Failure Is Instructive is an occasional series where I take unpublished/unpublishable stories and reexamine them. They are often very old and not representative of my current work. Notes on the story are in bold italics.
Trajectory came from the same period as Underground Lights, the previous entry in the series. It was never submitted. I couldn’t ever get it too a point where I felt comfortable with it as a finished product. It also never felt essential — this kind of narrative has been executed better.
Here it goes.
Addams, Jennifer – Interview
“Jacob and I were in fifth grade together, but we weren’t friends or anything. And so much time has passed that I don’t feel like I got an accurate picture of him. I guess what I’m saying is, don’t treat my memories like gospel.
He was solitary. Not unpopular, he’d just go off by himself to practice different little things, like balancing on a thin ledge or hanging upside down on the monkey bars. He seemed to enjoy gathering a crowd of witnesses, but only after he perfected something.
One day he climbed a retaining wall on the far side of the playground. It was this big steel thing that divided the playground from a row of houses above and behind it. The wall probably wasn’t that difficult to climb. It had plenty of places to grip. But at the time it made him seem superhuman. I’d bet that’s why he had few actual friends. His achievements made him seem unapproachable.” This gives a comfortable amount of information. We’ve established our main character, hinted at the major conflict in the story. The biggest problem is the voice. It’s faux literary — it’s the kind of voice that no one actually talks in but looks good on paper. But it doesn’t really get at anything and comes across as generic and inauthentic.
Backstop – Definition
Two baseball diamonds rest behind the Forkridge Elementary School playground. One is poorly maintained, with grass growing in the infield and ancient, cracked rubber bases placed at imprecise intervals. It sits further away from the school.
The one closer in is nicer. A janitor chalks the lines between bases every Monday. That seems excessive. This is public school. I probably didn’t need to include any frequency, just a description of the clean, distinct white line. New bases are installed at the beginning of every other school year. Also seems excessive. How long do bases last?
A large chain link cage, commonly referred to as the backstop, covers the batting area. It prevents stray balls from flying into the school or hitting children walking behind it. Safety, its purpose is safety. The model, a BS-F37 Hoover Backstop, features 19’6” of vertical height plus an angled 12′ canopy. The width covers 34′ with 10′ wings. This paragraph highlights another large problem with the story. I attempted to use unnecessary details to prove a point — that you can describe things as much as you want and not get any closer to the core of the subject. Unfortunately this involves cramming the story with unnecessary details. No one needs to know the model number, the exact dimensions. It’s kind of what Perec was going for in Life: a User’s Manual, but his lists were documents of the basic stuff of his (our?) culture. And, you know, successful.
Fredricks, Aaron – Interview
“When they caught Jacob at the top of the retaining wall, he was given three days suspension. His mom came to pick him up and the kids in neighboring classrooms could hear her hollering at him. The voice is too similar to the one in the first section. There is nothing to distinguish them. There is only one distinguishable voice further down, and that’s because it’s mine.
A few weeks later, Jacob must have gotten the idea that he should climb the backstop. He would practice alone, climbing two or three feet up. Other kids could see it in his eyes, and they’d ask him if he was thinking about doing it. He responded evasively or not at all.
Supposedly, a kid a few years before had climbed up the inside of the cage, pulled himself on top, then climbed down the other side. I don’t remember anyone giving the kid a name, but they’d say that their older brother knew him or something.” I think I was trying to say something about the way that children mythologize each other, but I have no idea what.
Hang – Definition
Once up the vertical section of the fence, Jacob intended to climb across the horizontal section, a distance of 12’. This required him to swing along the chain link, like on monkey bars. One of the challenges of the piece was rendering exactly how Jacob would climb over the backstop. I think I over explained it, then justified it by claiming that it contributed to the main theme of the piece — that details don’t get to the core. Either way, it’s confusing. I describe it well in the preceding section, and that’s all I really needed.
Johnson, Cole – Interview
“He didn’t tell anyone he was going ahead with it. He just started climbing. The group I was with noticed that Jacob had gotten over a few feet and hurried over. We were all still excited after the retaining wall stunt, so we wanted to see what he was going to do next.
The teachers were gathered on the other side of the playground. I remember clearly that two kids had gotten into a fight. If they hadn’t been distracted by that, it probably wouldn’t have happened.” I didn’t understand at the time that guilt would be such an important emotion in the piece.
Kinetic – Definition
Objects fall at 9.81 meters per second per second. The top of the backstop is 19’6”, or 5.9436 meters. Wind resistance would be negligible at this height. This gives us a speed of 10.7932 meters per second at the end of the fall and a total fall time of only 1.1013 seconds. The energy produced by hitting the ground is 1891 Joules. That amount can power an average household blender for 4.2022 seconds. As bloodless as it is, I’m proud of this paragraph. It is as close as I get to proving how useless these details can be.
Matheson, Julia – Interview
“I arrived late. He was already at the top of the vertical portion of the cage, indistinct, uninformative and was just starting to swing across the horizontal part. His arms were starting to shake.
I saw him look down. About twenty kids had gathered, and we saw something in his eyes. It was like focus, but something further than that, like a certainty of motion. He pulled himself onto the underside and swung across. By the time he got to the edge, some teachers began to notice the developing crowd. We heard yelling from across the field.
He got to the point where he needed to flip over the bar and onto the top of the cage. He grasped the bar, pulled himself up like he was doing a chin-up, then reached over with one hand. He adjusted his other hand’s position on the bar, trying to push himself up and over. That hand slipped. He flipped his legs up, wrapped his body around the bar, like hugging a tree branch. The bar was too thin though; he couldn’t get any traction.
The teachers were just a few feet away at that point.”
Principal – Definition
Edgar Clemens That’s a terrible name. There’s a point with each of these where I’m glad the story didn’t go out. This is that point., the Principle of the school, is in his office when it happens. His door is closed; he is eating a roast beef sandwich Not a necessary detail — why not describe the bread, the freshness of the meat?. A woman bursts in, exclaiming that a child has fallen from the backstop. I’m leaning a little too hard on the present participle.
He weathers the storm. The school district settles with the mother for an undisclosed amount. Two teachers and three aides are fired. No one is charged with any crime.
Edgar grows old. He retires. The hair falls from his head. One night he wakes from a deep sleep. He remembers the event with crystal clarity, things he couldn’t have seen or heard or felt. He sees the boys trajectory, sees him scaling the fence, sees him suspended in midair, hears the mother on the phone, screaming.
Questioning – Definition
The police set up in one of the classrooms the day after the incident. They first question the children. From that they form a picture of the event. They know where the adults were when it happened; several children confirm reports of a fight on the other side of the playground.
Then the teachers and aides are brought in. They point fingers. One claims that another was not present at the playground at all– she was smoking on the other side of the building at the time. They cry softly through their accounts.
The policemen question gently. They know that, unless the mother pushes for it, there will be no prosecution. I’m not sure how realistic this is. Should have done some research, but it seems plausible. Maybe too much of a copout — why should the mother not prosecute? Am I robbing her of her grief?
Scream – Definition
When someone screams from surprise or happiness, it registers in our minds as something familiar. A thing that is scary results in a reaction of fear, manifesting in a scream. Being brought into a surprise party elicits a scream of surprise that falls into happiness and glee. It is recognizable as such. What the hell was that paragraph about?
The mother’s scream is the result of something inexplicable, therefore the scream resembles nothing else. It lasts 32 seconds; it reaches a height of 104 decibels, the same as a commercial grade power saw. It can be described in physical terms, but only inaccurately. The form of description falls apart as it begins to approach success. This sentence describes the main theme directly and accurately — I didn’t realized that everything else was so unnecessary.
Shape – Definition
After they come and take away the body, an imprint lies in the dirt, smudged at the edges by the soles of the paramedic’s shoes. You can make out where his head hit the ground, then trace a line around his shoulder, his back, his legs. There are lines where his shoes hit. Four small divots mark the impact of his knuckles. Again, not sure if this would be true. The dirt on the baseball diamond would be pretty well packed down.
Watkins, Robert – Interview
“I went to the funeral because I knew Jacob pretty well, I guess. Our family lived right next to his, so we played at each other’s houses a lot during the summer. He just lived with his mother; I never knew where his father was.
I was walking past their house on my way home from school when I heard the scream. Someone from the hospital must have just called. I couldn’t recognize the sound at first. It sounded mechanical, like two metal objects being ground together until one of them broke. I ran the rest of the way home.
When I thought about it later, I ran into an error. That’s a bad way of putting it; it didn’t add up is what I mean to say. I’d think about his planning and his falling and him not being there anymore, and somewhere in there is a fundamental disconnect. The simple fact of his nonexistence is so wrong that it registers as a vast, all reaching error.
I see kids occasionally who look like him, and, I know this sounds crazy, and it’s just for a second, but I think it’s him. I get this sudden feeling of complacency and rightness, like I’ve passed into another, more correct world. Then I remind myself that this isn’t him, he’s dead, and even if he were alive, he’d be almost forty now.
There’s a second, however, where things are restored.” This section is just me. A friend of mine died about 5 years ago in a car accident. A few years after it happened I thought I saw her in a bookstore. The reaction described here is what I experienced.
Zenith – Definition
There is a moment where gravity seems to exert no hold on Jacob. None of him touches the chain link or the bar; he hangs without any of the momentum that will kill him. He is facing up and sees the sun.
There is potential for him to fall, but it seems equally plausible that he will stay there. He will remain suspended while the world operates around him. Jacob will watch the sun move across the sky, bury itself in the trees to the west, then emerge from the top of the school in the east. Birds and clouds will obscure his view. The sounds of the playground will filter up from below.
For a moment, all this seems possible. I still like the ending. I think it’s important to give your characters moments of grace. The description is a little off, a little inaccurate, but the image works.
Overall the story isn’t a complete failure. It does a few things well, but the collapse of the main theme and its lack of originality made it unsuitable for submitting. I will probably never revisit it — the core of the story is too weak.