Today I watched freshmen play variations of handball and thought about this story I wrote five years ago. I remember the idea taking bones on a commute in Kuwait. I was at a stoplight waiting to merge onto the Thirty, heading home, and the BBC was on (I listened to a lot of BBC while driving around Kuwait) and I heard this interview in which someone (man? woman? I don’t recall because what sticks is what s/he said) answered that no, no s/he was not a hero. I remember rolling my eyes because this person was a hero, really. Probably saved dozens of souls, but was too humble to admit heroic action. I just did what any person would do blah blah. So I thought, what if someone in one of these interviews just said, Yeah, I am a hero. I carried eight kids out of a burning building! I got kneecapped for telling the truth! I assassinated a terrorist! Yeah, I’m a hero! Yeah! I thought a person would be crucified in the comments if they said such a thing. And then I had a place to start.
Part of the challenge of Thirty-Nine Stories is to generate new work. But some of my new work feels a little too raw to share yet. There’s a reason why we revise before publishing, and most of what I’ve been writing is more a slog through self-doubt and fear interrupted with pep and prayer for peace, contentment. A few pieces are taking shape (Deo volente might be my first tattoo) but nothing is okay to post here yet. So today when I remembered that weird story I wrote – well, here you are. Never before posted. I actually workshopped this with an editor who had reservations about the ending.
I like the ending. I like the whole piece. Once the BBC interview sparked a what if? all I had to do was find a situation calling for heroic acts, and make a character admit that, yes, he or she is a hero.
Now. A peek behind the curtain. I found my character one day while I ordered a coffee. Behind me was a crew of five or six painters contracted to paint the new shops at the Avenues mall in Kuwait. The one man was broad and muscled and sex just rolled off him. How does that happen? How do some people vibe potency like that? Here is the thing, friends. If you write, you talk with all kinds of people, even the ones that make your insides quiver, and when you talk you learn all kinds of things like that this broad, muscled man from LA paints stores for Victoria’s Secret, and that he’s dying for a drink in a dry land. Also behind the curtain is a podcast host I followed through his move from LA to Seattle. Also behind the curtain is the fear I had while living in Kuwait where security seemed a little loose for the region, that I might die the victim of a spectacular, poorly planned but well executed terrorist attack.
This piece is about as final as you’ll read on this blog. I drafted extra scenes as I wrote, revised two or three times before sharing with an editor, cut a lot, and today I line edited a few things but kept the piece largely same. Before I call this piece finished finished I’ll take a close look the dialogue (structure, tags and interspersed action), and (maybe) the last lines. I like the ending, but. Hm. Oh, as with other pieces, please stop if you must.
The worst part came after the bombing, when Jake was home in LA. He said yes, he was a hero, and talk radio, Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere lit up. “Don’t look at it,” Krissy said, closing her laptop, “Don’t.” She looked like she might be sick. He took the computer and opened it to a CNN blurb about the quote Jake gave. There were hundreds of comments, mostly angry. Jake didn’t need to hear the clip on repeat. It was in his head. “People you rescued call you their guardian angel or their hero. Are you a guardian angel?” Jake had laughed a little, “No.” The reporter followed up, with a laugh of his own, “Then are you a hero?” And Jake said, “Yeah, yes. I think I am a hero.” The aired interview and the blurbs cut the quote there. It didn’t matter that Jake said he was a hero alongside other heroes of the day. What mattered was that he owned the title. There was a website selling tee shirts and shot glasses with the quote, “Yeah, yes. I think I am a hero.”
He was dying for a drink but Krissy tossed even the miniature Baileys she kept for her Saturday morning coffee. He didn’t think she had any other bottles hidden. Jake scrolled through a dozen comments and handed the laptop back to Krissy. “Baby,” she said, but he was already on his way to the bedroom, pulling the blackout curtains, closing the door.
He was in Kuwait to paint murals in the Victoria’s Secret store opening in the Grand Avenue mall. The job was slated to take two weeks, ten hour days. A week into the job, the boss called LA and said they needed another week. The other guys bitched about having to stay another week in a dry country – someone had gotten ahold of date rum, but two bottles between five guys lasted only a few nights. Jake didn’t mind not having booze easily available. A year ago he’d gone to Dubai to touch up The Rainforest Café and the guys got wasted nightly. That’d been hard, at the start of his sobriety.
Painting Victoria’s Secrets was one of his favorites. It was hard to mess up cream bows and pink swirls, gold accents. He listened to music and painted his panel. It wasn’t like painting a patterned grid. Bows didn’t have to be equally pleated.
All the guys had something they added to their panels, nearly invisible signatures. Jake liked to put a circle somewhere in the panel. Once, on the checkered wall of an expensive boutique, Jake painted a circle small as a thumbprint. At Victoria’s Secret, he added a tiny circle at the end of a curlicue. Laura called that cheating. She’d joined their crew a few months before. “Curlicues already have circles,” she said. He shrugged. Laura hid her initials in the panels. They weren’t supposed to be artists with names. “One day I’ll have a show and sell a ton of shit and these crappy bows will be worth something,” Laura said, nose close to a corner of her panel, using the tiniest brush she owned to make nearly invisible cursive letters: LPA. Laura was a few years out of art school and leased studio space with four other artists, took this job as a muralist to pay bills. Two of the other guys had gone that route too: art school, small shows, maxed out credit cards, job as a muralist.
One thing Jake missed about drinking with the crew were the stories. He still ate dinner with the group but when one of them suggested a bar or nightcaps at the hotel, he left. He missed the bullshitting and storytelling and laughing. He missed hearing about cut up credit cards and girlfriends’ cats and the one painting that sold for seven hundred dollars. He didn’t get the jokes told the next day.
The morning of the bombing, before there was a bombing, Krissy called. Jake was drinking his second cup of coffee and had ten minutes before the van took the crew to the Grand Avenue. He could hear a late show on the TV, during the pauses. “I gotta go,” Jake finally said and Krissy murmured something he didn’t catch. “Love you too,” he said. He stood and finished the last of the coffee, patted his back pocket for his wallet, and left.
He was jetlagged. When he got to the mall, he stopped at Starbucks for a latte. He’d order another on his morning break, another in the afternoon. By the end of the day his arms felt tingly from the reach and precision of painting, but also from the caffeine.
It didn’t happen until eleven that morning. By then, they’d been painting for nearly four hours. The boom was thunderous but distant. Jake muted his music and held still, listening. Laura climbed down from her ladder and walked toward the store entrance, opened a door cut into the drywall and turned back toward the guys. That’s when the second bomb went off, at their end of the mall. Jake heard a sharp crack and shattering, then a deafening explosion in his body, in his teeth. He jumped from the platform before he fell. Laura staggered back. Jake ran toward her and shut the door. The wide palm lined path was already rolling with dust and smoke. They stood, uncertain, in the middle of the store. A siren went off with a whoop, interrupted by evacuation instructions in Arabic and English. Jake felt his pockets for his phone and wallet. His heart was wild.
“I don’t think we should go out yet,” Scott said, “What if there’s a third?”
“Give it five minutes, then we leave,” Laura said. They waited, ears ringing. Laura got on her phone to check Twitter. A few witnesses had already uploaded pictures. “Oh my God,” she said. There were numerous routes out of the mall. They decided to run for it: open the door and take the clearest exit.
At first, Jake just saw the structural catastrophe. Mounds of concrete and metal. The few standing palms had no leaves. Plate glass windows blown out. Café chairs and tables scattered and twisted. Where the blast occurred, the high domed ceiling of metal triangles and thick glass was blown open to show sky. The air was gritty. Jake coughed, pulled his tee shirt over his nose and mouth. The broadcast warnings continued, a calm female voice urging exit. Scott pointed at the short staircase where they entered each day. They could go down to the parking area, cut through the cars to outside. Others were already moving in that direction. Some walked or shuffled. A few ran. More hesitated.
Laura saw the first body, a woman slumped against the giant gold brick of Harvey Nichols. Laura went to the body, knelt. Jake followed. Dust settled like snow on the woman. Jake hadn’t seen anyone dead before, like this. He made a slow circle. There were more, bodies thrown like the café chairs and display tables. The surfaces were hard and sharp. Jake was strong, muscled, but the edges and jags of damage made him feel soft.
“She’s alive. Hey.” Laura looked up at Jake. The woman took the shallowest of breaths. Her forehead was broken open. “We can’t leave her,” Laura said. Scott was at the stairs. Jake waved him on, but he shook his head and came toward them.
Now other bodies were waking. Jake heard whimpers and moans, crying. Jake and Scott left Laura holding the woman’s hand. They walked zigzag from body to body to see who was alive. Further down, a store ceiling collapsed; they dropped to the ground, cutting their knees and palms on glass. For another minute it was quiet again. Jake could hear rescuers shouting. He got up and walked toward Starbucks where another hall opened to more stores and more halls: the blast destroyed that section entirely.
Later, Jake showed Krissy where he’d been, pointing on the mall blueprint everyone saw in the days after the attack. “I went here on breaks.” He traced his finger from Victoria’s Secret to Starbucks. “But that morning, I wanted to finish my panel first.” He shivered. His memory was smaller than the casualty and costs numbers reported.