Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor Part IX
I have to warn you, reader. This is the chapter where it starts.
You know. It. The final thing that makes a story a story. Characters? Check. Setting? Got it. Plot? Conflict?
That’s what I’m about to tell you now. And as any good reader knows, the plot and conflict (at least, the emerging of it) never bodes well for the main character.
Every good story needs a conflict. An antagonist for the main character to struggle against. A white whale. A dragon. An evil prince or jealous lover.
Conflict is always there, even if you don’t notice at first. It’s what gives a story life. It’s what makes them relatable to you, the reader. After all, stories are reflections of real life filtered through our imaginative perceptions. And, just like a good story, life has conflict. The human experience is defined by adversity.
Conflict in a story might not be as straightforward as you think, though. In fact, the conflict is rarely literal, even when there is literal, physical conflict in the story. The story isn’t really about how the knight slayed the dragon. It’s about something deeper, more real.
After all, stories mirror life, but I sure have never slain a dragon or defeated an evil prince in battle. And I assume you haven’t either. So, why do we relate to these fanciful stories so well? How is it that we can connect with heroes who conduct feats that simply don’t happen in the real world?
Here’s the secret. Lean in closer so I can tell you.
The Bad Guy is a metaphor.
You don’t relate to heroes because you’ve beaten monsters just like they have. You relate because, every day of your life, you face what those enemies represent.
You’ve never killed a dragon in order to steal its gold, but I bet you’ve faced hardship once or twice. (and if you have killed a dragon while treasure hunting, shame on you. That gold wasn’t yours for the taking. Some knight you are).
That’s why stories resonate with us, reader, and that’s why, when everything in a character’s story seems to be going right—it most definitely is not.
Sondra and Moog quickly became friends after her first appearance at the bar. She would swing by in the evenings after finishing up at the library and the two would chat. Sometimes, when it wasn’t busy, they would go outside and she would teach Moog how to skateboard, subjecting me to the endless sounds of scrapes, grinds, and the occasional, earth-shattering crack of someone landing after a high drop.
At first, I couldn’t figure out what the connection was. They seemed to come from two totally different worlds, and yet they almost immediately hit it off. It wasn’t until the three of us started meeting up outside the bar that I realized what it was.
Anytime they were together, anywhere, the world around them suddenly got brighter and more exciting. Life just seemed to…happen…when they were around. Every moment was an event. Every exchange felt special. Being near them when they were in the same place was addicting.
Things for the three of us were nice. I was staying with Moog in his tiny apartment for two. When we weren’t working, we were at the library. When we weren’t at the library, we were exploring everything the city had to offer. It was nice. Part of me even considered staying indefinitely.
In short, everything seemed to be going right.
Alice rarely contacted me after our initial conversation. When she did, it was always at the strangest hours. I might message her at lunch and get nothing for days, then receive several in a row out of nowhere at three in the morning.
After a few weeks, however, she finally informed me that the money from my motorcycle had been sent and the time came for me to pick it up.
There was a breezy chill as I stepped out of our apartment building onto the street. It felt like such a short time ago that I had crashed here at the peak of summer, but as the days turned into weeks, Seattle’s mild heat had started shifting into an equally mild cool. I’d have to be quick with repairs if I was going to continue my journey before winter came. The weather in this region might be mild on the ground but, up in the air (as I learned through my time at the library), the sky could quickly become filled with ice crystals that would hammer my balloon back to the ground if given the chance.
No matter. With the money from Alice and some elbow grease from Moog and I, getting back into the sky should be a quick task.
I have to admit that I had bittersweet feelings as I passed through the city on my way to the post office. In my short time here, I had obtained something that I didn’t know I could want—stability. Or, at least the whisper of it. The dust on my clothes and shoes had settled and Moog swept them away with the rest of the bar litter. I had friends, a paycheck, a job. Besides, wasn’t I still scared of getting back into that balloon? Would all the book knowledge I had accumulated make up for the airborne nightmares I still occasionally had? What if I could just stay here?
With these questions in my head, I almost missed the musician playing outside Pike’s Place. Almost.
What I did miss was the crowd forming all around her as she performed, and among the things I missed was the man I walked into headfirst as he watched the show. He gave me a side look as I nearly fell over.
Regaining my composure, I paused my internal turmoil to see what was going on. The musician was amazing. She wasn’t playing any song that I recognized, but that wasn’t the focus of the performance. The impressive part was that she was dancing like a ballerina while playing a violin, almost as if her songs were books and she was acting them out while her music told the story.
It was captivating, but then I noticed something else. In front of her, she had an open violin case where passersby could leave money. Tied to her case was a bright yellow balloon that bobbed and danced in the wind not unlike the performer who owned it.
She looked happy. Content. You could hear it in her music, see it in her dance. It wasn’t choreographed. It was just her in her most natural habitat. She had her balloon and she danced with it.
That’s when I realized, as much as I enjoyed Seattle, I had my own balloon to find somewhere.
I left the crowd, continued on to the post office, and collected my package without incident. I say package, but it was actually a bulging envelope. Just by holding it, you could tell it was packed to the brim with something. As I held the small, battered pouch and felt its density, I began to appreciate Moog’s disapproval. Did Alice honestly stuff five thousand dollars—straight cash—into a flimsy parcel and mail it halfway across the country? Talk about faith in the system. It’s a miracle it made it to me at all.
It barely fit into my inside jacket pocket, displaying just a slight lump in my side if one were to look straight at me. I began my route through the city in reverse to get back to our apartment, but the money kept bumping into my ribs, reminding me that it was there.
Bump: Five grand.
Bump: Have I ever seen that much money at one time before?
Bump: Fifty one-hundred dollar bills.
Bump: Or did she use a hundred fifty-dollar bills?
Bump: Or two hundred and fifty twenty-doll—No, there’s no way she could fit that many bills in an envelope, right?
By the time I neared Pike’s Place again, I couldn’t resist anymore. I had to take a peek.
I found a bench in a quiet, out of the way spot—at least, as quiet as you could find right outside the market—and opened it.
Sure enough, it was all right there. The envelope was stuffed with hundred-dollar bills…and a plain piece of paper at the top. A note?
Curious, I unfolded it.
“anD one fOr lucK,
One for luck? Was there an extra bill in here? And what was with the random capital letters? I’d have to ask her later. If she’d only respond to my texts sooner. It also dawned on me that I never knew her last name. I wondered what the G stood for.
Putting the note in my pants pocket while the envelope went back into the jacket, I continued on through the market.
The violinist was gone now. In her place was a man at a small table with a typewriter. Hanging from the table was a little sign that said, “Poems for Sale.”
I was feeling about five thousand dollars chippier than my earlier walk through the neighborhood, so I decided I could spare a buck for a poem. Why not? The world at the moment was full of fun and whimsy and packages full of cash.
I assumed he would ask me for a prompt or something, but no. He never even spoke. As I walked up, he simply gestured to a small jar for the money. I dropped a dollar in and he looked me in the eyes—just for a moment. Then the typewriter came to life in a whirlwind of clicks and clacks. The entire time he typed, he never looked back up at me. He finished in what must’ve been less than a minute, and handed me a little slip of paper—locking eyes one more time before turning his attention elsewhere.
This town seemed to be full of interesting, unusual people. I wondered how many more fascinating experiences I’d have at wherever I ended up next. As I stepped away from the typewriter, I looked down to read the poem.
“I wish I could—
I felt the back of my head pound the cement as I walked into yet another person.
No, I looked up in a daze, not another person, the same man from earlier. What were the odds of th—no.
The man started running.
The poet, darting up from behind his table, helped me back up. I stumbled, unsteady on my feet. My jacket was empty.
Dizzy, I started running after him. Luckily, he wasn’t too fast. I managed to at least keep him in my sight as the spinning of the world slowed down and I could concentrate on giving chase. We left Pike’s Place as he sprinted south a block, then west towards the water, and south again as I followed with my head and heart both pounding in my ears.
We ran past a café where folks were sitting at tables outside. He nearly knocked a waitress over as he darted through. I was less nimble, catching the edge of a chair and stumbling. I glanced back to apologize and found Moog and Sondra sitting there, looking wide-eyed at me.
Equally shocked and body pulsing with adrenaline, I didn’t have time to think about words. I shouted the first thing I could think of before spinning back around and continuing the chase.
He turned a corner into an alley that ran underneath the freeway. I darted around to follow and that’s when it happened.
An outstretched arm was waiting for me as I ran headfirst into the alley—clotheslining me across the chest and knocking me onto my back. In the alleyway, the man was joined by two others.
He wasn’t a slow runner, he was just baiting me. Now I was out of breath, on my back, and about to get beaten to death.
In stories, the bad guy is always a metaphor.
Sometimes, though, the metaphor is a literal bad guy.
The man who took my money kept running while the other two stood over me. One of them immediately straddled me like you would a horse, pinning me down. The other raised his boot over my face and I watched it come down with swift purpose.
The sound of bones shattering is one the worst things your ears could be tortured with, reader. I had never heard the sound myself up until then. At that moment, however, I remember hearing an earth-shattering crack and thinking:
My bones sound a lot like a skateboard after a high drop.
And that’s when I realized it wasn’t my bones I was hearing. My face was still intact. The boot faltered inches above my head as the man collapsed. Splinters of wood fell on my face. The guy who was sitting on top of me looked up. Pinned as I was, I couldn’t see what caught his attention, but I didn’t need to. A foot came flying into my field of view from the side, catching my captor in the ribs and rolling him off me.
Still out of breath and dazed, it was all I could do to roll out of the way, not stopping until I hit the wall of the alley. That’s when I saw Sondra holding half a skateboard and Moog closing in on the guy who was on top of me just a moment ago.
The man stood up pretty quick for someone who’d just taken a kick to the sides. The guy started swinging at Moog who had his hands up high in front of his face. He swatted away every fist like they were flies. He was in constant motion, rocking on the balls of his feet. After each punch that he parried, he would dart forward just a hair, continually pushing forward while the other guy kept stepping back.
The entire time he advanced, Moog didn’t throw a single punch, he just kept swatting his opponents arms away or darting his head left, right, down to avoid a hit, leaving the other guys fists grazing Moog’s ears.
Finally, Moog made one more advance. His opponent tried to step back, but instead heard the dull echo of a foot hitting the dumpster behind him. He was pinned. That’s when Moog made his first, and last, attack. Moog’s left arm went wide, winding up for a hard hook. His opponent clearly saw what was coming, and as Moog’s swiped his left arm across, twisting his whole body to the right, the man threw his head down—straight into Moog’s other first as he untwisted, throwing his momentum back around into a brick-like uppercut.
And that was it. Both guys stumbled away down the alley. One with a head full of skateboard splinters and the other holding his hands to his mouth to keep his teeth in.
The third guy was long gone. Five thousand dollars richer.
The entire fight must have lasted only a handful of seconds, though each one felt like an eternity. That’s what like it was like when Moog and Sondra were together. Life happened. Every moment was an event.
Breath slowly coming back, I was the first to speak.
“You,” breathe, “you know karate?”
“What?” He threw his hands in the air while Sondra helped me up. “You’re more racist than The Boss, man! That wasn’t karate.” He chuckled. Moog just fought off an attacker, saved my life, and yet, he was chuckling? “You still haven’t figured out where I’m from, but you think, ‘man, he’s gotta know karate!’” He shook his head, then walked over to where the other half of Sondra’s skateboard had landed. She must have cracked him pretty hard to break it like that.
After Sondra got me to my feet, she started brushing off my jacket.
“Thanks for following me. I could’ve been dead otherwise.”
Sondra looked a little dazed as well, but there was still an electricity in her eyes, as though her face was whispering, what did I just do? But her soul was shouting, let’s do it again.
Even now, she scared me a little.
“What else were we supposed to do? You came barreling through our table, looked at Moog, and just shouted, ‘ALICE!’ He was up and running before I could blink,” she paused, “Actually, we still need to go back there and pay our bill.”
Crashing quickly form the adrenaline rush and unsure what to do next, the three of us started dragging ourselves home in silence, none of us bothering to talk about the lost cash or what I would do next.
We passed Pike’s Place again. It was getting late now, performers gone, crowds vanished, thieves in their dens. Sondra saw a piece of paper fluttering along the street and grabbed it before it flew away. Reading it, she grimaced, “No wonder someone trashed this. I like books, never understood poetry, though.” She moved to throw it into a garbage can on the corner of the street, but I stopped her–grabbing the paper to read it.
I stopped walking. Moog and Sondra, a few feet in front of me now, stopped and turned around to see what had caught my attention. Finally, I managed to give a disbelieving chuckle despite my pounding head.
I wish I could live like that vandal
Who danced on the flame of a candle;
He travelled the globe, in search for his soul
And storied the world through his rambles.
“Seriously?” Sondra grimaced at my laughing, “Don’t tell me the stuffy textbook reader likes limericks.”
I folded up the paper and put it my pocket, next to Alice’s confusing note.
“I think,” we started walking again, “I think it means things will be ok.”
Danced on the flame of a candle. Money or not, it was time to get The Candlewind air-worthy again.
This town, Moog, Alice, they were all wonderful. But it was time to go.
(Photo by Luis Dalvan on Pexels.com)