Friday, December 7, 2007

A dangerous, lonely place

Life has an amazing way of giving you perspective.

To start with, I must mention that I had a bad week this week. I mean, I had a ba-a-a-d week. I’ll hoard the rarer elements of the events of the week for later retelling in a fictionalized version, but let’s just say it was: a Week. That. Sucked.

On the last night of Le Week Terrible, I had to jump in a car and drive seven hours from Los Angeles to a neighboring state. I had to do all the driving, because my husband, who got nada sleep during the previous days, was too tired to drive.

So there I was, bemoaning my suckola week, which was being compounded by a drive-from-hell through cactus country, when we pulled into one of those gas station-food store combo joints at an interstate exit.

I looked at the well-lit but deserted environs and said to my husband, “This looks like the kind of place where a guy with a gun comes in, herds the employees to the back, and shoots them to steal fifty bucks.”

My husband barely rolled his sleepy eyes at me, because he’s used to hearing these types of pronouncements from me. This is because, ever since I started writing murder mysteries, I’ve begun to look on the dire side of life’s probabilities (or maybe that's why I started writing murder mysteries).

When we walked into the store, it was empty except for a grandmotherly looking clerk. I noticed that she was talking very fast into a phone. And she looked upset.

She hung up the phone and said to us, “I just had a grab-and-run.”

A grab-and-run, it turns out, is when a patron simply grabs some merchandise and runs out the door.

I could practically see the woman’s heart beating through her uniform. I stayed with her for a while and we talked. It turned out that this lady had been robbed—sometimes at gunpoint—repeatedly, at various jobs.

“If this keeps up, I’m simply going to tell them I won’t do the nightshift,” she said.

We had a longer discussion about why she kept this eight-dollar-an-hour, highly risky job.

“It pays my bills,” she kept repeating, almost to herself. “But I can’t keep doing it. I can't live through it again.”

As I drove away later, I found myself getting enraged that a grandmother has to risk life and limb to make a lousy eight bucks an hour to keep a roof over her head. And that there is nothing there to protect her except a security camera. And as always, I am blown away by the impact that even a hint of real-life violence brings.
And then I consider how we, as writers, try to convey the power of that impact--how best to describe an old lady's heart beating visibly underneath her uniform; how, as a model employee, she chased after a teen-aged thief to try to get the license number of his getaway car; how, in the affluent retirement community in which she lives, she's probably already been "made" by the criminal element, as an easy mark; how, I'm so afraid that one of these days, one of these assholes is going to actually pull the trigger; how, the megacorporation that owns the store where she works would probably fire her on the spot if she were fifteen minutes late to work.
But that's just what I thought I saw, or what I imagined, when I looked at her face. And that's why I write.
So anyway, my worrying about the grandmother clerk completely obliterated my ability to wallow in my own woes, at least for today.

And I’m going to check in on her during the drive back. I'm hoping she'll have found a different job by then.


Joanna Campbell Slan said...

I had a friend whose son was killed in one of those "all night" gas stations in Illinois. I think after that, many stores moved to put the cashier behind bullet-proof glass and to have security cameras. Nevertheless, it's a crummy way to earn a living.

Once when my husband SWORE he could drive us home from O'Hara after an international flight back from Spain--and after he fell asleep twice at the wheel--I packed snow down the front of my blouse and drove the four hours home. Drip, drive, drip, drive, shiver, shiver.

When I pulled into the driveway, he woke up and said, "I'll drive now."

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, far too many Americans make their livings doing the dirty and the dangerous for a pittance while the good work goes to India or Mexico, and the corporate executives get richer. It makes me sad to contemplate our future. I hope she found a better job.

-- LindaB

Kathryn Lilley said...

Joanna, I totally relate to the driving thing. Whenever anyone else is driving and they're visibly tired, I get nervous, so I figure I might as well drive! LindaB, I also hope the clerk gets a different job--or at least a layer of bulletproof glass she can stay behind. Sigh. Such a sad state of affairs.

Camille Minichino said...

How upsetting ... and I too hope we can turn the economy and many other aspects of life around in favor of American workers.

Joanna, I had to read the snow-in-the-blouse trick twice to believe it .... you should patent it!

Joe Moore said...

Kathryn, if we could make every reader care as much for each of our characters as you did for that woman, no one would be able to put our books down. What you described is the bedrock of character-driven stories—an electric connection that causes an eruption of emotion. Oh that we could sprinkle that pixy dust on every word. Good post.

Kathryn Lilley said...

Thanks, Joe! I wish I could call in the pixies to sprinkle that particular dust whenever called!