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.

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Reflecting on ‘Love, Solomon,’ my first published short story

One writer of a famous American classic once said he would love to rewrite parts of the book. Just as painters talk about never completing the “perfect” painting, writers often agonize over a published piece of work that isn’t “perfect.”

Parody singer “Weird Al” Yankovic echoed this thought on his website, saying, “I could work on an album forever, but like anything else of a creative nature, at a certain point you just have to ‘give up’ on it and let it live its own life.”

My first published short story was Love, Solomon, published in the November/December 2000 issue of the Austin-based True Believer magazine. Unfortunately, this magazine no longer exists (I’m certain, though, my short story had nothing to do with its demise). It’s a shame, since they were interested in publishing more fiction from me before deciding to go in a non-fiction direction.

I was 27 when this story was published, and I’d probably complete rewrite it today. The author’s note almost seems comical now, as if guiding the reader as they read a “great” work of fiction. Here it is, as it was…

Love, Solomon

By Richard Zowie

Author’s note: Although no archaeologist has ever discovered a letter written by Solomon to his son Rehoboam, there is also no proof that such a letter never actually existed. The following, therefore, is a work of fiction by the author.

The Song of Songs and The Preacher, the two books of Solomon referenced in the story, are the literal Hebrew translations of The Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes. These are the titles Solomon would have known them as; the contemporary titles we known them by weren’t given to them until the Bible was translated into English.

To My Dear Son Rehoboam:

My son, as I write this to you, I am old and greatly stricken with years. I have ruled Israel as King for forty years, as did your grandfather David. In the time that I have lived and reigned I have seen many things. Many of the things I have seen and experienced have been very empty and heartbreaking, so I decided long ago that I should write a letter to you and share the things I have learned.

I recall a dream I had shortly after I began my reign as King of Israel. In the dream, the LORD God appeared to me. He told me I could have whatsoever I desired. Needless to say many things came into my mind. Wealth. Women. Power. Fame. A long life. Now, to a young man such as you who has never known poverty, it would amaze you that I chose none of those things. Instead, I asked the LORD God for wisdom. I desired wisdom to govern my people, wisdom in learning, and wisdom in understanding. There was nothing more in the world that I desired than to possess knowledge and wisdom.

God was gracious enough to give me wisdom and understanding. It’s been a long time, but I can still clearly remember in my dream that He gave me a bonus for my request. He told me, “Because you did not ask for wealth, power, or old age, I will give all these things to you.” And indeed he did! In my prime I was the wealthiest, famous, most learned man in the world. I even had a visit from the Queen of Sheba, which I’m sure you remember from your adolescent years. It still amuses me when she told me that my wisdom was even far greater than what she had heard.

What I am trying to tell you, my son, is that wisdom is of little use if not put to practice. Unfortunately, more often than not I was not true to the God of Israel. I worshiped false gods, I had wives who do not know the LORD God, and I gave into my selfishness much more often than I should have. I did all these things knowing that they were wrong to do. This was, without question, my greatest folly.

As I prepare to leave this world and go on to join your grandparents and ancestors in paradise, I hope and pray that you learn from my mistakes. In my lifetime I have written three books that I leave for you to study and learn: The Book of Proverbs, The Song of Songs and The Preacher.*

The Book of Proverbs is a collection of both my writings and other’s writings. It consists of observations and lessons about life, as well as sayings that reflect inherent truths. Read this book daily, even if it’s only a chapter a day.

The Song of Songs is, to put it bluntly, a book about love and sex. Although it may seem odd to some that the LORD God would inspire me to write a Song about intimacy, it seems fitting, though, since so many people live in relationships that are founded upon sex instead of love. This book, my son, represents romance as God intends it. I have been a hypocrite and a terrible example by having seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines; please do not make the same mistake I did. Limit yourself to one wife, as God gave Adam but Eve. Center all your love, both physical and emotional, on her and her only.

The Preacher is perhaps the most complex of the three. It represents perhaps some of my most intimate and intricate thoughts on life. This book is my account of my attempts to find happiness apart from God. You see, son, I lived my life largely for myself. I did things that made me happy. I never denied myself in any of my pursuits of pleasure, and I strived continually to make myself completely happy. I tried, son, to give myself a happiness that only God Himself can provide. In short, my son, despite having all of my material desires fulfilled, I was completely miserable. For us to try to fill that void in our lives that only God is capable of filling is the ultimate vanity of life. Please remember this; failure to do so can and will be fatal.

Read this letter diligently, my son. Please do your best to heed it. My heart grieves to know that I have been a terrible example to you and others as a father, a friend, a husband, and as a follower of the Lord God. Do better than I have and the Lord will reward you limitlessly.

I love you.

Your Loving Father,

Solomon

The titles Song of Songs and The Preacher are both literal translations of the Hebrew titles Shir HaShirim and Qoheleth. In most Bibles they are known as Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, respectively.

Renaming a mysterious Arkansas town ‘Garth, Texas’

In the summer of 1980, if I remember right, we traveled from Kansas to northern Arkansas to visit my Dad’s older brother, Uncle Don. He, my Aunt Mary and my cousins lived in Harrison, near Dogpatch. I also remember something about getting some Cavender seasoning, since it’s made in Harrison. (I still use it today, although I prefer the salt-free form).

As we traveled to Harrison, my seven-year-old mind seemed to record us being on some sort of mountainous hill. One road went to Harrison while another road seemed to lead to another town down in a distant valley. A look at a map reveals it might’ve been Omaha, Arkansas.

To this day, 32 years later, I still wonder about that town. What was its name? What secrets did it hold? What stories did it tell? Or, did it exist solely in my imagination?

I have resurrected and transported the town approximately 800 miles southwest into West Texas in a short story I am working on, titled Garth, Texas. In this lengthy, in-progress short story, a road goes up a hill, reaching a zenith; what lies on the road beyond the zenith is completely unknown to anyone seeing the road from the main road it bisects.

But to those who travel to the top of the road, they will see a sharp, gradual decline as the road slopes downard for about five miles. And in the distance is a tiny speck of a town.

Garth, Texas.

Stay tuned.

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What are YOUR day jobs, fellow writers?

For 11 years I have been a professional writer. I have one published short story to my credit along with countless news and feature stories and columns. Lots of sports, also. Once I even ghostwrote a column for a brigadier general. And then there are the finished-but-unpublished short stories sleeping on my hard drive, along with two novels I’m working on.

Last, but not least, my blogs.

My dream is to be a full-time fiction writer.

Like many writers out there, I can’t support myself and my kids on what I earn as a writer. So, I have day jobs.

Thirty hours a week I work at a weekly newspaper. Sometimes it feels more like 40, but I love this job immensely. Getting paid to write–how great is that?

Twenty-four hours a week (although, this week it will be 32), I work at a gas station. It also feels like I put more hours there, but whatever my unsaid opinion might be, I really can’t complain: this job pays my electric bill, auto insurance bill, internet bill, cell phone bill, and many other things.

Those are my two day jobs, and I’ve had others: (briefly) a factory worker, a bagel maker, a broadcaster, a telemarketer and a cashier.

I remember one novelist, who worked as a waitress, was asked what motivated her to write: “Because I absolutely hated my day job,” she replied.

So, fellow writers, what are YOUR day jobs?

Richard Zowie has been writing professionally since 2000. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Writing out of sequence–blasphemy or bold?

In my fiction writing, I am working on two projects: a novel called Randy and Rhonda (a Christian romance that has some frank looks at relationships and sex and how some Christians prefer isolation over insulation) and a thriller/suspense short story called Garth, Texas.

In both, I hit snags where I didn’t know what to write. Especially in the novel, since part of it deals with a segment of America that I know very little about (I’d rather not say what at this point, except that a friend is trying to set things up for me to interview someone from there). So, what to do?

Write out of sequence.

A friend who studied broadcasting at college told me that movies are very seldom shot in sequence. Sometimes the very first scene to be filmed is one of the movie’s final scenes. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the opening scene where they drive to the restaurant in the morning was one of the very last filmed. And, I understand that the opening rig scene in Armageddon was actually the final scene filmed.

Why not do the same with creative writing?

So, I do this in the novel and will probably do so in the short story: if you hit a snag in the story, skip over the scene and write later scenes. Perhaps somewhere down the road the creative juices will flow and you can fill in the gaps.

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

Worked on novel, short story last night

Novel is titled Randy and Rhonda. I like that title, so for now I doubt I’ll refer to it as a “working title”. It’s a romance story with some strong Christian overtones. If I can write consistently, then I know that in the fall I can have a rough draft completed. Will tell you more about it as time goes by.

The short story’s working title is Garth, Texas. It is one of about 10 proposed titles I have. Wrote a creepy segment last night. It’s set out in West Texas and deals with unsual forms of criminal justice. I’ll leave it at that.

Wrote in my journal and wrote an essay. Overall, not a bad night of writing considering my layoff.

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So, now I have my daily writer’s list…

I compiled it last night at work using my trusty slightly-larger-than-reporter-size notebook (my favorite kind–a firm cardboard back with a transparent plastic cover) and a Papermate Design pen. Ten items I intend to start tackling on a daily basis as a writer:

1) 2,000 words written on my novel(s)

2) 2,000 words written on my short story(ies)

3) Update my blogs (this one, From A to Zowie, Richard’s Two Shekels and Ponderings From Pluto); at the very least, this one and the Shekels one daily

4) Journal entry (at the end of the day)

5) 1-2 essays

6) Look for freelance writing work

7) Work on a screenplay

8 ) Read both fiction and non-fiction

9) Market my fiction

10) Write a poem or two if the mood strikes

A long list? Perhaps, but I need to be accomplishing these things on a daily basis. With sufficient time management, it can be done.

Richard Zowie is a writer who is working to get off his lazy butt. Post comments here or e-mail them to richardzowie@gmail.com.

My ideal day as a writer

With the two jobs I work and the myriad of things I have to do in my life, I must be disciplined and focused to have the time to accomplish all I’d like to do as a writer. And, believe me, there is a lot to do.

Ideally, I wish I had the type of financial freedom to do nothing but write. And read. And travel. And go back to school. But that’s not reality. It might someday be reality and, then again, it might not.

Here is what I’d love to accomplish on a perfect day as a writer:

On my novel(s): 2,000 words.

On my short stories: 2,000 words.

Then, write a journal of the day’s events, a few essays based on things that come to mind, update my blogs, write a few poems and read from both the Bible and another book or two. Perhaps throw in a writing exercise or two. Peruse through writing magazines. Visit online forums where writers are. Submit my work to editors.

That’s not too much, is it?

Ideally, this all can and should be accomplished each day, presently. A writer writes now.

Richard Zowie wishes he had only one superpower–the ability to need no sleep. Post comments here or e-mail them to richardzowie@gmail.com.

Poems and trying to develop a writing schedule

So much to write, and so little time.

There are times, many of them, when I wish I lived on Pluto. Each Plutonian day is six earth days. Just think of all the things one could accomplish! If you could condition yourself to somehow subsist on eight hours of sleep, you’d have 136 hours left in the day.

Alas, you’d never know since you’d instantly freeze to death. We’ll find out for sure when New Horizons has its rendezvous with Pluto in July 2015, but I’m guessing it’s around -384 degrees there. Cold, cold, cold.

So, we are left to ponder how to make the most of our time on earth.

Yes, a person could try to get by on five hours of sleep a day and have 19 hours to do the rest of their stuff. My problem is that after three days of five hours of sleep daily, I’m ready to crash for about 12 hours.

So, the best thing to do is to make a daily schedule and, if necessary, deny yourself the fun of Facebook, Twitter, Justin Bieber videos or reading about the latest Lady Gaga controversy until you get your writing done. Ideally, each day I’d love to write 2,000 words on my novel(s), a few thousand on short stories, update my blogs, write poems and journal.

Busy work? Yes, but it isn’t as difficult when you consider how much time wasted in an average day.

As far as poems, I have more written and may post by Monday.

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Writer’s Block strikes me again. Grrr!

I am currently working on a few short stories, most notably a Twilight Zone-style fantasy thriller tentatively titled Garth, Loving County, Texas. Then there are two books I’m working on: a Christian thriller The Game Show and a Christian romance novel Randy and Rhonda. All three of these are really good stories, but I’ve run into the same problem with each.

I have no idea what happens next.

It’s an annoying case of writer’s block as I try to ascertain what happens next.

I’ve also found it an excessive challenge to keep my blogs updated. Am I just hitting a dry spell where I don’t have the energy to write?

As of this writing (October 28), I have about six unpublished blog postings.

I can think of two things I’ll have to do: re-read that essay by Lois Duncan on Writer’s Block and consult with a former creative writing teacher of mine.

Richard Zowie tries to stay busy in his writing life and believes it’s far better to be busy than unemployed. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.