When Stories Die

Sometimes you have story ideas that don’t work out. They seem like brilliant ideas at first, but then they just slowly die.  It can take a while to even realize your story has died–I know I’ve kept working on some long after they’ve passed on.

Last month, the Economic Security Project had a contest to write a short story about Universal Basic Income. I tried my hand at it, but didn’t get far. I thought readers might be interested in seeing an example of a story that died.

Jan pulled her beat-up gray sedan into the narrow parking lot at Barrett Court Apartments. She parked between the fading yellow line and crumbling curb, and got out of the car, following the cracked sidewalk up to Apartment 227.

She knocked three times at the door.

“Who’s there?”  came a man’s voice from within.

“It’s Jan,” she said. “It’s 4 o’clock, Tony.”

There was a rustling from inside, and the sound of the deadbolt being moved aside. The door opened to reveal Tony, a man of about thirty, with brown hair, black-rimmed glasses and a ragged-looking beard. He wore a frayed grey sweater and blue jeans.

Jan stepped inside, and Tony motioned for her to take a seat on the couch. “I’ll be ready in a minute,” he said.

Jan sat down, and looked around at the walls of the small apartment. On the kitchen wall opposite her hung a carefully-painted frieze depicting the face of some kind of dragon or devil-like creature. Lining the wall of the living room were textured paintings of strange landscapes—deserts filled with blue sand and canyons of pure-white stone, with glistening red stars overhead.

A new piece caught her eye, this one still set on Tony’s work-in-progress easel. It was a very wide canvas—wider than any of the other pieces in the apartment.

The composition of the piece was unusual: two distinct scenes of equal size separated horizontally. The top scene depicted a grand ballroom, neo-Victorian in style, with gilded Doric columns and a wide balcony at the back of the room, looking out onto a large body of water, in which shimmered the reflection of a crescent moon. Men in aristocratic uniforms with ornate medals and ribbons danced with ladies in vibrant flowing ballgowns in a scene of fairy-tale opulence.

The lower half of the picture was starkly different: it depicted a dark, rotted cellar—or possibly a prison, based on the iron bars in the background.  The palette was primarily grays and browns, except for the pale white of the haunted, feral-looking people who fought and clawed one another, climbing over piles of bones and bodies. Disturbing expressions of animalistic rage disfigured their features, making them even more frightening than the skulls scattered beneath them.

Jan was studying the picture when she heard Tony emerge from the bathroom.

“You like it?” he asked.

“Very striking,” she said “The top is Pervuninsky, the bottom is Goya.”

“It’s a metaphor for class,” he said. “The point is that the wealth of the super-rich is built off of the suffering of those underneath.”

“Are you going to the exhibition like that?” she asked. Tony was still wearing the same ugly sweater and jeans as when she had entered. The only effort he had made towards cleaning up seemed to have been running a brush through his untidy brown air.

“What are they going to do, not let me in to my own event?” he said with a smirk.

Jan pursed her lips. Tony had always had a tendency to be flip, especially when it came to things like appearance and punctuality.

“That sort of thing is why you never could hold down a job,” she muttered.

“And now I don’t need to, do I?” he shot back.

It was true. Ever since the minimum income program had been established, Tony no longer had to work for an employer. He lived frugally, and made the money he needed to support his art off of producing commissioned pieces for customers who shared his taste for the bizarre.

Jan was happy for her friend. His life had certainly improved from the days when he’d been forced to work in an office, for employers who resented his lax attitude as much as he resented their demands. Now, with careful budgeting, his basic needs were taken care of, leaving him free to pursue his creative vision.

When they had worked together at the office, their boss had told Jan that she thought Tony was lazy. Jan knew that wasn’t true. He worked extremely hard to make and sell his art. He could be very driven and persistent—if he cared about something. But there wasn’t enough money in weird art for a person to live on without a supplement.

“Come on, Tony,” she said impatiently. “This thing starts at five thirty, and there’s a bridge out along fifth street. It’s going to take at least an hour–”

“It’s fine; don’t worry,” he said dismissively. “Come on, let’s get this show on the road.”

The local library was holding a special exhibition of weird and disturbing art as part of a Halloween-themed event that day, and Tony’s work had been selected for display.  Actually, Jan knew, it was largely thanks to his friend Robert on the Library Council that the exhibit was happening at all.

The two walked together down the rickety stairs from Tony’s apartment and climbed into Jan’s car. Tony hated to drive, and so he climbed into the passenger seat while Jan fumbled with the faulty lock on the driver’s side door.

“Thought you would have been able to afford a new car by now,” Tony said as she slid into the driver’s seat. “I know you’re working your way up the corporate ladder.”

Jan glowered at him as she pulled out of the lot. “I’m saving up to buy a house. Besides, there’s no point in getting another car now.  The roads are so bad anymore it beats the vehicles up like nobody’s business, and I have to park it outside. I’m limping along with this.”

Tony shrugged and looked out of the window.  It was only October 29th, but this neighborhood was clearly holding Beggar’s Night already, because there were little ghosts, witches and devils criss-crossing the streets and forcing Jan to brake seemingly every few yards as a pack of them scurried across the street, anxious parents following close behind.

“I hate Trick-or-Treat!” Jan snapped after the third or fourth time this happened.

Tony smiled as his gaze wandered over the trees decorated with ghoulish figures and houses decorated with glowing skeletons and grinning jack o’lanterns. “I love it,” he said quietly.

“Yeah, well, you would,” she muttered.

“It’s like legalized robbery, if you think about it,” Tony continued with a widening smile. “Even the phrase ‘trick-or-treat’—sounds vaguely threatening, doesn’t it? Any other night of the year, they wouldn’t let you wander up and demand free candy. Think what it’s teaching the kids.” [This is where the story died. After this point, its soul had gone. But as you’ll see, it took me a while to realize it was dead, which is why I kept making this zombie shell of a tale stagger on.]

Jan rolled her eyes. Tony always liked to wax pseudo-sociological like this to annoy her.

They turned out of the little neighborhood and on to Main street. Jan was carefully avoiding the bridge, which had been under repair for more than five months.

“So what are you showing at the exhibition?” Jan asked.

“It’s a series of goblin sculptures, and some panoramas like the one you were looking at earlier,’ he said. “I’m hoping it will set people thinking about class and wealth in new ways—poverty makes people into monsters, you see, and I’m hoping that this will bring that home to them.”

Jan nodded. Tony always had some deeper meaning to his art.

“It’s funny,” he continued. “Before they passed the ‘Citizens’ Stipend’, I had all these ideas—but I never had  the chance to bring them to life.”

“It’s been nice, hasn’t it?” said Jan, as she pulled the car to a stop. There was heavy traffic; thanks to all the cars diverted from fifth.

Tony nodded. “Yes, it has. But there’s a lot more that we could do on top of that. Sure, we have our basic needs covered, but ‘basic’ doesn’t always mean the same thing to everybody. They just make some estimate of what they think is enough and then send a check—and estimates are never one hundred percent right. What we really need is a way to tailor it to different individuals. Then maybe we’ll be closer to getting where we need to be.”

Jan nodded, but she was only half-listening to Tony as he continued pontificating about his theories on class and society. She was glad to help her friend out, but at the same time it was throwing her own schedule off, and she was making lists in her mind of all the things she had to do upon returning home.

At last, they reached the library. The parking lot was crowded, but Tony had a pass that allowed them to park in one of the reserved “Staff” spaces. The library was a handsome one-story building with a brick façade and long, narrow windows lining the walls. Thick juniper bushes encircled the building, their untrimmed branches extending out into the sidewalk.

Jan and Tony got out of the car, and entered through the large double doors. The inside of the library was festooned with plastic bats, fake cobwebs, and an arrangement of Jack-o’-Lanterns on every shelf. A large banner reading “Happy Halloween” was stretched over the entrance.

Their friend Robert, greeted them at the information desk. He was man of medium build, with a long face and neat silver hair. He wore an ill-fitting grey suit with a purple tie. He shook their hands and greeted them cheerfully, though Jan though there was a hint of nervousness in his manner.

“Come on,” he said, motioning them towards a door next to the administrative offices. “We’ve got a few people trickling in, but we’re waiting on you to unveil stuff.”

Tony grinned, and he and Jan followed Robert down a flight of stairs into the library basement.  It was a wide set of halls with white concrete walls. Their footsteps on the linoleum echoed as they made their way into a large beige-walled room. A small table with coffee and pastries had been set up along one wall, along the others was a series of objects covered by white cloths. A few older people stood chatting by the coffee station, and Jan recognized one of them as David Maxwell, another of Tony’s benefactors.

“Tony,” Robert said in a hushed voice, just as the artist was about to stride towards his works. “I want a word with you about these pictures of yours.”

“What about them?” asked Tony, seeming put out at the delay.

“It’s awfully dark, don’t you think?” said Robert hesitantly. “I mean, I like the creepy stuff as much as anybody else, but this stuff is a pretty… grim.”

“It’s supposed to be!” Tony hissed back. “I’m not spending my time painting maudlin junk.”

“Well, I know, but…” Robert tried to continue, but Tony was having none of it. He stepped confidently towards the first piece and whipped the covering off of it.

It was a kind of frieze like the one Jan had seen at his apartment, though this one was larger and more minutely detailed. It depicted a woman clad in ornate armor, and wearing a large crown painted gold, who was fighting a group of monsters, some of which clawed at her legs and others which had taken hold of her arms.

The vicious expressions on the creatures’ faces was deeply unsettling, as was the expression of anguish on the woman’s. It was technically very well-done, though Jan was not sure exactly how it figured into to Tony’s professed theme of class issues.

As if reading her mind, Tony began to explain it to the small group of befuddled people, who were still huddled around the coffee table. “This depicts a princess fighting a grotesque horde of beasts that have sprung from the ground beneath her—a race of monsters that have grown up underneath her.”

Some other people had begun to file in now—a younger crowd, appearing to be in their late teens or early 20s. They looked at Tony as he held forth about the piece. Jan poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down near the table. It was always amusing to watch Tony when he launched into what she called his “presenter mode”.

He moved to the next piece, and whipped the white covering off of it. It was another painting, similar in style to the one that Jan had seen at his apartment—again, depicting a party of wealthy, well-dressed individuals, this time at an outdoor lunch on a hill. But in a cave beneath the hill, there were again the sickly, ugly creatures fighting over scraps of meat and bone.

Jan could tell the audience was taken back by the disturbing scene, but Tony didn’t even pause to talk about it, instead proceeding to uncover yet another of his works—this one an even more graphic scene depicting a corporate boardroom, with sinister, anthropoid pigs in suits, whose glowing red eye blazed greedily out at the viewers.

Robert was looking very concerned now, and David Maxwell looked deeply unhappy. Jan could see Robert’s eyes flicking back and forth between Maxwell’s face and the shocking exhibition that Tony was currently unveiling.  At last, it seemed Maxwell couldn’t take it anymore, and he stepped forward to the center of the room, coming face to face with Tony.

“This trash is what you are squandering my support on?” he asked furiously. “I’ve been supporting your art and this is what you do?”

Tony, never one to back down, responded quickly: “I paint what speaks to the fundamental problems of society. That’s what you wanted and that’s what you’ve got! Besides,” he added, almost as afterthought. “The citizens’ stipend covers quite a lot of my expenses.”

That only seemed to make Maxwell more enraged still. “The ‘citizens stipend’  is paid for by taxes on people like me,” he barked. “I’m paying all your living expenses no matter what—I’m not paying for this disgusting dreck on top of that!”

With that, he stormed out of the room, leaving  the gathered crowd staring in silence. Tony’s face reddened somewhat, but after a moment’s pause, he launched into another lecture:

“That’s the kind of attitude I’m talking about,” he said. “The wealthy, narrow-minded and selfish types who can’t think about anything bigger than their own bank accounts.”

A few people in the small group nodded slightly, but for the most part their interest seemed to be waning, and most of them exited after waiting only a few minutes. Once everyone else had gone, Robert walked up to Tony, looking quite distraught.

“This is what I was talking about,” he hissed. “Now it’s a bad impression and you’ve lost your best income source! This is why I told you not to–”

But Tony was having none of it. “I won’t compromise!” he replied. “I’ll not sacrifice my vision because of what he wants. Besides, I can make a little extra money for my painting off of sales. I have the basic needs covered.”

Jan was alternately reading email on her phone and glancing up to watch Tony and Robert arguing. This wasn’t the first time she had seen her friend indignant over what he saw as an insult to his work. He needs to develop a thicker skin if he wants to get anywhere, she thought, but she also knew it was pointless to tell him that. Tony could be quite stubborn.

Robert had stormed out of the room, throwing his hands in the air in frustration, and now it was just Tony and Jan. Tony frowned, and then walked over to sit next to Jan, grabbing a danish from the table as he did so.

“You see how it is?” he said angrily. “These idiots only care about their bottom line.”

“Mm hmm,” said Jan.

 

2 Comments

  1. Yup, I know these types of stories well. The red heat chills quickly and there’s not enough interest left to turn it into something you’d be happy with. But at least you’re getting in the practice and learning, so it’s not for naught!
    With this particular story, it seems like you spent quite a bit of time working out the backstory, which is often necessary, but maybe starting the actual story at the library and interweaving some of Tony’s beliefs within may have brought it back to life? Just one writer’s opinion, but in the end, the author should ignore anything they think isn’t right!

    Thanks for sharing the story, Berthold!

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