Sometime this past autumn Mort Castle, a writer near Chicago, asked me if I’d consider contributing a story to an anthology that he and co-editor, Sam Weller, were putting together. The anthology, Live Forever!, was to be a tribute to Ray Bradbury. I just learned yesterday that the anthology sold at auction last week to an editor at William Morrow and will most likely be out in the summer of 2012.
The title comes from something that happened to Bradbury when he was a boy. He went to a carnival to see a magician named Mr. Electrico. This man sat in an electric chair and was electrocuted at every performance. As the electricity shot through his body, he raised a sword and knighted all the kids sitting in the front row near his platform. Here’s how Bradbury describes what happened when it was his turn to be knighted: “When he reached me, he pointed his sword at my head and touched my brow. The electricity rushed down the sword, inside my skull, made my hair stand up and sparks fly out of my ears. He then shouted at me, ‘Live forever!'”
Here’s a link to the rest of Bradbury’s story about how Mr. Electrico gave him a future with his exhortation and also, the next day, a past when Bradbury returned to the carnival and Mr. Electrico claimed that he, Bradbury, was the reincarnated spirit of an old friend:
A past and a future. These are important things for the writer to consider when constructing a piece of fiction, even a piece of flash fiction such as Bradbury’s “I See You Never,” the story of a man sent back to Mexico because he’s in America illegally. No matter that he’s built a fine life for himself, a pleasant life as the boarder of a woman named Mrs. O’Brien. When the police come for the man, Mr. Ramirez, she says, “I wish there was something I could do.” The police lead Mr. Ramirez away, and he calls back to her, “Mrs. O’Brien, I see you never, I see you never!” Mrs. O’Brien returns to her family at the dinner table and is suddenly struck by the sadness of never seeing Mr. Ramirez again:
The policemen waited for Mr. Ramirez to turn, pick up his suitcase, and walk away. Then they followed him, tipping their caps to Mrs. O’Brian. She watched them go down the porch steps. Then she shut the door quietly and went slowly back to her chair at the table. She pulled the chair out and sat down. She picked up the shining knife and fork and started once more upon her steak.
“Hurry up, Mom,” said one of the sons. “It’ll be cold.”
Mrs. O’Brian took one bite and chewed on it for a long, slow time; then she stared at the closed door. She laid down her knife and fork.
“What’s wrong, Ma?” asked her son.
“I just realized,” said Mrs. O’Brian–she put her hand to her face–“I’ll never see Mr. Ramirez again.”
The full brunt of her loss comes to her when it’s too late for her to express her sadness to him the way he has to her. Notice the irony in that last move, I tell my students when I teach this story, and how it comes to us covertly because a skillful writer lets it emerge from the details of the story’s world.
The story I wrote for Live Forever! (I believe that when invitations come, it’s the universe’s way of telling us we need to accept), “Cat on a Bad Couch,” was a response to “I See You Never.” My story started with something close at hand I could grab onto. Someone in our neighborhood had lost a cockatiel, a bird called Popcorn. Popcorn was missing, and the story made the local news. The owner posted signs far and near, started a web site, gave interviews, had an open cage installed on the top of his house, in hopes that Popcorn would one day fly into it and be home. I knew I wanted that to be the main thread of my story, but I also knew, like a trump card, I wanted to save it and not play it until the other threads demanded it, in fact created it.
I didn’t know what those other threads would be, but I was willing to use the core of the Bradbury story to help me find them. In tribute to “I See You Never,” I wanted to write a story about someone who is unable to fully connect with the one person left who might be most sympathetic to what he’s lost in his life. So I knew I had a story about neighbors, my narrator and the man across the street, a man who owned a cockatiel.
As Charles Baxter tells us in his book of craft essays, Burning Down the House, so much of writing stories requires us to be good matchmakers. Think of The Odd Couple. Felix and Oscar: two characters who are interesting because they’re so different (one a neat freak, the other a slob) but also because they share something (the sadness that comes after a marriage breaks up or threatens to end). How important it is that they have this in common. How funny and interesting their dynamic is because they get on each other’s nerves due to their different lifestyles. Just enough alike and just enough not alike to make for an interesting character pairing.
So a neighbor who owns a cockatiel, and why not a narrator across the street whose marriage is shaky and whose wife adopts a snarly, ill-mannered, street cat she names Henry? And what if, the cockatiel owner is one of the boat people from Cuba who left behind the love of his life? And what if the narrator has a drinking problem which leads him to buying an ugly couch? And what if the cockatiel owner receives a letter from his lost love? And of course the narrator has to have something to do with that cockatiel’s disappearance. . .and there’s that cat. . .
In the midst of all that what-iffing, I’m setting in motion three distinct threads: the story of the cockatiel (a present action), the story of the woman left behind in Cuba (a crucial part of the cockatiel owner’s past), the story of the narrator’s marriage (the cat, the couch, the drinking), all in preparation for the major thrust of the story, the cockatiel’s disappearance and what it’ll mean to the relationship between the two neighbors.
The point here? One thread has a hard time making a story. In addition to the dramatic present, there’s a past and a future bearing down on it, leading us to a moment at the end of the story, where past, present, and future co-exist. Think of Mr. Ramirez heading back to Mexico at the end of “I See You Never.” Think of Mrs. O’Brien looking both back and ahead as she mourns his leaving. Think of birds flying away, old loves returning, a cat on a bad couch in a house where a man faces up to his life. Everything co-existing because there’s no other choice. That’s what creates the electricity in a story, that spark, that exhortation to “Live forever!”