Cast-off

One Thursday afternoon a few months ago I found myself killing time (procrastinating) at the  Goodwill store. I love thrift stores because, well, I’m naturally thrifty, and our local place is clean, well-lit, and has a mighty fine selection of used clothing, picture frames, martini glasses, and books—all reasonably priced.

After a few minutes of sifting through the sweaters, I headed to the bookshelves. With my neck bent over, I scanned the fiction titles, right to left, top to bottom, noticing but not really thinking about, how many copies there were of Rebecca Wells’ “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”

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When I rounded the corner I found yet another one. That made, what, five copies of the same used book? In fact, on reflection, I realized that over the past few years I’d seen probably hundreds of copies of this book languishing in other thrift stores, used bookstores, and garage sales. Why, I wondered, were people jettisoning this particular novel with such abandon? It was published in 2004 to much acclaim. A movie got made. But, if it was such a great book, then wouldn’t the people who read it want to add it to their own collections?

You’d think so, right? If I love a book I keep it. I tuck it safely between two other beloved tomes, relishing the soft hiss of the smooth surfaces sliding past one another. I stand back and admire its placement on the shelf; the way I position it according to height. The way I make sure not to put it next to a book with the same colored spine, for fear of having a splotch of red or blue staring out among the cavalcade of words.

Since moving into a smaller house, with less room for shelving, I’ve been more discerning about which books I choose to hold onto. Where I previously thought all books should be kept—each a tiny treasure; a work of art—I am now more willing to let a story go; more open to giving it away to Goodwill or to the library, in the hopes that other people, perhaps less critical than I, might find it a good read.

On my drive home that day (with a $2 copy of Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder”—the ONLY one on the shelf—on the seat beside me) I speculated about how Ms. Wells must feel about seeing so many of her books being resold at bargain prices. Did it make her sad that no one wanted to keep her book? Or did she not give a shit? I knew that I would definitely feel hurt if I found one of my books at a used bookstore. I knew I would take it personally if someone read then discarded, as if a disposable wipe, something I’d worked on for years.

Which is why it so sucked when I found a copy of my first book—“Other Fish in the Sea”—at Goodwill last week. fishAt first I was tickled: someone had bought and read my book! Then, when I slid it off the shelf and opened the cover and saw that it was SIGNED by me, I almost started to cry. That I’d personalized it with my own hand made it even more of a personal affront.

I glanced over to the woman who browsed next to me. I thought of handing her the book, and telling her, “I wrote this. It’s actually pretty good. You should buy it,” but I figured she’d  assume that because it was a cast-off—a non-keeper—it probably wouldn’t be worth her time.

I paid a dollar for the book, and took it home, but instead of shoving it between “The Hours” by Michael Cunningham, and Ian McEwan’s “Amsterdam,” where I knew it would have fit nicely from an aesthetic standpoint, I gave it away to a friend who’d been asking to read it. I didn’t tell her where I got it.

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Limitless

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I wrote a flash fiction piece this week for a contest where the winner gets to spend three all-expenses-paid weeks at the beach house of a famous dead writer. The limit was 500 words. If you sent in a story with 501 words, you’d be automatically disqualified.

My story ended up being 498 words long, but that was after some significant word-culling on my part, a feat that’s sometimes not so easy, given that most stories need to take their own sweet time. Compelling characters have to be fleshed out. Action must tilt forward toward resolution. Something has to be at stake for the reader to be committed. And the writing should be velvet-y smooth.

How do you do that in 500 words? How to create an entire universe filled with emotion and context and sensory expressions if you can’t expand or expound past the bare bones?

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How to, indeed. Which is why I decided to enter the contest in the first place. I figured it’d be a good exercise for someone who spends her days writing novels—with their long drawn-out plots and characters who grow over time and page.

Further complicating the exercise, I chose to write the story in second person, a voice I’d never before uttered other than in some fuliginous poems I meted out during my dark years.

500 words.

I can’t publish the story here because then I’d be disqualified since the rules clearly state that the submitted story must be unpublished. But I can synopsize it.

Thank you for indulging me.

Sarah, the character who is speaking, is a millennial slacker who works in a bagel shop. In the story she is addressing her coworker who, once again, didn’t show up for work, making Sarah have to work doubly hard. She is telling her coworker that she, too, would have liked to have slept in because she was out late last night on a date with a boy she knew has no real interest in her. When a customer walks into the bagel shop and asks for his usual order, Sarah’s frustration mounts. She has no idea what the old man with the overgrown eyebrows usually gets—it’s her charming coworker who knows all the regulars’ favorites—but she hides her annoyance with him because, ultimately, she longs to be more like her coworker. She aspires toward grace. During her walk home from work, Sarah spies her coworker in a bar. She goes in and learns why the woman missed work and the reason she’s uncharacteristically quaffing beer in the middle of the day. Sarah hugs her and tells her she hopes to see her tomorrow.

I would have/could have turned this small plot into a longer Alice Munro-like tale of self-reflective melancholia. I loved creating Sarah and I enjoyed spending time in her head while she toasted bagels. I may someday write her full life story, but it was good practice and great fun to stop before I crossed beyond the limit.

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Note: This posting is exactly 500 words.