What If? 71 – The Pet Store Story: Exposition (Ron Carlson)

This is the second Ron Carlson exercise in this book, and I didn’t like the other one either. I remember reading Ron Carlson Writes a Story, and I didn’t quite get it because it seemed he just wrote the first sentence and then went from there. Maybe I’ll be able to do that some day (I pretty much did here, and the result is, well, let’s call it disappointing). 

Hah, I just looked at my notes from his book (library book so I took notes) and I said: “God, I love this book.  It’s exactly what I needed to read right now.”  I think it was the “write what you want to read” idea: “If you don’t want to read the story, then it is not worth writing. ” I didn’t want to write this story in this exercise. I think that’s evident.

It’s interesting I had to work to get more than a few sentences in the first part. This whole specificity thing, describing what things feel like, just goes by me. Maybe if the story mattered, the setting would matter. Sometimes it’s incredibly important how someone feels in a situation; but in the beginning of a story, all that atmosphere is stuff to skip over, I want to know what they’re thinking, who they are, what they want or don’t want, why they are there, not how hot they are or how desolate it is. I must be misreading this becaus I can’t believe other people want to know that stuff, either.

Three part story. 600 to 1000 words. Two people approach a pet store; we find out their recent and not-so-recent history; they go into the pet store.

1. Write one page in which 2 people approach a pet store, any pet store. The duty is to convince us this is an actual place and these are actual people. 90 percent outer story – the day, the sounds, the imagery through which two people approach the pet store.

Lucy dragged Bob by the hand. He hung back, sweat dripping in his eyes, but her grip was firm and she was determined so he knew he was going with her even though his feet resisted. “Come on, ” she siad, “You’ll see.” Out in the middle of nowhere, a sleepy sauna between Morganton and Fryville, nothing here but All Things Bright and Beautiful, a tiny shack that could use some paint and maybe some repairs to the porch, maybe someone’s home back in the Depression but now just a blot on the steamy landscape, air thick enough to swim in. Nothing bright, nothing beautiful, even the hot sun was just a smear muted by the moisture in the air.

Lucy glanced both ways as they crossed the narrow roadway, but Bob suspected it wouldn’t have mattered if a convoy of army truck had been bearing down on them, or a parade of elephants aronded with pink tulle and red fezs. Lucy was getting him into that store, one way or another. He tripped over some gravel that had somehow made its way onto the asphalt, but Lucy’s grip pulled him along. They ran up the rickety wood steps, and she put her hand on the tarnished doorknob.

2. Write one page in which we discover where they’ve come from rrecently and their larger history.

Bob wondered how a brunch date turned into this.

He and Lucy had been eyeing each other for weeks over the stacks in Modern History and sometimes Architecture, depending on which shift it was. She worked in Circulation – high status, bright and chipper attractive people persons, people who knew how to answer any question from “Where can I find Stephen King on audiodisc?” to “Is it true the Periodicals Storage room is haunted?” without pause. He, on the other hand, stayed in Processing, ordering new books and putting jackets and call letters on them as they came in, entering their vital statistics into the computer.

She’d come to him last week on Wednesday, the last day of her workweek, and asked if he’d like to have brunch on Friday. “But brunch, that’s a Sunday thing, isn’t it?” he’d said. “Well, there’s no reason it HAS to be on Sunday, it COULD be on Friday, right?” she’d answered with a sweet smile.  He’d asked Mrs. Strout, the library manager, about her, and found out she’d lost her husband a couple of years ago in some kind of freak accident while on vacation, that she was friendly and a great employee and didn’t have any type of scurrilous gossip following her, which probably meant she didn’t sleep around with other library employees. He was surprised Mrs. Strout would know such things, but was grateful for the information.

As they nibbled bagels and champage at a Congress Street cafe in the wamr summer sun, watching toursts in lobster T Shirts go by, he said something about the afterlife. Nothing serious, really, just small talk, rather than a philosophical exegesis, something along the lines of “That’ll be something I can work on in my next life” when she teased him about his lack of flirtatiousness.

“What about animals?” she said, suddenly very serious.

Sure, he agreeed animals are great, he had a dog once though now he lived in an intown apartment that didn’t allow pets. She pointed out that was his choice, to live somewhere with that restriction, and if he’d really wanted a pet he would’ve found something else, made a different choice, cut back on other priorities. He had to agree, she had a point. “But still, I like animals,” he insisted, feeling it was important.

“You must come see this pet shop, come on!” Lucy cried, and pulled him away by the hand, barely giving him time to throw his pocket change on the table for a tip.

And they ended up here, this sticky desert populated only by the misnamed All Things Bright and Beautiful.
3.  Write one to two pages in which they enter the store and pursue their objective. Either fulfill or not.

Lucy swung the door in and stepped over the threshhold, Bob still clinging to her sweaty hand. They took a few steps forward and the door clicked behind them, leaving them in semi-darkness. “Are you sure they’re open?” he asked timidly. Lucy pulled back a curtain.

As his eyes adjusted, Bob began to see things.  A fish tank, a big one, he thought, lit gently. They stepped forward and looked at the tank, big as a refrigerator turned on its side. Not fish. People. Tiny people. People the size of a grain of rice. Buildings the size of a pack of cigarettes. Cars the size of thimbles. The little rice-people going about their business, obviously intent on whatever it was they were doing – driving, walking, going into buildings, coming out, talking to each other, walking in pairs and threesomes, a cluster of people on a coaster-sized hill, under tiny trees. Bob bent closer and peered at the person nearest him, a tiny man dressed in a tiny business suit carrying a tiny briefcase. No doubt going to a tiny business meeting to sell tiny products.

“What is it?” Bob whispered.

“The afterlife,” said Lucy.

He snapped his head around to look at her. “What are you talking about?”

But she was gone.

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