Slow and Easy, Then Sudden: Part Two

man fixing vehicle engine
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Part One

Next door to the motel was the auto repair shop, exactly the place that Howie needed. He lazily steered his car into the neighboring parking lot, gave his horn two toots, then settled back until the shop owner came out to greet him.

“Well good afternoon, stranger,” the man smiled as he strode up to Howie’s open window. He was wearing the familiar uniform of blue coveralls stained in oil, and was wiping his hands on a yellow rag.

“Good afternoon,” Howie returned, then extended his hand to show he wasn’t afraid of a little dirt. The workman took hold and each gave a solid shake.

“Trouble with your car?” the mechanic asked.

“Mmm, not sure. It’s been making a noise I’m not used to, though, and figured I ought to check it out before continuing down the highway.”

“Good for you. I’ll pop open the door, you just go ahead and wheel her right in.”

Three minutes later the mechanic was buried up to his elbows in the car’s engine, while Howie rested his folded arms on the open driver’s-side door, watching the man work.

“A sort of, repeating popping noise you said?” the mechanic clarified.

“That’s right. That’s the one I don’t know. There’s also a chugging sort of sound, but I know what that is. Things get caught up in my exhaust all the time, I just don’t have my tools to fix it myself right now. Say what was your name?”

“Oh I’m sorry. I’m Andy.”

“Andy–?”

“Andy…Griffith,” the man smiled slightly.

“Well I’ll be!” Howie chortled. “That a joke?”

“No sir! Course when I was born that name didn’t mean anything at all.”

“No, of course not. I take it you never fancied work as a police man?”

“Fact is, I did! My old man was an officer during the Great Depression, and I always wanted to be one, too. But then he died on the job, and I couldn’t stand to follow that path anymore.”

“He was shot?” Howie’s eyes grow wide.

“No, silliest thing actually. Some delivery truck got a flat and he was helping change the tire. Jack broke and–well–he was underneath.”

“Huh,” Howie thought for a little. “Seems a little strange, though. You couldn’t see yourself becoming a police officer, but you don’t mind working with cars? Even though it was one of them what killed your daddy?”

Andy gave a grim little smile. “When you put it like that I guess it is a little strange. Can’t account for it. Just never blamed the machine I guess. At that point you might as well be swearing off jacks, and tools, and even gravity at that point. Can’t live that way.”

“No I guess not.”

“Well, and now that I think about it, might be I just used the sad story to explain my career change because it tasted better than telling people that I just didn’t like the idea of policing any more. Kinda became disillusioned with the force after I got stopped a time or two for silly things like breaking curfew. Made the profession lose its gloss for me, I guess.”

“Mmm,” Howie nodded. “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I have all sort of respect for a real man of honor, someone like who your daddy sounds to have been, what with helping people through some of the hardest times, but I can’t stand some of these young upstarts when the power goes to their head. They don’t even know what they’re out policing for, or what rules matter and which one’s don’t, and forget that taking care of others is supposed to be their first calling.”

“That’s the truth. Now what did your daddy do?”

“Oh he was a bank robber.”

Andy gave a start, “That a joke?”

“No sir! Well I figure your daddy and mine wouldn’t have gotten along too well, now would they?” Howie laughed at the thought. “Course those were simpler times where you didn’t have all these security features and silent alarms and all that. So it was pretty easy for him to walk in with a tommy gun and a handkerchief over his face.”

“Was he famous for it?”

“Nah…tell you the truth he only ever did it once or twice. I just like to introduce him that way because it was just about the only notable thing he ever did do. Otherwise he was a professional drunk.”

“Ah. Well I’ll tell you, robbing a bank even once sounds like a lot to me!”

“Does it? I mean back then it wasn’t much heavier than holding up a really big convenience store, really. Like robbing a Macy’s today.”

“Well I still don’t intend to hold up any Macy’s” Andy laughed. “Now…was that popping noise happening mostly when you were making turns? I’m thinking its about down to the CV joint to be our culprit now.”

“Might be. Can’t really say I paid enough attention to notice.”

“Yeah, pretty sure. This’ll just be a minute. Say, did you serve in any war?”

“I was too young for World War 2 by a little, but yeah, in Korea.”

“Same for me on both.”

“Why do you ask?”

“Oh, just what you were saying about robbing a bank being like holding up a convenience store. I guess to men like us who have gone to war a lot of crimes seem a whole lot less horrifying.”

“Mm-hmm. Can be hard to tell yourself killing is different in a war than at home.”

“Well you just come right out and say it, don’t you?! I’ve talked with a lot of vets, but never heard any of us admit to that idea before.”

“But we all know that we’ve thought it,” Howie said in a carefree manner. “I mean at the time, no. At the time we had to keep the two separated very neat and fine, didn’t we?”

“Only way to stay sane,” Andy agreed, but his face was starting to look terse.

“But after a while the mind starts to wonder. Like when you come home and someone got murdered in the papers and everyone around you is so shocked but you’re thinking ‘yeah, what of it?’ Someone always dies, and probably the latest poor sap isn’t as great a loss to the world as some of the other fellas who died beside you. Maybe even you already killed some men what was better.”

“I…I’m not so sure I know what you mean there,” Andy said slowly.

“No? Sure, I guess you can’t stay in thoughts like that. What can come of it? You just gotta shrug it off and say ‘I probably got a little mixed up.’ No shame in that, plenty of boys came back from the war mixed up even worse. So you just stifle down those mixed-up parts because society has to go on or else–well or else what’s the point to it all?”

“Mmm,” Andy nodded vaguely. “Well hey, it was definitely your CV joint. Got it all fixed out now. Give me just a second and I’ll have your exhaust unclogged as well.”

Howie had the good sense to see that this conversation had drifted uncomfortably close to the other man’s more private feelings, and so he didn’t try to make any more conversation for the next ten minutes. They had each seen one another a little more plainly than suited Andy, and probably he’d be in a foul mood that night because of it. Howie was much less fazed by it all, he had walked down the halls of his broken nature, and had found his own to way to make peace with it. But even so, it wasn’t like he would put the pressure on a fellow vet, so he sat and drummed out a rhythm on his knees, and when Andy told him the car was all set he thanked him, paid him, and left from that place.

He started down the road leading away from the highway, intending to follow its rugged path out into the desert. There were some nearby rock formations that he thought might be interesting to take a stroll around, not to mention that he had already shown his face to more than enough people in town today.

But just before he passed the last fringe businesses of town his eyes settled on a vagrant standing on the corner of the post office, holding a sign that said “Ashamed, but hopeful. Please help.” Howie frowned at that, then spun his car into the parking lot. As he exited the vehicle and stepped out the vagrant nodded to him slowly, clearly hoping that he was about to receive a hand-out.

The man was rail-thin, with his elbows protruding so far through the skin that it seemed they might burst out at any moment. His complexion was deeply tanned from spending so long in the hot sun, and his head and chin were covered in a scraggly, gray mess of hair. His sunken face made it appear as though his eyes were unnaturally large, and they peered out, a clear and piercing blue.

“What sort of man begs in a sleepy, little town like this?” Howie demanded with a scowl.

“If I could get a ride to the city I would happily beg there instead.” The vagrant’s voice was cracked and unnaturally high, but the words he chose proved that his mind still functioned properly.

“Now I’ve spent a day here, and these are good folks in this town. If they haven’t taken care of you, then they must have something against you.”

“Even a bad man still needs to eat.”

“No, see, that’s your problem. You call yourself a ‘bad man’ and of course no one’s going to let you eat. People don’t have pity on a ‘bad man.’ Look at you! You’re literally wearing a big sign asking everyone to hate you. ‘Ashamed but hopeful?’ Why I’ve never heard of anything so foolish.” There was a real vehemence in Howie’s voice, as though he found something genuinely offensive about the man’s demeanor, as though he would like nothing more than to grab him and break him right there in broad daylight for being so stupid. “Let me explain it to you plain and simple, everyone is a bad man. You got no monopoly there. But it all comes down to marketing. Every bad man is good once he presents himself like he is!”

The vagrant could feel the dry heat in Howie’s words and his eyes turned moist and intense and some loose spittle flew from his lips as he spoke. “Don’t I know it! But I wasn’t the one that called me bad first. They’ve done branded me now, and people don’t really change their opinion once they’ve made up who you are.”

Howie’s scowl broke into a cold, mean smile. “Well that much is true. You already done ruined yourself here, haven’t you?”

“So what am I supposed to do then? Doesn’t matter what I call myself now, I’m already known for what I am.”

“No, you’re still wrong. Cuz brands don’t stick to a man, they stick to a place. The new man in town is…a new man. You want a chance in life? You gotta get out of here, brother. Get to someplace where no one knows you and start calling yourself a ‘good man’ there.”

“If I could get a ride to the city I would happily beg there instead,” the man repeated longingly.

“That would probably be best…but not with me,” Howie turned back around and started walking to his car. “I don’t trust you.”

“I’m a withering, old crumb!” the vagrant called after him “I couldn’t do anything to you!”

“No,” Howie laughed as he extended his foot into the vehicle. “No you couldn’t. Let’s say I just don’t like you then.” And he slammed the door closed and drove away.

Part Three

 

On Monday I talked about stories that suspend the plot in order to lean into character development. This section’s conversations ultimately have nothing to do with the greater plot of the story, but all the moments that follow will make far more sense because I took the time to reveal this side of Howie Stuggs.

Because the fact is, Howie is not entirely the same man in this section that he appeared to be in the first. As with getting to meet a new person in real life, the facade we first get to know if often very different from the actual human who lurks beneath. With the start of the story we introduced Howie the same way he introduces himself: warm, playful, and pleasant. But with today’s entry we start to see that there are strong currents of anger and nihilism coursing through him.

A character that changes over the course of their story can be a delicate thing to manage. On the one hand, an evolving personality is one of the hallmarks of good story-writing, and can many times will feel more believable and interesting than a character who forever remains the same.

But at the same time, any change has to feel warranted, has to feel grounded in what we already know. The character can change, but only in a way that makes sense. With my next post I would like to examine some great characters from stories, and specifically how they or the perspective of them changed over time. I will look at examples of how this has been done subtly, and how it has been done dramatically. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then next week we will see the final evolution of my character Howie Stuggs.

It Sounded a Lot Better in My Head

selective focus close up photography of red eared slider turtle
Photo by Laurentiu Stoenescu on Pexels.com

A Peek Behind the Curtain)

It was pretty early on in this blog that I wrote a story that I didn’t like. In that moment I had to decide whether I was going to publish it or not, and I knew that this decision would set a precedent for all future story posts. I decided to publish.

One reason was that I simply don’t have the time to be writing posts, scrapping them, and then creating entirely new ones. Another reason was that I started this blog specifically to get me in the habit of delivering on ideas instead of sitting on them forever. And finally, I wanted to represent all sides of writing in this blog, both the good and the ugly. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that everything that I write is good. Some of it, frankly, is very much not.

I do feel a little guilty about a person who takes time out of their day to read one of my stories and is then disappointed by it. I don’t know how to avoid that, though. Even the pieces I am most proud of I’m sure are disappointing to some readers. Of course if I were trying to sell something, it would be a different matter. Asking people to give money for something you know is of subpar quality is not only a bad business practice, it is immoral. This is one of the reasons why I do not try to monetize this blog in any way.

There is still one more reason why I choose to keep the lesser stories in this blog, though, and it is because they still have valuable lessons to share. Sometimes learning from a failure can be more fruitful than reaping the rewards of a success. And that’s just what we’re going to do today. Let’s take a look at why our stories are sometimes so much worse than we thought they were going to be, and what we can do to reduce this frustration.

 

Sometimes You’re Wrong)

I’ve already mentioned in the past how a writer can have a great idea, but will then struggle to capture it properly on the page. In this case the idea is still good, and it is just a matter of practicing until one can transfer from their mind to their work with a high degree of fidelity.

But sometimes that isn’t the case. Sometimes the idea you had is just bad, and that’s all there is to it. You might be able to imagine something and you might be able to recreate that something, but that doesn’t mean that the imagined joy you had in that something will be present in the reality.

Often we know what we want in life, but sometimes we don’t. The dessert that “sounded” good ends up making our stomach turn, the new toy we wrote Santa for is boring within minutes, and the clique we were desperate to join becomes a toxic influence on us. People make bad choice all the time, thoroughly convinced that they were good ones.

One of my side-hobbies is that I like to make small mobile games. I think of new game mechanics all the time, and just like my story ideas I’m certain that all of them are good. And sometimes when I first try to implement them I have the parameters a little off and I have to tweak them until they’re just right. And other times I keep tweaking them for hours before I realize there just isn’t any “fun” in any version this.

 

You Are a Combination Machine)

There is a simple reason why this phenomenon happens. Your brain is an amazing piece of work, capable of inventing new things constantly. And as I mentioned in a recent post, it most often does this by taking two separate ideas and combining them into one. Any two items, no matter how random or disparate, can be combined in an infinite number of ways.

Door + Turtle = …

  1. That could mean a giant turtle with a door in its shell that leads to a fantasy kingdom inside.
  2. It could be a small hole cut into the bedroom wall for a pet turtle to walk through.
  3. Or perhaps it was a turtle crawling across the doorway at the top of the stairs to the basement; and Mom didn’t see it when she slammed the door closed and sent him on a grand, final adventure…rest in piece, Chuckles.

The point is there are an infinite number of things to combine in this world, an infinite number of ways to interpret each pairing, and we humans prosper by being able to generate and appraise these combinations at tremendous speed. This sort of inventiveness has been critical for our growth as a species, and it turns out that this behavior is wired into our very biology! A study in 2006 found that whenever subjects were presented with a new experience that a portion of their brain lit up and dopamine was released as a reward.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627306004752

This means that whenever you come up with that new combination your body makes you feel good for it. But in my experience this initial rush of excitement can be a poor indicator for whether an idea actually has value or not. It is good that I am thinking of new things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this new thing is itself any good. Some combinations are useless, no matter how we feel about them in the moment.

 

Prototype)

To make matters all the more complicated, sometimes the bad ideas appear like good ones, even from an impartial, objective point of view. The technology sector is full of devices (Zune, Google Glass, Betamax, Newton) that sounded like good ideas at the time but still flopped horribly.

Most recently I was surprised that I ended up disliking Hello, World. I thought there was good reason for it to be a success because it reminded me of my other tech-heavy, snarky piece Phisherman, which I am really quite proud of. But “close” to a good idea is nowhere near to being a good idea.

So how can you tell whether your idea is really as good as you think it is? Quite simply you have to test it. In the game industry there is a common understanding that you have to make a prototype of your new idea as fast as possible. The reason being that the sooner you are able to actually taste the reality of your imagination, the sooner you can truly discern its value. It would be pointless to spend months writing music and making art for a game only to then discover that its core mechanic is boring.

And it turns out that a story can be prototyped as well. Try writing an isolated chapter to see if it still speaks to you or not. Frankly one of the main purposes for this blog is to be a test-bed for all my ideas. I’ve been able to quickly and accurately pinpoint which ideas are hollow, and which are really going somewhere. I’m never going to put a thousand of man-hours into making a complete novel out of Hello, World, but I might for Deep Forest, Phisherman, or Glimmer.

 

A final piece of advice is once you discover that your latest idea is lacking, don’t waste time trying to “make it work.” If you try really, really hard, maybe you’ll be able to dress it up to the point that it looks “okay.” But why settle for “okay” when you could be putting your time into something that is effortlessly beautiful? Like I said above, our minds are coming up with new ideas all the time, a really good one is going to hit sooner or later.

That being said, I also don’t want to be guilty of not giving Hello, World enough of a chance either. Nor would I want to deny the closure to anyone who was actually enjoying it thus far. To that end, I will dedicate just three more days to writing out the second half of that story. Come back on Thursday if you want to see how it turns out, I promise it will only get stranger from here!