Sunday, August 11, 2013

In the present tense

A few weeks ago I was re-reading "Catching Fire," the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy. I was musing on how there was very little suspense in the story, since we know the main character, who is narrating the story, survives. (This is not always the case; stories like "American Beauty" and, I believe, "The Lovely Bones" are narrated by dead characters.) But then I realized that the story is being told not just in the first person but also in the present tense. This ups the ante a bit: we are not looking at the actions from some point after they have happened, but from an ever-shifting now. Anything can happen in that now. The narrator can die and hand off the narration duties to another character - or continue as a dead narrator.

I finished that book and set it aside, amazed that I had gone though it once - and its predecessor numerous times - without noticing the tense of the story. How many other stories are out there like that?, I wondered. Not many, to my recollection. I immediately picked up my 28-year-old copy of "Brightness Falls from the Air" by the pseudonymous James Tiptree Jr. - actually Alice Seldon.  I'd been meaning to re-read that story for a while. I opened it up, began reading - and realized that it, too, was written in the present tense.

In between these two events I decided to see what would happen if I rewrote "Sunset and Shadow" in the present tense.  This story was really an exercise in "show, don't tell": I wanted to put the reader on the bridge with those two characters, seeing and feeling what they were seeing and feeling, not knowing at any moment what would happen the next. Having a first-person narration in the past tense lets you believe that everything will work out for the best, that the narrator will make it to some point where they can tell this story in retrospect. This isn't always the case, but when a first-person past-tense story ends with, say, the narrator dying, I always feel cheated. Placing the narration in the present tense increases the tension, and increases the stakes for the characters and the reader. Anything can happen.

(Nabokov wrote Lolita as a memoir, told in the first person by Humpbert Humpbert. But Humpbert's memoir is wrapped in a psychologist's report, which places Humbert's memoir into a nested past tense and provides the reader with information to which Humpbert was not privy, and which completely undermines Humpbert's reliability as a narrator.)

So I rewrote the story and read it for my writing group a week after I had read the past-tense version. I didn't tell them what I had changed, nor did we get a chance to discuss the story, but a few members noted that they heard a big difference, even if they couldn't quite tell what it was.

But now you know. Here's the story again, converted into the present tense. If you've never read it before - well, I hope you enjoy it. If you have read it before, let me know what you think of the two versions.

Sunset and Shadow
copyright 2013 Harold Jenkins

We get together early on a Saturday afternoon in late January in a bookstore in Wilkes-Barre.  Seeing Lori in person after all our conversations online is something of a shock, finally realizing just how far apart we are in age. She is small and pixie-ish, with bleached white hair and eyes so dark they might be black. Her skin is pale and her face is alive and shining.  She is dressed in a sort of Salvation Army chic, in a green prairie skirt and frilly cream blouse that hide her tiny figure, wrapped in a black wool jacket with shoulder pads that would look preposterous on anyone else. A black beret and a scarf that might be a keffiyeh round out the ensemble, and she wears chunky black boots that aren't just for show - they can easily hold up to the snow and ice outside.  I know she is a brilliant writer even from what she had put in her ad, and the stories I've found on her blog confirm this. She has the appearance of a giddy little girl, but her writing displays a darkness and maturity that say there is much more to her.

I wonder how I look to her: A man in his early forties, stocky but not quite fat, hair and beard and moustache all showing traces of gray. Blue-gray eyes behind lenses that, if you look at them just right, reveal themselves as multifocals. Looking almost like a college professor, although I haven't been involved in academia since a brief stint in grad school more than twenty years ago. I think I look close enough to the photos I posted on my site, as she does to hers. But I really don't know what she sees with those big, dark eyes.

We drink hot chai and talk about writing, and our favorite authors, and our biggest influences. I ask her about school but she doesn't want to talk about it much. She pries a few stories from me about my days in college, a quarter of a century ago.

We have been talking for well over an hour and haven't made any plans for the rest of the day. When she excuses herself to use the bathroom I order a strawberry parfait, something that looks like one of the things she has posted to her blog. After Lori returns to our table one of the staff brings it over in a tall glass with two long spoons. Lori is surprised and delighted by the dessert. After that we wander the bookstore for a while, pointing out books and authors to each other. I find an annotated edition of one of her favorite books and offer to buy it for her, but she takes it from me and insists she will pay for it herself. Fine, I say, taking the other copy from the shelf, laughing. Now we will both have one.

We exit the bookstore holding our identical purchases and step into the icy late-afternoon air.  I suggest we could drive around and continue our conversation. A glance at the clouds smeared across the western sky gives me an idea. The sun will be setting in an hour or so, and I know a spot where it will put on a beautiful display. For a moment I think she might not want to go, or might want to take her own car, wherever her car is. But she agrees and we both get into mine.

The sun is dipping behind the clouds as we drive. We are heading west, so the sun is mostly in front of us. Even through my sunglasses I can see the sun-dogs forming, mock suns positioned on either side of the real one, produced by the sort of ice crystals present in certain clouds. I point them out to Lori, and she pulls out her phone - wrapped in a Hello Kitty case - and takes a picture. Her thumbs fly as she types something on to the screen in a way I can't even begin to emulate. And then she does something else - posts the picture online, to her blog or Facebook or somewhere. I feel the generation gap yawning between us.

I have to maneuver a bit to get where I want us to be, but finally we get there. It is a steel truss bridge, more than seventy years old but still safe and sturdy enough to bear the traffic that crosses it. I had made it collapse once, in one of my stories, plunging dozens of cars and their drivers into the river below. We writers wield such power.

"Here?" she asks, as we park in a dirt lot at one end of the bridge. Her tone says she isn't afraid, just curious.

"Not here," I reply. "On the bridge. About halfway across we'll have a great view of the sunset."

She gets out of the car, pushing her beret down on her head with one hand and clutching her book with the other. The bag crackles like it is threatening to shatter. I am glad we are both dressed for the weather. It gets cold on the bridge in winter. Cold, and windy.

As we step onto the walkway Lori looks up, then around. "You've taken pictures here," she says. She clutches her newly-purchased book in its bag and holds her Hello Kitty phone in the other hand. "The ice on the river, and the shadows on the ice."

"Yep," I say. I posted those photos half a year before I met her online. She has done her homework, reading my old blogs.

We walk out two hundred and fifty feet, or so - I've always been bad at estimating distances. Cars pass us once in a while, clattering and banging over the deck plates of the bridge, but the drivers don't even notice us.

The sun hasn't started its show yet.

"Here is good," I say. Across the deck and through the girders and cables we can see downriver . The Susquehanna flows from east to west along this stretch, so we have a relatively clear view of the sunset. The sun is sinking behind an old, disused railroad bridge and over the trees and rolling hills that edge one bank. The scene is reflected in the river below, where water flows between great broken sheets of ice.

But none of that is what I want to show her.

"There," I say, looking but not pointing. "Above the sun. Do you see that patch of light pointing straight up, almost like a candle flame? Unless I'm reading the clouds wrong, that's going to stretch out into a sun pillar."

She looks at the bright white blur on the western horizon. The sun moves lower and lower behind the clouds. As the minutes pass the column of light above the sun stretches up, and up, looking like a biblical pillar of fire. It gradually deepens to orange and then red as the sun sinks lower on the horizon.

Lori slides the handle of the bag from the bookstore over her wrist, raises her Hello Kitty camera and snaps a few more pictures. "I've never seen that before," she says.

"Most people haven't," I reply, and immediately realize I have relegated her to the realm of "most people." "Sun pillars aren't that common, so they don't happen with every sunset. And we're all so busy, how often do you get to watch a sunset?" I say, trying to recover.

"'How many more times will you watch the full moon rise?'" she says, quoting The Sheltering Sky. "'Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.'" Or maybe she is quoting Brandon Lee's quote of The Sheltering Sky. He was dead shortly after that interview.

"There's something else," I say. "Turn around. Look east."

A beautiful soft pink glow stretches across the eastern sky, just above the horizon. Above it, the sky is only a little darker than it had been a few minutes ago. Below it, the sky is a dark blue-gray above the cold Susquehanna.

"What is that?" Lori asks, raising her phone to take another picture.

"It's called the Belt of Venus," I tell her. "The pink glow is the light of every sunset that's happening just beyond the horizon. The sunlight reddens as it passes through the thickest part of the atmosphere. We're seeing that red sunlight reflected back at us."

"And the dark part?"

"That's the shadow of the Earth. The Earth is casting a shadow through its own atmosphere. It'll rise, higher and higher, and become night."

She taps some more information into her phone. I find that habit almost annoying. I want her to be here now, but she is busy sharing each moment with the world.

I've been standing beside her, on her left as we watched the sunset, on her right when we turned to watch the light show in the east. But as we watch and talk, I move behind her.

Lori is short, nearly a  foot shorter than me. I place my hands on her shoulders, on those ridiculous shoulder pads, Then I gradually slide them across so I am hugging her from behind, each hand on her opposite shoulder.

We stand like that in silence for a few minutes. A car drives past.  I barely notice it.  The wind blows a bit from behind us, but I shield Lori from the chill. We watch the colors in the eastern sky rise and begin to darken and fade.

"So what would you like to do next?" I ask.

She turns to face me, breaking my hold. She puts her phone back in her coat pocket, but the book in its crinkly green bag still hangs from her wrist. She looks up at me, her nearly-black eyes looking into mine.

Lori reaches up and clutches the lapels of my black longcoat. She tugs me down gently, stands on the toes of her boots, and kisses me on the cheek.

"You're very sweet," she says. Continuing to stare at me, she adds "Thank you for the sunset, and the shadow. But I have to go now."

I am dumbstruck. Crestfallen. And a million other words that only apply in such a situation. Finally I speak. "I'll drive you back to the bookstore, if that's what you want."

She smiles and shakes her head. "I have a ride."

The car that drove past us is stopped at the end of the bridge, next to mine.

"Goodbye," she says. She releases her grip on my coat and slides her hands slowly down my chest, stopping briefly to take my hands in hers. Then she lets go, turns, and walks briskly to the waiting vehicle.

Lori gets to the end of the bridge, opens the door to the waiting car, and gets in. I can't tell if she looks back at me. Maybe she waves.

The car drives off and I am left alone on the bridge, as the last traces of sunset fade from the sky.

(There may be one other version of this story, a wacky alternate ending based on a mishearing of what was happening at the end. But I'll leave that for another day.)