Tag Archives: Writing Excuses

Thirteen lines…what’s the gee-whiz?

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Regular readers of this blog may remember that I’m following along with the Writing Excuses master class in fiction writing. Slowly. As in, I’m still working on assignments that were given back in April, but at least I’m working on them.

For the assignment I’m on right now, I’m supposed to share the first 13 lines of a story, and then ask alpha readers—that would be you, if you choose to accept the assignment—what they think the “gee-whiz” of the piece is. In other words, what is the reason for telling the story? Is it a certain interesting society, character, piece of tech, kind of magic, or what?

In that spirit, I’m sharing the first 13 lines of a story I’m writing, and asking for responses. Can you guess/predict the gee-whiz?

Kimberley savored a celebratory caramel macchiato in the coffee garden across from campus. Her eyes rested on a bed of pink tulips under a flowering crabapple tree as a light bubble of joy filled her chest. Her old implant pinged. Even before installing her upgrade, she was already thinking of her implant as the “old” one. Marco’s tone. She bit her lip. She’d hoped to tell her mother about her placement first. Mom would have the perfect reaction, but Kimberley’s ping to her had so far gone unanswered. She planned to tell Marco, too, though his response might dampen her mood.

As if anything could. He might not be as happy for her as she might wish, but they would both get over it. And she wanted to hear about his placement. She clicked her tongue to open a line, said, “Hey.”

“Did you find out yet?”

“Yes. How about you?”

“Skank! You first.”

There they are. The first 13 lines, at least in my web browser. Any impressions regarding genre, tone, conflict, story question or characters are welcome, but I’m particularly interested in what you think the “gee-whiz” might be.

In other news, Cookie, Sis, and I just got back from England and France. Photos and anecdotes coming soon…

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Writing Excuses 10.14 – Beginnings, part 3

Part 3 of 3

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Today’s post is my third 500-word beginning for the story outlined in my July 14  post.

Elise ran her hands along the cool, brushed nickel box, over its rounded corners. She closed her eyes, the better to focus on the sensations from her fingers, seeking the recessed snap opening that was discernible only by touch. The whole container was barely larger than her fist. So much more elegant than the big plastic box her University upgrade had been packaged in. Though at the time, four years ago, she remembered being excited by that, too, and the future it seemed to promise.

But this box, with its subtly raised FMI logo—this was truly what she’d been working for. What her mother had worked overtime and sacrificed to make possible. She wanted to wait for Mom, and she didn’t.

“Time?” she subvocalized to her implant. In the cool, well-bred tones she’d set it to use as soon as she entered the business college of [NAME] University, it informed her that it was nine-oh-six, . Normally Mom would have been home by now. On a night like tonight, she should have been home an hour ago, even if she had charts to finish. Why didn’t she answer Elise’s message?

Elise felt she might explode. She’d done all the busywork she could think of, filling the time preparing for tonight’s celebration. She’d stopped to buy bratwurst, the cheap pink bubbly wine her mother loved, and a fresh deck of playing cards. A salad was already made, the table set. All the poker supplies were on the wood laminate coffee table in front of their sagging couch. Mom would sit on the couch, hunched low over her cards, trash-talking Elise as they played. The worse her mother’s cards were, the more colorful her mock insults grew.

Where was she? Mom knew Elise was supposed to hear about her job placement today. Didn’t she want to be home, whether to comfort or to celebrate? Elise had expected her to message much earlier in the day, as soon as she got any kind of break at work, but there had been no communication of any sort, and no response to Elise’s message sent—how long ago was it now? Over half an hour.

Well, at least she could access the documentation she’d been sent with her offer. She kicked off her knockoff Feruccis and lay down on the couch. Closing her eyes, she said, “Open email for FMI offer details.”

“Read it out, or will you read?” her implant asked.

“‘l’ll read.” She’d listened to the details already, but she wanted to process the information visually. When she was jumpy like this, it sometimes settled her to read. Scrolling across her interior vision field, the details of the offer still delighted her. Two hundred K to start. That was twice what her mother made. Even if she didn’t get a salary bump at full employment, she would be able to pay her loans off in five years. And she would get that raise. She’d done her research. FMI kept interns at base pay for a year, then bumped it by at least ten percent. She’d heard of some rookies getting fifty percent after the first year, if they were real hotshots. She was just such a hotshot, and she knew it.

No one who started in [the projects] got into FMI, even if they had the grades for it. That is, no one but Elise.

Which of the three beginnings works best for you, making you want to read further? What do you expect to happen in this story?

Writing Excuses 10.14 – Beginnings, part 2

Part 2 of 3

Today’s post is my second 500-word attempt to begin the story outlined in my previous post.

Elise was enjoying a celebratory light caramel macchiato when her implant pinged with Marco’s tone. She swallowed, clicked her tongue to open the line, said, “Yes?”

“Did you find out yet?”

“Yes. How about you?”

“Skank! You first.”

“Okay.” Her joy threatened to bubble out every orifice in her body. She couldn’t have held out long anyway. “I’m in.”

“At FMI? Shut up.”

“Yes, at FMI. I already have all the docs, but I haven’t downloaded them yet.”

“What about your upgrade?”

“They’re messengering that to the apartment. Should be there in the next couple of hours.”

“Shit. You better get there before someone lifts it. You don’t want to miss your big chance to join our Uno overlords.”

Elise laughed. She’d learned about ten years earlier—courtesy of the business etiquette class her mother arranged for her when she was still in middle school—that none of the one-percenters ever referred to themselves as Unos. It was déclassé, and if she’d done it, she would either have betrayed her common origins or been seen as too irreverent to be taken seriously. But Marco could get away with it.

“Just finishing a coffee, then I’m on my way. You want to come?”

“Does [insert futuristic Pope Catholic thing here]? I want to see that implant.”

“Let’s meet up and take the bus back. Where are you?”

“Just picked up my own shiny new upgrade.”

Elise knew someone would hire Marco. From the sound of his voice he was happy about his offer, but he’d never said who he wanted to work for. He’d mentioned some private corps, the university, even a couple of non-profits, but he’d never given her any indication of his top pick. He was like that. He worked his ass off all four years—just like she had—but where Elise had only ever wanted to work at FMI after graduation, Marco had good things to say about several different paths.

“Spill. Who took you?”

“The Uni.”

“Oh.”

“Elise. It’s a good thing. We don’t all want to rule our inferiors.”

“That’s not what FMI is about.”

“I’m sure you’ll explain it all to me once you get through brainwashing—uh, orientation.”

“Let’s not fight about it, Marco. Can’t you be happy for me?”

“If you can be happy for me.”

“Of course I can.”

And suddenly he was across the metal table from her, his backpack making a hard thunk as it landed, causing her cup to shudder and jump. Thank god she’d left the lid on.

“Glad to hear it, ’Lise.” He grinned and picked up her cup, taking a large swig from it. “Are we going now, or what?”

She shook her head, stood, and settled her shoulder bag crossways on her body. She wrested the cup away from him. “We’d better. I don’t want any of the little delinquents or their more professional parents getting ideas about my package.”

An aubergine sedan with a silver FMI logo on the driver’s door was just pulling around the corner as they approached Elise’s building.

Back to the Writing Excuses – 10.14 – Beginnings

Part 1 of 3

I’m back to sharing some of the work I’m doing as part of the Writing Excuses Master Class in Fiction Writing. The episode that prompted this post (and the two following) can be heard here.

Here’s a basic outline of the story I’m working on:

In the near future, people use specialized implants to help them succeed at their jobs. Implants are given when children start preschool, and based on how the children respond and what they seem most suited to learning, their implants are updated/refined as they approach maturity.

Elise, 22,  lives with her mother in a bleak apartment, paid for from her mother’s salary as a nurse. Elise has always longed and worked for a better future. Finally her dreams seem to be coming true. She is about to graduate from the university, and has been selected for a training program at the prestigious [Financial Management Institute]. The company has delivered her new improved [implant]; once she replaces her student implant with the new one and accepted the Terms of Service, she will be contractually obligated to begin her new life. She has some problems with the tutorial and asks a friend to help. The friend disapproves of Elise’s plans; they fight and the friend leaves. Elise’s mother finally gets home from work, Elise can tell it was a rough day, but her mother won’t talk about it. Finally Mom asks Elise what’s up. Though Elise is surprised Mom doesn’t remember that today was the day the training program was choosing recruits, but she tells her Mom about her triumph. Far from being genuinely enthusiastic, Mom simply goes through the motions. Elise realizes this is because Mom still has work turned all the way up on her implant. She requests that Mom turn work down, which is how people are normally able to maintain genuine relationships. Mom either can’t or breaks down when she tries to.

A frightened Elise is left to decide whether she’s willing to forgo her personality in order to succeed in a demanding career.

  • Main story element from the MICE Quotient: Character
  • Number of characters: 3
  • Exciting parts/promises: 1- a fabulous new life of wealth after years of poverty and sacrifice, 2- the tech implants, 3- the fight with her friend, 4- the revelatory scene with her mom
  • Probable story length ~4000 words

And here’s my first 500-word attempt at letting the reader know what to expect from the story:

Elise looked both ways down the hall before setting her messenger bag on the floor. It was safer there than over her shoulder; she didn’t want to jostle her precious FMI package while she fiddled with the three locks they used to ensure their apartment’s safety. Once she started the new job, it wouldn’t be long before they could afford something better than this dump. Luckily the corridor was empty. Too late for the parents to be scooting their kids out the door to school and too early for the dealers to be trolling the halls for customers.

She and her mother had reported the broken vidcams in their own hall too many times for security to take them seriously. Never mind that they were telling the truth: the cams were actually broken. Security had only so much budget for these buildings. Keeping the halls safe wouldn’t become a priority unless and until some One-percenter got a bug up her ass about the less-privileged segments of society and came along to do good. That hadn’t happened in their neighborhood yet. If Elise had her way, she and her mother be long gone before anyone got around to it. It would probably take a few years for her to gain One-percent status. Maybe once she did, she’d become a do-gooder. If she remembered and still cared about anyone in this shithole. She was taking Mom with her, so she might not.

Her fingerprint applied to the last lock, she elbowed the door open and lifted her bag over the threshold, this time setting it carefully on the laminate table by the door. She locked everything again from the inside, kicked off her knock-off Feruccis, and hung her blazer on the peg next to the table.

The living room smelled of synthetic lemon, and she smiled. In spite of how exhausted Mom always was, she’d still cleaned the apartment before leaving for her hospital shift this morning. She had to be almost as excited as Elise, though she’d been asleep  when Elise left for school.

Neither of them could know if FMI would choose Elise for an internship, not for sure. Despite her stellar academics and extracurriculars, despite the years she and her mother had sacrificed a better home for the extra classes and social opps Elise would need in order to blend in with One-percenters.

Anyone could get into some kind of financial management slot if they had the grades and no criminal record. To get into a firm like FMI, one that raised their employees from nowhere to the heights—that took more. You needed to show you could be one of them. Elise had spent over eighteen years—ever since she got her first implant—doing what it took to fit in.

She couldn’t have anyone over to their drab apartment, of course, so she had to be better than the usual one-percenter at almost everything, including making people care about her. She’d done it, though. Finally.

The packet beckoned. She opened the clasps on her bag and pulled out a brushed-nickel box.

Based just on this beginning, what do you expect this story to be about? What would you read further to find out?

Writing Excuses – 10.9 – Reverse-Engineer a Story

Reverse engineering “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

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Writing Excuses 10.9 had us figuring out how an author puts a story together. The assignment was to dissect a piece of media—novel, story, comic, movie, or TV show—to see what promises the author made and how (s)he fulfilled them. We needed to determine the story type (a la Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient) and what the story’s tone and genre were.

I chose “The Lottery” because it is short, famous, and easy to find. If you have never read “The Lottery” or would like a refresher on this short (about 3400 words) story, it can be found online here. If you’re not already familiar, I highly recommend reading it before continuing, because this post is positively rife with spoilers.

Here’s a presentation I put together for my writing peeps at the Journey:

More thoughts:

I argued that “The Lottery” was an Idea story. Given the title, we know a lottery will be held, but we don’t know what the “winner” receives. The story will be over when we know what the prize (or in this case the consequence) is. The story question—what is this lottery and what will it mean to the characters?—is what keeps the reader reading.

Genre: in keeping with the idea of reverse engineering, I looked at the end first. It’s horrifying, so while it doesn’t start with the typical horror details, at heart it’s a horror story. Whoever draws the marked paper is stoned to death. In the case of this particular story, it was important for the tone in the beginning to contrast sharply with the tone of the ending to increase the horror.

The story begins with the description of a particularly beautiful summer day. The people of this small village gather for a timeless ritual. The mood seems one of anticipation, both nervous and somewhat solemn. Folks are friendly to one another, and everyone seems to know everyone else. There’s some joking and smiling, though the men seem less enthusiastic about it than the boys or very young children do.

The foreshadowing in the beginning is almost throwaway: the middle-grade boys piling up stones. There’s no mention of what the stones are for, and only the boys seem to pay much attention to them at first, though the grown men do stand away from the pile. It’s easy for a reader to think this is some kids’ game and it may not mean anything at all.

The story is told all in one continuous scene, but it can be divided by several events or entrances.

1

It’s a beautiful summer day in a small village. The scene is set as young boys seem to play some kind of game with piles of stones, the girls also gather, and the men stand around chatting. The women soon arrive and the villagers sort themselves into family groups. The children are still lighthearted, while there’s some tension from at least one of the adults, Mr. Martin, who sharply calls his son Bobby back to his family and away from the pile of stones.

  • Revealed: Where and when are we? 20th century America.
  • Conflict: the tension of waiting for the event to start; making the children behave properly.
  • Remaining questions: what is the lottery? Who will win it, and what might they win?

2

Mr. Summers arrives with the lottery box. People hold themselves away from the box, hesitating when Mr. Summers asks for help. Some history of the box is shared, including the villager’s attachment to it. There’s also allusion to the antiquity of the lottery, and how the town and the ritual itself have changed over the years.

  • Revealed: How the lottery is usually conducted, that it’s a special event, but it’s also very traditional, and who’s in charge.
  • Conflict: implied conflicts around people wanting to retain all the traditions even though some details have necessarily changed over the years.
  • Remaining questions: What happens next? How will Mr. Summers proceed?

3

Mrs. Hutchinson arrives, having almost forgotten it was lottery day. She’s cheerful about her lateness and there’s some good-natured teasing and back-and-forth between Mrs. Hutchinson and Mr. Summers. Then everyone settles back into place. I find this authorial choice particularly masterful: Mrs. Hutchinson almost seems like an afterthought. Though she ends up being the pivotal character, she seems no more important than any other character. She enters late, which helps the reader focus on her, but at first (since everyone has a name when referred to individually) she doesn’t seem any more important than anyone else. Then she gets a first name, so that adds more weight to her appearance, but not a hell of a lot. It’s introduced very naturally, as Summers teases her. It makes sense in context. On first reading it doesn’t come across as if the author is saying: “Here. Pay attention to this character.”

  • Revealed: All the forms have been observed: now we can begin.
  • Conflict: Mild commentary about Mrs. Hutchinson’s lateness; it’s treated as if it wasn’t a big deal, but clearly her husband wondered where she was and Mr. Summers wasn’t going to start until he was sure everyone had arrived, so people have had to wait.
  • Remaining questions: Still…what’s going to happen with this lottery?!

4

When the first man comes up to draw, he and Summers greet each other “humorlessly and nervously.” The reader gets another inkling that this village may not be as bucolic as it seems. Each family representative takes a folded paper and holds it until every family has drawn before looking at it. People wait quietly, wetting their lips, not looking around. As the drawing continues, people mention that not all the towns around here still hold the lottery. Conflict in the form of Old Man Warner, who mocks that notion and introduces the saying (and the lottery’s rationale), “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The reader understands the pull of tradition that people are feeling, despite the fact that some of the characters are growing nervous, saying they wish it were all over. Mrs. Hutchinson, however, jovially prods her husband to “Get on up there, Bill” when it’s his turn.

  • Revealed: How the lottery is conducted
  • Conflict: People are suddenly serious, concerned about the result.
  • Remaining questions: Who’s going to draw the “winning” paper?


5

THE STORY TURNS HERE! When it becomes that Bill Hutchinson drew the “winning” paper, panic sets in, at least for Mrs. Hutchinson. The reader is left in no doubt:  winning this lottery is not a good thing, despite social pressure from the other villagers to continue. It’s not even a question that this ritual will go on until the end.

  • Revealed: The Hutchinson family draws the marked paper.
  • Conflict: Despite the outside influence of other towns giving up the lottery, this village wants to keep it to ensure a good harvest. Tess Hutchinson is not happy about the result. The rest of the village exerts pressure on her to “be a good sport.”
  • Remaining questions: What does this mean for the Hutchinsons? Why does Tess resist and start to complain?

6

The conflict then becomes focused between Mrs. Hutchinson and the rest of the village. The author seems to slow time at this point; there’s a surprising amount of detail packed into few words as each member of the Hutchinson family comes up to take their papers. The smallest child’s paper is open first, and the whole crowd breathes a sigh of relief when it’s shown to be blank. As each of the other kids open their papers, more relief is expressed. Mr. Hutchinson’s paper is also blank. We know, at this point, that Mrs. Hutchinson (who was cheerful about the proceedings until she started to look like the winner/victim) is about to get it.

  • Revealed: Mrs. Hutchinson is the one chosen via the lottery.
  • Conflict: Mrs. Hutchinson doesn’t want to be chosen, but she has no choice.
  • Remaining questions: Why is Mrs. Hutchinson freaking out?

7

Perhaps the most chilling part of the story comes when someone gives little Davy Hutchinson a handful of pebbles to throw at his mother. This moment really drives home Shirley Jackson’s point about mindless conformity: teach children at a young age to do this, no matter what the ramifications.

  • Revealed: the person chosen by the lottery is stoned to death.
  • Conflict: Everyone must do the stoning, even the victim’s family.
  • Remaining questions: Geeze, Grandpa, why did you make me read this? But seriously: what was Shirley Jackson trying to say with this story? Did she succeed?

Still More Thoughts:

I thought it clever of Shirley Jackson to have the main character arrive with, perhaps, some premonition of her own fate. Is some unconscious dread why Mrs. Hutchinson was late to the drawing? Was her seemingly flippant “get on up there, Bill” a way to conceal her own uneasiness? Jackson was also clever to make Mrs. H. progressively less likable. As soon as the lottery hones in on her family, she gets whiny and shows herself to be, as one of the villagers says, “not a good sport.” Because she grows less likable/conformist, you get the sense that perhaps this village has held onto the lottery tradition (while others have abandoned it) because the victims start to stir a kind of bloodlust. Maybe most or all of the victims begin to make themselves unlikable, and thus, easier to kill.

Setting: One of the elements of tone that I think makes this story so interesting is that, while there’s a concerted effort to be nonspecific in terms of place, and the ritual itself seems quite archaic—maybe something out of druid times—the setting is very American. It was also a contemporary setting at the time it was published (1948). Everyone pays taxes; the kids all go to school; there are tractors. There’s also a mix of last names. In addition to the English-sounding ones, there are names like Delacroix and Zanini. Then there’s the casualness of the whole affair. In the past there was apparently chant and a ritual salute the lottery official offered to those who drew from the box. Now the whole affair is handled so efficiently everyone can get home in time for lunch. The exhortations not to fuss, to be a good sport, all seem very American as well. In any case, it’s the contrast of peaceful, apparently civilized setting and the horrible event that makes this story unforgettable.

Writing Excuses 10.7 — another character

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Showing my work again…thanks Austin Kleon!

Aaand the Writing Excuses assignments keep on coming! In this exercise we were supposed to take one of the characters from Exercise 10.5, find a secondary character in that character’s scene, and rewrite the same scene from the secondary character’s point of view. I chose the musician who appeared during Angela’s dead drop mission.

As Leif scrolled to the next song on his iPad, he glanced at the top of the screen. Already 12:48. If the courier was going to appear today, it better be soon. The next busker was supposed to start playing at 1. He could put his guitar away last, leaving its case open for a last-minute delivery, but that would be unnatural. A pain in the ass, really. He’d wait a bit longer. He mopped his sweating forehead, shoved his bandana into his back pocket, and strummed the opening to “Margaritaville.”

The majority of Saturday shoppers paid him no attention at all. He played on one side of the market’s central aisle. Folding chairs for listeners were arranged on the opposite side. It was a shitty setup. The only people in the audience area were those who really needed to sit—old people, some using walkers or canes, the occasional heavily pregnant woman. That was his audience, pretending to listen because it was polite.

They were loving the Jimmy Buffett, though. Since most of the audience seemed to be at least 50, he played a lot of oldies. It was the least he could do. None of his original stuff, of course. This suburban French market just wasn’t the place for it. Besides, what if they hated it, started walking away, pushing their walkers as fast as they could? He got enough rejection from the serious venues he tried to book; he didn’t need it from people who were only killing time.

Some of the more able-bodied market-goers looked apologetic as they interrupted the sight lines between him and his “audience,” but that didn’t stop them from passing.

“Margaritaville” was over. He should pack up, but he couldn’t leave until he was sure he’d given the courier every opportunity to make the drop. He started shilling, surveying the crowd as he did so. That’s when he saw a small Latina. Her left arm was scrolled in shades of pink, gold, and green from wrist to shoulder. The intricate leaf-and-branch design incorporated rosebuds and butterflies. The right side of her neck sported a beautiful pink lotus blossom.

Karen had said the courier would easily spot him because of his long-regretted, self-inflicted tattoo. She hadn’t given a reason, but it was obvious. The arriving woman knew ink.

What she didn’t seem to know was that his guitar case was her intended target. Her eyes were red and she wore a dazed look, due either to drugs or a lot of crying. Now that he got a good look at her, she seemed barely functional. Her steps dragged, as if she had to remind herself to walk. If only he could ask her for the package, but Karen had been clear. He couldn’t talk to the courier at all.

He could play, though, and sing. Let her know she was in the right place. If he knew her favorite song, he’d play that. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a mind-reader. He only had one shot, an old Mexican standard. “Bésame Mucho.” He hadn’t played it for a while, but he used to do a kick-ass version of it. It might confuse the pasty-white market patrons, but it was just one song. They’d get over it. He plucked the intro.

The tattooed Latina stopped in her tracks and looked straight at him. Karen might flip, but he winked—the smallest wink he could manage. She took it the wrong way, shrinking even further into her own skin. Had he blown it? Oh, well, he was committed now. He pushed her apparent revulsion from his thoughts and began to sing.

As always, the music filled him. His eyes drifted closed. He felt a presence and opened his eyes in time to see her drop a folded bill into his open guitar case. He tried to give the nod every busker knew, the subtle thanks for a donation, but she was already retreating the way she had come.

He skipped the instrumental bridge and repeat, fading out to create a quick ending. It was 12:55, anyway. Time to stop before his replacement complained to the market manager.

He scooped coins and bills out of the guitar case, cramming them into his front hip pockets. Damn, his jeans were tight. His belly flapped over his belt. He looked like hell. No wonder the woman had flinched at his song choice. Any decent-looking female would be creeped out if someone like him seemed to be coming on to her.

Screw it. If she’d brought what Karen promised, Leif would soon be swimming in women. He trundled his guitar, CDs, and extra mic stand to his truck and loaded up. Before climbing in, he emptied his pockets onto the driver seat and found the dollar bill he was looking for, the only one that was taped closed. Using the small blade of his Swiss army knife, he cut the tape. Inside, he found a long yellow post-it note covered with grouped letters that formed no recognizable words, interrupted in a few spots by numbers. The numbers would let him know which pages of The Magic Mountain would unlock his coded message to reveal its actual meaning.

Writing Excuses 10.5 — Part 3

As in the two previous posts, a character I created is walking through a marketplace to perform a dead drop. This character is different from the characters in the last 2 posts. See if you can figure out the job, hobby, and emotional state.

Angela stepped off the bus and held her hand up to her forehead, surveying the French market through watery eyes. She blinked to clear her vision. A gray-haired woman jostled her as she exited the bus and  strode to the far end of the stalls. Angela would have shrugged had she possessed the energy. She could do worse than to follow.

Throngs filled the aisle that ran between the market stalls. In the noon sunlight the patrons’ casual clothing, the piles of produce, the stands of flowers—everything seemed too bright. Amid the murmur and chatter of voices she could make out the amplified sound of a man singing and strumming a guitar. She suffered the sweaty mass of cheery humans until she located him.

Past a display of leather goods, a blond walrus of a man sat on a tall stool. His guitar rested against his great belly, held in place by a diamond-patterned strap in neon yellow and green. He played some insipid old song which she’d heard before but couldn’t quite place, then swung into a patter about his CDs. The crowd started drifting off. He cut his spiel short and began to pluck the syncopated introduction to “Bésame Mucho.”

His playing was nearly as good as some she’d heard in the clubs. Despite herself, Angela felt her hips want to sway and her dragging steps to morph into the moves of a dance. She stopped, really looking at him for the first time, noting his faded jeans and ancient Eagles t-shirt. He was already watching her; his wink was barely discernible through the pouches of flesh sagging below his blue-green eyes. If she’d felt more like herself she would have either laughed at the man’s impudence, or glared. Had he thought it funny to launch into a Spanish song just because he’d noticed her deeply tanned skin, her dark eyes and hair? And Bésame Mucho? Kiss him a lot? No lo creo!

He half-closed his eyes and began singing. His accent was better than she would have expected. She looked at the CD racks on either side of his open guitar case, its deeper side scattered with bills and coins. Karen had said to leave her packet where “pájaro herido” played. The musicians in this market changed every couple of hours. Karen said she couldn’t confirm their exact schedule, so Angela didn’t even know if this man was the one she needed to find. Nothing about him suggested a broken bird. With his eyes closed, though, he seemed less threatening.

She moved closer. The muscles of the musician’s right forearm bunched and loosened as he played. A dark discoloration moved along with his muscles, and Angela tried to make sense of it. It was too dark and thin-edged to be a bruise. As she studied it, it resolved itself into a kind of design, and she realized what it must be. It looked like most of a bird, its wings spread.

Someone had inked this man, but done a poor job of it. What had they used, a sewing needle? There was a gap in the tail section, as if the artist—if the tattooer deserved that title—had pulled the skin taut rather than letting it lie naturally as he inked. Idiot. But it told Angela one thing. She had found her broken bird. She felt inside her purse for a folded, taped dollar bill. Inside this dollar was a post-it note with a combination of letters and numbers which meant nothing to Angela. She dropped the taped bill into the player’s open guitar case and looked for the quickest way out of the market.