Those of you who have followed this blog for more than half a year will already know at least a bit about the origins of my story Hole for a Heart, but there’s still more that can be said, so don’t fear too much in the way of redundancy.
The seed of this story was planted on a bus trip from southern Florida to Ohio, where I was going to visit my parents. As I’ve described before, while passing through a relatively hilly area of central Florida, I saw, through the west-facing bus window, a tall tree near a highway exit. Underneath it stood what appeared to be a scarecrow. The Greyhound moved far too quickly for me to make out any details, and unlike Jon in the story, I did not have the option to stop. But it was an interesting sight, partly because, like Jon, I couldn’t really see the point of putting up a scarecrow under a tree on a hill near a highway exit. Neither was it anywhere near Halloween. I wondered what the story behind it might be. So, I quickly pulled out my smartphone and jotted down the sight as a possible story trigger.
The actual tale itself didn’t really form until several months later, more or less all at once. This happened at the beginning of October, just in time for me to finish it and publish a draft on my blog for Halloween. This happy coincidence helped inspire me to crank away at the tale, though it led me to first publish it in less than ideally polished form.
The protagonist of the story, Jonathan Lama, is named after two people I’ve known. The first name was given in memory of a friend of mine from work, who died of what I believe was a semi-deliberate drug overdose, and it is his form I see when I think of the character. The last name is that of someone still living, and who appears to be doing much better, rebuilding a life that had almost been destroyed in a similar fashion. Quite apart from being a way to give an homage to these two people, I think the combination of one dead and one living person somehow suits the character of Jon (the one in the story), who is in some ways—as his former girlfriend would no doubt say—not actually living his life. This could, of course, be confabulation on my part; I don’t honestly recall exactly what my thought process was in deciding on the name, except that it certainly was chosen after the two people I just mentioned.
The title of this story is a fairly obvious reference to the state and fate of the “scarecrow” on the hill. That dead (?) remnant of Joshua Caesar, that scourge of western central Pennsylvania in the late forties and early fifties, is missing its heart, having had it cut out by his vengeful neighbors when they had finally decided to take justice into their own hands. But that’s not the only reference to which it applies, nor was it the original meaning for the story’s title. In fact, it’s Jon himself who bears the titular empty cavity in his torso. Despite being truly gifted and brilliant at his chosen field, Jon has a near-nihilistic ambivalence toward life, toward attempting anything that involves real commitment and stress. He sees no point in struggling in a world where all lives end, and everyone leaves with exactly that with which they arrived. This ambivalence had cost Jon the love of his life (who shared a name with the ill-fated former object of Joshua Caesar’s affections), a loss that had further hollowed out his own metaphorical chest.
I like the supernatural elements of this story, and I like the juxtaposition of Jon’s and Joshua Caesar’s two very different personal philosophies. The latter is a Nietzschean, “the strong and the superior do what they like and are responsible for the greatness of humanity,” point of view, while the former is, as I said, practically nihilistic. But I think my very favorite elements of this story are the gas station clerk, Matty, and his employer, Mr. McGlynn. I just find them both quite likeable; I enjoy their conversations with each other and with Jon. Clearly, Matty is not the very brightest of sparks, but he’s smarter than he seems at first glance, and is earnest and well-meaning in his way. McGlynn, quite sharp indeed, is in superficial ways like Jon. He’s content to live a simple life running a gas station next to the interstate, despite probably being capable of more. But on closer inspection, his attitude is worlds apart from Jon’s. There’s no despair or sense of meaninglessness in McGlynn’s philosophy of life; he seems to enjoy himself very much, in his way, and he clearly has affection and respect for his young employee, and for his customer. He does take a mischievous and slightly sadistic satisfaction in telling a story that might horrify both Jon and Matty, but I think he can be forgiven for this.
I would think that, though, wouldn’t I?
As with many of my short stories, this one leaves us all hanging at the end, me included. I wonder at times just what the new driver of the restored ’97 Mustang will do after he pulls onto the interstate at the end of the tale, and whether this path will take him to Chicago, to seek out a young woman who had, in her own way, stolen Jon’s heart before the story ever began. More than that, though, I think it would be fun, if we had world enough and time, to follow Matty and McGlynn. I’d like to visit that gas station, to stop and share conversations with the two of them—perhaps while drinking a cup of gas station coffee—to listen to McGlynn’s tales of local history and legend, while Matty hangs raptly and unabashedly on his words.
I think I’d listen just as enthusiastically.