This came from the Writers Group as discussed last week. It was one of the best short stories I’d ever heard. And the crushing critique was one of the most spot-on, thermal-exhaust-port bullseyes I’d ever witnessed.
The story in an abbreviated nutshell:
A man has a living fantasy of the climactic moment of grace in his life, that of driving to the perfect fishing spot in a vintage 1957 Chevy. So he puts a couple of years into the project. He buys an old beater and rebuilds it tires up, turning it into a shining vehicular fantasy. Oilstained and weary in the evenings, he pours over maps and determines the perfect sceniced route to his pristine fishing hole – no freeways for him, just rolling green hills and weathered barns, a perfect backdrop. He even picks the mid-fueling stop, an old gas station run by a rustic.
So finally the day draws near. The weather is perfect. His health is perfect. His car is tuned. He begins his drive and it’s perfect. Pulls into the gas station spot on the dot, and exchanges idle chitchat with the rustic refueler – it’s like a perfect fantasy for him, like he’s living someone else’s life in a perfect world. Finally he arrives at the spot, parks his car photogenicly on a ridge overlooking the cool pond, assembles his tent, lays everything out, assembles his pole, baits his hook. And before he starts down to the pond for his moment-of-moment, he checks under the hood.
The dipstick is missing.
Frantically, he looks around the engine – no, not there. He thinks, thinks, thinks. Yes, the gas attendant at midpoint, hundreds of miles away! The old guy checked his oil while he was there and must have forgotten to replace the stick. So the man leaves everything and drives to the nearest convenience story, a real world place with fluorescents and cinderblocks, reeking of piss and beer (or both). From its payphone, he dumps dime after dime, eventually locating the gas station. But the old man is likely napping on his front stoop, unaware of the desperate ringing. Finally, after hours of effort, he gets through. After lengthy pleas, codling and even threats, the old man finally locates the dipstick. Yes, it was left out. Yes, he has it. Yes, he will send it.
Of course, this ruins the trip. The deliveryman has problems locating an unaddressed location. It gets routed to the hub, and by the time the guy gets there, it’s closed. Then a day is spent trying to locate the missing package in the hub. And finally, finally, finally the guy has his box. He returns to the pond in the twilight of his vacation, ripping open the box to recover his precious dipstick and nearly dropping it into the pond (we’ll spare him that). But his fantasy is ruined, his effort was ruined. It all came to nothing.
Brilliant story. The moral running through it is how we set up expectations, expectations that have to be perfect. And when they are not, when we notice a lover’s blemish, when Paris is a touch chilly, when the waiter forgets to bring us our drink, it’s all ruined. I remember sitting on a worn sofa with a cup of cooling coffee, having just heard this story read and inwardly groaning at the magnificence of the tale and its subtle lesson.
Philip, the mentor, set down the papers and looked at us.
“Good story. Well written. Only problem – you don’t set down a dipstick.” The woman who’d written it started to complain but he rolled right over her. “You don’t put down a dipstick. Never. When you pull it out of the engine, you look at it, decide what needs to be done, and you put it back. After all, its drippy with oil – you’d never set it down. The best place for it is back in its hole.”
The writer tried to protest but our resolve was hardening. Our instructor was right – while it was a perfect story, this completely implausible thing killed it, just ripped the guts out. No substitutions were possible – nothing was as subtly innocuous as a dipstick. The best replacement would be a gas cap, and that really isn’t the same. A dipstick has that “for want of a nail” aura the story demanded.
I’ve always carried that lesson with me – yes, a story idea might be perfect but the smallest detail can kill it. And, boy, do I miss having an actual writer’s group in this burb.