The Story Behind the Story

There’s always a story behind the story. A few weeks ago, Splash! with Haunted Water Press published my piece Squeaky-Clean Suds. I didn’t love it when I started it. My level of exhaustion was high, and I was feeling burned out after three weeks of traveling between multiple states and countries for writing programs. As I wrote the draft the last night of my second workshop in a row, I kept falling asleep. I just wanted to get something down for my fiction workshop by the next morning then sleep about 30 hours. But a member of the workshop heard something in the messy draft that spoke to him. A few months later, I made a deathbed promise to him that I’d finish it.

The workshop led by Maurice Ruffin with Maine Media was a hodgepodge of lovely individuals and various takes on fiction. Maurice had us writing every night and discussing writing every day. He even showed music videos as short bursts of stories to get us in the mood for flash. The first flash piece I ever wrote was in his workshop. Life Marks was published a few months ago with Winter 2020 Bloom, the literary magazine for Red Penguin.

The last assignment Maurice gave us was to find a prompt online and write a longer piece. As I drove that evening, I called my husband and asked him to read some ghost story prompts to me so I could start thinking before I sat down to work. I hadn’t seen my hubby in weeks, and I’m sure he would’ve loved to talk about something else, but he did it. One said to write about a ghost in an unusual location. I was driving by a laundromat at that moment, and it clicked. That night I wrote, then would sleep for a little while, then get up and write more, off and on until my alarm went off.

I arrived at Maine Media extra early, which was wicked chilly and foggy, and I read over what I’d written as I ate breakfast. Utterly shocked that any of it made sense. We shared our pieces and comments throughout the day, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have thought more about the story if it wasn’t for Michael.

Michael was the kind of soft-voiced soul you wanted to sit next to. His stories of flying a plane and riding horses grabbed your imagination. He led a fascinating life and acted like it was no big deal. Our little group of writers sat together at meals and talked a lot, not a surprise, but Michael kept to himself at mealtime. He’s been through cancer, and the scars of his endeavor were visible. He could spin a yarn about his life that left you leaning in to hear more. We chatted a bit and found we had connections and acquaintances in Maine.

A few weeks after our workshop ended, he sent an email letting me know he was thinking about that last piece I’d written. About that ghost living in a laundromat, he’d say. He said that every time he drove by a laundromat, he thought about it. That it gave him new ideas of what was happened after hours. He kept asking if I’d finished it. I hadn’t even looked at it again. I’d moved on.

That October, I let him know when my husband and I were in his area. He took us to meet his wife, his horse, and the gorgeous barn where they worked. The fog packed in so tight we couldn’t see the view he had hoped to share with us, but we had fun anyway. I was glad my husband got to meet Michael. I told him I’d see him next summer when I returned to Maine. He continued his occasional emails and texts asking about the ghost in the story. I still hadn’t touched it. Then I got the email in December letting me know his cancer had returned and wasn’t treatable. He was going to die. He made me promise to finish the story for him. I said I would. I sent him another email a few weeks later to check-in, but he was already gone.

COVID came over the next few months, and I did my best to keep focused on finishing Squeaky-Clean Suds for Michael. I didn’t love this piece, not at first. It was just something to bring to class. But it spoke to him. Maybe because he felt closer to the main character, who only ever had the name Drier Sheets, than I was willing to let myself be. I’d been close to death over the years, but there was always that sliver of hope. So maybe not too close. I reworked this story a lot but didn’t want to stray too far from what Michael heard. I wanted it to be Michael’s because he saw the potential in it when I didn’t. He made me love this story, and I’m grateful that he did.

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