Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Short Story: LIFE OF SLICE

This was an odd story-writing experience for me because it started out as my attempt to kill time while bored. I wrote the first line, just to have something to do while waiting for something to happen on my computer and just kept going. I know I stopped for some coffee, ignored the work I was supposed to be doing and finished the story. Looking back, it was the first "Blank screen just GO!" story I wrote, the precursor of almost all my subsequent flash fiction.


            Think of this as a movie with the wrong characters. I don't mean the wrong actors, the wrong characters. You might be thinking that it's impossible for a movie, a totally fabricated illusion, to have the wrong characters. That might be true, but the fact is, movies try to imitate Life and Life sometimes has the wrong characters in it. Do you remember the Kennedy assassination? Jack? Didn't you get the sense that Oswald, that weasel-faced punk, was just wrong as Jack's killer? Like he didn't match up? On one side, a young, dynamic rogue of a family man, leader of the Free World and on the other, this Sad Sack of a loser. Really, this jerk killed President Jack?
            Maybe that's why people just can't get let go of the deed: the sense of utter wrongness they feel about its characters.
            What I'm about to tell you has the same feeling. The characters in it are wrong for the story. It's not anybody's fault, it's just the way things turned out.
            Since I started along the movie metaphor line, I'll continue. The cast of characters consists of four people, or maybe five. (I'll explain.) The main character is Vanda, a young lady in her mid-twenties who's vivacious, friendly, energetic, and attractive, but not beautiful, more like wholesome, girl-next-door type. (For casting directors, think Sandra Bullock). The kind of girl that doesn't cause men's heads to snap around as she walks by, nor do they stare long and hard at. More the type that causes men to smile softly, not cruelly like when the guy looks at a woman thinking she's lovely only to find out she's actually a dog, but with a certain warm expression, like he's reminded of a little sister or a favorite cousin.
            The other principal characters are Deke and Byron. They too are wrong; you'll see. Deke is a large, broad-shouldered young man, with delicate hands and, at best, a bland personality. (Casting Director: think young, secondary actor, maybe minor TV star.) Now bland is actually good, but no one admits to it. Bland personalities, those without sharp edges, are warm and comforting, steady and dependable. Bland personalities are the glue that hold together families, committees, organizations and friends. You can always count on them and every group has one or two. So Deke has the bland personality that is supposed to hold this little circle of friends together.
            His opposite is Byron, a small, handsome chap, with sharp wit and nonchalant viciousness. (Mr./Ms. Casting Director: Jerry Seinfeld with a manic edge, someone like that.) The kind of guy who could go from humor to cutting sarcasm within the same sentence and, even after embarrassing you, could still make you think he was being impersonal. These sharp-witted people are quietly feared, for they are aggressors when sensing weakness and almost impossible to harm in their own game. They really aren't invited: they are tolerated.
            There is another character, but he doesn't ever appear in the story, so forget casting. His name is Mike. A perfectly ordinary name for a perfectly unordinary man. Lawyer, stockbroker, former Olympic athlete, patent-holder no less and the object of Vanda's deepest desires. That's where the problems begin.
            Take the name bit, for example. (These names are real; no attempt to protect the guilty.) "Deke" is a hard-sounding name, reminiscent of a stagecoach bandit or cattle rustler. Here it's the moniker of a guy so quiet and unassuming you'd let your sister date him knowing they'd be back exactly 10 minutes before curfew ends. And "Byron" just reeks of poetic sensitivity, of which our guy has neither. "Vanda" is exotic and she's anything but. That's why guys like her so much: she's a pal, a buddy, another one of the guys, so to speak. All her boyfriends eventually end up being her friends, now a virtual legion, sliding away in pursuit of more exotic fare, but always remaining in contact with their good friend. And the unseen "Mike" should have a handle like "Demetrius" or "Alexander", names dripping with mythological might.
            But, these are the names and the story goes on.
            Vanda has fallen hard for Mike. I mean, hard. Have you ever seen a story of a tomboy, skinned knees, wad of gum in bulging cheek, cap on head, dirt on nose, transformed into a lovely princess? The change is usually expanded into a discovery of boys and first true love. Well, that's Vanda times ten. Here's a girl who's had many boyfriends, a few lovers and so many good male friends she can start a four-team baseball league and she's never really lost her head to any guy. Until now. And what a guy, practically a dreamboat in a Corvette (he actually drives a BMW). So what does she do? Go up to him and make conversation, become his pal, use her fuzzy charm?    No.
            She decides to make him jealous. Or at least, make him notice her. By doing what, you ask? By actively pursuing Deke. Deke! The immovable object.
            Sound wrong? Just wait. Deke, as well as Byron, has been a lifelong friend of Vanda's. Hell, they grew up together. There was a time when Deke was just giddy about her, but he never said a word and eventually let the feeling sleep in a corner of his mind. But he always had a suspicion that Vanda was interested in him. So, when she starts to woo him, in her own fuzzy way, does Deke remain bland and quiet, secretly savoring his quiet bloom? No. He takes to Vanda's interest like a caged bird set free and cuts loose.
            Byron can't help but notice. He's really had a thing for Vanda since childhood, but once he saw the pattern of her life (boyfriend to occasional lover to good friend), he reined in his interest, thinking that he could just step back in and sweep her off her feet anytime. He's always been a good friend, but his friendliness was overlaid with long-term interest. (A scene with Byron helping Vanda move could show him checking out her lingerie, for example. Crude, but effective.) So when he sees Vanda wooing and Deke moving in, does he jump in headfirst and try to break it up, knowing that Deke is probably his only competition? No. He makes it a point to make it easier for them to see each other, like using his influence to get them in to trendy restaurants and sold-out shows. And he does it without really expecting anything in return. That's wrong, at least for Byron.
            And the unseen Mike? The vibrant, successful, confident stud? He's so loopy for Vanda he can't see straight. He's actually intimidated by her. He figures her many male friends are a symbol for how demanding she is, how incredibly wonderful a man must be to make her his. Mike feels he's underqualified to win the love of this lady, not understanding that all she needs is for him to make an approach, because she's never felt this way before about any guy and she doesn't have a clue how to make the first move. Is everybody in this picture wrong?
            Vanda: simple and direct, trying deception.
            Deke: quiet, unassuming, now a whirlwind romancer.
            Byron: egocentric, now the Best Samaritan.
            Mike: from overachiever to underconfident.
            So what happened?
            Vanda, thinking herself safe with Deke, continued dating him every night while trying to run into Mike at all his haunts.
            Deke, thinking that Vanda was in love with him, accepts Byron's "gifts" expecting him to ask for payback and starts planning a major wedding.
            Byron, expecting Vanda and Deke to eventually return to "friend" status, actually enjoys sharing his influence with them and starts planning his move on Vanda. It's about time, he says.
            Mike, running into Vanda (and Deke), just melts faster at the sight of her and when he discovers Byron's pitching in to "help" Deke, figures he really doesn't have a chance.
            Vanda wants Mike, but goes after Deke. Deke risks wanting Vanda, but he doesn't have a chance. Byron wants Vanda, but not now, so he helps Deke keep her out of circulation. And Mike wants Vanda, but can't approach her cause he's tongue-tied and too nice.
            Am I the only one gnashing his teeth at this point? Do four wrongs make a right?
            Here's how it ended:
            Deke asks Vanda to marry her, not even a month into their dating spree. The placid risk-avoider, Deke, takes a leap of monumental proportions.
            Byron learns about the proposal from Deke, who just can't keep it to himself. Does Byron withdraw his support, or hide behind his cynicism, or leap into action? No! He congratulates Deke! Honestly! Now Deke, who figures payback time was going to be Heartbreak Hotel time, is convinced Vanda will marry him because Byron actually approves. Where’s his ego now?
            Mike? Poor guy hears about the proposal from Byron, who doesn't see how gone Mike is over Vanda. Does Mike finally use his long-won confidence to spill his heart to her? No, he sends her flowers!
            Vanda, totally confused about the proposal, for she can't bear the thought of hurting her friend Deke, nor can she imagine NOT marrying Mike, doesn't turn to Byron, who’s right there, for she feels it would place him in the middle of a tough problem. And while she's pondering her answer, guess whose flowers appear? Right. Is the card the invitation she's been waiting for? Nah, it says "Congratulations on Your Engagement" in bright golden script (printed in Secaucus, New Jersey by a machine that doesn't care what effect its messages have on people). True, two dozen roses are nothing to sneeze at, unless, of course, allergies are present.
            Fists clench at the scenario. Will it have a happy ending? Will it have an ending?
            Vanda marries Mike. Surprised? Hold on. Mike figures Vanda's out of reach, so he invites his secretary to dinner where they run into... Yup, Vanda and... Byron. Huh? Byron called Vanda because he noticed she was a bit off, but all he did was wax poetic (finally matching his name) about the upcoming nuptials of his two best friends. So Vanda, strangely enough, clams up. The eatery was picked by Byron because, a) it's close to his office, b) close to Mike's office, whom he expects to see for a stock purchase and c) it's not a place Deke goes to so Byron won't run the risk of causing Deke to be suspicious. Isn't that thoughtful? Maybe too much complexity, but it has a simple side, too.
            At the restaurant, Vanda thinks Byron won't be of any help to her and when he gets up to greet Mike, she stays behind (remember: we never see Mike) and, get this, starts crying. The always cheerful, tough-as-an-Indian-scout lady, quietly dissolves in tears. Who comforts her? Mike? No, his secretary, for after all, Vanda might break down, but not in public. The ladies room is the refuge and the site of the tearful pick-me-up.
            Once composed and back at their tables, the secretary (a minor character with a major impact, so Casting Director, choose carefully) tells her boss about her good deed. All about it. We hear a voice, deep, masculine, thrilling to the female heart, say to the secretary that she is to call Byron over to this table. Cut to Vanda's table, where the secretary calls Byron away from his Poached Trout and we hear The Voice greeting a stunned Vanda and joining her at the table.
            Mike, that paragon of straight-laced virtue, fully realizing what the tears mean, has acted upon information learned in the privacy of confidants. Shocking.
            Vanda is not complaining.
            End result of wrong behavior? Mike states his case, Vanda hears the words she wanted to, they get married ten days later, Deke wrongly blames Byron only to realize (eventually) that what had really happened was inside his head and Byron actually tries to commit suicide (pills and brandy, bad stomachache, lost weekend) over his apparent loss of Vanda. Vanda and Mike are deliriously happy, Deke is stoically nursing his hurt, with eyes upon the cute redhead in Accounting and Byron recovered quickly and remains as cynical as ever.
            And the secretary? Vanda got her fired. Okay, another wrong act in a series of such, but can you blame her? You can only if the Casting Director picks a knockout.

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