ALMOST EVERY issue of every slick magazine using fiction contains one more-or-less off-beat story. If you were to analyze the average copy of some four-story slick, you'd probably find one young-love piece ending with marriage or the prospects of a marriage, one man-and-wife tale with or without kiddies, one action story, and, for the fourth, something a trifle unique.
One of these fourth-slot, off-beat stories is not really a story at all. Nothing much happens in the story in the sense of the protagonist's fortunes being changed for better or worse. Quite frequently it is a short-short, a form in which experimental (by slick standards) writing is most appreciated. Here's an example.
A certain aging married gentleman gets to thinking about old times, and especially about how his boyhood friends were forced to split up when they got married or left the home town to go to work in other parts of the country. He remembers that immediately before the parting, they had passed around a loaf of pumpernickel bread on which all had carved their initials. He can't recall what finally happened to the loaf, but he remembers it as a grand, sentimental gesture for young men likely never to see each other again.
Suddenly, the old man has an idea. He decides to buy another loaf of pumpernickel bread and send it to the one member of the old group whose address he knows and exhort him to carve his name in it and send it on to any other member of the gang whose whereabouts that member may know. The old fellow has the fond hope of getting together all the old friends that remain for one last reunion.
The wife tries to warn her husband gently that starting such a project will only make him sad, that he had best forget it. But the man insists, and goes to purchase a pumpernickel. He brings it home, saying that he is tired and will start the thing on the next day. He goes to bed. The next morning, when he sits down at the breakfast table, there, cut into slices and offered up on a dish, is the loaf of pumpernickel. He takes a slice, bites into it, remarks to his wife what fine bread it is, and asks her where she bought it.
When condensed into a few lines of bald language, these stories cannot seem too effective. But this one-though you may not realize it-was really a poignant little piece. It was warm without being sentimental, interesting without relying on some synthetic suspense device, and, finally, satisfying without being untrue. Actually, nothing happened in the story. The reader merely watched a nicely acted-out anecdote about two old people.
A man is driving along a lonely highway. Suddenly, he has a blowout. Changing the tire does not bother him nearly so much as the memory of two hitch-hikers about a mile back who had flagged him for a ride and whom he had passed by. They struck him as mean looking characters and now he imagines them walking along the road in his direction. He can't possibly have the tire changed before they overtake his car. If they have any criminal tendencies, they undoubtedly will make it rough for him when they find him changing the tire.
As expected, the hitch-hikers do come along and are even tougher looking than the driver remembers them. They indulge in a little Hemingway-gangster chatter and finally pull a gun on the driver. The two strip the driver of his wallet and take his car. The driver then gets out on the road himself and flags a ride from another driver. Once in the car, the first driver asks the second if he is not apprehensive about picking up strangers on lonely roads. The second driver says no, he has never turned down a hitch-hiker in all his twenty years of driving, and nothing bad has ever come of it. The cynical driver thinks to himself that he won't disillusion his guest by telling him about his recent experience. The story closes with the good-natured driver exclaiming that people will never do you any harm if you treat them right.
There are aspects of the "biter-bit" story in this piece, but, actually, the suspense does not rest primarily on the question of whether the two hitch-hikers will revenge themselves on the first driver for having passed them by. The revenge is accomplished and the story is not half finished. The revelation of the mean and cynical blind spot in one man's spiritual vision is the point of the story.
The father of a teen-age girl arrives at his home one evening to find that his daughter is throwing a gay and noisy party for some of her contemporaries. The father sees his living room a shambles, some favorite bric-a-brac is broken, the rug and furniture stained with spilled soft drinks. The sight of the exuberant youngsters making a mess of his home infuriates the father. There have been too damn many parties lately, the father decides, and stalks in among the young people to demand that they stop the noise, clean up the mess, and leave. Shamefacedly, the youngsters rearrange things and go. When the friends finally leave, the daughter goes with them. The father is left with the knowledge that she will stay out late in order to worry him. He also realizes that she will remain sulky unless he comes to her and asks her to have her parties at home. His pride will not allow him to do this. He must have his victory, petty as it is.
This story takes on meaning only in that it depicts in traumatic terms the child throwing off parental authority, a usually inescapable aspect both of growing up for the child and of bringing up children for the parents. What is it that differentiates pieces like these three from the mass of fiction that editors reject with the criticisms "no story content" or "just as anecdote"? Such pieces as these are not frequently used, and when they are, one sometimes wonders why. Very general advice would indicate that the writer should steer clear of this plot-type unless he feels he has something which is extraordinarily strong slick-wise on some other score than plot quotient and which inescapably falls into this category.