by Cote Smith
Issue #118 • March 10, 2009•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
The two boys wanted in the pool. The pool sat at the center of the apartment complex, not in a nice part of the town. The town itself was in a not nice part of the state, and no one vacationed to that part of the country anyway. The town had more prisons than restaurants.
The two boys, brothers, thirty-two months apart, lived in the complex with their mother—single in the sense that she was romantically alone. The spring wasn’t record hot, but school was out and the mother couldn’t make the A/C payment. At night the boys blanketed themselves down on the floor next to a giant fan, as much for the noise as the cool. The mother, who sometimes worked the graveyard shift, would some nights punch out and come home to spy her boys sleeping close like sister cats.
The mother got home at four but woke up at seven to fix the boys frozen French toast sticks. The boys asked if today wouldn’t be a good day to break in their new used trunks.
“Maybe,” the mother said, “but only if the temperature climbs to seventy-two.” The mother did not tell the boys that the weather woman’s forecast set the high at 68 and that she, the mother, really didn’t feel like watching out for drowning kids on her one damn day off.
Cote Smith was born in Kansas, became an Army brat and moved around a bit. He is currently finishing his MFA in fiction at the University of Kansas. He lives in Lawrence with his girlfriend Nicole, their dog Buckley, and their two cats, PK and Penelope. This is his first published story.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
CS: When I was a kid living in an apartment, one day a man sprinted by the complex’s pool, like he was playing a real intense game of tag. Moments later, a policeman ran by, chasing the first man. I wasn’t there at the time; I was inside or something. But I think my sister was there, swimming with her friend. So I knew I wanted to write a story revolving around that strange moment. And like most kids, my brother and I loved going to the pool, especially because of the diving board. Nowadays, most apartment complex pools don’t have diving boards. I think the landlords are afraid of lawsuits, some kid cracking his head. After I wrote the first draft of this story, I went to the apartment complex where I used to live. The diving board wasn’t there, and this saddened me.
HT: The town of prisons/ ever presence of ex-convicts seems so important to the emotional skeleton of story. Did you base the brothers’ environment on a specific place? Why did you decide to set it here?
CS: Yes, the environment is based on Leavenworth, KS. Leavenworth is a city most famous for its prisons, most notably the federal penitentiary, which looms over the entire town. There is even a billboard on a highway that reads, “Come do some time in Leavenworth,” with a picture of cartoonish man dressed in the typical striped prison jumpsuit that I’m pretty sure was done away with decades ago or only existed in Looney Tunes. I was never really aware of the underlying eeriness of the city growing up, but in retrospect it’s sort of a strange place. There is a strong built-in tension, considering that the occasional prison break does occur, which I think helps speak to the real vulnerability of the brothers and their mother. Leavenworth is also famous for being the hometown of singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge. She moved away the year I was born.
HT: Though the story has within it extremely distressing situations, the tone and voice remains elegant and understated. What influenced your decision to take this kind of approach?
CS: I had been writing stories that I didn’t really like and I couldn’t pinpoint why. Thinking about the stories, I liked the ideas, but I didn’t like the actual story. I finally figured out it was the over-the-top, sentence-level writing that turned me off. How I figured this out was I read two short story collections, Twenty Grand by Rebecca Curtis, and The First Hurt, by Rachel Sherman. Those two books showed me how someone can write beautiful, engaging, and surprising stories using nicely measured sentences with basic syntax and structure. So I decided to write a story in which I just showed as much as possible, in simple, hopefully beautiful sentences. The first sentence I wrote was, “The town had more prisons than restaurants.” The story took off from there.
HT: What role did you want Chris to have in the story? What did you want readers to feel about him?
CS: Originally, I thought Chris would be the one who hurts the brothers at the end. But when I got halfway through the story, the misdeed I had in mind didn’t seem to fit his character. He is not an entirely good guy, but not that bad either. So I have a certain idea of how I feel about his character. But in terms of what I want readers to feel for Chris, I want them to feel whatever they want, as long as they feel something.
HT: The boys, unprotected and vulnerable to bad influence, encounter what seems to be the first instance of a rift between them in an extremely powerful, extremely distressing scene. Was this scene difficult to write? How did you go about composing it?
CS: I would say the most difficult part of writing that scene was trying to get the pacing right. It’s a very intense series of moments, and I really wanted to make sure the emotional trajectory was as good as I could get it, and that I didn’t rush through anything. So much is going on and so much is at stake, that it was difficult to tell when a gesture or a statement by one of the characters needed a moment to breath, or something should happen immediately to keep the action and tension propelled. After I wrote the thing, I had to read it a billion times to get a feel for the pacing. It also helped that I had really good editors.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
CS: I’ve been told on several occasions by very smart people to write every day, which has been very helpful. But the most important advice was indirect. When Gary Lutz visited KU and taught a workshop for a semester, on the first day he brought in a list of sentences. We went through them one by one and talked about what made those sentences amazing. That was the first time it dawned on me that a good writer values every sentence in the story, even the ones whose sole function is pedantic, the sentences whose job it is to get a character to move from the couch to kitchen. Within even those sentences, there is still a lot of work to be done, to make sure you get all the words right. I think Gary was indirectly saying, Hey, it is your job to understand the goal of each sentence, and to give that sentence the words it needs to achieve that goal as excellently and artistically as possible. I could be wrong, but I rolled with it anyway.
HT: What are you working on now?
CS: Right now I’m at the University of Kansas finishing my MFA thesis, which is a novel based on the events of “Hurt People.” I think there is a lot more hurt to explore.