ESCAPE HATCH

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

I once worked with a producer who told me he loved hiring writers with day jobs because they wrote with mad determination in an effort to lose those jobs.  Basically, they worked their asses off.  And, by “hiring” writers, I mean of course that he wrote up contracts that said something to the effect of: “We’re working on this screenplay together and we intend to sell it to a studio when it’s done, at which point, you’ll see piles of money.”  I think I only wrote a couple screenplays in this fashion, before I learned what the word “exploited” means.

Now I find more creative ways to ditch the day job.  And by that I mean I’d never be so irresponsible as to leave my job before the big money arrives.  And so the “ditching” becomes wish-fulfillment in the form of fiction. 

While I was on my ten-minute walk around the building where I work, a city bus pulled up beside me and opened its doors and the driver sat there, waiting, and my mind took the following journey…

                                               Afternoon Walk

                                        By Stephen Jay Schwartz

            He stepped out of the office for a quick walk around the building.  He didn’t know why he had taken his sports coat and briefcase.  Just a force of habit, he guessed.  He’d gone about twenty yards when the city bus pulled up beside him and opened its doors.  He looked at the driver who stared back at him.  He could hear the footsteps of two men, a half-block away, running to catch up.  They darted in front of him and up the steps to take their seats.

            The door remained open, the driver giving him a look.

            Terrance stepped onto the bus, fishing two dollars from his pocket.  He didn’t wait for the change.  He took a seat near the front as the doors came together with a hiss.

            He placed his briefcase on the empty seat beside him, loosened his tie.  He stared blankly at the city rolling past his window.

            His phone rang.

            She said, “Honey, I’m going to need you to pick Stewart up from the Brosnans at six-thirty, I’ll be with Wendy at her sister’s shower.  You got that?  Six-thirty.”

            “Yeah.”

            “And you can stop off at Sprouts on the way home, I need Echinacea with Goldenseal, and some rice milk, you know the brand.”

            “Okay.  I don’t think I’m going to be home.”  He pulled the tie completely off his neck and rolled it into a ball.  He stuffed the ball into his briefcase.

            “Why don’t you gas up the Beamer, too.  I’ll take it tomorrow.  You can have the Lexus.  What did you say about tonight?”

            “I don’t think I’ll be home tonight.”

            There was a pause on her end.  He almost forgot he had the phone to his ear.  He stared for a moment at a bag of groceries held in the hands of a very dark woman, a small woman, Terrance thought she might have been Guatemalan.  She stared at him, but through him as well.  Her body seemed to fit the hard plastic seat.  He wondered if she had been sitting there all day.

            “Honey, why don’t you think you’ll be home tonight?”

            “I’ve stepped onto a bus.”

            “What do you mean, aren’t you at the office?”

            “I left the office.”

            “What’s wrong with the car?  Why are you on a bus?”

            “I was taking a walk around the building and it came.  I haven’t been on a bus for as long as I can remember.”

            “Of course, Terry.  This is L.A.  And you have a car.  Listen, I gotta get going, enjoy your bus ride.  Get off at the next stop, I’m sure there’ll be a bus going back the other direction.”

            He looked around and didn’t recognize the neighborhood.  The bus stopped and people got on, and they weren’t the kind of people Terrance knew.  They looked him hard in the face as they passed.

            “I don’t think I can get off here.  I’ll have to take the bus to the end of the line.”

            “What?  Where are you?”

            “I think…Watts.”

            “Watts?  Jesus, Terry.  Well, wait until you get to a safe place and take a taxi back to the office.”

            Terrance leaned forward in his seat and addressed the bus driver.

            “Excuse me.  Where does this bus go?  Where’s the end of the line?”

            “Norwalk,” the bus driver said.

            “It’s Norwalk, honey.  I have to go to Norwalk.”

            “Terry, Norwalk is like two hours away.  Just get out of Watts and find the next safe place to get a cab.”

            “I think I’ll be going to Norwalk, Rachel.”

            “It’s three o’clock, by the time you get to Norwalk it’ll be five.  You’ll never make it back to the office in time, they’ll lock your car in the parking lot.”

            “I don’t think I’m going back to the office, no, I know I’m not going back to the office.”

            “Not tonight you won’t.  Jesus, I’ll have to use the Lexus tomorrow and you’ll have to borrow Tom’s Jetta for the day, if he’ll let you.  You’re not going to be home until after seven, Terry.  This really screws up my evening.”

            “I don’t think I’ll be home tonight.”

            Terrance leaned forward in his seat again, addressed the driver.  “Where do the buses go from Norwalk?”

            “Ain’t no buses from Norwalk.  Done for the night.”

            “Terry?” she said, her voice sounding small on the I-Phone. 

            “How do you go east from Norwalk?” he asked.

            “I don’t know, brother.  There’s a train station a mile from the bus depot.”

            Terrance considered it.  “Is it walk-able?”

            The driver shook his head in disbelief.  “Yeah, if you can walk a mile.”

            He didn’t know the call had disconnected.  He forgot all about his wife until his phone rang again.  “Hello?”

            “Terrance, what the fuck are you talking about?”

            “Sorry?”

            “You walked away from the office and stepped on a fucking city bus and you think you’re spending the night in Norwalk?”

            “No.  I’m not sure where I’m spending the night.”

            “I don’t have time for this.  Don’t call me again until you’ve got your head straight.”

            “I didn’t call you,” he said, but she had already hung up.

            He walked the mile in Norwalk and it felt refreshing to actually walk instead of pretending to walk on the treadmill at the gym.  The concrete sidewalks were broken in places, making his dress shoes dirty and scratched.  There wasn’t much to see except asphalt and old warehouse buildings, but the Jacaranda trees were in bloom and the world around him was covered in delicate lavender flowers that fell like snowflakes as he passed. 

            His phone rang when he sat down at the train station.  “Hello?”

            “I hope you’re back at the office.”

            “I’m at the train station in Norwalk.”

            “Good.  You can take a train back to downtown L.A.  I’ll check the Internet and get you the next one going out.”

            “I bought a ticket to Jackson, Mississippi.  It leaves in ten minutes.”

            “Terry?”

            Terrance rode the train for five days.  When he grew hungry he bought food from a snack cart.  He slept in his seat and in the clothes he wore.  He’d never been shaken so much in his life and for the first two days he had to resist the urge to throw up in his lap.

            When he stepped off the train he was aware immediately of the way the light filtered through the sycamore trees, the way the little oval leaves made shadows dance across his face and the ground and every surface he saw.  He was aware that the air passed easily through his lungs and it had a scent he’d never known.  He left the train, forgetting his briefcase, and tie, and phone.

 

This, of course, is fiction.  I do not fantasize about leaving my wife and children.  But I can imagine someone else who might.  How do the other authors here deal with everyday frustrations?  How do these issues show up in your writing?

 

35 thoughts on “ESCAPE HATCH

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I am starting to suspect that all of Murderati is having a collective psychotic break.

    No, I don’t mean psychotic. But I do think that a lot of stuff is breaking open in a lot of us, outside and inside, huge transitions, and it’s amusing but also profoundly moving that I can feel like I’m going through it with all of you.

    I loved this story. But the truth is we need to be able to find that peace and awareness right where we are, without getting on a train. We can’t get where we need to go on a train. The train is in our heads.

    My relief from frustration is about getting more and more and more still. NOT moving. Listening, feeling, sensing for a connection.

    Reply
  2. anonymous

    There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.

    You are traveling through this dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land of imagination. Next stop, the Twilight Zone…………..

    doo doo doo doo………..doo doo doo doo…………

    Reply
  3. billie

    There seems to be something going on with a huge number of creative folk of late – for me this intense restless agitated energy thing seems to happen in May but this year it’s been June.

    My solution (today, anyway) is to go out and harrow the back field, the riding arena, and mow/mulch the barnyard. There is something sort of appropriate and soothing for me in driving in ovals and circles and I inevitably end up making patterns and feeling better.

    Reply
  4. anonymous

    This is what makes being a reader so much easier than being a writer. All we have to do to deal with everyday frustrations is pick up a book and dive in. I loved this story, Stephen. Well done.

    Reply
  5. Allison Brennan

    Wonderful story. Sad and uplifting at the same time.

    I think Alex is right–we’re all going through huge transitions. I am, career-wise. It’s been a scary time, but I haven’t regretted any of the choices I’ve made.

    I’ve never thought about leaving my family, but I HAVE thought about leaving my cell phone at home and telling them I’m unreachable for the weekend, then checking into a hotel for three days ๐Ÿ™‚

    Stress doesn’t get to me unless I have multiple issues going on in my life. For example, when I was in the process of buying a house and the market collapsed and we couldn’t sell ours, the builder attempted to screw us out of down payment, I had a looming deadline and my two oldest kids were having problems in school (one social, one academic with an idiot teacher.) When everything comes down at once, I get NOTHING done until I step back and prioritize. Sometimes I don’t see it right away, but once I acknowledge the situation and that I don’t have a clone or superhuman abilities, then I can take care of one thing at a time, even if it means calling my editor and telling her I’ll be late on the book because of personal issues that I have to address.

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  6. JT Ellison

    It all got started when Mercury went into retrograde – it’s just come out and I know I’ve seen massive uptick in my mood, my productivity, my ability to focus.

    Stephen, you’ve done a great job capturing someone’s meaningless life becoming meaningful again. You need to get that one submitted…

    Reply
  7. pari noskin taichert

    Stephen,
    I loved reading your story this morning. I’ve been on that bus and train so many times while working on crap jobs.

    Thank you.

    And thank you to this Murderati community. It’s good to go through this incredibly odd time — for creative folks — and know others are too.

    Reply
  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Hello, all – yes, definitely a time of transition. I must say that I do love the train ride.

    Zoe – I’ve pummelled a real-life nemesis or two in the Boulevard series. Why else would I name the sequel "Beat"?

    Alex – completely agree with you. We need to find that peace wherever we may be. But sometimes you gotta walk through a door. Sometimes you gotta break through it.

    billie – time in the yard sounds good. Any kind of exercizing would be helpful. Spending time with horses–priceless.

    Anon – thanks for the kind words. I, too, love to disappear into the safety of a good book. I’m usually back late from my lunch break because I couldn’t put the book down.

    Louise – thank you. It means a lot to me to know that you could visualize it.

    Rob – that word sounds familiar, but I don’t really know what it means. Vacation?

    Jeanna – thanks for piping in. Yes, thank God for the creative release valve, or else I’d be stomping me feet and yelling a lot.

    Allison – I had exactly the same experience with my second book – going through a short-sale/foreclosure, etc, the end result being that I was about five months late on the draft. My editor was wonderfully understanding, and we still managed to hit the Fall schedule for 2010.

    Pari – this is why I’m worried about you getting a day job. I want to jump in there and stop you! But, of course, we all gotta survive somehow. I think it was Augusten Burroughs who said his only regret in life is that it took him so long to leave his day job in advertising before focusing solely on his writing.

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  9. Mike Dennis

    Outstanding story, Stephen. I’m reminded of THE OLD PATAGONIAN EXPRESS, I think it’s called, by Paul Theroux, in which he decided to take a trip from his home in Boston as far as he possibly can go by train. After consulting train maps, and with proper changes of trains, it turned out he could go all the way to Patagonia, in southern Argentina.

    His first leg was a commuter trolley, which he picked up right outside his home. He’s sitting there with his small suitcase looking at everyone with their briefcases, thinking, "They’re taking the train to work and I’m taking it to Argentina."

    Again, great story.

    Reply
  10. Tom

    I used to ride past the Watts Towers into downtown on the Blue Line every day. Hairy eyeballs, yes.

    What I like about the story is the sense that Terrance is waking from illusion into an innocent sort of reality. What happens next, Stephen?

    Reply
  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Mike – the Theroux story sounds great. I love stories of travel, I love picaresque characters. That’s why I’m drawn to Kerouac’s On the Road and Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie. These stories speak to me.

    Tom – I like your take on the story. Yes, that’s what Terrance is doing, perhaps for the first time in his life. Interesting that you ask what happens next, because I was thinking of serializing this, done as a series of short stories that could work together as a whole, to be published on a website designed for this sort of thing. By the way, I’ve been on that Blue LIne, clutching my life in my hands. I remember looking up and thinking, "Is that the Watts Towers? Holy shit, I’m in Watts?"

    Reply
  12. anonymous

    Ok. Now I have more time to comment on your story. I am feeling guilty for not putting more effort into my response than just "I loved this story". Yeesh. You took time to write this and handed us this little Friday gift and I am not doing my part here as a reader . So.

    I put in that Twilight Zone quote because after reading your story I felt that I had stepped into another dimension. The story is definitely surreal or magical realism, I am not sure of my terms on that. I had the impression that the whole event was in Terrance’s mind. A day dream, something that he would wake up from and go back to his boring computer job……but then he is acting it out. He is doing it. Your deliberate withholding of information, no explanation about the accuracy or credibility of his thoughts or physicality of the event, the apparent dispassion or indifference of the narration, all lends that beautiful barely audible exhalation of mystery behind seemingly ordinary actions. Getting on a bus. Answering a cell phone. Talking to the driver. Stating his decision to his wife. Normal aspects of humanity and existence exhibited but there is that repressed and inexpressible exertion in what he is doing or dreaming of doing. The reader shouldn’t really need to know what happens next. There shouldn’t be an explanation of ‘why’, either. Also, steering clear of conveying any ethical or moral perspective, the story never ends up parable or myth. Well executed, Mr. Steve. End of a Friday coming up and you have us all dreaming of getting on that bus………for one reason or another.

    Parts of Boulevard are written like short story. Remember when Hayden goes to visit Rich? Like that. You have mentioned your enjoyment and history in writing short. When you said before that you might want to publish the story you wrote about your father when you were a kid you also mentioned that you didn’t know how to get a story published. I know nothing of the process of submission but wouldn’t your agent/editor/publisher be the ones to ask? There used to be the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, is it still around? (Talk about being out of loops). The New Yorker and McSweeney’s do the short stuff. Hell. I don’t know. Megan Abbott would know. (Did you ever read her A HELL OF A WOMAN: An anthology of Female Noir ? Cornelia has a KILLER short story in it called HUNGRY ENOUGH. One of the best Beverly Hills noir stories I’ve read. (You’ll LOVE it, Stephen. Seriously. You’ll crack up, too. That little Cornelia. She looks so innocent. Hah! ) and what about Otto Penzler at The Mysterious Bookshop in NY? But limiting your story telling to mystery or noir or any genre can be counterintuitive to the creative reasoning and inspiration of writing short. It’s a decision.

    I am very excited about your ‘serial’ idea. Each piece a different person, a different journey. Then maybe it would be OK to ask where they all finally went or why. I love short story. Your piece could even qualify for ‘sudden fiction’, which is a HUGE underground trend, if you edited a hundred words or so. (There is a guy in Oregon, works for Powell’s, that edits flash fiction) Since the Nook and Kindle and downloading of eBooks and even with all of the audio books available, I would think that computer gen shortened attention spans would ache for good quick fiction. The length, as some bloggers have mentioned here before, of the 500 to 800 page books, is off-putting to some readers.

    Publishing short fiction in between novels would bolster an authors ‘relevance’, I would think. (I am smiling at that)

    Blah blah blah I do go on……….

    sorry

    Reply
  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Hey, Anon – great, great ideas. I love all that you had to say, and it gave me further perspective on why or what this story is. Thanks so much for your input and feedback. It made my afternoon.
    JT sent me an e:mail with a lot of great options for getting my short stories out, so I’ll begin looking into them soon. I love the idea of short, minimalistic fiction. You definitely got what I was going for.

    Reply
  14. anonymous

    You are a born story teller, Stephen. From the second sentence the reader is drawn into the character’s ambiguous intent. He took his sports coat and briefcase. Forgetfulness or something more? The startling sound of the running feet snapping us into a tiny mind gasp. The tension between the driver and Terrance. The looks. Total distraction. Doesn’t wait for his change. Staring and not seeing. Doesn’t realize he even has a phone until it rings. The crisp demanding details in the health food he was to pick up and the gas he was to get. The building exasperation and irritability of the wife. More tension. Still staring through it all and elevated from the scene. Even the Guatemalan lady is trancing out and dissolving into her plastic seat. The disconnected phone goes unnoticed. All of this is what made the Twilight Zone episodes so great. The tension.

    I love burning an image from a character’s inner thoughts. There is a scene in Diary of a Mad Housewife, where Richard Benjamin and Carrie Snodgrass are in the elevator with the elevator man listening in and Jonathan Balser (Benjamin) is telling his wife, Tina, in pompous detail what shirts, coat, ties and luggage to pack for him for his business trip and she is just staring. She is in another world.

    One movie with surreal fragmentation and flashes is the classic Don’t Look Now, with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. I know you have probably seen it. But if you want some further inspiration, try to get the 8 TV episodes of The Kingdom by Lars von Trier. That’ll getchya goin with the surreal deal. The scenes in the hospital basement with the dishwashers are incredible. Whew!! Wonderful.

    OK. I’ll shut up now. Have a great father’s day with the fam this weekend.

    Reply
  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Damn, Anon, you are a treasure trove of outsanding film and literary references! God but do I wish I had a month just to read the books and see all the films you have recommended to me over the months. Someday.
    And thanks for the beat-by-beat analysis of the story — I can totally see where the Twilight Zone references come from. Yes, building tension in a scene. So many ways to do it. All of these were unconscious, and yet, there must have been a consciousness to them, for them to appear as the right and true choices. I wrote the story in about an hour, without trying to "over-think" the imagery. Just went with what felt natural in "seeing" the scene. I’d love to do one of those a day, but all life’s demands get in the way. Maybe I’ll make that a goal in the near-future, when I’m not working on a novel.
    Have a great weekend yourself!

    Reply
  16. anonymous

    I am falling out of my chair giggling at myself. Like I need to tell a screenwriter and a novelist about tension. Oy what a nutbag I am. This is why I am a reader not a writer. I was just trying to explain that I ‘fell’ for all of the right things in your story. Like I said, you’re a natural.

    Would LOVE it if you ‘ratis would do ‘stories’ on your blog days. How fun would THAT be!!?? Yeah!

    Good Shabbos

    Reply
  17. KDJames / BCB

    Excellent short, Stephen. You made it so easy to be in his head, to imagine ditching it all and riding "until the train, it run out of track." (a favourite lyric from a great song)

    But what a dangerous suggestion, after the work week I’ve had.

    Earlier this spring I got in the car and drove until I ran out of road. Which would be a lot more impressive if I lived more than an hour from the beach. And if I hadn’t packed and made hotel reservations. And arranged for someone to take care of the pets.

    Still. I didn’t think of it in terms of "going to the beach" for a week. I needed to believe I was going to drive until I ran out of road. It felt amazingly good. Thanks for letting me go back to that place in my head, to the time when I was able to just . . . go.

    Reply
  18. anonymous

    BCB……………loved YOUR story. I am also an hour from the beach and often pack my toothbrush, my laptop and a few books and hit the road just in case I want to ‘drive until I run out of road’. I almost did that today for this weekend. But I wimped out. Took the dogs for a pretty lengthy hike, at least. Bliss for a few hours anyway. You made me smile. Thanks.

    Also LOVED billie’s image of making harrowing patterns, loosing herself in the work process with meditation …… mindlessness within the responsibility to the earth and the working farm

    (Hint: Heavily influenced by just having reread Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon (1973)

    Reply
  19. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    KD – you snuck that one on me, too. I totally fell for your madcap drive to the end of the road, and you made me laugh with your comment about the beach, the hotel, the pets. I’m ready for the same kind of journey.

    Reply
  20. KDJames / BCB

    Thanks, Anon, glad you enjoyed it. The doing of it was much more satisfying than the telling of it. And since I have already received 15 billion demerits this week for being blunt and tactless on the internet [sigh], please stop telling us at every turn that you are not a writer. It is so blatantly untrue.

    Stephen, I highly recommend it. Have plans to do it again in the fall. Once the tourists have gone home.

    Reply
  21. anonymous

    BCB/KD Bitch. Don’t EVER vie for my coveted and stridently earned Bluntactless Blog award. I worked hard for it and will continue to reign.

    <g>
    kiss hug

    Reply
  22. Rachel Brady

    I think I’m Terrance! I hadn’t ridden a bus for years either. While in L.A. for Left Coast Crime, I experienced this very thing, right down to the, "…if you can walk a mile." Only I did it in high heels because I had no idea what a cluster my bus adventure would ultimately be.

    It was all about finding the La Brea Tar Pits. Do you know that nobody in L.A., including the cop I talked to and the four bus drivers, as well as everybody at all my bus stops, knew where they are? I found them. ๐Ÿ™‚

    But I digress. Nice piece, Stephen.

    Reply

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