Short story exercise: ‘Just an Assignment’

A few years ago for a Writer’s Digest contest, I wrote a short story titled Cobb Salad: Cheddar or Bleu Cheese? I didn’t win the contest, but a few people really liked it. One friend from college, Ruth, wanted to know what happened next in the story. Last night I wrote the sequel.

Should I ever turn this into a book, I may have to study Armenia’s equivalent of the CIA.

Before we delve into the story: if any readers happen to be Armenian, I’d like to say: thank you for giving us Garry Kasparov (his mother’s maiden name was Kasparyan).

Just an Assignment

Sequel to

Cobb Salad: Cheddar or Bleu Cheese?

By Richard Zowie

For the next month, I worked at the newspaper. It amazed me that I could concentrate on school board stories and how they dealt with having to cut the budget, feature stories of a few local men who had been discovered to have briefly had Hollywood careers, and even the arrest of a corrupt sheriff, considering my mind was in the void of deep outer space, where it’s still bitterly cold despite the distant shining sun. Most of my meals, when I finished, remained on my plate. Stress and heartache tend to be excellent appetite suppressants. My dress shirts, normally snug with the buttons tugging, were now loose. I had to tighten my belt to keep my pants from falling off my waist.

Why did she leave?

It’s a question you ask yourself over and over again, craving an answer, but knowing you’ll never have it with the current knowledge you possess. Still, I wondered. Did I bug her too much? She never seemed annoyed by how many times I hugged or kissed her or when I listened intently when she talked. Did she decide I wasn’t a good match? Some finally come to grips that their marriage is not an Eharmony match.

Was I not good enough in bed? She never complained and always seemed satisfied. A few times I thought our neighbors in our apartment complex would call the landlord and complain.

I cried a lot. There wasn’t anything warm or cathartic about it: my tears flowed inconsolable, as my gut told me I’d never see her again.

On a Friday night, I was watching the latest episode of The Blacklist. Not really understanding it, just watching it as my mind tried in vain again to sift through the facts in hopes they’d somehow organize into an answer.

A knock came at the door. Four hard raps.

The keyhole showed a man and a woman, both in dark suits.

I opened the door. Both indeed wore suits. I’m six feet tall, but the man towered over me at around 6’4”. The woman, wearing heels, was at my height. They indeed wore black suits, the kind that would be perfect for a funeral. He wore a black tie with white shirt while her black suit was minus the tie but with the white collar tucked over the black suit collar. They both looked fitted rather than off the rack.

They took out their badges. “I’m Special Agent Brackman, and this is Special Agent Sanders,” the man said, referring to his partner. “We’re with the CIA. Are you Stephen Jackson Wolverton?”

“Yes, sir. What can I do for you?”

‘           “Could you come down to our field office for a debriefing?”

“Is this in regards to my wife?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Where is she?”

“We’ll explain during the debriefing.”

“Ok. I need to get dressed. I’m off tomorrow, but how long will this take?”

“We’ll take you in our vehicle to the San Antonio field office, which is about an hour away. If you like, we’ll put you up in a motel after you’re done and then bring you back here in the morning.”

 

The drive seemed to take only 15 minutes, because it was dark outside and I slept most of the way. That time of night, Interstate 10 is far more deserted than it is in the day. The two officers seemed to chat.

They took me to a room, where there was a five-foot rectangular table separating them from me. The chairs were surprisingly comfortable. They offered me a bottled water.

“Am I under arrest?” I asked.

Sanders chuckled. Why is it people always laugh when I’m not trying to be funny, I wondered. “No, Mr. Wolverton. Far from it.”

They both sat. Both drank from paper cups with lids on top, probably coffee.

Bracken produced a five-page stapled document. I noticed three words: DECREE OF DIVORCE. Unlike most states, Texas doesn’t sugarcoat legal documents by saying, “dissolution of marriage.” It’s to the point.

“My wife wants a divorce?” I asked, thumbing through the five pages but, not being an attorney, it looked mostly like legal-language formalities. On the back page, she’d already signed it with what had to be her real name: Zabel Davidian. I remembered that even her signature was highly legible. “She never gave me any indication anything was wrong. I—”

I drank my water and started to cry. I’d fallen in love with her, hard. She was an exotic beauty. How often does a guy get lucky enough for a mid-eastern beauty with black curly hair and blue eyes to fall in love with him? Particularly a guy who’s not a charmer?

“Mr. Wolverton,” Bracken said, “It wasn’t anything you did. You weren’t her husband, so much as you were her assignment. She wants nothing from you, just a legal end of the marriage.”

“Her assignment?” I asked, incredulous. “Why? What have I done? Where is Jessica now?”

“Armenia. She works for the Armenian government. And her real last name wasn’t Antonian. It was Davidian.”

“Sounds Jewish,” I said, noticing that Sanders took notes onto a yellow legal pad with what looked like a cheap black Bic pen. With the CIA, you expect a pen that costs more than a nice wedding ring.

“It is, and while she is an Armenian Jew, we have no evidence yet she’s ever worked for Mossad. Are you familiar with them?”

I nodded. “Israeli intelligence, similar to the CIA. Why did she marry me?”

“We’ll get to that in a few moments,” Bracken said. “Mr. Wolverton, what kind of surname is that?”

“My great-grandfather was from Turkey and came here around 1920. His surname was Bolat, but he changed it to Wolverton.”

Bracken produced a dark brown folder with a gray, metallic slender strip of metal on one side. As he opened it, I saw the metal formed two strips that held various papers in place. I imagined this was my dossier. And since it was only about a tenth of an inch thick, I’d lived a dull life. I’ve never been arrested, never served on a jury despite two times in a pool. My father was on the local school board for 10 years, partly because he felt the local ISD was a joke and that he could help by getting on the board.

“Based on our records, your grandfather was Turkish but came to America in 1920,” Bracken said. “It appears he left Turkey because he’d been involved in the Armenian Massacre of 1914-1923, had a change of heart and left the country and came to America.”

I’d heard about the massacre but knew little about it from history. Jessica never mentioned it at all.

“Your wife’s assignment was to marry you and research your family to see what they could find out about your grandfather’s involvement.”

“Oh.” She was an amazing actor. When she told me she loved me, she sounded sincere. She seemed to have an excellent memory for things I didn’t like. She never cooked split pea soup, knowing I hate peas, and she would also omit peas from dishes that required them. “What did she find out?”

“Based on research and conversations with your grandmother, she determined your great-grandfather had been a jailer, had been forced to kill an Armenian woman, decided he no longer could tolerate it, and left the country.”

“And once she had her answer, she was gone?”

Sanders stopped writing. “Yes, Mr. Wolverton. She made contact with Armenia, and they bought her a one-way plane ticket back to Yerevan. She left your house, rented a car, drove to the San Antonio International Airport, flew to Atlanta, New York, London, Tel Aviv, and then Yerevan. She then reported what she found.”

 

The debriefing ended half an hour later, as I signed a few forms, including the divorce decree (which they then notarized and said would be final in a week, once a judge was briefed about it and saw it had been signed). I said nothing as I imagined that smile, the black, curly hair, and the blue eyes.

“Will I ever see her again?” I asked.

“I’m afraid not, Mr. Wolverton,” Bracken said. “You were just an assignment. Are you ready for us to take you to a hotel, Mr. Wolverton?”

Just an assignment. That’s all I am.

“After I go to the bathroom to throw up,” I said.

Post comments here or email them: to richardzowie@gmail.com

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How the heck did he do that?!

I was in total awe by what I’d experienced, but what could I say? It’s a story I can tell only if I leave out names and exact locations. Technically, what he did was illegal, and I don’t think the statute of limitations have expired yet. Nobody was injured, so I doubt the police would care.

I was living in the northern Mid-West and after working at a gas station, needed a ride home that night. The night was black dark gray where the clouds were. It had snowed most of the day, and the roads were nasty. My wife at the time made what I felt was a perfectly reasonable request, one that did not lead to our eventual divorce: try to get a ride home and spare her from having to be on the roads.

As I clocked out, I remembered that one co-worker, Kurt, lived in the same nearby town I did. “Kurt,” I said. “Could I get a ride home with you?” He nodded and a weight fell from my stomach. I was relieved as I hated driving in this weather and didn’t like the idea of my wife having to come get me, either. Unlike me, Kurt was from that area.

There were two ways to get home. One was a straight shot that intersected a thoroughfare that would intersect the road that took us home. It was usually well-plowed. The second road, a less traveled thoroughfare, curled and writhed like a giant python fighting an alligator over who would be dinner.

Kurt took that road.

As we drove, I tried to relax and looked out the window, seeing all the snow in the embankments and collected on the road, making for a white journey. As I’d driven to work on the same road a few days earlier, I remembered seeing a few cars and even a 4X4 truck slid into the ditch.

I looked over at Kurt and noticed that when he wasn’t glancing at the road and steering, he was looking down at his cell phone. Throughout the seven-mile drive, which took about 20 minutes, he constantly received, read, and sent text messages.

If we slide off the road and skid into a ditch, take comfort in knowing this isn’t your car, I thought, expecting that we’d skid.

And yet, despite all the curves we rode on, despite the snow accumulation, we never skidded, not even once. No slides on black ice. No loss of control because the tires failed to grip the snow. No screams of a four-letter word because we lost control and are headed into oncoming traffic. The drive was completely uneventful, as if Kurt had been closely paying attention while driving in the summer when tires grip the road like a major league baseball player’s batting gloves grip a bat.

After I got out of the car, I thanked him, and then wondered, How on EARTH did he do that?

Richard Zowie lives in Fredericksburg, Texas, where he works as a broadcaster, blogger and fiction writer. Post comments here or e-mail him at fromatozowie@gmail.com.

Finished L’Amour’s ‘Last of the Breed’

My father, who died last year at 81, was a big Louis L’Amour fan, so decided to finally read one of his books. The next one I’ll read is more era appropriate: The Quick and the Dead.

Recently, I “read” Louis L’Amour’s book Last of the Breed. It’s about a Native American who becomes a pilot in the Air Force. In one flight, he’s forced to land in Siberia during the time of the Soviet Union. A reference is made to Mikhail Gorbachev, meaning the story takes place sometime in the mid-1980s.

I say “read” because I listened to it on CD while driving to work. David Strathairn provided the narration, and he does an impressive Russian accent.

Major Joe Makatozi (or Joe Mack, for short), is a Lakota whose gray eyes are the mark of a trace of Scottish ancestry. He’s taken to a prison camp run by a man named Col. Zamatev. The colonel’s plan: to interrogate Joe Mack so he’ll reveal American aviation secrets, and then execute him. Zamatev, who wants a cushy job back in Moscow, is hoping Joe Mack’s capture and interrogation are his tickets.

Zamatev escapes and, using his skills as a Native American, decides to ultimately head east toward the Bering Strait, entering America the same way his ancestors did millennia before. He lives off the land and is pursued by Alekhin, a Yakut native (for lack of a better term, a Native Russian) who’s an expert tracker and knows every square inch of the land. Alekhin realizes, unlike Zamatev, that in order to capture a Lakota, one must think like a Lakota.

I’ll not reveal the ending, except to say I liked it a lot, even though I normally am not a huge fan of open-endings where the reader is left to decide what ultimately happened.

L’Amour, I observed, writes in a balanced style where he gives you enough description to set the scene, but doesn’t let it overpower.

I have many books to read, and in the fiction realm are two sets of Westerns: those by L’Amour and those by Larry McMurtry.

Richard Zowie is a writer. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Richard says, ‘Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen’ to journalism

Waving goodbye

Richard says to journalism: “Goodbye, farewell, and amen.”

If Don Meredith were still alive and working on television, he’d probably have this to say about my career in journalism: “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”

All good things must end, and that includes what I like to jokingly call “my so-called career in journalism.” My final day with the Highlander was Friday, Dec. 28. I am “retiring” from newsrooms to work in broadcasting and to pursue freelance writing, blogging, and my dream job: fiction writing.

I began working as a journalist, a mix of full-time, part-time and freelancing, in 2000, after I left the U.S. Army. It was a huge risk as it meant taking a major pay cut from my military job.

My career has taken me to San Antonio, South Dallas County, Canyon Lake, up to Michigan in Lapeer County and then north Genesee County and south Saginaw County, then back down to Texas at the Fredericksburg Standard and then here at the Highlander.

It’s been an interesting ride filled with many crazy stories:

…I emailed Kinky Friedman through his website, back when he was considering running for governor of Texas. I was so surprised by his phone call a few days later that my initial reply was an astonished, “THE Kinky Friedman?!”

…A friend whose father posthumously received the Medal of Honor in Vietnam by throwing himself onto a live grenade. The friend described the Army’s highest honor as “just a piece of medal and ribbon” and said he’d rather have his father alive.

…A Vietnamese friend who made it out of Saigon as it fell in 1975 and was rescued on a boat near the Philippines. (To this day, he still refuses to call it Ho Chi Minh City).

…Doing sports gathering part-time for the San Antonio Express-News and grimacing when we’d get calls from Kenedy, Karnes City, or Poth. All Polish towns. Try correctly spelling Dworaczyk, Włodarski, or Pieprzyca.

…David Newell, who played Postman Mr. McFeely on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, told me that Fred Rogers off camera was exactly the same as the loving, compassionate Mr. Rogers on camera. Newell also told me this tidbit: Rogers was color blind and could only see things in black, white and gray. His favorite sweater was the red cardigan: not because of the color, but because it was most comfortable.

…Then there was that township meeting outside Clio, Michigan, where a man hooked up to oxygen became angry about something said by the township supervisor and challenged the supervisor to a fight.

…A few union guys complained I was too conservative. Never mind that liberal columnists in Michigan—which barely went to Pres. Donald Trump in 2016—are a dime a dozen.

…While covering a wrestling tournament in a certain rural Michigan town, a parent took me aside and whispered, “You should write about our school sometime. If the state knew how awful the academics were here, they’d take away our accreditation.”

I’ve long suspected she wasn’t joking.

…Then there was the time I took pictures at one football game and a player was injured. His previous injury in his other knee hadn’t completely healed. One mother angrily told me the coach had a reputation for “encouraging” kids to play when they shouldn’t.

Back here in Texas, there were plenty of memorable assignments:

…Ray Martinez, the retired Texas Ranger who helped take down Charles Whitman in 1966. Martinez, who spoke to me on the 50th anniversary of the event. Before going in, he said a prayer of absolution. When he returned, he came out without a scratch.

…One of the most ominous stories I’ve covered was a feature on a movie regarding a famous grave in Fredericksburg. The young girl, found dead and then buried in September 1927, remains unknown. To this day, nobody knows who killed her or why. Her name is known only to God.

…Shortly after I started at the Highlander, I interviewed Chase Parker, grandson of three-time Oscar nominee Eleanor Parker and nephew of actor Paul Clemens, as he was in Burnet shooting parts of a Civil War era film titled American Fishtrap.

That’s all, folks!

Despite all the excitement in sports coverage and the people I’ve met as a news and features writer, in the past two years I’ve thought a lot about what I really want to do in life.

At the top of that list is fiction writing.

I have two published short stories and have many unpublished short stories in various phases of development. Then there are two novels I’m working on. I also have four blogs and write about writing, current events, Christian issues, and, sometimes, satire.

Someone once said, “You don’t want to spend the rest of your life thinking of chances you never took.”

Starting at the first of the year, I’ll work full-time in broadcasting and then work a second job to make ends meet. When not working, I plan to focus on fiction and blogging in hopes that perhaps someday, I can be successful at it. It’s my dream. I’ll turn 46 in February and even if I don’t achieve it, I don’t want to look back 30 years from now and lament not trying.

Goodbye, my fellow journalists and to those who have enjoyed what I’ve written for the Highlander and Burnet Bulletin. The journalism train has stopped, and this is where I get off.

Post comments here or email them to: richardzowie@gmail.com. 

Libraries

library meme

Yesterday, I saw an Internet meme that extolled all the virtues of public libraries. Unlike political memes spouting statistics and information with questionable origin, I found this meme useful.

Ahhhh, libraries.

Sometimes, I like to joke with people that I judge a potential town to dwell in based on its library. When I lived in Michigan, even the small towns had decent libraries. Bridgeport, Michigan, on the south side of Saginaw, had a good one. Locals used it a lot to look for jobs.

Vassar, Michigan, where I lived for about four years, had a small but quaint library. The town I live in now, Fredericksburg, Texas, has a historical library. Pioneer Memorial Library used to be the county courthouse. Even now, it’s fun to go in to relax and read. I often will check out books, knowing I won’t have the time to read them all. And sometimes, it’s fun to take a book off the shelf and browse through it.

The quietness upstairs, the long wooden tables with the comfortable wooden chairs suggest it’s a place where it’s not only easy to research, but easy to retain what you’ve learned. A library is my second-favorite place on earth to be, the first being a great, Bible-teaching church.

Do yourself a favor and spend some time in a library.

Richard Zowie is a writer. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Stories of mine you’ll NEVER read

I’ve been writing fiction since I was an adolescent. Along the way have been short stories that, though completed, are probably disintegrating in a landfill somewhere. They aren’t lost works of art, but works that are lost for a reason. They were terrible.

Think I’m being harsh? Think of it this way: as a young writer writes, they develop and craft stories where they learn how not to write.

I like to further think of it this way. Fans used to ask parody musician “Weird Al” Yankovic why he won’t release a director’s cut of his movie, UHF. The original cut was 2.5 hours long, while the theatrical cut was 90 minutes. Al said this: most of the deleted scenes were cut either because the pacing was wrong or, frankly, they sucked.

Still, here’s a short list of short stories I wrote in my younger years that probably will never see the night of day:

Scorpion Lake — I wrote this one-page story when I was eight. It was about a lake filled with scorpions. Someone died while swimming in it. Long ago, I abandoned hope of Steven Spielberg’s people negotiating with my people for the movie rights.

Tom Morder and His Nitwit Brother — Largely inspired by Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, I wrote four chapters of a book about a cool older brother and an annoying younger brother. I seem to remember the two brothers were originally from West Monroe, Louisiana, which is where I was born.

The Water Man — Based on my childhood fear of water towers. A man is angry about being bested in a swimming competition and gets revenge on the winner by having his henchmen strap him down with weights and throw him into a water tower to drown. The winning swimmer, dead, a few weeks later emerges through his opponent’s toilet and drags him to the water tower for revenge.

The House on Birch Street — What aspiring young writer doesn’t at some point tackle the “haunted house” story line? A man buys a house from an older man, only to learn the older man is a Satanist who, along with his ancestors who have lived in the house since the Colonial Days, has murdered/buried many people in the house’s basement. The young man ends up killing the older man, killing all the “undead” bodies in the basement, gets married to a pretty girl and then, using a rocket launcher he purchases from a local gun shop owner (don’t ask—I was 12 and incredibly naïve when I wrote this story), blows up the haunted house. He and his wife drive off into the sunset.

Post comments here or email them to richardzowie@gmail.com.

Retooling when the focus is off

One short story I’m finalizing has the working title “Plenty of Catfish.” It is about my misadventures online dating and is intended as a comedy.

I showed it to a female friend, a teacher whom I know I can depend on for an honest assessment.

“Each date seems to revolve around the same topic,” she said to me.

As I read it, I realized the story was too one-dimensional and that the humor was lost in that aspect.

Off to retool…

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New Year’s resolutions

me writing

Since I will be turning 45 in February, I have decided to keep my New Year’s resolution simple this year.

Publish one short story.

I plan to start looking at the Writer’s Market 2018 to see if there are any potential markets for short Christian fiction or for a few unpublished, Twilight Zone-style stories I’ve completed.

Perhaps “completed” is too optimistic a word. Any writer will tell you no story is ever perfectly written. I’m sure Stephen King sometimes looks at his early stories and wishes he could change this or that about them. He once wrote about the pleasant surprise he got when his short story, Sometimes They Come Back (which I’ve read, it’s in his Night Shift collection of short stories), was published. He was paid $500 for a story he admitted that he didn’t think would sell anywhere.

Perhaps I should try to get an agent.

Among my short stories that are either completed or need a little more tinkering:

Garth, Texas: A fugitive and scam artist’s car breaks down in rural West Texas during a heat wave. He walks to a town to get help–and wishes he’d kept on walking.

No Experience Necessary: A former Army soldier with a dwindling bank account accepts a job that pays well and says “no experience necessary.” You know what they say: “If it’s too good to be true…”

Dear Billy: Sincerely, Billy: If you love to write science fiction or Twilight Zone or Outer Limits-inspired tales, you’re bound to try your hand at time travel. In this, set in 1983, a teenaged boy visits a library and is told there’s a letter for him. It’s written by a man who claims to be him, and it’s dated 1859. The boy learns one decision done differently can change everything.

David’s Decision: What went on during the mental tug of war that led to King David deciding to sleep with the wife of one of his most loyal soldiers?

What If…?: I’ve always wondered what would’ve happened had Adam and Eve not sinned and had resisted the serpent.

My ‘new’ car, a 2013 VW Beetle

VW BeetleToday I picked up my new car, a light-blue 2013 Volkswagen Beetle. It replaces my previous car, a 2010 Ford Focus.

Well, it’s not technically “my” car. I’m buying it through a bank loan. Even if I owned it free and clear, it still wouldn’t be mine: it would be God’s car, as I’m just the caretaker.

This is the first time I’ve ever owned a German car, perhaps fitting since the Zowie family is from Germany. This is not the first time my family has owned a Volkswagen, though. In the late 1970s, we had a light-blue Volkswagen Beetle. It was an early 1970s model, I believe, and I do remember it had a standard transmission with the engine in back.

As I drove this car and got used to it, I remembered two things I’ve heard in the past about German-made cars:

…German-made cars rarely break down, because Germans tend to over-engineer cars.

…German-made cars can be a pain in the neck to do maintenance on, since Germans tend to over-engineer cars.

So far, it drives well. As I drive, I keep wondering, how can I speed up my payments and have it paid off faster?

Post comments here or email them to richardzowie@gmail.com. 

Pics in blogs

Working as a journalist has cultivated within me a strong desire to adopt photography as a hobby. I figure the initial investment will be around $600-$1,000, but it’s worth if if you want good pictures. Portrait pictures. Photo essays. Action shots (baseball, football), hummingbirds, water splashing and other shots that require high shutter speeds.

It makes me wonder: how often should blogs have pictures with them?

I suppose it should be a regular occurrence. Even if photo doesn’t work, perhaps a graphic would. Besides, a blog consistently consisting only of text gets monotonous.

Thankfully, today’s iPhones take great pictures, so I can hold off for now purchasing cameras and assorted equipment for my private collection.