More than a year later–a year of loss, of blessing, of many lessons learned–here we are again, discussing fiction together.
Has your taste in fiction changed? Do you, like me, swing from genre to genre as your life evolves? Recently, I noticed I was reading dark mystery novels with no clear lines between villain and hero. Wonder what that says about my psyche?
We read what we need at the time, I think, either to uphold our current view of the world or to help us escape from it. Have you found that to be true in your life? I’d love to hear how your reading tastes have changed over the years. Romance binges? Never read fiction (gasp)? Do you watch the bestseller lists for new ideas? Let me know!
Now to my own fiction writing–after a long writing drought, I once again return to the themes most deeply planted in my soul–family, the child as observer and the mystery in life’s minute details.
I hope this latest piece stirs something in you, faithful reader.
On a trip to the ocean, I watched the inbound and ocean-going ships move through Houston Harbor without ever once colliding. It was like watching giant skyscrapers slipping past each other on a crowded street, each one on their own path not connected to the others. I didn’t understand how there weren’t collisions every day. Daddy said it was a mystery best left to ship captains.
Which brings me to the hour I spent at the café. My mother was amazing to watch, that’s true. She grabbed plates and carried five glasses at a time, swooping in and out of customers without ever dropping a dish. But that’s not the most amazing thing I saw and heard as I did my homework at the end of the counter that day.
Sitting where I was, I was right next to two booths of what Mother called the ‘coffee and complaining gang’, eight old guys who came in every afternoon for pie and coffee. She said they tipped okay so she didn’t run them off, even when they tied up those booths for hours. Besides, she said, she’d learned a long time ago you’d have to set off a bomb to make them stop talking.
What I learned that day was that sometimes people’s conversations are like those ships sliding by each other in Houston Harbor. At first, I thought they were talking the way a guy does when you’re with your best friends and you don’t have to explain stuff. When I quit pretending to do my homework and really listened, though, I discovered there were eight different conversations going on, but not one of them was with another person.
If that sounds weird, let me just share some of what I heard that day in the Blue Plate Café. For instance, “Those children in that high school must be reading fairy tales if they think that’s a football team they’ve got. I had to leave at half-time Friday, I was so embarrassed.” The old guy they called Mack was shaking his finger as he talked, but no one seemed to notice he’d said anything.
I’m serious—the words each old guy said were just sort of flung out into the air above the booths, with no one catching them or bothering to answer. “If they open one more dance studio, we’ll have one for every kid in town.” Pete’s words slid right past Mack’s and started a new conversation, or they would have if anyone had listened.
“I’m surprised the city hasn’t mowed that yard of Schultz’s and hit him with a big ‘ole fine. Man oughta be ashamed, letting his grass get that tall.” Angus Reed, who used to be the mayor, crossed his arms and huffed. He didn’t seem to mind when no one answered. He just twisted around and glared at the guys in the other booth and then went back to drinking his coffee.
“That new director at the senior center will never be as good as Alice. Didn’t even ask what we wanted to do, just jumped right in with salsa dancing and computer classes. Woman won’t last a month.” That was Mikey, the guy who mowed the lawn at the senior center.
That one was followed by, “How much wheat’s everyone buying for fall planting? I’m ready to drill next time we’ve got rain in the forecast.” Everett McCain leaned forward for an answer, one he wasn’t going to get. Why didn’t he ask again?
Joe Kelsey smacked the table with his hand, bouncing Mack’s fork off his plate. “Gotta be a way we can get the coach at State to teach defense. Worst team we’ve had since ’81.” He crossed his arms and stared out the window at Elm Street.
Before he finished talking, a guy I didn’t know wheezed, “Cough’s going to be the death of me. Doc’s charging Medicare a bundle and I’m not any better.”
The eighth guy, Mitch from the town museum, had to get his say in, too. “Town council meeting tonight. Don’t suppose any of you are coming.”
I waited for someone to realize they were talking about different things. Instead, Joe Kelsey stood up, dropped his napkin on the table and announced he was glad to see everyone but he had to get home to the wife.
One by one, the coffee and complaining gang slid out of their booths, shook hands and agreed it was good to talk to someone who made sense for a change. I was still staring after them, wondering if their ships of speech slid by each other daily, when my mother announced she’d clocked out.
“Grab your books and put your plate in that bus tub. Don’t leave a mess for someone else to clean up. And, honey, if you’re trying to figure those old guys out, don’t bother. There’s some things best left unexplained.”