For this particular story, I decided to use the first sentence I entered in a first lines contest on The New Literary Agents blog, just because I thought it was a fun sentence because it could go in so many directions. This story sprang in one of those directions. And I think over the next few weeks -- just for fun -- I'm going to start every one of my stories with the same sentence, just to see how many different directions it can take before I get bored.
So here is my first (probably terrible) story. Read it if you want. Comment on it if you want. I'm writing and posting it only for my own edification and to keep myself accountable for the challenge. (And if you're wondering what the challenge is, click the link to find out.)
She sucked the air in through her nostrils, lifted her sternum the way she'd learned to in ballet, decided to clear her mind of the particular things she was thinking about, and stepped out. He was the first thing she saw, sitting on a rainbow-colored beach towel waving a white napkin in the air to get her attention. The white looked like the sail of a ship against the bright blue water and sky. It was whiter than the sand under her feet.
Funny that he would wave his napkin that way. Like a lover in black-and-white movie. He was different, so different from anyone she had ever met.
He had the picnic laid out already, she saw as she approached. Lifting her knees to the rhythm of “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” because the sand scorched the soles of her feet. The brightness of the sun and sea burned into the sand, making it hot as fire.
She landed on the towel and she looked down at the fried chicken and coleslaw he had unpacked.
“Edward, you outdid yourself,” she said.
“Margaret, for you—” He paused. “Anything.”
She smiled. He was so different, so different from anyone she had ever met.
“Did you make all this yourself?” She draped across her lap the napkin he handed her. It helped to cover certain parts of her body she was worried about. For instance, the tummy that bulged just slightly over the lip of her swimming skirt.
He had a leg in his mouth, the breaded leg of a chicken. “Mmm,” he said, nodding.
“Where did you learn to cook?”
He chewed. After awhile: “I went to culinary school.”
“Did you?” She shouldn’t have been surprised. He was so different, so different from anyone she had ever met. “Where?”
“Paris,” he replied.
“And in Paris,” she laughed, “you learned to make fried chicken?”
Edward wagged his head, laughing along. “No, no. My mother taught me that.”
She sat up straighter. The napkin covered her tummy, but she was still aware of the bulging. She should have worn her other bathing suit. The one-piece.
The waves rolled in and out behind him, slipping up onto the beach, sliding back, clean as silk. They broke far out. She could hear their crashing.
“So, go ahead, dig in,” he said, motioning at the food.
She obediently took a paper plate and looked around for a fork.
“I forgot the forks,” he said.
“Then how should I—” She thought of the coleslaw, of scooping it up with her fingers and shoving it in her mouth. She thought of hands covered in slimy mayonnaise. “No, I – I couldn’t.”
“Margaret,” he said. Her name was a rebuke. “Live a little.”
She stiffened. “Perhaps I’ll just eat a bit of chicken.”
“If that makes you feel more comfortable.”
“Yes. It does.” She sucked in her tummy. More crunches with her personal trainer tomorrow. She would insist upon it.
She picked up a piece of chicken. A thigh. It was golden and crumbly and when she brought it to her lips it tasted like … Kentucky Fried Chicken.
She chewed. “Mmm,” she said, trying to keep the grease from squirting out the sides of her mouth. The bite had been too big.
“Good?” he asked.
“Mmm,” she repeated. Neither a yes nor a no, but hopefully he’d take it as a yes. It was greasy. She wasn’t entirely fond of grease.
“Mama’s recipe. She brought it with her when she moved up from down south.”
Margaret swallowed. “How interesting.” She dabbed the corners of her mouth with the napkin, then quickly draped it over her stomach again. “And your mother – is she still living?”
“Oh yes.” He waved away a fly that landed on the coleslaw. “She and my step-father live in Florida in a retirement community. I visit them once a year.”
“Lovely,” she said.
“No,” he said. “Not really. Boring is what it is. Lots of sitting around playing bingo because neither of them can walk. And both are going a little senile and all they do is fight.”
“But, you know. She’s my mother.”
“Yes, of course.”
“So, you know. Duty.”
“Duty,” she said. “I understand.”
“Are your parents still living?”
“Oh no,” she said. “Long dead, long dead.”
“I’m sorry.” He did look very sorry, his face creased into a frown. Or was he squinting in the sunshine? No, it was definitely a frown. He reached out and patted her knee to console her. Thank God she had shaved her legs.
“Oh no, I barely remember them. My aunt, she’s like a parent to me. She raised me almost completely. Wonderful lady. Absolutely remarkable.”
“And is she still living?”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, she is.” She took another small bite of fried chicken. Just to be polite. She finished chewing and swallowed it before she said, “She lives quite near you actually. In Arbor Vida. In that large house on the hill.”
“The purple one,” he said, trance-like. He really was so different, so different from anyone she had met before.
“You know it!” she cried.
“Well, I should.” His eyes snapped back onto her face. “She broke three of my windows last year with those darn golf balls she lobs from her back yard.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Well, it’s not your fault.” He had been reclining, but now he sat up and pulled his knees up to his chest. She noticed how thin his legs were, sticking out of his swim trunks. He looked like a little boy.
“She likes golf,” she tried to explain. “It’s just that she can’t make it to the greens anymore, now that she’s older.”
“I guess not,” he said, his eyebrows a dark ridge across his crumpled forehead.
“I’m sure if she realized she was breaking your windows, she would pay for them.”
She was alarmed. He looked so angry. “Perhaps, perhaps I should take you to visit and you can explain – gently, of course, because she is very old – the damage she’s doing and she could … stop.”
He glared at her. “She won’t stop.”
“She – won’t – stop?”
“Well, how do you know?”
“Because … Because….” He was agitated, his leg of chicken quite forgotten on the napkin next to his left foot. “Because she’s the nuttiest old woman I’ve ever met! Don’t you think I haven’t tried to go over there and ask her to stop at least a dozen times?”
“Well, I’m sorry, but—”
“And all she does is scream at me. Scream at me! Tells me I’m a fraud and a liar and a swindler and that she’s never broken windows in her life!”
“She is a bit – forgetful,” she said.
“Forgetful, my foot!” he cried. “She’s a cheat! She’s a window-breaker!”
“Well….” He really did look quite attractive when he was angry. Those red splashes of color in his cheeks. Those intense brown eyes. She felt herself swooning, but caught herself. Tummy tucked and back straight, she clawed around inside herself for words. He was so different, so different from anyone she had ever met. “Well, if I pay for your windows, would that help you to—?”
“No, no!” He scowled, but at least he remembered his chicken and picked it up again. “I won’t take money from you. It’s not your fault.” He ripped a big chunk of it off with his teeth.
“But I hate to see you upset, Edward.” Not really, though. He was so powerful when he was upset. So different from the napkin-waving man he’d been only minutes before. A man with so many dimensions.
He looked at his watch and muttered something about the time. “Sorry to cut our outing short.”
“But we were having such a lovely time!” she cried, but he was already packing the basket, throwing the chicken into the Tupperware container any which way. She scrambled to her feet. The napkin fell onto the rainbow-colored towel. “But we were going to swim!”
“I know,” he said. “But I just remembered I have a meeting at four o’clock. With a client.”
She followed him to his Lexus, sternum lifted just as she’d learned in ballet. Still in her bathing suit, she wondered how her thighs would appear when gravity worked to accentuate the flabbiness of them against the leather seats of his car.
“May I borrow your towel?” she asked as he unlocked the door. The towel was draped over his shoulder like part of a toga costume.
“Of course,” he said, and tossed it to her.
He walked around to the passenger side and opened the door. “After you, Margaret.”
She dipped her head to thank him, but he was not smiling, nor was he looking at her. Lifting her chin, she sat down and pulled the towel very quickly over her legs before he could see.
Edward slammed the door and came around to the driver’s side. He turned the key in the ignition and cranked up the radio volume. Nineteen-eighties butt rock. Electric guitar solos. She could almost envision the mullets, the tight jeans. It reminded her of her twenties when she was young and all the men flocked to be near her….
She calmly surrendered herself to loving him. After all, he was so different, so different from anyone she had ever met.