Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Gospel of Betsy, in the beginning

How the writing happened:

My first post is an early draft of a sketch about a girl who is coming to live with her grandparents. She popped into my head, like most characters do. I put them into situations to get to know them. A favorite way to get to know a character is to send them shopping. For Betsy, I knew I wanted her to be alone and unsure of herself and holding onto a special thing that was a kind of talisman. I used to love to poke around in my mother’s purse, so I used that. Then, I decided the purse would be more special if her mom was dead, so I killed her off. I am ruthless like that. The alone spot would be a car that carried her to a new home with her grandparents. My granddaddy (nothing like the granddaddy in the story) had an Impala a lot like this one— a 1961 Chevy Impala. It takes a lot of research on old cars if you want to get the details right. I spent ten times as long perusing pictures from car buff sites and old Chevy advertisements than writing this. I wasn't sure if it wanted to be a book or a story or just live on its unfinished own. Four years later, it is part of one of the short stories.

Here is the original beginning to The Gospel of Betsy:

The dashboard of the old Chevrolet Impala had gotten hot and hotter and then started to cool. It was red, a little cracked and it had dials and buttons and mysterious sticks coming out of the steering wheel. Five circles were across the middle of the wheel with crossed red and white flags in the center circle. A matching set of flags were stuck far to the right.

The first hour, Betsy had sat hunched down in the seat. All the windows were down and she laid her head against first the door, then the back of the seat, then the door again. She clutched an old leather purse and click, click, clicked the clasp at the top without opening it an inch. Her dry fingertips rubbed over the tight, rolled handle feeling the cracks that had come over a long time. She traced the circular rings that attached it to the body of the purse, her fingernail occasionally catching in the junction of the two ends.

By the middle of the second hour, she laid on the seat in a curled up position, her head on the pocketbook like a pillow. She could see the end of a yellow card of some kind peeking down from the bottom of the underside of the dash below the glove compartment. She spent half an hour wondering how it got there and what the rest of the writing was. She could only see F and a little bit of what must be a lower case r. Time spooled out while she guessed the rest. Fred's Barbershop, Freedonia Lumber, Fresh Eggs, Fruit Stand. Probably not fruit stand or fresh eggs. They don't hand out tickets or stubs, and the card looked like a stub.

By the third hour, Betsy had laid out face-down the full length of the seat, at least as much as her eight-year-old body could claim. The pocketbook was tucked up nearly under the seat in the driver's side of the floorboard. She explored the mystery of the wires under the steering wheel while absent-mindedly lifting the handle of the pocketbook and letting it drop back down with a soft thunk.

At the end of that time, it was late afternoon and Betsy had heard, in order, a screen door slam, pretty loud talking, lower talking, two quick slams of the screen door, some birds scolding, a very loud truck on the highway far off, a screen door that must be a back door because it was muffled, some chickens, some cows, some more chickens, another instance of back-door slamming, someone call her name. Other stuff happened during the time, but these were the things she took note of.

By the middle of the fourth hour, Betsy decided she had seen all she could see of the dashboard and crawled over the seat into the backseat, dragging the purse with her. It was much roomier in the back, but less interesting. There were handles on the door and that was pretty much it. Not even a butt in the three ashtrays. Betsy spent several minutes brushing her fingernail along the bristly edges of the rubber part of hole that had swallowed up the window. She looked down into the space, but couldn't see anything.

With a start, Betsy realized she had put the top of her head out of the car. She hadn't realized it at first, but a big black bug had crossed the ground under the car and caught her eye. Too late, she yanked her head back and grabbed the purse up tight under her crossed arms. Her fingers inched up to the clasp and opened it...just a crack. Betsy stuck her nose close into the cold metal of the purse top. Breathing deeply she smelled the following things: Juicy Fruit gum, ladies' face powder, Kleenex. She sat breathing these things for five minutes. When she had closed the clasp again, still clutching the pocketbook, her hands tangled into the handles like purse-snatchers watched her every move, Betsy lifted the silver handle on the door and pulled it up.

Sticking her head out of the door, Betsy twisted her feet out as well. Most of the bulk of her slim body remained inside. Betsy stared at her shoes for a minute. White tennis shoes, tied neatly, showing a bit of dust, but still very clean. Brown legs, colored by the sun of other days that would never be relived. Betsy slid her legs out to follow her feet, feeling the crunchiness of the red gravel through the thin soles of her shoes. Her red shorts had ridden up into the bend of her legs. She kept the purse in place with first one arm, then the other, as she pulled and smoothed the shorts into place. Angled shoulder blades sought to close around the purse as she made her way around the open door, pausing a second to bump the door closed with her behind. Betsy headed to the back of the house.

It had been four hours and 48 minutes since the white Chevy Impala had brought Betsy to this yard. It had been 7 hours and 23 minutes since she had kissed Aunt Carolyn goodbye and crawled into the front seat beside her grandfather. Four weeks and three days ago, she had come to stay with Aunt Carolyn. Four weeks and four days ago, her father had come home from work, taken down the oiled pistol from the box in the top of his closet, walked into the kitchen and pulled the trigger, killing Betsy's mother.

1 comment:

spookyrach said...

Oh man - I love Betsy. That was some research time well spent. And I can so smell the inside of that purse.