In the Produce Aisle

carrot

Stories can be found everywhere. You don’t have to look for them; they come to you. Richard Matheson wrote the immortal short story “Duel” after a highway encounter — what we would now call “road rage” — with the driver of a tractor-trailer. I read another great short story, decades ago (and I wish I could remember the author) about a guy who brought his Sunday paper in from the front porch and there was a gawdawful bug on the inside of the newspaper bag which tried its best to kill him and almost succeeded. The author in his Afterward noted that the story was born as the result of a spider catching a ride into his house in the manner presented in the story. And so it goes.

I got the spark — and I mean the SPARK — yesterday in the produce aisle of a local supermarket. I was looking over the carrots and such when I heard a male voice, coming from close behind me, saying, “Hey, old man.” I ignored it —I mean, surely the guy could not be talking to me — yet the person persisted. “You,” he said, using a low voice. “With the concealed carry.” As it happens, I do have a concealed carry permit, and at the time had in my possession a .38 in a pocket holster. It’s very unobtrusive, so that it is not easy to tell when or if I’m carrying, unless someone is specifically looking for it. I turned around to find a stranger of about my height and age, wearing sunglasses and a gimme cap, smiling somewhat strangely at me. “You a fast draw?” he asked. I just shook my head and asked, “What do you mean?” He answered, while moving a step closer to me. “You got a gun. Think you can outdraw me?”

I was thinking at that point that I was dealing with someone who was very foolish at best or mentally unbalanced at worst. My primary concern, however, was that the store was busy. The produce department in this particular store is located close to the entrance and exit doors and everyone  from retirees in golf shirts to moms in yoga pants were making cross patterns near us. I needed to move this encounter elsewhere, and quickly. I said to him, keeping my voice level, “This isn’t a conversation we should be having in here. Let’s go outside and talk about it.” My plan was to wait until we got into the store vestibule or just out to the parking lot where I planned to suddenly trip him, immobilize him, and have someone call 911.

This all changed when the stranger, instead of answering me, smiled, took off his sunglasses and cap, and said, “Hi, Joe.” The stranger turned out to be  a friend of mine, someone I have known for decades and with whom I speak frequently but rarely see. He is retired from a very elite government agency where he was renowned for being able to substantially change his appearance with just a hat or glasses a talent which he demonstrably still possessed (and yes, the passage of time helped him, too). He was pranking me. Some might regard what he did to be foolish, but he knew exactly how I would react, or intended to react — much of what I have learned about such matters, I’ve learned from him — and thus inferred that I would not take action beyond that which would reasonably be called for at any particular point in the situation. As for myself, it took a few minutes to get my heart rate back to normal, as I went through the stuttering motions of keeping up a conversation  and then completing my shopping. In addition to carrots, I suddenly needed to buy some bleach.

After I arrived home and got the groceries unpacked (note to the gentlemen out there: no husband was ever murdered by his wife while he was unpacking the groceries, no matter how egregious his sins) and started some laundry I realized that I had the opening hook of a domestic thriller which I’ve been toying with for months handed to me. Actually, I had several different beginnings handed to me. All of them involve a supermarket, a shopper seeming minding their own business, and an unexpected intervention which sets the plot for the rest of the book careening into a number of individuals’ lives like a bee bee in a box car.

So, tell us, please: have you been pranked recently (after all, it is the Halloween season)? Did it have a short or long-term effect on you? And does it have a potential as the springboard — a spark — for a story? If the answer to any of those questions is a yes, please share if you wish, but hold close if you must.

 

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Using Fence Post Characters

fortitude My favorite stories, written by me or someone else, are those dealing with characters best described as “fence post” characters which usually possess at least two or more of these traits: they are out of their element; in at least potentially in trouble: they have little or no idea how they got where they are; and have to rely on their skills and wits, to get out of the situation, though they appear to be ill-suited to do so. Think of a turtle on top of a fence post, if that helps. Sometimes a character like that can make, or save, the story you are telling, particularly if it just isn’t working otherwise.

I thought of this while binge watching a new dramatic series named Fortitude. It’s on the Pivot Network, which you’ll find in the equivalent of the nosebleed seats of your cable television system.  Fortitude is set in a desolate section of Solvard, a Norwegian territory; the title is the name of the small town where almost of the story takes place. Two murders bookend the first episode, and at first it looks like your typical whodunit which will be investigated by a barely competent sheriff who may well be in the tank for some special interests relating to tourism as well. Everything changes, however, in Episode Two, with the arrival of our “fencepost” character in the form of Detective Chief Inspector Morton. Brilliantly played by the criminally underappreciated Stanley Tucci, Morton is 1) an American; 2) an ex-FBI agent now working for the London Metropolitan Police; and is 3) investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of one of the murder victims, who is a British citizen in 4) a God-forsaken area of Norway that looks like Boston (or Columbus, Ohio) did last week. Morton’s arrival puts almost everyone concerned in high dudgeon, particularly the sheriff (at least at first), but there isn’t much anyone can do about it because of some treaty of some sort which gives Morton jurisdiction. Morton no sooner sets foot on the slippery ice when he starts uncovering things, frozen ground and non-stop snowfall notwithstanding. Think of a cross between True Detective and Twin Peaks (the television series, not the restaurant chain) and you’ll have a vague idea of where things seem to be going. Morton, however, out of his element but not out of his league, is the fulcrum which takes the story off in an entirely new direction.

You can do this in your own work. If your story or novel isn’t working, change up your primary character. Make them uncomfortable in their own skin. Change gender or race or education level, just for a start. Even a small difference taken to its conclusion, logical or otherwise, can change the character and or the story dramatically. Downsizing your character’s abilities, such as they are, and throwing them to the sharks when they can’t swim works even better. I read a book several years ago — and I apologize out front for not being able to recall either the name or the author (yes; I’m getting old) — of an Asian father whose daughter disappears while attending college in England. He doesn’t speak English but makes the trip, determined to find her, armed with little more than fortitude and a keen power of logic and observation.

I do recall the name of a short story — because I have read it at least once a year since it was published — which puts a somewhat unassuming turtle on top of a very dangerous fence post. I’m speaking of “Duel” by Richard Matheson. “Duel,” in case you haven’t had the pleasure, concerns duela motorist named “Mann” who is terrorized along several miles of highway by a trucker. The story was written over four decades ago, some eighteen years before the term “road rage” ever entered the nation’s lexicon, but still reads well. Mann is not Jack Reacher, or even his baby brother; he is totally out of his element and just wants to be left alone to keep driving. It doesn’t happen, of course, but what does will keep you reading. Steven Spielberg made an excellent attempt at capturing Matheson’s magic in a made-for-television movie, but you have to read the story to really appreciate what Matheson did so well.

Now, if I might ask…authors: have you tried this? And readers: have there been any fish out of water characters that you have enjoyed in novels, stories, or films? Please. Share with us.

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