We were at a lawn party for a woman who had made a big step forward in her career. A middle–of–the–road suburb: nice but not opulent houses, neighbors who knew each other, barbecue and beer and soft drinks, and lots of kids. Boys shooting baskets out front and girls rushing in and out on some secret adventure and a mixed group shooting waterguns. Proud, genial toasts by the hostess’ husband and father. A middle–aged man in a cowboy hat, pressed blue jeans, and a thick Texas accent setting up an outdoor fan and promising discounts who any party guests who bought one. An old man with a powerful torso, big arms, thick rounded shoulders, and shaved head laughing delightedly at every remark: “I’m in full remission,” I heard him tell someone, and someone else said in an aside that a few months ago he had been eighty pounds lighter.
The man sitting next to me wasn’t making enough eye contact for me to introduce myself -- I thought he was impolite and he probably thought I was snobby. When I got up to serve myself a plate of food, by the time I came back his wife had taken my seat and they were talking absorbedly with each other about people they knew. It was the kind of party where people changed seats a lot to greet acquaintances, so I grabbed a free chair from someone and sat beside the couple, joining another little group at the same table. The couple who ignored me, or whom I ignored, left the table at some point to mingle with others.
The party ran its course, and at dessert time my wife came back to my table and said, “I just heard something that’s upsetting me a lot.”
She had been inside the house choosing from the table full of cakes and pies and cobblers that people had brought, and standing near her a boy of about thirteen was crying openly. He was crying in fear and several adults were standing near him and no one was doing anything for him. My wife asked, “Does he have a parent around here anywhere? Is anyone going to comfort him?” And a woman standing a few feet away said, “I’m his mother.” To demonstrate this fact, she went up to the boy and ordered him to stop crying and not to be a baby.
I don’t know how my wife learned the story behind it -- I wasn’t in the room and I heard it all from her. I think the boy started telling his mother what had happened. It seemed there was an older teenager at the party, a boy with a history of problems. The older boy had threatened to kill the younger one. He had said, “I’m going to come to your house and wait outside with my crossbow. I’ll burn your house down while you’re asleep.” He knew how to say it convincingly.
The boy described the older teen: tall with short red hair and acne.
The hostess was there too, and she helped calm the boy, and told his mother that he was afraid for good reason. The older boy was known to be a source of terrible trouble. His parents were just trying to hold on, waiting for the day when he would leave the home. They usually didn’t bring him to social functions because he was so bad -- really bad. This time they had brought him because they were close friends of the hostess.
A small group of us sat there, talking about it. One of our friends told us she had worked with kids like that, “And people think they’re not going to do it because they keep saying they’re going to do it and they don’t. But in fact a lot of them end of doing it. After saying it a thousand times, they end up trying to kill their little brother, just because they’re crazy. They don’t want to be but they are and no one knows how to change them.”
I was thinking about what I would have done if he had said something like that to one of my sons. I would have given him the benefit of paternal wisdom and confronted him with truths that would have turned his life around. Some of these useless imaginings were peaceful, some were violent -- the same kinds of violence, no doubt, that preoccupied the teenager every day.
And as much as the personality of the dangerous older boy disturbed us, the behavior of the younger boy’s mother did too. That was not outside the psychological mainstream, it could not be cordoned off as pathological.
The sun had set, it was getting too dark to see the colors of our food, and people were beginning to leave. As we went toward the doorway from the lawn to the house, a family of three was approaching from the other side to say goodbye to the hostess. Two of them were the couple who had sat next to me, whom I hadn’t talked to. The third was a tall red–haired boy of about sixteen, with acne.
A minute later I heard him murmuring to the hostess, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to ruin your party.” She patted him on the arm, thanked him, told him that the party hadn’t been ruined and that he was nice to apologize.
From the professional craftsmanly standpoint, this is excellent material and I have just the right amount of knowledge about it to build it up into something of my own. I know the outlines of the people and events, but there’s much more I don’t know about it, and this would compel me -- free me -- to pursue an introspective investigation, to invent a history and a present and a future for the two boys and their families -- to find “drama” and “meaning.” And the characters and setting are kinds that I’ve written about again and again. In the technical sense it wouldn’t be a problem to cook up scenes and contrive plot turns and expand upon characters for a meaty short story or even a novel.
But I don’t see what good it would do to them or me or you. Oh, if there were financial gain in it I’d do it all right: the fact that there probably wouldn’t is what frees me to indulge in these ethical musings.
Still, assuming that a good–quality finished novel came out of all this and that it made some money, got some reviews, what would be the value of it? What good would it do you to find escape in scenes of teenagers committing violence, anguished parents making late–night phone calls, straitlaced police officers knocking on doors with bad news? And certainly no good would come to any parents or children who were really living such dramas.
The more verisimilitude my rendition achieved, the closer it came to reading like convincing journalism, the more false it would be. By squeezing these facts, these people, into a recognizable form with paragraphs and quotation marks, descriptions and transitions, with only the things that fit into my novelistic suitcase included, and with the oversized, heavy things left out, I would have turned something too complicated and disturbing for me to grasp into a comfortable, familiar soap opera episode.
So I will not be writing the scenes of the well–meaning but ineffectual school guidance counselor giving the teenager advice that ironically pushes him closer to destruction; the casually incomprehending teachers joking about him in the lounge; the parental arguments caused by the stress of having to deal with an unfathomable evil in their house (plus the deadpan authorial hints that maybe they had something to do with it); the school classmates taunting him and driving him further into fury; the best friend, a marginal kid who’s his sole lifeline to his peer group, joining him in planning an attack and agonizing about whether to tell the authorities -- finally deciding not to, of course.
You can imagine all this as well as I can.
I think it would be better to just show these people in still portraits that you could look at: photos, paintings. You could provide your own dramatic introspections.
Or better still, not look at them at all, just sit and look at whatever else happens to be nearby -- a tree, a fence, a neighbor’s house. And try to hear the sound that those boys and their parents make in this world. I hear it as a steady keening, going on for eighty or fifty or maybe only twenty years.