In late May of 1999, I moved from Buffalo, NY to the Washington, DC area. This wasn’t a one-shot thing; it involved a few car trips back-and-forth, in the ’88 Chevy Beretta I’d inherited. The first two trips went fine, but unbeknownst to me the car was on its last legs. And so it happened that on my way back to Virginia on the third trip, it overheated and died on the side of the road, just outside of South Williamsport, PA. Home of the Little League World Series, and, as it turns out, the place where my novel Blackbird really began.
This was a time before everyone carried smartphones everywhere and always, so finding help meant walking back into town to find a store that was open, breaking a $20, and then figuring out who to call on a pay phone. There were some complications. First of all, that day—July 5—was an observed holiday, so just about everything in town was closed. Secondly, I was not alone on my trip; I was bringing with me my pet albino ferret, Damien. This fact by itself was no big deal, but it was also damned hot outside, approaching 100°F (which explained why the car had died).
There was barely any traffic on the road, and none of it was inclined to stop despite my attempts to flag someone down, so I really had no alternative: I rolled down the windows and left the ferret in the car as I jogged back down the road and found a convenience store, then started making calls. It took about an hour before I got hold of the owner of a garage, and managed to convince him to tow my car back to his place. We made it back to the car just in time to save the ferret from dying of heat stroke. I quickly checked us into a hotel which was kind enough to accept an unusual pet under unusual circumstances.
Even though the ferret was now safe, there was another complication I had to consider. I had just started a new job two weeks earlier, and I had no way to let anyone there know I was having car issues, so it was imperative that I figure something out. I didn’t want to miss a day of work so soon, and I couldn’t really spend a week in South Williamsport while the car got fixed. So with the immediate danger out of the way, I left Damien to jump around on the bed with the air conditioning blasting and walked back to my car to see if it would start. It did. So I drove the car to the hotel, loaded everything back up, and got back on the road. And I made it another mile or so before it died again, for the last time.
After another hotel check-in, and a dinner cobbled together from a poorly-stocked vending machine, I ended up finding a tow truck driver who was willing to tow me all the way down to Virginia. It was expensive, but I really saw no other option. We left right around dusk, and it was quite a ride. Country-western music on the radio, my dead car rattling behind us, a ferret squirming around in my lap, leftover fireworks bursting outside. We got home right around midnight, and after I unpacked, I collapsed, glad that it was over.
But really, “it” was just starting. There were already some thoughts rattling around in my head, although I didn’t know it yet. Mostly unformed feelings. Frustration. Hopelessness. Anger at my own inability to control the uncontrollable.
The next day—likewise hot and sunny—I managed to convince one of my friends to drive me to work, which was about 30 miles away; on the way back home I was on my own once again. This being olden times, there was no Uber or Lyft, nor was there even a convenient bus route. I had to call a cab, wait for him to take his sweet time showing up (he finally arrived around 8:00 PM, two-and-a-half hours late), then get him to drop me off at the nearest Metro station, then ride the Metro for 45 minutes, then walk a mile back to the house.
By the time I got off the Metro, I was frustrated, and sweaty, and tired. And I was hungry. The closest option for a very late dinner was a fast food place on the other side of the street, so I waited for the traffic light. It only took a minute or so I’m sure, but it was enough time to think some more about how powerless I felt, while realizing that as much as the world was trying to eat me up, I was kind of the one in charge of my own destiny. I was the one pushing the button to stop traffic so I could cross, after all.
An idea began to form in my head.
Inside the fast food place, I ordered a plain chicken sandwich, fries, and a Diet Coke. And if they’d gotten that right, maybe things would have turned out differently. But they didn’t. They screwed up the order, and gave me a sandwich that was not plain. It had mayonnaise and lettuce on it, and had clearly been sitting in the heating bin for a while. I’m not allergic to either one—can you even BE allergic to lettuce?—but I find nothing more disgusting than warm lettuce covered in warm mayo.
And for a moment, angry and disgusted with everything that had happened over the past 36 hours, I had one of those thoughts run through my head. We’ve all had them. The dark, reptile thoughts. What if I went up there and yelled at the cashier? What if I threw the sandwich back in his face and demanded to see a manager? What if I did like the guy in Falling Down and waved a gun around? What if—to quote H.L. Mencken—I decided to “hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats?”
That’s not me, not at all; that’s not many people, and certainly none that I know personally. I knew deep down that this was a first world problem, before that was even an Internet meme. But the thought was brewing in my head, even as I used the edge of my french fry container to scrape off the mayo and lettuce, even as I started writing down my scattered thoughts on stray napkins: what if there WAS someone who would do what most people wouldn’t? Someone who would literally kill over mayonnaise on his sandwich? What would push him over the edge?
I was already piecing a story together when the girls walked in, like something out of John Updike’s A&P. A half-dozen of them, all dressed in red bathing suits and towels, with the youngest one steadfastly ignoring the rule about bare feet. I watched them order their ice cream cones while I ate. And they got their ice cream and left, and I finished my dinner and left, and that was that.
But I wondered: what if that barefoot little girl hadn’t gotten what she wanted? And what if this guy I had in my head had decided THAT was what it took to push him over the edge?
The first chapter took about a day to write. The remainder took over a decade, but for everything that’s changed along the way, that first chapter has remained almost as it was envisioned on day one. And none of it would have been written at all if the pieces of the puzzle hadn’t aligned in exactly the right way at just the right time. Just random, individually inconsequential pieces of bad luck and happenstance. The condiments of life, so to speak.
They say if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Life gave me mayonnaise, so I made Blackbird.
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