Monday, November 16, 2009

Taking Hostages

Here’s another story originally published elsewhere. “Taking Hostages” originally appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of JMWW Quarterly, and the link to it appears to no longer work. This story represents a continuation of sorts of my story “The Writing Life.”  It's always a fun exercise to not only use writers as characters in stories, but to poke fun at the writing process as well. 

He peeked out the window, his fist gripping the shotgun, saw the line of police and news crew vehicles and wondered, how was he going to finish the novella he was writing? The flashing lights, the hourly phone calls from Detective Hanshaw, the building intensity outside. An ambulance was parked a block up, a perimeter of yellow tape and road barriers had been created and ordinary people lined themselves around it, standing shivering in the cold and snow, waiting for resolution.

He looked at his hostage on the couch, a woman in her late thirties named Lois, who had dark hair and dark circles under her eyes—she looked dishevelled, obviously from the experience, but he imagined most of her days were like this. She had cried briefly but had a hardened aspect to her, as if she had spent other parts of her life as a hostage, as if she wasn't even really concerned what her resolution was going to be. She sat in a reclined pose, her arms and legs bound with cord, smoking a cigarette with both hands.

Before taking a hostage, he had tried to write a novel—he had a plot idea about two young lovers who steal a car, travel across country, get into frequent trouble, and keep moving from town to town—but it wasn't working. The strain of being a clerk at the paper mill's dank, wood-paneled office and finding free time when he wasn't exhausted beyond belief or out drinking beer was too much for him. In order to write, someone had once told him, you must live as a writer. To him, this meant desperation, existing on the fringe—what better way to do this then to take a hostage? Sure, a longer work would have been unsustainable under such circumstances, especially in this rushed age when crimes such as hostage situations had a short news lifespan; but why not something shorter?

His mother had always accused him of being short-sighted. He'd spend his weekly allowance no sooner than it touched his hand on baseball cards and Swedish fish, not saving for bigger items, like a Huffy bike, or Commodore 64 video games. His mother would shake her head every time she saw him with cards and candy, until he would sneak them in the house in his pants to avoid her disapproval.

If she were alive, his mother would admonish him for what he'd done. Sure, you can write the novella if the standoff goes seventy-two hours. Maybe it would reach ninety-six and you could do a reasonable rewrite. But what was your plan after that? Had you devised a getaway to Mexico? Where would you settle? How would you live? You don't even speak Spanish. Or, were you resigned to being a prison author, hammering out works by hand or on a rusting manual typewriter if you were lucky (oddly enough, what he had been using, in case the cops cut the power) between scrubbing the cold floors and keeping yourself incognito while doing twenty-five to life? And, most importantly, where were you going to submit this novella?

After thirty-six hours, he'd had thirty-four pages. His protagonists had just eluded the police, slept in a barn and had a whimsical encounter with a pig.

Hanshaw called, after he'd just started a fresh page. She asked him again for demands. He told her, leave me alone, that's what I want. But how can we do that if we don't know what you want?, she said. If you just let Lois go free, we can talk about this, figure out what it is you want.

He would've told her, I'm trying to write a mid-size piece of fiction, something with little market in journals or on a bookstore shelf, but maybe the start of a collection, but that would've been absurd, and she wouldn't have understood. She would've laughed, and in minutes, helmeted cops would've ran the door down and pinned him on the ground.

Leave me alone, I'll let you know when I'm ready for demands, he told her, as he had done each time she called. But she kept calling back. He wanted to tell her another piece of writing wisdom he'd heard: in order to be a writer, one must write. He couldn't do that if she was going to keep interrupting. But, hey, she wanted resolution, just like everyone save Lois.

He'd told Lois about his story after he pulled the duct tape off her mouth. She said, it sounds kind of pedestrian, isn't that what every other book out there's about? He swallowed her criticism, then vowed not to tell her anymore about the project.

He was finishing page fifty when, with the whoosh of a circling helicopter fading away outside, Lois said, breathing smoke through her nose, I prefer nonfiction myself. You know, biographies, gossip about celebrities, real life kinds of stuff. Fiction is just so made up.

Lois. In another time and situation, perhaps someone like Lois would have been a suitable lover for him. But not now. The kidnapping aside, the divide between them had grown chasmic.

He'd entered the sixty-fifth hour and hammered past page seventy—enduring Hanshaw phone calls, the rhythmic chants of "surrender now!" from the crowd outside, and various failed attempts to end the story after his two protagonists engaged in long-awaited intercourse—when Lois said, nobody's going to read your story, I don't even know why you bother, it won't ever get published.

He heard this and his head collapsed on the typewriter. She was right. Who was he kidding? The phone rang. He felt like crying.

He told Hanshaw, I give up. He said he would walk out with his hands up and he did, with the news cameras rolling, photo flash decorating the air, and hundreds of people applauding as he was handcuffed and escorted to a police car.

All of this commotion, he could hear his mother say, and you didn't even finish the story.

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