Less Than Plain

“What are you writing?”

The young man clapped the notebook closed, looked up to find her smiling down at him, felt his stomach do somersaults. “Nothing, really.”

“It must be a bit more than that,” she said, twisting the cap off a bottle of water. “Or you would not be blushing.”

The young man’s face grew warmer. “Only a small story. To pass the time.”

She took a sip, twisted the cap back onto her bottle, and said, “About what?”

He said, “Something that will never happen to me.”

“I see,” she said, resting one knee on the bench, her legs forming a number four. “May I pry?” she said.

“You may,” he said.

She joined him on the bench, one foot tucked under her. “Something such as what?”

“I’m embarrassed to say.”

A little girl, age ten or twelve, ran by holding aloft a stick from which a long streamer trailed behind. Charging across the street, she disappeared behind a church. The streamer snaked after her.

“That beautiful church was built over three hundred years ago.”

“Yes,” he said. “Though it is missing something.”

“Missing what?” she said, stretching her arm towards him across the back of the bench.

“Whatever it is you call the thing that is missing.” He pointed. “A steeple? A pyre?”

“Yes. I see now. It seems to have broken off.” She ran a hand through her hair, turned her gaze back to him and held it. “And if I pry long enough?”

“Then I will likely tell you.”

She smiled. She looked to the church, snapped her fingers, and said, “A spire.”

“Yes. That’s what it is. A spire.”

He looked to the missing spire. Then to her.

“How long must I pry?” she said.

“If you must know –”

“I must –”

“– It is about a spark between two people. A beautiful woman and a plain man. Much like you and me.”

“This is embarrassing?”

“A little.”

“Like you and me. I like the woman already. I disagree with the description of the man.”

“I imagine he would be flattered. Yet this man is uncomfortable with flattery.”

She tilted her head, furrowed her brow. “Why?”

“He believes in the literal definition of the word. When flattered, he is only reminded of his shortcomings.”

She drank from her bottle and smiled, her eyes on him, his on the missing spire.

“You are not warm?” she said, touching his jacket, and though he was warm, and the sun was warm, her touch generated heat.

“Many important things are in the pockets of this jacket. A dictionary of translation. My passport. An extra pen.”

“Tell me what happens with the plain man and the woman.”

“The beautiful one?”

Now she almost blushed. “Yes, that one.”

“By coincidence, they meet again.”

“They have met before?”

“Twice. First at the hostel, where they spoke briefly as they registered at the desk, having arrived within moments of each other. Then, later that night, as they each wandered the streets of the town alone, they met again.”

“So far, the story is familiar.”

“The rest will be new, I imagine. This time, the third time, the young man is sitting on a bench in the Zocalo, much like this one, in fact, when, suddenly, she sits down next to him. She has not seen him, not yet recognized him. It is pure coincidence. He turns to her and says, ‘Why do you do that?'”

“Do what?”

He smiled. “That is just what she says, in the story. And in the story, he responds, ‘Walk away. Without saying goodbye.'”

“This bothers him, in the story?”

“He wonders if perhaps it is something they do in Denmark. She is from Denmark, you see.”

She propped her hand under chin. Her eyes shone. “I doubt that has much to do with it. I happen to know quite a bit about the women of Denmark. I imagine she felt her company was not desired.”

“Because when they meet, he lets the conversation flounder?”

“Is this the reason, in the story?”

“In the story, there is something she does not know. It’s that the plain man, thinking himself plain, is allowing her an opportunity to end their encounter.”

She drew her arm back and furrowed her brow. “Why would he do this? Is he not fond of her?”

“He is quite fond of her. But is she of him? Perhaps her interest is only casual. This is what he is trying to determine.”

“Is he blind? This is a terrible way.”

“No no. You misunderstand. It keeps him safe.”

“He’s afraid.”

“I think so.”

“Well that’s not attractive. Of what is he fearful?”

“Of pain. Of reaching for something, only to feel it wriggle away. He thinks he would rather know nothing than pain.” He paused. “Are you fond of toreador dolls?”

She laughed, turned to follow his eyes to the vendor silhouetted by the Mexican sun. The vendor approached, saying quince pesos to whoever would listen.

Senor, uno toreador, por favor.

“Quince pesos.”

“Gracias.”

The vendor continued down the line of benches full of people.

“Beautiful lady, in thanks for your company, I offer you this handsome and fearless toreador doll.”

She cuddled the doll against her cheek, laughing. “Muchas gracias.”  She straightened the toreador’s suit. “I think I am rather fond of the man in the story. I wonder if some of the same character can be found in its author.”

“Perhaps. But the man in the story is not nervous. And his demeanor and personality make up for his lack of looks.”

“Then he is not plain.”

“Then I am a poor writer.”

The little girl with the streamer ran by again. She was laughing hysterically, chased by a little boy, also laughing hysterically.

“How near are we to the end of this story?” she asked.

“Quite near,” he said. “The conversation has reached a possible floundering point, and the man must decide –”

_______________________

“Hey. What are you writing?”

He looked up from his notebook, and there she stood. Her voice was different. Less coy, more distant. But there she was, and the coincidence amazed him.

“Nothing really. Just a story.”

“Yeah? What’s it about?”

“Huh? Oh, it’s uh…about something that will never happen.”

She took it differently, as he had said it differently. Without confidence, and seeming to flounder.

“So what’re you doing?” he said.

“Just checking out the town, I guess. I might get something to eat. Have you seen a place around here?”

“Might be expensive here. In the Zocalo.”

“Yeah.” She scratched her head. Looked around. “Nice church.”

“Yeah,” he said. He considered mentioning the missing spire.

“What time is it?” she said.

He checked his watch. “Five-thirty.” He squinted at his watch, as if there were something peculiar about it. He knew he should say more. He wished he were writing.

She glanced around at nothing in particular. She made a sound like hmm, and walked away.

A moment later, he realized she had gone again. He watched her walk away, watched her blend in with other bodies bustling through the Zocalo. As she disappeared, he felt something. He did not like what he felt. He was accustomed to feeling nothing, and nothing was better than what he felt.

The little girl ran past once more, the little boy following.  The boy caught her streamer, took it and ran. She chased him, and as they laughed, an old man lowered himself onto the bench.

_______________________

That evening, in a little place that served coffee and beer, the young man sat at a table with his notebook. He ordered a beer, using only one Spanish word. He opened his notebook, blacked out the last word he had written, and began to write…

” – he must admit that there is another kind of pain. A kind that does not hit you like a stone and fade, but that plants itself inside you. Feeds on you. Grows until it consumes you.”

“He had better admit it, because she is waiting for him to do something and this may be his last chance.”

“He will remind her that his stay in town was to be brief, and that he must leave San Miguel de Allende that evening.”

“She will be disappointed.”

“He will see this in the way she drops her eyes and hooks her hair behind her ear, much like you are now. And he will ask her how long she had planned to stay in San Miguel.”

“Why?”

“Because San Luis Potosi, where he is going, is also beautiful, and he wonders if she has seen that town.”

“And if she has not?”

“He will ask her to travel with him.”

Her eyes exploded, and she smiled. “Then it is a happy ending?”

“It could be. It’s not yet written. Not in this story.”

“I think she will travel with him.”

“Then, yes. It is a happy ending.”

Iglesia de San Miguel de Allende. Via wikimedia commons

Iglesia de San Miguel de Allende.  (image: wikimedia commons)

featured image: travelersguidemexico.com

49 thoughts on “Less Than Plain

  1. Fascinating, and makes me want to read it again and again, which almost never happens here. I’m intrigued. And just really enjoying your dialogue. Bravo, Walt.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great writing! Ambiguous ending. Is it real? It feels as if he doesn’t get his chance and he sits in the cafe alone. The ending leaves you with something to think about. I like that.

    Would we rather just write about our perfect ending or go out there and make it happen?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, and thanks for reading. Is it ambiguous? I cut some things that I thought over-explained and weren’t necessary.

      As for your question, I think it depends. But maybe there are some things where you have no choice but to write them.

      Like

      • To me it’s not ambiguous. I see it as wishful thinking. To compensate for his failure in reality. Probably what keeps him going on trying. Otherwise the writer would just brood over his inabilities. After all he writes in public where everone is free to reach out to him. It’s a pretty good idea to practice situations in writing. At some point he will have dealt with all possible outcomes and then he’ll be confident enough to transfer it to the real world. That’s the happy ending I take from the story.

        Thank you for writing this bittersweet but somehow encouraging story. I enjoyed reading it very much. (Apologies for my lack of style. I’m not native to the English language and lacking vacabulary to express my gratitude.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Wishful thinking is a good way to describe it, I think. He’s also trying to be overly clever as a writer and being called out on it.

        As for your English, there is no reason to apologize. I didn’t notice a lack of style. But I did notice a different way of thinking. I’m resisting the temptation to clink on your name to look for clues as to where you are from. I’m just going to be bold and guess, if I may. Please don’t be offended if I guess wrong. But based on what you’ve said, not how you’ve said it, I will guess (and I could be very wrong) …India.

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      • I’m going to answer in the wrong place as I didn’t find a Reply-link ab the bottom of your answer. (In another thread on another blog I came a across that there are limits to the number of answers commenters are allowed to post. Maybe it’s in the settings?)

        Thanks for your kind reply and the compliment. I’m rather flattered to be mistaken for an Indian. That seems to value my skills to be as good as a native speaker of a variant of English. That’s encouraging. Besides I like the sound of Indian English very much and Indian music as well. But your guess is wrong half the globe. Sorry. 🙂 I’m East German with a strong interest in the outside world. At the moment my focus is UK but I read a lot of other English language texts online and offline. Maybe that colors my English into a generic one.

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  3. That was a great story. I loved the unrequited love angle. Who hasn’t played out a romantic fantasy in their minds? Sometimes it’s the only way it will ever happen.

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  4. That’s a lovely story out there. I was looking for inspiration myself, as my blogging seems to have taken a backseat from a while now. Was intending on reviving it and your story seems to have done the trick. It’s amazing how a couple of well thought words strung together can form a movie play in your mind as if you’ve watched it happen with your own eyes before.

    Like

    • Thanks for reading! I’m not sure I have a “style” though. Not a consistent one, anyway. My mood and/or state of mind can get in the way, and neither of those are consistent either!

      Like

  5. Hi Walt!
    I’m new on the WordPress scene and my new blog is about fiction and short stories so I followed your account obviously. Don’t worry this isn’t some newbie looking to piggyback off of your fan base, I just wanted to give you a comment that I really enjoy your work and you’re a really good writer! I’d also like to ask for your permission to perhaps just shout out your account in a couple of my future blog posts. I just wanted to consult you before doing this.

    Lastly, just wanted to say I was scrolling through your stuff and I have to say this is one of my favorites I’ve ever read in terms of short stories! I can really relate to that guy who is more afraid of getting shut down than trying to meet a new girl. I thought your characterization is admirable and I’d like to know if you have a few tips for me to maybe try to do it as half as good as you one day.

    Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Robert, thank you for reading and for your kind words. You are welcome to shout anything you wish on your blog.

      As far as advice goes, I’m sure there are others better suited to it than me. For maintaining a blog, I’d point you to this post by Hugh Roberts. That’s a pretty good summation of the conventional wisdom of how to manage a blog. To that, I would add set yourself a schedule that is realistic and not all-consuming, and stick to it. For me, I try to post once a week. That’s about the right pace for me. Gives me time to rest, think, and write without being a slave to my blog. I’ve seen a lot of people try to post two or three times a week, or daily, and get burned out relatively quickly.

      If it’s tips on writing you want though, I would say first you have to read the good stuff. The good stuff is not what’s popular, I’m afraid. Your thrillers, your mysteries, your teen dystopia…sorry, but that’s not usually good writing. Not that it never is, but it’s not usually. Read the classics. Read the stuff that’s stood the test of time. Read the old school writers. The writers who wrote because they loved the craft.

      While you’re doing that, read everything you can about how to write. Books about writing, magazines… there’s tons of resources out there. Read those until they start to repeat themselves. Because they will start to repeat themselves. When you realize you’ve read that tip about creating realistic dialogue before, for example, you will know you’ve read enough.

      Finally, be writing the whole time. And don’t worry if it sucks. Just keep writing, and make the next one better. Eventually you’ll get good at it.

      That’s what I’ve got for you off the cuff. Hope it’s helpful.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love the story. I think it’s an optimistic story. It seemed to me as if he was trying to write his own future, but when the events actually happen, they happen slightly differently because he doesn’t say what he has written for himself. Which then gives a different outcome. He is writing himself as a ‘better’ version of who he is, not who he actually is – which is a bit shy and awkward?

    Liked by 1 person

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