FICTION: Frank’s American Dream by Charlie Hill

What follows is a how-to guide to 96% of American short stories. You won’t need a dictionary to understand what’s going on, nor anything more than the most rudimentary grasp of metaphor. This is not to say that writing 96% of American short stories is easy, rather that the challenges they present are surmountable with the application of only a modicum of nous. But look. I am getting ahead of myself; all of this will become clear. Please read on and tell me I’m wrong.

We start – where else? – in a bar:

 

The men sat in the bar. They had been drinking all day.

 

Works for me. Sense of anticipation, hint of menace. Why mess with the classics? Except they hadn’t been drinking all day, of course. They’re not bums. Just poor blue collar workers. Steel workers? Unlikely. Cops then. Yes, cops.

 

The men sat in the bar. They had been drinking since they finished work. The men were cops. It had been a good day at work.

 

Like this. Repetition of work is effective. Plus ambivalence: what is a good day for a cop? Catching a murderer? Shooting a suspect? Also: tone established through flat sentences. Now time for some detail. A splash of colour…

 

The men sat in the bar. They had been drinking since they finished work. The men were cops. It had been a good day at work.

The ashtrays on the bar were chipped. The beermats were brightly coloured and had pictures of parrots on them.

 

Chipped ashtrays, colourful beermats. Nice contrast. And exotic parrots. The bar sounds seedy. Did the men want to be somewhere else? With the parrots? Probably. How many men are there? Two? Three? More interesting dynamic with three. Sitting at the bar, not in.

 

The three men sat at the bar. They had been drinking since they finished their shift. It had been a good day’s work. The men were cops. The ashtrays on the bar were chipped. The beermats were decorated with parrots.

 

Lost the repetition of work, but compensated for this by condensing ambivalence into one phrase ‘…a good day’s work.’ Then again… Does it matter? In the context of the story? Are the men in a good mood, is that it? Dunno. Maybe one of them is drunker than the other two? That has possibilities. And a barman. There has to be a barman in the bar. Is he involved?

 

The three men sat at the bar. They had been drinking since they finished their shift. It had been a good day’s work. The men were cops. The ashtrays on the bar were chipped. The beermats were decorated with parrots. The barman listened as the men talked about their work.

 

Hmm. This is a bit too stylised for my liking. Too staccato. Need to have that sort of prose as an option later on, to crank-up tension in the build-up to the end. Poor sentence construction as well (too many ‘The…’s). And talked about their what? Can’t have another ‘work’ (too far away from the first for repetition to be effective.)

 

The three men sat at the bar. They had been drinking since they finished their shift. The men were cops and it had been a good day, for one reason or another. The ashtrays on the bar were chipped and the beermats were decorated with parrots. The barman listened as the men talked about their work.

 

Better rhythm, but not feeling the ashtrays or the beermats any more. Oddness of ‘decorated with parrots’ is nice but only if the parrots come to mean something more. One of the men might be going away somewhere. Saving for a holiday. In Florida? Are there parrots in Florida? Hmm. Maybe lose the parrots. Also ‘For one reason or another’ is ok, but possibly crosses the line from ambivalent to vague (see also: ‘decorated with parrots’; ‘their work’.) Need to add something declarative. Could do weather, I suppose, I mean you’re not supposed to open with weather but still…

 

The three men sat drinking at the bar. They had been drinking since they finished their shift. The men were cops and it had been a good day at work, for one reason or another. Outside the bar, the heat melted the asphalt in the road.

Two of the men were drinking cold beer, one whisky with ice. The barman listened as the men talked about their work.

‘You got any more ice, buddy?’ the whisky drinker said to the barman.

 

OK, so that works. Forget the parrots – here’s the motif: hot weather/ice. Not sure about the cop thing now though. How do cops talk? No idea. And cops are either good cops or bent cops. Neither is original cops. So. If they’re not cops, we’re back where we started. Who are these men? Something to do with the weather? Yes. The motif: heat/ice. The asphalt perhaps. Do they work on the road, laying asphalt? Not sure that’s what you do to asphalt. Or are they clerks? Clerks in a cash-and-carry that sells bags of ice. No, no. No cash-and-carry is going to employ three men just to shift bags of ice. Got it. They’re salesmen. White goods salesmen. Selling refrigerators.

 

When they had finished work, the three men went drinking. They sat at the bar and sweated each time they moved to pick up their drinks. Outside, the asphalt was melting. Two of the men were drinking cold beer, one whisky with ice.

‘You got any more ice, buddy?’ the whisky drinker said to the barman.

 

That’s not right. ‘They sat at the bar…’ and the asphalt detail look the wrong way round. And no, they’re not salesmen. They’re engineers. Refrigerator engineers. And the barman’s fridge is broken. Or he’s run out of ice. No, no. I know what.

 

When they had finished work, the three men went drinking, as they often did. In the street, the asphalt was turning to liquid. The bar’s air-con was broken and the place was being cooled by a solitary fan, that swivelled crankily. Each time the fan swung past, the men melted a little more. Two of the men were drinking cold beer, one whisky with ice.

‘You got any more ice, buddy?’ the whisky drinker said to the barman.

 

Like it. Colour from surroundings/weather. Unforced. Time to bring the barman in. Not sure about ‘the men’, though. If this is where they go drinking after work the barman would know their names.

 

When they had finished work, Jim, Ronald and Al went drinking, as they often did.

 

Nah.

 

When they had finished work, Al, Jose and Jim went drinking, as they often did.

 

Nah.

 

When they had finished work, Ronald, Jose and Jim went drinking, as they often did. It was the hottest day of the year. In the street, the asphalt was melting. The bar’s air-con was broken and the place was being cooled by a solitary fan, that swivelled crankily. Each time the fan swung past them, the men melted a little more. Ronald and Jose were drinking cold beer, Jim whisky with ice.

‘You got any more ice, buddy?’ Jim said to the barman.

The barman was called Frank. He didn’t like Jim calling him buddy.

 

OK, so Frank’s pissed off. This is where the story starts. Is he right to be? Could be. Either Frank or Jim is a wrong ‘un. Don’t like ‘crankily’. Draws attention to itself. Not sure about ‘swung past them’ either. Or ‘melted a little more.’ As for ‘hottest day of the year’; quite like it but is it too much information? Dunno. Too early to tell. We’ll see.

 

When they had finished work, Ronald, Jose and Jim went drinking, as they often did. It was the hottest day of the year. In the street, the asphalt was liquefying. The bar’s air-con was broken and the place was being cooled by a solitary fan, that swivelled slowly as it churned the damp air. Ronald and Jose were drinking cold beer, Jim whisky with ice.

‘You got any more ice, buddy?’ Jim said to the barman.

The barman was called Frank. Frank had not had a good day at work. Frank didn’t like Jim calling him buddy.

 

Hmm. So it seems that Frank is the bad guy. That might work. Only thing is, if it’s like this now, with all those ‘Frank’s in that line, something’s got to give, it’s going to have to end in violence. Don’t really want to do violence. Threat of violence always so much more. Maybe Frank’s OK. Maybe Jim’s the bad guy instead. Like liquefying though: more evocative than melting; nice contrast to the terse, simple, matter-of-fact nature of the other descriptors. 

 

When they had finished work, Ronald and Jose went drinking, as they often did. Jim came too. It was the hottest day of the year and the asphalt was liquefying. The bar’s air-con was broken and the place was being cooled by a solitary fan, that swivelled slowly as it churned the damp air. Ronald and Jose were drinking cold beer, Jim whisky with ice.

‘You got any more ice, buddy?’ Jim said to the barman.

The barman was called Frank. He’d owned the bar for three years now, and had listened to many of Jose and Ronald’s conversations. Jose and Ronald called him Frank. He didn’t like Jim calling him buddy.

 

Yes. Jim being on his own works better. Why is Jim on his own? Why does he not usually go to the bar with Jose and Ronald? Is he disliked? Or just not much of a drinker? Why is he with them today? Either way it’s time to emphasise his isolation. Bring Frank, Jose and Ronald closer together. Also, don’t like ‘asphalt was liquefying’. Too much of a mouthful. Too indulgent. Also need to fix the fan. Doesn’t sound there’s much actual cooling going on.

 

When they had finished work, Ronald and Jose went drinking, as they often did. Jim came too. It was the hottest day of the year and the roads were liquefying. The bar’s air-con was broken and a solitary fan swivelled slowly as it churned the damp air. Ronald and Jose were drinking cold beer, Jim whisky with ice.

‘You got any more ice, buddy?’ Jim said to the barman.

The barman was called Frank. He’d owned the bar for three years now, and had listened to many of Jose and Ronald’s conversations. He liked listening to the way they riffed off each other, fed each others’ jokes. Jose and Ronald called him Frank and he didn’t like Jim calling him buddy.

 

Right so, it’s definitely Frank’s story now. That works. And I like Frank not speaking; puts some space between the words and the meaning, makes the reader work a bit. But why doesn’t Frank like Jim calling him buddy? What’s wrong with that? He is – as far as Jim is concerned – just a barman. Barmen get called buddy all the time. So what is it? Is there something else about Jim that is riling Frank? Aha. Got it! That’s the foundations done – tone set, atmosphere established; from here the story writes itself (except: not ‘When they had finished’ but ‘When they finished’. And that ‘roads were liquefying’ is all wrong. Try ‘the road was liquefying’? Go back to ‘the road was turning to liquid’?)

 

When they finished work, Ronald and Jose went drinking, as they often did. Jim came too. It was the hottest day of the year and the roads were turning to liquid. In the bar, the air-con was broken and a solitary fan swivelled slowly as it churned the damp air. Ronald and Jose were drinking cold beer, Jim whisky with ice.

‘You got any more ice, buddy?’ Jim said to the barman.

The barman was called Frank. He’d owned the bar for three years now. Jose and Ronald called him Frank and he didn’t like Jim calling him buddy. Frank filled the ice-bucket. Jim took out an ice cube and rubbed it over his face.

Ronald said: ‘it’s days like this you don’t mind working in refrigeration’,
and Jose said: ‘got that right, amigo’
and Ronald said ‘amigo
and they both laughed.

Frank glanced at the two friends. He had listened to many of their conversations over the last three years and he liked them. He liked hearing the way they riffed off each other, fed each others’ jokes. The camaraderie. He looked at Jim, who looked away. Frank didn’t like Jim because Jim called him buddy and because Jim had come in at lunchtime last Friday with the owner of the fridge maintenance company, and had sat at the bar while Frank listened and had talked about how times were hard in the fridge business and how he was going to have to let Jose and Ronald go.

Sometimes Frank enjoyed working in a bar he owned. He didn’t have to worry about managers or owners, could be everyone’s friend or nobody’s. He didn’t even mind the heat, on days like this. Other times, Frank wished he worked in refrigeration, or something like it anyway.

 

Nah.

 

Jose said: ‘it’s days like this you don’t mind working in refrigeration’,
and Ronald said: ‘got that right, amigo’
and Jose said ‘amigo
and they both laughed.

 

Right. That’s all we need about those two – this isn’t about them any more than Jim. Nearly done (not sure about ‘camaraderie’, mind – would Frank know that word?  Use that word?) Quick last look, finishing touches (close a few things off, open up a few more…); and there it is:

 

When they finished work, Ronald and Jose went to the nearest bar, as they often did. Jim asked to come too and they shrugged. It was the hottest day of the year and the roads were melting. In the bar, the air-conditioning was broken and a solitary fan swivelled slowly as it churned the damp room.

Ronald and Jose were thin-muscled, wiry, but Jim was a big man and he didn’t look well in the heat. Ronald and Jose were drinking cold beer, Jim whisky with ice. Jim was eating a packet of roasted pistachios, licking the salt off his swollen fingers, filling an ashtray with the shells. ‘You got any more ice, buddy?’ Jim said to the barman.

The barman was called Frank. He’d owned the bar for three years now. Jose and Ronald called him by his name and he resented Jim calling him buddy. Frank filled the ice-bucket and slid it across the bar to Jim, who put his whole hand in. He rubbed a handful of ice cubes across his face. Jose said: ‘it’s days like this you don’t mind working in refrigeration’, and Ronald said: ‘got that right, amigo’ and Jose said: ‘amigo’ and they both laughed.

Frank glanced at the two friends. He had listened to many of their conversations over the last three years and he liked them. He liked the way they riffed off each other, fed each other’s jokes. They had each other’s backs. Then he looked at Jim, who looked away. Jim was another story. Frank didn’t like Jim. Partly because he called him buddy. Partly because of what he did with the ice bucket. And partly because Jim had come in at lunchtime last Friday with the owner of the fridge maintenance company, and had sat at the bar, and had talked about how profits were hard to come by in the fridge business and how he was going to have to let Jose and Ronald go.

Sometimes Frank enjoyed working in a bar he owned. He didn’t have to worry about managers or owners, could be everyone’s friend or nobody’s. Either way, loyal only to himself. He didn’t even mind the heat, on days when the roads were melting and the air conditioning was broken. At other times, Frank wished he worked in refrigeration.

 

Right. That’s it, isn’t it? Just need a name. What is this story? ‘Big Jim.’ Throws the reader a bit of a curve ball, but it might work. Nah. ‘Frank’s Place’? Too cheesy. What about ‘The Bar Business’? ‘Frank’s Bar’? ‘The Hottest Day of the Year’? Like that one. OrFrank’s American Dream’? Yes, that’s better. A bit oblique perhaps, but there’s a nudge there too, to allsorts of things in the text (and not; the parrots may yet fly!) Yes, I think that’ll do it.

So.

What do you think?

 

Charlie Hill has written two critically acclaimed novels, numerous short stories and a handful of poems. A short novella – Stuff –  was published in September 2016.

black tree

If you enjoy the work we publish, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or sign up to our mailing list and never miss a new short story. Your support continues to make our mission possible. Thank you.
Advertisements