One complaint I frequently hear in writing critique groups is that the writer is “walking the dog.” This describes the writer who leads the reader step by step through a scene sequence, often subjecting the reader to tedious monotony. Many times, this is a fair critique. Beginning writers often struggle with ending scenes and transitioning to new ones, so they drag the reader through a play-by-play of minuscule events to tie scenes together.
While this error can easily be fixed, I find the remedy offered by many critics to be just as harmful. Many people will advise the writer to “get to the action” or to “stop walking the dog.” For example, they might say, “We don’t need to know that Jane got out of bed, got a glass of water, took a shower, dried her hair, painted her toenails, got dressed, and made herself a cup of coffee before jumping in the car and going on her way to uncover a terrorist cell in Boston.”
This laundry list of actions is not effective writing, but I would resist the advice to avoid walking the dog, because walking the dog is so fundamental to composing a good scene. That’s not to say as a writer, you should list everything that happened like a diary entry. Rather, be mindful of the things that happen while walking the dog. What does this particular character see on the walk? What important things do they fail to see? Walking the dog allows the characters to interact with their world in a meaningful way.
Perhaps Jane woke up an hour late, her bedsheets stained with fluorescent ink because she fell asleep with an open highlighter and her notebook on her lap. Perhaps when Jane goes to the bathroom, she sees her husband’s clothes strewn over the floor, a quarter-filled coffee mug balancing on the edge of the bathtub, a pile of books and notepads on the bathroom counter. Perhaps as she paints her toenails, she winces at the sight of her ugly, misaligned pinky-toe that she broke while cliff-diving off the coast of Spain the previous year. In the kitchen, she sees the cereal bowl her husband left on the table, the sugary remnants of the cereal flakes caked onto the ceramic. Frustrated, she puts the bowl in the sink to soak it, but at least her husband has made a pot of coffee. Perhaps when she gets to the car, she realizes her husband has filled the gas tank for her.
By filling in these details, the writer is offering setting and characterization in an efficient, elegant way. We get the sense that Jane is adventurous and that her husband is a slob. But we also see that he’s not purposefully inconsiderate, since he’s filled her car with gas. Of course, this example is paired down to its bare bones, but you can see how the reader can learn a lot about characters and their personalities without the writer having to waste a paragraph telling us that Jane’s husband is a slob or that she likes to seek out adventure.
Write a lot of these scenes, or at least go through them slowly in your head, imagining the world though your character’s eyes. I would argue, the subtle emotional responses a character has in the small scenes are more meaningful than the obvious and predictable emotional responses in the big scenes. We know a character will be angry when they’re betrayed by a friend, or sad when their beloved father dies, or afraid when a menacing stranger pulls a knife on them. Beginning writers often reserve detailed description of emotions for these scenes and fall back on clichés. His blood boiled. Tears welled up in his eyes. Her heart thumped. What has happened, is the writer has failed to build up an emotional cache with the character. However, if the reader is already intimate with the character, in the momentous scenes, they’ll already feel what the character is feeling without the writer having to tell them.
The secret to good writing is to be acutely aware of everything. Go out and walk the dog! Stretch yourself to see the world in a different way and have an empathic response for all of your characters, no matter how good or evil they may be. Get it all down on paper. The redundant details can later be excised from the manuscript, but it’s so important to go through the process. This isn’t just advice for writers of literary or upmarket fiction. This is true for all writers. It’s the basis of great storytelling.
Trey’s head is hot and his feet hurt. His toes are wet and mushed together in his shoe, stinging where the blister has ripped loose on his left big toe. He’s afraid of changing out of his socks, soaked with three hours of sweat, because if he removes them he might rip away the puffy shell of blistered skin that’s delicately hanging on, the last line of defense protecting the raw skin beneath. Trey bounces the tennis ball three times. He catches it and holds it against his racket for a moment before he serves. He’s one point away from winning the Boys 18 and Under division at the Southern Open. He wants it to be over.
He considers going for a big serve and ending the match with an ace. Nagging voices inside his head persuade him to reconsider. Coach: Why go for the lowest percentage serve on the biggest point of your life? Mom: This is what we’ve been talking about. You can’t lose your focus on big points. Dad: What was going on inside your head? Mom: At least you learned something from your mistake. Dad: He never seems to learn. Coach: Eliminate thinking errors. Mom: Why do you complicate things, Trey? Coach: Keep your thoughts simple.
Standing just outside the fence with his arms folded across his chest, his coach hides his facial expressions in the shadow cast by the large straw hat atop his head. Trey’s parents are seated on a Carnival Cruise beach towel draped over a row of the aluminum bleachers on the side of the court. Trey didn’t go on that cruise. He was training for this tournament, for this moment, a moment that has left him confounded.
It’s his right quadriceps, which has been twitching, ready to seize up on him with a painful cramp, that convinces him to hit a safe, energy efficient spin serve to his opponent’s backhand. Just get the point started.
His opponent blocks the return back to Trey’s side of the court. Trey jerks his racket back and scrambles into position. His swing is no longer fluid but is now a disjointed abbreviation of the looping stroke he and his coach have been working on for the past four months in their weekly lessons. At least he strikes the ball cleanly, sending it safely across the net to the middle of the court.
Every point has been like this for the last thirty minutes. Neither player aggressive. Both terrified of making a mistake because an error would mean precious energy had been wasted, and after three hours of slugging balls back and forth, neither of them has energy to spare. Trey is aware of the obvious paradox. Because he and his opponent are playing safe, the points have become much longer and more grueling, but both still refuse to take a chance with an aggressive shot. It has become more of a demonstration of will power than skill. Trey hopes his opponent will take a rip at the ball and put an end to this torture. In the meantime, they continue lofting heavy topspin forehands, each shot comfortably clearing the net by several feet.
Trey has never made it this far in the tournament. The finals. His parents and coaches have long insisted that his game is there, telling him that he should be making it to the finals and winning tournaments. He’s not sure if this assertion is meant to be an encouragement of his abilities or an indictment on his failures. His mom has told him it’s just a mental thing. You have to want it. He doesn’t want it. He just doesn’t want to lose. He doesn’t want to come close, tease his parents with success only to fall short yet again. All the money they’ve spent. Lessons, clinics, hotels, rackets, strings, shoes…
All that he wants, all that he deep down really wants, is for this third set tiebreaker to be over so he can retreat to the bench and hide his burning face in the little rectangle of shade from the lamp head hanging high over the court. But right now he’s fighting harder than he’s ever fought for something he doesn’t want. He doesn’t want to lose.
In the humidity the ball has become shaggy and heavy, its black print nearly worn off. He watches it spinning at him through the air, a giant, yellow furball. He considers the color and texture of this ball so carefully that it becomes a blur. His next shot shanks off the frame of his racket, sending a painful jolt through his tired arm. He hears his mom gasp in disgust, or at least he senses it.
The ball zig-zags in the air like a knuckleball. It’s headed beyond the baseline. The score will be even again. All this effort will have been wasted and instead of walking away the champion, now he’ll have to win two more points in a row to win. He’s not sure if he wants to go through this again.
Somehow—maybe a gust of wind—the ball changes trajectory and falls straight down, clipping the baseline. Trey can tell his opponent wants to call the ball out, but the shot is too slow. All six people standing outside the court have a clear view of the line and know the ball landed in. It’s not a good opportunity to cheat. Still, Trey expects his opponent’s index finger to shoot up in the air, indicating a call of out. A shot that ugly should have gone out. As his opponent stumbles backward to make a last second recovery, his left hand rises into the air ambiguously. Instead of extending his finger, he launches a high, defensive forehand back towards Trey.
In a way, Trey actually regrets that his opponent had not called the ball out. It would have released all the tension, relieved all the pressure. Sure, he would have dropped his racket on the ground, clasped the top of his skull in disbelief, and charged the net yelling, “No way! That was so in.” Because there are no line judges on the court, there wouldn’t be anything he could do to reverse the call, and Trey would look back to the sidelines at his parents who would share in his anger, his dad probably muttering something about what a big cheater the other boy was. But it would have been a relief, this outcome. A win-win. If he had ended up losing, he’d have an excuse, an asterisk next to his opponent’s victory. Trey would have the moral high ground. His opponent only won because he had cheated, he’d tell people. And he would believe it and sleep easier at night knowing this. But the bastard called it in. The point continues.
Trey is even more careful now, his shots landing shorter in the court while his opponent has gone on the attack. He senses his opponent is frustrated, anxious. Trey would be too if he were him. The point should have been over after that horrible mishit. Perhaps pressure has been relieved on the other side of the court. Now, if his opponent should lose the match, he could claim that Trey had only won because he’d been lucky. That’s one thing Trey has learned. Rarely are there both winners and losers in tennis. Mostly, it seems, there are those who won and those who claim they should have won. Defeat is difficult to accept and those who do toil at the bottom of the rankings until they’re so discouraged by their lack of achievement they eventually give up.
Out of the corner of his eye, Trey sees his opponent’s parents shaking their heads, gesturing with their hands, and mouthing over and over, “That was out.” They actually want to believe that Trey’s ball had been out. They had wanted their son to cheat, and they would have accepted it. Wow.
Trey is now sprinting from corner to corner, chasing down balls, trying to hit at least one defensive shot good enough so that the attack stops. He finally hits his first decent shot in the last thirty minutes, a sharp crosscourt forehand that sends his opponent scurrying towards the sideline. The shot has taken just about everything out of Trey. If his opponent hits it back, he’s done.
His opponent does get it back, a slow, loopy shot down the line to Trey’s backhand, just enough within reach that Trey has to waddle over to it. This is it. He attempts an ill-advised, poorly executed drop shot that lands barely over the net but bounces too high, giving his opponent ample time to retrieve it. His opponent races to the net and drives a backhand into the opposite corner. Trey doesn’t make a move towards it. The ball lands squarely on the sideline. In. Trey puts up his left finger and says, “out.” It’s over. He’s won.
Growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, my friend Marc and I used to entertain ourselves by making up stories on the fly and recording them on a tape cassette recorder. We were seven or eight years old. On our less inspired but rambunctious days, the stories were simple and action packed, usually involving some indescribable yet inherently hideous and menacing beast chasing us through the neighborhood or our homes until we finally got away or killed it. We would dive to the floor, crash into the walls, or hurdle over the sofa to simulate our evasive maneuvers. Then, panting from our efforts, we’d whisper into the tape recorder how frightened we were as we pretended to hide. On other days we would attempt more intricate mystery stories—Scooby Doo type adventures—that routinely failed to reach a resolution before one of us was called home to dinner. When we’d meet up again, we never picked up where we left off because listening to the previous day’s recording always revealed some fatal flaw with our plotline. Before Marc moved away sometime around my third-grade year, we had compiled several cassette tapes worth of unfinished stories.
But the storytelling bug had bitten. For school, we had to write a story. Mine was called The Dog and the Bird. I don’t remember what it was about. It probably featured a dog and a bird working together to achieve some noble outcome. Whatever it was about, I just know I put a whole lot of effort into it and was really proud of the finished product. My teacher gave me some encouraging feedback which immediately inflated my writing aspirations. I asked her about getting it published.
She said, “Ok. But you’re going to have to type it up really nice.”
So I did. I typed it up, checking it multiple times for errors and letting my parents proofread it. I told them I had to get it ready for publication. The Dog and the Bird would be my breakthrough as an author. The story had to be flawless. I took it back to my teacher.
She read through it again and agreed that it was much better typed out. “But you’re going to need to bind it,” she said. “So people can read it like a book.”
That night I three-hole punched it and put the story in a report folder with a clear plastic cover. Now someone could read it like they were flipping the pages of a book. I gave it to my teacher.
Again she was impressed. “Now, you just need some cover art. Every book has a cover.”
I was stumped. I was an author, not an artist. I was also growing impatient. I wanted to be done with it. I knew drawing with crayons or pencils would look amateurish, so using the computer technology available before the days of clip art and the internet, I drew a rudimentary picture of a four-legged animal that might have resembled a dog, at least to the type of person gifted at locating constellations and finding images of animals in clouds. Next to my dog, I drew a faceless, two-stroke picture of a bird—essentially a ‘V’ with curved tips. I centered the title in big bold letters above the drawing and printed it out on my dot matrix printer which made the big letters and the drawing of the dog look hideously pixelated. It didn’t matter. I had completed a book. My book. The next day I presented it to my teacher who promised that she’d share it with all her future classes. I promised I’d work more on the artwork. I never did. But I was satisfied. I was as published as I needed to be. The project had taken all my energy for two weeks, and I needed a rest.
I owe so much to that teacher who recognized and cultivated that creative spark in me. She didn’t give me a cold dose of reality by informing me of the cruel world of publishing, or by telling me to expect a pile of rejections, or that being a published author is extremely difficult. This would have been the truth, of course, but at that age, if faced with these mountains of obstacles, I would have given up before even starting.
I think we forget sometimes that one of the primary goals of teaching is showing someone how to set a goal and complete a task. Everybody wants to achieve something. Guiding a student to find their true bliss is part of the process.
We should never forget this function of teaching. Performing well on a standardized test is an admirable goal for a school but falls way short of being inspirational for the student. If we simply grade teachers by how well they show someone where to place a comma or how to turn the remainder of a long division problem into a decimal, then we are truly selling ourselves short.
Because of my teacher, I experienced a wonderful sense of accomplishment. It was my first completed story. I’ve continued to write stories. Some have been published but most of them shared only amongst a small group of friends and fellow writers. I would have forgotten about The Dog and the Bird except that recently I was sifting through an old box of schoolwork and came across the cover art that had been hidden beneath the rubble of my life like a lost puzzle piece. I hadn’t thought of it in years. I honestly don’t recall which teacher was responsible for encouraging me to continue on the story; otherwise, I would gladly give her credit here. Until now, I didn’t recognize the value of that lesson in publishing.
The most profound moments in life are often not recognized until the moment is long gone. Insignificant and untethered memories reappear and unexpectedly reveal their importance upon distant reflection. But this, I’d argue, is where the true substance of living resides. In the end, when we sum up our histories, our purpose or meaning in life will not be perfectly articulated like a corporate mission statement but will instead be buried deep beneath the subtext of a thousand little moments and scattered memories.
As a writer I often gaze out the window while searching for something else for my characters to do besides gaze out the window. There must be something else to look at and some other way to describe seeing. Here are 31 useful words for looking or seeing. Some of these should be used more sparingly than others, and some should be used only in very specific contexts.
We don’t believe the dinosaurs thought about the comet that wiped them out, but I’m sure it pissed them off. The whole consciousness of Gaia, Mother Earth, was offended by that death blow. Life had evolved to fill every niche; land, air, and sea teemed with it. Stable for millions of years, Mother Earth had achieved perfection, she thought.
Then that outside force, a war hammer from the stars, and Nature started over, this time not just to fill every biosphere of the earth, but to face down threats from the stars as well. She knew it would take more than just biology; it depended on emergence, characteristics of a complex system where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Complex systems like our large brains; we call it intelligence, the ability to reason.
20 million years later and here we are. Intelligence is expensive, the power to reason comes at great energy costs to the organism, and there has only been one species that has made the cost workable. Us, with maybe the large sea mammals holding a back-up copy of the basic software.
There was a time when the human species was on the endangered list, a time when there were only a few thousand of us. But we made it through that narrow gate, we made our large expensive brains work for us, and now we rule the planet. Some of nature’s processes are still outside of our control, but we’re working on gaining control of even those.
So, we are Gaia’s tool, evolved to extend the shield of life beyond the boundaries of our own atmosphere. And what are we doing? Struggling with petty arguments, backing away from the great challenge for which nature created us, turning our backs on the stars.
Today we struggle with a government that has shut down, unable to do even the most basic of things. Our sky watch is dark. And in less than a month, an asteroid will pass between us and the orbit of the moon, death whistling by to remind us that the universe is uncaring, if not downright hostile.
The sky is falling. Reason has failed. Winter is coming.
It’s 2:30 a.m. and the diner is so packed we have to wait to be seated. A large painting hangs in the foyer. I know it well because it was the cover of Chance’s first album, Arcade Plush. The subject seems innocent enough, though quirky—stuffed animals jammed inside an arcade plush machine—but something about the scene is disturbing. Maybe it’s the slightly askew perspective that seems to suggest it’s worth no more than a passing glance. But I think it’s the dire situation of the stuffed animals that makes me feel queasy. I didn’t notice it in the glossy, diluted form that I’m more familiar with, but in this one, I can see the bulging eyes of the animals are pleading, not so much with a “pick me, pick me!” anticipation but more of a sullen, please-get-me-the-hell-out-of-here look you’d find on a crusted-lipped, starving child in some far-off, impoverished area of the world. And then the bodies of the animals aren’t light and fluffy but instead seem weighty and imposing as if they share a common purpose to crush and disfigure each other—a giraffe’s neck in the stranglehold of a purple elephant’s tusk; a unicorn’s head positioned between a monkey’s legs, putting an unsuspecting velveteen bunny in the immediate foreground in a precarious position. The overhead grappling, grab-o-matic prongs seem so spindly and useless that they don’t even earn a glance from the animals, as if they know better than to expect help from above.
Chance turns down the first two available tables to get the booth he wants. He recognizes a waitress. He points her out to me and says, “Those eyes are like a bass groove that you can’t get out of your head and will creep up on you in some pretty random moments.” And then I realize why he came here.
Those eyes belong to Mazie Allen, and when she sees him, she quickly approaches. “Stanley Goldstein!”
He doesn’t stand, forcing her to stoop to hug him. “I’m still Chance Casper until I leave this place,” he says.
“I heard you were in town. I would’ve come to the show if I could’ve gotten off work. It’s our busy time. Four days till Christmas. How was it?”
“Same. Automatic for the last five years. You know, this was our last—”
“Hold that thought. We’ll catch up when things die down in here a bit,” she says.
She rushes away to check on other customers.
“She used to come to all of our gigs,” Chance tells me. “She bought into the myth of rock ‘n’ roll glory, thinking that just a taste of that counter-culture elixir might free her to some kind of deeper illumination. Imagination freed is illumination achieved, I’d tell her. Girls will believe anything you tell them as long as it’s blended with the right mix of poetry and booze. She was a good lay.”
I’ve never known Chance to talk this way. This isn’t how he was back when he was Stanley and we were a couple of college students with crazy perspectives of the world. There’s some bitterness and resentment built up inside of him. He won’t stop talking about Mazie; I realize she was something more.
“You know, she did the art to our first album cover. That one out front. That got her art more exposure to the world than she would have ever gotten doing anything on her own. She was an artist, self-taught, but a total hack. The problem with her was that she was blind to original perspectives. She spent all of her time going over the masters trying to copy their techniques and producing half-witted composites always a shade off. Guess it’s no surprise she’s waitressing now.”
“So she was more than just your average groupie.”
“The ultimate road warrior, you know. She had the enthusiasm of a religious disciple. My parents hated her.”
I ask him how he felt about her. Really.
He responds with several minutes of silence. “I loved her. And then she left—hitched a ride and came home to Fargo. My mom knew about it before I did. How the hell does that happen? They hated each other. Women don’t get it, but they bond in their confusion. They have this notion of how things should be, and if things don’t fall between those two narrow lines, shit, everything falls apart. Everyone gets bored traveling down the same highway, and women, they just freak out if you detour for some sightseeing. And most people have to create this illusion that even though we’re bouncing off the walls, we’re somehow staying within the lines. Not me. I put it out there like it is. I am about truth. If people can’t handle it, they don’t belong in my life.”
Out of the original band, only Simon (the drummer passed out with his head on a bongo) and Chance remain. I ask him about the rest of the original band. He knows I’m asking specifically about Sal, the guitarist who many considered the life of the band, the one with the flare and million-dollar smile.
“After nine years of jamming with us he got amped on the fantasy that if you got married and went to school to get a business degree and had a life where you work inside an accounting office punching numbers into a computer and pressing compute and then turning it into your boss with a big juvenile grin on your face like you want a gold star or something but really you’re just begging for money like any guy on the street, that somehow that would make you happy. And he took that route. You know what happened to him? He got married. He got his job. He got a promotion. He got fired. He got divorced. Now he’s living in a shack up in Portland and working in a bookstore. And the only reason I know this is because he randomly Facebooked me and sent a message that said, ‘Hey man, you still playing in a band? I wanna get back.’ Fuck that. We’d moved on.”
“So how do you really feel about him?” I ask.
He laughs. “He’s probably happier than me.”
The crowd finally thins. As cars back out, their lights cast a diffused glow through the snowfall. Mazie returns and chooses my side of the booth, forcing me to scoot over.
“So how long ya’ in Fargo?” she asks him.
“Plane leaves tomorrow night.”
“I dunno. Boston.”
“That’s nice. Visit the folks for the Christmas holidays. How are they?”
“Hey listen,” I say. “You think I could crash at your place? I left the keys to the van with Simon.”
“Ah, Simon. How is the little drummer boy?”
“Still a sucker for love but keeps a steady beat.”
“That guy. He hardly says a word but gets any girl he wants.”
Chance puts his hand on the table and his fingers do the same unconscious crawl across the surface that I’ve seen many other musicians do—the body never relenting in its desire to make music—but here I feel like his fingers are doing a courtly dance, hoping that she might make contact with them. “He didn’t get you,” he points out.
“He didn’t want me.”
“So listen, about the place to stay. You think I could crash at your place? I don’t mind waiting until you get off.”
The smile she gives him in response looks motherly. “Stanley, I’m married.”
“I’ve been married for five years now.”
“But online you’re listed as Mazie Allen.”
“The miracle of Facebook. Is that how you found out I’m working here?”
Chance takes a slow sip of coffee in response. “I’m not stalking you. You can turn around and walk away, and I won’t follow.”
“I kept my name because I had a following…with my artwork.”
“You still doin’ that stuff? Why are you working here then?”
“Aw, come on. You know how it is with art, never knowing when the paychecks will come. This gives me a steady income and it gets me out of the studio to draw on some real-life inspiration.”
“What does he do?”
“The guy. The one you married.”
“Well, he’s in music, too.”
“In a band?”
“Actually, he’s the band director at the high school.”
He bellows out in laughter. “What a pathetic, pointless job.”
She clenches her teeth. “He’s spreading the joy of music to ordinary people.”
“Band students are not ordinary people. They’re just pimpled kids too awkward to do sports, too dull to do theater, and too tone deaf to sing. So you give these kids a hunk of metal to blow into and just pray to God they don’t bop someone on the head and hurt ‘em.”
He covers his ears. “You don’t have to say anymore. I’m already insulted. You have kids?”
He sighs in satisfaction. “I miss you,” he says.
“Ok,” she says before disappearing into the kitchen. There are only a few customers in the diner now, but we don’t see her for another twenty minutes before Chance waves down the manager and asks him to track down our waitress. She comes back to our table with her notepad covering her eyes.
“Look Mazie, I’m sorry. Sometimes I come across as brash and tactless. That’s Chance Casper talking.”
“You can’t hide behind a name. You weren’t suddenly reborn as Chance Casper. The same old Stanley Goldstein lies behind those eyes. A new name and a fresh shave don’t give you a clean slate.”
“Look, I haven’t slept well in days, and I’m feeling emotional now, thinking this might be my last time in Fargo. You know, this was our last show tonight.”
“And you picked Fargo of all places.” She places her hand over her heart. “On behalf of the citizens of Fargo, I’m honored you chose our city to be your final resting spot.”
He makes no secret that he’s livid, and I feel caught between an ex-lovers’ quarrel, a witness to his self-annihilation.
She lays her notepad on the table. “I’m sorry I missed it. Really. How was it? Did you play The Well?”
“Really? That was my favorite.”
“Mazie, it was pretentious crap.”
“Oh my God, how can you say that! ‘Your perception is in the angle of the reflection that meets your eye.’ I love that line.”
“For Once then Something. Robert Frost. You showed me that poem. All I did was twist his language around a bit.”
“Under the surface is a glimpse of something—maybe nothing—but it bends your mind.”
“Stop!” he snaps.
“What do you have against your early stuff?” she asks.
“Because it wasn’t me. And you should have been able to tell that the chord progression of The Well followed the one in the old tango we used to listen to. You remember the one, Por Eso Me Siento Mal, from our Buenos Aires days?”
The Well basically consists of a bass hook and a whiney keyboard that repeat endlessly until the chorus that is nothing but “Ohs.” It was his only commercial hit, but it came at a price. People wanted more of that hooky pop. Chance didn’t want any part of it.
She stares back towards the kitchen as if searching for some impending crisis. “I didn’t know any better. But I still love those songs from your first album.”
“I could’ve written a thousand tunes like that and retired with a mansion in The Hills.”
“Why didn’t you? Nobody needs to know how you came up with the songs, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care.”
“I care. And I didn’t do this just for the money. That first album was to get us in the mix. Mindless ear candy for the masses and the musically ignorant. All artists have to sell out a little to pay the bills. After that, it was all about the music. I had to break free from the template of the past. You’ll never understand. Most people don’t get my music, and I can’t help that. It’s the price you pay for originality and freedom. I had no fear. I could write rockin’ rhythms, stilted rhythms, 5/4, 7/8 time, tk-a-boom-boom-chahh. I could layer melodic lines with slowly diverging contrapuntal phrases and make atonal beauty. Pure originality is hard to appreciate.”
She drops her head and speaks mostly to her Adidas. “There’s no such thing as pure originality. You can’t escape the past. It hangs on.”
“I broke free.”
“It hangs on to us. Being interesting to yourself doesn’t make you anything. Art doesn’t exist without people to share it with. All that matters is how you affect people.”
“My music will be important. If no one clears the table and starts over, how does anything change? We’ll go on recycling old tunes until creativity is sucked right out of our consciousness. That’s why I threw it all out there. Each song contains a little bit of everything. If you could just understand—”
“I don’t, Chance. You can’t suddenly decide to redefine music.”
“Why not? Sounds have no inherent meanings. Music needs no bounds because it recreates life, and life is not contained within an octave, and it doesn’t follow a particular scale or stay within a dynamic range, so why should music?” He’s almost out of breath. “I know you’ll argue—”
“—each song is just a moment, like one of your little paintings, but within one moment can’t a man be helplessly in love, stricken with jealousy, mad with rage, slightly wistful…soundly defeated?”
“I’m sorry if I hurt you.”
“I was speaking hypothetically.” He gathers his breath. “Look, I’m only here for a short time. My plane leaves late tomorrow night. You wanna go do something?”
“He won’t let you have friends?”
“He’d be fine with it. I’m the one who’d have the problem.”
Chance looks like he’s about to choke. “You really hate me that much, don’t you.”
She glares at him.
Several inebriated Santas stagger into the diner and slump into a corner booth. They’re all too young and too hardened to be convincing. They each have their Santa hats on, but they’ve unstuffed their bellies and pulled their beards under their chins making them look a little Amish except for their obvious disdain for their seasonal job. It’s a short-term gig, the Santa thing—two weeks tops—but their caffeine-craved faces are more than a pair of rosy cheeks from being jolly. One of them passes by us on the way to the bathroom and glances in our direction, which I’m sure Chance will misinterpret as recognition.
“I don’t hate you,” Mazie says.
“Maybe the three of us could do something,” he says. “I’ve gotta meet the guy.”
“And what? You and I would reminisce about the past?”
“I thought you’re the one who loves the past.”
She picks up her notepad and jots something down.
He tries get a look at what she’s writing but she conceals it against her chest. “What did you write?” he asks.
“Don’t want to forget what you said, so I wrote it down.”
He grabs her arm, but she pulls away fiercely. “Read me what you wrote.”
She runs her fingers over the words a few times before she reads them aloud. “Eggs. Toast. Bacon. Make you fat. Anything else?”
“More time with you.”
She shakes her head in disgust. “What world do you live in?”
“Well, you and I are talking here. How does that fit with your enlightened morality?”
“You’re my customer.”
“In that case, have you ever thought about investing in gold? It’s the safest investment in these financially uncertain times. Come be a customer of Goldstein and I’ll tell you all about it. Lunch at noon?”
She turns to walk away. “Do-I-take-that-chance,” she repeats like a mantra as she laughs and shakes her head.
He finally acknowledges my existence again and asks me, “What did she mean by that? ‘Do I take that chance?’ Or did she mean ‘Do I take that Chance?’ Or ‘Do I take that, Chance?’ I swear to God, I really need a middle man to explain her little riddle that’s probably nothing more than just a joke, but it makes me feel small.”
The santa passes us on his way back to his table and laughs. He’s caught the tail end of Mazie’s performance. Chance threaten him with a spoon as the santa joins his friends. “Do you know who I am!” he calls out. Every head turns to look at Chance, but the one he’s concerned with doesn’t flinch. She continues on her path and disappears again into the kitchen. She doesn’t return.
We’re stuck at the airport the next night since all the evening flights have been delayed until morning. I’m accompanying Chance back to Boston. I have family I need to see there, too. The sun eventually rises and we’re allowed on the plane along with other weary-eyed passengers bundled up in scarves and coats. My first attempt at doing an interview was a complete failure. A wasted flight for an unpublishable piece. I find my seat and immediately check out the on-flight music selection. There he is. At least one of his albums made it—his first one, Arcade Plush. As we ascend into the white sky, I can see the virginal snow expanding across the land until it merges at the horizon with the stratus clouds. There is so much beauty on that vast, frosty canvass. Whiteness closes in until I can no longer see the wings. When exactly that happened, I’m not really sure. It’s a thousand miles to where we’re going, but I won’t be sleeping anytime soon.
“The only way to get there is to pass through Griffin. No one wants nothing to do with Griffin.”
Gabby arrived to the conclusion that she wasn’t going to get any help from the man in the orange hammock, but she felt it would be rude just to walk away. The last customers of the day were loading their haul of junk into their pickup trucks. She wondered how any of these items actually sold. They weren’t really antiques as the sign advertised. They were just unfinished, well-weathered pieces that had never seen better days. “So once I get through Griffin, where do I go next? Wait, Griffin’s a town, right?”
The man in the orange hammock sat up. His face looked worn as if the sun had tattooed an old leather glove onto it. He wore workman’s overalls and had an oval patch with “Dan” written on it in white, cursive letters. “You ain’t curious why no one wants to go through Griffin?”
“I just assumed it was because it didn’t have a Dairy Queen.”
“Oh, it gots a Dairy Queen. Fact, looks like any ordinary place. But once you step outside, you’ll know you ain’t in just any ol’ town.”
“I don’t plan on staying.”
“Hah!” His laugh was coarse and guttural. “They ain’t gonna let you leave that quick, I promise you that!”
“Can you just tell me where he lives?”
“I can tell you, but you really need someone in town to show you. It’s kinda complicated—a couple forks in the road, some landmarks that are tough to see. That’s how it is in these neck of the woods. Why you so bent on seein’ Mr. Salvador? You an author, too?”
“Me? No. I’m a nobody. At least for now. But I’ve read some of his stuff. Meet the Author was the one that did it for me.” It was no exaggeration. After reading that story she had to meet D.F. Salvador. It was like her existence depended on it. The story hadn’t answered any questions or exposed hidden truths, but it connected with her, like she knew exactly what the author had gone through in writing it.
“I read that one,” Dan said as he flicked a fire ant off his arm. “There was a big to-do ‘bout that one ‘round here when it got published, you know, on account of the familiarity of it and all.”
Gabby thought about biting her tongue, but she couldn’t resist. “I can’t help but notice, but in that story he had a guy in overalls on an orange hammock. Did he base that character on you?”
“Nah. I based me on that character. Honestly, I don’t care for the man. After the drought, he bought out my deeds forcin’ me out here to the fringes.”
“So you know where he lives?”
“Sure. Right on the banks of the Oeeokee River. If you can find it.”
Gabby pulled out her map and studied it. “Now I know you’re messing with me. There’s no Oeeokee River on the map.”
He tumbled out of the hammock and stretched his limbs. “That’s cause it didn’t exist until Mr. Salvador moved in.” Dan put his finger on the map, leaving an oily smudge where he dragged. “He dug some trenches along here, moved some boulders around, redirected the flow of that other river you do see here on the map. Made the old house riverfront property. Suppose he wanted to make an oxbow, but I guess he didn’t have time to finish. Problem is the Oeeokee ain’t got nothing to flow into, so it kinda bottles up and busts its banks whenever we get a good rain like we did last night. Floods the place. He’s always cleanin’ up the place, but the waters always comin’ in faster than he can clear it out. That’s what happens when you fight nature’s course.”
“Does he live alone?”
“Yup. He has some children in town, but he let go of them some time back. You’ll probably run into them. Griffin’s a small place. Maybe they can tell you where to find him.” He coughed out another laugh. “You best be goin’. Storm’s comin’ in.”
He seemed to be ushering her back to her car, now the only vehicle in the dirt parking lot, but Gabby felt somewhat compelled to buy something, at least for Dan’s time.
“How much for that Velasquez print?”
“Ma’am, that ain’t no print. That is a genuine painting. Lost Manyness, I think is what it’s called. It reminds us of when we lost our many niceties.”
“It’s Las Meniñas. It’s by Velasquez. It’s like in every art book.”
“Then this Velasca fella’ must’ve copied this work here.”
“It was painted in Spain—”
“Still could’ve seen this one.”
“—like five hundred years ago.”
“How you know so much about art? You an artist too?”
“Maybe I am.”
“Good luck findin’ your writer friend Mr. Diego Savador.”
Dan walked Gabby to her car, a shiny, new hybrid. He held her door open as she got in. She thanked him and said goodbye and tried to pull the door shut, but he held firm. “They say he killed a man,” he said.
“Do you believe that?” she asked.
“The important thing is if you believe that. You’re the one goin’ to see him.” He finally let go of the door. “But you can’t believe everything you read.”
Gabby pulled out of the dusty parking lot of the antique shop and followed the road north to Griffin. When she rolled into town, she was struck by the familiarity of the places lining the main road—the pizzeria with the cartoonish pepperoni pizza missing one slice painted on the window, the coffee shop with the wrought iron cafe chairs on the patio—but they existed together like an impossible memory, incongruous with the reality she knew. She had never been to Griffin before.
She stopped her car when she came to a red light. She found it peculiar that there should be a stoplight at a point in the road where there was no intersection. Minutes passed. Was this what Dan had meant when he said the town wouldn’t let people go? She was about to run the light when a sheriff’s cruiser pulled up behind her. She waited longer. He inched closer. She didn’t know what to do. The sheriff turned on the flashing red and blue lights, but she still had nowhere to go without running the light. Finally, the sheriff pulled alongside her in the southbound lane where oncoming traffic would have been had there been any traffic. He gestured for her to follow him to the Dairy Queen parking lot. She followed.
She parked, rolled down her window, turned off her car, put her hands ten-and-two on the wheel, and waited. The officer walked to her door and leaned in.
“You must be lost. The road pretty much ends here, or a little ways down the road. The only people who stop here at this light are people who are lost. Everyone else just drives on through. So, what exactly are you doing here?”
Gabby wasn’t sure if she’d done anything wrong. “I don’t know exactly where I’m going. I’m looking for a writer,” she said. “D.F. Salvador. Do you know him?”
“I sure do! If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be sheriff!”
“Can you help me find him?”
The sheriff removed his cap and scratched his head. “Well, you follow this road until it comes to a T-intersection. Take a left…you know, it’s complicated.” A few more cars pulled into the parking lot diverting the sheriff’s attention. “I’m late for a town hall meeting, too.”
“At Dairy Queen?”
“You think we have a town hall? Look, I’d help you, even drive you out there, if it wasn’t such a big meeting. It’s our Third of May Celebration tonight. You should stick around. Bring your gun.”
“Yeah. Everyone fires off at midnight.”
“Wouldn’t that be the fourth of May?” she asked. The sheriff began to slowly retreat toward the Dairy Queen, and Gabby wasn’t sure if he’d heard her snide question. “Listen,” he said. “If you’re looking for your author, just listen for water and head in that direction. You’ll probably find him in the river.” He backpedaled a little faster. “Sorry, I can’t help you more—”
Gabby stepped out of her car and called out, “I heard he has family in town. Do you know where I can find them?”
The sheriff laughed. “Everyone in this town is related in one way or another.” He pointed a finger pistol at Gabby and winked. “But try to make it tonight.” He disappeared inside the restaurant.
Suddenly, something prodded Gabby in the back.
She spun around and found a scraggy, one-legged man waving a crutch. His other arm was in a sling, propped up at a 90 degree angle. “You’re looking for Diego Salvador, aren’t you?” he said, falling hard back onto his crutch. “Do not let him see you or he will use you. He will, he will use you. You know, he did this to me.” His eyes were expressionless, but she quickly realized it was because he had no eyebrows. He was painfully lacking.
“You know where to find him?” she asked.
“Last time I went looking for him, this happened to me,” he said, nodding to his limp arm. “Here. Take this.” He held out the crutch. “I need to give you something. Hurry! Take it! Do you want me to help you or not!”
She put a hand on his shoulder and took the crutch.
He continued to hop around while he searched his pants. He yanked out a gun. Gabby recoiled, nearly making him fall in the process. “Gimme my crutch,” he said. He waved the gun wildly as he tried to balance himself. “Here. Take this,” he said, offering the gun. “Trade. Gimme my crutch. Quick! Before I fall and break my one good limb.”
She didn’t want it, but she she didn’t want to see him fall either. And she certainly didn’t want the gun to go off accidentally, so she took it. It felt warm and heavy in her hands.
“You seem like a nice girl.” the man said. “You have a name?”
“You’re a lucky one, I can tell. I just don’t want to see what happened to me happen to you. It ain’t easy being half a man.”
She tried to hand the gun back to him. “I’m sure he didn’t intentionally hurt you.”
He pushed it away. “Are you his mouthpiece now? He’s using you and you don’t even know it.”
“I don’t need a gun,” she said.
“Keep it. I really have no reason for carrying it. I guess I just had it for the celebration.” He smile widely. “But tonight, you’re the celebration.”
Gabby pulled the gun closer to her. “I don’t know what you want me to do with this.”
“You’ll need it. I’ll show you exactly how to get there, but first you have to promise to me to do something.”
She followed the directions, moving slowly down the path. She had been warned not to startle him. She had been warned not to step in his shadow or pass over his reflection. The one-legged man had warned of many things, but the consequences of ignoring the warnings were vague. As long as she beat the storm, which gathered strength at the edge of the tree line, she’d find him on the river, which would be the “safest place to confront him.”
It was when she felt the first twinge in her chest that she first turned around and assessed her progress, wondering if she’d be able to return the same way she came or if she’d even recognize the path from a flipped perspective. Why had she trusted the one-legged man over her own instincts? She closed her eyes and dampness closed in on her senses until it filled her body. Thunder just beyond the tree line. The natal smell of rain. Water. Water flowing. She opened her eyes and followed the sound. She hopped over prickly plants, trusting the stability of makeshift stepping stones.
Finally, a shallow stream swarmed around her ankles. She’d reached the outer nerves of the Oeeokee River. The little house was where she knew it would be, but she knew D.F. would not be inside. Upriver, a cluster of boulders parted the river, unleashing rapids on one side and a calm flow on the other. A small tree sprouted from the largest of the boulders.
She mapped her way there, choosing the flattest rocks and stones and imagining the occasional leaps and feats of balance that would be required to reach the cluster. She knew she’d find him there on the other side of the largest boulder.
She moved quickly but quietly. A few rays of sun broke through the clouds. Her shadow danced along the boulders until her shape took form in the reflection of the river. She was aware of her pounding heart as she climbed atop the boulder. She gave one final look at where she’d come from and she caught a glance of her reflection, full and colorful, in the river below. She felt more resolute than ever as she pulled herself atop the boulder.
There he was under the shade of the tree, his back to her, his journal in his hands. The rolling water obscured her footsteps as she crept up behind him. Before she did anything else, she had to see what he had written.
On the page were two sentences and his hand hovered above, prepared to add more. She moved closer to read what he had written.
The only way to get there is to pass through Griffin. No one wants nothing to do with Griffin.”
The ayahuasca looked like sludge. I was afraid to smell it. I’d never done any kind of mind-altering drugs, and I knew ayahuasca would be an intense initiation into hallucinogenics. I felt somewhat comforted by the shaman’s presence. He was experienced with this and there to guide me. In Ecuador, despite the government’s harsh stance on drugs (ask any of the foreigners stuck in jail for a few years for possession of pot), ayahuasca is legal when taken with a shaman.
Don Alfonso scooped a larger bowl for himself. “Be careful that you dream the right dream, or your dream may become a nightmare,” he said. He studied me then began to laugh. “Do you know why you’re here?”
I started to suspect that he, like myself, was a little drunk. “Do you know why I’m here?” I asked.
“You are searching for something. It was not chance that your aunt brought the picture of the Cayramashi. Tonight, I’m going to find it. We’ll find it together,” he said. “The Cayramashi carries the wisdom of a hundred great shamans’ minds. I always dreamed a visitor from far away would lead me to it.” He drank his bowl.
Being alone with the shaman underneath his cabin amidst a chorus of a million singing insects inspired a faith in the mystical journey that’s hard to describe. Perhaps it’s kind of like how listening to Mozart’s Mass in C minor in a Renaissance cathedral can draw spirituality out of the most hardened atheist. I closed my eyes and gulped it as fast as I could, spilling some onto my Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville t-shirt.
“Ask the yaje a question.”
The only question I had at the moment was when am I going to vomit. I knew that ayahuasca could be dangerous and that vomiting was necessary to clear the worst toxins from your system. Immediately, the drink felt indigestible. I slumped over. Across from me, the shaman closed his eyes and leaned back, satisfied as if savoring a fine Cabernet. I tried to stand and pace the room, but my legs felt wobbly. I sat back down and waited. After about fifteen minutes, the shaman strolled over to a bush, and vomited in fiery heaves. But his bowl had been bigger than mine, so perhaps the sickness had come more quickly for him. He returned to his seated position across from me and fixed his eyes on mine.
I relaxed and took in the sounds of the jungle and concentrated on controlling my breathing. I wanted to be calm. Upon closing my eyes, the blackness in my mind was filled with brilliant colors shooting off like fireworks. Each sound blossomed into shapes of varying animals. I saw the vibrant outlines of monkeys, snakes, insects, birds, and jaguars. They would vanish almost as quickly as they appeared. At times it was so overwhelming I grew dizzy and opened my eyes. In the visible world outside my mind, the shadows around me came alive, nothing creepy or psychedelic, just alive. When I closed my eyes again, the shapes reappeared, but I discovered if I narrowed my focus to just one sound in the jungle, everything would go black.
“Why have I not gotten sick?” I asked.
“Don’t fight it. Let the ayahuasca escape your body.”
“You can’t make it happen. Let it happen.”
I returned to my images and let a lazy smile curl onto my face. Everything was going to be okay if I surrendered myself to the jungle, to the ayahuasca, and to the world. Soon after, the toxins began their flight from my body; I walked to a bush and vomited. When I returned, the shaman was aglow, not literally, but aglow is the best way I can describe it. It was as if I could see his emotions, his kindness, his curiosity. It was an amazing feeling, being that connected.
“Fly with me,” Don Alfonso said when I returned.
Truth be told, I didn’t see the images the shaman saw when he departed on his journey, though I wanted to. Besides the fireworks display in my mind, there was nothing else. “Where are we going?” I asked, still playing along.
“Follow me down the river,” he said. The shaman described the terrain on our travels, but I could only imagine navigating over the brown river and soaring over kapok trees.
I don’t remember when he put out the fire underneath the pot. I don’t remember when I lay on my back. The world’s transformation before my eyes was so gradual and seamless that I never suspected the departure from my former universe of precision and reality to the shaman’s world of spiritual fantasy. Concentrating on his voice made the crude but colorful outlines of animals disappear. But when he asked, “Do you see the great red tree below?” I opened my eyes and saw it below me.
“Sure,” I answered. I was soaring high above the trees and darkness had turned to daylight. I didn’t see my wings; I was more like a particle of air floating through space. The shaman was a man yet a bird with his colorful feathers. All of this seemed absolutely normal. And I did see the red tree. It seemed as if it had been transported from a New England autumn to the jungle.
He swooped down to the earth and I followed, but when I reached the ground, I had difficulty moving. I found myself inching towards the red tree. Now, the shaman was a leaping from tree to tree. Without speaking, he urged me to follow him.
“Why can’t I move?” I asked. “Why can’t I fly anymore?” An incredible weight was stopping me.
“Hey!” a voice called out.
I looked to my side and saw a turtle next to me—not at my feet, but next to me. His head seemed enormous.
“You can’t go that way,” it said.
“Because you don’t belong in there. Our home is outside the jungle. Besides, the anaconda blocks the only path.”
A giant anaconda was rolled up in a coil, apparently sleeping. A swarm of vicious flies hovered over its muscular body. I looked around for the shaman, but he was gone.
“Then I’ll go over it,” I said.
The turtle laughed. “You can’t get over it.”
I crept up to the snake. Just as I prepared to crawl over him, he whipped out his tongue and flicked it rapidly. Then, with amazing quickness, he uncoiled his head and came at me with his fangs. I pulled back and suddenly found myself in a cave. I could hear the anaconda’s voice.
“You shouldn’t have gone down this path. Why are you so foolish?” He waited for me to answer, but I didn’t want to give away my hiding spot by speaking. So I remained silent. The anaconda laughed. “You think you can hide safely under that shell? I can flip you over, pull you out, and devour you.”
I felt his head start to burrow beside me. I quickly dug myself into a hole making it impossible for him to get under me to flip me over.
“He laughed again. “What a hole you’re in now! You can’t stay there forever. Eventually you’ll have to come out.”
A flash of light swept briefly before my eyes. And then again. First it was a flash of red. Then a flash of green. The colors were iridescent and beautiful. Finally darkness was lifted completely and I was again face to face with the anaconda. His gaze, however, was skyward. I looked up at the brilliant colors blazing through the sky. It was the Cayramashi. My spirits were lifted and I wanted to be with its beauty. My shell was in its talons. It flew on into the jungle. I had a surge of energy. I rose to my feet and leapt over the anaconda before he could react. I raced through the forest with amazing speed. I was a jaguar. I jumped over fallen trees and burst through dense foliage as easily as a bird flies through a cloud. The Cayramashi was overhead, appearing and disappearing behind the leaves of the trees.
Finally, theCayramashi came to a stop and perched itself high on a hill. I tried to follow but the hill was slippery and steep. I couldn’t gain enough traction to climb. High above, the shaman sat next to the Cayramashi, but neither he nor the bird offered any help. “Patience,” he said.
Then an explosion blasted through the forest.
“What was that?” I asked.
I heard another shot. Closer. I panicked. “What are they hunting?”
I looked for a place to run. Another shot rang out, this one closer. My eyes opened. “What was that?”
The shaman was sitting across from me. A candle lay burning between us. “Hunters. Don’t worry. They’re on the other side of the river.”
“What are they hunting?”
“Did I already ask you that?”
“Don’t worry about it. Sleep.”
I put my hands on my head and felt my hair, and my forehead, and my nose, and my ears. I lay back down on the ground and closed my eyes. The jungle noise once again filled my ears and fading glitters of light poked through the blackness in my mind until I fell asleep.