Monthly Archives: July 2011

25Jul

Fiction Writing: Caught Between Reality & Make-Believe

There are hazards to being a writer of fiction. Sometimes one gets trapped between reality and make-believe, entirely unawares.

About a year ago, I spotted a St. Bernard rambling loose along River Road, right near my house. I grabbed a leash and dashed down to get him before he fell victim to one of the cars which race along the winding curves.

He and I headed up into the large subdivision nearby, stopped at a house to inquire, and I got the dog’s name and directions to his stomping grounds.

The long driveway led to a white home. I knocked, and a man and woman answered, opening a sliding door. We spoke only briefly, I returned the dog, and trudged on back to my place.

However, it had all left an impression. There was more there. I sat down and wrote a short story about it, and all the details started to change.

I became a young guy named Dave. He was coming home from work. The dog’s name was Bear. The people at the house were odd – their stuff in piles in the kitchen, both heavy smokers, everything dingy. They didn’t seem to care that Dave brought Bear home, and when he asked them for a treat for the dog, the man (Henry) handed Dave part of a sticky donut out of a half-empty pink box on the coffee table.

I had been working with the idea of “the inside story.” The story within the story, which in this case was that Dave had a younger brother who worked at the donut shop, a brother with Downs Syndrome. That is revealed in the final scene. Eventually, the story was titled “Donuts.”

On Friday, I was revising that story for a fiction contest. I was tweaking and twisting and turning. So I was getting pretty intimate with it. It was in my marrow, the way stories get when you’re close with them.

Then on Monday, I was at work at the Tribune, and my partner Sabrina called at about 5 p.m. and said, “Hey, Michelle. There’s a woman here with a lost St. Bernard. Do you remember where he lives?”

And I said, “Oh, his name is Bear!” Then I said, “Wait. No. That’s not his name. That’s the name I gave him. I made that name up. I can’t remember his real name anymore.”

Sabrina said, “It’s OK. We don’t need his name. Just his address.”

“Right. Well, his house is up past Tom and Dobie’s, I think. It’s a long, curvy driveway. I think. On the left.”

“Good.”

“The house is white, and all run-down, and peeling apart, and there are old cars everywhere. Like four or five or six of them. But maybe I made that up. I don’t remember.”

“OK.”

“And when you first walk towards the driveway, there’s one of those above-ground swimming pools, only it’s empty, and there’s trash all around it. I’m pretty sure.”

“Great. I think we got it.”

“He’s a really friendly dog.”

“Yes. That’s what the woman said, too. Love you. See you tonight.”

I hung up the phone, thinking hard. What did the people in the house look like? No idea. All I could remember were the people in my short story. What did I say when I brought back the dog? No idea. All I could remember was what Dave did, what Dave said.

My memory of finding the St. Bernard had been completely eclipsed by my fictionalized version of the incident. I had rewritten it. There was virtually nothing left of the original.

Whoa. I’m going to have to watch that one. I can just hear myself using that excuse at a family gathering – “Sorry, must have been a writer’s blackout.”

1Jul

Taking Time

To live with no regrets is something that sounds wonderful – but impossible. And yet I have found recently in small ways I have been able to do just that, by taking it a few days, a few weeks at a time.

Kay Wheeler is a spirited, strong-willed, 96-year-old former Army nurse who is a family friend. She and her husband attended the Presbyterian Church that my parents joined when they moved to St. Helena in Napa Valley over 20 years ago. A few years later, when a flood devastated the Wheelers’ mobile home park, my parents gave the Wheelers an apartment in their home to live in until they had a new residence. I did not live in California at the time, but knew of the friendship, and especially I heard stories of Kay.

When I eventually moved to the Napa Valley, and started working at the Calistoga Tribune newspaper, Kay was widowed, and had relocated to a mobile home park in Calistoga. She was a Tribune subscriber, and read my stories. She also happened to get her hair done at The Ultimate Kerr, the small beauty salon next door to the Tribune. So every couple of weeks I would see her, say hello, catch up on her news, the volunteer work at the local hospital, church doings, health matters. She always gave my hand a warm squeeze, eyes twinkling.

Always, she paid attention to my life through my writing. When my partner Sabrina and I lost our African grey parrot Barney, who I had frequently written about, Kay sent a beautiful condolence card, remembering the special animals in her own life. I began sending cards regularly, too, for Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, any excuse to put a bright little reminder in her mail box.

As she aged, living alone at the mobile home park proved too difficult, and Kay decided to move back to St. Helena into a senior apartment complex. I offered to help her pack boxes. Because of scheduling conflicts, with friends and relatives in town, she ended up declining my help. Instead, we agreed to meet soon for ice cream – she admitted she loved rootbeer floats.

As promised, shortly after, I made a special trip over one afternoon and took her to the local A&W for rootbeer floats. We had a wonderful time. She asked about my animals, my partner Sabrina, who she had never met, and other details about my life. She chided me about smoking, and urged me to quit. She told me stories about her time as a nurse, things I had never known. And we shared memories about my dad, who passed away seven years ago from lymphoma. Kay adored him, and he adored her right back.

It’s easy to get busy, and not find time for things. We intended to get together again soon, but a couple of months passed. Finally, though, I reminded myself that one must take time for 96 year olds. On the spur of the moment one afternoon last month when I was running errands in Santa Rosa, I called Kay and asked if she was free for dinner. She said yes. I made the trip over the hill, and picked her up. She said she wasn’t really that hungry these days – all she wanted was a bowl of soup. We went to the most popular pizza/Italian joint in St. Helena, where she had minestrone and I had pasta. We again had a wonderful conversation. After the soup, she admitted she still had room for a scoop of ice cream.

Two weeks ago, by chance, I saw Kay again. My sister Catherine was in town from Connecticut with her husband Eric and 10-month-old son Kaden, to have Kaden baptized at my mom’s church. Kay hadn’t been feeling well, but had made it to church, decked out in a straw hat covered with pink and purple flowers. During community announcements, she said, “I’ve lost my pep and energy; so, if anybody’s seen it, please let me know!”

I was thrilled to see her, because Sabrina was there, and I was finally able to introduce her. Kay smiled broadly, and reached up towards her. Sabrina, always wonderful with older people, held out her cupped hands and said, “I just wanted to let you know. I found some of that energy. Here it is.” Kay thanked her, and grinned.

Kay fell last week. They ended up performing heart surgery on her at St. Helena Hospital. I was hoping to go visit her today. My mom called yesterday to say she had passed away. She had never really been conscious since the surgery.

I will miss this dear, sweet friend. I am grateful, though, for two things.

First of all, I know she was ready to go. She was tired, and in pain, and simply plain worn out. She remained cheerful and stoic and brave and generous to the end, but it was time.

Secondly, I have no regrets. I took time for my friend. I was not a close friend, really, just the daughter of fellow church members. But I showed up for her. I kept promises. We had rootbeer floats together. And I am not left with that raw ache of thinking, “Oh, I wish I had done it differently.” Because she knew that I loved her.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved