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A Copywriter’s Blog

A little over a month ago, I had two things happen in quick succession that energized me to try writing some super short fiction. The first was that I read the introduction to Neil Gaiman’s Stories. The second was a bizarre event involving a woman shot-gunning a glass of red wine in a bar before rushing out. I mentioned both in (possibly excruciating) detail here.

So I decided to write four short stories where I imagined what happened after that woman left the bar.

The first was the longest. It was also the messiest, with an embarrassingly confused tense issue. I also couldn’t shake the desire to explain why the woman hit the bar in the first place, and spent more time on that then on what happened afterward. On the bright side, I think I made great progress in avoiding that pitfall in subsequent stories.

The second was in many ways my favorite. It had a bit of a twist, and I feel I managed to give the protagonist personality in a far subtler way than I had in the first story. Best of all, I think I managed to explain her motivation for entering the bar and what happened afterward in a harmonious fashion.

The third story was difficult for me. Mostly because I’d come up with this silly idea where she was going to a job interview and had downed the wine to give herself the courage to argue that she was a better choice than all the younger, prettier girls. I discarded that because it had no twist, and felt like it would become a long-winded rant. Then the idea presented itself again, where the entire thing was a thinly-veiled double entendre and she was actually auditioning for a secretary porn scene. It had a twist, but come on. That sort of sex humor is completely played out. Worse, I can write it in my sleep, meaning I was unlikely to learn anything from it. I struggled a bit, wrote the first few lines of story three, and then sort of watched as it unfolded in front of me. I think it might not have enough detail for readers to really get anything out of it beyond the surface events transcribed. Still, it’s way better than that secretary crap I nearly wrote.

The fourth story was my attempt at a somewhat lighter tale. The woman in the bar was, to me, an obviously tragic figure. She was desperately uncomfortable and out of place, and I had so far written her that way. This last short fiction was my attempt to bring more to the character than that. It actually occurred to me an hour after I posted it that the best way to write this story would have been from the man’s point of view. I may go back and rewrite it that way, because there were several elements about this one that I enjoyed. It certainly changed who the woman was in my mind.

I think the best thing about this project is that it forced me to write in a different way for a bit. I’ve had this blog for over two years- blogging is no longer a “different” form of writing for me. So I think doing short fiction bits like this is a good way to stretch the literary and story-telling muscles a bit. Also, I tend to write humor stuff. This is the first time I’ve written a serious or tragic story in…shit. Years, probably.

I haven’t gotten a ton of feedback on these, but I’m curious to know peoples’ feelings. Did you like the same ones I did? Were any utterly confusing and nonsensical? Do you think my self-critique is on point, or am I (like usual) spouting hot air? Are you flat-out horrified by the fact that I posted something unfunny on the blog? Am I contractually obligated to make fart jokes and filthy movie rants for the next month? Let me know in the comments.

She left the bar clutching her purse as though it meant the difference between life and death. She wasn’t far wrong.

She walked down the street, her eyes darting left and right, seeking an alley, an abandoned construction site, or even a secluded parking lot. Nothing immediately presented itself.

She should never have gone in that bar. She should have just kept going. Walked into a Starbucks or something. Gone shopping. But no. Instead she stupidly went into a bar. Something completely out of character for her cover. She’d realized her mistake immediately, ordered one drink on the off-chance it looked less suspicious, and then left almost immediately. Now he would know she was rattled. He would realize he’d been spotted.

The question was, what would he do with that knowledge? Did she dare look behind her? He had to know he’d been spotted. She had nothing to lose. Lifting her phone as though searching for signal, she was able to twist it so that it reflected a glimpse of the street behind her. He was half a block behind, walking in her direction.

She swallowed hard, and gripped the purse with white knuckles. This was it. Well, if her back was going to be up against a wall, she might as well pick one she liked.

She saw an empty playground up ahead, and turned toward it. She knew it was impossible over the dull roar of the city at midday, but she could swear she heard his footsteps following.

Ducking around a jungle gym, she spied a toddler-sized climbing wall. It was only five feet high, but it would be enough. She thought she heard the steps’ tempo increase, but she was probably just imagining it. There was no time to look.

She spun behind the wall, slamming her back into it and dropping to one knee in the same motion.

Pounding feet approached. He rounded the wall at a dead run.

Her fear was gone. Her purse was gone. But her Walther PPK was pointed right at him.

Inanely, his last thought was to wonder what she had ordered at the bar.

She fired.

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“Please come this way, Ma’am.”

“Thank you.”

“Forgive me, but have you been drinking?”

“Just a glass. I…just a glass of wine. That’s all.”

“I see. In here.”

The door opened, and she walked into the room. It was dim. The glass, she felt, was too clear. It should be darker. How did she know he wouldn’t be able to see her? They should leave it darker, just to make witnesses feel safer. The officer indicated a folding chair.

“They’ll be brought in in a minute. Can I get you anything? Water?”

“No, thank you.”

This was a police station, she should feel safe here. There were police. There was two-way glass. He wouldn’t even know she was here. Except why else would he have been brought out as a witness, unless she was here? Her heart jumped into her throat. He would know.

The officer looked like he was going to leave the room. She clutched her purse convulsively, suddenly gripped by a fear of being alone.

“Uh-excuse me!”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“I- uh-”

She could feel the wine in her stomach, and fought down the urge to retch. The room tilted, her fingers caught the chair in a death grip, and it took all her strength to keep from falling over. And then they came in.

The glass should be darker, she thought again. And then she saw him.

“The one in the middle.”

“I need you to say the number, ma’am.”

“The middle! Number- number three.”

“Number Three, step forward….are you sure that’s the one? Do you want to take more time?”

She stared at the floor, refusing to look at him. Terrified to think that this might somehow be the wrong room, that the glass wasn’t mirrored at all.

“Ma’am? Do you need more time? If you’re unsure-”

“No, I-” she swallowed, hard. “That’s him. That’s my son.”

She staggered down the street, purse over one shoulder, clutching the strap like a lifeline. The weight on the strap pulled shoulder down, making her stumble awkwardly, as if drunk. She wasn’t, of course. It would take far more than a glass of red wine for that.

It was a painfully bright day. She squinted against the glare coming off the skyscrapers and sidewalk. It took her a moment to realize why her vision was blurry. She wiped away the tears with the back of her hand.

She wanted an alley. How hard was it to find a damn alley in New York? Every time she left the subway after midnight, there was an alley every five feet. But now that she actually wanted one, it eluded her.

She didn’t know how many blocks passed before she saw one through a veil of tears. In the shadows behind a dumpster she sank to the ground and sobbed hysterically, clutching herself as if she were coming apart at the seams.

She lost all track of time. But when she realized the shadows were getting longer, she picked herself up and peered around to see where she was. Across the street was a church. She hadn’t noticed it earlier. It must be a sign.

She crossed the street and entered, twisting and turning down hallways. At the end of a hall she found what she was looking for, and opened the door without knocking. A dozen pairs of eyes turned toward her. It occurred to her suddenly that her clothes were probably filthy. She hoped they couldn’t smell her from the doorway. She took a deep, wavering breath.

“I’m Miriam Henley…” she shut her eyes as the tears began again, and struggled to speak around the lump in her throat, “and…”

The sob threatened to choke her. Her pulse roared in her ears.

“-and until this afternoon…I…I hadn’t had a drink for three years. I’m-”

The room was totally silent. Waiting. She heard a chair squeak, and a comforting arm moved around her shoulders.

“…an alcoholic.”

“Hi Miriam.” came the chorus of replies.

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She sat on the train, head bowed, willing herself not to cry. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

Besides, she’d already spent the morning depressed. Alternately sobbing into her pillow and holding a tear-choked and one sided debate with her cell phone. “I am NOT boring” she had gasped at it. The text on the backlit screen, barely discernible through her tears, offered no consolation.

Then, once she’d run out of tears, she got angry. Who was he to call her boring? She could go out. She could go out anytime she chose. Why, she’d go out right now. “Besides,” she thought as she went into the bedroom to dry her eyes and get dressed, “the best revenge would be a life lived richly.”

What time was it? 2? Hah! She’d go out and- and- and start drinking right now! She put on the sexiest clothes she owned: A pair of pants that didn’t so much hug her curves as hide them, and a very sensible blouse. She almost left an extra button undone, but didn’t want to look like a whore.

Then she grabbed her purse, hailed a cab, and rattled off the first intersection that came to mind. She would get a drink at the first bar she found. Which had turned out to be the questionably named “Hairy Monk”. She paid the driver and, with a burst of willpower, stepped inside.

She blinked a moment, allowing her eyes to adjust to the sudden gloom. She would have taken a table, but the only other people there were sitting at the bar, and she didn’t want to do anything that made it look as though this was the first time she’d been in a place like this alone. She chose the stool at the end of the bar, next to the wall.

She ordered a drink in a voice barely above a whisper. Red wine- chosen because it was a safe bet between the white wine she only sipped on special occasions, and ordering something like whiskey.

She sat stiffly, her head bowed so low her chin almost touched her chest. This was all wrong. The TV’s were too loud. The air was too thick. And everything seemed just a little too sticky. This was a terrible place. She wanted to be gone.

What sort of revenge was this, where her hands shook and her throat closed and the tears gathered just behind her eyelids? The wine appeared, and she grasped it, grateful for something to do with her hands. She took a drink, tilting the glass higher and higher. The liquid burned her throat, but she no longer cared. She put it down empty, telling herself the rising lump in her throat was from the wine. She placed a dollar on the counter and slid off her stool in a single motion, halfway to the door before she had even pulled the purse back over her shoulder.

Hailing a taxi would have meant speaking to someone, so she had taken the subway instead. And now here she was, fighting back tears in a train car at 2:35 in the afternoon. The most pathetic- and boring- person alive.

When she got home she stripped off the clothes she had been wearing, putting on a familiar pair of sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt. Then she sat in the window seat of her apartment and picked up the book she had been reading. She did not cry. The lump in her throat was gone. The last thought she spared before losing herself completely in the pages was that it was true. The best revenge was a life lived richly.

*If you’re interested, my own comments on this story are below in the- um, comments. For an understanding of where this story came from, read this post.

I’ve been kind of stuck the last few weeks. To be honest, I’ve felt really drained since I launched my book a few months ago. It’s been doing well, and I’ve been thrilled. But the fact that I followed through with something has actually put unexpected strain on any new project I try to start. Suddenly I feel like all of them have to be worthy of record-breaking levels of interest. It makes me hyper-critical of everything I try to do, until I wind up discarding ideas before I even try them. As any creative person knows, that’s the best way ever to do absolutely nothing.

But two separate events occurred in the past week that I think have snapped me out of it. Permit me a short aside:

***

I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman. This is a ridiculous statement of course. It’s very much like saying one is a fan of eating.

There is little distinction in being a fan of one of the greatest living writers- no, storytellers- of our time. I’m by no means his biggest fan. The man is painfully prolific, and most of the time I feel as though I’ve barely read any of his work. Some of you may not know who I’m referring to. Thankfully, it’s very easy to explain Neil Gaiman to people these days. You either say “Sandman” or “Coraline“. (And if that doesn’t work, try “The Graveyard Book” or just send them here)

I bring all this up as a prelude to the following story that Gaiman referenced in the introduction to Stories, his latest work. Someone asked him what quote he would choose for the wall of the children’s section of a library. The following was his response:

I’m not sure I’d put a quote up, if it was me, and I had a library wall to deface. I think I’d just remind people of the power of stories, of why they exist in the first place. I’d put up the four words that anyone telling a story wants to hear. The ones that show that it’s working, and that pages will be turned:

“…and then what happened?”

I will assume those words hit you the same way they did me, and I’ll say no more about them. Event number two:

A few hours after reading that, I met a Former Student for lunch in a pub. We had just received our pints when a woman came in and sat at the bar. She looked to be in her late thirties, with short blond hair. She was dressed modestly in the summer heat, and spoke to the bartender in a voice I couldn’t quite hear, despite the fact she was sitting only a single stool away from me. She seemed tense.

All these details I noticed out the corner of my eye. I saw her raise a glass of red wine to her lips before turning back to Former Student, and only glanced back in time to watch as the woman laid a dollar on the bar and slid off her stool in a single motion. The glass she was leaving behind was completely empty. She left hurriedly and without a backward glance.

“Did you see that?” I exclaimed, “If we weren’t waiting on food I swear I’d run after her just to ask how her day is going. What the hell was that all about? Who has a single glass of red wine and bolts? The foam hasn’t even settled on my beer yet!”

Since it was fresh in my mind, I brought up Neil’s anecdote to Former Student. “That’s why this is bugging me-” I concluded “some woman just knocked back a glass of red wine at 2:30 in the afternoon and ran out of a bar…AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED?”

***

And that brings us to now. Obviously, I have no idea what happened. I didn’t follow the woman to find out. But I’ve decided to write four separate short fiction scenarios that answer that question. They’ll all be here on the blog. They’ll be as short as I can keep them, and in many cases they’ll probably raise more questions than they answer. But it’ll be creative writing of a sort I feel up to right now. I’m doing them here because I think the mystery is fascinating, and I hope you do as well. Also, airing them publicly forces me to actually do them. And once I’m done, I think I’ll be ready to tackle personal writing projects again. If not the aforementioned short story, then something else.

Ideally, I’d like to do “What Happened Wednesdays” but who knows if they’ll be done in time or not. I suspect I won’t manage one by this Wednesday, because my week is already giving me scary looks. So- if not Wednesday, then by next Monday you’ll read my first stab at what happened then. Each story will start with the same scenario, though they may not be told the same way. And each will provide a possible answer to just why this mystery woman was in that bar, ordered that drink, and left so quickly. I hope you enjoy them.

I’ll still update something funny or angry on Mondays, even it’s just a short paragraph. I realize you guys don’t come here to watch me demonstrate just how poorly I write, so I’ll keep the regularly scheduled posts running as well.