“In the Shade”—Behind the Story
This short story grew out of writing the novella, Mistakes by the Lake. And it had an interesting life.
Finn and Snowball (their names changed throughout the revision process, though) almost made it into the novella as I blindly groped for characters and scenes; yet, somehow, they just didn’t belong and were cut early on. But the premise of this story—two long-time friends sitting at a picnic table in the Cleveland Metroparks philosophizing about their terrible lives while a hopeful kid flies a kite in the background—wouldn’t leave me alone. And, if memory serves, I was reading a lot of Mamet at the time (in particular, American Buffalo and The Duck Variations). I am certain my dialogue was influenced by that reading.
At Eckerd’s Writers in Paradise (in 2011), they held an event called Writer Idol. Modeled after American Idol, a panel of three judges (Les Standiford, Laura Lippman, and another whose name escapes me) would listen to a neutral person reading the first page of various submitted stories. If the reader got to the end of the first page, you “won.” However, if any of them raised their hand at any point in the reading, you were out. (Part of the point, really, was to show how important the first page can be in hooking a reader.) The first page of “In the Shade” was my entry. It didn’t get far—I believe the reader got to “my life” and a touch of the following paragraph—before Lippman and Standiford raised their hands (with Lippman seemingly exasperated). In that early draft, I had a lot of “yo’s” in the dialogue which Lippman despised; she also didn’t like a line, in that first descriptive paragraph after “my life,” where I had written, “Silence crept between them.” She abhors silences being written like that, would rather actions or descriptions be the pause/silence (writing advice I follow to this day). Standiford was more generous; his main complaint was that the characters were two disembodied voices with no setting, no sense of place (which was true—the piece at the time was strictly dialogue). But, he thought there were parts that were clever—the joke regarding the shade, for instance, although he felt it took too long for that particular payoff—and he felt it might read better (versus being read aloud).
I let this piece sit for a bit, but I took their feedback to heart and worked on it more and more. Then, during my MFA, the amazing Jeff Parker helped me hone this story, helped me “wrassle it to the mat,” I believe he’d said. It was the first virtually complete story in the collection and the first story I started submitting to journals.
And, while it never got published in a journal, it collected the funniest rejection I ever received. From Bull: Men’s Fiction: “My sincerest apologies for how long this has taken me to get back to you. There’s no excuse. There’s a great back and forth here between Liam and Snowball that really pops off the page. Unfortunately, I just felt like it fell a little short of hitting the mark I wanted it to hit as the story goes on. Of course, remember that this is just me and I’m kind of an asshole/know-nothing/lousy shithead to begin with, and honestly, I’m asking myself all the time, Who the hell made you the boss? And honestly, I’m not sure. So all this is to say, that if I can’t see it, then fuck me, I don’t deserve you or your story.”
I’m hopeful you see “it.”
“In the Shade”—Excerpt
“Where’s the motherfuckin’ shade?” Finn said.
Snowball and Finn sat at an aging picnic table in the Metroparks. Finn picked at a loose fleck of table wood with his thumb.
“The shade,” Finn said.
“I don’t under—”
“The fuck shade, Snowball.” The fleck of wood flew into the leaves.
Snowball looked around. Not only was it a typically cloudy Cleveland day, but their table was under a large oak. As near as Snowball could tell, they were both, decidedly, in the shade.
“I always heard growing up, ‘Finn, you’ll have it made in the shade.’ So?” Finn sighed hard. “I’ll tell you where it ain’t,” Finn said, “my life.”
The wind picked up and a light rain began to fall, but the tree protected them from the drops. Behind Finn, a boy in an open patch of grass by the river set a kite on the ground, played out some string, and took a running start. A strong gust kicked up and the kite shot into the air. Neither the cloudy day nor the rain affected him.
“Mine, neither,” Snowball said. He lit a cigarette, took a few drags, watched the kite flyer, listened to the rustle of plastic in the breeze.
Finn saw Snowball’s attention was neither on him nor his shade problem. He threw one leg over his bench and swung his body around, leaving him in a position between staying and going. The boy and his kite caught Finn’s attention. He looked back at Snowball. “Remember that?” He nodded toward the boy.