There’s always something to howl about

Time and a vector — these are the back-stories of our lives…

This is an extract from the novella I wrote at Christmas:

Christmas — the back-story.

“The name of the game is back-story.” I said that. I was sitting with Tigan and Chance at the food court at the Paradise Valley Mall. “The objective is to pick out people in the crowd, then come up with a plausible back-story for them.”

“Why?” Chance asked.

“Because it’s fun, mostly. But you can learn a lot about people if you think about how they got to where they are.”

We had been shopping, the three of us. I sent them off on their own to get gifts for their parents while I shopped alone for gifts for them. I had sent Adora off on an errand in the car, and we had all agreed to converge on the food court when we finished.

“Look at her,” I said, pointing to a chunky woman in scrubs barreling past us. “What’s her story?”

“Well,” Tigan said, “She’s a nurse.”

“Duh!” Chance said that.

“Why is she walking so fast?” I asked.

“Dood! It’s Christmas Eve!”

“Okay, I’ll give you that. Married or unmarried?”

“How could you know that?” Tigan asked.

“You can’t know, but you can guess. My guess would be unmarried. Kids or no kids?”

Chance scowled, glowered almost, but Tigan said, “…She has kids.”

“How do you know?”

“She came here straight from work. If she were unmarried with no kids, she would have changed clothes first. And brushed her hair and put on some make-up. Ms. Unmarried Nurse is available and wouldn’t waste an opportunity. Mrs. Married Nurse would have her husband and kids with her. Mrs. Single Working Mother has too much on her plate to worry about any of that.”

I said, “I like that story. So where are the kids? Home alone? Grandma’s house?”

“They’re with their father!” Chance enthused.

“I read it that way, too. Dad has the kids for Christmas Eve, and mom is rushing to get ready for Christmas Day. What do we actually know? Only what we can see — her person, her face, her clothes and the way she holds and moves her body. But we can draw some very strong inferences from those details, can’t we?”

“Do another one!” Chance was hooked.

“Okay, this one’s easy,” I said, gesturing with my head. Dad was a hard-working dog: Undershirt with a chore coat over it, scruffy jeans and work boots that have seen a lot of work. Respectable enough for a working man, but he hadn’t shaved, and his face bore an expression that was jaundiced and maybe a little bit pissed-off. By contrast, his two daughters — 13 and 15 years old? — were tricked out to the nines: Tight glittery tops and tight, short skirts and slingy little shoes that would have made more sense in the summer. Both girls were wearing huge, elaborate Santa hats. “Tell me their story.”

Chance was baldly checking the girls out. Tigan said, “That’s Mrs. Single Working Mother’s ex-husband and their kids. Not literally, but that’s the other half of the same story.”

“Tell me how you know?”

“He spends nothing on himself and everything on them. But look at their faces. They’re pouty and resentful. They know there’s always more to be had, so long as they’re never visibly satisfied.”

I nodded. I read it the same way.

“This is a really sad game,” Tigan observed.

“It can be. I don’t see it that way. It’s all just time and a vector. If you can figure out someone’s vector of motion, you can see where they started from, and where they’re likely to end up. Not every story is a happy story, but they’re all interesting — enlightening — if you think them all the way through.”

“What about them?” Chance asked, pointing at a young couple. The guy was a bro-wannabe, droopy jeans, way too big, a huge tee-shirt and a baseball cap thrown on sideways. She was arrayed as a manga-wannabe, her hair fluffed out to make her head seem huge, way too much eye make-up. She wore a fleece short-suit that would have looked charming on a three-year-old, and she had a “Hello Kitty” backpack for a purse. The guy was practically running circles around the girl, but she would not deign to notice his attentions.

“Ooh!” said Chance. “He’s going to get some tonight!”

Tigan scoffed. “No, he’s not. But she’s going to get all the gifts she wants. Those two, on the other hand,” she offered, pointing at another young couple, “should get a room right now.”

She was right, too. They were young nerds in love, geeky and awkward, both of them bone thin with acne-spattered faces, and they could not take their hands off each other. It was inspiring in a lurid, prurient sort of way. Chance was missing nothing of the show they were putting on as they walked by.

“There’s more, though,” I said. “Isn’t there?”

“What else?” Tigan demanded.

“Why are they making out at the mall?”

“Ah…,” she said. “They have nowhere else to go…”

“Maybe nowhere else they can be together at all. Home-schooled, as a guess, or a religious school. Chaperoned all the time, one way or another. My guess is the only way they can have time together is to sneak off to the mall.”

“Mucking around in other peoples’ lives, are we?” Adora said that. She had managed to sneak up behind us.

I wrenched myself around in my chair to take in the sight of her, her long hair windblown, her cheeks a little flushed from the cold. “Only from a distance.” I turned back to the kids as Adora took the seat next to mine. “Your aunt doesn’t like this game. She thinks it’s unseemly.”

Defending herself, Adora said, “I find it…”

“Intrusive?” Tigan said that. She was studying Adora’s face intently “No, there’s more than that… You think it’s morally wrong.” A statement, not a question, not a guess.

“‘Judge not, lest ye be judged,'” Adora quoted.

“I’m not judging people,” I said. “I’m just observing them. Like lab rats.”

Adora issued an affected shudder, but I knew she was teasing me. “I just don’t think you can know that much about people, just by looking at them.”

“Fair enough,” I responded. “Prove me wrong.” About ten yards away was a young woman sitting by herself, trying to eat a bowl of soup while never for a second taking her eyes off the hardback book splayed open before her. Mousy brown hair and glasses, a white blouse with a button-down collar and over that a maroon sweater-vest, khaki slacks and sensible shoes. “She works at the bookstore. I saw her there earlier. Tell me everything I don’t know about her.”

“Is she a lezbo?” Chance asked, his voice for once restrained.

“I’d bet against it,” I replied, “but she dresses that way to repel male attention.”

“She’s really smart,” Tigan observed.

“How do you know?”

“Well… It’s really all she does, isn’t it? I mean, she can’t stop reading long enough to eat her lunch. And that’s part of what her clothes are doing, too. She’s telling the world how smart she is.”

I said, “That’s an interesting way of putting it. What was she like in school?”

Tigan’s eyes were alive with fascination, but I knew she was really seeing nothing but her own racing thoughts. “She was shy. Or, at least, the other other kids thought she was shy. She wanted them to think she was shy.”


“So they’d leave her alone…”

“So they thought she was a shy nerd. What did she think of them?”

“She hated them!” That wasn’t Chance speaking, it was Tigan.

“She hated them? Really?” Adora asked, even despite herself.

“No, you’re right,” Tigan allowed. “It wasn’t hate, it was contempt, an icy glacier of contempt for all of them.”

“Interesting,” I said. “How does she see herself?”

Tigan was lost in thought — and so was Adora. Chance was bored, to say the truth.

“…She knows how smart she is, but she doesn’t expect anyone else to notice. No, that’s not quite right. She believes that no one will ever take her mind seriously…”

Adora said, “How could you know something like that, just by looking at the girl?”

“Tigan’s not looking at the girl. Are you?”

“…Maybe not.”

“So what’s the rest of the story?” I asked.

“You tell me.”

“Time and a vector,” I said. “Here’s what we know so far: She was a smart kid in the early grades, but soon enough the other kids started to punish her, teasing her and tormenting her for being so much smarter than they were. So she pulled her head into her shell, like a turtle, and she managed to grow up by hiding from them right before their eyes.”

“Then what?” Chance was interested again. It’s the miracle of stories: Everyone wants to know how they turn out.

I shrugged. “She had so much contempt for the people around her — the kids at school, the teachers, her parents — that she blew all her chances to exploit her brains. She’s wicked smart, so she works at the bookstore. But everyone there sees her as nothing but a clerk. None of them can see her frustrated intelligence.”

Adora’s eyes were glassy, almost teared up, as were Chance’s. Tigan glared at me with a look of anger and defiance.

“Who,” I asked, “is the author of that girl’s frustration?”

“She is!” Chance expostulated, loud enough to draw stares.

“Here’s a better question. What could she have done, when she was back in school, to have avoided this fate?”

“She should have cultivated indifference!” Chance again, and I want to paste a gold star right on his forehead.

Tigan smiled, but not from joy. “You’re really good at this game, aren’t you?”

“So are you. Adora doesn’t like to play back-story, because she thinks I’m talking about those people out there. But I’m not. Mostly, I’m talking about me.”

Tigan said, “I thought–”

“I know,” I said, cutting her off. “I know about her and I know about you because I know about me. There is nothing we have seen today that I have not lived from the inside, in one way or another. It goes for you, too. For all of us. How do you know what petulance looks like? Anger? Fear? Joy? How do you know when someone is proud or ashamed or bored? You recognize these emotions in other people because you’ve lived them, again and again, inside your own mind and body.”

“‘Judge not, lest ye be judged?'” Tigan asked in mock-defiance.

“I hear that as ‘observe not, lest ye be observed.’ That’s an admonition that cannot be honored in a universe ripe with bouncing photons. Other people can’t see you the way you see yourself, but they’re going to see you, and they’re going to draw conclusions from what they see. Those conclusions can be in error, but you can also lead people to draw incorrect inferences about you — just like the girl we’ve been talking about.”

“Why would you want people to draw the wrong conclusions about you?” Adora said that.

“Tell her, Tigan.”

She shrugged. “Camouflage.”

“Armor!” Chance concurred, and I wanted to hug them both.

“Let’s do one more and then we’ll hit the bricks.” There was a certain tableaux I had been waiting for, and I knew it would come shuffling along eventually. “Take a look at those folks,” I said, gesturing with my head.

Mom was short and thin and frazzled. She was visibly pregnant, but her only baby weight was wrapped around the baby. She was pushing a stroller. Within it, a writhing three-year-old was boy doing everything he could think of to escape his seat-belted bondage. Every storage space on the stroller was stuffed with packages, and there were shopping bags hanging from both handles.

Flouncing near Mom, never quite beside her, was the Dad of the family, his hands empty and hanging loose at his sides. He was looking every which way, talking a mile a minute, while Mom just pushed the stroller with a grim endurance.

“What do you see, Chance?”

“What’s to see? It’s just a family.”


Before she could answer, Adora said, “Why does she put up with it?”

“…She’s trapped.” Tigan said that.

“At least she thinks she is. What about him? What’s in it for him?”

“He’s getting everything,” Adora said. “Isn’t he?”

“Is he…?” I said that.

Chance put his hand over his mouth and squeezed hard. He said, “That’s my parents, isn’t it? That’s me in that stroller. That’s our family…”

“That’s your family twelve or thirteen years ago, I think.”

Tigan said, “Time and a vector…”

“How much motion has their been along that vector?”

“Not much,” said Tigan.

“None!” said Chance.

I nodded. “Back-story isn’t intrusive. But it’s not the only game I know. Tomorrow, everything changes — god help us, for the better.”

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