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Jim Bishop stared down the pale curve of his driveway to the point where it ended in a pink-purple sky, and waited for a Cadillac to come into view.

Yes. That might work. But hold on…

The Cadillac is driven by a man named Jones E. Jones, who may have two other men with him.

Old man Bishop tightened his grip on the antique shotgun in his hands—a gun he wasn’t sure would fire.

Let’s stop right there.

I don’t really want to move too fast. I only do so because I have you, an audience, watching over my shoulder, witnessing the writing of this story. And oh, I can hear your thoughts—your expectations and emotional baggage—but I must continue, even though I usually steep in the opening line, relishing the possibilities. It is my favorite moment of writing. In that first line, so much can happen that it’s—

What? Okay, I’ll get back to the story. You don’t have to be an asshole. I mean, you’re more than welcome to stay. Or, you can piss off. Just don’t expect me to hold your hand or be all like “Howdy folks! Come see how a writer writes a story!” This isn’t Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, you know.

All right, so there’s an old man holding a rusty shotgun, waiting for someone with the dubious name of Jones E. Jones—an apparent armed stand-off of some kind.

Not so complicated.

Or maybe it is. I don’t know yet, and if I don’t know and I’m the writer, how on earth could you? So be quiet. And even though this opening has a possibly complex tension, it doesn’t warrant a novel, and certainly isn’t a poem. If the story was a poem it would go something like this:

Twilight Zugzwang

Old man Bishop
leaned on the rail
with rusty shotgun
staring

where gray gravel driveway
met purpling sky

and Bishop waited
until he didn’t have to wait anymore.

Oh, be quiet. I know the poem needs more work and doesn’t do the situation justice. So we’re agreed that something else is needed. I crack my knuckles. A story. Let’s get back to work.

Old man Bishop, a loner in his late sixties, only has a fat, blind and incontinent dog named Daisy as companion. Bishop is waiting for someone with the dubious name of Jones E. Jones—a man who may or may not want to cause bodily harm. We can only infer that Jones E. wants to do harm because old man Bishop is armed. But really? We don’t know much at this point.

What we do know:

  • There is an old man named Jim Bishop standing with a rusty shotgun, staring down the light gray gravel driveway overloaded with tree limbs, waiting for someone to arrive in a Cadillac. (And sorry to add the trees now, but thought they might be nice.)
  • Bishop is waiting for a man named Jones E. Jones, who may or may not want to cause bodily harm, and might also have two other men with him.

And that is all we know—I, as author, and you as… well, frankly all of this is rather intrusive. I’d call you a voyeur, but I happen to be dressed. I suppose you are either confused, having found yourself trapped in the makings of a story instead of a story itself (which is coming… be patient) or trapped in a doctor’s office and this story was in a magazine on the table, or trapped on an airplane or at a work. Maybe you’re just bored and nosey. Maybe I’m insane thinking you even exist. Maybe you’re insane or, worse yet, we both are. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

But consider: What if Bishop is the real bastard here? What if he’s a terrible human being, but his ancient, shit-smeared dog and rusty gun—along with the fact that Bishop has been referred to as old—made you assume he was merely an old man? However, he’s an old man with a gun. Pretty frightening and scary enough.

Hold on…

You see, even in the most simple of circumstance there are myriad complexities. Likewise, all complex situations have gross simplicities. It’s all very complex and simple.

And yet that is crudely put.

Perhaps it’s best to do what most of us don’t normally do in everyday life—that is, let’s not jump to conclusions until we know everything we can. Many times, a wait-and-see approach is best when viewing a circumstance from the—

What?

The title? Twilight Zugzwang? Why are you bringing this up now? I know it sounds like a brick in the mouth, but it’s layered. If you don’t know what zugzwang means, it doesn’t matter. Titles rarely matter that much. Think of Absolom! Absolom! by Faulkner. What the fuck is that? Zugzwang is a real word though. You could look it up on your little smart phone. Or you already know it’s a chess term for being in a position where you must move a piece, but the move will cause you harm. What with Bishop’s name, I thought I’d use the chess motif a bit more. Is that okay with you? Too obtuse?

Ah, fuck it. We’ll call it the working title for now.

And I realize some of you are angry at how I’m telling this story, I can feel it—annoyed by my revelation of information (or lack thereof) as if I’m holding back some vital clue as an author, to tantalize or tease, using the artifice of my craft. But you must understand. Right now, I know nothing more about Jim Bishop or Jones E. Jones or this story than you do. So play along and be quiet. Please?

Imagine… Right now, you and I are standing just behind old man Bishop, so we see him and also his perspective. The driveway narrows to the horizon, and tree limb silhouettes reach raggedly over the gray gravel with a purplish twilight sky behind.

Yeah, okay. Sure, you can add cricket sounds and such if you want. Nice.

What? No, Mr. Bishop can’t see us. We are creating him and his story. Get a hold of yourself. Jesus, this is fiction. Now look at his face.

Eyes sunken from lack of or poor sleep, edged with worry as he stares at the place where the driveway meets the twilight sky, darkening, waiting for headlights now, and the—

What? You’re asking too many questions. Oh, I can hear them. Your voices, demands. And it’s why I’ll likely drill into my skull sometime next week. Home lobotomies work. I’ve done the research.

But I digress…

So I’ll give you some meat to fill this out for you. Setting… Setting… You want to know where on the planet the story takes place? Okay. We’ll put the story in the South—

Okay! Christ. You’re right. Too overdone.

Let’s think about this.

How about a former dairy farm in rural Michigan? The nearest town is Riley (fictional) and the closest neighbor is down RF94 about three hundred yards. How’s that?

What? Okay. Jesus. It’s present day. Good? Now what else do you find lacking? Don’t you have the patience to allow the story to—

Jones E. Jones? I know it’s a stupid name, but I’m committed to it. Same with Jim Bishop… all the names are kind of canned. But it’s weird to compose a story and then go back and change character names. Jones E. Jones? He’ll stay. Much better to let the story unfold as it will, full of moles and blemishes. And I’m perfectly satisfied with the patient pace of nature, but with you leaning over me, pressuring me with all your expectations and emotional baggage, I feel compelled to write more than an old man holding a rusty shotgun on his porch, waiting in the twilight for a car to turn at the driveway.

Just give me some space, some breathing room.

Thank you.

Now look. There are fireflies winking brief strands of light, and Bishop tries to follow a single firefly but loses it in the light of others. To the east, clouds like enormous dark brains broil toward the horizon and—

Huh? Now you don’t want any more setting? No more mood or atmosphere? All right, then. What do you want?

Yeah? Background? Okay. You want—no need, of course—you need to care about old man Bishop on some level. But again, what if it turns out he’s a terrible human being? A racist?

A white supremacist? Why? Because you assume, by my Catholic-sounding name, that I’m some white guy? Well, I am… but what about Johnny Cochran? Would you assume the same for him? Anyway, I didn’t say Bishop was white, you fucking presumptuous—

Okay. Just for that, Jim Bishop is black. Happy? Now he’s an old black man dressed in work denim, leaning on the rail of a once-blue porch rail, peeling to gray wood beneath. He’s holding a rusty double-barreled shotgun he got out of the root cellar where it has been since Bishop lost his only son and used the gun against two men who had killed Jim Junior. Except old man Bishop killed the wrong men. Certainly, they were terrible men, but not the ones who killed his boy. Thinking he had cleansed the world of evil, Bishop hid the shotgun behind the apple crates at the back of the cellar, and there it has stayed through the end of the farm and the death of Maye, his wife of nearly forty years. Now he holds the rusty thing in his hands, watching where the gravel driveway ends in purple-black sky. Tree limbs fade into the sky where not dipping into the lightness of gravel. Bishop shifts and winces at his stiffness. He blinks and refocuses. He’s been standing for nearly an hour, and the first star comes out like a dim pupil watching him watching for stronger lights to pour into the driveway.

Good, yes? So now we know that Mr. Bishop isn’t a completely terrible human being, and if a racist he’s perfectly fine to believe the two men who killed his boy were black, down from Detroit and having a night in nearby Riley. Jim Bishop shot them, just like that, at a four-way stop on the edge of town (image: intersection leading away in diagonals from Bishop’s perspective, using the chess motif).

Boom! Boom!

I forgot to mention it was an over-under, double-barreled shotgun. Sorry.

The men he killed, as I said, were terrible. Both had assault, domestic violence and felony charges. They were known to have collected debts for a minor Detroit drug lord. So the Riley Police Department wrote the killings off and it was in the local paper for two or three days, then the locust infestation started and that was that for news.

And while Jim and Maye Bishop thought it was over, the police eventually found the real killer of their boy. The Bishops saw the killer on television. The evidence was clear. He was locked away for life.

And here, let’s go for the classic: A white redneck. Why not stoke the already red embers of racism smoldering across our country?

Anyway…

Maye’s hair went gray and she died two years later. Ever since, Mr. Bishop has been all alone, save for Daisy. He got the now-old and shit-smeared hound after Maye died in the hope that the companionship and need of a dog would keep the shotgun out of his mouth. The old girl had done her job well, and for many years man and dog—

What do you mean, enough? Get to Jones E. Jones already?

Okay. So I assume that you assume that Jones E. is coming to enact vengeance for the murder Bishop was responsible for all those years ago? That right? I suppose it could work. But it’s fairly predictable, as we’ve just witnessed. Let’s consider some other options.

What if Jones E. Jones thinks old man Bishop is a different old man by the name of Bishop, and he’s come to enact vengeance for something our old man Bishop is entirely innocent? Now that’s a good story…

Or maybe Jones E. is a long-lost relative searching out his roots, having been given up for adoption after Bishop’s younger sister died in childbirth oh so many years ago. Meh.

Perhaps Mr. Bishop often stands on his porch holding a rusty shotgun and stares down his gray gravel driveway to the point where it ends in a pink-purple sky. Eh?

All right, then. Aliens have landed. It’s all over the news. The globe-headed invaders don’t just do anal probes, but tear out and collect human assholes. Once cured, they look and feel like those dried apple rings you can get in the health food aisle. Yes, the aliens cure human assholes and wear them on their long, bony fingers, or weave them together into a small cape made of assholes. And Bishop is standing on his porch, waiting for aliens to arrive in a Cadillac, or—

What? Really? No? Look, I’m merely making sure I have the story right. Sometimes, as a writer, I have to go down corridors of possibility that are stupid or impossible to find the right passage, the right path for the story. And even though it’s the least fantastic scenario, I’ll play with some of the more sober ideas explored.

That is, old man Bishop often stands on his porch staring down his light gray driveway to the point where it ends in a pink-purple sky, etcetera, only usually not holding a shotgun.

And yes, Jones E. is coming, but not to do Mr. Bishop bodily harm. Jones E. Jones isn’t related to the two thugs shot to death fifteen years ago. That’s what Bishop thought as soon as he heard a slick-looking black youth with gold teeth in a slow smile was down from Detroit, asking around Riley. The post office clerk told him as much earlier this morning.

“Yep,” said Alex, the potbellied, alabaster postal clerk with a head so round that people called him “Moon” behind his back. “Some slick-looking fellow calling himself Jones E. Jones rolled up. Left his Cadillac idling in the no parking area. Had himself gold teeth, right in the front. Car thumping that awful music the kids like so much,” Moon said with melody in his voice, sliding Bishop’s mail across the counter. “Two others sitting in there like mannequins.” He smiled a wedge of gums.

And I know… Dialogue! Finally!

Please be quiet and pay attention…

Anyway, old Jim Bishop swallowed hard and pretended to study the envelope in his hand offering a new credit card—Pre-Approved!

“What else did he say?” Bishop said in a very low voice.

Oh, I forgot. Old man Bishop has a very low voice, like Barry White and James Earl Jones combined.

“Well,” Moon sang in a long note. “That Jones E. fellow wanted to know your address, of course. Why didn’t you say you had a nephew coming down from the city?”

And old man Bishop went home, ducked into the root cellar and grabbed the cold barrel of the shotgun.

From here, things pretty much fall into place. Most likely, Jones E. really is Jim Bishop’s nephew. Maybe Bishop shoots his nephew dead on sight by mistake. Or perhaps they embrace in tears of joy and start up the dairy farm again (image: Jones E. Jones milking a cow, smiling with his gold teeth). Maybe Jones E. really is back to avenge the death of his father so many years ago.

Don’t get mad. Hell, I can make Jim Bishop is a white supremacist and a terrible human being. I could go back to that, even put the story in the South. Yeah, maybe Bishop is a notoriously hateful man and Jones E. Jones is the parish preacher, come to talk the word of God, to bring the old man into the fold of everlasting love and the baby Jeezus.

To be frank and to the point, all of the rest of the story is pretty humdrum stuff. Heart-wrenching pathos or a bloody shootout. Both could function as a story.

Okay, okay… But listen. Sometimes, as a writer, all the work and layering toward some climax or epiphany… well, it can be boring. Honestly, I don’t really care about the end and all that respice finem stuff because, on some level, any branch of possibility leads into entirely new branches leading into new branches, all of which could be interesting, some more than others. So I find the movement toward what we consider the “end” to be overpacked with useless information and clutter. The spotlight artifice is too bright. Too much is illuminated, chasing away all the shadows where the best storytelling abides.

I know, goddammit. I know. You came to this story with your expectations and emotional baggage, and you wanted a good tale with tension, rich characters and a decent plot.

I’m sorry if I disappointed you.

But I never promised anything specific, and you always had the choice to leave, to stop reading. I don’t have such a luxury. I have to end this fucking story somehow.

Or you can. Feel free to finish Jim Bishop’s tale. Take control of the situation and play it out any way you like—even with aliens who collect and wear human assholes as jewelry and capes. Just don’t be surprised if you’re not satisfied with the result. I’m usually not satisfied when I get to the last word of a story.

So, yes. I’ll leave this story where I find it most beautiful, unadorned and nascent, full of ambiguity and intricacy, with infinite endings. I’ll write the story from beginning to end and it will read like this:

 

Twilight Zugzwang

Jim Bishop stared down the pale curve of his driveway to the point where it ended in a pink-purple sky, and waited for a Cadillac to come into view.

 

Joshua Cochran

Joshua Daniel Cochran was raised by wild hippies in a commune outside of Quartzite, Arizona. There, he learned survival skills, hand-to-hand combat, as well as advanced weaponry training. He also liked to read and write. He eventually became a hacker for Anonymous. He enjoys a battle of any kind, so long as he wins. Stealing from the rich via his online skills, Cochran attended and graduated from the University of Arizona and City College of New York. He has written a lot of stories and even a few books, but to list them would be tedious and seem braggadocios or, worse yet, desperate to show that he’s a well-heeled writer. Cochran’s writing can sometimes seem confrontational or downright hostile toward the audience because he is a misanthrope who happens to love human beings, but only as a concept. Otherwise, he’s a nice enough guy. Or not. Hell, he’s kind of an asshole.

14 comments

  1. Joshua Cochran ( Likes: 28 ) says:

    Now that’s some fine fine criticism.

    The longer responses are best… methinks the lady doth protest too much.

    But kudos too for the psychological analysis. At least you’re trying.

    Keep up the great work!

  2. Corey Redekop ( Likes: 25 ) says:

    It’s a tough form, writing like this, breaking the fourth wall constantly. When it’s done well, it can be thrilling. Chuck Palahniuk has achieved this a few times, and Stephen King often excels at storytelling where the storyteller is the story, if you take my meaning (I kind of confused myself). If this were cut back, the story would be much stronger. I admire the risk involved, if not the result.

    1. Jill M. Talbot ( Likes: 804 ) says:

      Breaking the 4th wall is a risk worth admiration, meta writing that whines and mocks its readers is something else entirely.
      It’s not the wall he broke.

    2. Joshua Cochran ( Likes: 28 ) says:

      Thanks, Corey… it’s not for everyone.

      I like breaking things. And if the result didn’t please some, then I kind of accomplished my goal. Yes, I am mocking the reader (you). You deserve it.

      The only whine here is that sound in your head. Try screaming into a pillow.

  3. Dan Glover ( Likes: 618 ) says:

    What is this story even about? The narrator seems intent on proving what an asshole he is. Okay. I get that. But I realized that by the time I read the first dozen sentences. Yet he just keeps on and on. This story, and I use that term loosely, isn’t good. Listen. I realize you as the author seem to take issue with his readers since you are a self-confessed misanthrope but hell so am I. That does in no way obviate the need to write at least moderately coherent prose. Reading this, I am reminded of a caveman who finds himself irritated by the black squiggly lines he sees on the paper he uses to wipe his ass.

    1. Joshua Cochran ( Likes: 28 ) says:

      Great comments, Dan.

      Do you know that, in fiction, the speaker isn’t always the writer? It’s a pretty basic concept. And it’s in your best interest… because if I thought you were the speaker in your story, I’d think you’re a flat line on a heart monitor. One note.

      I enjoy shape-shifting. I enjoy play. For this story, and it’s actually many stories, I had fun poking at the audience.

      If you don’t like it, lump it. My speaker would likely tell you to go fuck yourself anyway. As for me, I hope you find something recycled and bland to enjoy. You will.

  4. Donnie Schultz ( Likes: 725 ) says:

    The story of Jim Bishop and Jones E. Jones could have been a great one, and I would very much have liked to read it. Instead, I got a masturbatory breach of the fourth wall whose only purpose was to take a cheap shot at the audience. If I hadn’t committed to read the entire story out of respect, I would have stopped a few paragraphs in. If it had been truly instructive in the art of storytelling, that might have been ok. It wasn’t. The only lesson to be had here was “Just do whatever you want!” When I read the (working?) title, I was excited. Zugzwang is an excellent impetus in storytelling, and I don’t mean the chess move, I mean the actual German concept of being forced to act despite the certainty of negative impact. Think “Saw”: If you don’t saw your own leg off, you die. There was no Zugzwang, and this was truly disappointing. On that note, you can’t negate an audience’s disappointment by saying you expected their disappointment. That’s like me saying it’s ok that one of my ad campaigns made no money because I knew it wouldn’t. I would be fired. Last (and trust me, I really could go on), it’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (mind the apostrophe, please), but I guess you wouldn’t know that due to your kibbutznik upbringing where you likely spent more time tearing legs off toads than learning the values of cooperation and mutual respect.

    1. Joshua Cochran ( Likes: 28 ) says:

      Donnie,

      Your critique actually served my purpose. Thank you. Yes, “being forced to act despite the certainty of negative impact” is the whole point of the story. Basically, in your infantile response, you rewarded my efforts. Thank you again.

      So, you work in advertising. I’m glad you have a day job that prevents you from writing more canned prose than you already manage.

      Otherwise, the wall of words that is your reply reeks of deep insecurity.

      Great catch on the typo! Glad you’re swinging big, and managed to find one. If you’d like me to do the same to your tedious story without an ending, I’d be happy to.

    2. Donnie Schultz ( Likes: 725 ) says:

      Joshua — look, I get it. You’ve got an MFA. You’ve published a few books, which have gotten great reviews. Most importantly for me (and the only reason I continue to engage with you despite the obvious fact that you simply can’t be bothered), your students love you. They say that you give excellent feedback, and as such, I’m wondering why you’re so reluctant to do so here.

      I’m not a published author. I don’t have an MFA. This is the very first contest I’ve ever entered. The extent of my acclaim is having one of my articles featured on Medium (to my great embarrassment). Yeah, I’ve got a job that pays me well and provides me health insurance, which is more than most people my age can say. This allows me to focus on writing and on becoming a better writer. I would love to hear some actual feedback from you, but you just don’t seem to give a shit. So if you’re not going to give me anything useful to go on, then kindly see yourself out.

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