His name was Ethan and he was a supermarket clerk. Renée knew this not because they had been living next door to each other in the same small apartment complex for over two years, but because she bought most of her groceries from the neighborhood Scolari's where he manned the express lane, ten items or less. His uniform consisted of a long red apron and a thin, rectangular name tag, bright green, with Ethan pressed across it in clear white type. Some of the bolder employees donned matching green baseball caps, but he was thankfully not of this minority.
As a neighbor he was passable, soft-spoken and distant, and together they had cultivated a perfectly empty relationship: brief acknowledgments in the mail room, elevator rides bloated with awkward pleasantries, practical conversations about construction on the roof or next week's garbage collection. As a supermarket clerk, he was well trained, but not obnoxious, quietly letting her slip by with eleven cans of soup or a limit-breaking bag of carrots. She had seen him around the grocery store for at least a year before he moved onto her floor, pushing carts in the parking lot and stacking up bags of charcoal, and had learned nothing since that his uniform hadn't already confirmed. They usually met at the cash register, smiling complacently over her club card and a carton of milk, and she always found herself making some superfluous comment about the joint nature of their lives.
That was how it progressed until that fateful autumn day when he tintinnabulated Renée's bell. She opened her door and there he stood, still in uniform. They scanned each other and knew that instant they were an item; the one item over the limit. They drifted to the bedroom without effort. Renée didn't feel her legs proceeding; it was like she was on a conveyor.
They unwrapped each other with unpracticed ease and fell to the mattress. "Be careful with the eggs," she said. "Oh, and what about the juice?"
He paused and sighed. "Paper, or plastic?"
Opening: Regina.....Continuation: Anonymous
The joint nature of their lives was unremitting boredom. Nothing ever happened. The End.
"Is there anything else you can tell us about him?" Ron Jeffries finished taking down comments.
"No," sobbed Irene. "Renee told me he was a quiet boy, always kept to himself. And he had that collection of Star Wars things he wanted to show her. I guess he finally got her to look."
"Yeah." He snapped the book shut. Jeffries had seen a lot of murders, too many. Renee lay dead, a Darth Vader mask on her head, a string of Ewok Christmas lights wrapped tightly around her neck. At her side lay scattered Star Trek figures, most bashed into ruin by the hammer-wielding Ethan.
He'd seen a lot of animosity between the two fandoms, but this was a first.
Well, at least it hadn't involved the Tolkien geeks. Sure, the Star Wars fans were passionate, but the Tolkien people used swords.
Renee was tired of being nothing more than neighborly. She touched his hand when he took her club card, a lingering contact that expressed her secret longing.
"Maybe we could go out for a drink tonight," she offered.
Ethan's cheeks flamed red, as red as his apron, a festive contrast with his green name tag. "Gosh, I don't know," he stammered.
"Come on, we're neighbors. Why not? A couple of beers, what do you say? And then after, why don't you come up to my place and we'll get to know each other better."
"Gosh, Ms. Zellweger, but I'm not old enough to drink. I'm only sixteen."
I feel it's taking too long to get to the part where you explain why you're telling us about Ethan. In fact, you seem to be doing your best to convince us he's of no interest at all. I'd drop the first paragraph. Whittle the second down to something like:
She had seen him around the grocery store for at least a year, pushing carts in the parking lot and stacking up bags of charcoal. They usually met at the cash register, smiling complacently over her club card and a carton of milk. He was well trained, not obnoxious, quietly letting her slip by with eleven cans of soup or a limit-breaking bag of carrots. Together they had cultivated a perfectly empty relationship.
Then he moved into the apartment next to hers.
Where it goes from here depends on whether it's literary fiction or horror/slasher.
Okay, okay, that's not your story. But try to get to what your story is more quickly. You can describe Ethan's uniform after we know what's going on.
I liked Khazar-khum's continuation better. But then, I'm a card-carrying member of Tolkien fandom and was involved in the founding of the SCA.
I still think it needs swords.
I liked it too. Mostly I liked the idea that the opening was describing a murder suspect. But I didn't see anything in the opening that hinted the characters were fans of Wars, Trek or Rings. Perhaps KK can resubmit when we have an opening in which there's been a murder. In other words, the joke about why the murder was committed is funny, but the continuer inserted the murder. The opening wasn't even needed.
I like EE's idea a lot. He took your material and juiced it up as much as possible. But I'm afraid there's not much interesting about a grocery store scene.
I think you're trying to convey that he's a person who nobody notices, but the problem is you present him as boring and not worthy of reading about.
Regina, you have a very well-written opening about nothing. Sorry. But I think you're a talented writer so I want to be honest. Can you give this opening another shot? I want to see this again. Make us care about the poor sod. I think most of us have been in this mind-numbing place in our lives at one point or another, so you have something relatable. Just not compelling--yet.
You can do it.
As you probably guessed from my own writing, I enjoy long and winding openings. I don't need to be drop-kicked right into the action if the build-up to the action holds meaning.
I like your two opening sentences quite a bit, but the next two seem to taper off. I think I see what you're working toward - a kind of a soft background story and character introduction to two quiet, "soft" characters.
I'd use the first two sentences, skip the next two, and cut the second para. to begin -- somewhere around (after "ten items or less") -
"He'd quietly let her lip by with eleven cans of soup..." and finish the paragraph out that way.
I think the rest of what you describe would be better served in action and dialogue following the introduction. Just my opinion, of course!
And I do like the quiet description of the quiet characters, but I think I'd let them "speak" for themselves after the introduction to the action in the last sentence of your second paragraph, whihc lends intself well to the place that begins. You may already have planned it that way.
Hope this helps - I wanted to wait untilthis afternoon to say anything, so I could take my time when commenting.
EE, I was thinking of a trick setup as in the old joke about the murder investigation where the punch line reveals that the "victims" are goldfish.
But, come to think of it, that really doesn't work for any narrative longer than about three paragraphs.
Sadly, blogger ate my comment yesterday and, though I waited about patiently in hope that it would magically appear, I do fear it's lost forever.
Approximately what was said:
Thanks so much EE, CL, and Robin. I just pulled this piece out after two years thinking it might be worth revising, but couldn't quite find the perspective to recognize that much of the opening paragraphs should be relocated or excised altogether. So nice to have constructive input from outside sources.
You're right, Robin. This is a "quiet" bit of literary fiction (sadly lacking in murders and warring fan clubs). There's nothing particularly unusual about Ethan, but Renee's perception of certain discrepancies between his life and what she assumes is the life of a supermarket clerk lead her to believe he is hiding something.
When he asks to borrow her car (this is the trigger for the events of the story, so perhaps this is where I should start?), she sees it as an opportunity to learn more about him, but no insights are forthcoming. As her fascination borders on obsession, she lets him use her car to the exclusion of her use of it and soon finds herself alienated from her life.
A third of the story is told from the perspective of a woman whose only encounters with Ethan take place when he's driving Renee's car. The reader, therefore, is party both to Ethan's missing piece and to Renee's continued misapprehension of it.
So, oddly enough, Ethan's ultimately not worth reading about, but I may be shooting myself in the foot by making that point so immediately clear.
Is it bad that the opening line always makes me think of "Her name was Lola; she was a showgirl"?
Is it bad that the opening line always makes me think of "Her name was Lola; she was a showgirl"?
Yes. Absolutely. And that's a problem that it'll take more than a little re-writing to fix...
I really liked the rhythm of this. I'd keep reading for sure. :)
I have to reconstruct this post thanks to Blogger.
a) Since they meet at the supermarket, do they also live in the same building? The first sentence of the second paragraph implies all that and seems out of place. A few words in the body of paragraph two also hint at this hidden fact. Do you want it hidden like that?
I think that she first notices him in the supermarket and then periodically sees him in the apartment building. However, she sees more of him at the supermarket and much less of him in the apartment building. That's what I gather from your writing. It's scattered through too many words.
b) I never notice what the supermarket clerks wear. They are completely non-desrcript to my eyes. Unless his uniform is essential to the story, why is it in the opening?
c) Both paragraphs contain supermarket descriptions that make Ethan more than ordinary - boringly ordinary, amazingly ordinary, astoundingly ordinary. It's a mundane job. We get the idea. You are not getting to the point.
These two people obviously get together. Let's get to that event, whatever it is.
I think that you should make the supermarket references in one paragraph and not two. Use the stuff from the second paragraph and forget his uniform. Or forget all the second paragraph stuff and leave the uniform. But not both right here in the opening. Then the second paragraph can present their meeting in the same apartment building.
Now we need to know their connection. At least a hint to keep the reader interested. Do they fall in love? DOes he save her during a robbery? What incident brings them together?
Ether-lost comment in a nutshell:
You're good at describing this boring guy so I got bored with reading it. One of the problems writing about boring people.
Now that I've read that there's really nothing to the story except what's in her hyperactive imaginaiton, I might feel cheated if I read the book. Dunno. Depends on how much I enjoyed reading it. It sounds like the story line is a let down in and of itself.
Might be a good short story though.
You're absolutely right. I forgot to mention that it's a short story. =) This sort of non-plot wouldn't sustain a longer work.
Ethan does have some personal drama that plays out in the scenes that take place away from Renee, but it's of the ordinary human scale. However, I would like to think that the "let-down" factor is somewhat tempered by the changes effected on Renee's character by the end. Very lit-fic, I'm afraid, but certainly more interesting than the current beginning makes it seem. (I will definitely rewrite and remedy that issue in some accordance to the suggestions made here.)
As far as you not noticing the attire of supermarket clerks... This is one small facet of your character. That Renee seems particularly aware of Ethan's attire should clue you in to a certain aspect of her character. In this sense, it's important. However, I agree with you in that I now think an entirely different opening is in order.
I'm glad to see your comments. I was wondering where you and others were the other day- didn't realize Blogger was having issues.
I think you have the beginning of a good piece of work. I don't see anything wrong with Renee thinking
there's something different or slightly sinister about Ethan, and finding out there isn't - as you were saying.
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