About a year ago I wrote a scene for Pajama Jones I want to talk about. Here’s the scene (I’m dropping you into the middle of it; he’s Dodge, she’s Julia).
“You’re good at reading people.”
A smile hovered at the corner of his mouth and then was gone. His face was dark with beard stubble but his eyes were clear and his gaze alert. He studied her for a moment as if her life story were written on her forehead.
“All I know about you is what other people have told me,” he said. “And what I’ve seen with my own eyes. I discount about eighty percent of the first, and thirty percent of the second.”
Julia wished now that she had sent him on his way. She said, “Let me guess, you heard the mercy killing story.”
He didn’t look surprised or embarrassed or even particularly interested. Any of those things would have been irritating, but this lack of reaction was oddly off putting in its own way.
“People like a tragedy,” Dodge said. “And they like you. If so many people who think so much of you are worried about you, maybe there’s a reason.”
Goose flesh rose on Julia’s nape and arms and with that a feeling of acute disorientation and embarrassment, as if she had caught sight of someone spying on her through the bathroom window. That this image was off and inadequate only added to her discomfort. She swallowed hard until she was sure of her voice and then she said. “Look, I know they mean well. But that particular story is just plain fantasy.” she stopped to gather her thoughts. “Tell me, do strangers always open up to you?”
“It’s been known to happen,” said Dodge. “Listen, I’ll tell you something about me, and maybe you’ll feel easier.” He stuck out his hand and Julia took it automatically, a big hand, calloused for reasons she couldn’t imagine.
“Hi, my name is Dodge, and I’m a claustrophobic.”
Julia put her free hand to her mouth and hiccuped a laugh. “I’m sorry, it’s not funny, but–“
“Sure it’s funny,” Dodge said. “When I got to the point I could laugh about it, I knew I was really getting better. Sometime I’ll run through my stock of claustrophobia jokes.”
“But you had to get out of your apartment–“
“I’m a recovering claustrophobic,” he said. “I had a relapse.”
Julia said, “You could let go of my hand now.”
To fill the odd silence Julia asked a question she would not have allowed herself even a half hour ago. “Does the claustrophobia have anything to do with –” she paused.
“My nomadic ways? Sure. Of course if you had asked me that a few years ago, I would have denied it.”
There were questions she might have asked, but discomfort won out over curiosity. And Gloria, big dopey dog that she was, somehow sensed that Julia needed a distraction and came over to drop a stick on the ground in front of them, her whole hind section wagging hopefully. Dodge threw it and Gloria disappeared into the shadows.
Dodge said, “So how did your husband die?”
His tone calm and matter of fact. Julia took stock, and found that she could answer.
“We thought he had the flu. Fever, aches, tired all the time, but he just kept popping aspirin and refused to go to the doctor. Then he collapsed on the street outside his office. By the time I got to the hospital he was already out of emergency and in cardiac intensive care. Bacterial endocarditis was the diagnosis, and then heart failure. He died waiting for a heart transplant.”
By coincidence, Grey’s Anatomy has had a somewhat similar storyline going. Now, I really like Grey’s Anatomy particularly because the writers are so committed to complex characters. People who make mistakes. Sometimes they revel in their mistakes and push on to greater acts of self destruction; sometimes they get a little wiser. They deal with the stuff that comes their way, or they run from it.
Any good story — in a book or on a screen — will provide this kind of complex characterization. I put my characters through hoops to see how they’ll react. That’s the way it works.
Now, Grey’s Anatomy’s second season ended yesterday, and in that ending was a resolution to this particular storyline. A very well done resolution, but now I wish I hadn’t seen it. Because I’ve been trying to write a flashback resolution scene for Julia, and I thought I had it pretty much blocked out, but all I can think about is how they did it on Grey’s. Let me assure you: nothing at all like Julia’s experience. So why does it keep following me around?
Oh yeah. Good storytelling.