Mrs. Tewson Says
by James W. Morris
Mrs. Tewson always says fiction writers must be “close observers of other people.”
I look around. I’m at a decaying suburban train station at 4:32 in the morning. I observe that it’s dark and cold. There are no other people.
I could observe myself, I suppose, though I doubt that’s what Mrs. Tewson meant. Nonetheless, I click the mirroring app on my phone and observe myself immodestly for a few seconds. A dopey youngish guy waiting for a train to Center City for a job he hates. Deeply shadowed face. Shivering a bit.
Then, cued into existence, a man and a little girl step out of the darkness ten yards from me and stand together beneath one of the lamps pooling overlapping circles of amber light along the length of the platform. He holds her left hand in his right.
I had not heard their car arrive. But no one walks in the suburbs, so there must be a car. And when I take a step backwards and tilt my head and squint into the unlit area behind the station’s shuttered ticket office, I do manage to discern it, a standard car-shaped shadow located at the far end of the deserted lot. I imagine I can hear the car’s engine ticking as it cools down, though probably I can’t, really.
So with Mrs. Tewson in mind, I observe the man and girl closely. The overall impression I’d say they give is one of being well-off, well-groomed, and well-behaved. Or is that three impressions?
I observe that the man and girl are not conversing or looking at each other. They are simply standing side-by-side holding hands, waiting patiently for the train, which is due in—I glance at my phone—six minutes. The girl peers in my direction for a long second, then looks away.
I decide she is nine years old. Maybe ten.
I imagine the man is her father. He is quite tall and somewhat pale, with dark, slicked-back hair. Stock-photo businessman. Not that interesting, so far.
But the girl—she does interest me.
Mrs. Tewson always says fiction writers must “provide their readers with sufficient concrete details to create a convincing and cohesive fictive dream.”
Okay, what I think is interesting about the girl is the way she’s dressed. This is an early October morning, so she and her father are both wearing (dark, almost funereal) outerwear, but the coats are casually unbuttoned and the outfits worn beneath are visible.
His is just a regular dark blue suit. White shirt. Dark tie with blood-red specks of color.
The girl is dressed as an adult. She wears a charcoal-gray business outfit, with a fairly tight skirt, which, even to my uncultured eye, appears tailored. Medium high heels. Professional-looking makeup. An appropriately modest string of pearls. Her long hair—dark as her father’s—is pulled back ultra-tight into a no-nonsense, businesslike ponytail.
In her right hand she holds a battered, child-sized, leather briefcase.
Mrs. Tewson always says one way fiction writers create stories is by looking critically at the different situations and people they encounter in life, then compulsively asking themselves increasingly outlandish “why” and “what if” kinds of questions related to what they see. If the speculations are interesting enough, a new story idea may be sparked.
Why, then, should we imagine the girl is dressed in such a manner?
A Halloween costume? Maybe, but Halloween is still two weeks away.
Think. This is a commuter train line, so the father is likely bringing his daughter along with him to his place of employment. A “take your kid to work” day sort of event then. But the scrupulousness, the effort that went into creating her meticulously contrived “tiny businesswoman” appearance? I could see some indulgent parents going overboard, making a suggestible kid all hyped up about “going to the office,” fussing over what she’d wear—but finding and buying (or making?) the child a truly professional-looking suit for what’s likely to be a single occasion?
Is there a realistic, domestic type of short story featuring such a family that would be worthwhile to write? Or read?
And are those pearls real?
From my right, in the distance, I hear the low hoot of the oncoming train.
What if the little girl is actually an adult who has some weird disease that makes her appear permanently childlike? Would they be holding hands then?
What if she’s a ghost and I’m the only one who sees her? What if he’s the ghost? What if I’m the ghost and she’s the only one who sees me?
What if they are a pair of invading aliens on a scouting mission, sent to blend in with us earthlings? What if they originate from a weird faraway planet in the galaxy of Andromeda on which humanoids are born as mature adults and grow younger looking as they age? What if—therefore—the man is her child and she’s taking him to work? What if that’s just an old Star Trek episode I’m half-remembering?
The train hoots again.
Then, miraculously, my mind surprises itself and settles on posing a question I’m actually curious to learn the answer to, the only one I’ve fashioned so far that doesn’t seem irrelevant or trite: given the extraordinary pains and rigorous thoroughgoing care taken to dress the girl this morning, as evidenced by the consummate completeness of her businesswomen's uniform, what exactly do you think she might be carrying inside the briefcase?
The Center City train approaches the station from the north, around a bend, and its headlamps illuminate the wooded area on either side of the tracks in front of it with a cool blue light before the train itself becomes visible. I march a step forward, stand at near-attention at my regular spot on the platform, so that I can climb onto my regular railcar (the last) and sit in my regular seat (fourth row, by the window). I don’t know why I bother to do this, as there is rarely another person to be seen at the station so early in the morning, much less any obstreperous fellow commuter with which to jostle for position.
Simple dumb habit, I guess.
As the train enters the station, the brakes sounding as the first car approaches, I observe the man letting go of his daughter’s hand and stepping to the yellow warning stripe at the rim of the platform. He leans forward and eyeballs the loudly approaching locomotive, perhaps attempting to discern through the blinding beams of its pulsating headlamps the name of its ultimate destination, which flashes in dull red lights across the top of the clouded windshield. He wants, I suppose, to be certain he and his charge will be boarding the correct train.
Two seconds after the man lets go of her hand, the little girl purposely drops the briefcase onto the platform, then gathers herself, and with arms locked and outstretched, launches her tiny body hard into his from behind, shoving him with an unhesitant, businesslike ferocity in the small of the back. Since he was teetering on the edge of the platform already, this unexpected push is just sufficient to cause the man to lose his delicately maintained balance, and a moment later he is sprawled on the tracks in front of the oncoming train.
The girl turns and grins at me.
Okay. Well, first you’re going to want to know that the man does not die. The girl’s timing was a shade off; perhaps overeager, she had pushed her father onto the tracks a fraction of a second too early. He has just enough time to get to his feet and hastily and ungracefully dive back onto the platform, though the passing train does clip him (on the left knee, I think). When I leave, he is rolling around on the platform at the girl’s feet, in pain.
I do not get on the train. I return to my car and sit there for a while.
Mrs. Tewson always says fiction writers “cannot, unfortunately, allow themselves the luxury of permitting their acquired psychological wounds to be repressed and heal like those of normal, healthy, non-creative people. They must instead condition their conscious minds to have every soul-shattering trauma they’ve experienced, every mortifying embarrassment, every sin and shame, readily accessible to them—in order to confront and authoritatively depict, when necessary, the most perverse and appalling aspects of human nature.”
I do not wait for the next night school session. I call Mrs. Tewson at home and tell her I am switching to accounting.
James W. Morris is a graduate of LaSalle University in Philadelphia, where he was awarded a scholarship for creative writing. He has published dozens of short stories, humor pieces, essays, and poems in various literary magazines, including Philadelphia Stories and Zahir.