I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I was lured to the novel by the BBC mini-series, and I’m finding the book pretty compelling. That’s quite aside from the subject matter, which is one of my favorite periods of history– the writing itself seems very clean and direct, but with striking turns of phrase. Mantel also, somehow, manages to get away with blocks of exposition that would kill other books– in fact, she dares describe the attributes of Thomas Cromwell, the viewpoint character of the novel, in one long paragraph that appears designed to set off ‘show, don’t tell’ alarms across the literary world. You hardly even notice, though, because it works with the rest of the text.
And it’s all done in present tense. I’ve never tried writing in present tense to any extent, but it seems to have worked in Wolf Hall. I understand that some people consider present tense in fiction a passing fad, or the mark of the amateur or the mediocre. As may be; I make no judgments. But I’m going to try a little experiment. I’ve had this opening scene for a detective novel in the back of my head for a while. Detective fiction isn’t normally my cup of tea, although I had my John D. MacDonald period some years ago, and Sherlock Holmes, well, Sherlock Holmes, but this scene keeps coming back to me. Interestingly, the world I’ve started to build around it has some distinctively slipstream, or even magically realistic, aspects to it– altogether different styles for me. So I’m going to give it a whirl in the present tense, and see what happens.
Warning– there’s language and serious violence, so sensitive readers beware.
Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
It’s hot down at the road’s edge. The asphalt seems sticky underfoot. He wonders whether, if he stopped for one minute in one place, his shoes would weld themselves to the road surface.
Ten men, sweating in their prison jumpers, ply double-edged weed cutters, slicing down the tall grass overgrowing the shoulder of Franklin Road. Dust and chaff rise in the heated air, enveloping them. They work steadily, in silent rhythm, only a few words now and again. The guards stand well back, before and behind their line. That’s just in case one of the cons decides to take a swipe at a guard with his tool. Every bull carries a shotgun, butt-plate on hip, to discourage any sudden insurrection. They don’t let the cons talk a lot. They’re here to work.
Cutting grass along a country road isn’t one of the prison’s plum jobs. That’s the license plate makers and the colonial furniture makers, for the trustees who get to use the power-tools and presses. Out here are the unskilled, the screw-ups, the cons a couple of clicks away from losing their privileges because they were slow to move or gave a bull a stare one second too long. They get to sweat and spit out grass stems and worry about rattlesnakes.
He’s a screw-up. He knows that. He carries it with him everywhere he goes. In a way, the heat and grass and sweat are his purgatory, and he’s all right with that.
“Dunn, goddamn it,” Officer Gaskin says, “get that fucking sunflower. What are you, goddamn blind?”
“Sorry, boss,” he says, and he cuts the tall flower off at the root. In truth, he had thought to spare it, because it looked healthier than he did, and sunflowers remind him of his sister.
There are benefits to working on the road-crew, if you like sunshine, fresh air, and occasional surprises. You find all sorts of things cutting the grass alongside a country road– hub-caps, blown tires, mufflers, windshield wiper blades. Some things are better than others– it is, of course, Screech who finds the dead raccoon, rotting and maggot-writhing in the heat. The scrawny bastard spends five minutes puking, with Officer Brandt growing exasperated. On the other hand, there was the day, enshrined in road-crew legend, when Blake found the unopened five-pack of lubricated condoms. He had never seen the big man so happy.
Most of what you find is junk and contraband, and the bulls don’t care. They just tell you to shove off the road. Sometimes it’s different, though. The story is that last summer another crew found a wallet with five thousand US dollars in it. The guards instantly confiscated it, to “return it to its owner”. The consensus among the road-crews is that the owner never saw either wallet or money again.
He wishes he could find something that nice. Not that he’d be allowed to keep it. He’d just like to hold something in his hands that reminds him of a life elsewhere, where they sell condoms and people actually have wallets with money in them. Just for a moment.
They sweat through the morning, the sun increasingly their adversary. All of them are sweat-drenched and covered in bits of slaughtered plant life. It’s a relief when Trippe calls a halt for lunch.
The bulls are in a pretty good mood today; they let the prisoners sit in the shade of a couple of locust trees to eat their meal. They get cheese sandwiches on stale white bread, a pickle each, and all the lime kool-aid they can drink. It’s always lime kool-aid out on the road crews. No one knows why. They hate it, but they drink it. It’s the only liquid they have.
He sits with Blake and Gopher as they eat. The bulls made Gopher scoop up the dead raccoon and dispose of it in the drainage ditch. He is still muttering about it. “Stinking bullshit, man,” he says. “I’m always the one they’re picking on. Man, I can’t hardly eat, that thing stunk so bad.”
“You could always give me your sandwich,” Blake says.
“Shut the fuck up,” Gopher says, and he takes a bite of his sandwich.
He notices the one man sitting by himself. “Check it out,” he tells Blake. He indicates who he means with a lift of his chin.
Blake looks. “Sumbitch,” Blake mutters. “Six months and he’s still holding himself apart.”
Gopher looks, too. “Who’s that? I ain’t seen him on the crew before.”
“Newbie,” Blake says. “No, he ain’t been until now. Musta screwed up somehow.”
“But who is he, motherfucker?” Gopher says.
“Name’s Sanger,” he says. “Got sent up for mail fraud, or something stupid like that.”
“I heard it was an online scam,” Blake says.
“Not sure,” he says. “One way or the other, they got him.”
Gopher looks puzzled. “That’s it? Why ain’t he doing time in minimum security?”
“The way I heard it,” he says, “he threatened a bunch of people.”
“He threatened a bunch of people, Jack, ‘cause his daddy is some boss over in Archerport,” Blake says. “And I don’t mean some guy running an insurance brokerage, neither. The sort of boss you don’t want to get cross-ways of. Apparently Mr. S there thought mentioning his daddy would scare some folks, get him off the hook. Instead, they tacked on some hard time and told him to shove it.”
He looks at Sanger, wondering why, if his father is such a powerful man, Sanger is doing any time at all. The dark-haired youngster turns to look at him, as if feeling eyes on him. There is a deadness behind Sanger’s eyes. He turns his head away, chilled.
Too soon the bulls are yelling, “Everybody up, get up, ladies, c’mon, you lazy twats, move your asses.”
The cons get up, muttering, cussing under their breath, groaning. They step back out into the sun, picking up their tools.
It takes a while to get back into their previous rhythm, but soon enough the cons are cutting through the grass as before. The sun declines toward the west. The heat doesn’t lessen, but the day is heading toward its end. He pictures showers and his bunk back in the cell-block.
All day they have seen only the occasional car along Franklin Road. Once or twice trucks have passed, buffeting the cons with wind and swirling up chaff. “Sumbitches,” Gopher mutters to him.
A van comes along the road, up from the south, just as Blake slices through a bramble. “Well, look at that,” he says. He bends down. As the van passes the cons he bends down and picks up an un-opened water bottle. The plastic is scratched from its contact with the asphalt, but the bottle is unpunctured and the seal around the cap intact. “Lucky me.”
He is standing to Blake’s right; on Blake’s left, Sanger has stopped his work. The youngster is paying no attention to Blake; he’s watching the van– which has slowed, which has stopped. The back doors of the van open. Sanger throws down his weed cutter and drops to the ground.
“Blake!” he yells. He reaches for the big man.
The van doors open. Fire lances out from the darkness within.
Blake is hit even as he touches the sleeve of his jumper. His head explodes. He drops, pulling him down with him. The water bottle falls to the road and rolls away.
On the ground, he sees Officer Gaskin, standing behind Blake, the true target of the first burst, falling, a startled look on his face. Officer Brandt spins toward the van, his shotgun coming down, and bullets rip him and he falls backward into the drainage ditch.
The road crew is scattering in every direction, across the road, leaping the ditch and sprinting into the field beyond. A shotgun blast; Trippe is on one knee, firing. He pumps the shotgun, the empty shell twirls through the air. He is hit. He goes down, screaming, clutching his leg.
Two men climb out of the van. They wear bandannas over their faces, carry automatic rifles. They come and they pick up Sanger. The three sprint for the van. They climb in. The doors close. The van speeds off, its tires squealing.
He doesn’t want to move. He wants to stay right there, next to Blake, Blake who hadn’t had a chance. He will wait until someone comes to tell him to move.
But Trippe is still screaming. “Help me! Help!”
He wants Trippe to shut up. “Dammit.” He gets up.
The officer is gripping his leg. There is blood all over. He sees the blood pumping out between the officer’s fingers. “Help!” Trippe says. He’s already pallid.
He kneels down beside Trippe. He fumbles for a moment, unsure. “Tourniquet, tourniquet,” he mutters, like a chant from an ancient, forgotten tongue.
With shaking fingers he unbuckles the shoulder strap from Trippe’s gun belt. He wraps it around the officer’s thigh, high up near the groin. He ties it and pulls it taut. Trippe screams, but the blood stops pulsing.
“Call somebody, boss, call somebody,” he says.
Trippe lifts a shaking, blood-stained hand, plucks the radio mike from his belt. “This is Officer Trippe, Number Tango-5631– officers down, officers require assistance, we need ambulances at milepost one-five-niner on Franklin Road. For God’s sake, get here as quick as you can.”
Trippe drops the mike, panting. He looks faint.
“Hang in there, boss,” he mutters, holding on to the strap.
That’s all he focuses on– for how long he cannot say. The sirens only slowly intrude on his perception. It’s only when tires scream on the asphalt that he looks up.
Officer Weiss jumps out of the car, levels his pistol at him. His face is white with terror, or rage. “Get your hands up!”
He doesn’t move. “Boss,” he says, “if I let go, he’ll bleed to death.”
Weiss stares, and then it’s as if he actually sees what he’s looking at. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” he says. He lowers his pistol, runs to them. “Hang on, Jason, hang on!”
Weiss cradles Trippe’s head in his lap until the ambulance comes. The paramedics take the tourniquet from him; he pushes himself back and sits on the side of the road.
Then there are many officers storming about. They make him lie on his belly with his bloody hands on the back of his head. They’re taking no chances. He lies there as the ambulance takes off, its engine roaring.
Finally, they tell him to turn over. Officer Kincaid holds a shotgun on him, and Vice-Warden Phelps stands over him. “You see it all, Dunn?”
“Yes, sir,” he says. “Is Officer Trippe going to be all right?”
“He’s on his way to the hospital,” Phelps says. “That’s all I know. Brandt and Gaskin aren’t so lucky.” To Kincaid he says, “Get him back to the facility. We have to get his statement.”
Weiss comes forward. He pulls him to his feet. “You hurt anywhere?” Weiss asks.
“No, boss,” he says. “None of this blood is mine.”
“All right, then,” Weiss says. He takes him by the elbow, almost gently, as if unsure exactly what he is, and leads him to the squad car.
Hmm– I have to say, the jury is out on whether this is more effective than a past-tense approach. I had to think about what tense I was using and caught myself automatically slipping into past-tense several times. That’s not surprising, but one obvious problem is that it is not always clear in the narrative which he “he” is referring to, since the viewpoint character never refers to themselves by their name.
But I’m glad I got this down. It’s just the opening scene of what could be a very interesting story.