by Dennis Vannatta
To the students in my Introduction to Fiction Writing class and all other interested parties: Being a writer "of a certain age," I have accumulated a lifetime of fiction fetuses and freaks-stories aborted in the womb, or stillborn, or too hideous to be exposed to public view. These I bequeath to you for salvage, repair, or, if you deem them (as I do) beyond redemption, disposal.
This one I see as the opening scene of a story. A man (oh, let's call him George to imply someone of an older generation, although in truth I don't recall a single George among my schoolboy acquaintances) comes out of a drugstore where he's just purchased a bottle of Dry Eye. Isn't that what those drops for people whose eyes don't produce enough lubricating tears are called? Better check that. Could be I'm getting them confused with Ear Dry, drops I use daily after my swim at the Racquet Club, the only kind of exercise that doesn't seem to bother my arthritis. Goddamn the years, I say goddamn them! But I'm not bothered by dry eyes, thank God. This story is not autobiographical. It's that poor bastard George who has dry eye, comes out of the drugstore, stands on the parking lot fumbling to get the plastic wrapper off the little bottle of lubricating drops when he hears a voice: "George, hey, long time no see." It's ____________. Somebody. Name not important. Man, woman-a detail. The person makes small talk, then stops mid-sentence, peers at George, then asks if everything is OK. "Everything OK with you and Laura?" (Let's say George's wife is named Laura.) George says of course he's OK, of course everything's OK with him and Laura. Only after the person has driven away does it occur to George that the strange turn in the conversation might have been caused by George's dry (i.e., red) eyes, which the friend took to be the result of crying. George wants to run after the friend shouting, "No, no, I wasn't crying! It was only dry eyes!" but of course it's too late. Here's the thing, though: George can't get the question out of his mind. Is everything all right with his life, his marriage? Of course not. Hey, this is fiction, the soul of which is conflict.
Pretty nifty opening, huh? But where to go with it? About the only thing I seem to see here is George sitting around (office, tavern, home-who cares?) thinking about how sorry his life is, his wife is, etc. You know what kind of story a story about a man who sits around thinking about his sorry life is? Well, I'll tell you, oh my students: it's a story that doesn't get published. I'm not wasting another nanosecond of my life on it. Want it? Yours.
Say a man (George?) is walking through a men's store and his eye falls on, oh, make it a sports jacket, maybe one of those linen (I think; check it) ones that have the "unstructured," rumpled look, just throw it in the Maytag and hang to dry, that kind. On a whim he tries it on. Oh, you handsome dude, you! Buys it, wears it home where the wife that bitch Laura takes one look and starts laughing. "No no, George, not a good look for you. That's a young man's jacket" (emphasis, in spades, mine). George is hurt. He'd like to think he's long past the point that he can be hurt by anything that bitch says, but the truth is it hurts right down to the short hairs. A young man's jacket. Like he needs to be reminded that he's not a young man anymore, that he got no game, can't bring the thing, bro'. "Well," he says, "Gretchen [Laura's sister or maybe best friend] told me I looked fine in it right before I took it off and fucked her." And without batting an eye Laura says, "Well, I hope Gretchen enjoyed it more than I ever did." And George says
The problem here is I don't know what he says. If I did, I wouldn't be giving the story (sic) to you. It's one thing to have your advancing years thrown in your face, it's quite another to have your wife say (or so I imagine, couldn't say myself, this is fiction) that you never had what it takes. To stand among the ruins of your marriage, the ruins of your life and realize it has always been ruins. And that's why I can't go anywhere with this stillborn story. A story isn't a point; it's a line, a development, a progression-else why turn the page? Let's turn the page on this one.
Being a writer by choice and a teacher to pay the bills (which writing-I hope you will not be disillusioned to find out, dear students- does not) there's not been a lot of what one might consider inherently interesting action in my life. Desk, paper, pen, books; where are the verbs in my life? Accordingly, dramatic action isn't a strong feature of my stories. Howzabout this, though? A man, George, is awakened in the middle of the night by sirens and what he decides is gunfire, which he's not used to hearing where he lives. (The most recent crime wave in his neighborhood involved the Dundas boy and his Peeping Tom act.) He puts on his pants, robe, and flip-flops, goes outside, sees neighbor across the street standing on his lawn looking south, then next-door-neighbor comes out and looks south where sirens wail. All three begin to walk hurriedly if warily in that direction. Before they get to the end of the block, they see the intersection lit by flashes of blue lights from (although they can't see them yet) police cars. Then more gunshots as they freeze in place. Now, there are certain details, certain information that George and his neighbors will have to find out (and that the reader will want to be told). But how to communicate this info without gumming up the narrative flow? As I've admitted, this kind of story isn't my strong suit. But it's pretty exciting stuff for this neighborhood: two guys try to break into the pharmacy down at Seaver and 17th Street, trip an alarm, car chase follows, bad guys don't make the turn where Seaver curves around the park, hop a curb, break an axle. Come out guns blazing, wound a cop in the shoulder, one of the guys shot through the lung and dies in the street, the other chased through the neighborhood, shot to death in Al Henderson's privet hedge. (Al by coincidence a frequent golfing partner of mine, but that's another story.) All right, this is where the story gets interesting. When George finally goes back home after seeing the wrecked car and the body in the street and learning as many of the details as a citizen plausibly could at this stage of the affair, he finds that his bitch of a wife has locked him out of the house! He rings the doorbell, bangs on the outside wall of the bedroom, hollers. No freaking good. Can you believe it? Last scene: George standing on tiptoe to see into the bedroom, Laura sleeping like a baby.
There's the rub. Because it can't end there, can it? I mean, what the hell would it mean? What would be the relationship, other than temporal, between the shootout and the scene back at the house? Just because the two things actually happened in that order ... well, not actually happened, of course; this is fiction, made up ... but there's no reason it couldn't have happened just like this, right? And even if it did happen just like this, what would be the thematic significance of the juxtaposition of the two scenes? I can't figure it out. I mean, why would Laura-other than to reaffirm her royal bitchiness, and even I wouldn't go so far as to say you could use that to explain each and every one of her actions-lock the door on George? And then not respond to the bell, the knocking, the shouting? I don't demand understanding from my readers, but I do expect it from myself. Simple old-fashioned self-respect requires that of a writer, doesn't it? (Although God knows as you get older self-respect is one thing you learn to live without.)
Let's face it, sex sells, and every once in awhile I like to inject a little into a story just to juice it up. But it's a difficult thing. Straightforward descriptions of the sex act won't fly at the prestigious journals I grace with my submissions. Something obliquely erotic, the understatedly perverse, perhaps, is the thing to aim at. As in: a man (whoever; George) after many years of a slow train wreck of a marriage discovers (the how of it doesn't matter; the fact that it took him so long to make the discovery is the amazing, the humiliating thing) that his wife is having an affair with her boss at the branch bank. Their preferred time and place for their trysts: Saturday morning when George has his round of golf, the same Saturday mornings that in their younger days George and Laura would spend in bed watching cartoons and having Froot Loops and orange juice and each other. But then the rot set in, the boredom. (You know you've reached a certain age, my young friends, when a nine-o'clock tee-time is more appealing to you than your wife's hand on your putter.) How does George know exactly what they're doing at that particular time? Because he watches them through the bedroom window which fresh-air-fiend Laura insists leaving raised at least a couple of inches even in the coldest weather. Take it from here, gentle reader.
Why, you ask, would I abdicate my stewardship of the story at this delicious point when any number of plot-rich possibilities occur to one: George surprises the hot and heaving couple and shoots them both; George surprises the sweating, panting couple and is himself slain; George is discovered peeping in the window and chased by. Etc. But I can't go any further because I can't get past my cursed understanding of human nature, or at least George's nature: that is, George stands on tiptoe outside his bedroom window Saturday morning after Saturday morning weeks on end-as his self-respect becomes merely hypothetical and his short game grows rusty-because he enjoys it. Sex has never been better for him than it is at that moment. He's where he wants to be. And if true, where can this miserable bastard go? Where can the story go? Can we leave him there, nose to the window pane, hacking his pud? Too depressing to contemplate. (Almost as depressing as the possibility that there is no Saturday morning tryst with the bank manager, that George's suspicions are groundless and short-lived because he only wishes there were enough fire left in either of them for infidelity, wishes that they weren't soldered in impotent indifference. Yawn.)
Once upon a time a man of a certain age decided to address his expanding waistline and shortness of breath by walking in the mall a couple of times a week. He soon increases his visits to three or even four days a week and the duration of his walks from fifteen minutes to twenty and finally an even thirty minutes. He feels younger, partly because of the exercise but also because at sixty he's probably twenty years younger than the average walker in the mall. One day he's blasting by two of the white-haired old farts when from around the corner of the fast-food court comes a high-stepping, elbows-churning youngish woman (no more than mid-forties by his guess), long blond ponytail falling out of the gap in her Boston Red Sox hat. Too cute for-it hurts this writer to admit-words. Just before she passes him going in the opposite direction, she turns on him the brightest smile he's seen in many a long year. Our George (let's call him) is in love. When they meet on their next circuit of the mall, she smiles again, and George is able to summon enough testosterone to smile back. On the next circuit he manages to croak a "Hi," and it's "Hi" and smiles for days and days to come as George thinks about her in the daytime and the long insomniac hours of night, his hand in his shorts, oh yes. Their relationship is taken to a whole new level when they begin to walk in the same direction, side by side. "Maybe we could meet for dinner," he says (wedding band in the ashtray of his Geo Metro), and Kath says, "Sure! How about Zbarro's?" Now, as you might imagine, George has been thinking about the assignation taking place somewhere a tad more romantic like a hotel bistro with king-size bed forty steps away, but
But you know where this will go. Same place these tired old things always go: they meet, have sex, he breaks up with his wife, marries or moves in with Kath, sex gets stale, she betrays him with another man she meets in the mall, etc.; they meet, have bad sex, etc.; she fails to show up for their date, etc. Is it possible to do anything fresh with any of this? No. But the real problem here is I can't go on with the story because I know how it would actually end (because I know our boy George): he doesn't show up for the assignation. Failure of imagination, failure of will, failure of courage. The wedding ring goes back on his finger, he goes back to his wife and trims his toenails on the bed as Laura, back to him, reads Emily Loring. The worst thing is he can't go back to the mall again for fear of running into Kath, and the mall is the only place in town with a Chic-Fil-A. I'm sorry, but this is the only way I can see this playing out. I'm sorry.
Sometimes you see something, maybe just a little street scene as you pass in your car, and you say to yourself, there could be a story in that, if only you could write it. For instance, a group of smokers in their cordoned-off area outside a hospital entrance, most of them in pajamas and robes, some in wheelchairs, one guy holding a cigarette in one hand and his IV stand with the other. It's winter. Their frozen breaths mingle with the clouds of smoke. A vision out of hell, our protagonist (George? Are we tired of him yet? Of course we are) thinks as he passes them on his weekly visits to the hospital. Let's say George is a drug rep. Let's not say he goes to the hospital for tests relative to some condition that presents itself with one's advancing years. Who on earth would want to read about that? A drug rep, then. At some point, though, it occurs to George that the scene is not hellish at all. In fact, he finds admirable and appealing the evident camaraderie among the smokers, an us-against-the-world siege mentality that's congenial to his own personality. He buys a pack of Pall Malls (the only brand in the 7-Eleven he recognizes from his youth; where are the Old Golds, the Lucky Strikes?) and on his next visit to the hospital stops and has a smoke with his instant new friends. Thereafter he has a cigarette or two on each of his visits, frequently drops by even when he has no business at the hospital. These brief interludes are, he realizes, even though he has never smoked before and doesn't like it now, the highpoints of his day, his week. Life. Then comes the inevitable. One day the smokers are no longer there. Smoking has been banned from the entire hospital campus. At home that night as he's getting ready for bed, stuffing his dirty clothes in the hamper, his wife, rubbing cold cream on her face, says, "Don't put those in there. "Huh?" "Don't put those smelly things in with my clothes." Then she turns and, her face red and bloated with fury, says, "If you don't stop smoking, I'm leaving you. I won't put up with it! Stop it right now or I'm leaving." Later, in bed, the lights off, George lies awake, thinking how much he misses his friends at the hospital.
If you could only write it. Actually, as it stands it's pretty close to a workable story. Chekhov would knock it out while he was waiting for his oatmeal to cook. With improvements, of course. But Chekhov hasn't been seen in these parts for some time now. Me, I can get it all except the ending because I know that's not how it ends. How it really ends is with George, when his wife says she'll leave him, terrified. We're talking about that bitch Laura, understand. That bitch Laura, and George, suddenly terrified, his lower lip trembling like when he was a little boy and ready to cry, holds his hands up placatingly and says, "OK, I'll quit smoking" because to contemplate old age alone . . . That's how it really ends. Who could write that? Who would want to? Wouldn't you want to save your character from such humiliation, even at the cost of annihilating him by refusing to tell his story?
A man spends his spare time-and increasingly time that should not be spare time-at a succession of fast-food restaurants. McDonald's, Burger King, etc. "They're my Vienna coffee houses," he jokes, and maybe they are. He's greeted by first name by employees, reads the newspaper while he sips coffee (mornings) or Diet Cokes (afternoons), visits with the other regulars, who become his friends. He
Stop, stop. The problem here is obvious: too close, ultimately, to the previously aborted "smoking" vignette. Just imagine if George went from McDonald's to the hospital to Burger King! Hell with your slasher flicks, oh my students. Here's the real 21st century Gothic: Death by banality.
Maybe this, though. Man walks into Burger King. There's a row of paper Burger King crowns on the counter-for children, of course. He picks one up, puts it on his head, waits with a silly grin for the girl behind the register to look up and see him. She's new, doesn't know "ol' George," whom the other Burger King employees greet by name, but what better ice-breaker than the crown gambit. George, regular guy, friendly, not too good to have a little fun at his own expense. Girl finally looks up and-in that robotic, bored-to-my-shoe-soles-fast-food-employee voice-asks, "Can I help you?" Grinning that grin, he orders a Diet Coke and, since there's no one home now to nag him about his cholesterol and weight, onion rings. As he stands at the counter waiting for his order, he keeps looking at the girl, trying to catch her eye. Grins that grin. Then his order is up, and she hands it to him on a tray without once looking at him. He tells himself she's trying hard not to laugh. George, all-around good guy. He takes his tray around the corner to the seating area and what does he see but a young man-twentyish-wearing a paper crown. Young black man, handsome, "cut," in a tight orange T-shirt. There's a lovely young woman with him pretending to look annoyed, but George can tell from her scarcely suppressed grin that etc. And George knows: this world is not his world. He couldn't even hire on for comic relief. When he goes, not only will his passing not be lamented, it will not even be noticed.
The problem here is determining the mood of the story. Make that "tone." Students, take note: "tone" is not "mood," not "atmosphere." Tone is the author's perceived attitude toward his materials. Serious, sarcastic, ironic, etc. And what should my attitude be? If you have to ask, you say . . . . Good point. But the problem is I do know: boredom, loathing. What a wretched, attenuated, bloodless little thing this is because we never get to the heart of the matter: i.e., what happens when he goes home and tells the tale to his wife. But he can't do that. Laura has gone, left him at last. To wear a crown into an empty house. Of what are you king? To wear a crown into an empty house . . .
George goes to a reunion (alone, his divorce now final). Say a high school reunion, although if it turns out that a family reunion works best, fine, let it be a family reunion. At the reunion, George (by himself or part of a larger group) visits the old school (if it's a school reunion) or the old home site (if family). The structure itself is gone, only the foundation remains. It probably makes more thematic sense to have George go by himself, but there's something about that Dante-esque vision of a whole group (relatives, classmates) stumbling among the ruins like a host of lost souls that I find affecting. Whichever, George singly or with the group wanders the paths laid out by the foundation outline until they come to a stunned halt, paralyzed by nostalgia, or something like nostalgia, something worse than nostalgia, and think, Here was the kitchen, here my desk, here my bed, there the hallway I tripped along as a boy following her, ponytail bouncing. In this room I laughed, in this I wept. Here, right here, my father died. Here I was young, etc. The foundation is not just the remains of the school/home, George realizes, but is the skeleton upon which the flesh and bone and sinew of his own life once hung heavy and hopeful, but now? But now?
It's a marvelous image, if it's not immodest of me to say so, a marvelous scene. A writer who can come up with that has something going for him. He shows promise, he has potential. But let me tell you, my nauseatingly young students, one thing a sixty-plus-year-old writer does not want to hear is that he has potential. It's too damn late in the day for potential. At my age you must write like there's no tomorrow. But where to go with it? What to write? Neither an image nor a scene is a story. What proceeded it? Where does it go from here? God help me, I don't know. I try, I really do try, but I'm overcome with fatigue, with indifference. I lose heart. So I give it to you, my students. Take it. Plant this spent flower and bring it to life, if you can. Do what I cannot.
An aging man sees his life sputtering out in a random spray of fragments, shards from something broken so long ago he's not sure it was ever whole, or that he ever saw it whole. Maybe there was a failure of vision. Which is the greater tragedy, that the rupture is there in the flawed fabric of the world, or that the irredeemably broken thing is George?
The problem here is to make something whole out of a context, a vision of fragments. I mean, how to end a fragment? Barthelme said there should always be something unsatisfactory about an ending. I remain uncomforted.
Call this "The Chase" because that is what we are hereby cutting to. An aging writer, who can no longer finish a story because he sees his own life
The problem here
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