Rewrite

By Bud Smith

Essay

Good Luck: Episode Eighteen

 

It was raining. I couldn’t leave work. The flash flood too deep to drive through, and I knew better. Another work emergency. Five of us in rain gear, hoods up over our hardhats, rubber booties stretched over steel-toed boots. (I don’t write specifics about my coworkers anymore, no names, no record of what they say or think—this after I was told it is unethical to write about people without letting them see it first before it’s printed.) Nameless, faceless, Us, in the storm, ripping apart an elephantine machine. Gears and pulleys. Its metal guts. Black grease smeared our yellow. Thunderstorms spinning around.

I got home in darkness, with wet socks and a headache. My usual routine was to write for a couple hours after work, but that now felt impossible. I’d go to the couch and dream till dinnertime. I opened the PO box, and a flash of lightning dimmed the lights of my building. Among the bills was a response from a publisher I’d sent a story to a year before. A purple post-it note said they were sorry to pass, but to please consider them again, the story had reached the later editorial rounds. They felt the characters and their resolutions didn’t feel earned, or true to life.

I went in the apartment. Showered and put on dry clothes. Headache gone. Mind whirring to life. I reread the rejection slip. They were right. They were always right. That’s the thing with rejections. Something is wrong, and they are telling you it’s wrong—they may be wrong about what they think is wrong—but there’s always something wrong. It can be fixed. Just like any machine. Or really, just like any living animal, all that’s needed for the animal on the operating table is a new heart, or a new brain, or even a new soul. A writer is a surgeon. Sometimes, on a certain day, even a skilled surgeon. If you’re doing surgery on an animal, no waiver required. If you’re replacing the guts of a human, you’d better make sure you have a signature from the person getting the new guts. I knew that now, I wasn’t writing about anyone from the real world without their permission. I’d written down some true things about Rae’s mom, and Rae’s mom had read them and Rae got in trouble. When I say Rae got in trouble, I don’t mean a little trouble; since she got in big trouble, you can guess the kind of trouble I got in. So, off I went, back into fiction.

Now, flipping slowly through the old story, reading it again for the first time in forever…What did this animal need? Ah, there it is. The rotten part, weeping black grease and infected, needing to be chopped out. The editors were right on the money this time. I saw the problem.

The story was too simple. Or not simple enough. Somewhere between the two. A love story. Two lovebirds who didn’t love their jobs, so they ran away together, or flew away together, in a hot air balloon. My stories are always helpless against things like that: love; hot air balloons; gorilla costumes; comic relief pets; bank robberies, often done with squirt guns; dumb sports cars; mirror worlds; lots of rain for no reason. The hot air balloon in this story was stolen by Paul, from Cindy’s father, after Cindy discovered a grisly truth about her seemingly sweet dad—he was a Nazi in hiding, doing hot air balloon tours attached to a small circus where Paul was ringmaster, and Cindy was the star. After this Nazi secret was unearthed, Cindy and Paul escaped their life, overcoming everything. But as I read along, what did they really overcome? They just ran away from an old Nazi, and left him to perform. A circus where they they made good money and were beloved, where their lives were enriched, and where people felt their lives were enriched by seeing them in the circus. They could have just called the cops on the dad. But they up and left, literally, up into a mauve sunset. That’s another thing I could never get away from—try as I might, my stories always had strawberry skies, or mauve sunsets, or cotton candy sunrises with bruised clouds.

The first three pages of rewrites were easy. Sentence level stuff. The characters were “people” I really liked, even the father, sure, who was a Nazi, but who had just been a Nazi mechanic, who’d done no fighting, who’d just fixed up tank engines so the tanks could roll out and…never mind, he was terrible too.

The heavy duty problems of the story showed up around page four, when, suddenly, Paul and Cindy began to get all gushy, and sentimental, and spoke the way people never talk in the real world. I thought back to some conversations I had overhead on city busses, and at parties, and at funerals, and at basketball games, and I supplanted some of that into the story. Reality is crucial to make-believe stories, even the ridiculous ones I usually write; everything  divorced from our dimension still has to remain plausible. Reality best serves the stories because readers may try to use the story as some guidebook or cypher for the problems in their own lives, so you always have to give them some reality as a compass through the fairy tale mess. And it was just like me to name the characters lazy things like Paul and Cindy, their Christian names. I hadn’t given them big top names. She was not the Amazing Cindy, or the Incredible Cindy, she was just Cindy. And Paul, the ringmaster of it all, was just Paul, waving a flaming sword over his head while the clowns on tricycles juggled baby pachyderms.

And where was Cindy’s mother?

Maybe I should’ve given Cindy’s mother some kind of tragic end that is referred to cryptically but never touched on with any developmental gusto, best to leave it peripherally hinted at as a source of Cindy’s sorrow. People could relate to that. And that’s what you had to do with a story, find a way to reach them on an emotional level, not a cheap level—crack through the thin veil of fiction, enter into the reader’s reality. Doing so with words was tricky, but it could be done. You just had to find a way to reach the fictional characters, and seemingly summon them through some doorway, perhaps kicking and screaming, into reality, where the characters could be seen and touched and heard, and even related to by the reader (even though the characters had outlandish jobs such as “star of circus” and “ringmaster” and “blue-eyed elderly secret Nazi daddy” and had access to hot air balloons for useful[?] escape, from what?). I deleted the mauve sunset.

Faced with the real gauntlet of the last page and its necessary rewrites, I crumpled it up and forgot all about it. Tossed that version of Cindy and Paul’s love life into the wastebasket. I started fresh. This story didn’t deserve a happy ending. All arrows had pointed to a devastating tragedy, I’d known that a year ago, yet I’d chosen to ignore my gut feeling, and had given Paul and Cindy a saccharine finish, flying off into atmospheric paradise, hugging and kissing. The editors were right. The purple post-it note was proof. That ending was not earned. And maybe now I was a stronger writer than I had been a year ago. Maybe now I could make those characters suffer like intuition said they must. I kept the circus in the story, added a new twist about the father, and how he had had to smuggle Cindy’s mother out of Germany because she was Jewish, and then once she was safe in Louisville, Kentucky, she succumbed to a rare form of cancer. A cancer which had killed Cindy’s mother’s mother, and Cindy’s mother’s mother’s mother, and Cindy’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother—and damn Cindy, you better get checked out. The circus doctor confirmed it. Cindy also had the cancer, and she passed away in the last paragraph of the story and it was so terribly sad. A long grueling, slow cancer.

I read the new last page and was underwhelmed. Yes, this new ruin I’d added was what the story needed. But this pain did not feel like the right flavor of pain. I crumbled that page up and started fresh again. This time, I had the father tell Cindy that her mother had been smuggled out of Germany just as the Reich was rising to power, and she had immigrated to Sweetwater, Texas, where signs of a degenerative spinal disease had become apparent. This spinal disease had effected Cindy’s mother’s mother, and Cindy’s mother’s mother’s mother, and Cindy’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother—and damn Cindy, you better get checked out. The circus doctor confirmed it. Cindy also had the degenerative spinal disease. It soon became impossible for her to perform her circus routine, which was the anchor to all her happiness and self-worth. The only thing that saved her spirit was her enduring love for Paul, the ringmaster, who worked with her at her lead, to adapt her routine as her abilities declined, so soon the whole circus was part of the act: lions, tigers, fire eaters, trapeze artists, bearded ladies, even secret Nazi fathers, all joining in to increasingly dramatic and chaotic effect. But the show quickly became engulfed in a frenzy of emotion, and staggering trauma, which the big top itself couldn’t hold up against. The cables holding the circus tent began to snap and the big top erupted in flames, and the crowd escaped, and so did all the animals, fleeing into the countryside, and into the woods, where they gained their freedom from life’s chains, but were sad as well to see their fame and admiration from the paying crowds decreased. On the last page of this penultimate draft, the ringmaster pulled the Nazi father out of the flames and the Nazi father said he was ready to die, to pay for what he did in the war. He crawled back into the fire, while the ringmaster and Cindy (whose eyes were covered; she did not see her father die) were lifted up over the wreckage in the hot air balloon, where they could see the blaze in its absolute melee. In the distance, children stood safely in a field, clutching bags of popcorn, waving up at the stars of the circus as they drifted above the clouds.

That was good.

But then I figured it’d be best to have Cindy’s breathing stop. Which I did. And she died in the arms of the ringmaster. Which made me cry. And I’d recently been called a heartless bastard by Rae’s dad, in an email to which I’d yet to reply. If this balloon-true love-horrific-disease-death made me cry, imagine what it could do to the reader. I went to the fridge and got a beer, and I was excited, maybe I could even squeeze out one more draft based on this one that would make things even more poignant for Cindy and Paul, and all the fans of the circus. I scribbled out an even more dire fate for the ringmaster.

I texted Rae. She was just getting on the subway, headed home. I was happy she was writing back to me, and happy she was coming home. Things had been really rocky there for a few days. We hadn’t been speaking (and she hadn’t even been answering texts). I wrote that I was ordering Chinese food, her favorites, vegetable lo mein, shrimp with broccoli—I’d time it right so that when she got here it would still be hot. She texted back that she wanted ginger ale too. In all the many years I had known Rae, I had never seen her eat Chinese food without drinking ginger ale. I texted back “duh” and she texted back “lol.” A good sign. “Lol” was a good sign. Maybe all I’d have to do was say my promise out loud a few more times, and it would all blow over. No more exposés on private civilians who had happened to give birth to her.

I called and asked for egg rolls and wonton soup too. Then I was at the dining room table, reading the story again. Writing is a lot of reading and thinking back, deciding if you want to take ownership of what you’ve done. And I did. It resonated with me, what was there. I could justify it all in my mind. I was prepared to authorize it, send it back out to other editors to decide if I’d gotten it right, or if I had failed again. There was always a chance you could get in trouble for something you were saying, and maybe I would be taken to task for this story. But I was just another person with a secret dream of having to pay the consequences. I read it from the top again. Decided I couldn’t change a thing.

There was a knock on the door, and I thought, “That was fast.” As I opened the door, expecting the Chinese delivery kid, a fist struck me in the mouth. Blood poured from my split lips. And from the floor, looking up, I saw a man rush inside. His boot on my ribcage. I flailed my legs. Saw the world flicker away. On the edge of unconsciousness the boot was lifted, air came back; the door slammed closed.

I wiped the blood away. “Why did you do that to her?”  he shouted. “Do what?” I said. “And to who?” “Cindy,” he shouted louder. A gun came out of his pocket. “You gave her cancer. Why did you do that?” He put the gun to my nose. I blubbered like a baby. He shouted that he loved her, that she was the circus’ greatest star. I looked down the barrel of the gun, could see the bullet way there in the back of it, ready to jump out and say boo. “Are you Paul?” “Yeah I’m Paul, you fuckhead. And I know who you are. Mr. Butt Sniff. Mr. Bug Smurf. You just gonna give her cancer? Easy as that?” And I thought, “Cancer?” I’d crumpled that version of the story up and thrown it away because it wasn’t devastating enough. I’d upgraded to the degenerative spinal disease. “I’m sorry,” I said.

He didn’t look like a ringmaster. He had wild hair, was unshaven, wore regular clothes, sweatpants and Timberlands. I hadn’t specified what he was wearing in the story, but you’d think when you make someone a ringmaster, they’d wear the red suit with the long coattails, and the shiny boots nearly up to their knees, and they’d have that big mustache, and a the very least, at the very very least, they’d have that big top hat.

Paul, from my story. Shit. I was worried about mothers who saw something they didn’t like me saying about them—recently it’d been a thing I’d written about my own mom shoplifting a puppy from a pet store; I was sure she’d disown me soon. Or I was worried about someone from my day job taking offense to something I’d written about the work we did at the chemical plant, and them considering me a “spy” or a “rat” about things, because they didn’t jive with what art was worth (and what was it worth it anyway?). I was worried I’d be driven out of the industry. Driven from my family. But now, I saw things were even worse than logic. Magic was out to get me now too, to make me pay for my crimes committed against magic.

“I’m sorry,” I said again, into the barrel of his gun. He spit on me. “Why give her cancer? She didn’t deserve that. She was the sweetest woman there ever was.” I looked nervously toward the door. Cancer. He was stuck on a previous draft. Was a different Paul going to burst through the door and start shooting without even speaking to me? Probably not. It’d been implied that the Paul who’d held her lifeless body in the penultimate draft, was taking the balloon as high as it would go, and would leap out of the basket with her corpse in his arms so they would die together…the balloon floating on without them, forever and ever (wow, what a beautiful image).

“I had to watch her waste away in that hospital. And then hospice…” The gun pressed against my forehead. I flinched away. “Good, I like watching you squirm. That was desolation. That was apocalypse.” I apologized again and again and again, each time sounding more and more like I meant it.

A different idea I had had before I’d written the cancer draft was to have them both suddenly die when a lightning bolt hit the balloon. Vaporized. I hadn’t written that because it was just plain absurd, and people get angry when you write just plain absurd. Instead, I’d gone the cancer route. I wished I hadn’t now, for obvious reasons. I wished I had chosen and stuck with the lightning strike.

“I’m wrong,” he said. “You shouldn’t suffer alone. You didn’t have just me suffer. I know what I’ll do. I’ll wait for your wife to come home and then she can take part in all this too. How’s that sound?”  I told him, “I’ll change it. I’ll make it all better.” “It’s too late for that. And now it’s too late for your wife too. What’s her name?” “It’s not too late.”

A knock on the door. “There she is now,” he said, delighted. When he opened the door it was just the Chinese food delivery kid, who was wearing a clear garbage bag as a makeshift poncho and whose legs and feet were drenched from the storm, which was raging worse than ever outside. Paul took the bag, handed over no tip, slammed the door (I guess he’s the villain of this story). We were alone again and he kept looking at the bags of food on the table. “Are you hungry?” I asked. He was without words now. On the edge of murder and having to contend with it. “It’s really good food. Have some.” He looked at the bags on the table and seemed to change, hypnotized by the smell of it, softened. “Be my guest.”

“Well, if you think you can make it right, then maybe you should try,” he said, and I said, “Seems better than what you want to do.” “I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt your wife.” “Fair enough.” I got the typewriter, brought it to the other side of the table. He tore into the bags of food like the hungriest creature I’d ever seen; but I had no point of reference, I didn’t know what he’d had to do to get here in my apartment, across worlds, and in this rainstorm. I began my next rewrite. He forked the lo mein into his mouth with his weak hand, keeping the revolver, in his dominant hand, pointed at my heart.

The first thing I did to the story was take the bullets out of Paul’s gun. But I didn’t tell him. He carried on eating and pointing the weapon at me, saying, “Yum yum ummmmm, so good,” while still attempting to remain menacing.

I took away not only Cindy’s cancer but the cancer of the whole world where the story took place. I made all that suffering go poof. And then I got rid of degenerative spinal diseases and Nazis too. Cindy’s father became a mensch, who’d escaped before the war, and come to America where he’d invented helpful machines. I wrote down a 4.8 million dollar car for Paul, a Koenigsegg CCXR Trevita, which appeared parked out on the street, right below my apartment window. I gave him a dog who loved him and would always be happy to see him. The dog was named Crunchy. It stared out the back window of the Trevita wondering where Paul was and when he’d return. And then, I was ready for my next trick—I raised Cindy from the dead. I put her in the driver’s seat, healthy and more alive than she’d ever been before. She smiled wide and looked  around at the interior of the car, and realized she was on vacation from circus life, but could go back when she was ready. I typed away. Paul sprouted a handlebar mustache. He was now in a red suit with long coat tails, and then the gun changed into a bouquet of flowers and he was holding a silver balloon that read Welcome Back. He gathered the flowers and the balloon in one hand and went to the window. “They’re waiting for you,” I said. He looked back at me, tears in his eyes. A few flicks of the keys and the tears vanished, I didn’t want a crying ringmaster in my story—would just be too much. He struggled with the window, and, sure, I could have had him walk out the front door, but I wanted to let him be dramatic. I got up from the typewriter and popped the lock. The window lifted open. The rain blew into the dining room. The venetian blinds swung wildly and the lightning flashed. “Thank you,” he said, and leapt out the window. Two big steps and he was in the car, pulling the door closed. I saw Cindy kiss him fat on the lips, and I saw Crunchy hopping from front seat to back seat, happy to see its master. The engine roared to life. Cindy hit the gas. The tires squealed. The car shot off, 150 mph through green light after green light.

The rain suddenly stopped.

The front door opened. Rae and her umbrella. Shaking off the water. Kicking off her sopping wet, fifty pound shoes. She stomped into the dining room and stood there with her mouth hanging open. The Chinese food was all over the table, most of it gone. “You started eating without me? Asshole.”

The world dried out. The flood waters receded, sucked back into the caves and aquifers. The clouds blew away and the stars could be seen twinkling. I ordered more Chinese food and consoled my wife. Made a promise I would find time to reach out to her mother, make amends in some way, even if I had to write a letter. “No, don’t write a letter. Don’t write anything.” I promised I’d make peace. In time, peace was pulled along to us on its own, as we all know. Death, on the end of that string, rope, chain, however you can imagine it, pulled along by time. Life pulled along too, pushing away death, all through the night.

The chemical plant where I worked pulled along in time, as well. The unit operators walked out of their trailer, and into the crisp moonlight, and put steam to the machine we had fixed during the rainstorm. Valves turned. A whirring filled their ears. By flashlight, they checked the gauges to see if pressure was being held, and there was a great pop, and a whoosh, and a drop of pressure. A gasket blown again. They vented the steam and let the machine cool. We would try again at 7 a.m.

Paul and Cindy drove deeper, looking out the windshield at our world, and wondered about it, and formed opinions about it, and decided they couldn’t call it home, of course. They drove faster through the shadows now, looking for a way out. I closed my eyes and let dreaminess overtake me. Rae closed her eyes and dreamt, and her dreams were her dreams and I have no business writing them down here, catching them here. My dreams are my dreams, I’m allowed to tell you them, no waivers, no lawyers, just me and you talking toward eternity. I woke up at 2 a.m. A nightmare ended, some other revenge sought against me for something I didn’t know was a trespass until it was too late. I went out to my desk and the city was quiet, as if it was brand new and didn’t know how to cry or sing yet.

The sun came up. The sky, a mauve sunrise. I searched it for the hot air balloon, but found only clouds, which were predictable bruises. But, as I drove to work, there was a sign by the abandoned airfield, saying the circus was coming to town. Of course it was, the circus was always coming to town.

I put on my uniform and had ten minutes before we set out to work on the machine. I picked up the phone. “Hello,” Rae’s mom said and I said, “I’m sorry I wrote about you, that wasn’t a kind thing to do,” and she said, “It’s good of you to call.” There was a silence on the line. I said, “Not that many people read what I write anyway, not that that should lessen your hurt. I’m just saying, it wasn’t like…” “Thank you for your apology, anyway,” she said and I said back, “You’re welcome. I appreciate your understanding.” She said, “I don’t understand, but I forgive you.” I said, “That’s even better. That’s even kinder. Who could ever hope to understand anyone?”

Right about this time, Cindy and Paul crossed a big white bridge going out into infinity over aquamarine water. I don’t know where it was, and it’s none of my business. Florida Keys, maybe? There was no one else on the bridge, and Cindy pressed harder on the pedal, 200 mph…225…250. They were freer than you and me, and then they disappeared in a burst of rainbow glitter and rock candy, most of it blown away by the wind into that aquamarine water.

I drove out to the machine. The unit operators were hanging the isolation tags on where to install the safety blanks on the inlet and outlet piping. We were told we would get a permit to disassemble the machine, but once it was open, we’d have to stop. There was an engineer coming to look at the machine and bring about a conclusion as to why it had continued to fail. He came around lunchtime, just as we were covered in grease and trying to clean up enough so we could sneak back to the work truck and eat our sandwiches. The engineer had designed this machine many years ago. As I stood there with him, looking into the mess of the gears and belts and pistons, I couldn’t help but sense that I knew him, and that he knew me. But I let it hang. He let it hang. We kept it professional, logical. Magic was completely left out of it.


Artwork by Ileen Kaplan

 

BUD SMITH lives in Jersey City and works construction. He is the author of the novel Teenager (Tyrant Books '19), among others.

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