Making Waves with Particles,
by Eric M. Witchey
(Image source: Damkier Media Group via iStockPhoto)
Story meaning is both a wave and a particle.
The classic double slit physics experiment works quite well when applied to stories. In fact, slits aren’t even necessary for the experiment. All a writer needs is a pair of eyes, or even just one eye, or even braille. For this little thought experiment, think of the eyes, eye, or fingertips as one slit. When a story passes through that slit, the particle scatter patterns emerge.
Take a look at this text. Here is an ‘A.’ Here is a ‘B.’ Notice that the text you are reading is really just a long string of little black squiggles on a white background. One squiggle after another, the little squiggles appear. Readers scan the squiggles. Every now and then, a little extra white separates one group of squiggles from another group of squiggles, and the reader recognizes that a word has ended and a new one has begun. The squiggles make word patterns, and the word patterns appear in rows, lines.
Lines group together. Paragraphs appear. Scenes appear. Chapters appear. All the little particles line up in rows one after another until they have marched one particle at a time from the first letter of the first page to the last period of the last line on the last page.
Letters, words, lines, paragraphs, etc. are the scattering of the particles on a backdrop. The reader’s eye, eyes, or fingertips pick up each little squiggle and combines it with the next to create words. The reader picks up each word and pulls the meaning from it and combines that meaning with the next. One after another, the reader picks up individual meanings and combines them with other meanings. Patterns emerge.
Notice that in the last paragraph, the description of the reader’s experience included an interesting shift from recognition of the little squiggles to the pulling of meaning from the emerging patterns.
The second slit is the mind’s eye, the eye behind the eye, which is a calm pond into which the particulate words fall like pebbles. Each pebble creates a ripple. The ripples expand and interact. A ripple peak meets a trough, and they cancel into a moment of calm water. Two peaks meet, and they create a new peak that is higher and stronger than either one alone. These rippling interactions of meanings add to or subtract from the power of the reader’s experience. Each ripple has amplitude and frequency. The driving power of the ripple is emotion, and the power of the emotions cancels and amplifies.
A yellow dog playing with a boy is a happy thing to read. A yellow dog dying is a sad thing to read. Alone, each has power in and of itself. Combined with a story’s many other ripples, all of which combine to amplify or cancel, the second image becomes the tear-jerking end to Old Yeller.
Perfect, particulate words and events are not enough. Emotion captured in an individual line, a conflict set, or a single page is not enough. Awareness, intuitively or consciously, of how the particle patterns and wave patterns are related and how the wave patterns interact allows a writer to create the contrasts and amplifications that keep the reader’s mind and emotions focused on the story that emerges from the page. The emotional power of an ending depends on how the ripples created by the first word of the story are amplified or cancelled when combined with subsequent ripples.
For your consideration, examine the following short story for the patterns of particles and for the complimentary and contrasting wave interactions. Please, if you see the particle/waves duality and the power of the interactions between waves, leave a comment and let me know. I hope you enjoy the experience.
The following story was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Prose Award and was first published in The Best New Fiction of 2012. All typos and variations from the published version are my fault and not the fault of the editors. Also, Dr. Hansey is a real doctor. He was my doctor. Use of his name is my bow in his direction. Without him, I would still be sealed in my own metaphorical car in the sun. Namaste, Dr. Hansey.
Eric M. Witchey
The sealed car is heating up under August sun. Gordon lets the sweat roll down from his stubble hairline, along his neck, and under the collar of his linen cabana shirt. It reminds him that he’s on an outing like a normal person.
A family reunion. Lots of people go to them. Now, he does, too.
He tells himself family reunions are happy things. When he was a kid, he remembers them being happy things. He especially remembers galvanized steel tubs filled with water and ice nests cradling huge, sweet watermelons.
For some reason, the memory of one family reunion includes a fixation on a nearby swimming pool he and the other kids weren’t allowed to go to. The chlorine smell of the water, sounds of splashing kids, and squeals of joy and laughter tortured them in heavy August heat.
He supposes the pool, like many memories in his life, is burned into his mind because he couldn’t have it.
She still dominates his thoughts, but his meds helped disconnect his actions from those thoughts. He’d finally gotten to the point where he could leave her alone. He’d even deleted her old number from his cell phone. With Dr. Hansey’s help, he’d almost deleted her new one twice. That day would come pretty soon, he was sure.
But the meds hadn’t made it so he could get out of the car, so he watches his family reunion from inside the protective, purifying oven of glass and steel.
Kids run back and forth across the park lawns. Some play soccer. Some play chasing games. There are so many kids. Chaos on the hoof, and he can’t imagine any good will come of it. They’ll crash into things, spill things, break things. If he gets out, they’ll bump him. One might even touch his skin.
The sweat on his neck chills and makes him shudder. That’s what he tells himself.
He’d been a kid. He remembers it whether he wants to or not.
It’s just crazy to sit in the car because he can’t stand the thought of them bouncing around like agitated molecules. They touch everything. They scream and squeal.
He must have been like that. Must have been.
What if he had gotten together with Sussette? They would’ve had kids. She wanted them. She desperately wanted them. He wanted her. He would have agreed to anything to have her.
The restraining order was pointless, really. She had no idea how much power she had over him and how little power he had over her. If she’d asked, he’d have followed her from two feet or fifty yards. He’d have done anything for her, but she hadn’t seen that.
A Frisbee hits the side of the car. The plastic on metal thud startles him. He ducks and sucks in a lung full of hot, vinyl-tainted air. When he realizes he’s okay, he lifts his head enough to peer across the seat and out the passenger side window.
A laughing eightish-year-old boy runs to the car, sees him through the window, and mouths the word, “Sorry.” Then he snags the disk, spins, and lets it fly back toward the field of loose molecules.
Gordon checks the door locks. None of the kids are near him now. He’s safe, and he does a breathing exercise to relax a little, then he thinks back to what it was like when he was a kid.
The first thing he remembers is that he could fly. It’s always the first thing he remembers. He had to be naked, and the day had to be sunny, too. He remembers the warm sun on his skin felt good, like ripe watermelon on the vine tastes — a sweet, spreading liquid rightness flowing into every shadowy nook and cranny of his body and mind. He used to lie down in a field of clover and close his eyes. While his eyes were closed, when the rightness filled him full and replaced every heaviness in him, he would stand up and fly. It wasn’t a super power sort of flying––that fast, driving flying that tore at the air and pushed it aside. It was more of a leaning into the breeze, hands slightly out from his sides and palms forward. He leaned and let the cool air touch his chest, belly, and arms––let it gently lift him from the earth like a kite with no string.
By turning his hands and leaning, he could slide along the waves of wind and rise and fall and move forward or let the wind push him back.
In the heat of the car, he closes his eyes and tries to find that feeling of freedom, of rising above all the ugly stuff that had become his life.
All he finds is orange heat behind closed lids.
All he feels is the drip of sweat on his neck and off the tip of his nose. He can’t even find the smell of the clover or make the heat of the car into the delicious warmth of sun on his bare skin.
“Gordon!” The voice is his mother.
She found him flying in the clover field. Her anger, fear, and shame made her scream, grab, and drag him to the house. She sprayed him with cold water from the hose they used to water the dogs.
“Is that you? Come on out here. Let me look at you!”
It’s not his mother. It’s a man’s voice.
Someone pulls on the car door handle. They tap on the glass. “Gordon!”
He keeps his eyes closed, willing them to believe he’s sleeping, trying to push them away from the car with his thoughts.
He has learned to visualize what he wanted to happen in his life, and he wants that voice to take its body back to the pavilion where barbeque is cooking and adults chat and trade lies and laughter.
The knocking on the window gets harder. “Gordon! Are you all right? Gordon! It’s Andy! Gordon!”
Andy. Of course, it’s Andy’s voice. His cousin. They had played together at these things.
Yes––until Andy hit him in the head with a bat.
And running and jumping games.
He remembered Andy pushing him down a flight of three concrete steps.
Now, adult Andy yells at him to leave the protection of his metal shell. If he did, he’d have to walk across the grass. The bouncing, laughing molecules might touch him.
Grown up Andy probably has kids. Maybe the Frisbee boy is Andy’s kid.
Gordon keeps his eyes shut. Andy calls for him a couple more times, then the visualization works and Andy goes away.
Gordon is about to open his eyes when he hears people coming. Many voices. Excited voices. Talking, almost yelling voices. Andy’s is mixed in with them.
“. . . locked in, and I couldn’t get him . . .”
“. . . a hundred and fifty in there. We have to . . .”
“. . . get Zach. Quick, get Doctor Zach . . .”
Too many voices. Too much noise. Even the adults have become loose molecules. The sun has heated them all into agitated Brownian chaos and craziness. He should drive away. He wasn’t ever going to get out of the car. He knows that now. It was pointless to drive the two hundred miles to this stupid park thinking he’d gotten well enough to somehow join his family and act normal.
He opens his eyes just in time to see an arm swinging toward the passenger window. In a slow motion of terror, he sees that the hand on that arm holds a tool of some kind––a red plastic handle with a metal point sticking out of it. The metal hits the window. A spider web of fractures appears, radiating outward to all the edges of the window. The whole thing bows inward, and every tiny fragment of glass frees itself from all the others and explodes inward toward him, showering him in the fragments of his own sheltering window. Cool wind chases the glass with the smell of chlorine and mowed grass.
Then the door is open. Hands reach in. Too many hands. Andy’s hands. Other people’s hands. A pair of child’s hands.
He pushes himself away from them, kicking and pressing his back to the driver’s side door.
Grasping hands find the master lock switch on the key fob dangling from the ignition. The lock on the door behind him pops.
His door opens. He’s out, dragged onto the hot asphalt, surrounded, and held down. It’s a nightmare, the opposite of flying.
He screams and struggles to get up.
“Heat stroke,” a voice says.
“Hysterical,” another says.
They all say things, make noises, talk at him. He can’t hear them all, not all of them, not all at once.
He fights, but they hold him.
“Get back!” Someone yells. “Everybody, get back! Give him air. Give him room.” The someone makes them pull away.
One man, a man with curly red hair and a trimmed beard, kneels next to him. Blue sky surrounds the man’s face. He is a bearded balloon floating in the blue sky. “Gordon?”
Gordon manages a nod.
“I’m Zach, your second cousin. Do you know me?”
He shakes his head.
“It’s been a long time.”
“Do you know where you are?”
He manages one word. “Reunion.”
“That’s right. You’re at your family reunion. Do you think you can you drink some water?”
Gordon looks around at the loose circle of towering, momentarily frozen, molecules. Andy’s there. It’s Andy, for sure, taller and fatter, but still Andy with his dark eyes and narrow lips. Five children of various ages stand around his legs. Gordon closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to see them.
“Stay with me,” Zach says.
Gordon opens his eyes. “Hebephobia,” he says, “and OCD.”
“Shit,” Zach says. “Get back! You kids, get back! Go play! Now!”
“Is it contagious?” Andy steps back a few paces.
Gordon closes his eyes against the horrors of his family reunion and tells himself he’s home in his basement lying in the dark on the hard concrete floor. Mowed lawn and sweat smells combined with the hot asphalt against his back makes it hard to believe himself.
“Just keep the kids away, Andy. Get them to the pavilion. You go with them.”
“Is it contagious?” Andy sounds scared.
Somewhere inside, the Gordon lying crying and bleeding at the bottom of three concrete steps catches his breath and smiles.
“Go!” Zach says. A few seconds later, he says, “You can open your eyes if you want to.”
Gordon does. He and Zach are alone.
“Can you sit up?” The second cousin doctor helps him sit. “So, is this some sort of therapy for you?”
“I thought I could do it.”
“But I couldn’t get out of the car.”
“You’re out, now.” Doctor Zach tries to be a normal person and chuckle. It sounds flat and wrong. Zach pats him on the back.
“I have to leave,” Gordon says.
“I’ll explain it to them.”
Gordon looks at the pavilion full of people, at Andy standing there with a kid under each arm, talking excitedly with a gray-haired woman and a couple of younger men. The younger men keep looking Gordon’s way.
“Do you think,” Gordon says, “you could wait to tell them?”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“No. That’s not it.”
“Just wait. Let Andy’s germs worry him.”
“I’m not sure––”
“Just for one day.”
Zach turns and looks at the pavilion, too. When he turns back, he’s smiling, and the smile looks real. “I’ve known Andy a long time. I think I can do that.”
Gordon nods and lets Zach help him to his car.
When he gets home, Gordon strips, goes out into his privacy-fenced back yard, and lies down in a patch of clover. He closes his eyes and lets the summer sun make his skin delicious. After a while, the delicious starts to sink in deeper and deeper until he’s sure it feels just right, just like he remembers. He stands. Eyes closed and arms at his sides, he leans into the breeze and rises into the embrace of summer winds.