When I was a young writer trying to sell short stories for a penny a word and, hopefully, some exposure in whatever slick or semi-pro magazine I could crack, I was packed with stories. Frankly, I was bursting at the seams to let them all out. I'd write like crazy and send stories out to magazines eight, nine, ten at a time. I kept careful records of where my stories were and who had them and who'd rejected them and who was likely to buy them and who'd bought them, etc. etc.
There was this guy whose name I'd see from time to time in those days when I was in my twenties and struggling like mad to make a sale. He was always around. Usually hanging about with folk who'd already "made it". Seemed a nice enough fellow, though, and full of ideas.
I forgot about him while I was trying to sell my yarns. He vanished into the background.
And, slowly, I began to realize that the old rule--"the plot's the thing"--had fallen away. It wasn't that anymore. Things had deteriorated to such an extent that the market had boiled it down to simply the basic idea: the one-line Hollywood pitch. Yeah, things had gotten that bad, even by the time I was entering my early 30s. Alas.
Once, I submitted a short story to a certain horror magazine being co-edited by a certain part-time writer/editor. That story was "One of Those Days". It was a decent story, but with a really good idea. That idea was this:
What if everyone in the USA who owned a gun suddenly walked out their door with those guns and started shooting?
That was the idea. So it became my short story "One of Those Days" and I sent it out to that certain magazine and that certain editor/writer. It was rejected. I still have the rejection letter. The editor/writer liked it, but said that it lacked a certain "impetus". His word: impetus.
I forgot about the rejection letter (but stored it in a folder as I did with all of my rejection letters). A couple months passed. I got a review copy of the new issue of that certain magazine co-edited by that certain writer/editor who'd told me that my story lacked that certain "impetus". I opened the magazine and started reading. The feature story in that magazine was by that editor/writer who'd rejected my story. Preceding it was a brief editorial by the publisher explaining how the issue had been ready to go to press when his co-editor had dropped that story in his lap. It was so good that he had to lay out the issue all over again so that he could include his co-editor's story that, the publisher explained, had just been written.
The plot of that story?
What if everyone in the USA who had a gun suddenly walked out their doors with those guns and started using them?
Uh huh. I was really, really pissed. But what could I do? Yeah, I had the rejection letter. Yeah, I had my story. Yeah, there was a mighty huge chunk of circumstantial evidence of a certain level of plagiarism there. But really? What could I do?
In addition, this certain writer/editor had come up with a far more effective title for his version of my story than I had used. That really pissed me off, too--titles have always been a problem for me.
One of these days I may take this up in more specific terms. Maybe. Maybe not. I just ain't sure. But the thing that nasty experience taught me more than any other was the value of "the Idea". Hang onto it. Make sure you can make it your own, some way.
That dude that I used to see way back when? The guy who was always hanging out with other creative folk? He's gone on to make quite a living for himself selling ideas. Not even stories or novels. Just ideas. At least one of them was made into a major motion picture. My hat's off to him. He discovered a way to cash in on his basic idea without letting someone else steal it from him.
The idea, dudes. That's the thing.
And here, for the first time, is that little story, written when I was a very young writer trying to find homes for my work:
"One of Those Days"
James Robert Smith
I couldn't believe I'd gotten through.
"Von," I said. I knew I sounded breathless, but whoever had picked up on the other end had so far said nothing. Almost a second had passed since I'd spoken that single word. Amos
Tucker's blood was still soaking into my shirt. Damned lucky I'd wrested the gun from him, or it would have been my blood soaking into his shirt.
"Von? Is it you?" Another second. I drew in a ragged breath.
"Yes, Mike. It's me." I could hear the washing machine in the background. How mundane. Outside the warehouse, my workplace, I could hear an odd gunshot here and there. Enough to make me worry about getting home alive.
"Are you okay?" I asked. Whatever had started up in
Washington the month before had spread. We'd all figured something weird was going on, despite the news blackouts and the suggestions that we all continue life as if things were normal. It was one thing when the Speaker of the House had his brains blown out by the Minority Whip, but another thing entirely when your supervisor pulled a gun on you with murderous intent. I heard another gunshot outside, but the 150,000 square foot building was strangely silent. Everyone had run like Hell, except for Vicki and Cindi, two of the office girls--and their hands were still clutched at one another's dead necks. Urine was pooling around their strangely contorted bodies and I hated standing so close, but this was the only working phone. I felt breakfast knocking at the door to my throat.
"I'm okay," I heard Von tell me.
"Jesus," I said. "Thank goodness. Now listen to me."
This was crazy. I knew how I looked. I could see sticky little driblets of blood patting the carpet at my feet. Amos had been so full of blood. And here I was, a crimson mess, just talking to my wife. Another day at work.
"Von, are the doors locked? Have you latched the windows?" Silence again, for too long, I figured.
"What's going on, Mike? I've been hearing gunshots almost all morning. Almost since you left for work. And I could swear I heard Mrs. Douglas screaming a while ago. Her husband, too. I've been afraid to check, and 911 doesn't ever pick up. I tried watching the news channel and they keep repeating a pre-recorded message about some kind of mass hysteria."
"Listen, Von. Are you in front of a window?"
"Yes. Yes." I sounded harsh, I knew.
"Von. Close all the curtains and draw the blinds. Can you do that? Keep the doors locked, and for God's sake don't let Timmy go outside. Can you do that until I get home?" I fumbled in my pocket, making sure I'd not lost my keys in the struggle with Amos. He'd been a big guy; lifted weights and all that. Just good luck that crowbar had been at my hand when he'd gotten me down. If not for that, I'd never have beaten him and pried that gun out of his fingers. I don't think I'd ever get over seeing him continue to try with that steel rod sticking out of his skull.
"Yes, Mike. I can do that. I'll do it."
"And Timmy?" Another gunshot. I couldn't tell if it was outside or coming over the phoneline.
"I won't let him out of my sight."
"I'll get home as quick as I can, honey. Just don't open the door until I get there. Okay?"
Von sighed, and then something like a sob.
"That's strange," she said.
"What? What's strange?" There was panic in my voice. I was impotent, fifteen minutes from home under normal circumstances.
"Ramona is driving up the street. I never thought I'd see that witch again."
Oh, my God! "Von! Don't let her see you! Don't let her in! Do you hear me? I'm coming home!" I hung up. Ramona Golding had been our next-door neighbor for six years. She and her husband and kid had moved away six months before. Von and Ramona had always hated one another's guts. I was wishing we owned a gun. Two guns. Ten of the sons-of-bitches.
Leaving Amos, Cindi and Vicki to the emptiness of the warehouse, I opened the front door of Union Stateside Office Distributors and stepped out. Freedom Drive was empty. It was almost lunch hour and should have been relatively busy, the four lanes full of hungry workers running off for a fast bite of fast food. The sun was shining bright and yellow and it was really a most pleasant day, otherwise. I'd heard the radio weatherman say that the humidity was only 20% and the temperature a very comfortable 74. But there had been an edge in his voice and he'd started screaming at someone, screaming that someone or another made more than he did that faggot bastard sucking the station manager's cock and take that, followed by a gunshot. That was about the time I had heard the girls screaming in the office, and that was very shortly before Amos had caught me running down the ramp. Then the fight to the death.
I ran across the emptied parking lot. It was horrible when Amos and I had been rolling around on the concrete floor, he gnashing his teeth and actually foaming at the mouth. I'd screamed for help, but our co-workers had fled, and I couldn't really blame them, but it was horrible hearing their cars starting up, leaving me to fend for myself. I probably would have done the same thing. They must have been worrying about their families.
Opening the car door, I was unable to sit down. I had to stand back up and pull the pistol out of my pocket. A .38 Special: I was surprised it fit there, and even more surprised I still had it. For the heck of it, I opened the chamber and looked--four shots remained. I slid a bullet out. Dum dums. I was lucky neither of the two shots Amos had gotten off had struck me. Even an extremity shot would have been deadly. I knew that much about guns and ammo.
Tossing the pistol onto the seat, I sat and started the car: my good, old, reliable Ford Wagon. The engine sprang to life and I backed out of the space, scraping Amos' pickup truck and doing about four hundred dollars damage to my own car. I gave that about as much thought as a passing breeze as I jammed the pedal down and left rubber smoke in the dust. The car leaped the curb and my shocks held as I slammed onto Freedom Drive. I was going home and I was going to do it in record time. Richard Petty would have been proud.
As I approached the Brookshire Freeway I could see some other cars headed north, as I was. Two were side by side, and even from a half mile away I could see that the drivers were screaming at each other. While I watched, they actually steered into one another, small parts falling away from them, even some sparks. I could hear gunshots, of course. Pow. Pow. And then the one on the right, a late model Cadillac, veered and went bouncing off the concrete abutment there; the driver's face was a red ball. The other car, a Lexus, sped up and vanished around the curve that led on over to I-85. Goodbye.
Strangely, almost automatically, and despite the high rate of speed at which I was travelling, I reached out and punched the power button for the radio. Dead air. Public Radio was gone. I punched in the second programmed spot, an oldie station. It, too, was silent. I jammed the scan button. After four stops, there was a voice. 91.8, a religious station I usually avoided, but at least it was a human voice.
"is a-the judge-a-ment DAY! A JEEEzuz is-a come amunguss-ah. The DAY-ed lie-ah in-a the STREETS-a." He paused to draw breath into those raw lungs. "WHITE kills-a black! Tha RIGHTchuss keeyul tha WICKed-a. BuLEEver keeyulls NONbeleever-a. RePENT ye-a while ya have-a the CHANCE-a. I say again-a"
I punched the scan button once more. 107.4, the local urban contemporary station had a voice. A woman was talking calmly. Somewhere in the background I could hear a constant thumping noise; it wasn't music. "I've locked myself here in the soundroom," she said. "I'm not sure how this stuff works," she said. "If anyone out there can hear me, please send the police out to the station. They're trying to get in. One of the guys I work with. Pete Wilkins. He wants to kill me. If he gets in and you can hear me, his name is Pete Wilkins and he's the lead salesman for the station.
"Please," she said. I could hear old Petey-boy pounding with something heavy on the padded door. "Please help me."
I turned the radio off.
The ramp from the freeway to Independence Drive was ahead. Slowing just enough to keep from leaving the road, I veered right, tires squealing. The .38 Special scampered across the seat to lie snugly against my thigh. Looking up, I saw movement on the overpass above and was able to floor it, giving me just enough speed to avoid the hundred pound chunk of concrete three kids had heaved over just for me. It landed on the pavement behind me; I actually felt it hit. I sped on, glancing back to see the three stooges raging, one of them thinking to fling me the bird.
Von and Timmy. Von and Timmy, I thought.
A mile down Independence and still no other traffic. I had to slow down because of a construction site, but I could see no one on this, the busiest street in the Southeastern United States. I wasn't looking for the bulldozer and so almost didn't see it as it lurched onto the road in front of me. There were at least two compact cars under its treads, quite a bit more compact than before. Just in time, I hit the brakes, swerved broadside into the yellow, metal behemoth. The passenger side of the station wagon bowed in, a screeching noise yelled out from under the vehicle, glass spider-webbed and covered me in opaque little angular confetti. But, when I gunned the car, it moved, shuddering away from the dozer.
I leaped the median. "Motherfucker," I heard the operator scream. "Mother!" And "Fucker," he repeated. The station wagon shook and moaned and only did fifty, but I left the bulldozer far behind.
The car felt like a target. I had it floored and all I could do was a little over fifty miler per hour. There were other cars on the street now. A few people pointed at me from the parking lots of shopping centers. I looked right and could see that the entrance to ComputerLand was blockaded. There were the now obligatory gunshots. No one seemed to be shooting at me, though, and that was a relief. As I turned off of Independence and onto Sharon Aveneue the motor lurched and belched a whitish smoke tinged in black. I could still do fifty if I kept it floored, so I didn't sweat it. Two more miles and I would be home.
I had to turn again, to pass Easttowne Mall, and the wagon fought me every degree of the turn. The front end shuddered and the whole car swayed and the engine continued to burp a steady stream of soupy smoke. But I didn't think about anything but making it to my own neighborhood.
Almost, because of my intensity, I didn't see the pickup truck looming behind me. It had approached so closely that it filled my rear view mirror. I think its front bumper was nearly touching my back one; the great black mass of it seemed to dwarf me.
Desperately, I reached down and gripped the .38 Special with which Amos had tried to kill me. I hefted it in my left hand and held it out the window. A stupid move, maybe, but I couldn't think of anything else to do.
The pickup truck faded back, and I could see that the driver was a boy, maybe no older than thirteen or so. It could have been that he was just trying to stick close to somebody else who was driving. I don't know. All I wanted was to get home.
Farmdale Drive was on my right and it took everything I had to twist the steering wheel in that direction. The car moved, stubbornly, and I made the turn at three or four miles per hour, maybe. With the pedal touching metal the car slowly picked up speed until I was doing thirty. Familiar houses were all around. Well-mown lawns and mailboxes lay about me, looking as they almost always did, if you discounted the odd body lying here and there, some of them with loved ones wailing over them. I hadn't seen a single police officer and wondered where they all were.
Hysteria, Von had quoted. I had heard rumors. Some were affected and others weren't. I hardly cared. I just wanted to be home.
As I came down Redbud Street I could see my own cul de sac ahead. The engine popped, loudly, like just another gunshot, and it died. I'd been going about thirty-five miles per hour, so I just let it cruise up to the little street my house was on. Our three-bedroom ranch was there, lawn newly mowed, red brick practically glowing from a recent pressure wash. My wife's car was in the drive, and so was Ramona Golding's blue Chevy van. I didn't see the former neighbor.
As I rolled up, I noticed the shattered kitchen window, the one that our dining table sat next to, the one we looked through as we ate our family meals together every day. The flagpole my wife used to fly her colorful banners had been taken down and used to batter through the glass. I could see the image of a cat fluttering on the tattered remains of the banner my wife had flown most recently: the fabric was impaled in the shards of glass.
Without braking the car, I opened the door and leaped out and hit the ground running. Somehow, without really even thinking about it, I had picked up the gun again and had it in my right hand. "Von," I screamed. "Timmy!"
There was no answer as I reached the door. Consequences be damned, I unlocked it and flung it open. There was blood on the vinyl floor in the little foyer. I could see legs jutting out from the den, the body lying where I could not see it and more blood on the new carpet Von had recently had installed there. "Von," I screamed again.
The impact struck me from the left, from the kitchen, where I hadn't been looking, nearly knocking me to the floor. I lost my grip on the pistol and it fell.
"Mike! Oh, Mike!" Von had her arms around me. She was sobbing. Timmy was at my legs, clinging there, but silent, looking up at me.
"What happened," I asked.
"Ramona tried to get in, but I could see she had a knife. She was screaming at me, Mike. She said I was a bitch and made her life miserable and she was going to kill me and Timmy, too.
"I had the doors and windows latched, just like you told me to do, but she broke in." Von sobbed some more, trying to catch her breath.
"What did you do to her?"
"One of your hammers," she told me. "I hit her with it. I killed her," she said.
Finally, I let out a little of the awful tension I'd felt all day. I breathed in and let out a long, long sigh, feeling my wife holding onto me and my little boy at my side. My fingers found Timmy's hair and I rubbed the top of his seven-years-old head, feeling his perfect blonde hair fluffing against my palm. My family.
Behind us, there was a sound of feet on the grit of the walkway. Pushing Von and Timmy behind me, I faced the open door to see who it was.
A pale, frightened face slowly appeared around the doorjamb. "Muh-Mister Puh-Patterson," someone said.
Moving slowly, the small woman came into view. Her face was full of fear and terror. I could only wonder what she'd been through. It was Mrs. Traynor, a middle-aged divorced woman who lived behind us.
"I can't get in touch with any of my family," she said, her voice whining. "I can't understand what's going on around here. I--I heard the glass crashing over here, but I was afraid to come out.
"Are you all okay?" she asked, her eyes staring. I could tell she was in shock.
"Yes," I told her. "We're all okay, here." I knelt down and retrieved the pistol Von's embrace had dislodged from my hand.
Standing there, saying nothing, Von and I looked into one another's eyes and then at Mrs. Traynor. We didn't like her. She disgusted us.