My mother was afraid of deep water, a fear she transmitted to me early on. In spite of that, my married siblings insisted on celebrating Independence Day fishing from the banks of the San Joaquin River or picnicking beside a clear stream in the foothills. It was a break for adults to escape a mundane workday and for kids to have fun splashing in the water. Mama kept a watchful eye on me. If I ventured into water above my knees, she waded beside me and kept a firm grip on the back of my clothes. All that changed on July 4, 1954.
That morning, we dressed in our finest, buckled our polished shoes, and walked to church. My brother, Frank, and his family were there when we arrived. His youngest son, James Henry, sat in a far corner, arms folded across his chest, head down.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked Homer, his teen brother.
“He wanted to go to the river today, but Dad made us come to church.”
“Same for us,” I said. “Church comes first on Sundays. James should know that.”
“We always go to the river on his birthday, so coming to church today was bad enough. Then things got worse.” Homer looked toward James. “He’s nine today and he just found out that all this time we’ve been celebrating Independence Day on July 4, not his birthday.”
U.S. dignitaries captured in photos at the Nelson Mandela Memorial are being judged by their body language during the celebration. I know how they feel. Not because I’ve been photographed at a similar event, because I’m a writer.
My manuscript drafted during National Novel Month 2011 opens with a Celebration of Life service for a student who died from a drug overdose. Without photos, I’ve given one character body language. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of A Time to Die.
Taylor Madrid stood at the back wall of the gym between Sheriff Marc Jameson and Andrew Bjorklund, a school counselor. Students dressed in red shirts filled bleachers that flanked the polished light oak floor. Balloons billowed from basketball posts wrapped in red ribbons, announcing a celebration rather than mourning for Rebecca Givens, her life cut short before her seventeenth birthday.
“You ever wonder about the effectiveness of these Celebration-of-Life events?” Madrid whispered to Sheriff Jameson. Before he could reply, Mr. Bjorklund spoke.
“Students can’t handle traditional funerals. Too much gloom. A celebration remembrance lets them concentrate on the good things, not reinforce the sadness. It gives them closure.”
“Wearing red and pretending that this young girl’s life wasn’t terminated by drugs isn’t closure,” Taylor said, turning to stare at the counselor. “The guilty guy—or girl—who pushed her to the end could be right here now.” Taylor motioned toward the bleachers. “At a funeral,” Taylor said, “I can tell who’s a real mourner and who’s pretending. Not at the celebrations that hide true emotions. Someone masquerading as grieving maybe gloating in satisfaction. For me, there won’t be any closure until I hear a guilty verdict with a sentence that fries the perp.”
The counselor walked toward the Givens family. His spiked blond hair, deep-set Paul Newman eyes, and a straight nose above full lips accentuated a suppressed smile in his tanned face. As Rebecca’s family left, others dispersed. Mr. Bjorklund fell in step alongside a student. Taylor head him laugh as took the girl’s arm and guided her out a side door.
What does Mr. Bjoklund’s body language say to you?
My writing niche is creative nonfiction or Chicken-Soup style memoirs so I have ready-made skeletons for my characters. My interest in a local flash fiction contest was selfish—extra credits offered by the instructor in my fiction writing course. Credits to enter. Credits to attend the celebration (already marked on my calendar before his generosity).
The day before the deadline, I touched my fingers to my computer home row keys—an ancient term I learned from my high school typing teacher in my teen years. The opening hook skittered across the screen and commanded words to follow. I cut ten percent from the 300-word limit until the printed story fit a single page. I honed the last line to an unexpected ending.
After cheesecake and lemonade at the celebration, I strolled, ballot in hand, reading dozens of anonymous entries. I chose two submissions, then circled my title, determined to receive one vote. I was engrossed in conversation with a prize-winning novelist when the winners were announced at the end of the evening. I listened but didn’t recognize the third-place title or the winner. Second place was an entry I selected, but I had not recognized a friend as the author. Like me, she had stepped out of her familiar writing territory. The first place title—a second circle on my ballot—was an unexpected twist.
In my quest for extra credits, I won first place.