By Kim Bussey.
Writers who submit to our ‘Help’ column kindly allow us to print an edit/critique of their story as a learning tool for themselves and all our readers. It’s not easy putting your ‘baby’ out there for public viewing when you know it’s not quite right, and we applaud your bravery in letting us do this.
‘Len and Smithy’ by Papa Carl.
Leonard Miller is homebound in the home of Roy Schmidt. Len, as Leonard likes to be called, is seventy-one, dying from leukemia, and in the last two months, drifting deeper daily into dementia.
Len has family in the city, a daughter and son, both married with grown children of their own. They enter his conversations often, but they never visit or even telephone Len at Roy’s home.
Mildred, Len’s wife known as Millie, passed away six years earlier in her sleep and is still very much alive somewhere at the edge of Len’s focus.
Smithy, as Len calls Roy, lifelong friend, likewise in his early seventies, is a widower with two grown children in town as well, who never call or visit. Smithy shows signs of forgetfulness, too, but confides they’re his senior memory moments, well earned, and sometimes best forgotten.
“Len won a football scholarship out of high school. He was our quarterback and I was his center. Instead of taking the full ride, he enlisted in the Army,” Smithy muses as we three sit eating cereal back when Len was able to feed himself. “After serving his time in Germany during WWII, he came home to marry Millie, head cheerleader and high school honey, before starting back to work beside me in our Dads’ boat shop.”
“I didn’t need college to do what I’d always loved to do as a kid, more of a hobby than a job,” Len points out. “My son wanted to do the same when he finished high school, but Millie and I insisted he get a college diploma. His education is in design and Smithy’s son got his degree in business. After graduation our boys began to build the original small boat shop into what our company is today, Schmidt Miller Watercraft. It’s named as one of the best 500 small businesses on the west coast,” Len boasts, then chuckles, “Of course, Smithy and I are retired figureheads now, with our pictures on the showroom wall.”
“Our families were always close, did most everything together,” Smithy maintains. “We have so much in common, Len and me. We even buried our wives the same year.”
“That’s also when everything changed,” Len adds and looks at Smithy who nods for him to continue. “After the wives were gone we spent more and more time together, sometimes not even bothering to go home to an empty house. I’d crash in Smithy’s guest room or he’d sleep in mine. It made sense.”
“It made sense, too,” Smithy agrees, “we should sign over both houses to the kids and move into an apartment together. We invited them over to share our good news. Without letting us finish, all four children and all four spouses start wailing at once. Are you telling us that you’re gay? at your age. I am so ashamed. How could you? How long has this been going on? Who else knows? What will the children say? Do you realize what this will do to our business? Have you given any thought about us? They allowed us no time to answer and themselves no time to listen.”
“Each tried over the next few months to talk us out of our decision, each time ending in another argument,” Len discloses. “They stopped communicating with us when I sold my place and moved in here with Smithy four years ago today. Happy Anniversary, Smithy, I love you.”
“I love you too, Len”, Smithy whispers at the graveside, one year today since Len was buried.
“We call that person who has lost his father, an orphan; and a widower that man who has lost his wife. But that man who has lost a friend, what shall we call him?” ~ Joseph Roux
My first reaction after reading this story was: Where’s the emotion? You have life-long friends abandoned by their family with only each other to depend on. One of them is dying and there is not a hint of emotion anywhere in the story. The subject just screams for lines that will bring tears to the readers’ eyes. Instead, we don’t have enough emotional meat to sink our teeth into to make us care much about poor Len and Smithy.
The story starts in present tense, that’s fine. But the middle section is all back-story, also done in present tense. Okay, there is a line about this conversation happening when Len was in better shape, and they are talking to a third person, but that sounds like an after thought to explain why it’s still written as if it’s happening now. And who is this third person?
The last line could have been a tug on the heart, but once more it’s written in present tense. Throwing in ‘one year later’ doesn’t really flow well. It makes the reader do an unexpected jump in time and then the story ends before we get used to that jump.
We never know if Len and Smithy are in a same-sex relationship or just two old friends living together for company and support. In today’s world of high costs and low retirement income, it’s not uncommon for elderly friends to share the cost of living by moving in together.
My last note: What is with the names? Leonard called Len, Roy Schmidt called Smithy, and Mildred called Millie. This is doing the same thing three times and it bores the reader by time two. The section on calling Roy Smithy is good, but just call Len, Len and Millie, Millie. Better yet, ask yourself if it’s important to the story that the reader knows Len’s wife’s name. If not, drop Millie all together.
If one of my clients had written this, I would advise a rewrite with Smithy telling the story. Through him the reader could be shown the heartbreak, anger, and loneliness a person would go through when faced this situation. They would connect with Smithy and the story would touch them.