Friday, February 17, 2017

If Fred has 16 Donuts, and Maria Needs to Make Christmas Tamales for 42

A man enters a small neighborhood pub in a remote part of town.

Most of us have enough things to do, problems waiting to be solved, inventions waiting to be invented for us to be intrigued enough by this set-up of a story. The very lack of detail and specificity make it possible for us to tell our self So What? Everywhere we go, it seems, generalities and vagueness confront us. Who cares about this nameless, faceless man?

Those of us of a certain age, seeing such an introduction to a narrative, may be reminded of fables, adages, parables that were fed to us in our youth. Even at first encounter, we knew such introductions were meant to pass along some equivalent of fortune cookie wisdom. 

Our cynicism shined through even then. There was no such person, no man entering a small neighborhood pub. For one thing, pubs were most likely in England. Another clue: "a remote part of town" by its lack of definition, was proof the story was invented for the purpose of convincing us the story we were about to hear actually took place.

In later years, more recent years, when print and on line publications use such equivalency as"Senior government officials," or "sources close to the individuals involved have speculated," or even "Informed sources report," we question the entire motive of the material.

Those of us who write fiction, and many of us who also attempt to teach others how to write fiction, have learned the simple technique of giving our important characters a name as a first step to conveying the possibility that a reader will begin to set aside the notion that the narrative is little more than an exercise in parable or fable.

Even though the narrative to come is in many ways still a parable or fable or other form of cultural information, the reader is more likely to care if the character has a name. For instance, were a narrative to begin, "Max Steiner twisted in discomfort on his death bed."

Ah, poor Max, you find yourself thinking, reminding yourself of nights in your own bed when sleep did not come with the ease you'd hoped. Some  muscle twitch or memory of a condition you'd brought home from work roiled within you. And to be in such discomfort on one's death bed! Yes, poor Max.

Because you recognize the contrarian sharing not only your bed but your body and consciousness, you are also reminded of simple arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and calculus problems presented to you in various stages during your middle and high school years. The questions were always in narrative form of some sort. Fred had sixteen donuts he needed to share with five coworkers. Maria was helping her grandmother make Christmas tamales for forty-two recipients. Dave wanted to find out how fast he'd have to drive in order to meet Pete, who was driving from another city, without making Pete wait more than fifteen minutes.

These individuals invariably seemed cartoonish or worse, and you were pretty sure what you'd have done with those sixteen donuts of Fred's.

Each of the two individuals you started with, the man entering the pub, and Max Steiner, are important, you might even say point-of-view characters, presences in jokes, which are the forerunners of flash fiction.

When you first heard both jokes, they began the same way. A man enters a cocktail lounge, and a man lay on his death bed. You opened up each one with some relevant detail, and in your retelling, added even more to make each narrative more of a textured story rather than the bare bones aspects of flash fiction.

In the former, the man is hugging a small box close to his chest, stopping from time to time to ask toward the box, "Are you okay in there? Got enough air? Need anything?"  In the latter, you even have Max Steiner sit up in bed, sniff, then beckon the hospice nurse closer. "Maybe it's sensory hallucination," Max tells the hospice nurse, "but I can swear I smell my favorite lemon poppy seed cake. Would you please ask my wife if she's baking? One piece of that and I could die a happy man?"

Both narratives now have the necessary set-up in place to produce an equivalent of an ending for dramatic effect, a joke with a punch line and a bit more, based on the personal agenda of the unnamed man and of Max Steiner. To this point, you've given the equivalent of act two in a three-act play.

The story concerning the man in the pub involves him sitting down at a deserted end of the bar, ordering a tap beer with a straw, then opening  the box.

In Max Steiner's case, Max's wife appears at the doorway of the bedroom to confirm that she is, indeed, baking not one but several lemon poppy seed cakes.

With the box opened, we can see its contents, a diminutive human figure, less than a foot high, and a small scale model of a concert grand piano, which the diminutive figure, after a sip of the beer, begins to play.

Max Steiner smiles at his wife, repeats what he told the hospice nurse. "One slice of that lemon poppy seed cake and I can die a happy man."

Hearing the energetic, Bach Goldberg Variations coming from the piano, the bartender exclaims in wonder, asks how our nameless man came in possession of the tiny piano player.  Here comes the punchline.  The narrator tells the bartender, "I did a great favor for a hard-of-hearing genie, who granted me one wish. I asked for a nine-inch penis."

"One slice," Max says. "One slice and--" But the wife begins to shake her head. "The lemon poppy seed cake is for after--"

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