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What We Keep

Digital immortality of the worst kind

 

Puck distributes your latest tweet.

(Honor C. Appleton, 1879–1951)

 

These days when anyone may accidentally turn themselves into a cat on Zoom or leave embarrassing objects on the shelves behind their heads, I've been thinking about the usefulness, nay necessity of squelching one's capacity for embarrassment, especially since these things now have a half-life of the existence of the internet.

 

Thus I have been channeling my male forebears, specifically my father and grandfather, both of whom were excellent men but cared very little for certain appearances when practicality was involved. My father was the bane of my teenage years because he kept his raincoat (for the rare California rains) in a zippered plastic pocket in the car, and wore the zippered pocket as a hat when the raincoat was deployed. He also mowed the lawn in an umbrella hat.

 

My grandfather, who was a judge, tended to put on his winter wear with the shortest garment on the outside, sweater over jacket over overcoat. He once appeared at my aunt's apartment in New York in this outfit, plus a deerstalker hat. When my aunt said, "Dad! Did you come here in that?" he replied, "No one noticed. I ran all the way."

 

In these days when that picture of you with Something Awful in the background may as Puck said, put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes, it's as well to remember what politicians voluntarily put on Facebook and then have to take down again (alas, screen shots live forever) and that the one with your bra hanging from the doorknob is probably small potatoes. Sweep the room for embarrassing trinkets and gin bottles, and hope for the best.

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The Plot Hole

 

I have just finished going over a copy editor's suggestions, fixes, embarrassing errors caught, and changes to be argued with, regarding The Border Wolves, the new fourth volume of The Centurions (out in April!) and I am reminded of when my son was about five and I read him Make Way for Ducklings. That was when I realized that even classics are not immune to the dreaded plot hole.

 

     "Why would they go back to that island and raise the ducklings after Mrs. Mallard said it wasn't a good place because of all the bicycles?" my son inquired.

 

     "Oh, well, they've all hatched now," I said, trying to get on with it.

 

     "The bicycles are still there," he pointed out, relentlessly.

 

     "Well, it's a plot hole," I said, giving up, and explained that writers sometimes put things in their books that don't make sense. He was aghast at this, and then fascinated. "By mistake?" he asked. He apparently hadn't thought of authors as fallible before, an illusion I was sorry to dispel.

 

     The dreaded plot hole waits for us all. Sometimes it gets past editors too and is discovered only when the thing is in print. I made an error in Roman naming conventions in the first Centurions novel in 1981 and now I am stuck with it. The Border Wolves contains an attempt to explain it away in historically plausible terms but I wish I had caught it then.

 

     Sometimes it's a corner we paint ourselves into. My Aunt Anne wrote novels and short stories, and during the Depression, when money was short and pulp magazines prolific, thriller serials that routinely left her hero hanging from a cliff, metaphorical or otherwise. In the next episode he would cleverly extract himself and get on with it.

 

     Deadlines and the need for cash often spurred her to finish a chapter without quite knowing where the story was going from there. In one episode she allowed the villains to bind her hero with steel chains and throw him into a well, where she left him until next month's installment.

 

     Unfortunately, when the time came she couldn't come up with any even faintly plausible way to get him out again. She sat down at the typewriter and after chewing the ends off several pencils, typed: "With one burst of superhuman strength, Jack broke his bonds and shot to the top of the well."

 

     My Aunt Anne remains an example for us all.

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The West Warlock Time Capsule

My parents on New Year's Eve

 

It's one of those dreary, gray January days that inclines a person to pessimism. The air outside is dank, the yard is a muddy slough churned up by the dog who is now tracking it all over the house, which needs cleaning anyway, and where did all that detritus in the corners come from, a miserable drift of cat hair, cracker crumbs, and nameless substances.

 

And then the mail arrives, bringing with it not one but two of the coveted green envelopes, checks from the Writers Guild for residual payments on my late parents' screenplays, extracted from various production companies on my behalf according to the Guild contract in force at the time they were produced. These envelopes are like lottery tickets — occasionally they contain several hundred dollars, and once I got one for thirty cents. Today's haul is $3.20 and $17.30, both for reruns of old Alfred Hitchcock scripts on heaven knows what channel: "Back for Christmas," "Banquo's Chair," and the wonderfully titled "West Warlock Time Capsule."

 

This time there is something else in there. I shake the envelope and a little gray mist comes out, gray as the day outside but warm and friendly, like a gray cat. It resolves itself into a tiny black-and-white television through which my mother's image takes shape, sitting at her typewriter, with a basket on the floor beside her, and suddenly I am four years old again. The basket has toys, dime store selections from which I am allowed to choose one every half hour, and play with my mother for ten minutes, if I will then leave her alone to write for the other twenty. It is an excellent system, although it has occasionally appalled people I have told about it, either in the conviction that I was a cruelly neglected child bribed with cheap toys to lead a solitary life, or in horror at the thought of trying to write in twenty-minute chunks, interspersed with conversation with a four-year-old. It depends on who I am talking to.

 

I open the other envelope and my father is there too, apparently asleep in his recliner, in a pair of black pinhole glasses that make him look like a bug but which he believed strengthened his vision, and indeed that treatment did allow him to stop wearing glasses. He looked like a praying mantis in them, though. And he is not asleep, he is dictating to Mildred, his secretary, who typed his scripts.

 

I put the checks in my wallet for the next time that someone is going to the bank, or I get the energy to learn how to use the mobile deposit app, and the little televisions fade out too. But the day has picked up somehow, more than twenty dollars' worth.

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The Story Mine

People ask writers where stories come from, and all I can ever say is that they just are. We are stories already, even if some are inadvisable to tell.

I treasure what I remember of my parents’ storytelling. They were both writers and had been married for seventeen years before they had me, and as a child I always thought of that time as a sort of exotic landscape, peopled with characters who were now dead or mad or lost in some other way.

The Depression era house in Flushing, New York that they shared with multiple relatives and in-laws, all writers, had an interdimensional feel to me when I thought of it. Two enormous box turtles roamed the halls, the residents stocked up on groceries and whiskey when someone sold a story, and the cook carried on conversations with the cats until said whiskey was locked up. My uncle drove my aunt, the only one with an actual job, to the train station every day in a horse and buggy. When a lady in a chauffeured car pulled up and asked him, “My good man, who do you drive for?” he tipped his hat, gave his own name, and added, “the noted author.”

There were always dogs, including the ones who independently charged an ice cream cone at the drugstore the day they weren’t taken for their usual walk and cone, and the one who bit a Senate candidate. Later in California, there was a house in Topanga Canyon with a tree growing through the living room, and a goat that was serially sold to each new resident, a kind of initiation. They weren’t inclined to censor their storytelling for youthful ears, so I heard about night my [relative redacted] showed up on their doorstep with a lamp and said, “[wife redacted] threw this at me but I caught it.” I heard about the wicked multiple-great uncle who murdered his brother-in-law, and about the attic where my father made bootleg beer with a bad-influence friend while his own father, a circuit court judge, was out of town.

Why does their life always sound more interesting than mine? There is a sense of not having lived up to a sufficient number of mad friends and improbable road trips. And yet it takes a span of years for dangerous and not-thought-through to transmute into interesting. Maybe the interesting stories can safely be told only when the participants have left.
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