Sunday, January 20, 2013
In the preceding post, I referenced a professor or two who toiled like crack-cranked elves on Christmas Eve trying to get me to stop writing first-person humor narratives. Bless their hearts, they wanted me to expand my horizons. Fiction, they believed, had a much bigger audience than truth glazed over by humor. (You're like a donut, Carolyn -- we have to pick off the glaze to get at the meat, but all that's underneath is dough. Try substance! Try ... FICTION!)
My goal was to try short sentences, avoid lofty language or transcendent abstractions. Here is my effort from 1994. (It got an 'A' -- for 'Alright, Carolyn -- enough...')
Once, there lived a little boy named Joe in a lakeside New England village with two parents and his pet frog named Ribbit. Joe was nice. Joe’s frog was nice. Ribbit was also green.
Joe was not green. He was a Caucasian Protestant Boy, which means he was a white child whose parents took him to a church painted white. The church also had a steeple. A steeple is a tower with a bell inside. The bell makes a ringing noise, “Ding, Dong,” to welcome people to church. But only on Sundays.
Inside this church, Joe could not go to confession. If he could, he would be Catholic. Catholic churches let people go to confession. Confession is a private place where priests and people talk about sin (on every day-of-the week). Sins are mistakes that people make. When people are sorry for them, priests make sure God knows it so He can forgive them. Oh, and Catholic churches can be any color. But they are rarely green.
This is a story about a boy and his frog. It is not a story about colors and priests and different ways to worship God. If it were, it would be an Abstract Story. “Abstract” means that big words are used to talk about bigger ideas.
This can be bad, because ideas are not something we can touch. Ideas are like feelings. And feelings cannot be touched. They can only be felt. But we don’t feel them with our hand. We feel them with our heart, but not the kind that pumps blood. The kind that feels love, in our hearts, where God lives. We cannot touch God, either.
Uh oh. God sounds abstract. We must move on to fiction.
Fiction stories are make-believe. They begin with words like “Once upon a time.” They are pretend. But fiction is only good when it sounds very, very real. Isn’t that funny?
People who read fiction want to believe that it is real. So fiction tries to copy real life. Real life is something that we can touch. But we cannot touch a story. We can only read a story. We can touch the book a story is in. But we cannot touch the story that goes from books into readers’ minds. Once stories enter a reader, they become the reader’s thoughts. A thought is like an idea. An idea is something we cannot touch. It is abstract, like a feeling.
Joe and his frog Ribbit went to church one Sunday morning feeling happy in their hearts for loving God and each other and for being white and green in a church with a steeple bell that goes, ‘Ding, Dong.’
No one expected it.
The minister thought that maybe Ribbit was very, very old. He told Joe, “Joe, I think that it was Ribbit’s time. That God was calling him home.”
Joe said his heart felt happy to let Ribbit go. He said, “Ribbit liked to jump. And heaven is ‘up.’”
Up, up, up went Ribbit, to go and live with God.
The bell in the steeple broke that Sunday. But no one had any thoughts or feelings about this. Its time, too, had come.
But Joe knew why the steeple bell broke.
Joe was the one who broke it.
If only he were Catholic, he could have confessed.
But Joe kept this secret locked in his heart. Not the kind that pumps blood.
Joe needed to keep the secret there, beside his other secret.
Joe killed his frog, Ribbit.
It was an accident.
Ribbit died when Joe tied him to the clapper inside the steeple bell. He wanted to hear Ribbit sing his own name, “Ribbit, Ribbit,” inside the bell’s chamber. His echoing song would sound glorious and loud. Ribbit would make all the church people happy!
But instead, the bell went “Ding, Dong.”
Ribbit went, “Ribb—thwap.”
Ribbit suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. This means that he died without pain. He never knew what hit him.
But Joe knew.
Ribbit looked pretty bad, swinging and clapping for twelve Dongs. By the time the clapper stopped, Joe could not pry Ribbit loose. He finally had to pull, really hard on that clapper to yank Ribbit down.
But the clapper fell off.
This was all very bad.
On the top step of the steeple’s loft, Joe laid the clapper down. There, he tried very gently to peel Ribbit loose. But Ribbit wouldn’t budge. Joe noticed a putty knife up there in the loft. It made a perfect frog-spatula.
Finally, Ribbit was free! Free to go up, up, up to heaven. Up there from the steeple loft, he didn’t have far to go.
Well, this story does not have a sad ending. Because Joe was a lucky boy. He never had to confess to the priest that he made the clapper clap Ribbit to death. Because Protestant churches don’t have priests.
But Joe and Ribbit were lucky for a bigger, better reason. This story is not real. It never happened. It is fiction. Make-believe. Artful fancy. Without substance. It is moot, inauthentic, fact-free, an untruth. It’s fantastic fraud, deceptive whimsy, a thrilling bold-faced lie.
But somehow it makes readers feel and think and have ideas.
Lies sound Abstract. Worse yet, lies are Addictive. Once a lie gets in a reader, it becomes fruitful and multiplies, making readers clamor for more. They are sick, ending-addicts. Many are in treatment. This forces lying-writers to think very hard until they get an idea for newer lies that end. This is called ‘collusion.’
Lying writers do this for money. If they do not make readers happy, they must take in peoples’ laundry and walk wealthy dogs. Writers hate this kind of work. Laundry smells. Dogs smell.
So writers finish stories -- to smell like writers -- and so lie-addicts won’t be left without an ending, hanging and swinging like a dead frog on a clapper. Readers need ‘closure’ which is a circle, like a hug. It comes just before ‘The End.’ Let’s move onto ‘closure’ so Lie-Lapping Closure Lovers may escape this Fiction Bell.
Joe wept for Ribbit. He pined for Ribbit. With his heart. Not with a tree. Pine trees often weep their sap. But pine sap cannot cry. Some boys think it’s sappy to cry, but pining won’t make boys saps. Only God can make tree sap.
Joe was lonely without Ribbit The Frog. Ribbit was Joe’s only friend. Joe had no one to play with. No one to eat with. No one to sleep with. No one to tell about the secret in his heart.
Joe’s heart was feeling very cold. Cold like a steeple bell. Broken like a steeple bell. Coated and smeared with Ribbit the Frog, just like a steeple bell.
At least Joe had something inside his heart. Or his heart would just be empty. Like a Bell’s Stuffing Bag on Thanksgiving Day when we jam the turkey cavity ‘til its spine snaps and its neck spews stuffing like an exploding poultry volcano.
Joe’s heart was not only cold. It was shrinking. And Joe’s blood was feeling cold. Joe was looking sick. In fact, Joe was looking green. Joe’s parents called the doctor.
The doctor said Joe wasn’t sick. He was suffering from metamorphosis. That is a big word that means Joe felt so bad about clapping Ribbit up to God that he was trying to turn into a frog. Then he could jump – up, up, up – to visit Ribbit. Guilt is a bigger word than Metamorphosis. So is Depressive Psychosis.
By the time that Joe grew warts and slime, his parents were pretty upset. And so, they called the minister.
The minister came to visit Joe. Joe croaked and hopped away. He knew the minister would look in his heart and see its smeary secret. But the minister just saw gills.
One Sunday, Joe’s parents carried Joe into church. He fit inside a shoebox. It was the first time Joe had been back at church since the Day of Ribbit’s Bad Clap.
The church people gathered all around Joe. They formed a People Circle. Joe looked up at them, then hid his face. He thought they were seeing his secret. But all they could see … was Joe.
This was very, very strange. Joe didn’t look much like himself. But the church people only saw Joe as he was. Before Joe’s Very Big Change.
To them, nothing could make Joe different. Not being green. Not having warts. Or a cold, broken heart filled with secrets.
Joe smiled when he realized he was still Joe to them. His blood began to grow warm. In fact, his little webbed hands started to sweat from the warmth and a lump swelled in Joe’s throat which puffed up really big ‘til his throat finally opened and poured out the song, ‘RIBBIT, RIBBBBIT. CROAK. NEEEEE-DEEEEP. ROGGGGIT. ROGGGIT. CROAKKK!” Which means, “I broke your steeple bell when I clapped Ribbit to death, and I’m really very sorry!”
And, Lo – the church people understood. They were multi-lingual.
Then the steeple bell, which was since repaired, pealed out a song for Joe. It sounded glorious and loud. It made Joe very happy!
And the church people stayed in their big People Circle and they held each other and formed a big People Hug. And Joe felt the Circle and looked up at the Clapper and felt Closure flood the Cold spot in his heart.
By the end of the service, Joe’s warts all fell off and he turned back into a boy. And he never again worried about locking secrets in his heart. His Church WOULD let him Confess. It just didn’t use priests. It had a Congregation.
That is the secret of white, steepled Churches. They are just buildings. With People inside, who love Joe just for Joe, who make Sin part of People. It’s a warm Circle Secret that brings people Closure. But for Joe, the secret was too well kept.
As for Ribbit, this secret meant nothing at all. Ribbit was too dead to care.