Sunday, September 24, 2006

Workshop: A slight delay

Those who remember Paula from newsgroups know that in among the jabber, she is capable of flashes of astute and perceptive writing. Her parodies were well received for good reason: she has a sharp eye for the foibles of her contemporaries and her lampoons were generally on target. Paula’s chosen genre is romance, which is a real pity, because her fluent and clever style is too much for such a pedestrian genre. She’s definitely capable of writing a funny comedy, the sort of study of drawing room manners that used to be the mainstay of British writing perhaps (I don’t read anything like enough to be able to think of a modern American exemplar – perhaps Sour Grapes can help me out). Her blog writing is the same, although the desire to not soar keeps her chained to mundanity. Paula seems to have a fear of stretching herself and excelling. She seems to much prefer being queen of the kaffeeklatsch to the more serious work of noticing and remarking.

In my view, A slight delay is a beautifully observed piece. You feel Paula has looked at these people at some point and understood them. Her theme of powerlessness is well presented: we are all familiar with authority that makes seemingly senseless demands that it doesn’t feel an obligation to explain (and how appropriate this theme is right now). And Lisa is the perfect “little man” (sorry but he’s nearly always a man in the tradition of this type of story), struggling to swim in a tide of bullshit. She is wonderfully defiant. This is where Paula excels: quickly and deftly building a character. I definitely found myself rooting for her.

In places, the writing is a bit loose. It’s tempting to lean on stock phrases to help the reader along but it’s a temptation that should be ignored, and sometimes tauter is better. I’ll try to show a couple of places where I felt that was true.




A Slight Delay

Something shifted and she glanced up from her book.

“Something shifted” sounds a smidgen odd. I’d just start with “She glanced up from her book.” The question the reader asks is “what has made her do that?” so we don’t need to have answered it already.

The train had
stopped, though they were miles from the next station.

I prefer “although” for euphony here. But “though” is okay.

The blonde
seated across

“from her” is needed her. “Seated” is not always comfortable for “sitting” and I’d try to avoid it, because it implies she was seated there by someone else, as in “At the restaurant, the maitre d’ seated me by the window.” Better to say simply “The blonde opposite” anyway.

stared ahead vacantly as she fiddled with a music pod in
her lap.

I don’t think “music pod” is a thing. It’s an “MP3 player” or an “iPod”.

Here’s an example of a place where tighter would be better. I’d write “The blonde opposite fiddled with her iPod, expressionless” or similar. Allow the description to suggest the vacancy, rather than say she did something vacantly. Or …iPod, her face blank. Something like that.

A wire dangled down the side of her face.

As they do. Cut this sentence. It won’t be missed at all.


Lisa pulled her
phone from her purse to check the time and a guard was immediately by
her side.

In American writing particularly you must put a comma before “and”. Even I would because here you create something that doubtless has a Greek name that I don’t know, similar to a zeugma. (“I caught the train and a heavy cold” is a zeugma: the word “caught” has to be used in two senses for the two things conjoined. “He married in haste and a tuxedo” is another. You get the idea. Fowler called these “unequal yokefellows”. Here the sentence says that she pulled the phone from her purse to check the time and to check a guard… Simply, “and” misdirects the reader and this misdirection is easily fixed by placing a comma before “and”.) Some would use a semicolon. Not me. I don’t like them enough.

"Please turn off your phones." He said it loudly--for everyone's
benefit, Lisa assumed.

Okay. That’s just tolerable. I’m not sure that we’d know why he said it loudly unless she assumed it for us but it’s close to stating the obvious.

The blonde began to frown.


I think you either frown or you don’t and then you are frowning. If you say “the blonde frowned”, it sort of implies that she frowned and then stopped frowning, but it can’t be helped; one just doesn’t usually say “began to frown”. You could begin a frown and then stop before you were frowning.

"Excuse me?" Lisa strained to look up at his face. He wore sunglasses
even though dusk had fallen and the windows made a weak patchwork of
lavender light. Trees swayed in the distance, shrugging their bare
arms against the chill.

Okay. Nice try but do you shrug your arms against the chill or do you hug them around yourself?


"Why can't I use my phone? We were delayed
last week and I--"

"We ask that all electronics be shut off temporarily." The guard
stepped back a few feet and Lisa couldn't see him without twisting in
her seat.

The blonde took out her earpiece and dropped it on her lap.

"In her lap".

"What's going on?"

"I have no idea." Lisa slid her phone back into its pocket without
shutting it off. It would ring silently anyway, if at all. Would Jim
call if she were late?

"If she was late".

Use “if she were” for those times that she cannot conceivably be late and “if she was” for possible states that have not yet arrived. So “If I was to call you at six, would that be okay?” and “If I were to call you, I’d give you a piece of my mind” (but I won’t ever call you).

Probably not. He would simply assume she had
stood him up; he had already expressed little confidence in an
Internet date. The guard's footsteps receded.

I think in most trains that I use you would not hear his footsteps on account of the carpeting or because the floor just isn't made of a very "noisy" material.

"But I have to pick up my kid. Hey!" the blonde shouted at the guard.
"How long are we going to be stuck here?"

His footsteps approached. "We'll be back on schedule as soon as
possible, ma'am. We apologize for any inconvenience."

The blonde leaned toward Lisa. "What does that mean? Do you think
there's been a, you know, an attack?"

"Maybe," Lisa said. "It could be anything. They won't tell us. They
never do anymore.

Two words.

But this is the first time they said no
electronics."

“they’ve said” is natural. Try saying it out loud.

"Shit. My babysitter charges a dollar a minute if I come after six."

I really like how Paula has made us see these characters. There might have been a terrorist attack, or some other catastrophe, or whatever, but this girl’s mind turns to the financial implications (and not whether her child is safe and so on).

Lisa wondered how many passengers were on the train. Not many, she
figured. Next stop was the end of the line. Had there been an attack
nearby? Was an insidious cloud of gas

I don’t think gas can ever not be “insidious” in this sense.

And why does she wonder how many passengers are on the train? This doesn't seem to go anywhere.

on its way right now to choke
them, or worse? This would be a good time--she had totally fucked up
the third quarter reports. Lisa allowed herself a wry smile.

“allow yourself a wry smile” is a horrid cliché. Smiles should never be wry. Could you describe a wry smile? I couldn’t. I just know what the writer is expressing when they say that. I don’t even know that there actually is a face that corresponds to the description.

Tonight
wouldn't necessarily be a bad night to die.

Love it.


"And I don't even know what I'm going to do at Christmas," whined the
blonde. "She insists on taking two weeks off. Who does that? I can't
bring him to work with me. God."

Love this too.


Making a sympathetic noise

Not sure about this, although it does convey that she isn’t actually sympathetic.

, Lisa tried to figure out where the guard
was. She stood, crouching slightly so her head wouldn't be visible
over the seats.

She would look weird doing that, unless the seats were very high.

He was nowhere to be seen. She stood fully

“straightened up” gives the same idea a bit less awkwardly.

, grabbed
her purse, and stepped to the aisle.

“into the aisle”

As she walked to one end of the
car,

“the end of the car”. “The end” is obviously “one end” and is idiomatic.

she spied the guard's back in the next car

lose “car”.

I don't really like "spied" because it's a bit, erm, jolly, but I suppose it's okay.

, apparently talking to
seated passengers.

Just say “talking”. We understand that that’s what’s apparent to Lisa rather than necessarily the case, because we have Lisa’s POV.

Lisa abruptly turned and strode to the opposite
end.


“the other end of the carriage”.

Only the two women were in this car.


What two women? Do you mean Lisa and the blonde? I’d just cut this. Make it clear earlier in the piece that they are the only people in the car. "The blonde opposite, her only company in the car..." maybe.

Lisa pulled out her phone
and found Jim's number in the address book.

"They've blacked out the news and put on a dance marathon," he told
her. "I'm watching it at the bar."

"I'm thinking just to sneak out the door and get off," she whispered.
"I think we're near the mall.

I’m not sure why she thinks that.

I can walk over to Twelfth and get a
taxi."

Do you not say “take a cab” rather than “get a taxi”? I do and I’d find it odd to hear anything different because it’s the idiom.

I love though that he has more or less confirmed that something is going on (although not necessarily connected with her train) and she is still more worried about her date than anything else.

"That's crazy, Lisa. It's dark out. You can't walk across a field.
Don't worry about being late. We can skip the movie and-- "

"I'm not worried about our date," she hissed. "I just want to get the
hell off this train!"

Neatly expressing that they aren’t going to get along too well.


"I thought you were sensible."

LOL! It’s exactly what the dork would say, and you know she’s not going to like it.

Jim's voice held a note of reproach.

Yes, we know. The words reproached her. Avoid telling what you’ve just shown.

"In all these weeks we've chatted I never considered you a drama
queen. Just stay put and everything will be okay."

"How can you possibly know that?" Lisa ended the call before he could
answer.

I’ll bet she did. “Drama queen” is not what you call someone you want to have a nice date with.

Really, she didn't know why she had thought she liked him in
the first place.

The door opposite slid open and Lisa quickly tucked the phone in

“into”

her
coat pocket. She turned and pretended she had been gazing out the
window. Perhaps she should stay put. Be a good cooperative little
citizen.

You need more commas in there.

After all, she wasn't one of the Bad People, so there was
nothing to fear. Not from the guards anyway.

"You forgot your book."

Lisa turned to see the blonde holding her novel. "Thanks."

"What's it about? I never heard of it."

"A prison break, of sorts." Lisa smiled, taking the book.
"Metaphorically speaking. It's mostly about a divorce."

"Oh," the blonde said, nodding enthusiastically. "I'm divorced. What a
nightmare that was. But I got full custody and he has to pay, so it
all worked out."

"Great," Lisa murmured.

LOL. I can hear that! This exchange was so nicely observed that I smiled inside. This is exactly what a writer should do. You don’t need to make your characters do weird and wonderful things. You need to make them do what you have noticed people do.

The guard slipped through the door and strode toward their end of the
car.

Too much “striding” going on. Have him shuffle or creep or just walk, something that says what kind of guy he is, maybe. If he slouched, we’d form an idea. It’s just a case of using the word, making it work a bit.

"Please take a seat, folks. We'll be here a while longer." He had
taken off his shades and his eyes were dead coals.

Another cliché. Next time you see eyes that you think are like dead coals, think of another way to say it. Note it and use it when you’re tempted to go for “dead coals”.

Why don’t I like it? Eyes are all too often described as things that can be on fire, that smoulder, that burn, and so on. Avoid overworked metaphors and find fresh ones.

The women sat down next to the door.

Okay. I had to think a bit to work out that the blonde hadn’t just handed the book from her seat. So go back and say that she turned to see that the blonde had come over to hand her her book.

Lisa felt her phone slide out of
her pocket and heard it clunk on the floor.

"How much longer?" the blonde demanded. "What's happening?"

"We apologize for the inconvenience," the guard intoned methodically.

I don’t think you have to say “methodically” because if he “intones” it, I have the right impression.

"There's been a slight delay and we'll be back on schedule as soon as
possible. Excuse me, please." He punched in a code, shoved open the
rear door, and walked into the next car.

"What an asshole," the blonde said. "You'd think he could tell us something."

"They're not allowed." Lisa stuck her foot in the door the guard just
vacated, preventing it from closing completely.

He didn’t “vacate” the door, because “vacate” means “empty” and by extension “leave”. Just say “left through” instead. And you need to say “had just left through”. Prior actions require the past perfect.

"Still." The blonde pouted and turned to the window.

Lisa likewise stared at the black square. The trees were still out
there, somewhere.

No comma needed there.

Could she walk across a field in the dark, wearing
heels? The guard was gone from view now, swallowed up by the next car.
Rain began

“began to fall”. Or better “Rain began to plop solidly on…” You don’t need “down”. Rain doesn’t plop up.

, plopping solidly down on the train's roof like fat worms
splattering down from a dirty heaven.

You actually need to write “on the train’s roof, the drops like fat worms…” I know it seems neater to say that the rain is like fat worms but it doesn’t really work. You could say “in fat worms…” if you want a trimmer sentence. Metaphors do not demand “like” if they are clear enough. We know the rain is not really made of worms. Compare “her smile a red river in her face” with “her smile like a red river in her face”. The former is wonderfully trim but has nothing that is needed left out.

“Splattering”, by the way, is what raindrops do when they land, not how they fall. You cannot “splatter down”. Why not say “, spattering solidly on the train’s roof, fat worms plopped down from a dirty heaven”?

Note that I changed your “-ing” word to a “-ed” word. Why? Because you are not comparing the “plopping” thing with the “spattering” thing, but with a thing that has also plopped, having “spattered”.

"One, two, three…"

Perhaps I would have liked a slightly stronger resolution though. I think that in common with others, you went for short and sweet where more would have been a bit sweeter. I dunno though. I don’t feel as strongly about it here as I did with some others.


I repost the whole story below. The copyright remains with the author, whose moral right to be identified as the author I affirm by attaching her name.


A Slight Delay

Something shifted and she glanced up from her book. The train had
stopped, though they were miles from the next station. The blonde
seated across stared ahead vacantly as she fiddled with a music pod in
her lap. A wire dangled down the side of her face. Lisa pulled her
phone from her purse to check the time and a guard was immediately by
her side.

"Please turn off your phones." He said it loudly--for everyone's
benefit, Lisa assumed. The blonde began to frown.

"Excuse me?" Lisa strained to look up at his face. He wore sunglasses
even though dusk had fallen and the windows made a weak patchwork of
lavender light. Trees swayed in the distance, shrugging their bare
arms against the chill. "Why can't I use my phone? We were delayed
last week and I--"

"We ask that all electronics be shut off temporarily." The guard
stepped back a few feet and Lisa couldn't see him without twisting in
her seat.

The blonde took out her earpiece and dropped it on her lap. "What's going on?"

"I have no idea." Lisa slid her phone back into its pocket without
shutting it off. It would ring silently anyway, if at all. Would Jim
call if she were late? Probably not. He would simply assume she had
stood him up; he had already expressed little confidence in an
Internet date. The guard's footsteps receded.

"But I have to pick up my kid. Hey!" the blonde shouted at the guard.
"How long are we going to be stuck here?"

His footsteps approached. "We'll be back on schedule as soon as
possible, ma'am. We apologize for any inconvenience."

The blonde leaned toward Lisa. "What does that mean? Do you think
there's been a, you know, an attack?"

"Maybe," Lisa said. "It could be anything. They won't tell us. They
never do anymore. But this is the first time they said no
electronics."

"Shit. My babysitter charges a dollar a minute if I come after six."

Lisa wondered how many passengers were on the train. Not many, she
figured. Next stop was the end of the line. Had there been an attack
nearby? Was an insidious cloud of gas on its way right now to choke
them, or worse? This would be a good time--she had totally fucked up
the third quarter reports. Lisa allowed herself a wry smile. Tonight
wouldn't necessarily be a bad night to die.

"And I don't even know what I'm going to do at Christmas," whined the
blonde. "She insists on taking two weeks off. Who does that? I can't
bring him to work with me. God."

Making a sympathetic noise, Lisa tried to figure out where the guard
was. She stood, crouching slightly so her head wouldn't be visible
over the seats. He was nowhere to be seen. She stood fully, grabbed
her purse, and stepped to the aisle. As she walked to one end of the
car, she spied the guard's back in the next car, apparently talking to
seated passengers. Lisa abruptly turned and strode to the opposite
end. Only the two women were in this car. Lisa pulled out her phone
and found Jim's number in the address book.

"They've blacked out the news and put on a dance marathon," he told
her. "I'm watching it at the bar."

"I'm thinking just to sneak out the door and get off," she whispered.
"I think we're near the mall. I can walk over to Twelfth and get a
taxi."

"That's crazy, Lisa. It's dark out. You can't walk across a field.
Don't worry about being late. We can skip the movie and-- "

"I'm not worried about our date," she hissed. "I just want to get the
hell off this train!"

"I thought you were sensible." Jim's voice held a note of reproach.
"In all these weeks we've chatted I never considered you a drama
queen. Just stay put and everything will be okay."

"How can you possibly know that?" Lisa ended the call before he could
answer. Really, she didn't know why she had thought she liked him in
the first place.

The door opposite slid open and Lisa quickly tucked the phone in her
coat pocket. She turned and pretended she had been gazing out the
window. Perhaps she should stay put. Be a good cooperative little
citizen. After all, she wasn't one of the Bad People, so there was
nothing to fear. Not from the guards anyway.

"You forgot your book."

Lisa turned to see the blonde holding her novel. "Thanks."

"What's it about? I never heard of it."

"A prison break, of sorts." Lisa smiled, taking the book.
"Metaphorically speaking. It's mostly about a divorce."

"Oh," the blonde said, nodding enthusiastically. "I'm divorced. What a
nightmare that was. But I got full custody and he has to pay, so it
all worked out."

"Great," Lisa murmured.

The guard slipped through the door and strode toward their end of the
car. "Please take a seat, folks. We'll be here a while longer." He had
taken off his shades and his eyes were dead coals.

The women sat down next to the door. Lisa felt her phone slide out of
her pocket and heard it clunk on the floor.

"How much longer?" the blonde demanded. "What's happening?"

"We apologize for the inconvenience," the guard intoned methodically.
"There's been a slight delay and we'll be back on schedule as soon as
possible. Excuse me, please." He punched in a code, shoved open the
rear door, and walked into the next car.

"What an asshole," the blonde said. "You'd think he could tell us something."

"They're not allowed." Lisa stuck her foot in the door the guard just
vacated, preventing it from closing completely.

"Still." The blonde pouted and turned to the window.

Lisa likewise stared at the black square. The trees were still out
there, somewhere. Could she walk across a field in the dark, wearing
heels? The guard was gone from view now, swallowed up by the next car.
Rain began, plopping solidly down on the train's roof like fat worms
splattering down from a dirty heaven.

"One, two, three…"

Paula Light 2006

Workshop: Gretel

When I am editing, the easiest thing to do is to fix a writer’s errors in English. It’s no problem to make them write properly because most often a way to express themselves makes itself obvious (I don’t say the way because dissimilarly to some other editors, I don’t feel there is only one way to say a thing).

What is difficult though is to fix tone. By tone, I do not mean register. If someone’s language is inappropriate to the setting or context, that’s not difficult to put right. If they are not formal enough, for instance, you choose a more formal structure, a stiffer word. An instance in Sal’s piece is this: “So were the stations,
once you got beneath ground.” Given that she is aiming for at least well-styled English, that “got” should be “were”. (Not the only problem with that sentence, which was uncharacteristically bad.)

What I mean is that a piece has feel: it does not just convey an action but it conveys a sense of that action. Stories say something. The good short story makes an observation of how we are, but at the same time how we feel about how we are. Often, a piece of short fiction is a sharp piece of moral judgement; other times, it presents questions rather than answers. Either way, it presents a view. Think about it when you are reading what you consider to be a great short story. It will not just be presenting an observation of human nature; it will be describing what that observation means. This does not entail the story’s stopping and presenting a lecture in philosophy. The judgement, the view, is conveyed by the piece’s tone.

So when I say that Sal’s piece lacked tone, this is what I mean. When I have read Sal’s blog, which I do on occasion but not as often as I might if her writing did not have this… I hesitate to call it a flaw because that seems harsh, I have felt that her observation is good but she lacks engagement. Even in her food reviews, where one would expect passion, Sal is detached. I sometimes think, make me feel what you feel and you would hit the notes you aim for. But how to do it? It’s not easy to put right. It’s the element of writing that comes naturally to those who can do it but is so hard for those who can’t. Or won’t. In Sal’s case, I think it’s more a won’t. I have seen writing from her that has that engagement, and it’s very good. She wrote a piece about her brother that was better than anything else I’ve seen from her. I think Sal has doubts about her writing but if she hit that pitch often, they would be dispelled.

I have to say, and I give the caveat up front that I am not particularly well versed in the genre, that it strikes me that Sal’s unwillingness in particular to make moral judgements will tend to make her mysteries – tales that are often highly concerned with morality – hollow and unengaging. (I am guessing because she doesn’t share her fiction writing with me.) Her slightly flat writing would also tend not to make for good crime writing, which it strikes me relies on tautness and energy to push it along. You rarely want to be able to stop and think in a mystery because they rely on events’ playing out in a way that doesn’t always bear scrutiny.

I would not say any of this if I didn’t feel that Sal could fix this problem and write a genuinely good piece of fiction. I’m not sure it should be a mystery, at least not the Lawrence Block type. And I am not suggesting either that Sal must do what I sometimes do: lead the reader by the nose and relentlessly batter them with my view. (I’ve been writing cautionary fiction, which requires that to some extent. Mind you, I felt this would have worked better as a caution.)

To the point. In Gretel, I felt that here we have a situation that demands a view. Without it, you have a story that can be set out in a sentence. What does Sal feel about the granny’s abandonment (sorry to give away the twist but I assume people read the story first to work out what they think about it before they read what I think)? What possibilities for feeling about it? She seems detached to me, even though she has used the first person. Is she angry? Sad? Does she feel there is a tragedy that we can no longer cope, that we are not supported, when faced with these problems in life?

By settling for what she did, which was neat enough, Sal passed up a chance. It was clever to have the narrator’s observation of the daughter be so wrong, but I found it profoundly unsatisfying. Worst of all, it did have tone! But I found it leadenfooted. The character, the narrator, made judgements, but the author, I felt did not.

It boils down to this: art is not a mirror. A piece of art does not merely represent. The things it concerns represent themselves. Art interprets. It is mediated by the artist and if it is not, it is not art. What does “mediated” mean? Imagine you are involved in a dispute and the parties have agreed to use a mediator. Instead of presenting your grievances to one another just so, you use a third party who is able both to extract the core from your grievance (its meaning, if you like) and to suggest what view the parties could have of it (and how to resolve it). When you experience a piece of art, you do not look at a thing, an event or whatever, you look at how the artist presents it. The artist is a filter and a refractor. You have their spin.

When I look at “art” by people like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, I am distinctly unimpressed. Why? Because when Hirst presents a decaying cow, he presents a decaying cow. He says “you figure it out”. But I say “I already figure stuff out. That’s life. But art is about presenting ways of figuring things out.” Art is about how you could feel, not about what you already know you feel. (I don’t discount the power of art that makes you stop and think “that’s what I’ve always felt about that”, which is a different thing: here, the art has presented you with a possibility that strikes a chord; it has not left the interpretation to you.)

At the same time, when I see a technically correct but soulless landscape or still life, I have the same feeling: there is no art in the mirroring of what there is.



Gretel

Mid-July. We were having an unseasonable heat wave.

I don’t mind beginning with “Mid-July.” It’s sort of a twist on “Once upon a time…” But I’m not keen on reading too much about the weather.

A key to opening a short story is to pose questions for the reader. They will want to read on to find out the answers to the questions. Here, my only question is “why the fuck do I care about the weather?” When I read on, I find out that I actually don’t. It doesn’t have any bearing on the story. It would have been better to open with the scene in the train: “We were sweating…” (who are we?) or description of passengers “Sweat from a fat man’s brow was bouncing from the vinyl of the vacant seat he spilled into…” or anything that a/ dumps us into it and b/ makes us start thinking.

In the second sentence, I like “heatwave” as one word. It looks odd as two. I have never liked "unseasonable". It's one of those egregious words that have, through usage, become part of the language, but defy all reason. A pedant's heart sinks when they see that. It can't be helped though, and it's useful, I suppose, that "seasonable" and "seasonal" express different things.


Samuel Clemens is
said to have said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in
San Francisco.


This is just too clever clever. Did he say as “Samuel Clemens”? Was he reported as Samuel Clemens’ saying it? I rather doubt it. “Said to have said…” is horribly convoluted. Say “They say Mark Twain said…” or just “Mark Twain said… or so they say”

Well, this wasn't one of those summers. The heat had been
in the mid-nineties for at least five days and we were all sick and
tired of it. Sweltering, we all were. Cranky.

Yeah okay. If this had anything to do with the story, I’d not mind the overkill. But the heat is nothing to do with it!

Avoid scenesetting. It simply robs a story of dynamism. You need to weave detail into your fiction, not replace your story with it.

The trains were air-conditioned and cool, though.


Two things here. If the trains are “air-conditioned”, we assume they are cool. It would only be noteworthy if the aircon wasn’t working, so they weren’t. Take care not to tell the reader things they can work out for themselves. For instance, if we are sick and tired of the heat, we are cranky, because the two ideas describe the same thing only slightly differently. The reader is given nothing by the third adjective. The second thing is minor: do not comma off “though”.

I know you think you should. It seems right. You’d comma off “however” here. But “though” works like an adverb such as “lately” or “often”. Do you write “I haven’t seen him, lately”? If you do, stop. (I know that “though” is not the same kind of thing as “lately”. I chose the latter to demonstrate the point. Replace it with “otherwise” and you’ll see it. If you comma off “otherwise”, stop.)

So were the stations,
once you got beneath ground.



I have to admit to chuckling when I read this, if only because I just recently read Partridge’s thoughts on “below”, “under” and “beneath”. To be “beneath ground” is to be buried, and by extension, dead. Use “under ground”, which is the idiom (as in “underground railway” of course). “Below ground” implies that there is ground above you but not below you, so reads a little oddly, but would just about work.

I do not like “so” here, although it isn’t strictly incorrect. I’d use “as”, which is the correct word for comparisons of actions of this type. “So” usually means “in the same way” of actions, and is just slightly uncomfortable when used of states. (I prefer “He is ugly. As is she” to “He is ugly. So is she.” But it’s close.) This is a nice distinction though. I wouldn’t correct it.

I would though correct “got” to “were”. Sal’s writing is reasonably formal and literate. She should definitely eschew vulgarities like “got”, simply because it strikes the wrong note.

I saw the two women as I got on



Particularly so if you’re going to use it again a sentence later! “Boarded” feels odd for light rail. “Hopped on”? “caught”? “took”?

BART at the San Bruno station. I was
headed back downtown to our unairconditioned office. The meeting in San
Bruno had not gone well. The client refused to give us a week extra even
after I explained the circumstances. She'd laid down the law about
contracts and penalties for noncompliance. No, it hadn't been a good
meeting.


Okay. So you’re a businesswoman. But again you didn’t really take this anywhere. It’s why you’re on the train but it doesn’t set you out as a character who… well, this would be “makes the moral judgement you go on to make”.


I dropped into the seat across from them



Okay, I get what you’re saying, but I did picture you swinging on the railing and almost parachuting into the seat.


: the middle-aged woman and the
older woman sitting next to her. The baggage at their feet indicated


that. Don’t omit it here.

they'd got on


Again, I much prefer “boarded” or “caught the train” here.

at the airport, not the Millbrae station.



TMI. I don’t know why I’d think they’d boarded at “Millbrae” and I don’t care.

Their warm clothes seconded my guess that they'd just arrived.


You can’t say this! Because there is the idiom “to second guess someone”, this reads horribly. Just say “confirmed”.


Wherever
they'd flown in from, the temps


No. ”Temps” are office workers.


were considerably cooler than those
everyone in town had been complaining about for days. Montana maybe?


Okay. That’s a nice bit of humanising of the narrator because idly speculating about where people have been on holiday is a thing we all do.


She



Who? You’ve gone from “they” to “she”. Although the sentence makes clear who “she” is, it’s poor writing to leave the reader struggling for sense by using an unclear referent. Say “The younger woman…”

might have been in her mid-forties. More likely she was in her early
fifties, well-preserved and trying hard to stay that way.


I feel this was just too much. She might have been in her forties but she was probably in her fifties… ho hum. It is of no consequence to us, is it? And you are pretty much conveying the same thing twice. Just say “She was probably in her early fifties, but well preserved and trying hard to stay that way” or “she was probably in her fifties but trying to pass as ten years younger” (which has a nice air of judgement in it).

No hyphen in “well preserved” when you use it after the noun. “Well” is just an adverb like any other. It is only hyphenated with the adjective it describes when both are before the noun because of the possibility of confusion with the idea of “well (healthy) and preserved”.


Her traveling
clothes were fashionable, neither trendy nor expensive. Her makeup was
carefully applied. Her colorful handknit sweater was wool

I don’t know why I prefer “woolen” but I do. Yet I wouldn’t write “silken”…

But yes, I’d write “a woollen jumper” but a “silk blouse”. I just do. “Silken” means “silk-like” for me rather than “of silk”.

, not silk or
cashmere. She wore dark slacks and sensible leather flats. She probably
bought her clothes at Macy's. On sale.


Is Macy’s a cheap department store? I guess it is. You are clearly not writing for an international market!


The old woman was dressed simply in a cotton print dress with a
lightweight matching jacket. Her fine, white hair was combed back in
loose curls. A cane leaned against the baggage she'd brought on board.
Her ankles were swollen, bulging over the sides of the canvas slipon
shoes she wore. Her feet must hurt. She looked like a farmer's wife
dressed up to take a trip into the big city. Maybe she was.

The old woman


You could use “she” here.


was neat enough. She didn't have drool down her chin or
spills on her front, but she seemed absent, not altogether there. Maybe
it was the way she didn't look at me when I sat down across from them.

This is horribly informal and won’t do. You might say this but you absolutely cannot write it. You must append “that gave me that impression”. That’s understood in speech, and there wouldn’t be any confusion, but writing demands less elision, more precision.


Maybe it was the way she stared down and twisted the gold band on one of
her arthritic fingers. The fifty-something traveling companion glanced
at me as I sat down, then looked away.


You must say “then she looked away”, because this says that you sit down and then look away. In any case, you need not say it at all. You cannot “glance” at someone without then looking away. You would be staring if you didn’t.

I pulled my half-read Economist out and settled in for the short trip
in.

I think you have to say “back” or “into town”.


I didn't even want to think about how I was going to explain to my
unsympathetic boss why we were being held to the original deliverables.


You need not say he is “unsympathetic”. We infer that from your concern about having to explain.

"Where are we going, dear?"

"Into town."

"Is it time for my school to start again?"

"Yes, pretty soon now."

"Am I staying with Uncle Buster again?"

"Yes. He and Aunt Lois are looking forward to seeing you."

"Are they going to make me take care of my bratty cousins again?"

"We'll talk about it when we get there."

"Who are you again?"

"Your daughter, Mom. I'm your daughter."

"Oh. ... I knew that ..."

There was silence for a few minutes. We reached the South City station.

"Where are we going, dear?"

"Into town."

"Is it time for school to start again?"

"Pretty soon now."

"Am I staying with Uncle Buster?"

The conversation looped again. And again.


Okay. Given that you’ve shown its looping, this is a bit redundant. I’d rather have put “And so it went, the same conversation, beginning again at each station.” Or something like that.


Colma station.

I don't know how the daughter had the patience to answer the same
questions over and over again, but answer them she did, quietly,
patiently.


That’s one too many “patient”s for one sentence.

Each time she gave the same answers to the same questions as
though she was hearing them and answering them for the first time.


Yes, we know. You showed us that.

Each
time with the litany over, the old woman quieted down, reassured, her
questions answered, content.

A few minutes later she'd start again.



I think you get bogged down in here, struggling to express that they went through this routine.

The repetition didn't seem to bother the daughter. I would've strangled
the old woman myself


This is a slightly wrong construction because it says that you would do the strangling yourself rather than leave it to someone else, not that if it were you, you'd strangle her. A comma before "myself", or simply saying "In her shoes...", "If she were my mother..." or similar.


, but her daughter was an angel. So patient.

Again. I’d just cut from the dialogue up to here, I think.

So
unbelievably patient. The good daughter. I wish I had that in me, but I
don't. If I'd been expected to be the good daughter and answer questions
over and over, I'd have taken the old fool out in the woods and left her
to die. Lucky for me my mother is dead.



Okay. So the narrator presents her view. But why don’t I think that what this represents Sal’s presenting “tone”?

It’s simply this: the character has not been drawn sufficiently well for me to be clear whether Sal approves or agrees! Maybe Sal would leave her mother out in the woods in this situation. I don’t know because she has not delineated her character and judged her. Do you see what I mean?

How would I have approached this? I would not have written it in the first person, or if I did, I would have allowed my narrator to be more strongly toned. She would have had something to say about the person she was negotiating with – something stronger, indicating better what kind of judgement she is prone to making. She would have taken a tone when describing the younger woman: the makeup would have been “more carefully applied than I would have bothered with for myself” or “applied in that way ageing women do to try to convince us that they have a face worth painting”.


Daly City station.

24th and Mission.

At the Civic Center station the daughter picked up her bag. "I'll be
back in just a minute, Mom. Stay right there. Don't move. I'll be right
back. I need to use the bathroom."

"All right, dear. I'll wait."

The old woman looked down at her hands in her lap, then up at the
advertisements above the windows. She looked back down at her twisting
fingers, and waited.

There are no bathrooms on BART.

Nice.


The train started up again. Next stop: Powell Street.

I glanced out the window at Powell Street and saw the daughter getting
off

“leaving”?

the train with her bag in hand.



Either “with bag in hand” or “with her bag in her hand”.

She'd taken off the bright green and
aqua handknit sweater I'd noticed earlier


Why do you mention the colours only now though? Better to give colours earlier and use “colorful” here.

and had it slung over her arm
as she hurried up the escalator.

Unseasonably hot weather.


Okay. I’m guessing you want us to think “yes but she’s not taking it off because it’s unseasonable.”

I looked across the aisle. The old woman was still waiting, her bag and
cane at her feet.

Montgomery station.

I put my Economist back in my briefcase. The Embarcadero station was
next. My stop.

I got off.

I looked back in the train car window. I could see the old woman,
sitting quietly. Waiting.

Someone would notice eventually.


Okay, that worked, I guess. I’d have preferred an impact ending. Leave us with a moral, that type of thing.

Perhaps you could note that she is waiting to begin her routine again. This indicates that the narrator has an awareness, however dim, of the destruction being deserted will bring to her world but also how trivial it will feel to the woman.

Also, I would much have preferred not to see the younger woman again after she says she’s going to the bathroom. It would have been better to have the old woman deserted at the stop the narrator leaves the train and for the narrator then to see the old woman, alone, moving off into the distance.


I repost the whole story below. The copyright remains with the author, whose moral right to be identified as the author I affirm by attaching her name.



Gretel


Mid-July. We were having an unseasonable heat wave. Samuel Clemens is
said to have said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in
San Francisco. Well, this wasn't one of those summers. The heat had been
in the mid-nineties for at least five days and we were all sick and
tired of it. Sweltering, we all were. Cranky.

The trains were air-conditioned and cool, though. So were the stations,
once you got beneath ground.

I saw the two women as I got on BART at the San Bruno station. I was
headed back downtown to our unairconditioned office. The meeting in San
Bruno had not gone well. The client refused to give us a week extra even
after I explained the circumstances. She'd laid down the law about
contracts and penalties for noncompliance. No, it hadn't been a good
meeting.

I dropped into the seat across from them: the middle-aged woman and the
older woman sitting next to her. The baggage at their feet indicated
they'd got on at the airport, not the Millbrae station.

Their warm clothes seconded my guess that they'd just arrived. Wherever
they'd flown in from, the temps were considerably cooler than those
everyone in town had been complaining about for days. Montana maybe?

She might have been in her mid-forties. More likely she was in her early
fifties, well-preserved and trying hard to stay that way. Her traveling
clothes were fashionable, neither trendy nor expensive. Her makeup was
carefully applied. Her colorful handknit sweater was wool, not silk or
cashmere. She wore dark slacks and sensible leather flats. She probably
bought her clothes at Macy's. On sale.

The old woman was dressed simply in a cotton print dress with a
lightweight matching jacket. Her fine, white hair was combed back in
loose curls. A cane leaned against the baggage she'd brought on board.
Her ankles were swollen, bulging over the sides of the canvas slipon
shoes she wore. Her feet must hurt. She looked like a farmer's wife
dressed up to take a trip into the big city. Maybe she was.

The old woman was neat enough. She didn't have drool down her chin or
spills on her front, but she seemed absent, not altogether there. Maybe
it was the way she didn't look at me when I sat down across from them.
Maybe it was the way she stared down and twisted the gold band on one of
her arthritic fingers. The fifty-something traveling companion glanced
at me as I sat down, then looked away.

I pulled my half-read Economist out and settled in for the short trip
in. I didn't even want to think about how I was going to explain to my
unsympathetic boss why we were being held to the original deliverables.

"Where are we going, dear?"

"Into town."

"Is it time for my school to start again?"

"Yes, pretty soon now."

"Am I staying with Uncle Buster again?"

"Yes. He and Aunt Lois are looking forward to seeing you."

"Are they going to make me take care of my bratty cousins again?"

"We'll talk about it when we get there."

"Who are you again?"

"Your daughter, Mom. I'm your daughter."

"Oh. ... I knew that ..."

There was silence for a few minutes. We reached the South City station.

"Where are we going, dear?"

"Into town."

"Is it time for school to start again?"

"Pretty soon now."

"Am I staying with Uncle Buster?"

The conversation looped again. And again.

Colma station.

I don't know how the daughter had the patience to answer the same
questions over and over again, but answer them she did, quietly,
patiently. Each time she gave the same answers to the same questions as
though she was hearing them and answering them for the first time. Each
time with the litany over, the old woman quieted down, reassured, her
questions answered, content.

A few minutes later she'd start again.

The repetition didn't seem to bother the daughter. I would've strangled
the old woman myself, but her daughter was an angel. So patient. So
unbelievably patient. The good daughter. I wish I had that in me, but I
don't. If I'd been expected to be the good daughter and answer questions
over and over, I'd have taken the old fool out in the woods and left her
to die. Lucky for me my mother is dead.

Daly City station.

24th and Mission.

At the Civic Center station the daughter picked up her bag. "I'll be
back in just a minute, Mom. Stay right there. Don't move. I'll be right
back. I need to use the bathroom."

"All right, dear. I'll wait."

The old woman looked down at her hands in her lap, then up at the
advertisements above the windows. She looked back down at her twisting
fingers, and waited.

There are no bathrooms on BART.

The train started up again. Next stop: Powell Street.

I glanced out the window at Powell Street and saw the daughter getting
off the train with her bag in hand. She'd taken off the bright green and
aqua handknit sweater I'd noticed earlier and had it slung over her arm
as she hurried up the escalator.

Unseasonably hot weather.

I looked across the aisle. The old woman was still waiting, her bag and
cane at her feet.

Montgomery station.

I put my Economist back in my briefcase. The Embarcadero station was
next. My stop.

I got off.

I looked back in the train car window. I could see the old woman,
sitting quietly. Waiting.

Someone would notice eventually.

Sal Towse 2006

Thursday, September 7, 2006

Workshop: The proposal/Train of thought

Kim’s two efforts cover two different approaches to fiction. The first is a straightforward story, with twist; the second, a mood piece. Regular readers will know I don’t mind a mood piece myself but I think that for the reader’s sake, it must offer one of three things: insight, humour or music. Without one or other, all you have is writing, writing, writing. Does Kim show any insight in Train of thought? I dunno. It didn’t really grab me. I thought it was nicely imagined but I don’t know that it told me anything new. It wasn’t meant to be funny so the humour wasn’t there. So I’d have liked to feel more music. It’s not easy to make writing rhythmical – not so that it reads well at the same time – but it’s a goal well worth aiming at. Some techniques you can use are parallelism (structure sentences in the same way), assonance and interior rhyme, and, if you are careful, metre. I’m not a particularly good formal poet, but I have my own understanding of metre. If I can hum it, it’s metrical. So sometimes I’ll get the tune, and then strive to make the words fit. The correspondence does not have to be tight, because after all, we’re writing prose.

As for The proposal, I liked the twist. The payload was obvious, in my view, but the delivery was clever. I think the story was a bit too slight though. Kim could have taken it on and made something more out of it. How does Hicham take rejection, for instance?

I’m finding with more than one of these stories that the writer is setting up a decent story: creating characters or situations that can go places. But you have to deliver! Don’t be afraid to write the next thousand words. It’s hard work and you fear that you will trail off into useless, directionless blither, but it’s worth trying.


I know that Kim was concerned about her punctuation and detail, which are quite poor, so I’m going to mark them without too much comment.


The Proposal -

We sit, he and I, in the far back corner of the subway car.

“We are sitting…”

Why? Two main reasons. The first is that this is how you would *say* it if you were telling someone: “We were sitting in the train when…” In general, you won’t go far wrong in writing, unless you talk like an android, if you write it as you speak it. I don’t mean all full of hesitations and half-sentences; I mean use the natural fluency of your spoken language.

Writers should read their work out loud. If you do not do this, start doing it. If it doesn’t sound good, it’s not well written.


He led me here, through car after car until he found one that suited him, ushering me into the corner and sitting down catty-cornered from me so our knees are touching.



Let us imagine the touching of the knees. We can picture you from your description: “catty-cornered”.


It is late on a hot summer night on my fourth day in New York.



This is a nice touch and a nice clue.

I am visiting my cousin whom I have not seen since I was a child.

Award yourself a pedant point for “whom”.


My companion is a boy I met when I wandered into an Arabic grocery store. He waited on me, was impressed with my knowledge of Arabic and said I had


a

good accent. He offered to show me the city and we have spent every day together since.



I would rather have introduced him with less background, so we are not sure how well you know him. This gave away the twist.


I am sitting so I can look out the windows of the car

Comma.

Generally, you should use a comma before this “and” in American English. American readers are more concerned about the possible ambiguity than English ones.

and

I.

A bare “am” looks a bit odd.

am letting my gaze wander around the car when he takes my hand. Our fingers intertwine.

Comma.

His thumb over mine, caressing gentling.


Gently.

Actually, I would leave out the adverb. You generally caress gently, and would only mention it were it rough.

“I love you”, he says except with his accent it comes out “I luff you”.


Just write “I luff you”. We know he’s Arab so we get it from that.


I smile, more so at the pronunciation then


than

at the statement


comma. The “and” goes after “smile”, and the stuff beginning “more so” is a parenthesis, which needs a closing comma.

and squeeze his hand.

He is beautiful to me.


This implies he’s not actually beautiful, but you think he is.


His dark curly hair is cropped short and has large, expressive brown eyes lined with delicate long lashes.



Kim, do me a favour. Promise that no character of yours will ever, ever have “expressive” eyes again.

Everyone who reads this: promise it. It doesn’t actually mean a thing. All eyes are equally “expressive” and it’s only a question whether you do or don’t express anything with them. Not that the phrase actually means that or anything else. It’s void of meaning. It’s the sort of thing you read in books, nod and move on. It’s just filler.

We all do it though. But you can excise filler from your writing by critically reading it when you have finished writing. Interrogate adjectives and adverbs. Ask them what they’re doing. What do they add for the reader? How do they help our understanding of the character or the story?

Okay. So what else is wrong with this description? As I noted in Don’s piece, you need to try to make your descriptions active rather than say what things “are” or people “have”.

“His large, brown eyes stare at me from behind long, delicate lashes.” Hmmm, it’s a bit soft but you get the idea.

“He wears his dark, curly hair short…”
“His dark, curly hair frames a baby face untouched by the harshness of city life.”

Well, you see where I’m coming from even if I’m not setting the page alight.


His face is soft, like he has not lost his baby fat yet, even though he is 21. His lips are full and are now stuck out in a slight pout and he repeats, “I love you, Kim”.



I wouldn’t belabour the description. You could just say “He pouts and repeats: “

I don’t really know what to say in return so I smile, squeeze his hand


Comma. Strunk and White would have a conniption at you guys’ unwillingness to use the serial comma.

and mumble “Thank you.”

He gives me


my

hand a tug to get my full attention



Just stop at “tug”. We can work out why he’s doing it. Don’t spoonfeed the reader. Tell us only what we can’t figure out for ourselves.


“I mean it, I love you, I want to move to Iowa with you. I don’t want to lose you in a few days.”

I am flattered and blush. “What would you do in Iowa,” I ask.

“Marry you…will you marry me?”

I laugh. “Do you need a green card?” It was


Is. It doesn’t make sense to switch tense here.

cruel thing to say, but it was


is

the only thing I could


can

think of and I regret it as soon as it is out of my mouth.


But it’s very nicely observed, because it’s what most of us would say. Don’t underestimate the value of ringing true.


His eyes darken, glisten. He has tears standing. He drops my hand and reaches around and gets his wallet out. He opens it and throws a card in my lap. It is a green card.

“My father sponsored me. I don’t need anything from you. I love you. I want to be with you. I have never met anyone like you. Don’t you love me?”

“Hicham…” I say gently. He will not look at me. I reach out and touch his face. “Hicham, I like you a lot, but love? You don’t really know me, we don’t know each other.”

He looks at me; his face takes on the guise of a defiant child.


Hmmmm. Does it? Do you know what that would look like? If you can say what that looks like, that’s what you should have written! It’s much better to say what things look like than what they are like.

At the very least, say that “he scrunched his face up, defiant as a child in the wrong” or something.

He moves from his seat and kneels in front of me, taking both my hands in his and says, “I know you. I am not a child. I am a man and I know I love you. Marry me?”

I look into his eyes and ask, “What is my last name?”


I liked that! It was way obvious what the denouement would be but that was cute.


His face falls;


Period. Don’t join sentences that are not particularly connected with semicolons.

he drops my hands and moves back to his seat. He looks down the car and does not speak for the next few stops. The only sounds are the squawk of the conductor coming over on the loud speakers calling out the next stations and the clatter of the train moving.


I wouldn’t bother saying what the sounds were: we know what subway trains are like.


His cheeks turn blotchy and he rubs at his eyes with the backs of his hands.

I get up, move to the seat next him, taking his hand and leaning my head on his shoulder. “I am sorry, I did not mean to hurt your feelings, Hicham. Marriage, love, it


is

a lot, it is a lot for just a few days, don’t you think?”

He shrugs and kisses the top of my head. We sit in silence until the Astoria Blvd stop where we will step back out into the humid night. The train’s movement rocks us back and forth gently, easing the tension between us.




Take it on, Kim. Do more with it. I like it as a start but I think there’s more that can be done with this. I would have been tempted to have another scene on another train: Kim and Hicham, married with child. How did that happen? Etc.

Still, I will note that you met the unities pretty well. Did I say maximum of three characters? Or three? Anyway, a good effort.

Just the briefest of comments on this next one.


Train of Thought

Red blinking lights, the clang-clang of the warning bell lets the drivers know the crossing arm is coming down, a train is coming. It is music to his ears. He eases his foot off the gas peddle


Pedal. Peddle means to sell.

, allowing him to slow but not use his brake so he is not alerting the car behind him that he has no intention of gunning his car over the tracks. He wants to be here, he


is

meant to be here. The arm comes down in front of his car


period

, in his rearview mirror he can see the driver behind him, annoyed, hands hitting the steering wheel. He smiles to himself….relax buddy, he thinks.


I do like the air of contented slowing down and you do nicely capture the idea that it’s good to be stuck at the lights.


This is his time, between his life at work and his life at home. The only time he has to let his mind drift, to think of nothing and everything. He loves trains, has always loved trains. He likes to let his imagination take over, likes to wonder about the cars – what is in them, where they have been? What does that piece of graffiti mean? Was it put there by someone who rode in that very car, did they mark it so someone, somewhere would know they existed?

He wonders about this a lot. Likes to think about what it would be like to ride in one of those cars, the door open, feeling the air rush past is

his


face as he looked


looks

out at the world he was


is

passing by for a change instead of vice versa.


I dunno. Isn't the world passing him by for a change? As he sits? Instead of his driving past it?

At the crossing


I like a comma here.

he does not have to think about whether or not


Just whether. If you think you could replace “whether” with “if”, you don’t need “or not”.

he is going to meet the ever looming dead line


one word. I'm not sure about "ever" because I don't think deadlines often loom and then not loom.

, he does not have to think about paying bills or picking up the milk as the sticky note reminds him he needs to do from his briefcase.


Woah. That’s a bit confused. Say “as the note stuck on his briefcase reminds him to do”.

He just gets to breathe.


“He can just breathe.”

Car after car goes by....maybe he will call in sick tomorrow, go see a ball game….He won’t…but at the crossing he can think about it…..maybe he will buy a motorcycle. He used to have one…he loved the feeling of freedom it gave him….maybe he will do that…when he can afford it…what price freedom, he thinks, smiling to himself.



I’m actually liking this more now I go through it slowly. What I do like in a story – I’ll doubtless say it a dozen times in this workshop – is true-to-life-ness. This sounds real to me. Yeah, I will; no, I won’t. We think like that. We feel like that. It really strikes a chord.

If a story reaches out and drags you in, that makes you feel good. And if the reader feels good, they’re going to love your work.


As the last car goes by, his mind comes back into focus, he remembers he needs fish food…milk and fish food…milk and fish food….the crossing arm goes up, his foot eases back on to the gas….milk…fish food….motorcycle….. smile


Do try this again, Kim. Get a tune, something slow, soft and soulful, going in your head, and then write to fit. Don’t slow down until you’re finished. You’ll be surprised how little editing you need to do.



I repost both stories below. The copyright remains with the author, whose moral right to be identified as the author I affirm by attaching her name.




The Proposal -

We sit, he and I, in the far back corner of the subway car. He led me here, through car after car until he found one that suited him, ushering me into the corner and sitting down catty-cornered from me so our knees are touching.

It is late on a hot summer night on my fourth day in New York. I am visiting my cousin whom I have not seen since I was a child. My companion is a boy I met when I wandered into an Arabic grocery store. He waited on me, was impressed with my knowledge of Arabic and said I had good accent. He offered to show me the city and we have spent every day together since.

I am sitting so I can look out the windows of the car and am letting my gaze wander around the car when he takes my hand. Our fingers intertwine. His thumb over mine, caressing gentling. “I love you”, he says except with his accent it comes out “I luff you”. I smile, more so at the pronunciation then at the statement and squeeze his hand.

He is beautiful to me. His dark curly hair is cropped short and has large, expressive brown eyes lined with delicate long lashes. His face is soft, like he has not lost his baby fat yet, even though he is 21. His lips are full and are now stuck out in a slight pout and he repeats, “I love you, Kim”.

I don’t really know what to say in return so I smile, squeeze his hand and mumble “Thank you.”

He gives me hand a tug to get my full attention, “I mean it, I love you, I want to move to Iowa with you. I don’t want to lose you in a few days.”

I am flattered and blush. “What would you do in Iowa,” I ask.

“Marry you…will you marry me?”

I laugh. “Do you need a green card?” It was cruel thing to say, but it was the only thing I could think of and I regret it as soon as it is out of my mouth. His eyes darken, glisten. He has tears standing. He drops my hand and reaches around and gets his wallet out. He opens it and throws a card in my lap. It is a green card.

“My father sponsored me. I don’t need anything from you. I love you. I want to be with you. I have never met anyone like you. Don’t you love me?”

“Hicham…” I say gently. He will not look at me. I reach out and touch his face. “Hicham, I like you a lot, but love? You don’t really know me, we don’t know each other.”

He looks at me; his face takes on the guise of a defiant child. He moves from his seat and kneels in front of me, taking both my hands in his and says, “I know you. I am not a child. I am a man and I know I love you. Marry me?”

I look into his eyes and ask, “What is my last name?”

His face falls; he drops my hands and moves back to his seat. He looks down the car and does not speak for the next few stops. The only sounds are the squawk of the conductor coming over on the loud speakers calling out the next stations and the clatter of the train moving. His cheeks turn blotchy and he rubs at his eyes with the backs of his hands.

I get up, move to the seat next him, taking his hand and leaning my head on his shoulder. “I am sorry, I did not mean to hurt your feelings, Hicham. Marriage, love, it a lot, it is a lot for just a few days, don’t you think?”

He shrugs and kisses the top of my head. We sit in silence until the Astoria Blvd stop where we will step back out into the humid night. The train’s movement rocks us back and forth gently, easing the tension between us.


Kimberly Burnett 2007








Train of Thought

Red blinking lights, the clang-clang of the warning bell lets the drivers know the crossing arm is coming down, a train is coming. It is music to his ears. He eases his foot off the gas peddle, allowing him to slow but not use his brake so he is not alerting the car behind him that he has no intention of gunning his car over the tracks. He wants to be here, he meant to be here. The arm comes down in front of his car, in his rearview mirror he can see the driver behind him, annoyed, hands hitting the steering wheel. He smiles to himself….relax buddy, he thinks.

This is his time, between his life at work and his life at home. The only time he has to let his mind drift, to think of nothing and everything. He loves trains, has always loved trains. He likes to let his imagination take over, likes to wonder about the cars – what is in them, where they have been? What does that piece of graffiti mean? Was it put there by someone who rode in that very car, did they mark it so someone, somewhere would know they existed?

He wonders about this a lot. Likes to think about what it would be like to ride in one of those cars, the door open, feeling the air rush past is face as he looked out at the world he was passing by for a change instead of vice versa.

At the crossing he does not have to think about whether or not he is going to meet the ever looming dead line, he does not have to think about paying bills or picking up the milk as the sticky note reminds him he needs to do from his briefcase. He just gets to breathe.

Car after car goes by....maybe he will call in sick tomorrow, go see a ball game….He won’t…but at the crossing he can think about it…..maybe he will buy a motorcycle. He used to have one…he loved the feeling of freedom it gave him….maybe he will do that…when he can afford it…what price freedom, he thinks, smiling to himself.

As the last car goes by, his mind comes back into focus, he remembers he needs fish food…milk and fish food…milk and fish food….the crossing arm goes up, his foot eases back on to the gas….milk…fish food….motorcycle….. smile

Kimberly Burnett 2007

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Workshop: Last Tuesday

One of the first questions I ask myself when I read fiction, particularly shorts, is “did I enjoy that?” If the answer’s no, I’m going to have to look hard for something that made it worthwhile to read. Luckily, I did enjoy Last Tuesday. There were a few misfires, and I had the overall impression it could have been a bit tighter, but the concept was strong and carried me through nicely. What did I like about the concept? Well, it “sounded” true. This is so elementary, you wouldn’t think you’d need to mention it, yet so many writers do not get that if you are writing realistically, what you write should reflect how our lives are.

The middle-aged lech is very much part of who we are (who I am anyway: I freely confess to ogling chicks on the train, and this story inspired me to imagine a bad outcome for that bad habit). Don’s lech was nicely imagined: banal, reaching for off centre unconvincingly, you could almost feel the bald spot.

I’m not a huge fan of the “twist” in a short story. It’s done to death and far too many stories labour their way to an all too obvious twist just because the author thought they ought to have one. (That’s not to say you oughtn’t ever to write a twist: many of my stories have them. But they ought to be organic; in other words, they should fit the piece, not have the piece fit them.) Perversely, I would have liked a more twisty ending here. I didn’t mind how it was, but I would have liked a smidgen more punch. That’s a minor criticism though. Overall, I thought it was a good attempt. (Although I’m not sure that “voices off” – telephone calls and the like – would have been allowed in the classical play.)


Last Tuesday

I never drive into the City. It’s a madhouse: One-way streets, rude drivers, virtually no parking. And those hills! They’re fun if you’re Steve McQueen.

So we know we’re in San Francisco. I’d have liked “but I’m not” here. The separate sentence is too emphatic.

A minor technical matter: if you use contractions, use them. If you don’t, don’t. Mixing and matching doesn’t work too well. So if you’re writing “There’s…” and “It’s…”, write “I’m”. This is not a hard and fast rule but consistency makes a good impression.

I am not. I happily leave the near-misses, burnt clutch plates


Comma. Use the serial comma, no matter what the rebels say.

and irate pedestrians to others. Thus


Therefore. I know I’m probably in the minority here but I like “therefore” for “because of this” and “thus” for “in this way”. Yes, I know the dictionary allows the former meaning for “thus” but good writers don’t misuse them.

last Tuesday I drove down towards


“toward” is standard in US English.

the Bay Area, took a left turn at Cordelia, allowed the freeway to spit me out into Walnut Creek, and dropped my heap in the parking lot at BART.



I’d advise not overdoing the cutesy shit. I don’t like Don’s allowing the freeway to spit him out. It’s just too cute. Ditto the “heap”. One or other, I could live with. Both are too much.

She was in line at the turnstile.

There’s always a she. It doesn’t matter where I go, everywhere, anywhere, out among the random collections of people that happen to be at any everywhere, there is a she to notice.


I think this is a rather convoluted way to express the notion. Because Don tried too hard, he fucked up. “Any” describes *one* anywhere, not all anywheres, so it’s “the random collection” of people. It would have been neater to write “out among the people randomly collected at any everywhere”, because “random” includes “happen to be” in its meaning.

Even if at first glance there is none, she will be manufactured. It’s in the nature of the beast.


I got what Don meant but on first reading I pictured him with a screwdriver, putting together his chick from parts.


But this one needed no manufacturing. She was an eye-catcher.


Take care not to write too passively. It drains a piece of dynamism, and can make it drag. Here Don could have chosen “She caught the eye”, avoiding the copula. Bear in mind that the verb to be often doesn’t contribute any meaning to a sentence.

Not much over five feet tall, in jeans that hugged her ass and ended in rags at the concrete, shoulders back and confident under white spaghetti straps, a fashionable purse under her arm, a sports cap covering a head without any visible hair.

There’s no good reason to despise “and” before the last in a list! I’m not sure what a “fashionable” purse would be. If you don’t know either, don’t write it. If you do, write what makes it fashionable. Drop a name if that’s what it is, or a short description if it’s that. “Fashionable” says a lot less than “a crocodile-skin purse all the rage among the fast girls on Ninth” or whatever (where Ninth is your entertainment district or society hangout or whatever your placing her as). Write “with no visible hair” or “with no hair visible”. After all, Clint Eastwood played the “Man with no name” not the “Man without any name”.

Worse than any of those sins, this sentence does not have a verb. Whereas above there were fragments that did not demand one, this must have one.


And then she was through and gone up the steps


This is close to a zeugma, and in any case is a solecism. Do not make “was” serve two masters here, where it is passably hard to resolve them as the same part of speech, and one can also become confused by the possibility of “through the steps” because you don’t give anything for her to be “through”. It may seem more cumbersome but it would have been far better to write “Then she was through the turnstile and had gone up the steps.” There’s no “and” here. I don’t always hold fast to the rule that you oughtn’t to begin a sentence with “And” but I don’t see how you’re following on like from like.


and I forgot all about her in the moments that trailed away from the swiftly-averted gaze of an attractive middle-aged woman.


I’m not sure about “trailed away from”. “moments after” seems to say the same thing a little less awkwardly. If you’re wedded to “trailed” though, just use it on its own.

Now here’s a rule that you should follow on every occasion and never ever break: do not hyphenate an “-ly” adverb and the adjective it modifies. Write “swiftly averted” here.

Her shadowed eyes I watched awhile, but they didn’t return.


Hmmm. The problem here is that “Her” seems at first to refer to the bald girl, who was “her” in the previous sentence. I’d prefer a new sentence at “I forgot” and then “woman, whose shadowed eyes I watched awhile, but they didn’t meet mine again/return/whatever”. It makes the second sentence longish but that’s a good tradeoff for the gain in clarity.

The platform was crowded, the tag end of morning rush hour.


This is a bit too elliptical because it says that the platform was the tag end etc. Write “crowded at/in the tag end”.


Late office workers and early shoppers and students, all distinct groups, nothing in common.


Again, do indulge yourself in a verb now and then.

I supposed that if I had to be something, I was a late office worker.


Given that you have categorised the people yourself, there is nothing to compel you to be anything.

I didn’t feel late: I’d hit the road at seven and driven two hours to get here. I had a meeting in the Mission that I could be late for but didn’t want to be, and found myself looking impatiently up the track over my paper coffee cup, just like every other self-important suit in view. Soon the train came round the bend and whined into place. From then it was all a semi-polite push–


I don’t much like dashes. A colon would work here.

a few folks were let out, and the rest of us filed in and spread like germs throughout the compartment.

I had forgotten to stand in line on the platform and was the last one to enter that particular door.

“the last to enter”. “one” is entirely extraneous.


I was greeted by an odd view. As many people as got


“had gotten”

on the train, everyone had a seat.



This sentence reads rather oddly and I would routinely correct it to “Everyone who had gotten on the train had a seat.”


No one was standing but me, and there seemed to be no empty seats.


For reasons I won’t go into, I prefer “it seemed there were no empty seats”.

The odd man out, I felt like an intruder at some private party where no one knew anyone, the loser at musical bench seats.


I liked this idea but I thought it was a bit overwritten. Maybe just “I felt as though I had lost a game of musical chairs”.

But I lurched down the aisle with the lurching train


Staggered/swayed… anything but “lurched”.

and found there were indeed not one but two seats


You could write essays about whether this should be “there was indeed” or “there were indeed”. I prefer the former but YMMV.

as yet unoccupied. One’s mate was filled by an old guy in a Cal sweatshirt, and the other by the bald-headed girl I’d seen downstairs. I sat by her. Which would you?


Which would you what? You cannot elide the verb here because it reads rather awkwardly. “Which would you sit in?/Which would you choose?” Better not to say anything though, because you ought not to assume you are writing for a man. Women also read, so I’m told.


In my youth I was very shy. Rarely talked to anyone, almost never to anyone I didn’t know, and absolutely never to anyone I didn’t know who was also female and good-looking.


This is a bit too much and I wouldn’t bother with it.

In the two seconds between spying her and sitting next to her I added to my internalized description


“picture”. “internalized description” is painful.

of her that she had a pretty face, beautiful eyes,


and

absolutely no hair on her head


comma

and was not diminutive at all where it really counts.


Not everyone is tit obsessed! I like though that you have painted this picture of a particular kind of guy. Your narrator is a bit of a creep and that makes the denouement work well.


Very good-looking, in other words; and I still winced at ancient memories, so I sat down and said hello.

What middle-aged man striving with the meaning of time, marriage and life would not?


Hmmmm. Well, I wouldn’t. I never talk to people on trains.


It was an expression of hope and hopelessness, all wrapped up into one freely given moment, a moment I expected to use as best I could and then watch drift away never to be seen again.


That’s a bit much for “hello”, frankly.

The last thing I expected was for her to say anything, especially anything such as, I’m fine, thank you, how are you.

She said, “I’m fine, thank you, how are you?”

“Awesome,” I said, more in reaction to the instant than as an accurate expression of truth.

Stop at “I said”. We can figure out why he’s saying it.


“Awesome,” she repeated, and continued to look absently down the length of the railcar. She wasn’t smiling but a neutral contentedness was in her eyes, almost spilled out of them,


Hmmm. I don’t really like this. You’ve had “absently” and now you’re having “neutral contentedness”. It’s all a bit much. Just cut the second sentence.

and I felt completely at ease, or almost completely, as if


“as though”.

A distinction not often observed these days, although it ought to be because it still does work, is between “as if” and “as though”. The former should be used for impossibilities; the latter for likenesses.

For example, “she looked at me as though I was mad” says I resembled someone that was mad. “She looked at me as though she knew me” says that the way she looked at me was the same as the way she would look at me if she knew me. You can see that the usages can overlap here: “she looked at me as though/as if I had a horn growing out of my forehead”. “As if” is more commonly useful in sentences like “As if I would lie to you”, “As if you ever did the washing up”, in which we are not creating similes but describing states impossibly dissimilar from the one at hand.


just this once I was not some creepy older guy, some suspicious middle-aged prowling male, but just a person on the train and accepted as such. I didn’t take this to mean I shouldn’t press my luck.

“Where you headed?”

“Seattle,” she replied.

“This train goes to San Francisco.”

“It also goes to the airport.”

True statement .


Omit this last sentence.

I should have felt stupid.


Comma.

But she laughed. I felt we shared a private joke.


“had shared” reads better because the sharing is done and then there’s that warm feeling afterwards.

“Whatever for?” I asked

“Visit friends. Take some time off.”

“Party.”


Make it a question because even though it’s semirhetorical, that’s how it would come across.


“You got it.”

Her emphasis, and the glance at me, spoke of confidence and certainty. The effect was magnetic.


I think you want “mesmeric”.


“You’re flying up to Seattle just to party?”

“I love that town.”

“Huh.” I was in no position to question her taste.


This, one presumes, is a Frisco in-joke. It’s a bit odd to say you weren’t in a position to question her taste. Why not say “Who was I to question her taste?”, which reads more naturally.


She looked out the window at the sudden rush of noise and darkness that hit when the train dove under the Berkeley Hills.


She did not look at a sudden rush of noise. The sudden rush of noise may have caused her to look.

I looked too and in the reflection stole a glance at the heavenly vista emphasized by the thin straps of her silky camisole. She was really something. I was beginning to think her figure wasn’t just shapely, it was spectacular. Athlete, figure model, exotic dancer – I ticked off the highest compliments a man can give once he’s succumbed to the habit of turning women half his age into objects.


This reads a bit oddly. I’d try to find a better way to express this.

Not that I did that consciously; and if she noticed, she didn’t seem to care.

“You can afford to fly all that way just to party?” I asked.

“I’m pretty lucky,” she said. I thought, okay, rich parents. That’s what I thought I should think. But that isn’t what I really thought. My mind was already turned, and I was pondering the nature of the party and of her friends in Seattle, and just what it was she did for a living that gave her so much free time and spending money.

“I guess so. Good friends in Seattle, huh?”

“Actually,” she said, “I have friends all over the place. I like having friends to visit. Keeps me from getting bored.”

“And you can just fly there. Huh. That’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah,” she said, not quite with a laugh.


That’s a bit too omniscient for this narrator.


“I have a good job. I’m real lucky. It pays pretty well.”

“Huh,” I said again, not so incredulously. “What do you do … if you don’t mind me asking.”

“Actually, I go to Cal. Just finished summer school. I’m gonna blow off some steam.”



Did she just go to Cal for summer school? Or does she go to Cal? It wasn’t clear and the rest of it didn’t make it any clearer. I think the whole studying thing was a poor fit for what followed, and you only popped it in to help push the hooker line. Find another way would be favourite for me.


I had her story all sewn up. Something among the oldest professions – dancing, high-priced call-girl


No hyphen.

, whatever – and she was lovin’ it.


Yuk. Imperialist Yankee dog.

She had the confidence, the attitude seen as high self-esteem by men and as quite the opposite by women much of the time.

I’m not sure that a/ I know what you’re talking about and b/ women do think that.


I imagined her friend in Seattle to be some geek millionaire, her other friends in – who knows? – San Diego, Phoenix, the party towns of the West

Are they party towns? Really?

all more of the same. And going to Cal? Sure, why not.


Question, so question mark.

No shortage of college girls in the game – no shortage of players going to school. For one thing, they don’t need classes scheduled at night.

What the hell happened to your hair? I wanted to ask. The first thought to mind was some freak gave her an extra grand to let him shave her head. What the hell, she could always get a wig. But I didn’t ask. Rude I am not.


Don’t do this. Unless you have good reason, and you rarely will, do not invert sentences, particularly not Yoda style. Write in the most straightforward manner, unless you have good reason to diverge from it. It is not a mark of good writing to get fancy.


I didn’t think repeating a question she evaded was rude, however, so I tried again.

“What kind of job? I mean, what’s your major?”

Accustomed to my own clumsiness, I almost asked What’s your sign? to establish the humor but I didn’t think she’d get it. She answered both questions anyway.

“Business. I manage an office in Pleasant Hill. Some day I will own my own business.


But you’ve just told us she’s a student. You kill your denouement because the reader is stuck on this and can’t move on to “hang on, if she manages an office, she can’t be a hooker…”

Anyway, businesswomen don’t manage offices. Office managers do. If she is a manager, she can “run” an office or “head” an office or be the boss at an office.


Meanwhile, my boss, he treats me really well. He trusts me, lets me go away if the office is running well, nothing big coming up. I know I’m really lucky to be able to fly around like this.”

“Huh. Okay. Office.”

She wasn’t giving up the truth, not to me. And why should she? I was just another slob on the commuter train. She was out of my price range and she knew it. As if I knew what my price range was. But I could dream, I could dream of anything while chatting pleasantly with a bald-headed beauty who got inexplicably sexier by the minute.

The train exited the tunnel, added and subtracted a few passengers at the stations in Oakland, and rushed again towards the darkness under the Bay. Just as we dropped down and in, her cell phone peeped once and then stopped.

“Such bad timing,” I said. She grunted and closed her eyes. Her lashes were long and even.

Tunnel lights flashed by at sixty miles per hour. People read, people stared, people waited. I tried to breathe in her atmosphere but it was no go. I speculated. Three hundred an hour? Five? Full days only at three grand per plus travel? Would I pay for that? Would I, if the money really didn’t mean anything?


This question doesn’t really make sense because if the money didn’t mean anything, the question would not be whether you’d pay this or that amount, but only whether you’d pay.


I guessed that was the best situation for all. The paying man (or woman, or couple, whoever) cares only about the illusion of love and not the money


It’s quite sweet that you so closely associate love and sex, but I don’t think anyone kids themselves about prostitutes quite that much.


; and the young woman conquering her way across the world cares only about the money and not the illusion of love.


It simply doesn’t enter the equation for a prostitute.

Bully for them all. How shallow. How empty. In this odd disconnected moment under the Bay, how damned enviable.

The train slowed and stopped. Not my station. Hordes of others stood and left. Her cell peeped again and startled her awake.

“Yes, this is Allie. Fine. On my way. What? What?”

A conscious blanket of annoyance almost smothered the alarm in her voice.

“Fuck that. They signed last week. Yes they did. What do you mean, not authorized? Fuck that!”

Now I was alarmed. She was pissed. I didn’t want her pissed.

“Listen, that’s their gaw damn problem. I was there, that prick Adamson, he signed the contract. I don’t give a shit if he wasn’t authorized. Fuck that. Oldest trick in the book. Yeah, I’ll wait.”

The train pulled out of the station. She looked at me.

“You’re not insurance, are you?” I shook my head. “Good. I hate those – what? I’ll be at Montgomery in a couple minutes, why? Oh, not a fucking chance! I have a plane to catch!”

Her eyes narrowed. I hoped she’d never look at me that way.


Well, she’s not all that likely ever to look at you again, so you need to find another way to phrase this: “I was glad not to be on the end of that look” maybe.


“Oh the fuck right. Maybe … yeah … you’re right, if I go in there in my vacation clothes and loaded for bear, they’ll get the point. Oh, I’ll make sure they get the fucking point. What’s the address again?”

She closed her phone, wrote something down and looked at me again. “How very convenient. The bastards trying to rook us out of a D&O contract are right up the street here.”


I don’t know what a D&O contract is. It might have been good, although a bit cheesy, to make our boy part of the firm that has aroused her fury.


The train slowed again, and stopped. I got out of the way.

“They’re gonna wish they weren’t. It was a pleasure, mister.” She rose out of her seat and her smile for me was as sweet as any I could wish for. God, she was a beaut, even with, especially with, the glint of battle in her eye.

“Pleasure’s all mine,” I said, and watched her walk away. The pleasure of that study truly was all mine. Would I pay three hundred? Five? Yes, I thought, yes I would.


Well, wouldn’t we all, were we geek millionaires?


I repost the whole story below. The copyright remains with the author, whose moral right to be identified as the author I affirm by attaching his name.

Last Tuesday

I never drive into the City. It’s a madhouse: One-way streets, rude drivers, virtually no parking. And those hills! They’re fun if you’re Steve McQueen. I am not. I happily leave the near-misses, burnt clutch plates and irate pedestrians to others. Thus, last Tuesday I drove down towards the Bay Area, took a left turn at Cordelia, allowed the freeway to spit me out into Walnut Creek, and dropped my heap in the parking lot at BART.

She was in line at the turnstile.

There’s always a she. It doesn’t matter where I go, everywhere, anywhere, out among the random collections of people that happen to be at any everywhere, there is a she to notice. Even if at first glance there is none, she will be manufactured. It’s in the nature of the beast.

But this one needed no manufacturing. She was an eye-catcher. Not much over five feet tall, in jeans that hugged her ass and ended in rags at the concrete, shoulders back and confident under white spaghetti straps, a fashionable purse under her arm, a sports cap covering a head without any visible hair. And then she was through and gone up the steps, and I forgot all about her in the moments that trailed away from the swiftly-averted gaze of an attractive middle-aged woman. Her shadowed eyes I watched awhile, but they didn’t return.

The platform was crowded, the tag end of morning rush hour. Late office workers and early shoppers and students, all distinct groups, nothing in common. I supposed that if I had to be something, I was a late office worker. I didn’t feel late: I’d hit the road at seven and driven two hours to get here. I had a meeting in the Mission that I could be late for but didn’t want to be, and found myself looking impatiently up the track over my paper coffee cup, just like every other self-important suit in view. Soon the train came round the bend and whined into place. From then it was all a semi-polite push– a few folks were let out, and the rest of us filed in and spread like germs throughout the compartment.

I had forgotten to stand in line on the platform and was the last one to enter that particular door. I was greeted by an odd view. As many people as got on the train, everyone had a seat. No one was standing but me, and there seemed to be no empty seats. The odd man out, I felt like an intruder at some private party where no one knew anyone, the loser at musical bench seats. But I lurched down the aisle with the lurching train and found there were indeed not one but two seats as yet unoccupied. One’s mate was filled by an old guy in a Cal sweatshirt, and the other by the bald-headed girl I’d seen downstairs. I sat by her. Which would you?

In my youth I was very shy. Rarely talked to anyone, almost never to anyone I didn’t know, and absolutely never to anyone I didn’t know who was also female and good-looking. In the two seconds between spying her and sitting next to her I added to my internalized description of her that she had a pretty face, beautiful eyes, absolutely no hair on her head and was not diminutive at all where it really counts. Very good-looking, in other words; and I still winced at ancient memories, so I sat down and said hello.

What middle-aged man striving with the meaning of time, marriage and life would not? It was an expression of hope and hopelessness, all wrapped up into one freely given moment, a moment I expected to use as best I could and then watch drift away never to be seen again. The last thing I expected was for her to say anything, especially anything such as, I’m fine, thank you, how are you.

She said, “I’m fine, thank you, how are you?”

“Awesome,” I said, more in reaction to the instant than as an accurate expression of truth.

“Awesome,” she repeated, and continued to look absently down the length of the railcar. She wasn’t smiling but a neutral contentedness was in her eyes, almost spilled out of them, and I felt completely at ease, or almost completely, as if just this once I was not some creepy older guy, some suspicious middle-aged prowling male, but just a person on the train and accepted as such. I didn’t take this to mean I shouldn’t press my luck.

“Where you headed?”

“Seattle,” she replied.

“This train goes to San Francisco.”

“It also goes to the airport.”

True statement . I should have felt stupid. But she laughed. I felt we shared a private joke.

“Whatever for?” I asked

“Visit friends. Take some time off.”

“Party.”

“You got it.”

Her emphasis, and the glance at me, spoke of confidence and certainty. The effect was magnetic.

“You’re flying up to Seattle just to party?”

“I love that town.”

“Huh.” I was in no position to question her taste.

She looked out the window at the sudden rush of noise and darkness that hit when the train dove under the Berkeley Hills. I looked too and in the reflection stole a glance at the heavenly vista emphasized by the thin straps of her silky camisole. She was really something. I was beginning to think her figure wasn’t just shapely, it was spectacular. Athlete, figure model, exotic dancer – I ticked off the highest compliments a man can give once he’s succumbed to the habit of turning women half his age into objects. Not that I did that consciously; and if she noticed, she didn’t seem to care.

“You can afford to fly all that way just to party?” I asked.

“I’m pretty lucky,” she said. I thought, okay, rich parents. That’s what I thought I should think. But that isn’t what I really thought. My mind was already turned, and I was pondering the nature of the party and of her friends in Seattle, and just what it was she did for a living that gave her so much free time and spending money.

“I guess so. Good friends in Seattle, huh?”

“Actually,” she said, “I have friends all over the place. I like having friends to visit. Keeps me from getting bored.”

“And you can just fly there. Huh. That’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah,” she said, not quite with a laugh. “I have a good job. I’m real lucky. It pays pretty well.”

“Huh,” I said again, not so incredulously. “What do you do … if you don’t mind me asking.”

“Actually, I go to Cal. Just finished summer school. I’m gonna blow off some steam.”

I had her story all sewn up. Something among the oldest professions – dancing, high-priced call-girl, whatever – and she was lovin’ it. She had the confidence, the attitude seen as high self-esteem by men and as quite the opposite by women much of the time. I imagined her friend in Seattle to be some geek millionaire, her other friends in – who knows? – San Diego, Phoenix, the party towns of the West, all more of the same. And going to Cal? Sure, why not. No shortage of college girls in the game – no shortage of players going to school. For one thing, they don’t need classes scheduled at night.

What the hell happened to your hair? I wanted to ask. The first thought to mind was some freak gave her an extra grand to let him shave her head. What the hell, she could always get a wig. But I didn’t ask. Rude I am not. I didn’t think repeating a question she evaded was rude, however, so I tried again.

“What kind of job? I mean, what’s your major?”

Accustomed to my own clumsiness, I almost asked What’s your sign? to establish the humor but I didn’t think she’d get it. She answered both questions anyway.

“Business. I manage an office in Pleasant Hill. Some day I will own my own business. Meanwhile, my boss, he treats me really well. He trusts me, lets me go away if the office is running well, nothing big coming up. I know I’m really lucky to be able to fly around like this.”

“Huh. Okay. Office.”

She wasn’t giving up the truth, not to me. And why should she? I was just another slob on the commuter train. She was out of my price range and she knew it. As if I knew what my price range was. But I could dream, I could dream of anything while chatting pleasantly with a bald-headed beauty who got inexplicably sexier by the minute.

The train exited the tunnel, added and subtracted a few passengers at the stations in Oakland, and rushed again towards the darkness under the Bay. Just as we dropped down and in, her cell phone peeped once and then stopped.

“Such bad timing,” I said. She grunted and closed her eyes. Her lashes were long and even.

Tunnel lights flashed by at sixty miles per hour. People read, people stared, people waited. I tried to breathe in her atmosphere but it was no go. I speculated. Three hundred an hour? Five? Full days only at three grand per plus travel? Would I pay for that? Would I, if the money really didn’t mean anything? I guessed that was the best situation for all. The paying man (or woman, or couple, whoever) cares only about the illusion of love and not the money; and the young woman conquering her way across the world cares only about the money and not the illusion of love. Bully for them all. How shallow. How empty. In this odd disconnected moment under the Bay, how damned enviable.

The train slowed and stopped. Not my station. Hordes of others stood and left. Her cell peeped again and startled her awake.

“Yes, this is Allie. Fine. On my way. What? What?”

A conscious blanket of annoyance almost smothered the alarm in her voice.

“Fuck that. They signed last week. Yes they did. What do you mean, not authorized? Fuck that!”

Now I was alarmed. She was pissed. I didn’t want her pissed.

“Listen, that’s their gaw damn problem. I was there, that prick Adamson, he signed the contract. I don’t give a shit if he wasn’t authorized. Fuck that. Oldest trick in the book. Yeah, I’ll wait.”

The train pulled out of the station. She looked at me.

“You’re not insurance, are you?” I shook my head. “Good. I hate those – what? I’ll be at Montgomery in a couple minutes, why? Oh, not a fucking chance! I have a plane to catch!”

Her eyes narrowed. I hoped she’d never look at me that way.

“Oh the fuck right. Maybe … yeah … you’re right, if I go in there in my vacation clothes and loaded for bear, they’ll get the point. Oh, I’ll make sure they get the fucking point. What’s the address again?”

She closed her phone, wrote something down and looked at me again. “How very convenient. The bastards trying to rook us out of a D&O contract are right up the street here.”

The train slowed again, and stopped. I got out of the way.

“They’re gonna wish they weren’t. It was a pleasure, mister.” She rose out of her seat and her smile for me was as sweet as any I could wish for. God, she was a beaut, even with, especially with, the glint of battle in her eye.

“Pleasure’s all mine,” I said, and watched her walk away. The pleasure of that study truly was all mine. Would I pay three hundred? Five? Yes, I thought, yes I would.