My John Steinbeck Assignment

A Saigon Boulevard

The girls, or are they women? The women sit open crotches in the humid heat, lining the boulevard in front of the mini bars that have sprung up to service soldiers. It’s hard to judge the age of Vietnamese women. They call out invitations in limited English. “Hi, GI. Number one. Number one fuck.” Should there be any doubt, their body language makes everything clear.

Living advertisements, decked out in their prostitute finery, actually not so fine. Mini skirts, high heels, tank tops of all colors, hair bleached blonde or dyed red, imitations of femme fatales they’ve seen in American B movies.

It’s just another business in the passing economy of war and occupation by a foreign army. You shouldn’t feel sad for them. They’re better off than some: the dead, the maimed, the tortured, the starving.

A good gig is a GI who picks them up, takes them out to dinner, is gentle, and pays well. They can pretend they’re being courted.

Children appear and disappear among the women. Their children. They’re not just women. They’re mothers. The children are mixed race, not by accident, but decided on ‘rationally’ because of an offer of marriage, not sincere, but an offer, from a GI. Some mixed white and yellow. Some black and yellow.

They take time out from hawking their wares, relax and play games and laugh. Girls again. Girls that play at women, business women, making money to feed themselves and their children.

Journal Entry

Paint a scene along a Saigon boulevard. Like Steinbeck’s general chapters. Add story chapter later.

Subtle political comment, not too overt (Steinbeck was criticized for being too preachy in Grapes of Wrath.)

Make the prostitutes sympathetic.

Show where and what the scene is. Don’t just say it outright like “Here we are in a boulevard in Saigon where prostitutes ply their trade.”

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3 Responses to My John Steinbeck Assignment

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    Journal Entry:

    For this assignment I decided to work on writing up some of my memories in a form that could later perhaps be strung together in the form of a memoir. I will create a list of one sentence descriptions of memories that might be able to be expanded into a paragraph or more. I will add to this list every time a new memory pops into my head. Then each day I will work on trying to expand one of these sentences into a paragraph or more.

    One Sentence Memory:

    My cousin Merril and I skin a rattlesnake.

    Expanded Memory:

    The sky was big and blue during the day. Big Sky Country. At night laying on our backs on the grass in the backyard my cousin Merril and I watched for falling stars. Northern lights flickered on the horizon. A rattlesnake skin was nailed to the wall of the shed next to the house, killed by my dad earlier that day with an irrigating shovel, carefully skinned with a jackknife by us boys, and strung up to cure. Gone the next morning. Who would have thought we would need to protect it from the birds.

    My cousin Merril and my Dad are both gone now, so guess I’m the sole living repository of this memory. A special event at a unique time and place, but once I’m gone it will presumably disappear forever into the vastness of the universe.

  2. Burk Ketcham says:

    In accordance with Richard’s request for some fiction I am attaching “The Bright Side of Dark,” a short story I wrote several months ago. It was submitted to a writing magazine contest where there was a limit on the number of words and the theme had to be some nuance of dark or darkness.

    —————————————-
    THE BRIGHT SIDE OF DARK

    A SHORT STORY BY BURK KETCHAM

    January 2017

    Today, November eleventh is one of those perfect fall days with a warm sun, no wind and beautiful colors surrounding Big Swan Lake in Washington State where I live. It is too hard to resist. So I close the door of my one-person architectural office in a small building behind my house and take off for a row in my single shell. You don’t get many days like this. With the water like glass it is near paradise to slide over the surface. As a bonus I have the lake all to myself. The only apparent noise is the slight sound at the oarlocks as I drop my oars in the water before the catch and the drive.

    It is almost too quiet. Unusually so I think.

    I can’t stay out too long today as I am finishing up the drawings for an addition to a friend’s house and I promised to have them ready by tomorrow – Saturday.

    When I return to my office I notice that the computer screen is dead. The light over my drafting table does not go on. Occasionally we have power outages but they only occur when there are major storms in the area. I check the circuit breakers but they do not seem to be the problem.

    Since the wires to the office are strung from the house, the problem might be there. No power in the house either.

    I have one of those sun-powered radios and turn it on. I can’t believe what I hear. There is a power outage along the entire West Coast including, California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Roughly, that means about 50 million people are as powerless as I am. I turn on the water and that is still flowing. I remember that the Swan Lake Water Company has emergency diesel generators for the well pumps.

    Big Swan Lake is in the foothills about thirty miles east of Tacoma. I and the 50 other families who have homes on the lake are at least five miles from the nearest store, gas station or bus line. We, like millions of suburbanites, are completely dependent on our automobiles for living a “normal” life. With no power the gas station pumps won’t be working and my car’s gas tank is only half full. I start to panic when I realize I do not have much in the way of emergency food.

    I am a widower living alone and survival thoughts are racing through my head as the radio commentator is reporting that it might be days before this energy crisis is solved. It has just been announced that the President has declared a national emergency.

    I hop in the car and head for Barker’s Corner and the nearest grocery store. When I get to the Barker Supershop the parking lot is virtually filled. There are a few spaces way out and I grab one. When I get inside it’s dark in there. The only light is from the windows and the aisles are filled with carts and people; there are huge jams at the checkout counters.

    My neighbor George Atkins hails me. “Hey Bill, did you hear that the emergency generators here in the store don’t have any fuel in the tanks? So much for emergency preparedness!”

    I reply “If you think this is dark, George, wait till the sun goes down and there are no lights in your house. If you are like me there is no emergency generator and just a few flashlights with weak batteries. Excuse me George, I need to grab one of those shopping carts out in the parking lot after someone unloads into their car.”

    I find a cart and, as I push back towards the store, I see Amy Johnson heading in. She is a widow and a friend. “Hi, Amy. What do you think of this?”

    “Oh Bill! Am I glad to see you. I just made it here. My gas tank is empty. I don’t know how I will get home.”

    “Never fear, Amy, I’ll get you there. Or better still you can come home with me and we can pool our resources.”

    “ Oh, how nice of you. Any port in a storm.” And after a slight delay, “I accept. Let’s get back in there now before the shelves are empty.”

    We load up and head to the checkout. Checkout is slow torture without the bar code scanner and the electronic credit card reader. We stand in line for two hours.

    No hope for any gas for the car. We pass the Shell station with a sign saying the pumps are not working.

    The most unusual sight is all the children and young adults who are out in their yards, on the sidewalks or riding their bicycles on the streets. I didn’t know there were that many in Barker’s Corner. Then I remember that the typical kid today spends more than four hours in front of a computer or TV screen. No doubt they don’t know what to do with themselves. My private thought is that this emergency may be the best thing that ever happened to them.

    We get home and unload the bags. We have chosen food like precooked rice and beans, which is nutritious and can be eaten hot or cold. My stove is electric – now useless. At the lake we all have natural gas for heating but without an electric pump to circulate the heat I will not have a warm house. It is November and our three coldest months are just ahead. Fortunately, I have a wood stove dating back to the time when my place was a hunting lodge.

    Amy and I were widowed recently and are in our early sixties. I know her because we are members of the same rowing club in Tacoma. That has kept us fit. She has an athletic figure that is well revealed in the body suit she wears when rowing. Often, we have shared some coffee at the rowing club after a row. Knowing she lives out this way and is now a widow, I had been intending to ask her out sometime

    “Bill, how about I make us some supper? I think I can manage on the wood stove if you get it started. Malcolm and I did a lot of backpacking before he got cancer. So I am used to roughing it.”

    I light the fire and dig out a bottle of red wine as she cooks. By the time the food is on the table it is dark in the kitchen except for candlelight.

    “Here’s to you Amy. Welcome to Big Swan Lake.”

    “Bon appetite.”

    “I was out for a row in my single when all this happened. I also have a double rowing shell so if this keeps up we could get a lot of practice time in together here at the lake.”

    Our supper conversation is congenial, mostly about the dilemma we face. There has been no mention of what will happen later in the evening.

    After supper we clean up, snuff the candle, and adjourn to the couch in the living room. I have to guide her there, as she never has been in my house. It seems that we both have lived celibate lives since the loss of our spouses. So it is not long before we are in each other’s arms. What else can you do in the dark?

    Later, we head to my bedroom and climb into bed. We soon forget there is a power outage!

    You know, this forced darkness is not that bad.

    FINIS

    .

  3. powersron says:

    Ron Boothe, I like your idea of writing down the outline of an experience in a single sentence and then going back to write a paragraph or two or three or more to flesh out the story there. I’m going to borrow your idea for myself and I’ll share it with other writing friends as well. Thanks!

    Burk, you were kind enough to share the draft of your story with me a couple of months ago and I offered you some editorial comments, some of which you incorporated into your story. What I like is that you kept it your story, and a delightful one it is. Thanks for posting so that the rest of the reading group could experience your charming short story.

    Tucson Ron

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