Confession: I have never been good at writing particularly naughty stories. I want the best for my characters; that usually gets me in trouble as a writer. Characters have to be messy. They, like us, have to make mistakes, choose wrong paths, be destructive or malicious or careless or selfish, even while striving to be good or noble or courageous. We, as humans, are a chaotic bunch, prone to awkwardness and rudeness and beauty and love and dignity and embarrassment.
That’s hard to write, yo!
One of my favorite stories is Lydia Peelle’s “The Still Point,” where she manages to tap into the glorious disaster that we are as humans. The main character, Cole, is a man who is running from his past, a past where his twin brother, Clay, died too young, leaving behind a collection of comic books, Cole’s ticket out. He ran, with the comic books, and joined up with a travelling carnival, where he sells found treasures, antiques, some genuine, some not quite.
Essentially, the story is Cole’s breaking point – or perhaps, as the title aptly suggests, the still point that Cole reaches when he finally stops running. In Thunderbird, Illinois, Cole has come to an intersection in his life. He’s got an okay existence. He has work each day. He’s having an affair with a married woman, Kathy, a purveyor of fried foods at the carnival. He’s got a sort-of friend, Dub, who sells novelty t-shirts at the table across from him.
The night before the story’s present action, Cole watched as a local beauty queen received her crown and asked for a moment of silence for the troops. Peelle does a wonderful job of nailing down the scene, the cheap toys won at carnival games, the glittering of the beauty queen’s gown. Cole sees the girl one more time, later that night, as she has a quickie behind the bleachers with a boy who wears one of Dub’s novelty t-shirts. During the act, her necklace falls off, and after she leaves, Cole takes it, puts it in his pocket, and the next day, back in present action, decides to sell it.
But who finds the necklace but our beauty queen? They have an altercation because Cole wants her to buy the necklace, and she insists it’s hers. As she leaves, the storm that has been looming over the story begins to kick up. Everyone must pack their booths and head for cover. Cole feels some level of guilt for having lied, having told the beauty queen she must pay for the necklace rather than just giving it to her. He feels some level of guilt for his dead brother, and his affair, and his life. And that’s what this story comes to, really: guilt and how a man works his way through and over and under and around and directly into the arms of guilt over and over again.
One of the things I most admire about this story is the descriptive power. Peelle’s attention to the detail, to the gritty cheapness of a travelling carnival, to the balance of seriousness in large equipment and frivolity in amusement park rides – it’s all set forth with such ease.
I used to work at a Renaissance Festival, and this story reminds me a lot of every story I’ve ever tried to write about the RenFest. People did naughty things, like having sex on top of a train or in the woods behind the festival walls. There are details – the smell of incense, the sound of voices, all over, yelling at passersby to stop, look, shop, eat, pay, be transported. The way the ground looked once the rains started. The feeling of the hot oven we sat in front of on cold days. The chickens that pecked through our gardens.
Some of the best short stories are the ones that teach us how to write our own stories, and that’s what Lydia Peelle’s story does for me. The sense of place is so rich, the character is so complicated, the plot is so well-paced – this is a story I keep trying to learn from. One day, hopefully, I’ll get there.