Essay :: Stripped for Parts

Stern man in Homburg hat staring at camera in black and white photo.
Courtesy of the Australian Maritime Museum.

I lived next to a boy, years ago, who did time for stealing cars.

When he got out, he worked at a restaurant downtown.

He wasn’t the first person I ever met who had a story to tell, but he was the first boy I ever met who bought his girlfriend flowers every Friday afternoon on his way home from work.

His kitchen whites were splattered with an astonishing amount of raw ingredients. He smelled like pie crusts and warm milk.

Like many folks you meet, this boy’s life was bifurcated by a singular event.

There was a before and an after made up of two different sets of choices, two different lives.

He stole cars. Then he went to juvie for three, four years. Afterwards, he got out and he did not steal cars. Instead, he made pastries.

He didn’t even like cars. He liked his job in the kitchen of a small upscale bakery. He liked his girlfriend. He liked to sun himself like a house cat on the steps of the turn-of-the century porch attached to the ancient duplex where we lived.

What this boy did as a teenager was not a secret— otherwise, I would not be telling you this story now— neither the stealing, nor the part afterward, where the boy that smelled like pie would sit in the sun and wait for his girl to get home.

You see, writers tend to steal little things off of people—

a complete set of figured naval buttons on a man’s patched pea coat; a certain way a woman pushes back her bobbed silver hair; a child that can whistle with two fingers like a man.

Writers pocket these moments and pull them out to look at later under a lamp with a notebook. This is fine with me— it’s magpie stealing. It is general and gestural and often sweet.

There’s another kind of stealing that happens, though, where a writer will pick the lock on your life story, touch a couple of wires together, and roll your life down the driveway before you even know your story is gone.

One day, your life may turn up in a book— it may have a new paint job and four white wall tires, but you’ll know it’s your story. You’ll know. Trust me. And you’ll feel mugged.

Joan Didion once said that you’re not a writer unless you’re selling somebody out.

In theory, that makes sense. Writers tell stories about people.

But when Didion says these words, it sounds even more tough and souped up and justified. Like they had it coming to them. Those people. For talking and telling their stories.

She was young, or youngish, when she made this pronouncement in the prologue of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and I was young when I read it.

I believed, and believe many things Didion said, and says, but I never bought this one part, not really.

And I wonder, sometimes, I really wonder what it cost Didion to sell out so many people’s stories with a practiced flick.

This boy from all those years ago did not keep this side jaunt from his own story a secret from anyone.

And I’ve met people before, and since, who have done more astonishing things than stealing a car with a team of teenagers in the middle of the night for a living.

What I like to remember about that boy is a moment every Friday when we would have the same conversation.

I lived behind the house in the old servant’s quarters above the garage. Most days, I would back down the driveway with the windows down. And most days I would stop because the neighbor boy would wave at me and pop his chin in my direction.

“Hey girl! What’s up? A— ‘s gonna be home soon.”

“Lotta nada! Gotta work.”

“You’re always working.”

“Don’t I know it. You need me to bring you all anything?”

“No, I got dinner for A— and I bought her some Zinnias today. Gonna sit here in the sun ’til she gets home.”

“Lucky you! Give A— my best.”

His eyes would close. His smile would widen, and his chin tilted back to the sun. He knew what lucky was.

I once lived next to a boy who stole cars and went to jail.

But, this? This is not the remarkable part of the story.

What is remarkable is that he bought his girlfriend flowers every Friday afternoon, without fail.

Zinnias. Orchids. Gerber daisies. Tulips.

He never bought her roses. Not once.

He said that roses lacked imagination, and he loved his girl too much to be lazy.

So he bought her Calla lilies— blooms that smelled as rich as a warm Friday afternoon spent daydreaming, daydreaming in the sun.

Young woman with bobbed hair looking off into the distance in black and white portrait photo.
Photographer William Hall. Courtesy of the Australian Maritime Museum.

This story has been revised. Originally published on May 4, 2012.

22 thoughts on “Essay :: Stripped for Parts”

  1. Flowers every Friday, awww, nice.

    Never heard ‘you’re not a writer unless you’re selling someone out’. Don’t like it. Selling someone out like that just sounds like ‘can’t be bothered making something new up yourself’.

    1. Didion was doing a lot of reportage at the time— profile stories of really famous people, so she didn’t have the home court advantage of fiction where she could think something up. (And I should have mentioned that one pertinent fact— she was doing a ton of journalism in the ’60s in California and New York.)

      Didion is full of contradictions, too. I wrote about her in a Mash Note awhile back.

      Here’s something she said that I love, though— “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

      I think it’s true. I think telling the story of the boy and the flowers is a way of telling a story in order to live.

    2. Even when you’re making stuff up, you’re selling out the made-up characters you are describing – unveiling their hopes, their fears, their deepest darkest nightmares. And chances are your real-life friends and relatives will think you’re talking about them anyway.

      Writers are tattletales, but mostly on themselves.

      For the writer who is a journalist, the issue is compounded; you’re forced to steal lives in broad daylight, and turn yourself in for the crime every time.

    3. I totally agree that writers are tattletales, but mostly on themselves. (It’s a really pretty sentence, too! Nice and crisp!)

      We’ll visit this specific subject at more length later— I think this subject is easily its own discussion— or several discussions!

  2. I love the lack of ruthlessness in your heart – it is more precious than fame. This is the second Staves song I’ve posted today but nevertheless I think you might like this and it seems appropriate –

    1. I love it. I love this song— I’ve never heard the Staves before! I adore harmony. Oh, this is making my day! So, so beautiful! Thank you!

      I can be awful and awkward in other ways, but I’m not ruthless. Thank you for noticing! That’s huge to me!

  3. Wow, this post really made me stop and think. I don’t write about the real world and my characters aren’t even human yet what you wrote about life and memory rings true, except that for me they provide an invisible current that flows just beneath the surface of my words whereas for you they spark snapshots of time and place like lovely bright paintings.

    1. I have to be very careful because I absorb stories like a kitchen sponge— thoroughly and messily. So, when I sit down to talk about “real life” (whatever that means?)— I try to be conscious about the way I frame it. My foundation is in fiction and poetry— but my grounding is in professional journalism. Like Mark Twain!

      (And that’s where the similarities stop— Mark Twain is Mark Twain!)

      It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or a feature story— the tonal framing makes all the difference, don’t you think? Just wait— we’ll be talking about a science fiction masterpiece in a few weeks and this discussion of tonal framing will take yet another interesting turn!

      And I LOVE this—

      …they provide an invisible current that flows just beneath the surface of my words whereas for you they spark snapshots of time and place like lovely bright paintings.

      Beautiful writing, Meeks! I am hugging you! Thank you so much!

    2. Au contraire little Bluebird, the beautiful writing is yours. My background is in tech writing and while I love words I struggle to find the lyrical quality that you dash off so easily 😀

      Must admit though, some of that lovely ‘sound’ of yours is starting to rub off!

      Hugs with much gratitude!

    3. Meeks! You astound me! Tech writing is really hard! (The writing itself requires a certain mindset. Plus, you interface with non-writers heavily whose agendas— and time frames!— do not match your needs! HARD work!)

      Thank you for noticing my love of lyricism. And if it’s rubbing off? I’m thrilled!

      Oh, I’m hugging you back! And I’m smiling! YAY!

    4. I’ve been writing fiction for longer than tech now and I still find fiction harder to write. Well, to write it the way I want to /read/ it. If that makes sense?

    5. YES. I TOTALLY understand the distinction you’re making! That’s why the great fiction writers (and poets) go through so many drafts, yeah? (Same thing with poets.)

      There’s also that apocryphal story about Hemingway rewriting the ending of one of his novels 76 times before he finally felt as though he got it right! (I remember being terribly impressed by this story. Still impressed.)

      And then Charles Scrivner II (or III?) himself would go through Hemingway’s manuscripts line by line after all of that and begin the final edits— good times!

      I’ve been reading a lot of Flannery O’Connor’s essays on fiction lately— she’s GREAT for telling me/you/us like it is, or how it should be. And funny too!

      What writer or writers is/are your go-to inspiration for fiction?

    6. My inspiration? Oh that’s a hard one. Probably first and foremost Ursula K. LeGuin. Her Left Hand of Darkness opened my eyes to the power of sci-fi fiction. Style wise though I’d have to list Frank Herbert, C.J.Cherryh, Tad Williams, Robin Hobb….

      Gah 😦 And then there’s China Mieville, Stephen Donaldson, William Gibson, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Dostoyevski…. where do I stop?

    7. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is so, so, so good! (I love LeGuin, but must confess I’ve read more of her YA than her adult stuff. I bought a copy of Left Hand last summer, though, as mine went missing.)

      Gah! Thunderstorms here. I’m going to cut this short. I had a professor who said that it is important to know who your literary ancestors are— and to return to them again and again for inspiration? It sounds like you’ve got quite a few to choose from, which is exciting!

    1. YES. That’s why I try to handle every story so carefully— and I know you do, too. Thank you, YS. I love the way you tell stories too. You take me to places and conclusions that I cannot anticipate. Love that!

Hey there, Cupcake! How are ya?

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