Killing All Those Little Darlings

Aside from the admonition to write what you know, the most common writing advice is to kill all your little darlings. There's a certain poetic violence to the phrase, attributed to William Faulkner, meant to remind writers to be mercenary when it comes to revision. That wonderful little scene that doesn't quite fit in the narrative? Kill it. That image you spent five hours honing until it was just right, the one describing the gravy congealing on the plate? It takes the steam right out of that dinner scene you need to be fraught with tension. Cut it and don't look back. Sometimes the things we love the most are the very things we need to omit in service of the story.

But it hurts so bad. Maybe the more it hurts to cut something, the more it needs to be cut. I think that's the case with a pet scene from my work-in-progress novel. Near the beginning of The Year of the Possum (I think that title might actually be a little darling itself, but I'll deal with that later) there's a scene based on a real-life event that I've been trying to work into a story ever since it happened twenty or so years ago. Back in those days, I was a regular at Lizard's Thicket in Columbia, South Carolina. Lizard's Thicket is a small chain of meat-and-three restaurants sprinkled around the Columbia area, and at least once a week I was there eating the same thing every single time: fried chicken, macaroni, okra and tomatoes, and candied yams. One day I was there with a couple of friends when I witnessed a scene that has never left me.

Our waitress that day was one we often had on our more-or-less weekly visits. She was a black woman a little older than us, and she was great at her job, friendly in a natural kind of way, always making it seem like it was our little secret when she brought us more cornbread. She was also beautiful, and I'm pretty sure at least one of us was low-key in love with her. On the fateful day in question, she took our order, flashing her usual smile like nothing was wrong. But sometime between the cornbread appearing and our meals getting to the table, something I will forever be curious about went down in the kitchen. There was a rumble of voices, some indistinct shouting, followed by the sound of plates crashing to the floor. What happened next is burned on my memory forever. Our waitress marched out of the kitchen, got about halfway to the door, and, while everyone watched, transfixed, forks suspended in front of open mouths, she ripped off her gingham uniform smock and hurled it back toward the kitchen, screaming "y'all can have this motherfucker" and then stomped out the door, never to be seen again.

I was mesmerized. It was perhaps the greatest thing I'd ever seen. What an undiluted thrill it must have been to have been so in the moment, to finally tell some dickhead manager off, to do it in such a public way, not giving two shits about what anybody thought. I wanted to smash my glass of sweet tea on the floor and tell them they could have that motherfucker, too, and march out behind her. But of course I just sat there, smearing butter on my cornbread. I think I knew right then and there I'd put that scene in a story somehow.

And I finally did. But, during a recent round of revision, I realized that it just didn't ring true. The story had shifted in such a way that made it a bad fit. It was a little darling, and it had to go. I had to pull the trigger and delete the scene from the novel. But I still like it a lot, so I've decided to share it here.

First, a little context: Year of the Possum is a Southern Gothic in which old secrets erupt in violence as a massive hurricane lays waste to the South Carolina coast. It begins with quasi-homeless Gilbert Green going to meet the man his dying mother, Cindi, has told him is his father. He knows nothing about this, but it turns out his father is loaded, a real estate magnate and the former mayor of the town of Hammer Springs. He's also recently been in a terrible accident which left him with brain damage so that he's forever putting together the shards of his memory back together and needs constant care, and he's a terrible patient. I turned my Lizard's Thicket waitress into a home health nurse who'd finally had enough. Here's the scene. Long may you roam, little darling:

          I walked up the winding concrete path and past the fountain to the front porch, wondering if it might more accurately be called a veranda. I'd seen houses like this in Charleston, starched, oak-shrouded mansions, but I'd never been inside of one, and neither had Cindi, unless she'd briefly taken a job cleaning one. I stood on the porch, straightening my beard, drawing up the courage to ring the bell, when the door flew open and a tiny, very animated lady charged past me. She slammed the door behind her, marched a few steps away, and ripped her white nurse’s smock off. "Y'all can have this muthafucker," she said, throwing the smock back at the house.
          At the bottom of the steps, she stopped and seemed to see me for the first time. "You come to clean the pool or what?" she asked.
          I nodded noncommittally.
          "Well these people are crazy,” she said. “So I hope they paying you more than they paid me." She disappeared around the side of the house and then peeled away in a little red Toyota, shooting a bird out the driver's side window and squealing the tires. It was quite an exit. Top two or three I’ve ever seen probably. I marveled at how exhilarating it must’ve been for her, being so present in that moment, saying exactly what she wanted for maybe the first time in her life. Then I began to see it as a sign that I’d come here to drop some soap opera bullshit on these people at an epically bad time. I should’ve seen it as an omen, a portent signaling that I’d slipped right through one of those rips in the fabric.
        In another reality, I walked away. I probably hitch-hiked into town and spent most of the money I had left on a Whopper with fries and a motel where there was hepatitis on the sheets. From there it splinters into several different scenarios, a few more budding branches on the infinite family tree of alternate-universe Gilbert Greens, depending on what I do next. In some of those, I end up standing on the side of the road begging for money with a cardboard sign, or, worse yet, I call Buddy and let him play step dad by coming to my rescue.
         In this one, though, I rang the doorbell. 


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