Lesson Plan

RD never stopped having big dreams. He had most of them sitting on a bar stool behind the counter at Skeeter’s Truck Stop where he had been a cashier for nine years.

A newspaper was sprawled out, opened to the Sports section. As usual, RD read every word and every statistic. Sometimes he’d reread articles and circle pertinent information, fix the grammar errors and typos.

When the door chime rang, RD looked up and got excited. It was Fred Pitre, a black man in his late 50s who passed through once a week for a hot shower. As usual, Fred had his tote bag hanging from his shoulder packed with clothes, towels, and toiletries.

“Mr. Pitre! How are you, sir?!”

RD’s greeting startled Fred.

“I’m okay. A little tired. Don’t smell too good. How are you, RD?”

“I just can’t believe Patterson dropped it in the fourth, twice! You called it again!”

“That boy always chokes in the fourth; I keep telling you. Say, hot water runnin’?”

RD stayed wide-eyed and smiled big. “You bet. Here, this one’s on the house.” RD picked up a stack of quarters he had ready and handed them to Fred. “Enjoy.”

“Nah, I can’t accept that!”

“Well, I’m also hopin’ you can give me this week’s picks before you leave.”

“Ha! You’re alright, RD. You’re alright.” Fred accepted the quarters and headed to the back room where the showers were.

Except for the humming from the freezer, the front of the store felt empty and quiet again. RD sat back and looked at the highway outside. He imagined driving away from Skeeter’s with a full tank of gas to join the sparse traffic with his wife and daughter in the passenger seats fast asleep. The inside and the top of the car would be packed with their most valuable belongings; they didn’t have many.

RD looked down at the sports section again and continued reading. Later that night, he would focus on a different message.
——————
RD was loyal to everyone except himself. He sat front row at every church service that his father-in-law, “Pappy” pastored and this night was no different.

Even though Pappy was a widower, he was married to the only church in town, aptly named “Farms with Arms” or “FWA”. No, not “Church of Jesus”-something; that would have shown weakness.

It was made up of a large group of pissed off families who felt their country was “hijacked by minorities, Gays, and Jews.” Their organization and their sentiment incubated inside Heart City, a small East Texas town off the highway, most of which stayed hidden behind pine trees, and rusty warehouses that sold tractors, storage sheds, and junkyard scrap.

For a long time, the population surfed at a steady 500, but when the recession hit in ’08, it forced over 200 people to move away which chain-reacted further destruction to the strength of this non-inclusive community and the only world RD knew.

Next to RD at church sat his unusually sexy gun-rights-activist wife, Maylee, and their soft-spoken nine-year-old daughter, Caroline. Caroline’s birth put the kibosh on RD’s plans to turn his online Associate of Arts degree into a career as a sports writer. That bothered RD, but he kept it to himself because, in Heart, a surprise pregnancy was God’s way of quickly turning boys into men.

In front of everyone, Pappy often proudly ordained RD as his successor. This excited RD and, quite frankly, softened the blow of his failure to fulfill his original dream. He believed in Pappy’s message not realizing it was the only truth he had been receiving his entire life. Taking over FWA was an opportunity for him to become somebody, finally.

Before Sunday night service started, Pappy whispered into RD’s ear, “Tell Maylee I’ll drive you home tonight after church. Me, you and the boys need to have a meeting.” RD got nervous and coughed out “Okay” after choking on some spit he swallowed. Is Pappy finally handing him the reins? Will RD’s training begin with short practice sermons? These and other questions raced through RD’s noggin as he sat trying to contain his excitement.

All three of Pappy’s sons shared Pappy’s philosophies, but they weren’t as smart at RD, and they knew it. They didn’t mind, though; RD had become “like kin” when he said, “I do” to their little sister at the FWA altar. They ignored that he’d “done her” somewhere on Pappy’s land very early into their courtship according to one of Maylee’s so-called best friends, “Loose-Lipped Lisa”. Her nickname carried a double meaning in Heart, but that’s not relevant to the story.

What’s important to know is that Maylee’s brothers had RD’s back, and this mutual affection grew into a militia kind of brotherly love that involved quality time together shooting bottles and cans, hunting boars and dove, and playing poker every Friday night after church on Pappy’s farm.

Sometimes Pappy would buy-in, win all their money and crack himself up in the process. He had an old rustic contagious laugh that singed the hairs off their hides when they heard it. But they got over it quickly because they respected him and admired the fact that he was a legendary poker player written about in books before he began FWA.

Pappy donned black attire like Johnny Cash, strutted around in expensive ostrich boots and crowned his silver Cesar-style haircut with his collection of beautiful Stetson cowboy hats.

When the organ sounds of the first Negro spiritual faded into silence, he removed his hat and laid it on a bar stool next to his podium. It sat there looking like a hunting dog ready to fetch the kill.

He would grip his 30-year-old podium with his big farmers’ hands and deliver salvation with nail-driving platitudes, sometimes trailed with spit from the sides of his mouth, a baptism of holy saliva on a few lucky members.

26 thoughts on “Lesson Plan

  1. gongli2000 says:

    This packs in a lot of good description and background info and seems well written to me.
    It held my interest. I like the last sentence and the phrase “baptism of holy saliva”. Its kind of amusing

    Are you sure this sentence is grammatical? It would be ironic if it wasn’t.
    ” Sometimes he’d reread articles and circle pertinent information, fix the grammar errors and typos.”

    • Anonymous says:

      Thank you!
      You are probably right about it being grammatically incorrect. It’s a tough one because it’s expressive writing so if it passes, it barely passes. Regardless, I would rather it fly off the page and not be a distraction, so thank you for pointing it out. I’m fixing it.
      By the way, it took me a few moments (long day) to figure out what you meant by “It would be ironic if it wasn’t.” When I finally did, it made me laugh. Thank you again. 🙂

  2. RGAustin says:

    Hooked from the start, moved along at a good pace, mood was well defined, got to know the characters through showing, good hint at trouble brewing. Some real good descriptions and lines. Maybe baptism ‘by’ holy saliva? (good one either way). Only thing that seemed off was “organ sounds of the first Negro spiritual.” Haters usually hate everyone so why ‘Negro’ music? Maybe clear later? Good job 🙂

    • Anonymous says:

      Thank you so much, RGAUSTIN. Yes, using ‘Negro’ is intentional. It’s partly meant to be a subtle joke and (small spoiler) it’s also meant to support Pappy’s belief, which he explains during his sermon, that early Americans did black people a favor by enslaving them and bringing them here. In the story, he begins his sermon immediately after the the last paragraph of this submission of the first 1000 words.
      Also, I like “by” holy saliva. I’ll be changing it. Thank you! Who do I make the check payable to? 🙂

      • RGAustin says:

        LOL. I’ll let you know on the check when I see you on the bestseller list… and don’t think I won’t be watching for it.

  3. David says:

    You’ve done a good job of setting up RD as a character who is intelligent, caring, and has a knack for writing, and the church setting is very interesting and well-done. The main thing I noticed is that there are a few passages where it feels like there is no clear point-of-view, and at some parts is felt like Pappy was trying to take over as the main character. The sentence, “It was made up of a large group of pissed-off families. . .” feels a little bit too much like we’re leaving RD’s perspective and seems out of place. If you want to express the beliefs of the church-goers, there might be other ways that feel more natural, such as through dialogue during a sermon. The few paragraphs near the end that describe Pappy and RD’s other family might also be improved by showing them through the lens of RD instead of just saying them outright. How exactly does RD feel about all of this? Other than that, I think you have an interesting premise and it sounds like there’s plenty of conflict to make this story grow.

    • Anonymous says:

      David,

      Great input. I’m very thankful you pointed out point-of-view because it reminded me that I need to stay aware of how I present RD. RD becomes an anti-hero due to a commitment he is about to make to Pappy. And what Pappy will be asking RD to do is not lead the church yet, but rather to do something that falls in a gray area of bad-deeds-for-a-good-cause. Later, Pappy becomes RD’s antagonist because RD wants to back out of the commitment.

      That’s why I expanded on Pappy and his other family early on and am pulling back from RD’s point of view from time to time because I want the reader to like Pappy to an extent. He’s everyone’s tough-hero-grandpa cowboy (in the South). I also want the reader to wonder if RD will eventually do the RIGHT-right thing. So, while I don’t want RD to be completely mysterious because he’s the protagonist, I don’t want his thoughts to be completely accessible to the reader, either. I don’t want the reader to automatically assume he’s going to do the right thing… because he may not. 😉

      “How exactly does RD feel about all of this?”

      Here’s RD’s backstory which I’m going to sprinkle throughout the novel: RD’s parents moved RD to Heart from out of state at a young age because they wanted him to grow up in a small town and on a farm. They didn’t, however, like nor subscribe to Pappy and the FWA’s hate rhetoric. When RD was a loner in the 11th grade, his parents were killed by a tornado. RD felt alone in the world, so Pappy took him under his wing. That’s when RD began to hang out with Pappy’s sons and met Maylee. Nine years later, with all that hate rhetoric brainwashing, we’re in the present with one very conflicted RD.

      Oh by the way, you nailed it regarding “… such as through dialogue during a sermon”. The next part is the sermon by Pappy and how the congregations responds. It’s right after the 1000 word mark so I couldn’t include it.

      Hopefully, all this will balance out once I get to the meat of the story. Again, thank you so much. This was very helpful for me. I will absolutely consider the points you made.

  4. Douglas Hazelrigg says:

    What I liked: at first, I thought the writing was too spare, but this is after all East Texas and austere, open spaces characterize that world. Jumping ahead a bit, the mention of a “negro spiritual” threw me off; given the region, I assumed these were white folks. So, I feel you might identify the race earlier. I want to say that white church folks in the South rarely if ever sing spirituals — ???

    I also felt maybe an opportunity for drama is being missed given that all three sons have no issue whatsoever in being passed over in favor of a son-in-law. Maybe they all bear varying degrees of resentment, and how they each deal with it will reveal their individual characters? Just a thought.

    Despite the spare style, one really does begin to get a feel for the setting and people involved.
    I liked the sense of augury created when RD is told to come to a meeting – one wonders what will happen… will he be inaugurated into some secret society that offends his values? For example.

    I had a good laugh about “loose-lipped Lisa” 

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hi Douglas,
    It seems “Negro spiritual” has thrown more than one person off. I will probably change that so it’s not a distraction. However, I included it as a subtle irony or joke if you will, because next up (right after these first 1000 words) is Pappy’s sermon when he expresses that slavery was beneficial to black people yet no one appreciates white people for it. He actually plays the victim card and the congregation agrees with him… Lol. I crack me up… BUT, there are churches and pockets of areas in the South that absolutely believe this. It’s scary.

    FYI, I just Googled to confirm Negro spirituals are sung at all-white, backwoodsy churches in the South. They definitely are. I thought so because when I was a young teenager, I was a member of a fire and brimstone, evangelical church and I remember singing them. It wasn’t an all-white church but it was about 90% white and there were undercurrents of racism felt from some of the members. And I remember those songs and learning later in life how old they were and what they really meant, etc.

    “… will he be inaugurated into some secret society that offends his values?”

    That’s pretty dead-on, Douglas. There’s a little more to it, of course, but wow!

    And then this:

    “… all three sons have no issue whatsoever in being passed over in favor of a son-in-law.”

    You’re absolutely right. I had thought about it but was afraid of including too much at the beginning. You just gave me a great idea, though. I can’t say anymore. 🙂
    THANK YOU, Douglas!

  6. Andrew says:

    I had a whole thing typed out but it all boiled down to a few points:
    – OVERALL: I totally get everything, nothing was confusing. Lots of great prose, fun description, unsettling settings, and great humor.

    – This is hard to express i think… It seems as though the narrator was fluctuating back and forth in tone between telling the story the way RD would have told it, and telling a story about RD the way the narrator (who isn’t like RD at all) would tell it.
    examples of where the narrator sounds like two different people:
    #1 – “…When the door chime rang, RD looked up and got excited. It was Fred Pitre, a black man in his late 50s who passed through once a week for a hot shower….”
    #2 – “…after choking on some spit he swallowed. Is Pappy finally handing him the reins? Will RD’s training begin with short practice sermons? These and other questions raced through RD’s noggin…”

    -I really liked this. The things that were supposed to be funny were funny, the things that were supposed to be upsetting, were upsetting. I’m eager to know what happens next, but something tells me maybe I shouldn’t poke around in HEART and just go on and mind my own business, stranger…

  7. C. Longoria Gonzalez says:

    You’re absolutely right, Andrew. The narrator is not RD but maybe grew up in the South. The narrator is a character like the narrator in the movie, “The Big Lebowski” only not as prominent, nor revealed. The fluctuating point-of-view was actually intentional. I swear I’m not saying that after the fact, as in, “Oh, I meant that, duh.” Lol. 🙂

    You’re the second person that’s pointed this out so I may need to re-think my strategy here if this continues to be brought up as more of the story is revealed.

    In short, I’m trying to set it up as if the narrator pops into RD’s mind because I want to develop RD into a complex character. Right now, he’s simple because of his circumstances.

    If you ever watched Breaking Bad, Walter White’s character (Bryan Cranston) is always a mystery even though he’s the protagonist (anti-hero). I love that suspense of not knowing what he’s going to do next, not just because of the shocking events, but because we’re never completely inside Walt’s head. Flashbacks of his backstory slowly reveal him but never a 100%.

    That’s what I’m aiming for in RD’s character. His transformation is the heart of the story.

    I very much needed your input. Thank you, Andrew.

  8. rachelmartin says:

    As several other folks have mentioned, the parts where you seem to adopt RD’s syntax and voice have the feel of the place and the people you are building. I’d love to see that carried throughout. You say RD isn’t the narrator/point of view for this story. Why not? Not that it should be told in first person, but why not let us see all this through his eyes? This might help us stay focused on him as the anti-hero, even when you pause to tell us more about Pappy. When RD is it church, what does he see? Think? Smell? Hear?

    I’d love to see the first section expanded a bit. We see a lot of dialogue between RD and one of his customers, but we don’t really get a feel for how he sees and understands the world. I think if we spent a bit more time in his head before you introduce Pappy, it will make it easier for us to stay focused on RD as your main character.

    I’d also like to see more of the world you’re creating. What does the store look like? Do the church members sit on hard wood benches or folding chairs? How does the light come through the windows? Are there windows, or do they worship in a corrugated metal warehouse they constructed themselves, getting together every Saturday for three months to erect a new section of the walls? Put me there.

    • C. Longoria Gonzalez says:

      Hi Rachel,

      “This might help us stay focused on him as the anti-hero, even when you pause to tell us more about Pappy. When RD is it church, what does he see? Think? Smell? Hear?”

      That is a helluva suggestion, Rachel. I was afraid there was not enough RD perspective when I brought in and described Pappy. Thank you.

      Regarding imagery: Originally, I thought I had packed in too much imagery so I actually edited it down to what you read. What if it’s a Drama with Thriller as a sub genre? Don’t I need to keep things moving? I’m afraid of packing too much in, ya know?

      Also, what are your thoughts on what I’m supposed to accomplish in the first thousand words? By the way, this is my “first rodeo”, pun intended. I would love your thoughts, if you have time. The advice out there on the interwebs seems to vary so much.

      One last thing, you’re the third person to suggest improving the point-of-view and I really like your idea seeing everything through RD’s eyes. I’m going to experiment with that and see if I can still keep him somewhat mysterious. I think I can pull that off.

      Thank you, again.

  9. Pam Portland (@TruckingWriter) says:

    I enjoy the voice in this story. He sounds like an old Texan. Clearly this is the narrator’s voice, because he mentions “that’s not relevant to the story,” as if someone is telling the story, so be sure to keep it consistent through the rest of the prose.

    I was surprised to find out this was 2008 and that RD had Internet access. I wasn’t expecting the town to be that modern based on the voice.

    Since others have mentioned “Negro spiritual,” I’ll just mention that this was one of the reasons I felt this story was farther back in time, and why it had an older narrator voice, as if the narrator’s family had lived in eastern Texas since it was part of the Confederacy. In the right context, I don’t mind the use of it to date the narrator or the setting, but the other two minority references should also have an older voice to them to be consistent.

    • C. Longoria Gonzalez says:

      Hi Pam, to your point (and others), yes, I’m definitely re-tooling the narrator’s voice and changing “Negro Spiritual” to “gospel song”. Thank you for helping me confirm that.

      And great catch on the internet access for online college in 2008! I’ll be fixing that. I think at that time they were called home-study courses or something like that. Thank you so much!

  10. Gentle Reader says:

    A couple of notes on things that haven’t been mentioned yet:

    1. Excessive use of exclamation marks:

    “Ha! You’re alright, RD. You’re alright.”
    “I just can’t believe Patterson dropped it in the fourth, twice! You called it again!”
    “Nah, I can’t accept that!”
    “Mr. Pitre! How are you, sir?!”

    2. Sharpen your hook! http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2010/06/19/sharpen-your-hooks-my-obsession-with-opening-paragraphs/

    Good luck and keep writing!

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