Tag Archives: characters

fiction project: characters: hen’s goin out west

31 Oct

henry is kind of an asshole. he’s the kinda guy you call ‘hen’ with relish, just to cut him down a bit. he’s not a bad person, not really, but he can be obnoxious enough to obscure that point.

however exaggerated in his own mind, his good qualities tend to shine through where is little sister is concerned. it’s the kind of protectiveness born out of adversity (and here’s where i feel a little like the asshole) – their father died when they were barely in their teens, an event that began (or maybe hastened) their mother’s mental decline. when we first meet hen and cecily, their mother’s been living in a group home where she can be better cared for and the two of them have spent their late teens and early twenties living on their own in their parents’ house.


The snow looks bruised under purple pre-dawn light while Hen stands on the back porch taking it all in. His naked legs are stuck into his heavy winter boots. The hem of his parka barely grazes the hem of his boxers. It only takes a few seconds in the cold to realize he shouldda put on some clothes, but by then he’s already lit a cigarette and there’s no turning back.

There’s a space heater in the garage, so that’s where he heads, crunching down a path that’s dug like a trench through three feet of snow. It reminds him of being a kid, but he’s not sure if that’s because winters were that bad or if he was that much shorter back then. Walking to the elementary school before the sun could melt the crust off the snow, he could sometimes make three or four steps on the surface before his weight would punch him through to the ground. Cis, only two years younger but but light as a bird, often walked the whole length of the field, faltering only if she tried to run it.

The space heater roars to life and expels a potentially deadly stream of heat that Hen’s careful to keep pointed to the empty center of the room. Over on the work table is Hen’s latest acquisition, the heavy steel hood from a Chrysler pickup that Dirty’d salvaged from his uncle’s soon to be junked junk car collection. There’s potential, but so far Hen’s only been thinking over it. With his cigarette gripped loosely in his jaws, he sets to sanding off a spot of rust. They used to make everything so sturdy, there’s enough metal here for Hen to continue grinding down to get an even, burnished new surface. So maybe that’s what he’ll do with it, carve into the middle of the substantial old thing a sleek, modern, flimsy sports car hood. That’s it. Genius.

Self-satisfaction surges to his head like adrenalin. A drink to celebrate, except for the fact that Cis would fuck him up if she thought he was getting drunk before 8AM. Never mind that it’s only a sip he’s after, she shows no mercy. Better to wait until she’s out of the house.

Hen sucks down that last of his cigarette and throws the butt at the snow drifting under the door. He kicks the space heater off and tucks a corner of the sandpaper into a rusty ulcer on the hood – to remind him of his brilliant idea – then stamps back to the house.

He checks the clock. Maybe it is too early to have a drink today but then maybe it’s late enough for this to be his last drink of last night. There’s still enough time between now and proper morning for this creative accounting to make sense.

He retrieves the vodka from a cabinet, takes a slug right there, then another. Just a shallow tumbler-full ought to be enough to get him back to sleep.

He trips on a rug in the hall and reluctantly surrenders his clunky boots – they keep the place in deep freeze winter nights to save money. As he passes, he hears Cis’s space heater purring behind her closed door. That’s what he forgot. Upstairs his room is stone cold and silent. So, must’ve been the cold that had him up so early. He clicks it on and burrows into bed, drink close at hand.


When he wakes up again and ambles back to the kitchen, lukewarm glass of vodka in hand, he finds that Cis cleaned up and turned the heat on. Good. No harm done. He takes a deep, punishing drink, then refills the glass. His days off could be like this, nothing better to do than drink in between naps if the weather was shitty and Cis had the car.

He finds his phone charging near the coffee maker, right were Cis left it for him. It’s blinking an obnoxious green at the top so he dials voice mail and listens. “Hen.” It’s Cis. “They’re gonna call, but they said they’d let me try first. Mom’s dead. She died last night. Well, this morning.” He punches nine to save the message. He figures he better, that he’s missing something.

“Henry? This is Deanna. From your Mom’s group home? I’ve got some bad news for you. I am very sorry. I am so, so sorry. Clare’s passed on. I am so sorry. I’ve talked with your sister and she’ll be picking up your mother’s things on her way home from work. Her will is being handled by a lawyer, Mr. Clark, downtown. He’ll be getting in touch with you about that. I’ll just need you or Cecily to come down and sign some–” There is a tone and the message is cut off.

“Hey, fuckface.” It’s Dirty. “So we got a dead irrigator to pick over. You get your gear and I’ll pick you up around four. Beers after?”

“Henry? This is Deanna from your Mom’s group home again–” Hen ends the call, checks the time. Dirty’ll be on his way soon. He dresses, checks that there are still cigarettes in his coat pocket and heads to the garage. His tools are congregated in a corner, left there from the pickup salvage. Saws, tin snips, sledge, other toothed and clawed tools ready to strip the metal from the bones of the dead irrigator. He spreads a length of canvass on the ground and begins to roll the tools in it, one by one. He accumulates nicks and scratches in his clumsy work, leaving a slippery, bloody sheen on his hands. He wipes rusty streaks on his thighs.

Outside he hears the crunch of tires. “You ready to go?” Dirty yells from the cab of his Suburban at the open door.

Hen hoists the canvass roll and locks up. “Yeah. You got smokes?”

Dirty holds out a fresh pack. Hen grabs it, then places his tools on the floor in the back. Dirty’s backing out before Hen’s got the passenger door shut. “This one’s just a few miles out. They’re selling the land and everything on it and getting out.” He’s all worked up about a tractor he wanted to scrap but that they’re selling to some antique dealer.

Hen lights up and cold air rushes in where he’s cracked the window. It drills into him despite the heavy coat. Pay day is next week and there are bills due, including the mortgage. The group home is generally paid from the check after that but if they need their money now, what would he let slide this week? Cis would know. But then there’s this mention of a lawyer downtown? Hen slides another cigarette from the pack, tucks it into the hem of his stocking hat for later.

He turns on the radio, loud, to a country station that sometimes plays the cowboy tunes he’s recently gotten into. “What the fuck, man?” Dirty says. Evidently he’d been talking.

“Yeah, the irrigator. Whatever.”

“Yeah the irrigator. Fuck you.” Dirty’s in one of his famously short-lived sulks. They ride on, Hank Williams the only one breaking the silence.


fiction project: characters: the warrior

2 Sep

there are uncountable ways that a character makes itself known. for this story, music has been a favorite.

this is evie’s song: ‘warrior’ by the yeah yeah yeahs. evie’s probably the closest match to me personally in that she is about my age, she is not very excited by her day job, she has insomnia, and is only slightly more aimless about her future than i am. her approach to managing her insomnia is much more fun than mine, though. here’s an evie sketch. let me know what you think…


Evie’s glorious drunk when she starts driving east. On the dashboard is the letter, beerbottle ring stained on the thick paper, that’s sent her out this way. It says that her mother Clare is dead and Evie’s been made the executor of her will.

It’s nothing she wanted to hear but she’s grateful to be on the road. Growing up, she’d always imagined making just this kind of escape under night skies with flat, blank miles unspooling ahead. If this is finally the reason that gets her out, so be it.

Even so. Clare had left when Evie was five, never a sign then or since that Clare’d regretted the decision. To hear from her now—well, about her—it feels like manipulation, a way to force a relationship once the risk of having one has passed. If she thinks about it, the whole situation carries an overwhelming sense of destiny, like their reunion’s always been fated to happen this way. So she doesn’t think about it. Evie tells herself she’s not stopping for the funeral; she’s going to drive until she hits the other coast. She sings with the radio, turning it up to mask when her pitch falters over the high notes and if she doesn’t know the words she makes them up. When the radio station breaks for commercials she hums the song she hopes they’ll play next.

There’s a gentle, banked-up curve in the road ahead. She barely dips under seventy taking it, then pushes up to eighty-five when she levels out on the straightaway. That’s the beauty of the plains: inertia at breakneck speeds.

On the radio static cuts in then resolves into another song, “How to Disappear Completely”. There are lights ahead and she decides she must be picking up a college radio station. “I’m not here….this isn’t happening…I’m not heee-eee-eeere…” she moans along with Tom Yorke, His clear, thin voice creeps into her brain and makes her feel weepy and small. She looks for the next exit, annoyed to find herself so emotional when really it’s just exhaustion that would have her teary-eyed, wrecked in a ditch if she doesn’t pull over to rest.

The off-ramp feeds her into a modest collection of buildings, a town only four blocks wide clinging to life by a well-used rail yard. She pulls in to the depot and tries laying across the front seat to nap, but it’s deafeningly silent without the radio and the road noise. She feels more awake now than before. Finally she sits up.

Outside the snow’s piling deep at the sides of roads and drifted like dunes across the bare acres. Depending on the music playing on the radio, this could be the heart-warmingest, whitest Christmas scene or the last town on planet earth just before the undead come staggering through the snow. She heaves herself over the front seat, it digs into her middle like it would cut her in half, and she reaches for one of the two bags she’s packed., the one that rattles with cans of spray paint. She drags it by the shoulder strap across the seat and out into the cold with her.

She does this when she can’t sleep at home, too—tags boxcars. There’s one sitting just outside of the circle of light falling from the yard lamp and with the little town behind her dark as wilderness, she walks boldly across the crusty ground.

She hangs the bag off the boxcar’s front coupling and inspects her canvass. It’s broad and rusted out, but pristine in that there’s only the crisp, stenciled markings its manufacturers put on the metal. No one else’s work to paint over.

Evie pulls a dark indigo out of the bag and pops the cap. She makes long sweeping streaks. She digs in the bag for another color, then another, another. The dark streaks comprise the strata of the night sky. She stands on her toes, she bends to her knees, gets them wet in the snow. She covers the whole boxcar until the colors accumulate like clouds. Until the side of the boxcar looks like a clear window open to the night sky. Like she’s erasing the boxcar, blending it into the scenery.

When she’s done she gathers the caps and stows the paints. They clink in the bag at her side. She’s exhausted herself and this time when she curls up across the cramped front seat it’s easy to sleep.


It’s a fishbowl sound that wakes her. Someone tapping on the glass. Evie looks up to find a wiry man uniformed in khaki, poised to knock again. His skin looks craggy and chapped and she wonders how long he’s been trying to wake her.

She sits up with difficulty, stiff from the cold and the weird way she folded her body to keep all of it under her coat. Now she pulls it on and clutches at it like a robe when she creaks her door open. “Morning,” the man says.

The haul and creak of metal draw her eyes to the track where her boxcar is coupled and rolling out. She matches the dark streaks of her painted sky to the glowing fingers of red, pink and orange reaching out from the dawning sun. As it moves, her boxcar flashes in front of the sunrise like an eclipse.

“Morning,” Evie says.

“You okay, miss?” It sounds more like accusation than concern.

“Yeah. I’m fine. Just pulled off the interstate to get a little rest.” The man grunts gently and nods his head. In daylight, the town reveals itself to be a short stretch of low, flat buildings in the shadow of a grain elevator at one end of the street, a church steeple rising at the other, its thin, black shadow slashed over tidy little homes. “Where am I?”

“This is Tomahawk,” he says. “Where were you looking to be?”

“I just need to get a little further east.”

“That’s quite a ways away.”