The Watcher

Another oldie (and I’m working on something new I hope to post soon)…

 

The Watcher

Working for God is never easy.  That’s what I told the shrink when he sat down in his leather chair and asked, “Why are you here?”  The expensive brown leather sighed as his weight settled in and the cushioning molded to his skinny ass.

“And why is that?”

I could see it in his head.  I was another whacko who believed God was talking to him.  Should he prescribe the little blue pill?  Or maybe the green one?  Was I a schizophrenic?  Or a paranoid schizophrenic?  I had no doubt that when Dr. Wellinsky asked me his question, he was already wondering what the voices were telling me.  He was probably half way to a diagnosis.

The problem with any diagnosis Dr. Wellinsky may have come up with was that it would have been wrong.  I wasn’t psycho.  I wasn’t crazy.  I wasn’t even borderline.  I was most certainly 100% certifiably sane.  And I worked for God.

“It’s the death.  It’s everywhere.”

“Uh-huh.”

I wanted to jump and shake Dr. Wellinsky out of his patronizing response.  But I stayed on the couch with the matching leather molded to my own skinny ass.

“I know what you think.  Working for God’s gotta be easy.  But it isn’t.  It’s not all angels and harps.  We don’t get to float around on clouds and eat grapes while nymphs dance about us.  In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever actually seen an angel playing a harp.  And, I most certainly have yet to encounter a nymph.  I think I would have remembered that.

“The truth of the matter is that God’s business is death.  A lot of it.  Oh sure, people want to think about how God will save them and of all the miracles that occur to prove God’s existence.  People want to think that God is in every tree and flower.  That the birth of a child is God’s greatest miracle.

“The cold hard reality is that God is all about death.  What do you think has to happen for somebody to reach salvation?  That’s right.  They have to die.  For every miracle that saves a life, there are many others that never happen.  Because God needs death.  Without death, why would we need him?  Who would believe in God if they didn’t have to fear what happens after they die?”

“I see.”

I balled my hands into fists and squeezed to ease the tension that continued to build.  Were all shrinks such pricks?  Was there a special class they took to learn how to respond without really responding at all?

“Yeah, Dr. Wellinsky, particularly if you’re a Watcher.”

“A Watcher?  And, what exactly is it that a Watcher does?”  The good doctor now leaned forward.

I decided to play Dr. Wellinsky’s game.  “We watch,” I sighed in my own condescending way.

“What?  What do you watch?”  Dr. Wellinsky scribbled something on his notepad and looked up at me, waiting for my answer.  He was probably already writing the case study of my condition that he would publish in whatever journal patronizing shrinks write for.  He could present a paper at some conference in a hotel ballroom while half of the attendees were in their rooms doing the things that stay in Vegas.

I unclenched my fists and crossed my hands on my stomach.  In the past twenty-four hours, I had pondered how to explain to a stranger what it was I did for God.  Now that it was time to do so, I realized I hadn’t quite figured it out.

“Well . . . a Watcher . . .  Let me put it this way.  God insists that every time somebody dies, a Watcher is there to witness it.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s not that difficult to understand, Dr. Wellinsky.  I am a witness for God.  A witness to death.”

“I see . . .”  There it was, that patronizing phrase again.  “And how exactly does that work?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, how do you know where to go to do this?  To witness death?”

My hands returned to my sides as the tension began to build again.  Squeezing my hands back into fists, I told him.  “God has a lot of people working for him.  We’re not all Watchers.  There are Listeners.  They have to sit and listen to God.  Laughers.  They laugh at all of God’s jokes whether they’re funny or not.  That’s actually pretty difficult to do when you think about it.  If they don’t sound like they really believe a joke is funny, if their laugh isn’t authentic, they lose their jobs and become God’s Experiments.  Speaking of which, if a Listener falls asleep while God is talking?  Same thing.  No more job and it’s experimentation time.  You don’t want to know what happens to God’s Experiments.

“And there are Messengers.  Nothing is ever written down.  I don’t get my instructions by email or anything like that.  God doesn’t want to leave any trace of what we do.  Every day, a Messenger comes to me and tells me who I’ll be watching that day.  The time and the location.”

“Very interesting.”  The old man was scribbling furiously now.  I’m sure he was envisioning the riches my case would bring to him.

“No, Doc, it’s not interesting.  It’s horrible.  I have to witness soldiers home from Iraq suck in the fumes in a garage sealed tight.  I watch old people die alone.  Last week, I watched little Annalisa Compton die after suffering from leukemia for months.  The week before, it was Jordan Alvarez, a triathlete riding his $7,000 bicycle on the side of a road, plowed into by a drunk driver.

“All of these people dying.  And I have to watch them.  Or I’ll become one of God’s Experiments, too.”

“Why does God need a witness?”

“I don’t know.  Guess what?  With all of the different jobs there are, of all the things we do for God, there is no Questioner.  Nobody actually gets to ask him questions.  So, I’ve never asked him and I don’t know anybody else who has.  I’ve just about had it, too.  I want to quit.”

“What would happen if you quit?”

“I . . . I don’t know.  Nobody ever has before.  At least as far as I know,” I sighed.  “I guess there’s always a first time.”

The scratching of Dr. Wellinsky’s pen on his note pad was the only sound that broke the silence that followed.  I found myself relaxing and I needed to fill that silence as the dam broke.  “Yesterday,” I blubbered, “I had to watch a woman beat her grandson to death just because he wouldn’t do his homework.  I’ve never seen anything worse.  I can take almost anything – soldiers dying, random car accidents, even sick kids every once in awhile – but that woman tortured her own flesh and blood.  She made him scream for mercy.  He died in his sleep from his injuries.  I had to watch the whole thing because the Messenger who came to me earlier in the day wasn’t sure of the exact time the little boy would pass.”

I sniffled and wiped my nose with the back of my hand.  “I watched that little boy die, Dr. Wellinsky.  He went to sleep in his bed, curled in a ball, whimpering from his injuries.  He never woke up again.”

It was the first time I had ever done it.  Told somebody what I did for a living.  When I was in training to be a Watcher, I was told to never reveal what I did.  For seven years, I had followed that rule.  But, little Johnny Horton’s death had broken something in me.  I had to, absolutely had to, get it off my chest.

I was just about to tell Dr. Wellinsky how it felt to witness such a brutal thing, when he cut me off.  “I’m afraid that’s it.  Your time is up.  How about we do this again next week?  Same day, same time?”

“No, actually Dr. Wellinsky, I’m afraid your time is up.”

I rose from the sofa and did my job.  I watched.

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The Ice Cream Man

A few years ago, I published two collections of short stories.  A few people purchased them.  Most didn’t.  I’m going to start randomly posting some of those stories here.  Just for the heck of it.  I’m thinking that the stories I’ve written over the last few years have reached the threshold to put together in another collection, but I don’t know if I’ll do that.  People don’t seem much interested in short stories.  Or at least spending money on them.  I’m also thinking that re-reading and posting some of these stories here may give me something to write.  Maybe, just maybe, I’ll decided to turn one of these short stories into something longer.

What follows is one of the first short stories I wrote.  It may just be the first.  And it was published by Toasted Cheese.  It’s been a long time since I read it last.  If my memory serves me correctly, I wrote it in connection with the first writing conference I went to.  I remember sitting in the room where the conference was held and imagining an older hispanic man walking by outside, pushing an ice cream cart, the bell jingling.  So, I wrote a story about the ice cream man.

 

The Ice Cream Man

When there’s nothing to harvest, Pedro pushes his ice cream cart through the streets of Watsonville.  It is a meticulously planned route that begins around 10:00 in the dusty neighborhoods on the eastern edge of town.  Even though it’s early, he hopes that kids playing in the street will want a cold treat.  As the lunch hour approaches, the route takes Pedro through the small downtown and the surrounding commercial areas.  Once he has sold a few popsicles and ice cream sandwiches to workers taking a mid-day break, he makes his way back through more residential streets.

Kids playing with hoses.  Kids playing tag.  Kids playing baseball in the street.  They can hear the little bell on the cart jingle from a block or two away.  Doors slam. Kids yell for money and come running with coins dancing in their hands.

The smiles and laughs from the children should make Pedro happy, but there is too much sadness in his life.  So, he plasters a fake smile on his face as he hands out his frozen treats and the children snatch them and run away.

As the afternoon turns to evening, Pedro pushes the cart back towards home.  Over the course of a day, he will push the cart through more than ten miles of the town’s streets.  He has made a few more dollars to send back to his parents in Mexico and to keep food on the table for Miguel, his own happy little boy.

When Pedro gets home, he gets Miguel from the neighbor who watches him during the day.

“Gracias, senorita,” he mumbles as he takes Miguel by the hand.

“De nada,” Maria replies.  Pedro doesn’t notice how Maria’s hand lingers on his as he passes a few of the precious dollars he has earned to her.

* * *

Miguel, having just turned three, is a ball of fire.  Non-stop movement.  Non-stop chatter.  Pedro can’t help but laugh and smile watching Miguel.  The hour or two Pedro has with his son before he puts him down to sleep is the only time Pedro allows himself to be happy.  He has to for the little boy’s sake.

They play.  They wrestle.  When Miguel goes to bed, Pedro lies next to him and tells him stories about Mexico.  About home.  About his grandparents.  He has not been able to tell Miguel stories about his mother.  Not yet.  Those memories are still too painful.

Once Miguel’s eyes have closed and he is sleeping peacefully, Pedro gets up, kisses him lightly on the cheek and goes out to the kitchen.  He gets his dinner and a cerveza and sits down at the small, worn kitchen table.  As he eats his meal – rice, beans and a couple of tortillas made by the neighbor who watches his little boy and whose hand lingers on his own – Pedro does what he has done every night for the last year and a half.  He relives the night he lost Isabella, his wife.

 

* * *

 

They grew up together in a small town in Mexico, surrounded by family and friends.  Everybody knew everybody and everybody knew Pedro and Isabella would marry some day.  As early as sixth grade, other kids would make fun of them because of how close they had grown.

A few years after the couple proved everybody right and married, Miguel was born.  Shortly after his first birthday, they decided to cross the border to California.  Pedro and Isabella dreamed of a better life, a life they didn’t think possible in their desolate corner of Mexico.  The dream was crushed before it began.

On their journey to California, after they had crossed the Rio Grande and crouched their way through a small tunnel that funneled illegal immigrants into the country, they were packed into a van with its seats taken out.  Fifteen people packed into the back, sitting side by side on the floor of the van.  Packed like sardines.  The air was stifling and the aroma of sweat and fear filled the van.

Without warning, the driver slammed on the brakes.  The tires squealed.  The van veered to the left and began to tip over.  It seemed as though it took forever, but in reality it was over in a second or two.  In that time, Pedro curled into a protective ball around his son and tried to reach for Isabella.  He didn’t reach her in time.  As the van crashed over onto its side, he could feel her slide past him and slam into the wall.

The back doors burst open and the occupants stumbled out.  Pedro carried Miguel out and turned to look for his wife.  She didn’t follow him, so he went back to the doors and peered in.

Three bodies were scattered in the corner, jumbled up with each other.  One of them was the girl Pedro had known for years.  The girl he had loved since the beginning of his time.  The girl who had grown into a woman and become his wife and who bore his child.  He could see the features on her face, frozen in place.  He could see that her head was bent awkwardly to the left.  Her eyes stared blankly into space.  Pedro lost her while in search of a dream.

 

* * *

 

Every night, over a plate of rice and beans, he relives that night.  He can still feel her slip from his grasp and hear the thud as she hit the side of the van.  He no longer remembers the feel of his wife in his arms.  He only remembers his hand reaching for her that night.  He no longer remembers her laugh.  He only remembers the sound of the thud.  He no longer remembers the smile that used to light up her face.  He remembers only the sight of her eyes staring into space.

That night Pedro had to run with Miguel in his arms to avoid being arrested.  He ran and ran and left Isabella behind.  He wasn’t able to bury her or properly mourn her.  Now he remembers her the only way he can.  Every night.  Alone.  Reliving that night.  Tears running down his cheeks.  At some point, he rises from the kitchen table, rinses off his plate, and goes to bed.  To do it all over again the next night.

 

 

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February 29 — Page Three

Page One.

Page Two.

Johnny, I assume, went back to his base, maybe served a little bit of time in Marine prison, or whatever it was he might have to do for his AWOL. I slipped back out into space where I got my degree. Got a girl and got married. Her name was Megan and I loved her. Of course I did. We got married, right? But I thought, in my innocence, it was more than that. Megan and me. The way I loved her. Every fiber of my being called to her. In the morning when I first woke up and spotted her asleep next to me, the early morning sun splashing her face with fresh light, and whispered I love you into the quiet. Only I heard those words and knew what they meant. Everything. She could make me laugh with nothing more than a look. When she touched me, nothing more than her hand on my arm, I knew she felt the same. And I thought we’d always be together. We would be forever.

Got a kid, too. A little boy. He was due a few months after I got Johnny Mac’s postcard. I was scared and happy all at the same time. Being a father. What did I know about that? How fucked up could I make a kid? I had no doubt if somebody could screw it up, it would be me. Megan kept assuring me, J, you’ll be fine. You think I would have married you if I thought you couldn’t. She’d giggle and hug me and I would calm down, until the next thing came along to stoke my fears. Seeing a dad screaming at his kid in the grocery story. Or reading stories of horrible child abuse. What if? No, Megan insisted, you’ll never.

So, the postcard came. February 17, 1992. There was no introduction, just a statement. See you there. I knew what he meant and I knew he would. I had moved back home, on the first step of the corporate ladder in the accounting department of a major department store. Megan was teaching kindergarten. And on February 29, 1992, she’d be at a baby shower for one of her friends. What else could I do.

At first, we caught up. While I was getting all the good, Johnny Mac got sent to the Kuwaiti theater in the first wave. He got sent back with a good case of PTSD and shrapnel in his hip. He was back at home with his mom. His dad having passed on the year before. I still remember his dad, sitting on their porch. Smoking cigars and telling bad jokes. I expressed my condolences to Johnny Mac. And then he told me something else he got.

Stoned. In his older brother’s room. Just before he picked me and the girls up. I was out of my mind, he said. It was my first time. Truth is, he said, I’ve got no idea whether the light was red or green. Or whether there was a light at all.

I got up from my spot in front of Ginny’s grave and walked away.

That night, when Megan got home and burrowed into bed next to me, I hugged her and thought of Ginny. For the first time in years, I played the what if game. I couldn’t help it. I held Megan and imagined it was Ginny in my arms. Thought about the little life brewing inside her and considered Ginny as the mother of my child. My mind went wild and something changed. I swore I’d never go back. I was beginning to understand something about Johnny Mac’s pull on me.

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Every Four Years — Page Two

Page One

Footloose. It was the movie that winter. Everybody was seeing it, but we never made it and I have never been able to watch that movie.

I was looking back at Ginny, saying something to her about our plans for the next day, when we sped through an intersection. I saw the car coming at us. At full speed but with the beginning squeal of brakes and the car just starting to veer from its straight line aimed right at us, it slammed into Johnny’s car. T-boning it right where Ginny sat. I can still see the metal frame collapsing in on my girl. The window shattering into a million stars scattering across the back seat and then everything going dark as our car was slammed into another and we came to a stop.

The funeral was one of those, where teenagers huddled in groups, their heads bowed, their cheeks lined with tears. There was crying and shrieking and Ginny’s family sat in the front row, shell shocked by the whole thing. I suppose that somewhere along the way, if her mom had reached out to Ginny’s friends, to me, we may have all healed together. But she didn’t and I can’t blame her now. She lost a child, when I look at my own and think back to that time, I can’t imagine the hole Ginny’s parents must have fallen into.

School was a somber place for days after. It was really only with the coming of Spring that things began to change. But, for Johnny Mac and me, Spring didn’t change a thing. After the funeral, I went back out into the furthest arc of our orbit and stayed there. We didn’t talk about that night. Didn’t talk about much of anything. I heard he quit school with five weeks to go and joined the Marines the day after his 18th birthday. I went off to college. Not the one in Oregon that filled my dreams with Ginny, but a state university down south.

And so, I lurked out there, on the furthest edges of Johnny Mac’s world. Until he called me back to it four years later. 1988. You’re coming back, aren’t you, he asked. I was a few months from graduating. Johnny was AWOL from the Marines. Just to get back home where he insisted I had to be. I couldn’t deny him and on February 29, we met at the cemetery where Ginny was buried. We sat on the grass in front of her marker. Virginia Tamblen, Beloved Daughter and Friend, 1967-1984.

The light was red, Johnny told me then. What? The light. It was red. I ran a red light. You what? I couldn’t hear his words anymore. This was nothing I had heard before. There had never really been much of an investigation. It just seemed to be one of those unfortunate events. A storm, slick roads, poor visibility, whatever it was. An accident. That was all it was.

Johnny Mac was telling me something different. Something I really wasn’t ready to hear. Sure, I had finally moved on. Got over it, in the inevitable way one gets over the loss of your first true love. I was young. Aren’t the young resilient and resourceful. Indeed. My first year of college was a bit of a fog, but eventually the sun cleared that fog and I had a few girlfriends here and there. New friends. Different dreams. But, in the back of my mind, Ginny was always there. The idea of what our dreams could have been.

I got up from my spot in front of Ginny’s grave and walked away.

Johnny, I assume, went back to his base, maybe served a little bit of time in Marine prison, or whatever it was he might have to do for his AWOL. I slipped back out into space where I got my degree.

… More To Come …

 

 

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Every Four Years

It was something we started in high school, Johnny Mac and me. Only when we started we didn’t actually know we were starting a tradition that would last for years to come. We’d been friends since the 4th grade. He showed up halfway through the year and there was no hesitation about him. That first day, during the recess and lunch, Johnny took on all comers at the tetherball pole. I didn’t actually play that day. I was in the crowd that slowly gathered during lunch. The next day he smeared the queer like we’d never seen before and while I played, I made sure I never touched the ball. By the end of the week, he was like his own planet, and I was an orbiting satellite, held there by his gravitational pull.

I was never really able to leave either. Oh, sure, over the years things happened that pulled us apart at times. He played soccer. I played baseball. He got Ginny to date him in the 10th grade and I didn’t talk to him for months after because she was supposed to be my girl. Eventually, I went off to college and he joined the Marines. But there always came a time when he pulled me back, or I went back on my own.

After that first time, our senior year, 1984, it became a natural force. We hadn’t talked much that year and I’ve never really understood why. We had some classes. English and Government. I was long over the Ginny debacle. That she slapped him and told people he was a jerk helped. That she was my date for the Junior Prom helped more.

The thing is, though, that sometimes even a planet and its satellite has times of distance. Mine was an elliptical orbit with moments when I approached too close and we almost crashed and periods when we were far enough apart he was just a faint image in the darkness of space. Senior year was like that. Until it wasn’t.

February 29, 1984, became the invisible force that ensured I’d stay in Johnny Mac’s orbit for years to come. It began innocently enough. Johnny and me doubling up with Ginny and Johnny’s girl of the week. The Junior Prom the year before had led to something a bit more with Ginny. We were thinking about the same colleges. Thinking about a life beyond high school that may just have been together. You know the way it is at that age. Everything seems possible. Dreams are reality. In the quiet moments when we talked about these things, we imagined “what ifs” as though they were “will bes”. There was a small liberal arts college in Oregon we both wanted. It was all real. Until it wasn’t.

That February night of our senior year, Johnny Mac and I decided at the last minute we needed to do something. Out of the blue he called me and I said sure let’s roll. As though there had never been an interruption in our friendship. We were solid. Whenever we needed to be.

I still remember my mom whining at me about the weather when I walked out the door. A storm was coming, she said. Maybe I oughta stay in. Have the kids over and she’d make some popcorn. We could play pool in the basement. Don’t you think, she pleaded. I didn’t think. I went. We were young and invincible. No storm could hurt us.

It was kind of odd. I had yet to realize the inevitable nature of Johnny Mac and me.  Those kinds of things only come years later, when you’re old and you ponder how things got to where they got.  Nor did I really care.  It was a Saturday night and he offered me a night out. We hadn’t spent much time together, but all of a sudden we were compatriots again. Rolling in his car. Him and me in the front. Ginny and Johnny’s girl, Kate, in the back. Laughing as the wipers scraped the windshield and the rain drummed the roof of the car. We were driving into town for a movie. Footloose.

…. More to Come ….

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Memories

A river road. Two lanes – one in each direction – twisting and turning along a levee. Tracing the edge of a river that empties into the sea. A place where memories may fall like rain drops and flow with the current, endlessly reaching towards a destination.

Somewhere along the way she tells you that bicycling was the only version of sex she had. Her husband wasn’t interested anymore and so, something about the pressure and friction was all she could count on. She tells you this while you are bicycling together. More than once. It becomes one of the things that breaks up the monotony of your workplace friendship. A few of those bike rides were on the river road.

A river road. Two people spinning along. The river to the left. Fields to the right. The sun beating down. And soon you had replaced the bicycle seat. For a year you dallied.

You remember moments. Fucking her on the stairs. Making love in front of a fire, flames crackling and spitting. The roundness of her eyes. The desire in her. Her small, quiet moans. And then it was over. Just like that. You remember though, early on, when you tell her you love her and before she mumbled the words back, her eyes darted to the side. You knew, but you chose to ignore the evidence. You were on the river. Love would take you to its destination. But you were traveling alone. She wasn’t following the flow with you. No. She was at a lake splashing about for a bit. For her it was a vacation. Not a journey.

But you remember. Just like a river carves its path, your memories do as well.

Years later, you meet another woman. You go for a drive down the river road with her by your side. In a flurry, what you call a test, you pull over and you kiss her. You remember this. Her gasp and the feel of her lips meeting yours. You remember what followed. More pleasure than you thought possible. Stolen moments too numerous to count.

You remember the curve of her hip. How she fit within your embrace. The glistening in her eyes and the depth in her voice when she said those three words and how when you said them yourself, you had never, ever meant them any more than in those moments. You remember that together it felt everything was possible. This was the one. All of those conversations with friends that challenged the idea there could be “one” were blown into bits. You knew and to this day you remember. It is possible. It is. Absolutely. Possible. The pleasure you felt was possible only because of this connection that was made. You knew suddenly that there was something deeper and fuller and more real than anything you have ever experienced before. It wasn’t just the pleasure at the surface. This is the thing that went all the way down to the roots of your being. That exposed your soul in the burst of a million exploding suns.

The river had rapids and you knew that, but you had faith. This would last. It was strong enough. Only it wasn’t. It ended. What you remember as perfection could not withstand the hammering of those rapids. It broke apart. But you remember everything about it. The looks. The smiles. The laughs. The touches. The passion. That together every thing could have been possible. You remember this. Every day and every hour. This memory never leaves you, just like the river never leaves the land.

You drive the river road now with another. You remember these things. The river is wide and beautiful. Powerful and relentless. It flows unendingly into the sea. And your memories are right there with you, relentless and powerless. Of the connection this road has with your memories of things that were and things that could have been.

As you drive and the sun sets, you search for other memories and cannot find them. You do not remember the last time you made love to this woman by your side now. You do not remember the passion or the desire. You have lost any sense of the kind of need you felt before. The unadulterated, out of control need for all of it.

In the place of those memories of life and love flowing through you like the river that tracks with the road you now drive, is a dry creek bed. Parched and cracked and withering in the blasting heat of a summer sun. There is no life or love to be found here. Without those memories, what is there to hold on to.

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The Story Behind the Story

I feel kind of like a magician revealing the secrets, but as a reader I have always wanted to know how authors come up with their stories and get from beginning to end.  Chicago, was a particularly trying story for me.  For the most part, when I have written a short story, it doesn’t take me too long to do so.  A few days, maybe a week or two.  Before you go further, you should really read the story first.

Chicago was different and it’s likely because of how the idea came to me and that I struggled so mightily with where I wanted to go with the story.  There were many ways I could have gone with it.  So, here’s the story behind the story.

A little over three months ago I went on a short backpacking trip.  A couple of nights at Point Reyes — a beautiful part of the coast of California just north of San Francisco.  I drove there on a Monday morning and set up my tent and then wandered around the beach and sites close by.  This wasn’t really wilderness camping since it was at a place where there were a dozen or so campsites, complete with numbers and a building with two bathrooms.  As the day wound down, the people camping closest to me returned from a hike.  Three women out experiencing nature and spending some quality time together.

That first night, as I walked past their camp several times, back and forth to the bathroom or to the faucet, I exchanged little with them other than a “How’s it going?”

The next day, I got up early for a walk along the coast that turned into an 8 or 9 mile round trip jaunt.  On my way back, the three young ladies were going in the opposite direction.  We exchanged a larger conversation about what was ahead on the trail and the beauty of the place.  Turns out that the day before they had arrived and hiked a different trail that took them to a waterfall that empties into the ocean.  Clearly, I was in the wrong place.

After our conversation, I headed back to my tent, stopping first to take some pictures.

IMG_5942

My fellow campers passed me while I snapped away and eventually we all made it back our respective tents.  Somewhere along the way, I learned that one of them lived locally and all three of them went to college together.  The other two had come out to California to camp together for her birthday.  One of them was from Chicago.

Over the next few hours, I struggled with my tent because the wind really picked up.  Eventually, I gave up and packed up and hiked back to my car, convinced my tent wouldn’t survive much longer.  Staying for my second night wasn’t worth having to remain sitting in my tent to keep it from blowing away.

I thought at some point of this great opening line to a story.  “I called her Chicago because that was the only name I had for her.”  Built around the idea of meeting somebody and having a passing conversation in which no names are exchanged, but something happens.  Beyond that, I didn’t know.  I had no idea what would happen.  I just knew I liked the line.

The idea percolated for a time.  I typed the line into a Word document and let it sit on my computer.  I started to scratch at the idea and came up with the idea of a girl sitting down and proposing to the narrator and going from there.  I wrote a paragraph or two.  And let it percolate some more.  Now that I had the idea, I had no idea what to do with it.  Yeah, a girl sits down on a bar stool and proposes to a stranger, but what then?  Are they really going to go through with it.  I didn’t know if I wanted them to actually get married.  And if they didn’t get married, where and how did I want it to be revealed for what it was — just an odd little joke.

It was a struggle.  Along the way, a few things happened.

I was at the Taco Bell down the street getting lunch.  There was an older woman there.  She had gone to the bathroom and then left the restaurant only to realize she had left her wallet on the counter in the bathroom.  She went back in to get her wallet and walked back out only to realize that she had locked her keys and her cell phone in her car.  She was from Arizona visiting friends.  She didn’t have any phone numbers for anybody because it was all in her phone.  I offered to drive her back to the friend she was visiting.  As we walked to my car, I joked that I hoped she wasn’t a criminal.  Yes, me — the guy with the scruffy beard and faded jeans.  Oddly enough, she trusted me and I got her back to her friend’s house.  Her name was Lavonna.  When I was casting about for a name, she became the narrator’s Aunt.

Much of the rest of the first half of the story was just what came to my mind as I worked through it and it was painful to write.  I just didn’t know what I really wanted to do with it and so for weeks, while the idea percolated, I wrote a paragraph here and a paragraph there.  All the while, I pondered the idea, were they really going to get married.

Finally, there came a point where I had to cut to the chase.  I couldn’t go on and on with them sitting in the bar.  I had to make a decision, so when they discovered they both liked cats, the deal was done.  They were getting married.  I thought of writing about their flight, about his ultimate decision to keep Aunt Lavonna on ice a little longer, I thought about all sorts of things at that point, including how the story might end.

I also decided that we didn’t need any more details about their flight or anything else.  It was time to get to the wedding.  The rabbi was based loosely on a rabbi who used to lead the congregation my family is a member of.  Meanwhile, I realized that during the course of the nuptials, the rabbi would likely say her name and if that happened, the opening line wouldn’t really work anymore, would it?  And I also wondered if I needed to reveal the narrator’s name.  Did I?  And how could I make the name reveal work.

Well, I found a way.  And I also decided that if the reader would never know her name, there was no reason to know his name either.  A little bit of a seque here — at a writing conference during which I spent three mornings with the same group of 12 writers, critiquing each other’s work, one writer’s oft-repeated criticism of virtually all other stories was that they didn’t tell the reader enough about the characters or the setting or something.  And I wanted to keep telling her that I didn’t want that detail.  I think it’s important to leave a lot to each reader’s imagination.  My image of Chicago may be different than yours and yours and yours.  My image of the narrator and what his name is may also be different.  I want the reader to create some of this in his or her own head and not have me direct all of it to only one possibility.

So, yeah, he calls her Chicago and you have absolutely no idea what his name is.  Except for what you want it to be.  I hope you don’t mind doing that work.

The final thing I thought I needed to do was deny the narrator the thing he wanted so desperately.  Because, while I think he’s a romantic and I believe there’s hope for him and Chicago in the long run, the reality is that … well, let’s just say Chicago is floating his boat in a big way.  I couldn’t make it completely easy for him.  So, yes, she denied him in the two days leading up to the wedding and, yes, she toyed with him a bit as well.

Truth is, I thought of him denying him completely on their wedding night and insisting on a five date minimum when they got back to Seattle because that’s her rule.  No hanky-panky until at least the fifth date.  But I realized something.  It was time to end the story.  So, she only toyed with him a little bit.

Second truth is … there could be all sorts of more story here.  This just scratches the surface.  What happens to these two little lovebirds?  It’s an interesting question.  I may never answer it.  Here’s a challenge for you … if you’re a writer and want to take the challenge on, write the next 5,000 words and send it to m.  Who knows … maybe I’ll write the next 5,000 words and somewhere along the way, we’ll have a real thing.

Posted in Fiction, Mark Paxson | Tagged , | 8 Comments