Oct/Nov 2002  •   Fiction

Can't You Write a Story?

by Steve Silkin

Artwork by Tara Gilbert-Brever

Artwork by Tara Gilbert-Brever

A hot dog franchise had closed down, and I was supposed to find out why, because I was a reporter at the local newspaper. So I called a man named Doug Mack, the business owner, and asked him. Mack said the landlord hadn't fixed the roof or replaced the plumbing as had been promised, so he refused to pay the rent and then he moved out before he was evicted. Then I called the landlord, Mel Graves, who said that was all bullshit. The real reason was Mack just didn't have enough money to pay the rent and Graves had given him as many extensions as he could. All of this was unpublishable because each man's position constitited libel against the other man, so I asked Jacky, the managing editor who had given me the assignment, what to do. She said I should just write a paragraph saying the hot dog shop was closed. I wrote something like this:

Flooky's, a hot dog shop on Cochran Street, has closed. The business owner, Doug Mack, said he hoped to reopen at a new location soon. The landlord, Mel Graves, said he expected to find a new tenant for his store within the next couple of months.

I went to the lunch room to fill my coffee cup. When I got back to my desk the phone rang. The voice coming out of the earpiece belonged to a frightened young man named Martin. He had asked to speak to a reporter. The switchboard operator had picked me, maybe because I was the only one in the newsroom who wasn't already on the phone.

"My mom is kicking me out of my house and I have nowhere to go," Martin said.

"Why is your mom kicking you out?"

"I won't take my medication," he said. "I'm manic-depressive. I hate the medication. But she says if I don't take it, I have to leave. I don't know what to do."

"Don't you think, Martin, you should try to take your medication?"

"I tried, I tried," he said. "I just hate it. I feel awful when I'm on it. It makes me tired. Slow and tired. I have no energy. I can't do anything. I can barely talk sometimes."

"Don't you have anyone to call? Maybe a doctor could help you dose the medicine so it wouldn't make you so tired?"

"I've tried. I've tried all different doses. Even one a day is awful. Even half in the morning and half at night. It's still horrible."

"Social services? A psychiatrist?"

"I've tried," he said. "Counselors. Psychiatrists. They all say the same thing. They all say I should take the medicine. But I don't want to. It's too awful."

He was getting angry and frustrated and he was starting to cry.

"I don't know," I said. "I don't know what else to tell you."

"This is just so terrible," he said. I think he was referring to his situation. "No one understands." He was crying now. "You don't understand."

"No," I told him. "I do understand. When I was 15, I had spinal meningitis. I couldn't keep down any food or liquid, so the doctor had me hospitalized with an I.V. because I was in danger of dehydration. My parents dropped me off at the hospital, and the doctor had ordered some kind of drug, I never found out what it was, and I had a reaction to it. I started hearing people laughing at me, I could see them out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned to look at them, they disappeared. I thought a man was hiding under my bed, but when I leaned over and looked, he wasn't there. I was sure he escaped through a trap door every time I tried to see him. So I took my blue plastic pitcher of water and without bending over to look—because I knew he'd escape if I tried to see him—and I chucked the water under the bed. I thought getting wet would make him angry and that would force him to show himself. But it didn't work. I decided my parents put me in the hospital because they were trying to kill me. I thought I heard them around the corner, laughing at me, but I couldn't see them. I decided the only way to save my life was to escape. So I pulled out my I.V. tubes and ran down the hospital hallway. Two nurses tackled me, dragged me back into my bed, screaming, and then an intern came and shot me full of Valium. I spent the next three days in a blackout."

Martin didn't say anything for a few seconds.

"So, you do understand," he responded quietly.

In a moment of wordless communion, we both knew the score: I had just been a tourist in the land of insanity. Martin lived there.

"Yeah," I said, "I do. I do. But I don't know what I can do to help you."

"Can't you write a story?" he asked. "Without using my name?"

"What would I write?" I asked him. "And how would it help?"

"I don't know," he said.

"Neither do I," I said. "But call me. Let me know how you're doing."

Maybe I could've written a story, even though I know the editors wouldn't have wanted to publish it without his name. The headline could've been: "Local Man Battles Mental Illness." Maybe it would've done some good somehow. Maybe when I called to get a quote from a doctor or a worker at the county's Mental Health Department someone would've told me how Martin could get help. Or maybe once the article was published, a reader would've phoned in and offered some solution. But maybe once in print, the article would've upset Martin. Maybe in a dark mood, Martin would've felt the article made him seem unreasonable. Maybe it would've pushed him over the edge. Maybe it would've upset his mom and she would have become even more certain of her decision to make him leave his house. Or maybe it would've softened her. In any case, I had just started working at the newspaper a couple of weeks before, and even if I had wanted to write the story, I wouldn't have known where to start.

The next day I reported on a teen-age boy who blacked out after he hit his head diving into his family's swimming pool. His stepfather had a tracheotomy—a hole punched in his windpipe allowing him to breathe through his neck, the result of throat cancer—so he couldn't go in the pool without drowning himself when the water rushed through the hole in his neck, straight down his windpipe and into his lungs. He used a pool brush on a long pole to push the boy's body to the shallow end, then dragged him up the steps and did CPR. The boy was hospitalized for overnight observation and then released. Before he left, one of our photographers did a portrait of him in his hospital bed, with his stepfather and his doctor standing beside him. The headline read: "Teen Saved From Drowning."

Martin never called back.

Some time later, a competing newspaper ran a lead story about the City Council approving an affordable housing plan. My editor asked me to write a follow-up for the next day's edition. I read the competition's article and told him it wasn't even worth a brief because the council's action was a formality required by the federal government in order for the city to qualify for funds. He disagreed and ordered me to write the story. So I called the city's housing officer, Dulce Serena, and she tore into me for asking her to spend time on stupid questions about routine bureaucratic housekeeping.

"I thought you were smarter than that," she said.

"I know, I know," I said, "I fought with my editor but he said I had to do it; please just give me the basic explanation and a couple of quotes."

She did, so I wrote about ten paragraphs under the headline: "Housing Plan OK'd By Council." The story said the city had not met its goal to provide 300 new affordable homes or apartments over the past year, but the housing plan spelled out a strategy providing incentives to developers for housing available to low-income residents.

After Dulce hung up on me, my phone rang. A woman was on the line. She sounded old and tired. She was calling about an article I had written published in the morning paper. It was about the council's approval of plans for a cemetery on open fields alongside the freeway. The property was called Eaton Ranch, a vast stretch of chaparral, green in the spring, brown in summer, fall and winter.

"There's already a cemetery there now," she said. "How come you didn't mention that?"

I didn't know what to say. I drove by the field every day and I didn't know of any cemetery there.

"Uh, are you sure?" I asked.

"Yeah, sure there is. My mother's buried there."

OK, I said to myself. I'm speaking with a woman who is telling me her mother is buried out in a field alongside the freeway, where I know there is no cemetery.

"Who buried her there?" I asked. "When? Was there a service? Were you at the service? Please tell me everything you can."

"It was my mom," the woman said. "It was 1977. I was 18."

I thought to myself: I was 18 in 1977. This woman was my age: 35. But she sounds like she's 70. She was slurring her speech. She was drunk, and it wasn't noon yet. Or maybe she was on pills.

She continued: "We took her to the mortuary and they said they took her out to that field and buried her there."

"Are you sure?" I asked.

"Of course I'm sure," she said. She laughed. "It was my mother. They took a coin, a gold coin, and cut it in half. They gave me half and said they were burying the other half with my mother, so we'd always be connected."

"That's a nice thought."

"Yeah, isn't it? I wear mine as a necklace. I'm holding it now, in my hand. So they don't have to build that cemetery. Because there already is one. I have my half of the gold coin, in my hand now."

"Well, I think they want to build the new cemetery anyway."

"But what about my mom?"

"I don't know," I said.

"Can't you tell them?"

"Tell them what?"

"That there's already a cemetery there. Can't you write a story?"

"What would I say?"

"That there's already a cemetery there. They told me all the people buried there have these coins with them. You could take a metal detector out there and I bet you'd find them."

"I guess I could do that, couldn't I?" In a million years.

"Yeah, you could," she said.

"I'll tell you what," I said. "I'll call the mortuary. If they tell me they used to bury people out in that field, I'll call you back and I'll do another article. What mortuary was it?

"Nickells Mortuary."

"OK, I'll call them."

"That'd be great," she said. "They wouldn't have to build that new cemetery."

I took her name and number and said goodbye. I never called the mortuary, so I never called her back.

Right after she hung up, I got another assignment. So I drove up to a hiking trail in the foothills, where a college student had fallen down a steep slope, spending the night at the bottom before searchers found him. I arrived just as the helicopter airlifting him to the hospital took off and swooped above me into the sky. One of the police officers involved in the search told me the story, which I later wrote like this:

A Moorpark College student was rescued Thursday morning after plunging down a steep canyon in the hills above Simi Valley. Jim Garson, 19, fell about 70 feet Wednesday night and spent the night in a ravine awaiting rescue. Police said he sustained moderate injuries, including a possible broken collar bone along with scrapes and bruises. He was airlifted to Simi Valley Hospital, where he was listed in fair condition. Police Sgt. Nick Hopkins said Garson had sat down to enjoy the sunset from a natural overlook and took off his day pack so he could get out a bottle of water. But when he set his pack down, it began sliding down the slope, and when he reached over and tried to grab it he fell down the cliff. His parents called the police in the morning when they realized he hadn't come home the night before.

I knew hikers often got lost or injured on that trail. Once, a man parked his car, walked up the hill and didn't come home that night. His family had called police just as the college student's parents had done.

A search was launched, but as night fell a storm moved in, and two officers who had made it beyond the foothills and into the mountains had to be rescued themselves. The missing man wasn't found until two years later, when a couple of hikers made it to the summit of the mountain range and came upon what was left of his clothes, part of his skull and the rifle he had used to kill himself.

I took the freeway back to the office, so I drove past the field where that woman, sitting stoned in her house that morning and clutching the piece of gold coin strung on her necklace, told me her mother was buried. The wild grass was blown flat along the ground by a stiff wind rushing down from the mountains.

Some stories you can write, others you can't. Sometimes stories that should be written don't get written while other stories that aren't worth writing get written instead. And some problems can't be solved by stories.