Thursday, October 30, 2008

An Incomplete Work of Fiction (3 of 3): Climax

We shift back to the present.

The mother is dead. Again, it’s not unexpected, but neither is it easy. Hardy is suddenly bereft of his core reason for getting up in the morning. Felix is feeling the guilt of not having done enough, and anger at how she died. Flashback briefly to that night, where the mother dies, and Electra can’t be reached. Someone calls the police, and an ambulance comes. Although the mother has expressed her desire not to be resuscitated to each of her children, it has never been written down. Without such an order in writing, the paramedics are obligated to try. This frustrates and angers Felix, and this anger will alter manifest against Electra.

But for now, we cut to one brief shining moment, as in the face of 9/11, the disparate factions of the family come together at the mother’s funeral. It is an amazing event, and inspiring in a real sense. But in the back of his mind, Felix can’t help but hear his mothers stated (and somewhat selfish) wish not to have a funeral.

And so that brief shining moment is extinguished as, the day after the funeral, Felix demands of Elecktra that she show him the will. Electra moves from stand-offish to belligerent, and delays revealing the will for almost a year. In that interim, there are scenes of anger, and terror, and screaming, and tears as Felix seems, at times, to go out of control. There is raw emotion on all sides, the likes of which can only be explored in fiction. There is one particular scene where Felix, now sole owner of the house, screams at Electra and calls her unpardonable names. His sanity comes into question at this point, as to whether he is merely manic depressive, or truly delusional. But what is unquestionable is that the dissolution has begun.

The conflict escalates. Felix throws Hardy out of the house, his home for the past decade, and isolates himself from the rest of the family. Not that this is hard to do, as the family appears to revel in a dysfunctional disjointedness that seems to increase daily.

The next inciting incident is the filing of the will, nearly a year after the mother’s death, which is followed almost immediately by Felix’s challenge to it, and to Electra’s serving as executrix. The scene is set in a courtroom, as Felix stands on one side and Electra on the other, before a Probate and Family Court judge who clearly could not give two shits about any of the back story, and can’t even clearly hear what issues are being laid before him. It’s an indictment of the system in a sense, and a cautionary tale, but also a family drama beginning to spin out of control. Here we juxtapose the cold, dry, and almost sterile environment of the courtroom proceedings with the tensions roiling just beneath the surface, frustration, and as slow seething that, if not yet hatred, is well along the path toward it.

Maybe we add poignance to this scene by juxtaposing it in time with a family barbecue of decades earlier; a series of snapshots from a family album, committed to memory, and colored by it. Both the father and the mother are alive, and the siblings talk happily and heartily, enjoying good music and laughing conversation and the closeness of strong familial bonds.

Cut to present, as Electra and Hardy are on one side of the courtroom. Felix sits two rows before them, having entered and not even glanced at them. The judge goes through other cases of dysfunctional families, divorce, custody, and angry, bitter opponents.

Cut to the past, as the father slips his hand around the mothers shoulder, both beaming for an impromptu snapshot, showing a tender closeness that is the core of the family unity. But which will not last.

Cut to the present, where Ovid sits on the opposite side, also alone, trying to make sense of how this has all come to this. This scene is somewhat surreal, and somewhat unclean, and leaves the reader with a sense that this entire world and every surface in the courtroom is in desperate need of a shower.

Cut to the past, as the siblings all group, standing, hands on paper plates heaped with comfort food as they lean back in laughter and bask in the warmth of a summer day that will pass in time, and never come again.

The scene ends with the judge giving Felix 30 days to outline his objections to the will, thereby moving the plot forward.

A week later, Ovid is playing phone tag, trying to get Felix to drop the challenge, or, failing that, to at least put into words what his goal is in this action, besides a futile attempt to punish Electra and Oscar. Felix can’t give one, and this fact is not lost in the circular logic Felix expounds to justify his actions. And Electra is no better. In a late night phone conversation, decades of anger spill over from Electra onto Ovid. She calls him self centered, tells him that he always removes himself from taking action, that he is so damned detached as to be almost uninvolved, But at this point, Ovid is no longer in a conciliatory mood, and is willing to strike back.

The situation turns confrontational through a series of phone calls. It becomes increasingly clear to Ovid that none of this is about the stated goals. This is about who is the boss, who the best arbiter and interpreter of the Mother’s last wishes, in spirit or in action. This becomes clear by how often Ovid has to ask the same simple questions: what would it take to resolve this? What is the simple thing you want? Accountability requested on one side, autonomy demanded on the other. The goals are incompatible, and create suspicion and mistrust.

So here is the crux of the climax; what does Ovid do?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An incomplete work of fiction (2 of 3): Complication

We fast-forward a few years to the household where the middle brother, (let’s call him Hardy) is the primary caregiver for the bed-ridden mother. Hardy has always seemed a bit lost—thrice divorced with five kids by the different women, and due to an incarceration for failure to pay child support after being laid off, unable to hold gainful employment without losing all his wages. Let’s make this situation sad, but serendipitous, as the act that saves the mother from having to go to a nursing home.

Let’s throw in a minor climax in this flashback, where all six siblings together agree that the house should be sold to one of their number, as a means of protecting the mothers assets should she ever be hospitalized, or forced to go into a home. The consensus is that the house go to Felix to take care of. The understanding would be that any of the siblings would have the right to buy the house from that brother for a reasonable rate—right of first refusal.

Then, let’s introduce the next twist to propel the plot. Let’s say that Felix, the lawyer, tries to get the mother to sign a power of attorney, giving the eldest authority. There’d be a lot of subtext about the eldest wanting this responsibility, but then also undertones of what the father had said about Felix before the father died. More layers, more uncertainty. Now, Felix does this while he lives far away, so leaves the papers with the mother, to address on his return.

Now, the next twist. On a visit to the mother, Oscar finds the papers and, suspicious, and more than a little angry, takes them. He has them changed, re-written so that Oscar gets the power of attorney, and mastery over all the mothers affairs. On his return, Felix is disconcerted, but does not challenge this change. Again, this is based on the mother’s stated wishes, not his own.

Okay, more back story. The eldest brother, Felix, is followed by the eldest sister (let’s call her Electra) and there is bad blood between them—the kind of bad blood that can only arise from strained familial bonds. Oscar bonds with Electra, and the same fell swoop that gives Oscar the power of attorney, makes Elektra the health proxy.

There’s an inherent conflict here amongst the key players Electra and Felix. They are the oldest male and the oldest female. As the eldest male, Felix took on the role of father to the family as a boy, when the father left the family for another relationship. When he later returned, the boy had functioned as father figure for too long to simply give the role up. Echo this with the role of Electra as the surrogate mother to the family, acting as caretaker for a mother forced to be away from home often, at work as a career woman, and sole support for the family. This is the root of their conflict, with the parents at the core. The key being that the parent’s created the problem, but never took the time or the responsibility to resolve it.

Now the stage is set for a replaying of that rivalry, surrogate father against surrogate mother, Hyper-paternalism against hyper-maternalism, both directing anger and aggression against the other, as they had seen the parents do in the latter years of their married lives.

Flash forward. Electra and Felix say they are doing this, assuming responsibility for their mothers affairs, for the mother’s sake and by her wishes, and that seems reasonable. The only problem is that the yare unwilling to provide any transparency. There is no accountability for the mother’s finances. They adopt a “my way or the highway” attitude. The mother has a monthly check for Social Security, a monthly check from her pension, and a monthly check from the father’s pension. The checks are automatically deposited into an account which the mother shares with Ovid (that is, which the mother put Ovid’s name onto). Because his name is on the account, Ovid has access to the account, but that access is limited to essentially checking on the balance regularly, and seeing the money transferred in, and the next day transferred out into a separate account maintained by Oscar. But Ovid has the ability at least to track how much money is going in. And he has a growing awareness that the money is not being spent on his mother’s care. The plot thickens. What to do?

The overwhelming undercurrent through this part of the story is the mother’s insistence that the siblings not fight. We can cap this and typify it with a heart felt one-on-one scene where Ovid tries to reach the mother, and tries to tell her that if she does not sort the affairs of her life and her children before she dies, these issues will never be sorted. It needs to read as poignant, and prophetic. Very prophetic, as it will be revealed.

At the end of the scene we see the core dilemma. With a single call to action, Ovid would galvanize to action, and be at the ready to demand accountability, and take care of the mother. But he wants—needs, really—her participation in at least the call to action. He needs her to say it is what she wants. And she will not, for the rest of her life.

And the stage is set, as we build to the climax.

To be continued.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

An incomplete work of fiction (1 of 3)

I sit down to write a story.

I write because fiction is so much more interesting than life. More controllable. The twists and turns of a good, complicated tale of intrigue and emotion and right and wrong, and all the moral ambiguities in-between, that’s the stuff that makes our own lives seem so much better in comparison. Or, maybe, not as good. Maybe it’s that the hope of a happy ending colors our reality, and the hope in that mirror, that our own reality might reflect those joyful colors, as well as all the complexities.

So, let’s tell a story.

Let’s just say, as a case of fiction, that a man’s mother dies. Let’s call him Ovid. She’s died of old age, as close to a case of natural causes as that vague term allows, and after a long slow mental death by inches from the ravages of dementia. That’s the inciting incident of the story, I think. That’s the event not that starts the ball rolling, but that all of the other events lead up to and from.

Okay, first we need some framework. We’d need to set up that Ovid is from a large family—three brothers and two sisters, of which Ovid is the youngest. We’d need to establish that Ovid is in his mid 40’s, and that the oldest sibling (we’ll call him Felix), one of the brothers, is past retirement age at 64. So in a sense, the mother’s death was not unexpected. But the emotions at the mother’s death are real, and repercussive.

But we need still more back-story. Rolling back the clock, we’d need to set up how the father had died nearly ten years previous, and how one of the things that the father had done before cancer ravaged his otherwise vibrant and healthy form, as to criticize Felix, as “greedy” and self-serving. And let’s make Felix a lawyer, just for the sake a plot device. Foreshadow a conflict here between father and eldest son, which Ovid can only guess at, like someone walking into the middle of a movie. Some things have happened that all the other moviegoers know, and which is key to the plot direction, but which the latecomer has to piece together as he goes. It’s a hell of a way to build a psyche.

But this can be a powerful scene, in context. Ovid and the next youngest brother (let’s call him Oscar), had gone to the fathers ancestral home in Mississippi from the family’s home in New England, to take care of the father, who was battling cancer. It was a good time for Ovid to take a break, because he’d just been downsized from his job of ten years, and while he had some prospects, needed the break. And there is an unspoken pressure of Ovid’s own family—his wife pregnant with their first child—to provide for. Family, and providing for family, is a recurrent theme in the story.

But within these scenes come an important connection between Ovid and the father, and a resolution of things often unsaid in a life, needing to be said. It ends with closeness, and warmth, and good feeling. And it’s short-lived.

Ovid leaves the recovering father to start a new job several states away, leaving him in Oscar’s care, with the understanding that the second-oldest sister (let’s call her Minerva) will be coming two weeks later for her “turn.” But this turns out to be the last time Ovid sees his Father, as the Father dies less than two weeks later. Ovid never goes to the funeral. Funeral’s weren’t his thing. He’d always wonder if he made a mistake in that.

Next, lets’ just put in, for the sake of a new plot twist, that the week before the father died, Oscar, alone, made a trip to the father’s safe deposit box, and took the fathers will. And destroyed it. Out of character? Inexplicable? Time, and our story, will tell.

Top that off with Oscar taking sole ownership of the father’s property as a result of a new will that he’d somehow had possession of, created in the span of time between Ovid leaving and the death of the father. Now we have some interesting intrigue, wouldn’t you say? We’d have to wonder at the motivation, of course, and what Oscar hoped to gain. A noble act for the benefit of the siblings, ensuring the father’s legacy almost against his will? He does make a point of delivering what he says is a 1/6th share from the sale of the property to each sibling. But he makes that delivery behind the wheel of a brand new car. But maybe it’s just cynical and mistrustful for Ovid to note that. In any event, like so many doubts and concerns he will evince through the course of the story, Ovid pushes the thought away.

To be continued.