In my class at the alternative high school I used to teach at, I taught the novel, There are no Children Here, by Alex Kotlowitz. I had a lesson that involved a simple scene, early in book, where children from the projects played a game of Tag on the concrete, outside their homes. They put their health in jeopardy because the ground was littered with a lot of obstacles that could tangle up with their legs and cause them to fall. It made me sad to think that the opportunity to play a simple game of Tag was taken away from these kids. The experience forced them to grow up fast, and understand the complicated aspects of life. The lesson in my class played with this idea. We played a simple game of Tag, and as we went along, I made the game more complicated, creating new rules to fix problems as they would arise. Students couldn't hide, because I needed to keep an eye on them. Smokers needed a break every once in a while, due to their poor life choices. We banned touch backs. Each rule I added only served to suck more fun out of the game. The more I looked at it, I saw it as a metaphor for life, and also the inception of this story.
I loved the idea, and bounced it around in my head for many years. My excitement even got me to sit down at my computer and try to bang out the story a couple of times. I tried to write it as a play, a movie script, and a novel, numerous times, but it never felt right. The pieces of the narrative flew around in my head, but the voice telling the story never seemed right. This vital part drove me crazy, and I couldn't ever find my narrator. The idea floated around the ether, right in front of me, but I couldn't reach out and grab it. I put the story on hold numerous times, and wrote something else figuring that, someday, the inspiration I looked for would eventually come to me.
It didn't happen until the summer I decided to take a road trip across America to visit some of the greatest National Parks, and enjoy the beauty that the United States has to offer. I traveled to Mesa Verde, and enjoyed the Grand Canyon. I walked the piers of San Francisco, and partook in the rolling hills of Napa Valley. One night, in the Redwood Forest, as I watched the slow, burning fire created from a huge, log of oak, I met her, a sassy little girl who knew more about the world than the curmudgeon that imagined her in the first place. I couldn't let this girl tell me about the ways of society, because I obviously knew more than her. The voice I'd been looking for revealed itself to me. It would work perfectly as a framed story where the little girl could comment on the ignorance of the old man as he told it. I even had a name for her: Little Suzie.
The story seemed to pour out of me when I got back home after my trip. A couple of months after I started writing it, I had my first rough draft. I workshopped the opening scene with my creative writing class, and with some good insight about the old man's cane, and the name of the little girl, I could start to polish the next draft. I tackled this problem by first looking at the name of Little Suzie. My students in the class, especially AJ Smith, Amelia Aaron, and Shyanne Sanders, were right: it was a little too cliché. Since all of my characters were named after important political figures, I looked there for my next inspiration. She took on a couple of obvious names, but I always considered the names they referenced as contributors to the problem, rather than ones out there trying to solve it.
My brother, Tom, helped me find the name I was looking for, and I settled on Little Lizzie. The alliterative aspects of this name complemented the prose I had already written, and finally put to rest the problem I had with the character.
At about the same time I had solved the Little Lizzie problem, I signed my contract to have my first novel published, which introduced me to a whole new world of publication wolves, as I tried to figure out how to promote this piece of fiction that I had written. The business gurus told me the best way to do it would be to find reviewers before publication. This presented me with a little dilemma, as nobody was willing to write a critique before publication, and I couldn't get people interested in it if it didn't have any reviews. As I plugged away trying to solve this problem, I ran across the name of Elise Abram. She was the first person willing to read my book, and gave me a wonderful review, but it also allowed me to form a trusting relationship with her. So when she started her own publishing company, I quickly sent her the most recent draft of Tag: A Cautionary Tale, and the rest was history. She has given me this amazing opportunity to present this unique allegory to the world, and it excites me that it has come out during one of the most bizarre presidential elections ever held. From the very start of the process, she has been very supportive and has helped guide me through the ways of promoting a book in the digital age. She has also allowed me to take some chances with the marketing of the book.
The book still needed a cover, so I turned to the art department at the high school I work at, mainly Hannah Cone, Spencer Selbo, and Jake McCullough. They helped me set up a scholarship to give the students there a real-life opportunity. They had a month to read the manuscript and create the perfect cover for it. Many entered, but one stood above all the rest, and that was Yulim Oh. The cover is her introduction to the publishing industry, and her surprise at creating the chosen cover fuels the excitement I felt when I first learned that I would be a published writer. The feeling refreshed my energy as I worked through the editing slog, and I hope she is proud as her artwork becomes public.
For the most part, this experience has taught me that it takes more than a lonely man sitting at a computer and typing away at whatever comes to his imagination. It takes others to inspire him, a few to guide him, and many more to help make the dream become a reality. In the end, I just hope the whole process has given something back to the people involved, as well. Most importantly, I hope you have enjoyed this little story, and I hope it gets the conversation started.
Who knows? Maybe the impact I have always imagined would happen might actually become a reality.
The old man shuffled his way to the foot of the great hill where sat a smooth boulder, protruding from the ground. He arrived every day, at precisely at 7:01, with the precision of a German engineer, as if he'd just disembarked from a bus or a train somewhere around the hill, and taken only the time needed to waddle over to the rock, and sit in the indentation worn into it by his butt over the years. He'd become a slave to this routine over the years, sitting there, on rock at the foot of a burnt out hill, undisturbed by the people who passed him as they moved about their day. They probably didn't even notice him, seeing as they had other priorities to possess their time.
The man remembered a time, long ago, when the hill possessed the highest peak in the town. If a person climbed to the top of it, he could look down and take it in at a glance. But progress had seized the town, and large buildings soon grew to obscure the view, until the hill served as no more than the outline for the roundabout, designed to take busy people to their busy places. If any of them ever took the time away from their busy pace, how many of them would wonder how this old man found his way across that busy street to sit on his rock?
The current aesthetic labeled the hill an eyesore, an abomination, best residing on the other side of the tracks. If any of the fools ever put forth the effort, they'd march up to their representatives in the city hall and demand that the representatives move it to the place where it actually belonged. No doubt those representatives would get right on the task, filing injunctions, posting notices, and writing bills about the town's eyesore. And still the hill would remain as the busy people rushed their way through the roundabout towards their destination, never considering the state of the hill's dilapidation. The representatives did, however, get around to putting a chain-linked fence around the hill with imposing ropes of razor sharp barbed wire on top, to keep out all the busy people who never wanted to go in in the first place. The fence marked, to all who cared to notice, the speed of "progress".
After all these years, the hill remained. Nothing would grow on it. No one would walk on it. Not even the birds would feign to fly over the flimsy, metal barrier to land upon the hill's desecrated domain. No one else seemed to even care about it but the old man, and he cared enough to visit it on a daily basis. So often had he visited the hill that he'd almost became a permanent addition to it. Except for the fact his clothes would change from day to day, people might have mistaken him for a statue.
He sat on the rock leaning heavily on the cane he carried with him, craning to get a better look at the nothingness the hill had to offer. What had begun as a mild interest in the hill had grown to such an obsession, that he would often squint his eyes at it, as if hoping to read the words somehow typed into the typography. His bald head protruded from his shirt collar so much that an onlooker might mistake him for a turtle, taking its first trembling steps onto the sands of some foreign beach, if, that is, they stopped long enough to notice. He thought he might need to find a place to rest his weary head, or it would fall from his body. Instead it came to lie on the gnarled and knobby hands he'd wrapped around the handle of his sturdy oak cane.
Day in and day out he sat, fearing any change in his routine, until Little Lizzy showed up to change that routine for him, having found her way across the traffic to the burnt-out oasis of the hill. Her blonde curls bounced giddily as she skipped her way over to where the old man sat on his rock. She wore a pink dress barely long enough to cover her chubby knees. She carried a box in her hands, about the size of a Bible, which she brandished with extreme importance.
The old man watched as Little Lizzy made her way around the fence line to approach him. When she noticed him, she stopped and stared at the sight, as if she found it hard to believe another soul had found his way over to this parcel of land. She dropped the box in her hands and it disappeared the shadow of the rock. Because items not in the immediate view of children are seldom remembered, the box remained there as she slowly walked towards the ancient anomaly.
The old man sat there, unmoving. Little Lizzy approached with caution, as if she feared chasing him away by her approach.
First, she waved at him from a safe distance; the old man did not move.
Then, she skipped into the old man's peripheral view and tilted her head; still, the old man did not move.
Finally, she took a spot in-between the old man and the object of his attention. She grabbed the sides of her fluffy skirt and twisted it right and then left, wearing a pouty expression on her face. At last she said, "Hi."
The old man responded, "Go away."
She took a step closer and said, "My name's Lizzy."
"Go away, Lizzy."
Little Lizzy looked at the old man closely, then turned her head to follow his gaze. "Whatchya looking at?"
"Right now? A little girl who won't go away."
Still Lizzy was not deterred. She ignored the slight and went on with her questioning. "What were you looking at before that?"
The old man lifted his head from his crooked hands, and looked at Little Lizzy with renewed interest. "You're not going to leave me alone, are you?"
Lizzy also ignored the man's attempt to change the subject. "Are you looking at that hill?" she asked.
The old man finally gave into the girl's interrogation. "Yes, I'm looking at the hill. Now, go away."
"Why would you want to spend all day looking at that hill? It's sure an ugly hill. Not even weeds grow on it. It is probably the most worthless plot of land in the whole town."
The words of the young child enraged the old man. He stood up from his seat and used his cane to point at the hill. "How dare you call Arbella Hill a worthless plot of land? If it wasn't for that hill, this town would never have existed. It's thanks to that hill that you see all this around you."
"Why? Why? WHY?"
Little Lizzy looked at the exasperated old man as if wondering why her question would illicit such a response. "Yes," she said, undeterred. "Why?"
The old man considered Little Lizzy's question with a new respect. He placed his sturdy oak cane back on the ground, and snuggled back into his groove in the rock. "Well, that requires a complicated answer, little girl."
Lizzy's eyes brightened up. "Does it involve a story?"
"Yes, and what a story it is!"
Lizzy took this as an invitation. She sat down Indian style on a soft patch of grass in front of the rock, smoothed her skirt out, and rested her chin in the crag of her fists.
The old man's eyes grew foggy, as if looking at a faraway place. He cleared his throat and began.
"This place once looked quite different than it does today..."