Because my Grandpa’s stories are oral history, it felt natural to write them as dialog, with long, descriptive settings. What has resulted is a play that’s meant to be read, rather than staged. I’m not sure this is the best format, but doing it this way was a wonderful way of capturing those conversations–and no matter what format the book eventually takes, it’ll be a great source to mine for dialog. Here’s a little snippet–see what you think:
SETTING: A kitchen. Carol stands at the stove stirring something. Bodie and Marie kneel on the sofa in the living room, their elbows propped on the window sill behind the sofa, noses pressed to the glass. Pam puts plates on the table. Sally and Matt play on the floor with a giant Texaco truck and a set of blocks.
CAROL (impatiently): Come away from that window. I told you kids they won’t be here for over a week.
MARIE: But the drive only takes four days. I remember.
CAROL: They don’t do it like we do. They like to stop and eat, and see things on the way. They haven’t even left home yet, and when they do it’ll be another two weeks before they get here. They’re going through the Black Hills and the Badlands and Yellowstone. They might even stop at the Grand Canyon.
BODIE: But they might skip all those things. They might just come straight here.
CAROL: No they won’t! Now come away from the window.
(The two girls slide reluctantly off the sofa and scuff across the living room. Marie surreptitiously kicks over the block tower Sally is making. An engine hums and both girls shoot back to the window.
CAROL: I’m not going to tell you again, they won’t be here until two weeks from Friday, at the earliest. Now get away from that window.
Scene: The same, two weeks later—living room, kids playing, Carol sewing this time. This time Pam and Marie are at the window. An engine hums and gravel crunches, and a Galaxy 500 slides past the window.
PAM and MARIE (shouting): Grandma and Grandpa are here! Grandma and Grandpa are here!
BODIE (running from the bedroom): They’re here! Grandma and Grandpa are here!
SALLY and MATT (running from the hall): They’re here? Grandma and Grandpa? They’re here!
(All five children rush outside and stand, jigging impatiently, as the car door swing open and Bill and Gladys climb out. Gladys is dressed in a sleeveless, floral print cotton shift, bare legs, anklets, and flat shoes that tie. Bill wears a short-sleeved plaid cotton shirt and green duck pants. The children mob them, hugging them, burying their faces in Bill and Gladys’ stomachs and shoulders (depending on child height). Bill and Gladys reach out, hugging each child in turn, dispensing greetings and exclamations.
GLADYS: Ooh, I’ve missed you so much. (hugging Pam) Pam, you’ve gotten so tall. Marie, look at you, that pretty blonde hair.(she reaches out and strokes Marie’s head)..and Bodie, you’re as tall as Marie…where’s Sally? Oh, here you are…just look at those curls…(she picks up Sally and squeezes her) Matt, you’re such a big boy…We bought you kids some presents on the trip…They’re in our suitcases. When we get in the house I’ll get them out for you.”
BILL: Hey, hey, if it isn’t Pam, and Bodie, and Marie…Sally…how’s my little potato bug? We stopped at Fort Bridger. I wish you could have seen it. I boughtcha a little something there. Matt, gotta handshake for Grandpa?
GLADYS: We went through the Black Hills and the scenery was just bee-yoo-ti-ful! I took a LOT of pictures.
(Milling and chattering, the children drag Bill and Gladys’ suitcases and boxes into the house and into the bedroom they will be using.)
VOICEOVER (BODIE): And eventually the suitcases opened and Grandma handed out her presents: “Here, Bodie, this is for you…” And she would hand me a furry hat with pompoms on the ties, a pair of pretty socks, a tiny doll in a long dress, apron, and sunbonnet.
Grandpa carried his presents in his pockets, or wrapped in tissue paper and tucked into bags printed with the names of magic places: Wall Drug; Cody, Wyoming; Yellowstone; Mount Rushmore. He dispensed his gifts in secret at odd moments, shuffling up to us with a bag in his hand: “Here, Bodie, I got a little something for ya.” And his trembling fingers fumbled the bag open, slid inside, and drew out a little pair of beaded moccasins, a penny stamped with a baseball player, a pen with a black bear inside it. When I tilted the pen one way the bear lumbered through the woods and into his cave at the other end of the pen case. When I tilted it the other way the bear walked backward to the forest where he started.
(Short cuts of Gladys opening suitcase and pulling tissue-wrapped packages from among the packed clothes, and of Bill pulling bags out of his pockets and giving them to children in doorways, in the hallway, at odd moments, of Gladys cooking, crafting, cleaning)
Once the furor of arrival died down the visits settled into a routine. Grandma stomped around complaining about her arthritis and making orange frosted coffee cake and painting ceramic dolls and refinishing furniture and talking to Momma. She had a wiry hairbrush, which my sisters told me she used to spank naughty girls. I watched my mouth around Grandma.
During the day Grandpa sat on the couch in his baggy green work pants, legs crossed at the knees, reading Zane Grey and Ellery Queen. Mornings and evenings he weeded in the garden, his thick leathery brown fingers easing the morning glory roots away from the carrots, radishes, and dahlias in our wilting, overgrown garden, sandy soil clinging to his knees.
SETTING: It is early evening. Bill kneels in the garden, digging weeds out carefully, tucking them into a gunny sack, then spooning dirt around the roots, trickling in water, adding a little fertilizer. Bodie kneels facing him. Beside her is a waving pile of leafy green weed tops.
BILL (looking at the pile of weed tops): Here, Bodie, let me get that. You have ta dig these things out from the bottom, see? If you leave anything—even a little piece like this (shows her a half-inch root segment)—it comes back just that much worse. Every single bit of root you leave laying around turns into a new plant. Bet you didn’t know that, huh?
BODIE: Huh uh…What’cha doin’ now?
BILL: I’m checkin’ around the roots here, just makin’ sure I’ve got all the weed roots out a the plant roots. If ya don’t, those weed roots’ll just strangle the plant right where it stands. Then, (digging carefully) when you’ve got the weed roots all out ya loosen up the dirt like this, see, an’ pour in a little fertilizer, an’ a little water, an’ then ya tamp the dirt down…just knuckle it in real easy, like this. Ya gotta be careful a the roots, see.
BODIE (watching): Can I help?
BILL: Why don’t’cha carry these weeds over an’ dump’em for Honey Dew and Joe? They eat’em, don’t they?
BODIE: Only if I hold’em in my hand. They’ll eat anything we hold in our hands. Watch this.
(She jumps up, jumps down the garden a row at a time, leans down, and pulls a big onion. Bill leans back on his heels and rests his hands on his thighs, trowel still held in one hand. Bodie hops down another few rows and pulls up a fistful of something else.
BILL: What’cha got there?
BODIE: Onions an’ horseradishes.
BILL: That horse ain’t gonna eat that.
BODIE: She will, too.
BILL: This I gotta see.
Bill stands and follows Bodie over to the fence, carrying the sack of weeds with him. Bodie leans down and slides between the strands of barbed wire, holding her onion and horseradishes to her chest.
BODIE: Here, Honey Dew. Here girl. (A white Welsh pony lifts her head, then trots up to Bodie.) Here you go, girl. (Bodie holds the onion out on the flat of her hand. Honey Dew takes a big bite, and then another, then chews and swallows, tears streaming from her eyes.)
BODIE: You like that, girl? Here, try this. (She holds out a horseradish. Honey Dew bites into it, chews it up, and swallows it, tearing up even more fiercely. Bodie rub the pony’s nose, then her neck.) What a good girl! (Honey Dew drops her head onto Bodie’s shoulder and sighs.)
BILL (dumping the weeds over the fence): Well, I’ll be…. Here you go, girl. These gotta taste better’n onions and horseradishes.
BODIE: She won’t eat’em.
(Honey Dew walks over to the weeds, sniffs them, and then walks away. Bodie leans down and picks up a handful.)
BODIE: Here, Honey Dew, here girl.
(Honey Dew turns, ears up, and hurries back to Bodie. Bodie holds the weeds out. Honey Dew lips them up and eats them with every evidence of enjoyment.)
BILL: (chuckling) Well I’ll be darned. (He watches Bodie pet the pony, then turns and looks over the yard at the children playing, then down across the river. Then he goes back to the row he has been weeding, sinks to his knees, groaning a bit, and goes back to weeding. After a while Bodie leaves, then comes back with a halter.
BILL (sitting up straight to watch her again): Whatcha doin?
BODIE: Getting’ Honey Dew. Marie wants to give her a bath and take her in the house again.
(She clips the rope on Honey Dew’s halter and leads her out of the pasture, closing the gate behind her.
BILL: Why you wanna take’er in the house?
BODIE: I don’t. (She leads Honey Dew away)
Bill shakes his head, chuckles, and goes back to weeding.
PAM: (shouting) Marie, don’t bath’er. It’s too late. She catch cold.
MARIE: (shouting back) I can’t take’er in dirty. (She turns the hose on.)
PAM: Marie, don’t. She’ll get sick!
MARIE: No she won’t. It’s warm out.
PAM: But it’ll get cold before she’s dry.
MARIE: Grandpa wants to see.
(Bill weeds on, oblivious. Bodie comes back into the garden and drops to her knees by Bill.)
BILL: What’s all the shouting?
BODIE: Marie wants to wash Honey Dew and Pam won’t let’er.
BILL: Awful late to be washin’ a horse tonight, ain’t it?
BODIE: (reasonably) She can’t take’er inside dirty.
BILL: Why’d she want to do that, anyway?
BODIE: So you can see.
BILL: She’d do that for me?
BODIE: Well sure. We all would.
BILL (looking at her, half-smiling): Huh. (He goes back to digging.)
BODIE: Why you goin’ so slow, Grandpa?
BILL: Cause I gotta be careful. I get in a hurry, I’ll hurt the roots.
BODIE: Daddy says we have to hurry up a lot.
BILL: Sometimes you go too fast you can get hurt.
BODIE: (sadly) Uh huh. Do girls have roots?
BILL: (chuckling) I don’t know. I suppose they might.
BODIE: I love you, Grandpa.
BODIE (shouting): I love you.
BILL (quietly): I love you, too.
BODIE: Can I give you a kiss?
BILL: (turning his head and tapping his cheek) Plant one right there.
Bodie leans forward and kisses his cheek gently, then jumps up and runs away. Bill looks after her, then shakes his head, smiles, and goes back to weeding as the sky darkens into night.