Fiction: Finding the story is not difficult; finding the end of the story is.
| How do the stories end? Where is the sunset, the happily ever after? What was I thinking? I wanted to write, I said. Did I say it just to convince myself? On some sub-conscious level did I think that I could say it often enough that I would someday be magically transformed. Eureka! I found it. I am a writer. Writers end their stories, though, and I cannot call myself a writer until I have found the end.
Faced with the task of writing a simple, standard-formula three-act story with character, setting, and plot, what did I do? Nothing. I could not even come up with one of those one-dimensional pieces in which the cleft-chinned hero rescues the pretty cowgirl’s ranch from the scandalous, vandalous acts of the villain who has secret knowledge of gold on the land.
That’s not a story. That’s boilerplate.
In a fit of frustrated anger I threw the creative writing textbook across the narrow space between bar and back bar. It hit a vodka bottle, pushing it back an inch. The book landed on the wooden counter with a slapping sound. Further angered that my dramatic display produced no more effect than a slap, I hurled the pen I used to underline text the “Character Development” chapter in the same direction. It missed the bottle, hit the mirrored wall behind it with a feeble “tink,” and bounced to the floor, landing in the muck between wood slats of the anti-fatigue mat. I left it there.
The regular Saturday morning customers were due soon. I stuffed the book into a gym bag, stored it in the back room, and turned on the television. I scanned the bar to assure myself there were no notes left lying about. Writing was my shameful secret. Sure enough, a leather-bound Moleskine lay in the drain trough. I returned the “notebook of Hemingway and Faulkner” to the gym bag, and waited.
The light of Mighty Mouse foiling the nefarious plans of Oil Can harry flickered in the gloom.
“Couldn’t you, just once, throw the game?” I muttered to Mouse. “Let the poor bastard win one, for Chri’ sake.”
Mouse did not listen, though, and Harry went down in flames. The End.
Bright daylight flooded the dim lounge for a moment. The room returned to gloom as the front door closed. Larry Carson, always the first customer on Saturday morning, fumbled his way through the tiny cocktail tables and scattered chairs. By the time he reached the bar his eyes were just beginning to adapt to the light. I had his martini ready for him at his usual place, next to the servers’ station.
“Be careful,” I warned, my voice coming out of the darkness. “It’s right in front of you, a little to your left.”
He raised the glass in the direction he thought I was standing.
“Good morning. How is the road business?”
“Making big bucks and causing labor shortages as men around the world flock to my joyous employment.”
Ah, sweet sarcasm. It suited my mood.
Larry owned a road paving company down the street. He went to work at sixteen, pouring tar and raking concrete and asphalt. Far from dwelling in self-pity for his sorry lot, he thrived on the work. He loved the push and pull on his muscular frame, the hot sun on his back and cold rain in his face. He found romance in the changing seasons. He breathed deeply the stringent odor of lime and the thick, swarmy aroma of hot asphalt.
Mighty Mouse segued into Road Runner and the eternal battle of Coyote’s need for dinner against Runner’s desire for conflict avoidance. Young minds rested assured that that good will always win and happy times will prevail. The End.
Monica, the cocktail server arrived. She set up her station, and chatted with Larry while I set up beer and poured cocktails for the customers trickling in. With each arrival, daylight flashed into the dark Rendezvous Lounge, and faded again. I entertained myself by watching them grope blindly across the room, and then turn left at the corner booth where Bob Rheinholdt shot his wife’s lover through the heart.
Monica and Larry carried on a stop-and-go conversation as she waited for me to fill orders, and then rushed off for more. Larry was hopelessly in love with Monica, and it showed in the way the big, tough man went all soft when she was near. Her loyalty to her elderly, tobacco-stained husband blunted Larry’s lust, and complicated his friendship with her husband.
The bar filled up. Hamburgers and blue plate specials flowed out of the kitchen behind the mirrored wall above the backbar. Factory girls and secretaries, businessmen, hustlers, and a table of three marines from the nearby recruiting station took their turn in the lounge. The marines had found fertile ground in the poverty and hopelessness in the industrial south end of a city decaying under the weight of its soot and grime.
Each time the door opened, I poised myself for a dash to the backroom. I was behind in my child support again. At any moment, a sheriff or policeman could come in to carry me off to jail. It has happened before. It is how I lost my factory job. It is how I ended up in this dark bar with simple sugar and beer leaking into my shoes, making a minimum wage, in a bleak corner of a neighborhood known for savagery. My ex-wife was an artist at flashing a smile, some cleavage, and a glimpse of thigh to the judge when she was feeling spiteful, which was all the time. Having me carted me off to jail was a pleasant pastime.
She announced one day, while we were driving from the supermarket, that she had found another, and was filing for divorce. In the court, she manipulated the judge with all her feminine allure, and I left the courthouse with a car, my clothes, two dollars in my pocket, and a stern lecture from the judge about the terrible things that happen to irresponsible men who do not keep up their child support. She went to her lover with my house and all its furnishings, my self-esteem, and my bank account. I learned years later that he retired a millionaire. I wondered if my savings provided seed money.
The night shift came in to relieve me. Sam, the bar manager and Bert, his buddy and night-shift bartender removed their Smith-and-Wesson’s with grand sweeping gestures, arching them out of their waistbands so the assembled crowd could not miss the meaning: We are a couple of tough guys. Do not mess with us. A couple of mafia lieutenants at the bar rolled their eyes and chuckled at each other.
In the men’s room, I changed from crusty, sticky clothes into dry athletic wear I kept in the gym bag with books and notes, and then returned to the bar, the customer’s side, and bought a few wind-down beers with my meager tips. “Now I can sit out here with you guys and undress the girls with my eyes,” I told the man next to me. I leered at a young woman seated at the bar. She blushed and returned my lechery with a glare of contempt. The blush was real. The disdain was theatrical effect. The woman picked up her drink and strolled back to the jukebox.
A few men at the bar cheered and applauded. “Way to go, Pete,” one called. “Pete scores again,” another said.
The lounge was bustling. Two couples, one middle aged, one youthful, occupied the Dead Lover Booth. I thought about Raymond Carver and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” An attractive woman in a short skirt sat at a booth, facing me, near the door. I made a mental note to write about lust. An elderly couple came in, arm in arm. Another writing exercise, this one about lasting love, lodged in my mind. A man sat at the bar, staring into his beer, dejected. That night I would write about loneliness and alienation.
My tips spent, I drove to my little garage apartment in my beat-up black Plymouth, spackled with pink Bond-o. The cloud-diffused light of the day settled into dusk. I hoped that Evil Landlady was glued to her television at this hour, and would not be watching for my return. I was behind in the rent again.
I opened the refrigerator and took out a carrot from Evil Landlady’s stash. She had commandeered my refrigerator one day while I was out. “You weren’t using it and I need a place to keep the vegetables from my garden.” she said. Evil landladies can do what they want with you when you owe back rent.
I took a box of tablets and notebooks from the closet, arranged them on the dinette, and scribbled on a blank sheet while I munched Evil Landlady’s garden produce. Darkness filled the room as I fumbled through hand-written notes: character profiles, scenes, pieces of stories with no endings. Where is the end? Where is the golden sunset, the frog-cum-prince, the happily ever after? How do I alchemy misery into gold? Larry will not get the girl. The mafia lieutenants will spend their lives in prison. The manager and his gun-toting buddy will die in a hail of gunfire for thinking their S&W’s were magic wands. With family money, Bob Rheinholdt will get off a murder charge and will reconcile with his philandering wife. One of the marines will die in combat; another will face court-martial and dishonorable discharge. Evil Landlady will die alone, without mourners. I cannot find the end. The story never ends; it only shows up in a new neighborhood.
I searched for a story. I remembered the navy. The military is always a good source for a story, I thought. I recalled carrying a message to officers deep in the bowels of a vast aircraft carrier. I got lost in the maze of gangways, hallways, and dead ends in the ship. Men came toward me from through the misty light: men who had learned to cozy up to the idea of things that go Boom! hooked to their chests; drove aircraft to a controlled crash on a heaving, rolling and shortened landing strip; fired weapons that sounded as if they had torn the fabric of reality. They were men who engaged in an exquisite ballet whose final purpose was slaughter. Every medal, stripe, and hash mark carried a story, but I could not stop to decipher the tales. I had to get the message delivered in the endless vessel. I must, I felt, get to The End.