Microfiction to Short Story – Harder Than it Looks

by Bill Henderson

death taxi-driving shades

What I couldn't tell him was that back then, most of my fares were dead folks, and I cared a lot about them. "Shades,” I called them. They didn't pay me but I treated them like fares anyway, and why not? Shades have places to go too, stuff to do, just like you and me, only things are a little harder for them.


I don’t normally post my work here. But because “Driving Shades” began as a 100 word microfiction––and because it’s Halloween––I decided to make an exception, and post it anyway. It’s a good example of how to begin with the merest fragment and build a full length short story.

It also illustrates a challenge that comes up if you’re writing a first-person narrative: adjusting diction to suit the level of a character’s language ability and style of speech. More on that in a later post.

“Driving Shades” began as a 100 word microfiction I wrote for the web site, Name Your Tale. The way Name Your Tale works is ingenius: readers send in raw titles, seemingly the more random the better, which get assigned to the website’s staff or to guest writers. As a guest, I’ve written about 25 of them. When I decided to expand one, just for fun, I looked over those I’d written and chose “Driving Shades” because something about it seemed to suggest a larger story of a genre I’d been wanting to try. The other day, Nick Faber of Name Your Tale reminded me that the original title was “Driving Shadows,” which was something of a shock. He’s right, of course, but I’m not about to change it. What follows is the original 100 word “Driving Shadows,” properly named, as published:

It’s a creepy job, driving shadows, but my kind of work. I can give back, make a difference. Shadows have stuff to do, just like us. If a shadow couldn’t call a death cab how would he ever get from the grave to his old haunts, his special places–the house where he first made love, the little green yard where he had his birthday parties, the broke down chapel where hope burned so hot. Shadows don’t fly, you know. They’re weak, they have very little spirit left, and it’s waning every second. Sure I’ll drive them around. Wouldn’t you?

The expanded version, “Driving Shades,” comes in at around 8,000 words. In the spirit of Halloween, here is the first of several parts:

“Driving Shades”

I guess it’s weird, driving a cab all night, but what else is there to do in this town at 4 in the morning? My TV’s busted. I used to read, but I can’t concentrate anymore and there’s nothing worth reading anyhow. So I drive.

I’ve been with Bay State three years, going on four, long enough so when I call myself a cabbie, you don’t see me shrugging it off. At some point, you cross a line and it’s real. You wake up one morning and you are this thing––and everybody knows it. All-State basketball, Eagle Scout, Catholic Youth and all the things you were, they don’t mean squat. Mom and Dad got that. They stopped bothering me about college or a professional job. I mean, not that they ever nagged me or anything—we’re not that kind of a family––but I’ve always known what they must have talked about back in the kitchen or late at night in bed: when’s he going to move the fuck out and we get our lives back.

One Sunday Dad and me were watching a Red Sox game and Mom drifted into the room. I could tell she was staring at me, but I kept my eyes on the TV. I knew something was coming. She picked up the remote and muted the commercial and the room got quiet all of a sudden. Nothing but a screen door whapping shut one yard over.

“Your dad and me,” she said––and stopped like she’d hit a wall. She sucked in a long breath, and her eyes opened wider. She shot a glance at Dad. “We… Dad and me, we want you to know that, with all you been through—“

“We been through,” Dad corrected her, in a whisper.

“We, that’s right…” Her face hardened a little, all except for her eyes, which were filling with tears. “That’s right. We. All of us…” She stopped again, shook her head from side to side, no sound coming out of her, and turned back to Dad, who cleared his throat, harrumph, hem-hem, and took over.

“You got a home here, son, is what Mom’s trying to say. Always, okay. No questions asked. Drive a cab, work at the bake shop, whatever, it don’t matter. We understand.” Now they were both looking at me. “We know what’s going on.”

Except they didn’t. They didn’t begin to know.

People around here remember me. They know how I used to be, and they like the memory, so they cut me some slack, bring me food on the job sometimes–a sandwich, bowl of soup, cup of coffee. Beyond that, they know it’s best to just leave me alone. They remember Sis. They remember what happened. Nobody forgets that.

Gabe, my dispatcher, gets a request every now and then specifically for me. When he puts on this certain tone, I can tell it’s a woman, maybe a girl I used to know. She doesn’t have anyplace to go, just wants to sit in my backseat while I drive her around in the dark, then take her home. Maybe she knew me in high school, had a crush on me or something, her husband’s on the road, that kind of thing. She’s alone, wants a little tenderness, a little talk. I try to be nice, but it’s never what she hoped for. I can sense the disappointment. She doesn’t say it, but I’ve let her down and I won’t see her again because she didn’t get whatever it was she really wanted.

Yeah, I’m a disappointment. At home, on the job, all over town, so what? Should I care? Maybe I should, but I don’t. What’s to care about? My pride, my reputation? Like, I didn’t live up to somebody’s standards? Don’t make me laugh.
There was a time when things mattered. If I reach back far enough, I can remember feeling happy because I’d had a good day. Or I was in love, or I’d hit a winning basket, or got a good grade. I also remember what it feels like to hurt inside so bad I wanted to kill myself. Those are the last feelings I remember having.

There was this guy on the basketball team, and I knew he’d been treated for depression, so I asked him about it one time. I asked him, “Say you were hurting inside so bad you want to kill yourself, what does that mean?”
We were out of the showers and dressing in front of our lockers, the last two guys. He was bent over, taking some time to rub his hair dry––an extra-long time it seemed to me. Then his head rose up slow, his eyes sad and hollow.

“You need somebody to talk to,” he said.

So I went to see Father Mackey. Not that I’m especially religious or anything, but I always kind of liked him. He’s a big guy, used to play football at B.C. and he still carries the extra weight, mostly as fat. He had a heart attack a few years back, but I don’t think he ever did anything to change his life. Underneath the Christian stuff, he really believes in blind fate.

It’s hard to remember what I was hoping for. Maybe that he’d have a direction for me, a path, one of those things. I couldn’t tell him the whole story, of course, but if I could just come close, maybe he’d figure out the rest. I took a deep breath and told him everything I could. He listened, nodding here and there, and when I was done, he looked at me for a long moment, like I had paralyzed him or something. Then he smiled big, like he had the answer, but I knew he didn’t. It was the smile coaches give you right before they tell you you’re not living up to your potential, and you’ve got to give a hundred percent of yourself two hundred percent of the time, go out there and fight. That kind of stuff.

He said I should pull myself together and try harder.

“We all know what you went through, you and your family,” he said. “But here you are sitting in my office today, lean and healthy. God put you on this earth for a reason, so I’d say get busy, find something that helps others and just do it.”
Just in case he had something particular in mind, I waiting.

“Okay, Father,” I said finally, looking down.

He reached over and pinched my elbow. “You feel that?”

“Sure.”

“You’re alive, son. Join the living. Commit yourself to being a living human being. It’s a privilege, you know.” He sat back, nodding, grinning at me, and held the grin until the corner of his mouth twitched. “Show God you care.”

“About?”

“About?” The grin was gone. His eyes toughened. “About being alive, son. This world is full of folks way worse off than you. They could use a little help.”

“Oh, yeah, I see.”

Father Mackey peeked at his watch and faked being surprised. “Holy cow, look at the time.” He rose up from his chair and thrust a hand out for me to shake. I took it, and he pulled me so close I could smell cigarette smoke on his breath.

“Show God you care,” he said again, the words beaming out of his big sunny face, and we were done.

I should have told him it wasn’t that I didn’t care, it was more like…what did I care about?

I always thought caring was when you get a feeling in your throat like you’re about to lose it, laughing or crying, but you don’t know which. Nothing makes me feel that way anymore. I mean, I knew what he meant––we’re all alive on the planet, sharing this life, all these hordes of people running around being alive and sharing it, but that doesn’t do squat for me nowadays. I get very little out of that. Nothing at all, really. Does that mean I don’t care about “the living?” Maybe so.

What I couldn’t tell him was that back then, most of my fares were dead folks, and I cared a lot about them. “Shades,” I called them. They didn’t pay me but I treated them like fares anyway, and why not? Shades have places to go too, stuff to do, just like you and me, only things are a little harder for them. They don’t fly like in movies or ghost stories. They’re weak. They have very little spirit left, and it’s waning every second. If a shade couldn’t get a ride, how would he ever get where he’s going? To his old haunts, his special places–the house where he got his first kiss, the little green yard where he had his birthday parties, the broke-down chapel where his hopes burned so hot. So sure, I drove them. It was a way I could make a difference, something I could care about. I’d even say it was when I was driving a shade that I felt almost alive.

What a joke: ex-popular boy, everything to live for, he picks up dead folks at night to feel alive and show God he cares.

But it made perfect sense to me.

[Continued Tomorrow]

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Liz Mallard October 31, 2011 at 10:35 pm

More, please. I’m hooked . . . on Halloween! Love this story. Thanks.

Leave a Comment

*

{ 3 trackbacks }