Recently I’ve been thinking about how the arts – writing, painting, photography, music – inspire each other, not just in like fields, but also across genres. The idea was prompted when I watched the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut. In the documentary there were some observations made about film that struck me as good advice for writers, and I figured I could turn my idea into a post on craft. And then while writing I realized that this wouldn’t be just a hypothetical essay. I’ve actually had such an experience.
During my final workshop at Hopkins, our instructor Leslie Pietrzyk (a fantastic writer; her latest book, This Angel on My Chest, just won the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize from the University of Pittsburgh, check it out!), gave us a take-home writing prompt. We were to visit a museum, choose a piece of art that intrigued us, and then use it as jumping-off point for some free-writing. The whole point was to get inspiration from a place other than our own heads or another work of literature.
So, as a way to restart my occasional blog after a long silence, and to give me time to finish the bit about Hitchcock/Truffaut, I thought I’d post my response to that workshop assignment. (Note: it’s unedited except for grammar, spelling and punctuation.) My inspiration was a piece by the photographer Gary Winogrand titled Los Angeles. I saw it at a 25-year retrospective of his work at the National Gallery of Art.
Winner by Stefen Styrsky
Later, driving away in his brother’s vintage `72 Lincoln, Doug thought maybe he was wrong. He tried catching his face in the door mirror to make sure the bandage across his nose hadn’t blown away, but he couldn’t get the angle right.
He asked Gabby how he looked.
“Like someone who got punched in the nose,” she said. She pushed in the cigarette lighter.
“I mean the swelling,” Doug said. “Is it worse?”
“About the same,” she said.
The lighter popped up, ready. Gabby pulled it out and rolled the handle in her fingers.
“I need a cigarette,” she said.
“Don’t start,” he said.
Doug last saw Joe ten years ago, but there was no mistaking his brother on the TV. Like all convenience-store security footage, the shot was at an angle from above, sort of mid-distance and grainy.
Faces weren’t distinct. But Doug knew. He knew it the way you can hear the voice of a person you know say “Hey” on the phone, and with only that word you pick up right away who they are, the mood they’re in, whether they’re sick or hung over.
The news had been all about the Powerball – a single winning ticket for the 300 million-dollar jackpot – but that nobody had claimed. Everyone wondered who the mystery winner was.
Whenever someone hit it big, Doug always wished he’d bought a ticket. Not because he dreamed of traveling the world or owning a condo in New York. He had simple needs. He didn’t want the big money, either, just a ticket with maybe four out of the six numbers, something got him a nice fifty-, one hundred-grand. So he wouldn’t have to worry about car repairs or fixing the roof or replacing the fridge. A little nest egg. One the drive home he often passed the gas station near his house that always had the jackpot sign out front. Doug would say to himself, “Gotta get one this week.” Stuff always came up and he never did.
The guy in the blocky video resembled any millions of guys out there, not just his brother Joe. It was ten years. A bald, middle-aged white guy. But there he was. The guy’s wearing a yellow rain coat. He comes into frame, pulls a paper ticket out his pocket, and compares the slip to the winning numbers posted next to the cigarette case. He gestures to the clerk. He thrusts the ticket at the man behind the counter, points at it. When the clerk reaches for the paper, the guy jerks it close against his chest. Then both his hands go into the air.
That was the way he celebrated the winning shot whenever they played one-on-one in the driveway. The raised hands. The pumping fists always came a second later, at the same time his brother shouting, “Loser!” Then the side-to-side bobbing of his head. The tick-tock of the guy’s skull in the video was unmistakable. His brother had won the lottery.
“Gabby,” Doug called. “You’ve got to see this.”
By the time she came in from the kitchen, the news had cycled through a commercial break, but because the footage was from a 7-11 in the next county it was played again.
“That’s Joe,” Doug said.
Gabby had met Joe maybe two or three times. Doug thought they got along well, but that didn’t matter anymore.
“My brother jut won three-hundred million dollars.”
“He owes you,” Gabby said.
Doug pushed himself out of the recliner. The burning in his knee was the worst whenever he first stood. He ignored it. Facing Gabby, he said, “I took the fall for him and now he’s living the life.”
He limped towards the bedroom. They had laid plastic runners on the carpet. Cheaper than replacing the worn shag. The strip was like a conveyer belt, ushering him forward.
“It’s been forever,” Gabby said. “Think he’s doing any better?”
“Certainly a lot better now,” Doug yelled over his shoulder as he dug through the glass jam jar by the door. The jar was filled with old keys, greened pennies, and Gabby’s AA chips. Doug knocked over the jar and Gabby’s six-month chip clattered down into the floor register.
“Shit,” Doug said. “Your chip fell into the heater.”
He put on his shoes and wished he owned a gun. There was the tire iron in the car. That would have to do.
Gabby was at his shoulder. “You don’t even know where he lives.”
“Oh, hell, of course I do.” With a foot he swept the spilled mess of coins and keys and chips underneath the side table. “I just hated him too much to ever go see him.”
“Don’t,” Gabby said.
“I’ve been living in his shadow since we were kids.”
His knee bucked outward and he almost fell. Back when he boxed, in the morning after a fight, when his face felt like a wet sponge and it hurt to smile, even blink, Doug thought there was nothing like a little pain to let you know you were alive. His knee was damaged beyond a little pain. The doctor said it was permanent. But Doug was glad it reminded him he wasn’t dead.
There was more of Gabby pleading he not do something stupid. He shrugged her off. As if he needed a warning, as if he didn’t know how stupid his whole crappy life was already. He ignored her and got on the highway.