Writing Exercise: “Autumn in a Pittsburgh Suburb” (Sense of Place)

This is a member of a series of writing exercises that I’m completing each day to warm up for longer writing sessions, some of which I am sharing with readers. Find links to others at the bottom of this page.

This brief exercise asked me to write a scene evoking a sense of familiarity of place. I hope I’ve done that here. Maybe you’d like to try, as well? Think carefully about the place where you were raised, and write a third-person fictional (more or less) account of a person living in that place.

634 Words

No one was home two doors down. The boy jogged to his backup friend’s house, but one answered there, either. He trudged the ten minutes back toward home by himself. Post-mounted mailboxes and red-brick colonials, residences perfectly spaced at 60-foot distances, and neatly kept lawns and hedges lined the street. He kicked at pebbles on blacktop that those few kids living in the neighborhood used in the summertime for street hockey. This was familiar territory.

All Saints Day. No one else in the neighborhood went to his Catholic school and instead went to the place people called Woodland Hills. Everyone else he knew lived in the city and went to schools just like his – or they went to Yeshiva School. Mostly it was poor, Catholic schools that dotted the city landscape between cathedrals and churches, row houses and landmarks, gargantuan and ancient-seeming graveyards with mausoleums and statuaries.

He ticked off options for a solo day off school. The babysitter was there, and he wasn’t allowed to watch TV, so he’d have to be outside. He hated shooting hoops by himself, every rebounded basket a reminder of how few kids lived in his American Dream neighborhood. Building a fort in the woods up the hill behind his house was a possibility, but that was more fun when there was someone else to act out the Alamo defense, bunker raid, or whatever else was the day’s imagination game. The woods were endless and deep, besides. Who knows what monsters or murderers were hiding out up there?

He could work on the dug-out stairs that worked their way up the terraced hillside, digging them flatter and wider, and he could look for large stones to make steps.

Or he could start up his coal business again. He’d heard someone call it “black gold” – or maybe that was oil? The hill was chock full of it, anyhow. That was it. He would dig for coal.

Church bells rang from St. John Fisher church beyond the woods, and – a strange coincidence of sound – a screaming air raid siren tested at noon twice per week.

He kept walking, in the meantime. No one was out walking or doing yard work. Everyone was at work, and those few kids at school. Tri-corner leaves fell from bark-laden trees, and the wind never let a leaf pile stay in one place. Getting stuck with that job was to be saddled with four times the work of any other chore. He’d wind up cleaning leaves off the yard three times instead of once, and then he’d have to clean the neighbor’s leaves after they’d blown all over his folks’ yard.

Walking alone in the cold wind seemed interminable.

A car rolled past – the only one on the street this whole time – a Buick, like his dad’s. A sticker on the bumper read, “Firefighters Local #1” in gold lettering on black background. It reminded the boy of the giant Steelers flag his uncle had in his basement.

Clouds, thick with the sleet that always seemed to threaten life in Pittsburgh, rolled past overhead with surprising speed.

He thought of the tools he’d need to get from the garage: wheelbarrow, hand shovel, and gloves. There was a spot in the corner of the yard where coal was mixed about 50/50 with clay only a few inches below the surface, and it was entirely coal once he reached about the ten-inch mark. He’d need the hose to clean off the coal, since the boy’s mother didn’t want him bringing dirty coal into the house anymore.

Last time, no one had wanted to buy his coal, but he’d gone door-to-door until he found someone who wanted some. His mother didn’t approve of this kind of hawking, thinking it reflected badly upon the family. The boy didn’t care.

For quick access, here are the other writing exercise posts from the last few weeks:

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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1 Response to Writing Exercise: “Autumn in a Pittsburgh Suburb” (Sense of Place)

  1. Pingback: Writing Exercise: Visiting a Painting in the Art Institute of Chicago | #CaponeTeaches

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