The Spring issue of The Georgia Review arrived today. It’s a special issue that celebrates the fiction published in that journal during the past 25 years. I’m humbled to see my name included with the following writers whom I’ve long admired: Lee K. Abbott, Margaret Benbow, Kevin Brockmeier, Frederick Busch, Robert Olen Butler, Phil Condon, Jack Driscoll, William Gay, Jim Heynen, Mary Hood, Rene Houtrides, Barry Lopez, Phyllis Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Marjorie Sandor, George Singleton, Liza Wieland, and Ronder Thomas Young. I’m also humbled. My story, “Light Opera,” which eventually became the second story in my collection, The Least You Need to Know, first appeared in The Georgia Review in 1995. Seeing it in this Spring issue is like reconnecting with an old friend you haven’t seen in years. It’s thrilling and a little scary at the same time. Above all, I’m happy to see the company it’s keeping even though I’m not sure it deserves the honor.
When I first found out that the story was to be included, I felt a bit like my aunt must have felt on a recent evening when she and my uncle had gone out to dinner at a local Chinese restaurant in their hometown in Illinois. They’re both in their eighties, and my aunt does all the driving. She parked the car in front of the restaurant that evening (it was just beginning to get dark), and my uncle got out on the passenger side of the car. My aunt has trouble with her knees, and it takes her a while to get out of the car. By the time she made it around the front, she could hear my uncle talking to someone. She looked into the back seat of the car and saw a young woman sitting there.
My uncle, a tremendously gracious man, was nonplussed. He said to my aunt, “This young lady would like us to give her a ride somewhere.”
“Where is it you need to go?” my aunt asked her.
“The police are after me,” she said.
My uncle said, “I told her we were about to go in here and get something to eat.’
My aunt confirmed that this was true. “We can’t give you a ride right now. We’re going to have supper.”
The young woman got out of the car, walked down the row of parked cars a few feet and got into another car. It’s not clear to me whether that car belonged to her. If it did, why would she be asking someone else for a ride. Did her car not run? Was her request a ruse meant to get my aunt and uncle into a vulnerable location where she could practice criminal intent? Or did she get into a car someone else had left unlocked? All these questions and more. Questions my aunt couldn’t answer because she said that for the first time ever (they live in a small town in central Illinois) she locked their car. Then she and my uncle went into the restaurant and had their supper. Did they tell anyone what had happened? Did they call the police? No and no. They ate their supper and then they went home.
“I really couldn’t have told the police much,” she said to me when I asked why she hadn’t called them. “A girl wanted a ride, and then she was gone.”
I’m glad the element of mystery still exists in this narrative. It’s left me just enough room to imagine the rest, which I’ve done now in the draft of a new story, “Anywhere, Please.”
I like the element of surprise in my aunt and uncle’s story. The surprise and the mystery and the nonchalant attitude my aunt expressed. Yes, there are a number of ways this story could have turned tragic, and I’m relieved that no harm came to these two people who are mother and father to me now that my parents are gone. Relieved to the point that I could look at this episode like a writer, tantalized by the sketchy details, eager to let my imagination get to work, wondering who that woman in the back seat might be, what she might have to do with the elderly couple who found her there, and how her appearance might invite an investigation into who all these people are on this planet Earth.
It doesn’t take much to get a fiction writer interested. Something out of the ordinary, something that invites you to wonder how and what if. When I wrote “Light Opera,” I began with a curiosity about the people who provided the Time and Temperature voice on the telephone. This was in the day when a quick way of finding out those two things was to dial a certain number and to listen as a pleasant voice filled you in. What if the woman who provided that voice lived in a small town, was married to the local undertaker, and had a son who felt distant from them both:
In 1952, the year my mother feared she might lose me, she became the time and temperature voice on the telephone. The phone company selected her, after a nationwide search, because she had a bright voice with no discernible accent, and that meant her recorded messages could be distributed throughout the country. For a while, this gave her a certain status in our town; then, the novelty wore off, and she was again Lois Sievers, the undertaker’s wife, who gave piano lessons to any pupils whose parents didn’t mind marching them up the funeral chapel’s steps.
I remember crafting that opening, getting as many balls up into the air as I thought I could reasonably sustain throughout the story, and then letting the elements of the opening suggest the scenes that would follow. I made myself curious and then had to keep writing to try to satisfy that curiosity.
Rust Hills, in his book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, says that the ending of a good short story is always contained in its beginning. I’ve always thought that a good ending sends your back through the story, makes a resonant sound that reverberates back through all that has produced it. It’s as if that sound is there from the beginning, but repressed, and it takes the pressures of plot and the way it makes characters rub up against one another to bring that sound to the surface.