The short story adapted for this week’s podcast, “Short Straw,” is not one that appears in A Consternation of Monsters. Primarily this is because the story does not feature any actual monsters, unless you count the concept of Santa Claus or the slow march of death. (Technically, the concept of Santa Claus does appear in A Consternation of Monsters already, mentioned in “Puppet Legacy,” but it is not within the confines of a Christmas story. So there.) No, it’s one of my mundane stories, meaning stories that seem to be set entirely in the real world, with no magical realism. That said, I still wanted to do a Christmas podcast this year, so I chose my one Christmas story that I had at hand to adapt instead.
The events of “Short Straw,” as I mention this at the end of the podcast, come about as close to nonfiction as my stories tend to get. I still classify it as fiction, because while the events depicted did indeed happen, I have no idea of the real identities of any of the people involved outside the analog characters of me and my father (Aaron and Rob) and I had to make up all the dialogue, or at the very best paraphrase it. Plus, a minor part of the story, while still true, did not occur at that prison, or even in that state. This is what writers do, though: weaving together strands of truth to tell a stronger tale. Most of it was gleaned from my memory, or my memories that have been altered by the telling and retelling of this particular story by my father over the years. I’d say, though, that the only lines of dialogue that I know for certain are verbatim from reality are probably the last two lines of dialogue in the story.
So, if you’ve not yet heard the story, go and listen to the podcast adaptation and come back to read the behind the scenes report below.
When I was a wee lad I became infatuated with detectives. Probably my first exposure to the concept of them was Sherlock Hemlock, the little green deerstalker-clad puppet from Sesame Street, who was based on Sherlock Holmes. Not much later, my father bought me a collection called Gateway to Mystery which featured an abridged version of Conan-Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” which was my favorite story from that book. I decided that I would one day be a detective myself. I began cultivating this by carrying around a red-plastic magnifying glass, which I used to examine every clue I could find.
In December, 1976, though, life changed in the Fritzius household. A few days following the birth of my baby sister in San Antonio, TX, my mother passed away. Her body went into toxemia poisoning, which led to the formation of a blood clot which went to her brain. She went into a coma and never came out. It was a very sad time for the whole family, but my dad tried to keep my spirits up as best he could. For almost the entire month of December, following her death, my dad would give me a new present every morning. It was his way of trying to take my mind off things. And those presents continued arriving each day all the way to Christmas. One of the ones I received closest to Christmas was a noisy and obnoxious Fisher Price toy train. (The very kind you can hear in the podcast.) I loved it dearly and carried it with me wherever I went, showing it off at every opportunity. We were inseparable.
On Christmas Eve, my father decided to up the ante on the presents. We had traveled from Texas to Wayne County, Mississippi, to the home of my Mamaw and Papaw. Dad had taken me into town for some last minute Christmas shopping and it was on our way out that we passed by the Wayne County Court House, where the police department was based. He had the idea that it would be a great present if I could meet an actual detective, so we went in to see if any were still there, accompanied, of course, by my new train. The man at the desk, whose name I do not know, told us that the detectives had gone home for the day, but would be back on Monday, as Christmas fell on a Saturday that year. As we were leaving, the man asked my dad if I might like to see the jail. What followed in my memory pretty much matches the events depicted in the story. I was asked if I wanted to try out a jail cell, and I declined. I then met a prisoner in a single unit cell, who asked about my train and how come Santa Claus had brought it to me early. “You be sure to tell Santa Claus to come see me,” was his departing line. Then there was a group cell filled with probably three or four men, one of whom was indeed sitting on the toilet. They too inquired as to my special relationship with Santa, that I might get a present early. I proudly showed them how my train worked. They then also told me to be sure to tell Santa Claus to come see them, to which I again did not respond. It seemed to me that if they were in jail then they had clearly been bad, so Santa would not be paying them any visits unless it was to drop off some coal. They didn’t even have any stockings, though.
And then, there was another man in a single cell toward the end of the row who had heard my name spoken and asked me what it was again. He was, as my father recalls, waiting there until he could be transferred elsewhere. I remember sensing his sadness as he told me that he had a little boy named Eric back home. I recall sensing the weight of the moment and not knowing what to do about any of it, so I just kept quiet. Meanwhile, my dad was practically in tears.
As we left the jail and were headed back into the hall, the prisoners, in unison the prisoners all cried out “You be sure to tell Santa Claus to come see us!”
“Okay,” I said. “Be good.”
And to this day, despite all my comedic roles over the years, that line might have elicited the biggest laugh I’ve ever received. It just destroyed everyone. Probably helped set me on the path of comedic performer.
The following Christmas, a friend of my dad’s named Lucy wrote up this story as a short piece that was published in a Louisiana newspaper. I have the clipping now, though I did not when I penned my own version. Lucy mentions the death of the boy’s mother at the beginning, hooking the reader with some sentiment from the start. She also fictionalized her version of the story a bit, adding the detail that my character had never seen snow and really wanted to for Christmas, but was stymied by the fact that it happens so rarely in Mississippi. At the end of her version, as the father and son leave the jailhouse, it begins to snow. It’s a nice bow to tie around the story.
And it was because of Lucy’s version that I resisted writing my own for many years. I felt like Lucy had already written it and I didn’t want to appear to be trying to tell the same sentimental story twice. Eventually, though, I decided that the story belonged to me and my dad and I was free and clear to write about my own life if I wanted to. So, in the mid-oughts, for my writing group’s Christmas party, I wrote the first draft of the story in a couple of hours. I stuck closer to the truth of the original events, so no snow was mentioned. I also left out the part about my mother’s recent death prior to the story because I felt like it tread too close to playing on emotions. The one event I included that did not take place that night was the part where Vardy spells out “A-R-M-E-D- R-O-B-B-E-R-Y” and Aaron responds “A-A-R-O-N can spell too.” (I actually said that, but to a lady in Texas, as she was trying to spell something to my dad that she didn’t want me to understand. I didn’t understand it then, either, but had decided to do some spelling of my own since that seemed to be what folks were doing. She didn’t know this, though, so she was a bit shocked.) The story was a hit.
In subsequent drafts, I added back the suggestion that the father in the story looked sad, much like Perry Pittman had following the death of his wife. I figured that since the story was told from Vardy’s viewpoint, I couldn’t exactly reveal the details of the death without it feeling forced. So it’s suggested.
This brings me to the matter of the names of all these characters. Like I said, I don’t know any of them. So I took a page from the TV show Quantum Leap. The story goes that show creator Donald Bellissario, knowing that the 5th season’s finale would likely be the series finale, set out to write an autobiographical episode including details and characters from his childhood. All of the characters in the show were named after people he knew. So since I needed local names, I wove in those of folks I knew. Vardy is the name of my Papaw’s brother, who died long before my birth. Ezell is the name of the owner of Ezell’s Fish Camp, in Chunky, MS, (a town name I found delightfully funny as a child). Brewer is a common name for the area, and I knew a number of them from my Mamaw’s church. Perry Pittman is a combination of two names, as Mr. Perry was the owner of Perry’s Fishcamp, a regular after-church haunt of my grandparents’, and Pittman is the last name of my Papaw’s friend Bilbo Pittman (Velma, also mentioned, was Bilbo’s wife). The Masons were another family from church. Zack was named after Zackey Manning, my grandparents’ nearest neighbor. And Bo was a man who married my mother’s cousin, who later ran a country store in the tiny town of Peov, Mississippi.
This story will likely be collected one day, as I have a number of other “mundane” stories that need a home. It will likely also appear in an eventual collection of my Aaron stories, when I have enough of those. In the meantime, it’s a podcast, given out for Christmas.
As my dad is fond of saying, Merry Churtmint. And a Merry Churtmint to you and yours.