BAD NEWS: What Happens While You’re Busy Making Other Plans

This is not a happy column. I warn you.

It starts with a call. Not one of those 3am jobs we may use from time to time in our work, but rather the welcoming kind that begins with a familiar hey you greeting followed by an impish are you done writing yet ask. It’s the best friend. Or as I have come to think of her: The Distraction. And her timing couldn’t be better insofar as yours truly was in that awful light of creative indecision. Heck yes, I needed to be distracted. Distract me I pleaded.

Picture the scene: Here I was juggling two essay ideas for the better part of a weekend – one on the Villanelle and another on Noir, but somehow couldn’t resolve which to fully commit to. On one hand was the formalistic reminder that purposeful expression has more to do with restraint than self-indulgence (Villanelle). On the other was the dark and cynical, and certainly erotic theme to capture the imagination (Noir). Again, this chump was a mess of hesitancy.

Which brings me to the point of all this. See it wasn’t long into the call with The Distraction that I realized any confuzzlement wasn’t so much about my column, but rather the identical mixed-up feelings shared in our friendship – a friendship teetering toward intimacy. Seriously, we were a case study in the tug-of-war between relationship (form) and raw desire (theme). Ah, distractions. It’s the experienced writer who knows when to push away, and when to embrace.

This time I knew the difference; The Distraction and I were ready to make a faithful leap. The words could wait.

For the sake of whatever’s left of privacy, I’ll leave it that a secret was revealed in the throws of conversation – a seemingly innocent omission of history, which shattered any hope of a romantic affair. And trust me, neither of one us is easily shocked or unforgiving. Yet we know things happen in the most ordinary hours. How does that John Lennon lyric go? Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. As writers, we need to leave open our defenseless selves.

Always.  In words, in heartbreak.


By appreciating the whimsy of occurrence, we do justice to our words when we explore the incredible randomness of the world around us. In prose or verse form, convey bad news that affirms this truth. More importantly, make us ache.

Excerpt from “Sonny’s Blues”

I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.

It was not to be believed and I kept telling myself that, as I walked from the subway station to the high school. And at the same time I couldn’t doubt it. I was scared, scared for Sonny. He became real to me again. A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less. Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream. This would always be at a moment when I was remembering some specific thing Sonny had once said or done.

When he was about as old as the boys in my classes his face had been bright and open, there was a lot of copper in it; and he’d had wonderfully direct brown eyes, and great gentleness and privacy. I wondered what he looked like now. He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin.

I couldn’t believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to know. I had had suspicions, but I didn’t name them, I kept putting them away. I told myself that Sonny was wild, but he wasn’t crazy. And he’d always been a good boy, he hadn’t ever turned hard or evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem. I didn’t want to believe that I’d ever see my brother going down, coming to nothing, all that light in his face gone out, in the condition I’d already seen so many others. Yet it had happened and here I was, talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them for all I knew, be popping off needles every time they went to the head. Maybe it did more for them than algebra could.

I was sure that the first time Sonny had ever had horse, he couldn’t have been much older than these boys were now. These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone.

- James Baldwin

How Bad News Comes

A telephone rings

like an emergency

six times each minute

in a room down

the hall. I think

of the one to whom

bad news is coming.

At the market,

she touches fruit.

Driving home,

she strums her fingers

on the steering wheel.

She hums with the radio

and thinks of her lover,

the one she’s left

behind, or the one

she will see again,

remembers the soft heat

of his breath, the urgency

of his belly against hers.

This is the way life

insists on itself, his scent

still on her as she reaches

for the phone. Happy

to catch it in mid-ring,

she comes through

the door, leaves her keys

dangling in the lock.

She leans in, unclips

an earring, to hear

the voice on the other end

saying, I’ve got some

bad news, feeling

in that long moment

before the words come,

the difference between

the way it was

and the way

it will be, that moment

before the groceries

fall to the floor.

- Debra Marquart


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About the Author

Stace Budzko has been published or is forthcoming in Blip, Southeast Review, Versal, Upstreet, Necessary Fiction, Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction, Press 53, PANK, Hobart, elimae, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, The Collagist, Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward, Brevity & Echo, Quick Fiction and elsewhere. The screen adaptations of his stories have received numerous honors and showcases as well. At present, he is a writing instructor at Emmanuel College and writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.

See other articles by Stace Budzko
by Stace Budzko



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