But Does Today Need to Be?

This is the beginning of what I’m hoping will be a new novel; not sure of the genre:

Curled upon the blue bus bench like a comma, the middle-aged woman lay upon the metal with her eyes closed. Her head rested on a clear plastic bag. Dirty clothes wadded together formed a patchwork of colors pressed against the plastic barrier like child’s faces against a candy store window. Head wrapped in a red scarf, body wrapped in brown that covered her skinny body, no one would guess her age. Her black shoes were worn and dusty. She smelled of dirty clothes, dirty feet, and old beer. Next to the bus bench waited a shopping cart filled with the detritus of a life gone in an unexpected direction. One hand gripped the handle tightly, even as her breathing indicating slumber.

This morning she had sought the familiar bench after a night spent stumbling from sidewalk to sidewalk, the darkness folding her and clinging to her as the hours slipped past.

The rumble and vibration of the morning’s first city bus as it squeaked to a stop and spewed diesel fumes, sucking up three tired men before lumbering away, brought her back to consciousness. It was her daily alarm clock, telling her that daylight had arrived and she needed to get moving. Get moving.

Blinking at the light, her head pounded from the small bottle of cheap whiskey she’d managed to buy before the CVS closed up for the night. She planted her rag wrapped feet on the broken sidewalk and scrabbled her plastic sheet and small pile of clothing and slowly folded it all up.

She stuck the bundle carefully among the others that filled her shopping cart; then began the daily shuffle pushing it first toward the south, down Tenth East, until she got to Jackman, and then she crossed the street and headed north, up Tenth East, until she reached Avenue J. At which point she’d cross and repeat the process. It took her an hour and a half to make the circuit, sometimes more if she stopped to sit, or to beg—or turned aside to the AM/PM to get lunch and then maybe, if she was lucky, supper.

Today, she stopped for breakfast. Last night had been a good night. She’d scored an extra twenty dollars. He’d told her he wasn’t picky. He told her his name was Lincoln. Or maybe it was Ford. Or had that just been the car he’d been driving? It was kind of fuzzy. He had a beard and he’d smelled of musky cologne, maybe Old Spice, or something by Axe.

“You’re beautiful.” She remembered those words. She even believed them in the moment.

“Kind of early, aren’t you?” The store clerk chided as she walked in.

“Good night,” she muttered.

“Good morning, you mean, Becky.”

She nodded and turned her eyes toward the trays of warming blobs wrapped in paper and smelling something like breakfast: eggs, maybe, and bacon, and maybe cheese, crushed into what looked sort of like a biscuit if you took it out of the yellow paper.

* * *

The choices, small and large, of a life miss-lived; some choices innocuous, some result in significant consequences, though in themselves they are small: like a woman who decides to pull a stick of gum from her purse as she drives a twisty road. She looks down, loses control, spins off into a ditch, flips the car and snaps her neck. All because she chose at a certain moment to get a stick of gum, a choice she’d made hundreds of times before with no ill effects. How often had she been distracted driving, had close calls? This one moment, this second of decision, cost her life, far outside a reasonable cause and effect; the consequences did not naturally seem to follow from the choice. Do choices accumulate? Is this person a greater sinner and that’s why she died? No. And so, this story will be the story of Becky, whom we see in the first chapter is homeless and a prostitute.

My intent with this story is to structure it as a series of chapters, 20 vignettes of this woman’s life, each chapter a step backward and each story self-contained to some extent. Each chapter will detail a significant incident in her life–not necessarily something that anyone would imagine important, but combined with the other pieces of her existence, responsible for the person we find in that first chapter. As the reader plunges backward through the years toward her childhood, he or she will come to discover who Becky is and why she has become the person she became.

Book ends with her about to make a choice; the reader will see that if she makes it one way, then her life will become what we’ve seen in the book: she’ll become the woman of the first chapter. But if she makes it the other way, then her life will of necessity take a different path. Our choices have made us the people we are today. Different choices, and we’d have different lives, different friends, different acquaintances, different families and jobs. My thought was to show that in a story told backward.

I’m not sure it will work.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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