My response to last week’s “Restrained Impulse” exercise is below. I have to say, I’m not sure I hewed as close to the exercise as I could have. I wanted to present the story of a gang flunky who couldn’t keep from laughing as a way of replicating Robert Hill Long’s dynamic of a small girl who couldn’t keep from dancing. A flaw in the story, I think, is that my main character doesn’t have a strong relationship with a single person, as Long’s girl does with her father. He also feels a little generic to me. I’m hoping these are problems I can address through revision, but since it’s already Wednesday, and in the spirit of making my process transparent, here’s what I came up with:
Even when the boy was young, he knew that laughter meant survival. He lived in the projects with his mom and his little sister, and they used to laugh together in front of the television, or watching the neighbors out the window, mocking their outfits from nine floors above. They laughed about the broken elevators in their building, or poor Ms. Fernandez on the first floor, who came up to their apartment with her daughters when it rained because her place backed up with the building sewage whenever it rained.
At school, he laughed because it kept him alive. He laughed at the tough crowd, posturing in the hallways, hollering at the girls to come and get a taste. When a slender boy from the clique jammed a pen into the boy’s arm by way of retribution, the boy laughed again, laughed so hard that the tears streamed down his face. “You’re fucking crazy, man,” the slender boy said. The blood formed an oozing red blot on his coat. When a teacher asked him who had done this to him, he smiled. “I can’t tell you,” he said, “because snitches get stitches.” It struck him as funny that although he hadn’t tattled, his arm still got stitched up in the emergency room.
Years later, he’d hang on the street corners with his fellow souljas, laughing at the jokes cracked by their boss, a man with a limp and a revolver tucked into the back of his pants. His mother was long since dead then, his sister shacked up in the same apartment with her two children, desperate to feed them, the fathers long gone. He lived in a small apartment above a pizza shop with his girlfriend, but their laughter seemed forced, fake, no longer a buffer between their shabby apartment and the block of burnt-out buildings that surrounded them.
It is many jokes later now, many bosses later. His sister’s children, though not his own, come to visit him in the rec room and buy him candy bars from the vending machine. They tell him that things are different now. There aren’t so many burned buildings in the neighborhood, they say, although the Hispanics are beginning to move in. The boy says it with a twist to his lips, a peculiar, ironic joy. His jeans are low, his cap is slung to one side, and there are tracks on his arms that almost make the shape of a smile.