All day, this Father’s Day, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about a particular belt my father wore whenever he wanted to be dressy. It was a black elastic belt that stretched until the buckle clasped. That buckle was a gold-plated “M,” the initial of our last name, a touch of vanity, I always thought, just a little too precious for my otherwise down-to-earth, often gruff, and sometimes crude father. It was a detail, in other words, that didn’t fit the pattern of what I knew about him, and for that reason, it is indeed precious, not in the sense of being excessively refined, but in the sense of being of great value. It’s a detail that rounds out my father’s character and shows me more about who he was.
When we write, such anomalous details are crucial to our understanding of characters and their situations. Even the smallest detail can give us a better understanding of the layers of people’s lives that for the most part remain hidden, sometimes even to themselves.
In the case of my father, I think about all he lost when he got his hands caught in a corn picker and ended up losing them to amputation. The detail of the belt buckle makes me wonder if the accident, at least to his way of thinking, cost him some of his dignity. Imagine having to wear prosthetic hands the rest of your life, knowing that those “hooks” would sometimes be the only thing people saw when they first looked at you. Imagine being reduced to those steel pincers. I don’t presume to speak for my father, who’s been gone now thirty-four years, but if I’m doing what a writer must, interpreting the signs by examining all the details, I can’t help but wonder if my father, though he was courageous and strong and full of bluster and bluff—“Can’t never did nothing,” he often said.—felt diminished under the stares of those whose bodies were whole. Perhaps, that belt buckle, then, lifted him up and became a way for him to feel just a bit better about himself.
Our contradictions are often contained in the objects we choose and how we choose to value them. I’m reminded of a scene from Andre Dubus’s stunning short story, “Killings.” The father, Matt Fowler, has come seeking revenge on the man, Richard Strout, who killed Matt’s son, Frank. Inside Strout’s house, Matt instructs him to pack a bag. “You’re jumping bail,” he says. The plan is to take him out in the country and to murder him. Matt notices that the kitchen is tidy—“no dishes in the sink or even the dish rack beside it, no grease splashings on the stove, the refrigerator door, clean and white.” The magazines in a wicker basket in the living room are neatly stacked. The double bed in the bedroom is neatly made; the ashtray on the bedside table is clean. This neatness, this order, catches Matt’s eye, and ours, because it is so unexpected, so different from what the details of Strout’s otherwise disorderly life would suggest. Suddenly, Matt is imagining Strout and his estranged wife, the one Frank was involved with, when she and Strout were happy. The anomalous details have taken Matt somewhere he never planned to go, to the awareness of “the circles of love he was touching with the hand that held the revolver so tightly. . . .” It’s a memorable scene precisely because of the unexpected nature of the small details.
Nothing is too small for the writer to notice: an empty sink, a clean ashtray, a belt buckle. We should keep our eyes out for the contradictory details, the ones that make characters come to life for us in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. Those details that don’t fit the pattern. When it comes to constructing convincing, fully-rounded characters, those are precisely the details a writer should value.