they thought Jimmy couldn’t hear, but Jim was a man of God and so he always wished them well on their way.
Ricky always spat after the people in the nice cars left and charged them double. Served them right, Ricky said.
Jim wasn’t much sure about that, but he knew how cars worked, and he liked Ricky. Ricky was as good as family, and around Lake Charles you always needed to stick up for family.
It seemed like everyone had somethin’ to say about somebody when the times wasn’t good. When Jim was just out of high school, Jean was sure the problem was the negroes flooding into the cities, but there weren’t many negroes in Lake Charles then, so Jim couldn’t say much head or tails about that.
When Jim was just raising his first kid with Molly, his Auntie Val said the real problem was the beaners coming over the border taking jobs from hardworking people. Not just in Texas, but all across the country. Jim thought that might have made sense, because he’d never seen nobody work harder than the few beaners he’d met from his brother’s construction site.
In 01’, when they was on their fourth kid and the Al-Qaedas were attackin’, everyone had something to say about that. They hadn’t had much of the Al-Qaedas in Lake Charles either, but the ones who did come didn’t stay around long, and when Jim asked them why the Al-Qaedas had attacked them, most people got mad or scared or left the shop.
Machines was just fine, but people was harder. That’s why Jim always made sure to listen to the pastor, and to the words from that good book that brought all of them closer to God.
But even sometimes that was hard. In the harder times, those whispers got louder until it seemed you could hear them even during “Joy to the World” and “Go Tell It On the Mountain” during Christmas. Bobby said that was cause some people was trying to fight against Christmas, and that was a little bit scary to Jim. But the preacher told them that God had guided his children through dark times before, so Jim thought he knew things would be okay.
In 09’, though… The songs in Lake Charles was quieter than ever that year, and the whispers almost drowned out the hymns it seemed. The cars coming through town got slower and cheaper, sometimes filled with suitcases and shirts and sad faces. Jim would always pray for them and wish them the best, but those people were whispering too.
The work got slow after a while, and it wasn’t long before it was just Jimmy and Ricky running the shop, and Ricky said out loud what a lot of people whispered. Ricky was scared and frustrated. They’d all been men and women of God, and Ricky didn’t know why things had turned out so bad.
In late 09’, Matthew, their youngest, got beat up bad at school for being a boy-lover, and for the first time, Jim didn’t know that things would be okay. Molly cried when she heard it was true, and even though Jim had been taught over and over again that it was okay to repent for your sins, that didn’t seem to help Matthew.
The pastor told Mattew that the lord always forgave, even boy-lovers, and he told Jim about a camp that Matthew could go to to help him. Matthew prayed, he thanked the pastor, and he hugged his momma and his poppa, and then later that night Jim woke up to a crash and found Matthew hanging from the rafters in the garage.
Machines was simple. People was hard, and sometimes it seemed like even that good book didn’t quite know what to do.
They got Matthew to the hospital just in time, but they didn’t think he’d ever talk again. His momma cried at that because he’d always had such a beautiful singing voice. She said her little boy was broken.
Machines… machines was simple. You could tell if they were broken real easy. But people… Jim knew Marlon had lost a leg when he was a kid, and he always seemed in a good mood about it eventually. Even Old Crazy Chester made it in for service on Easter Sunday and sang with everybody.
Matthew woke up, but he wouldn’t go to school, and Jim wouldn’t make him. Everyone knew Jim’s youngest son was a boy-lover who couldn’t talk cause he’d tried to end it. Lake Charles was a small town after all, and those whispers got loud sometimes, loud enough to smash in through the windows on a brick, or show up on the sides of the house in wet paint.
From the other side of the door, to his room, where Matthew spent the next two years mostly inside, there came nothin’ much more than a peep, and the sad hugs Matthew gave his momma and his dad after dinner every night.
But Jim listened then. He listened as much as he could.
When Matthew went to New York for college, Jim listened to the letters Matthew sent, and he even tried to work a fancy new smartphone to talk with Matthew and the other kids while they were gone. Molly said he was way too old for the What-Zaps and Mofee Jojees, but Jim tried.
Jim tried to listen to the good songs, and the happy hymns, and he tried to block out the whispers. Because after two years of the whispers telling him his son was a fag who was going to hell, Jim didn’t like listening to them much anymore.
And it wasn’t always easy. Machines was easy. People was hard, and some people wanted an answer about why Jim still let Matthew come home for Christmas.
Sometimes you tried to listen as best you could and you messed up. Jim learned people got mad when you called them negroes, or beaners, or Al-Quaedas, and Jim tried to change, but the world moved fast, especially outside of Lake Charles.
But every time Matthew came home, Jim tried to listen. He didn’t always get it all right, and there were times where Jim saw that sad look in Matthew’s eyes again, like when he called Matthew’s boyfriend Ray a negro at the dinner table. The whispers in Jim’s own head were louder then than they’d ever been when he went to apologize, to ask for Ray’s forgiveness. They were old, angry whispers from grandpa and grandma that weren’t even really whispers then, bad things about negros and boy-lovers.
But in the hymns, in ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain’ and in ‘Joy to the World’, those whispers never came out as loud as the joy and the happiness and the love.
It took Ray a long time to forgive Jim. But at Ray and Matthew’s wedding, he was smiling, and he gave Jim a hug, even though Jim couldn’t help but be a little confused by two grooms and no bride.
Living in Lake Charles, time moved by slowly, while the world beyond seemed to rush through his fingers. Sometimes it hurt to listen. To try to grab on and get jerked around, uprooted and shooken up, when sometimes all you wanted to do was fix the machines.
Machines was easy after all, and people was hard. But even a little brushburn was fine to help make Matthew and Ray smile.