I come home from school with a cage of seven rats my fourth grade teacher won gambling. My mother is on a call, sipping a G&T, making sad hmmmmms and ohhhhhs into our rotary dial phone. Her body hunched over the voice on the other end.

She’s still on the phone, with a third gin, when Dad comes home after work. He pats her shoulders and bends to look at the rats.

“Ms. Woodburn didn’t want them.”

“Beautiful specimens, my girl. Did you name them yet?”

“Big one’s Whiskey. I think he’s a boy.”

Within a month, the other rats are dropping babies. Hairless twitching blobs, which Whiskey sometimes eats. The young that escape being eaten by their father squeeze through the cage rungs into my father’s model train set. They grow into sleek teen-rats, thrumming through the dark tunnels like red-eyed ghosts, chased by electric trains. Tearing their tiny claws into paper mache mountains and glue-waterfalls. Dad I clean up after them. Mom pays them no mind.

Thirty years later, the day after Dad’s funeral, I turn off the power in his trainset. Rip off the veneer of fake rocks and rivers covering advice articles from decades-old magazines:
HOW TO CODDLE YOUR MAN.
Let him have his hobbies.
Give him a home of peace and order.
Minimize the children’s noise.

18 Comments

  1. Jonathan Cardew

    Lisa!

    So, so great that you could join our workshop! And let me just start by quoting this:

    “The young that escape being eaten by their father squeeze through the cage rungs into my father’s model train set. They grow into sleek teen-rats, thrumming through the dark tunnels like red-eyed ghosts, chased by electric trains. Tearing their tiny claws into paper mache mountains and glue-waterfalls.”

    This is a brilliant, brilliant moment in your story, and one that has lodged itself in my brain. Teen rats chased by electric trains? I didn’t know I needed it, but I did and I do.

    I love the way this piece leans ever so slightly into the fabulist realm. But not completely. This is very effective.

    I also love the forward momentum of the narrative, how you leap forward 30 years to a pivotal death and, importantly, the switching off of the trainset; as well as the change to another medium at the end with the magazine article. All very skillful flash technique.

    HOW ABOUTS:

    At this early draft stage, I’m more concerned with the possibilities rather than the what’sthere. Let’s brainstorm.

    1. Poetry more? I know you mentioned that you are a poet, and I wonder if you couldn’t use some of these skills to fuller effect in the story. I felt the poetry in the quote (above) and I’d like a little more of this (but I’m greedy).

    2. Structurally this is very sound (Comes home – a month later – 30 years later – magazine article). If you stay with the same organization, perhaps you could beef it out a little. When the dad pats the mom’s shoulders, I was expecting a flinch (something to point to possible tension in the household). This could be the beefing in the first section, for example.

    3. Turn things upside down? Whenever I write a draft nowadays, I do another piece based on the original. A spin-off, let’s call it. I find that a first draft can be the warm up for a quite different piece. Maybe you could try this? Maybe have the rats front and center? Get into the rats’ heads? Stretch out into fabulism (if you fancy it)?

    VENUES:

    I like to look ahead, even at early stages, so here are a few pubs I think might dig this piece:

    – Passages North
    – Flash Frog
    – wigleaf

    Thanks for sharing this piece with us! I look forward to reading your next one. And please let me know if you have any questions about my feedback or anything you wanted to ask about the piece.

    Cheers,
    Jonathan

    • Lisa Alletson

      Jonathan! Thank you for the welcome. This feedback is so helpful. There’s a lot more to this story in my head and I’m struggling with where to take it. So I love the idea of beefing it out, as well as doing a spin-off story, and seeing where that takes me. Potential angles right now are the background of growing up in Jo’burg during apartheid, or moving continents – my father’s Alzheimers’. I’ll see what happens with your suggestions. Thanks!

      • Jonathan Cardew

        Would love to see where you take this. Still thinking about those teen rats (that’s what we want, right, people still thinking about our work!).

  2. Wilson Koewing

    Lisa,

    Daaaang. This piece has some all itself energy. Kind of remarkable the characterization you’re able to infuse into a piece this short. It’s brutal and devastating.

    I did think there were a lot of questions that I was curious about from jump street. I mean the first line. Why is this man gambling about rats?

    I think that’s what the next draft is. Filling in the extremely compelling pieces presented here.

    The second to last paragraph is in and of itself a marvel, but I wonder if it should be broken up a bit and used as moments to flesh out this story a little.

    It’s a bold move to go thirty years ahead in what basically equates to a micro fiction piece. not impossible, but why not earn it more?

    just a fantastic draft. i loved reading this. I think the key to this is just honing in on the little details and using them to expand this piece outward. I would even consider going on a sentence to sentence basis and thinking about how each sentence could create its own connection to something in the past or present that you might want to focus on to make this piece bigger and more focused and oddly more insular at the same time.

    Wilson

    • Lisa Alletson

      Hi Wilson. Thanks for commenting! I’m a big fan of your writing. This is great feedback. I love the idea of going sentence to sentence and connecting with something else. I have a couple of ideas around that already. Much appreciated!

      Lisa

  3. Al Kratz

    I love these characters and this voice. We’re right into that world and it doesn’t mess around. Such good stuff, the rats won from gambling. The surprise that there’s really no drama about the appearance of these rats as if this house is already post-drama. And then Whiskey eating the babies but not all of them lol. I love this line “Dad I clean up after them.” It’s a break in grammar? Is it dialogue like? It sounds great and I love that I don’t quite know for sure what it means, or what its intent is. The time shift is great. It’s right in tone with the post-drama. Of course thirty years went by. They always do. I think stuff to play with here is also pace and expansion. What does it do to it to slow down, what does it do to it to linger on a spot or to and add more, or what does it do to speed it up. Does it make it hum more or less?

  4. Lisa Alletson

    Hi Al.

    Really happy to hear you liked the characters and voice. And that you picked up on the rats fitting right into the house.

    I’ll work on both the pace and expansion. I can see how it needs a lot more detail, along with focusing on some areas. (Nice return to the title/prompt in your final sentence, btw.) Thanks!

  5. Kristin Bonilla

    Lisa, this is a great piece! Great opening line–I immediately want to know more about Ms. Woodburn and her curious gambling habit (though that’s a purely selfish want and I realize her story might not need to be expanded in this particular piece). And I love the landing at the end with the magazine article. In the middle, I’m wondering about the two dads in the story. We have the narrator’s dad and Whiskey. I wonder how they inform each other? Or perhaps they don’t? I think there is room for expansion there. Would love to see what you do with this!

    • Lisa Alletson

      Thanks Kristin! Ms. Woodburn sticks in my head but she doesn’t end up being part of the story, although she was such a part of my life at that age. Maybe I’ll do more of her in a different story.

      You nailed it with the two dads. I think this is a fatherhood story and I need to dig deeper on that. Thank you for this encouraging and insightful feedback.

  6. Jennifer Todhunter

    Hey Lisa, your writing is really compelling and I love the descriptors you drop into the opening paragraph with the G+T and the rotary phone and the whispering and I wonder if you were to shorten the timeline, make it “pretty soon” instead of “within a month” and “and then” instead of “thirty years later” because, for me, it feels like too much time for such a short piece that has a story too it rather than a piece whose story is steeped in the chronology of it if that makes sense. I do love how the dad is attentive and the mum has already checked out and i think that might be something to focus on ever so slightly.

  7. Robert Vaughan

    Hi Lisa, this is haunting and I love how the rats sort of take-over the basement (as they do?) in a terrifying and electric sense- that second to last paragraph is stunning. And I like the idea of adding more sonics, or poetic prose. Allusion, metaphor, alliteration. Reading a piece aloud helps me to see what I can delete or add. You have a terrific first draft here. Have a blast!

  8. Benjamin Niespodziany

    The first paragraph is so strong here! Throws you into this world. The rats mashed with the gin with the kind father. It all pops.

    While the father’s line is kind and curious, I’d like to see a bit more of him spending time with the train sets, making them, being patient with them. Or are the train sets neglected and the rats less of a problem? Part of me wants to see a father spending delicate time glueing and painting, or working on the track, etc.

    Removing the train set after the funeral is really strong here and I’d like to see you stay with this image a little longer, maybe even ending on it. Cleaning out all of the trains, etc., and finding an empty basement, nothing but the smallest of animal bones in the corner, etc.

  9. Len Kuntz

    Hi Lisa.

    Well, wow. First off, that first sentence is killer. 4th grade, bringing home rats, and rat that the narrator’s teacher won gambling. I’m all in. Then the piece just gets better, and delivers on its promise to be quirky, dark and deep with the rats eating their young, the symbolism of that, some escaping to burrow in the train set, and then the wonderful fast-forward where you nail it all down perfectly. I loved it.

  10. Todd Clay Stuart

    Lisa, this is great! The pacing is perfect. I had no idea where you were taking me and it was a thrilling ride.This one is ready to send out!

    • Lisa Alletson

      That’s so kind. Thanks, Todd! Let me know if you have any suggestions on where to send it.

  11. David O'Connor

    Lisa, the way these two moments collide and support each other is powerful. All the space between them lets the reader imagine. The sentences are tight and engaging. There is so much here, whole worlds. Lovely work, thank you.

  12. Wendy Oleson

    Lisa, I really love this piece. The first line, “I come home from school with a cage of seven rats my fourth grade teacher won gambling,” drew me in–I couldn’t NOT read a story that begins that way. And the last lines–in a weird way it felt to me like they did some pretty heavy lifting–like I got the sense that in some way this absent mother had and hadn’t fulfilled the magazines wishes in a way that made for a satisfying and dissatisfying relationship. And then all the wonderful rats dropping more rats. I’m really excited about this piece!!!

  13. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Lisa, I love this draft, and I agree with Jonathan that I’d love to see you flesh it out just a bit more. The ending for me felt a little anticlimactic, but that might be your intention; I just wasn’t quite ready for it. Nonetheless, the rats immediately caught me up in the story, and the tension of waiting for what surely could happen next kept the story going so well. Loved it.

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