Notes on “The Apology”

The Apology” was inspired by the song, “Cheap Whiskey,” on Martina McBride’s debut album. The song is about a man coming to terms with his alcoholism having driven away “the light of his life.” I wanted to explore what might happen if he decided to apologize, and discovered that the apology didn’t make anything better.

In the first draft, there wasn’t much more to it. I felt like it was thin as I wrote, so I introduced additional characters: four customers and the cook. It wasn’t terrible, as first drafts go, but my critique group suggested that I cut the other characters. Removing them made me realize how thin the characterization was, especially of Margo, and that gave me a clearer vision of the story.

Margo, especially, was little more than a cardboard cut-out. What was in her heart and mind when Nehemiah walked in? What would it do to her to hear an unwanted apology? Deepening my understanding of her also gave me fresh insight into Nehemiah. These insights changed the story for the better.

What I’ve learned from this is not to clutter my scenes and stories with extra characters. The other customers, Margo’s brother; I’d put them all in as scenery, basically, and then I’d felt obligated to give them something to do. They distracted me from the heart of the story. In my next first draft, I’ll be ruthless about keeping the scene focused on the only people who actually matter.

The Apology

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Nehemiah stared into the diner from the safety of the unlit sidewalk, watching Margo wrap napkins around silverware. No customers so late on a Monday. That’s why he’d chosen this night. But even without an audience, his stomach gnawed on itself like an animal chewing its way out of a trap.

You need a drink, friend. Steady your nerves.

He recognized the whisper in his mind for what it was. He squeezed his eyes tight.

“Go to hell, Whiskey,” he said.

He ignored the throaty chuckle of his eternal enemy and pushed the door open. The clank of cowbells announced his entrance. Margo looked up, her eyes as big as a startled owl’s.

Her walnut hair was shot through with silver. The harsh, fluorescent lighting made every line on her face look chiseled in.

She was too young to look so old.

How had two years changed her so much? Or had the amber haze he’d lived in for so long before she left made him unable to see her?

“What do you want, Nehemiah?” she spat. The muscles on her neck stood out, cord-like against her skin. Her disgust deepened his shame. Even in his thrift-store jacket, t-shirt, and blue jeans, he felt naked.

He let the door swing shut behind him. The bells clanked again. The place smelled of decades of eggs, bacon grease, and coffee.

“Nothing bad. I ain’t here to cause a scene.” It sickened him to have to say it. His hands trembled, and he hid them in his pockets. “I only want to talk.”

“Well, I don’t want to talk to you.” She finished wrapping a paper napkin around the silverware in her left hand and dropped the bundle into a grey, plastic tub. “You go on and get, or I’ll call the cops.” She picked up the handset of the old red phone on the wall behind the counter.

“Go ahead, if it will make you feel better. I can say what I need to before they get here, anyway.”

She stared at him a long time, brown eyes underlined by dark smudges. She remained still until the dial tone gave way to angry beeping.

“I let you say your piece, you’ll go on and go?”

“Yes.”

She hung up the phone. Then she braced her hands on the counter, wide to the sides so that the crooks of her elbows showed.

“Get it over with, then.”

He pointed at one of the counter stools, bolted to the floor as though they might flee if given the opportunity.

“Can I… can I sit down?”

“You stand right there. That way you won’t have so far to walk when you’re done.”

She ain’t making this easy, Whiskey whispered. Nehemiah ignored it.

What have I ever done to deserve easy, he thought.

“I, uh, I came to say—” he began, but his words failed him. He’d written it out this afternoon. Memorized it, so when the time came, this wouldn’t happen.

“Let me guess. You came to apologize. Twelve-stepping it. Is that it?”

“No. I mean, yes. I mean, I’m not doing twelve steps, but—”

“So you’re still a drunk.”

Her words ran up and down his spine like cockroaches.

“I am not. I ain’t had a drop since—”

Since he hurled the bottle at the door after she slammed it for the last time. He had sliced his fingers to ribbons picking up broken glass with shaking hands.

“I don’t even want it anymore.”

“Liar,” she said.

Liar, Whiskey said.

“I don’t,” he whispered. “You ain’t me. Not anymore.”

“Who are you talking to?” She narrowed her eyes. “Oh. Whiskey. Like always.” She crossed her arms and dug her fists into her ribs. “Like it’s some other person inside of you, making you do things.”

His face burned.

“Not anymore.”

“I bet.”

The hell with her. Let’s get out of here. You know they’ve missed you at Charlie’s.

No. He was never going to be that man again. He breathed in deep, through his nose.

“I only blame myself.” And then the words he’d memorized came back to him in a torrent, rising so fast he feared they would choke him if he didn’t let them out.

“I did wrong by you. I treated you worse than anyone deserves. I ought not have said the things I said. I had no right. You never gave me anything but kindness and I repaid it with cruelty. I spent the last two years thinking about that. Regretting it. And now, I’m here to say… to say I’m sorry, Margo. I’m sorry for everything.”

Silence pressed down on him like a sack of gravel draped across his shoulders. He had thought he would feel better once he got it out, but his guts still twisted.

Margo pressed her lips into a bloodless line.

“That it?”

He nodded.

“Then you can leave, now.” She plucked a knife, spoon, and fork from a tray and started wrapping them in a napkin.

The cockroach sensation ran up and down his spine again, then down into his legs.

She didn’t even listen.

“You didn’t listen to a word I said!”

“I heard every word you said.” The words ricocheted off the counter, the walls, the floor. “And I heard all the things you didn’t say.” Her eyes shimmered.

“You think I owe you something now. Don’t you? I’m supposed to tell you I forgive you, and you can go on and feel better about yourself. Is that it?” She slammed the silverware bundle into the tub so hard it bounced out. She drew the back of her hand across her eyes, but new tears bubbled up to replace the ones she wiped away.

His mouth gaped, and his mind whirled.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, now you can listen to me. You put me through fifteen years of hell.” She thrust her finger toward the door. “So, you turn around and march yourself out that door, and you keep thinking about that for another thirteen years before you come back and apologize to me.”

All you wanted to do was apologize.

“All I wanted to do was… set things right.”

“Set things right?” She slammed her hands down onto the counter. The tray of silverware rattled.

“You can’t set things right, Nehemiah. Some things, you break them, you can’t fix them.” She sucked in a deep ragged breath.

“Get out!” she screamed.

He slipped out into the night. He looked back, over his shoulder. Margo was slumped over the counter, her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook.

A plume of steam escaped Nehemiah’s nostrils.

Where you headed, friend?

He looked down the street. The neon lights of Charlie’s beckoned. He turned his back on them.

“I’m going home, Whiskey.” He started walking.

“I got another thirteen years of thinking to do.”

Fate, Fortune, and Friendship

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It happened that my friend Don and I discovered that we were in New York City at the same time. I was staying near the World Trade Center, and he was in Harlem, but that distance paled in comparison to the 1,200 miles or so that usually separates us. We arranged to meet in Midtown. When I spotted him as I crossed 8th Avenue toward the restaurant we’d agreed on, I felt a deep sense of joy and gratitude for the gift of time together.

Don and I met over twenty years ago in graduate school, when we were assigned an office together. We discovered mutual loves not only of literature, language, and drama, but also of less highbrow interests like superheroes and Star Trek. Our similar outlook and senses of humor meant we were sympatico in other ways as well.

It sometimes feels like it was fate, rather than mere good fortune, that we found each other as friends. Last night, it felt like it was fate, rather than mere good fortune, that placed us at the same time in a city where neither of us live, with time enough to get together. Whether it was fate or good fortune, I am profoundly grateful for it.

Go Zen

My plan last night was to check into my hotel, then go directly to Red Bamboo for dinner. I’d eaten there in 2013 on the recommendation of the manager of Meze 119 in Saint Petersburg and loved it. Alas, it was not to be. I got there easily enough, but all tables were taken and there was a one-hour wait.

I put my name on the list and gave them my phone number. Rather than sit and wait, I decided to walk around and see what I could find. When I left, I mentally flipped a coin. It came up tails, so I turned left. Only a few doors down, I spotted Go Zen, a vegan place with a pan-Asian menu. A few tables available, and I could eat right away. I was ravenous, and everything on the menu looked so good. Honestly at that point, I was ready to start gnawing on my own arm.

That would not be appropriate, because I happen to be made of meat.

It was very hard to choose an entree. Even ruling out the dishes that featured mushrooms didn’t help. (Mushrooms and I are not on speaking terms.) There was still so much to choose from. Finally, I opted for the Soy Cashew Salute and a cup of Cream of Broccoli soup.

It was delicious. I’m so glad I chose to explore instead of waiting. I highly recommend this place and will return the next time I’m in the city.

Feeding Sam in the Big Apple

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I’m heading to Manhattan next week on business and I am super excited about it. It’s been four years since I last spent time in New York, not counting the quick visit to the Cloisters last year. I’ve never been to Manhattan in winter, so when my client engagement wraps up, I’m planning to visit the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, and maybe strap on a pair of skates.

I’ve also got to eat! I know a few places from past visits (dinner one night at Red Bamboo is a strong possibility) but I’d love to hear recommendations for great vegetarian cuisine around the World Trade Center or Lower Manhattan areas. What do you say? Help me get my feed on!

Photograph by Omer Meral.

Focus

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Every morning at work, I start with seemingly limitless reserves of energy. But by the time I wade through emails, prepare a list of things I need to do, and get ready for my first meeting of the day, I often find myself drained and uninspired. The rest of the day is harder to get through, and I often feel unsatisfied with what I’ve accomplished when it’s time to leave.

This morning, I decided to take a different approach. I didn’t check my email. I didn’t reconcile my calendars. I didn’t look at Twitter, or my schedule for the day. I picked something I needed to focus on and got to work.

What a difference it made! I finished a proposal for a speaking engagement that I fretted over all last week. I read–and understood–a systems architecture document I’ve been meaning to get to. And I reviewed a slide deck I’ll need to use for an upcoming training session. I got more done in two hours than I usually get done in twice that amount of time. After my first meeting, I capitalized on the momentum I’d built and accomplished even more.

Before I left the office, I did all the tedious chores I normally would have done first thing in the morning, and wrote a note for myself to find in the morning. When I get there tomorrow, I’ll have my day laid out for me and a head start on another good day.

 

Photograph by Musuvathi J Ubendran.

Small Assignments

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I set a goal of writing three blog posts this week, and I finished one, but the second one completely got away from me. I wanted to write one more thing about my experience in the Pentecostal church, but then I had to explain something else in order for the one thing to make sense. The something else also needed to be introduced, and that introduction had half a dozen components, and so on. And I kept thinking, “This topic is just so big; I don’t know how I’m going to boil it down into a single post.”

I stepped away from it for a little while this morning hoping that doing some chores would generate insight—it happens that way, sometimes—but alas, when I returned to the page, the topic was still so big, and it grew even longer as I worked. I took another break, and picked up Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. There, I found my answer:

“The first useful concept is the idea of short assignments.”

If the topic is too big, don’t boil it down. Break off a piece. And if that’s still too big, break off another, until you get something small enough to write. I don’t have to tell my whole life story in one page.

Image by Stasi Albert.