Guest Post by David Bellin
People say brothers and sisters fight. My sister Agnes and I were always friends. Being two years older gave her a superior tone now and then but never stopped her from playing tag or a game of Battleship or building a snow fort with me.
As long as she wasn't reading. Mom or Dad would have to lift a book from her hands physically some evenings to get her to the dinner table. Teachers learned to keep her in the front row to make sure she was reading her textbook, not some smuggled work of fiction.
Short stories were her special passion. When I was old enough, she'd pass them on to me, confident I would relish them as she did. It was the only time I felt I was working a little bit at our friendship.
She's a high school librarian in Baltimore now, a natural for her, and I landed a junior architect job in Providence. She still continues to feed me short stories, stuffing my mailbox with literary quarterlies once she's finished with them. Do you know how many quarterlies there are? How many stories?
I'm satisfied by a story now and then. It’s like a clearing in a forest. For the rest – well, I had a few vacation days saved up, so I visited Agnes last month.
“I made up a short story,” I said casually after dinner. We had reached a break in the family reminiscing and were leaning back on her couch, stuffed and content.
“You? That's wonderful. Let me see it.” Her eyes flicked around the room, seeking a pencil to do the necessary editing.
“It's in my head, not on paper. I could talk you through it.”
“Even better. Working verbally gives us a chance to explore all the alternate themes. This is going to be fun.”
“Well, the story starts in Afghanistan – ”
“Starts? How far does it go?”
“There's a beginning, a middle and an end.”
“That's so yesterday. Could you reduce it to a tragic essence plus the touch of irony every good story needs?”
“Like the one where a man murders his wife, then rents a room in Paris and broods about it, then rents a room in Vienna and broods about it and then sits on a park bench in Moscow and broods about it, while everyone who sees him thinks he's a successful writer gathering material?”
“Essence, exactly, with irony. I'm glad you liked that one.”
“Maybe the name is the problem. Instead of stories, we could call them essences.” I felt I had scored a point here.
She regarded me the way I imagine she regards a freshman who loses his library card. But then she pursed her lips and looked right through me. I remembered this from childhood. Agnes was thinking.
“You know, it could work.” She thought some more. “We just might take the old formula and update it. Tell me the story and we'll find ways to channel it.”
“It starts in Afghanistan,” I began again. “In a tent that serves as a field chapel.”
“Fine. War and religion. Things can go wrong in so many ways.”
“Our hero, Danny, and his unit have one more week until they go home. The chaplain is praying for a quiet week – ”
“And the soldiers get a quiet week but the chaplain steps on a mine and is killed, leaving Danny and the others wracked with guilt – “
“Well, no. They have a peaceful week, nobody's hurt and the helicopter arrives on schedule to evacuate the unit – ”
“Enemy fire on the way back, down it goes, leaving the chaplain questioning his faith – ”
“The helicopter brings them to the command center where they pick up their discharge orders – ”
“A mistake in Danny's. He has to go back into combat. He's bitter and rebellious”
“ – and board a transport plane – ”
“Mechanical trouble? Drunken pilot?”
“ – going to the air force base in Germany where they can catch a plane for the States.”
She clapped her hands. “I see it! A free night in a German city before the flight leaves, Danny wakes in the morning alone in a strange bed. There's a picture of a girl with a hauntingly beautiful face on the nightstand – ”
“The plane for home is waiting for them and they're happy to be on the way with no delay. When they land, Danny's wife, Amanda, is there to meet him, with their little boy, Danny, Junior. He's two years old. He's very healthy” I added, afraid she'd give the child some incurable disease. Instead, she focused on Amanda.
“She's inexplicably cold, right? Moves herself out of Danny's embrace, doesn't meet his eyes, her hair is subtly different than he remembers, a bolder shade of blonde, and her makeup, there's now more of it – ”
“She's a natural strawberry redhead with curls that she hates and he loves. She wears a touch of lipstick, that's it, just like she's always done. Their hug and kiss lasts so long, people break into applause, making them blush. Danny picks up his little boy – ”
“Who doesn't know him. Who resents this stranger for hugging his Mommy. He begins to scream. The months in Afghanistan have left Danny tense and quick to burst into rage. His grip tightens on the squirming child –”
“ – picks up his little boy who wraps his arms around Danny's neck, pushes his face into Danny's cheek and calls 'Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”
Agnes squinted to show sharp skepticism.
“Skype,” I said. “SmartPhones. Kids know what Daddy looks like and sounds like. And you can bet Amanda talked and talked about Daddy every day.”
“Too bad,” Agnes said. “Closes off some promising story lines.”
“The town is dark when they arrive home – ”
“Town? You want a city. Suburbs, at least. A place big enough to need a vice squad.”
“Alright. But put a meth lab on the edge of town.”
“After little Danny is asleep, Danny and Amanda sit close and thank God for bringing him back to this wonderful place. In the morning – ”
“In the morning – ”
“You've forgotten the night! Post-traumatic stress for him, the strangeness of a man in bed for her – eyes, the reader needs eyes in the bedroom, details --”
“Their reunion is fine and for the reader, less,” I said firmly, “is more.”
Her look said Hmmph, maybe you're not so dumb.
“In the morning, his parents and her parents come over. They're all good friends, no conflict at all,” I put in quickly.
“Not even a little adulterous desire? His mother and her father, say? Or status jealousy? One family's richer than the other? What do they do?”
“His family owns the local newspaper – ”
“They use the presses for a pornography business on the side. Danny discovers it – ”
“ – and her family runs a dairy farm. Cows,” I said. I made it a challenge. “Grazing in the meadow.”
Agnes shrugged. There's little potential in the bovine essence.
“Danny goes to work in the family newspaper business – ”
“And meets somebody who was hired while he was away. A young man, muscular yet something effeminate about him disturbs Danny – ”
“ – giving his father and mother some much-needed help. They had been running the business all by themselves. Danny brings some new ideas – ”
“But they're too sophisticated for his small town. Nasty letters to the editor start, Amanda's friends begin cutting her off, right? Right?”
I detected a tinge of exasperation.
“ – including a veteran's page, by vets, for vets. A place to exchange experiences, ask for help, offer help, let out those pent-up emotions. Danny puts it online, too – ”
“Where there's ID theft and Danny is blamed. There's a Federal investigation, the family business is ruined, financial stress shatters the happy marriage for Danny and Amanda. Or – ”
Exasperation had risen above the tinge level now.
“Or the idea is wildly successful, draws praise all over the country, the page is picked up by a national syndicate. That's where you're going, aren't you?”
“Actually, I was thinking global syndicate. Reuters, the International Herald Tribune. Which would you prefer?”
“I would prefer that we get to the big finish.” She leaned her head back into the cushions and closed one eye, then the other to indicate terminal boredom.
“Syndication makes them wealthy and after praying about it, they give most of the money to their church and to veteran's groups – ”
A strangled little noise interrupted the terminal boredom.
“ – just keeping enough to start a college fund for the kids.”
She sat up abruptly.
“College fund? Kids?”
“Rosalie, born a year after Danny's return, followed by Sam, two years later.”
Her eyes were wide open, filled with admiration.
“You sneak! You crafty little twerp!”
I hadn't heard that since the days I sank her navy playing Battleship..
“You faked me out totally,” she went on. “Now I see your technique. You create an opportunity to turn the story around, to capture the lurking tragedy, and you pass it by, teasing the reader, creating suspense step by step until it becomes screamingly unbearable, then, at the last moment, you pull the plug. Brilliant!”
“Well, adequate at most,” I said, trying to hide my bafflement.
“The kids, wow. That's what you've been building to, the kids who rebel against their upbringing. Great possibilities now. Let's say Danny, Junior becomes an addict, Rosalie gets pregnant at fifteen, Sam joins a gang and is shot, maybe crippled for life, Danny can't handle it all and abandons them and the last thing we see is Amanda, alone in the kitchen, staring out the window, a roomful of unwashed dishes and laundry strewn around like the wreck of her marriage.”
I considered the triumph and anticipation that lit her face.
We all reach these moments sooner or later, don't we?
An opinion that I drove four hundred miles to deliver suddenly didn't seem worth a walk around the block.
I clicked my mental Delete button. My actual ending – a seaside vacation where Danny and Amanda watch the kids splash in the surf and envision their bright future – was replaced by Agnes' ending. Not being a real author, I had no pangs about it.
“You did it, Sis,” I confessed. “You figured it out.”
She reached across and tousled my hair, taking me back twenty years.
Driving home, I thought about the girl who would come out on a shiveringly cold February day to help a little brother build a snow fort and I was pleased with the outcome of my visit. The essence, that is.
I didn't bother to point out that the ending to the story, by leaving her satisfied and happy, completely betrayed her fictional ideals.
Sooner or later, she'll realize it. I don't think she'll be too upset.
After all, it's the touch of irony every good story needs.
Endings copyright 2012 by David Bellin
David Bellin is a retired TV and advertising executive. He and his wife live in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Endings is from a collection of short stories in progress. It’s the second story to appear in these pages, following The Wingback Chair in May.
Bellin is the author of two novels: Sherman's Chaplain (“A gem of a book – compact, hard but utterly beautiful” – Reader Views; “Very enjoyable, enlightening, thought-provoking” – Civil War News) and The Children’s War, a novel of Northern Ireland (“Contemporary fiction with something substantive to say” – Library Journal; “Arresting first novel…illuminates compassionate souls on both sides of a terrible struggle” – Publisher’s Weekly)