I entered and lost another writing contest. And so, as I’ve done before, I’m now posting the exact short story I submitted.
The contest was administered in January by McSweeney’s (who, incidentally, are going through some financial troubles right now, and as a result are having a big sale), and the premise was to turn one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unrealized story ideas into a full short story. I’m completely familiar with his writing style (I read The Great Gatsby in high school, and that’s it), so I didn’t even try to conform to it.
The unrealized idea I used was “A tree, finding water, pierces roof and solves a mystery.” I think I did okay with it.
Here you go.
The Current of Rock Creek, by Ryan Gratzer
“Shove your butt in the car, girl,” Curtis croaked at his dog. Skylie was frozen just below the open door. Her back arched until her four feet nearly touched. She shook slightly and dirt powdered off her black fur. She looked at Curtis, and Curtis threw his cane over her head and through the open door. She didn’t budge, and so, his two hands free, he shoved her butt into the car.
Once inside, she was happy. She loves cars. She always forgets that. Especially when it’s time to get into one. The thought of entering cars is paralyzing, but riding in them is a blast.
Curtis’s car wasn’t an ordinary car in the standard sense. It was a truck. An old truck, tan and covered in dents. The license plate was bent forward, unreadable unless you were lying on the ground practically underneath the car. Or truck. The registration hadn’t been renewed since 1985. “I never drive it to town,” he once told me. “Then what do use to go to town?” I then asked. “I use the coupe.” I looked around. I didn’t see a coupe anywhere. I’d never seen him driving anything other than his beat-up truck. And I see him driving it every day.
The moment the door sealed Skylie into the cab, a cat bolted from behind a tree stump on the other side of the driveway. It bound straight through a bush, a puff of leaves pushing out with it, and then it disappeared under the truck.
“Wait a minute stop!” I called out to Curt. I hopped out of the cab, where I’d been sitting on my knees, waiting for us to get going to Rock Creek. I got back on my knees, this time in the dry dirt of the driveway. There he was, black and still, standing on the back axle.
“Here pussy pussy,” I cooed to the cat, playing with my finger in the dirt. I made a track and a trail, and some little dirt mounds, probably a moderate hill for ants. But the cat, it was one of Curtis’ semi-stray cats, this one named Banjo, was stuck still and not interested at all in the playful things now etched in the ground between the wheels.
“What was that?”
“It’s the cat,” I answered. “It’s under your car, so don’t start it.” I spoke extra loud so he could hear me. “Does it come to pussy?” I was thinking of myself like that over-sized Bobby in Yellow Submarine, sprawled on the ground trying to convince a cat to cross the road. But I didn’t bring it up because I didn’t think he’d hear me correctly.
“C’mon, Rat,” he called to me. I guess he did that because in the sideview mirror all he could see was my butt. “Get that cat out of there already and let’s go.”
I couldn’t reach Banjo, and Banjo seemed happy or frightened up there. He just stood on the axle between the wheels. I feared for his life. And while I tried as I could to entice him to come down, I could sense Curt’s impatience.
“Hold on I’ve already got him,” I said, but it came out wrong. “But he’s not budging, so I’m going to-”
From somewhere underneath the truck I could hear the click of the key. The engine chugged first and then erupted loud in my face. I was prepared for cat guts, but it didn’t happen. There aren’t really any spinning blades or combustion near the back axle of a truck. I remembered. The cat bolted away back toward the stump. Not quite a heart attack.
I hopped back in the back and we rattled along the dirt road to Rock Creek.
Rock Creek’s a small creek, flat on each side and filled everywhere with little rocks. Curt’s my neighbor, and near our houses is a nature trail that runs along the creek. Just above that is another, more distant neighbor’s property. The property contains plenty of dead but standing madrone trees, and an owner who is only too happy for us to take them. The owner, Susan, was gone this day, on either a river rafting expedition or a mountain biking expedition. She is a teacher, but she recently realized that, at 50, she’s getting old and soon her expedition days will be over. So she’s gone a lot. Curtis is often taking care of her dog, Bamse. Bamse and Skylie are both black dogs, and I get them mixed up all the time.
Curtis and his friend Selmer have spent a lot of time on this creek. They’d been living in this area for a combined total of 80 years. Selmer’s dad, in fact, owned a hunk of property which the creek ran through. It was part of a farm called Arbogast Farm. Nothing was left of the farm, but nearby there was an Arbogast Farm Road. All I knew or cared about Arbogast Farm was that it contained a wood mill that Selmer’s dad built. Selmer has told me that the map at the beginning of the nature trail marks the spot where the remnants of the wood mill are. But I’ve looked at the map, and all I saw marked was one miscellaneous remnant. I journeyed to it and it turned out to be some sort of rolled up rubber mat, lodged beneath a few ferns. Every time I walk the nature trail I keep an eye out for a covered over offshoot that’ll lead to the secret wood mill.
Reaching the creek, we found Selmer and my dad waiting for us. Selmer drove there in a sports car, wearing a puffy vest and a safari-type hat, and my dad drove a truck, wearing a gray wool pullover. We all wanted wood.
Skylie jumped out of the truck and started making out with Bamse. They were a tangle of black fur, and I quickly lost track of which was which. My dad and I, though not talking much given that we had hung out just an hour ago, and not much else had happened since then, we looked at one another, both thinking of our sick dog back home. A few months ago Samson would have been straight in that session. But now he was stuck at the house, losing weight and time.
“Tim, how do you do today?” Selmer asked me. We shook hands.
“Fine,” I said. “Doing fine.”
The madrone trees line up alongside the creek, their trunks black and fanning out, their branches arching over and tapping those from the other side of the creek. Most of the leaves were fallen, laid as carpet over the entrails of the creek. The flow was about eight feet wide, but low, never covering over the largest, bowling ball-sized rocks. A steady tinkling was heard, as well as a light breeze rustling through the tops of the trees.
I jumped out of the truck and hopped down to the creek to get a closer look at some trunks. The first indication of a dead tree is the complete lack of leaves.
“Isn’t the first indication of a dead tree the comp–”
Curtis, to my dad and my and maybe Selmer’s surprise, immediately started backing his truck into the creek. He followed two small tire tracks that ran off the road, a turn-around spot, it looked to me. But where those tracks ended he kept going, straight through the bushes fencing the road from the creek. He moved slowly backward, the truck creaking and bending down the uneven slope.
He settled the truck right in the middle of the creek. Some water ran into the tires, but otherwise everything continued on as normal. Curt popped his head out the window, his floppy fisherman’s hat covering everything but a crooked grin.
“Guide me,” he said to any of us. We were all along the creek at that point, and all a little uncertain as to what was happening next. Maybe Selmer knew. I didn’t see how Curt would have a lot of maneuvering available while in the middle of the creek.
But then backward he started, not waiting for us to rescue him.
The truck didn’t do very well in the creek bed. He was making progress, all right, it was just that the bed of the truck kept threatening to bend apart from the cab. Sometimes both ends looked to be going in entirely different directions. The hollow crunching of rolling rocks and squeaking metal overwhelmed the soft sounds of nature.
I guided him. “Okay, now,” I said. “Okay, keep- all right.”
I didn’t know when he was planning to stop, considering we hadn’t even started or finished prospecting for dead trees to take down.
Then a chainsaw whirled on behind me. I whipped around to see that I wasn’t being decapitated. My dad wielded it, with Selmer standing close by, maybe spotting. Curt kept backing up the truck, and I jumped out of the way and watched the chainsaw. Curt obviously didn’t need my guidance anymore. He has the gist of it: lots of small rocks threatening to destroy the truck; ignore them and maybe everything will be okay.
My dad wasn’t wearing safety goggles, but he was wearing gloves. He and Selmer were standing by one leaf-less madrone. The branches arched back away from the creek, up the hillside, frozen in stretch after its last dying gulp of water. The chainsaw sliced into the trunk near by dad’s waist, chips sprayed. Of all the directions the tree could fall, I hoped it wouldn’t fall where any of us were. The chances were slim. And we could always run once it starts tipping-
It fell over in what seemed like half a second, directly across the creek. It fell with a crackle and a small bounce.
“Wooh!” My dad cheered.
“All right!” I said.
Curt was already out of his car and walking over, hobbling over, with his cane in one hand and a long metal chain in the other. The chain dragged through the rocks, clinking as it went. One end of it eventually connected with the back bumper of the truck.
The felled tree was longer than the width of the creek, and both sides of the creek were lined with shrubs and other trees. I didn’t see how dragging the tree down the creek was going to work. So while they worked on securing the chain around the trunk, on mumbling the plans which at this point I think only Curtis was clear on, I moved a few rocks and fallen branches away from the future path.
My dad and Selmer stood behind the fallen tree. I stood in front but way off to the side. Curt revved the truck, and all the tires simultaneously climbed different sized rocks. The chain became taut. The tree slid, dragging not spinning. It pushed rocks, and they cracked against one another. Sometimes it wedged itself behind branches and mounds and rocks, then sprang out and continued the grind. It dropped streams of bark, and they caught the flow and washed past underneath. The stream tickled the trunk. The innards of the dead tree once again felt the touch of water. Curt’s truck creaked and whined, the entire bed wanting to pull off and liberate Curt and his steering wheel. And then it was stuck. Really stuck, the base of the trunk, smooth and sharp-edged from the chainsaw wound, it was lodged into a small mound covered over in leaves.
Selmer was first with the closer look. The mound was a few feet above the creek’s edge.
“It’s in there,” he insisted. He gazed at the butt of the trunk, mounting a foot on the mound, his hands on his hips.
“Looks like we should maybe dig it out,” my dad suggested. He still had the chainsaw in his hands.
“Just hurry up,” Curt called out the window. He revved the engine. The tree creaked, and in one place squeaked shrill against the rocks. My dad and Selmer jumped back.
“Careful!” Selmer called.
The chain wobbled, two feet above the water. Curt still worked the gas, but the tree only pierced deeper into the mound, one end of which bulged like it was about to explode.
My dad turned on the chainsaw, and Curt turned off the truck. He sliced off the trunk a foot out from where it emerged from the mound. Disconnected from the rest of the tree, the stub of the trunk was still lodged into the mound. So Selmer kicked it. He kicked it again. Then my dad kicked it, and the thing fell out and into the water.
“Hey look at that,” Selmer said. He dropped to his knees and dug into the mound. My dad kicked away leaves and dirt from the top. Selmer’s hands were deep into it, shuffling around.
Curt and I both came in for a closer look. We shloshed through the water, avoiding the dry rocks. From the corner of my eye I spotted the two dogs darting past on the road above. Chasing after a sound we couldn’t hear.
“I think this is part of my dad’s mill,” Selmer exclaimed.
“Your dad’s what?” asked my dad. He stood above Selmer, with one foot on the mound.
“The old Arbogast Mill,” Curtis chimed in. He positioned his cane, chin-high, in front of him, resting both hands on top. His rested his chin on his hands, peering down at the hole.
Selmer held in his hands a rotted plank of wood.
“I think this might be the roof.”
“Well,” Curt said, “let’s dig in already and see what else is under there.”