While driving the streets of Tucson, Arizona this past weekend, I ended up on a road just off of Interstate 10. A mile or two east of the Interstate, the neighborhood went from gritty to absolutely rundown with abandoned houses baking in the early morning sun, which was already intense enough to send heat waves flickering off the blacktop. At one corner stood a neglected home with busted windows, a pock-marked stucco exterior, and a ramshackle fence that only remained standing because the wind wasn’t blowing. The house had definitely seen better days and looked as forlorn as any in the neighborhood. Another thing struck me about the house: it had a dilapidated trampoline in the front yard that suggested that the house had at one time been a home for happy kids. After all, what kid is not happy when jumping on a trampoline. A visceral sadness overcame me as I examined the house before the traffic light changed to green and I drove on. Had I not been with my young son, I would have stopped and taken a picture of the house, not for keepsake purposes, but because it instantly inspired a story that is still fermenting in my mind.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been grasping at a story idea that had refused to take shape. I have no idea how these stories make it into my mind. My wife has asked me why I write some of the stories that I do. I don’t have a good answer. The characters just pop into my mind and it’s like I step into another persona. When I write, I become the characters and the story just flows from my fingertips. It sounds supernatural, superstitious, or whatnot, but I’m not that type of person. I’m actually logical and practical except when I write fiction. Anyway, this story keeps lurking beneath the surface of some opaque river in my mind and each time I would reach for it, it would dash deeper into the water away from me like some skittish fish, but the moment I saw this house, the story burst through the surface and landed in my lap. Yes, a real fish story.
Vince Van. Vince grew up in that house with his single mom, three brothers, and three sisters. His mom struggled to provide for her family after her husband was killed in a rash of violence that pushed the neighborhood further into neglect, Vince, the oldest child, was forced to grow up quickly and provide for his brothers and sisters. Despite these challenges Vince stayed in school and managed to work his way through college. He started his own business and became moderately successful. He set out to make a difference in his community after seeing first hand how poverty and neglect could ruin generations of lives. He started a charity to help those in need and got involved in local politics to help his community. His persona proved popular with voters and he attracted the attention of the state political machine, which recruited him for his minority support base. Eventually, he rose to become governor of Arizona.
Vince had the most admirable intentions in the beginning. He wanted nothing more than to help those in his community avoid the miserable childhood he had suffered himself. His mother had raised him right. She had always been his guiding light, and even after she passed away, her voice planted itself in the back of his mind and challenged him to do the right thing. And he always did. Vince didn’t want to disappoint his mother.
Yet, power has a way of corrupting even those with the best intentions, and at the beginning of the story that has unfolded so far, we find Vince standing before that dilapidated, abandoned home one last time before he reports to prison. His mother’s voice is all but gone, squelched by disappointment, shock. With tears in his eyes, he remembers the youthful lives of his brothers and sisters and the everyday struggles they faced, and he wonders aloud about what went wrong, the proverbial question. What did go wrong? How did Vince meet this fate?
Those are the questions I’m asking myself. The outline of the story is not finished. It could change a lot as I continue to turn it over in my mind, but this is how all stories begin for me. I create a character and put a face on that character and the story fills in behind him or her. It’s a slow process that gradually gains momentum until it just pours from my fingertips onto the electronic page. I can’t really explain it, nor do I want to. I’m just glad it happens. I have more story ideas than I have time to write. My enthusiasm for each and every one waxes and wans like the phases of the moon, but eventually, some of them make it onto the pages of a novel. Will Vince Van be given life on those pages? Stay tuned.