What Happened to Laura?
by Robert Garner McBrearty
I'm in a coffee shop on a spring afternoon when a man at a table near the creamers picks up his smart phone and says in a loud voice, "John? Doug here. Laura is back. She's pissed off. She's a really pissed off person...I don't know what she's pissed off about...Yeah, that's right...I'm taking her into the doctor today...It's a hard call, they might...That's good, that's good...She's real angry, she's real brutal, she's real cutting...Yeah, that's right...I don't know if I'm going to have to hospitalize her or not...It's brutal, it's real brutal, I'll call you after we see the doctor...Okay, thanks, right...That's good."
Doug signs off. But he's back on a moment later. "Bob? Doug here. Laura came back...Well, she's pissed off, she's real pissed off...That's good, that's good...Well, she's real pissed off...We're going to see the doctor in about twenty minutes...Obviously...Excellent...Good idea...I'll hide everything..."
He hangs up. We all look up from our tables to meet his widened eyes. A tall man rises up. He points a finger at Doug's chest. "I want to know what's wrong with Laura," he says.
A woman in a leather jacket turns from the pastry display. "Maybe she has good reasons to be pissed off."
We nod. "Yeah," we say as one, "we want to know what's wrong with Laura."
Doug's eyes twitch. His brow crinkles in alarm.
"I don't want Laura to get screwed over," the woman in the leather jacket says.
"Talk to us, Doug," the tall man says. "Make it easy for everybody."
The barista, a young man with dragon tattoos on his forearms, comes out from behind the bar and sets a steamy cup in front of the man. It looks loaded with all the hard stuff, maybe a double mocha. He breathes over the man. "Maybe this will loosen your lips," he says.
Doug shrinks back in his seat, hand on his phone. We lean in on him.
"It's Laura I'm concerned about," the woman says.
"Of course you are," we say. "We all are."
Note: "What Happened to Laura?" originally appeared in Big Muddy, a print journal, Volume 14, Issue 1., 2014. It won the Wilda Hearne Flash Fiction Contest sponsored by Southeast Missouri State University Press.
Some years ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop with my laptop, when someone at another table began to speak on his phone in a loud voice referring to someone who was back in town who was pissed off. He then had the same conversation on the phone with several other people, and those of us in the coffee shop were all looking at him and you could tell we were all very curious, though nobody said anything. I invented most of the dialogue, though I do remember the repeated sentence: "She's real pissed off." That's as far as the real experience went. Then I began to think about a "what if?" What if we had all demanded answers to what was going on with this woman who was pissed off. Somehow I felt sympathetic toward her. Originally I wrote it as a longer story, imaging the man pitching into this long explanation of the circumstances, but it never quite worked somehow. It was one of those stories that I always liked and I kept going back to it and tinkering with it. I realized that it really worked better as a flash fiction, leaving the question of what happened to Laura unanswered. I also realized it was better to have a sort of "we" voice, a collective sort of "I" voice, instead of the more usual subjective "I" as if everyone in the café has become a sort of unit, coming together to find out what has happened to Laura. So this story, short as it is, went through quite a few revisions over several years before I felt like I finally got it right. If I were thinking of any advice I might offer fellow writers, it might be to take a look at those longer stories of yours that aren't quite working, and see what happens if you compress the time frame to a single scene.
Robert Garner McBrearty's short stories have been widely published, including in the Pushcart Prize, North American Review, Narrative, Missouri Review, and StoryQuarterly. His flash fiction publications include Big Muddy, Opium, and a flash fiction forthcoming from Posit. He's published three collections of short stories and has a novel forthcoming in the fall. He's a past winner of a Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award and fellowships to the MacDowell Colony and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. Recently he left a teaching position at the University of Colorado to write full-time. For more info, please see: www.robertgarnermcbrearty.com.
FF.Net Editor Commentary (Randall Brown)
In the Author's Note, McBrearty suggests compression of a longer story into a single scene. Here, in this story, that compression builds tension as more and more of the patrons weigh in with worries about Laura. There's a sense of Doug being trapped within the scene, unable to get out until the author releases him. That, I think, is the payoff for these one scene stories. They remind me a bit of the "long take" in film, where the tension builds as the director refuses to cut away--putting more and more pressure on the characters not to screw it all up.