I got a hell of a surprise about two weeks ago. It was just a few days after my 81st birthday. My inamorata Eleanor was downstairs helping the neighbors with a garage sale. I had been brushing my teeth, getting ready to join my youngest daughter, Zoë, for a brunch when it happened.
|My latest, soon to be released short story collection.|
That's me at Bread & Puppets Theater Museum in Glover, VT,
opening another fabulous summer season tomorrow.
As luck would have it, Zoë was herself showering in a second bathroom at the far end of the long, railroad north Chicago flat where I reside. With Eleanor also out of earshot I was stuck. It was an unseasonably chilly morning, with me in a tee shirt and shorts, shivering now. I thought of reading one of the old books on the bathrooms little rack near the commode, but I knew most of them by heart by now. I tried yelling out the bathroom window. Nothing. Forget escaping that way from one floor up. I'd be lucky if I only broke a leg.
I took a few deep breaths. Someone would be along, I thought, or hear me and call for help, maybe the fire department. That would be embarrassing, but not fatal. Still... My chronic, mild case of claustrophobia was starting to kick in. Relax, I told myself. Every time I ride an elevator, I imagine it getting stuck. I size up the people in the lift with me and invent a scenario of what being trapped overnight with them - their life stories, their manias and phobias. What if I had to relieve myself? How long would each of us hold out? Would one of us turn out to be a homicidal maniac, or an extraterrestrial?
|Filene's Boston, 1920s|
What does this all have to do with writing? Well, with me, everything has to do with writing in my head. Trapped in the toilet: I had the key - as it were - elements of a every plot: the protagonist in a jam, having to face his fears - in my case, claustrophobia and old age. Rinse and wash again. Why do I tend to neglect such simple elements when creating stories, I thought. The two-week workshop given by Hollywood screenwriting guru Syd Field that I had attended many decades ago came back to me now. Field's system combines elements of Aristotle, Hagel and Superman comics. It was all right there. If only I had listened better.
Perhaps incongruously, I thought about the collection of my short stories to publish this fall. I didn't have a title yet, or a unifying concept. I had set aside a dozen short stories, old and new, as candidates. Poring over my stories had brought on an outbreak of self-critical, flaw-detection fever.
Finally my daughter Zoë, out of the shower and ready for brunch now, responded. "Dad?" She rattled the doorknob. "Stand back," she said. "I'm going to try to force it." She twisted and knob and laid a shoulder to it. Nothing. Eleanor returned from the garage sale and joined the action, bringing a toolbox with her. With much effort, they removed the doorknob assembly. Still no action. The latch remained stubbornly in its locked position.
"If you slip me a screwdriver, or maybe a butter knife, I can try to jimmy it from this end," I said with the flicker of an idea, "or I could maybe pry off the hinge pins. Or maybe just call the fire department." I was getting desperate now. I pictured a firefighter in full regalia, chopping through the door with a giant axe, while red lights from the emergency vehicles flashed eerily through the window. I imagined the neighbors muttering, "Poor old fart locked himself in the bathroom. Couldn't get out." I could see them making screwball signs, finger-to-temple, as the firefighters led me to an ambulance in my scivvies, with one of those mylar shock-blankets over my drooping shoulders.
|Alicia & Brian visiting in 2012|
Finally, I recalled, after all else had failed, we slipped Brian a butter knife under the door. Fortunately there's a considerable gap under the doors of this hundred-year-old flat. It was Alicia's idea. She explained that Brian had become deft with a butterknife, because his elderly mother often asked him to fix things at her house back in Ireland, but lacked even rudimentary tools.
This proved true. Brian used the butterknife to pry the pins out of the
And thus. my bathroom narrative's critical, end-of-second-plot point of the Syd Field classical algorithm arrives with the magical butter knife slipped to me by a magical helper (aka, Eleanor). It's silver-plated glint seemed both ridiculous and sublime in that moment. Such a turning point leads the protagonist finding a solution on his or her own terms after a series of calamitous setbacks, all leading to the third act denouement. No deus ex machina or firefighters needed!
For our final resolution, fade to: a week later, Eleanor and Umberto at their favorite neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Umberto reaches into a shoulder bag for his wallet and finds ... What's this? A bright brass bathroom door knob! He had put it there to take as a sample, to the hardware store where he'd gone to replace the door-lock assembly. Eleanor takes out her iPhone to video this happy ending to our adventure that you can view below. "I think I'll entitle my new story collection, "Sometimes Ridiculous," I say, and remember somebody telling me once that one must risk the ridiculous to reach the sublime, or have a shot at it, anyway.