For almost any writer, place (or setting) is a complicated affair. Of course we can choose to ignore the physical exterior spaces inhabited by character, but then there’s the emotional interiors to consider. Beyond the cities and suburbs, offices and bedrooms are the broader landscapes of consciousness that come with any place. Think about it. When are our expectations ever neutral on those occasions of leaving home for the first time or going away for the last? Conversely, when are our realizations ever met once when we arrive? Almost never unless severely depressed, seriously medicated: both. Given such weighty considerations, it’s no wonder we writers are rarely at peace.
Which brings me to Flannery O’Connor. A number of years back when I was slogging through my first novel I happened upon this terrifying truism in Wise Blood: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.” Full disclosure, this couldn’t have come at better time. There I was baffled as to why my story had no real sense of danger. Or, better yet, no honest fear of loss. And here it was set against the Three Mile Island meltdown in the dope haze backdrop of Maine, 1979, complete with guns, girls, and The Doors. Seriously, it sounded like a good romp on paper. Oh, how far from home was this lost boy. It wasn’t until I came across O’Connor’s line that I fully appreciated how place really works – how place is an active force that reveals the psychological and spiritual crisis of character. That coming and going agitation as we seek redemption. In craft, in life.
Excerpt from my novel Wild Kingdom
These are the days around the time Rick throttles away. It’s April, the ice covering Great Pond has fallen below the water’s surface, and at any moment we will become strangers and grow into our ordinary lives. For now, my brother, JT and I smoke homegrown grass in the basement of our house. Above us our mother does her stocking Stroll across the linoleum while our father is out hustling for Wonder Bread. Rick has made it clear in my eleven-year-old head how the buds on trees in the backyard threaten to burst atomic at any moment.
“It’s a Three Mile Island out there, Hippie,” he says.
He calls me this because of my long hair, which, when her tranquilizers work, our mother cuts like clockwork. My given name’s Jackson. And the difference in our years, seven in total, gets washed away by the fact that I don’t reveal these hours to our parents.
“Amen,” I reply, pounding away on our father’s well-loved bongos.
“That’s right, hombre. It’s all going to light up for us.”
“I think I see it happening already.”
JT passes me a pipe carved out of a deer’s antler. Rick is sprawled on his waterbed wrapped in a raccoon blanket he stitched from pelts he trapped last fall. He looks like a tired Indian, but this is part of his philosophy. It has something to do with getting back to nature. Or maybe devouring it. He is to our tribe as our father is to our nuclear family.
I light the bowl and below my nose the orange whiskers glow.
My pulse is that of a hummingbird.
When we’re done JT gets up and dribbles a tennis ball around an imaginary team of defenders across the floor to the mini fridge for another Old Milwaukee. His high top All-Stars are worn and faded and at six feet he is tall to me. With one stride he could be anywhere.
Presently, his feet cut like hockey skates across the cold cement.
Under the black bulb haze he examines the pencil sketches of our raft laid out on the pool table. Rick and I have spent winter and spring putting the finishing touches on our crude vessel. It rests in the cattails out back on Great Pond. This is to be our summer of independence.
Biting on his cigarette JT asks, “You have any thoughts on drowning, Hippie?”
I haven’t yet learned how to play it cool. I admit I do. Jim Morrison sings out “Riders on the Storm” and at this hour I can hear my brother’s rambling thoughts, “Don’t be, little man.” He sits transfixed in front of the television watching yet another rerun of Wild Kingdom. There on the television is a leopard low in the brush not far from a gazelle drinking from a shallow stream. A sun twice the size as the one outside our window is all that separates them. My brother, I realize, is five thousand miles away.
JT laughs. “As you should.”
Not knowing what to believe, my eyes go wide.
“Dig it. My cousin Bingo found himself in a mother of a riptide when we were on long boards last summer,” JT says, which, as with most of his stories, starts somewhere between a six-pack and a bowl. He licks the head off his tall boy. “Lucky for him, he was scooped up by some tourists in their Carolina Skiff off Prouts Neck.”
Rick, not missing a beat, then asks me what I think is going to happen to the gazelle. For some strange reason, he likes to give me these questions even though the both of us know how it’s going to play out.
It doesn’t take long. I go with the gazelle getting it, and good.
“Fair enough,” he says.
Pleased, I smile.
“Keep in mind, though,” letting out a puff of the rich, sweet smoke of his clove cigarette, “there’s someone waiting on that leopard. He’s not above prey himself.”
At these moments I discover that my brother sees things in terms of the hunter and the hunted. In his wilderness there is possibility. Maybe because he is this way or maybe because he is my older brother, I choose to stick close by. Well-armed, he carries a folding knife to school in his toolbox. He is the most prepared grease monkey in auto shop.
Sliding out of his covering, Rick declares we are off to our raft. In turn, JT says he’s leaving for a pick-up game of Horse. My brother puts on an army jacket his girl Chloe gave him. She’s crayoned a heart above the nametag with their initials inside. He has me prop open the window for the two of us to get back in later. But it’s not as if my brother has to tell me what to do. Afternoons are spent like this.
Choose a seemingly ordinary setting (the basement example above or the laundromat example below) to offer the reader an intimate first person insight into the character and broader worldview. The idea is to hit those fine observational moments of personal understanding by drawing upon the mundane experiences that otherwise go unnoticed, unlearned.
I Ride Greyhound
because it’s like being
in a John Steinbeck novel.
Next best thing is the laundromat.
That’s where all people
who would be on the bus if they had the money
hang out. This is my crowd.
Tonight there are cleaning people appalled
at the stupidity of anyone
who would put powder detergent
in the clearly marked LIQUID ONLY slot.
The couple by the vending machine
are fondling each other.
You’d think the orange walls
and florescent lights
would dampen that energy
but it doesn’t seem to.
It’s a singles scene here on Saturday nights.
I confide to the fellow next to me
that I suspect I’m being taken
in by the triple loader,
maybe it doesn’t hold any more
than the regular machines
but I’m paying an extra fifty cents.
I tell him this meaningfully
holding handfuls of underwear.
He claims the triple loader
gives a better wash.
I don’t ask why,
just cruise over to the pop machine,
aware that my selection
may provide a subtle clue.
I choose Wild Berry,
head back to my clothes.
- Ellie Shoenfeld
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