“Two Ways”, which the good people at Elsewhere Lit decided to put in their 7th issue (out today) has its origins in two images, one from a real event, the other from a sitcom, that stuck with me long enough for me to combine them into something new. This isn’t unusual. Fiction writers do this a lot, but often times it’s hard to remember precisely where the images that inspire us come from. Here, it’s easy.
The first image comes from the fourth season of the TV sitcom Wings. In the episode “Goodbye, Old Friend” airplane mechanic Lowell Mather’s friend and mentor Weeb Gilroy passes away, and Lowell is asked to deliver the eulogy. But Lowell is not a words man, so he has no end of trouble penning something appropriate. In the end, he decides that in lieu of words, he’ll finish the project he and Weeb had been working on together for years: the restoration of an old biplane. He finishes the plane, and he gets Joe, his pilot friend, to fly it for him during Weeb’s funeral as a tribute. The show, presumably hampered by budget considerations, never shows the plane in the air, but the image I pictured of it buzzing the funeral stuck with me for decades afterward.
I’m a soft touch sometimes. Sue me.
The other image is more recent, and I remember it with less pleasure than I thought I would when I first saw it. When last year’s third presidential debate ended, Hillary Clinton had once again taken Donald Trump apart on stage, and you could tell that he knew it. Hillary had left her podium to shake hands with the moderator, meet her family, and wave to well-wishers in the audience–typical stuff politicians do, win or lose, at the ends of debates. Trump, by stark contrast, stayed behind the podium, seething. None of his family went near him. He’d been bested, by a woman, again, in front of the whole country, and he had no way of dealing with it. He just stood there, ripping pages from his notebook.
In the end, combining these two images was quite simple. Howard Zez is already established as my Trump stand-in, and putting him in a situation where he feels like he’s going to shine, as the one who delivers his brother Milford’s eulogy, puts him in a lovely situation for a comic face plant. And letting Howard’s sister deliver the coup de grace to his eulogy by flying the WWI plane she and Milford had been building over the funeral home let me to preserve the dynamic of the third presidential debate by having a woman show Howard up.
It was fun to write.
One more note. This is the first story I’ve written in this series told from Howard’s point of view. In other stories I’ve done, Howard comes of as a bluff, right-wing, vain, incompetent heel, which he certainly is. He’s Archie Bunker with more money and a camera. But when I wrote a story from his point of view, I had to find a way to connect with him, some aspect of me that I could see in him to humanize him. What I found was Howard-as-frustrated-artist. Howard decided to stay away from the family business to devote himself to making movies–a thing his has tremendous passion and no talent for. However much he tries to puff himself up, on some level he suspects that his relatives and friends think of his work as a joke, which contrasts sharply with the rest of the world’s utter indifference to it. Howard is desperate for acclaim and respect, and underneath his bluster he wonders if he’ll ever get it. I know I’ve felt like this from time to time, like I’m the only one who gives a damn whether I keep writing or not. And when I see social media posts from friends and relatives and strangers who seem to be doing so much better than I am, it makes me feel lousy about what I do and I wonder when or if it’ll get better, or if I am, in the end, any better at my art than Howard Zez is at his. It’s that insecurity, which I confront daily, that helped me connect with Howard Zez in “Two Ways To Say Goodbye To Milford”. To the extent that he isn’t just the two-dimensional butt of one of my jokes, that’s why.
We’ll most likely return to this next when my next story in the Zezverse, “The Day Molly Got Into Room”, appears in Constellations sometime in the spring of 2018.