Sunday, 3 June 2018

Sometimes Ridiculous - Umberto Tosi

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.
She was on one of her periodic Chicago visits from Indiana University at Bloomington where she is a doctoral candidate in cognitive science. Her birthday falls just after mine and we always celebrate together. I finished brushing and tried to leave the bathroom and - surprise! The door wouldn't open! The doorknob just turned round and round helplessly without moving the latch. I rattled it, wiggled it. turned it again. Nothing. I tried prying the latch with a pair of nail scissors. Nothing. The door was clearly unlocked, with nothing jammed, but its mysterious internal gears - or screw arms, or whatever, apparently had expired. I didn't have my mobile phone. I knocked, then pounded, then started yelling for help.

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
I come from a family of phobics. When I was a little boy I remember my mother and her sister taking me with them Saturday shopping at Filene's, the historic Beaux Artes department store, now closed, on Washington Street in downtown Boston. My aunt was terrified of elevators. My mother was acrophobic. She hated stair wells and escalators. The sisters would separate to go up or down floors at the store, my mother taking the elevator, my aunt the escalator. I usually chose the latter, even though my mother would warn me to be careful that of the escalator teeth gnashing my shoes and toes. "Make sure he jumps over the teeth at the top and bottom," she would lecture her sister.

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.

Zoë Tosi
The last thing I wanted to do was spend the day marooned in the bathroom thinking about everything wrong with my writing compiled in one volume. But every writer has to work through such existential self-doubts - break down doors!  I started pounding and yelling again. "Hey, anybody! I'm stuck in here!" What a perfect metaphor, I thought.

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
Never! It all came back to me now. This had all happened six years earlier in this same bathroom. My eldest daughter, Alicia Sammons and her husband Brian were visiting from South America. Brian found himself bathroom-trapped the second or third day of his visit. Likewise, we had been ready to call in the fire brigade after nearly half and hour of jiggling, pounding and jimmying (and breaking up over unintentional double entendres: "Okay now, Brian, now grab your knob and turn and I'll grab mine...")

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
door hinges from the inside. With much effort we then managed to push in the bathroom door and free him.  I tried the same tactic, but it was slow doing, lacking Brian's youthful dexterity and strength. I did work the hinges loose, however. Zoë gave the door a hefty backwards horse-kick from the outside and down just missing me trying to stand out of the way in the bathtub.

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.

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Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's NameOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - and resides in Chicago. (He can be reached at Umberto3000@gmail.com)   
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7 comments:

Griselda Heppel said...

Phew, I’m glad you got out! I was totally gripped. Reminded me of the time my husband climbed on to the roof outside the second-floor bathroom to call through to our 6 year-old daughter instructions on how to unbolt the door. Terrifying. And the thing is, it was never bolted in the first place, I think it just stuck and I panicked. Gulp.
Now what I really want to know is... how are you with escalators? I mean, those gnashing teeth...

Dipika Mukherjee said...

What a gripping narrative! Glad you got out, but for a while you had me there, locked in by your words. Can’t wait to read your next book (love how you incorporate wonderful family dynamics into your stories).

Umberto Tosi said...

Thank you, Dipika and Griselda. I appreciate your words, and especially that you found my "locked-door mystery" entertaining! After all, as authors no matter what happens, we want to be sure it makes a good story. :D

Sandra Horn said...

Oh, brilliant! Thank you for making me smile and wince for you at the same time! I hope you'll have the doorknob mounted on a marble plinth - as a proud souvenir of inventiveness.

Marsha Coupé said...

Of all your fascinating tales, Umberto, fiction and non-fiction, my favourite are the ones of your domestic life, from childhood up to these rich octogenarian years. I’ve long said your vivacious life is the opera I want to see. Viva Liberato! Viva Umberto!

Dennis Hamley said...

A minor classic of page-turning suspense with the lovely self-deprecatory note you are so good at. And happy 81st. We octogenarians have to accept that even primitive technology can defeat us.

Enid Richemont said...

Oh wince! This brings back a very painful but exceedingly funny memory. I'm booked to speak/read at a VERY posh private boarding school in the home counties - fees probably astronomical. I am very nervous, so am driven there by my calm and lovely husband who has slight hearing problems (we have been invited to spend the night at the head's house so I can be fresh and alert in the morning - so kind. Before turning in, I walk down a long corridor to the bathroom, do my stuff, then discover I'm locked in. Try everything,including in desperation calling my husband, but he doesn't hear, and is anyway deeply into a book. I try again and again, and then suddenly the door opens. "Oh yes," comments Mrs Head at breakfast, "we've always had a problem with that door. Must get it fixed some time". Aaaaaargh!