- Tony Earley
Alice McDermott and I have taught together at the Writers' Conference so many times that we've become the workshop equivalent of an old married couple. We speak in the private code of the long familiar. During class, if she says, "Tell them about that thing …," [End Page 709] I know what thing she means. When I move my hand half an inch toward her on the tabletop, she knows it's time to move on to the next story. And when she purses her lips and makes a noise, audible only to me, that sounds like the final flight of a disappointed mosquito, I know I've said something stupid. I stop talking and look at her and say, "What?"
She says, "Well …" before suggesting, in the politest possible terms, that what I just said, while not exactly stupid, is perhaps not all that bright. She proposes an alternative. She is never wrong.
I look at the class and say, "What she said."
If every story has an ideal narrative line, a Platonic yellow brick road, that leads to the one place it is meant to go, the problem for the writer is that a story can go to an infinite number of other places, and the shape of that infinity changes every time the writer chooses a word. Somebody cuts your character off in traffic. My thesaurus has fifty-one words for angry. Pick one. The stars rearrange themselves in the sky. Alice is a genius at peering into that cacophony of possibility and seeing that ideal line.
Say an orthopedic appliance salesman from St. Louis named Steve submits a story to workshop about an orthopedic appliance salesman from East St. Louis named Bill. In the story, Bill's company is losing artificial knee market share to a Chinese conglomerate; his wife has begun taking yoga classes; they fight about the pants; he stops at McDonald's to get coffee and remembers the toy train set the two of them put together one Christmas for their now-estranged son; Bill resolves to dig the train out of the garage and make it run again.
Steve reads a page from his story aloud and looks up expectantly. Alice asks for comments. A woman with plastic fruit on her [End Page 710] hat asks, why only knees? Maybe Bill could sell hips, too? A guy speculates on what is wrong with the train. The woman from New York wonders if it's racist that the knees putting Bill out of business were made in China.
Alice taps the manuscript with a fingernail. "Knees," she says. "Titanium. Not titanium. American. Chinese. Who cares? It doesn't matter. Bill could be selling dynamite to coyotes. What's the story?" I have no idea what she's talking about, only that she has begun speaking in italics. I help her stare down the room. Nobody answers.
"What about the clairvoyant sword swallower?" Alice asks.
Clairvoyant sword swallower? I look down at my manuscript. What clairvoyant sword swallower?
"Page eleven," Alice says. Sure enough, page eleven, halfway down, a clairvoyant sword swallower materializes in a haze of coffee steam. She reads palms in a storefront in a dingy strip mall across the highway from McDonald's. Every morning she watches the same sad guy drinking coffee. Because she's clairvoyant, she knows about the knees and the wife and the yoga and the pants and the train. She knows that today Bill will drive over and ask what happened to the model train store that used to be here. She'll pretend to read his palm, say something generic. She already knows that the Chinese knees will cost him his job, that his wife will pack up her yoga pants and move out, that she gave the toy train to Goodwill when their son went away to college. He will stare at the swords hanging on the wall but is too shy to ask.
Alice leans forward. "The sword-swallowing clairvoyant will know all this," she says, but guess what? She. Won't. Tell. Him. A. Thing." She taps the manuscript again. "And that," she says, "is the...