Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based freelance writer

Tag: Cleveland

New Fiction at Storyscape Journal

Cleveland_City_Free_Stamp_-_panoramio.jpg

I’m pleased and excited to link to a story, “Awful Magic,” in the just-released issue of Storyscape Journal, which I’ve read and liked for a while now.

The story is about grief, magic, and belief, among other things, and is set in one of my favorite places: Cleveland!

I’m still digging through this issue but there is some great stuff in it. Working with the editor, Alyssa Songsiridej, was a pleasure.

Looking through proofs for this issue gave me a chance to think about how many different versions this story went through before it found its way to publication. Let’s just say a lot. Glancing through my files, the version I submitted was either the 19th or 20th draft of this story.

What most struck me, reading through this version, was how much more I had written about various characters and ended up cutting. Example: one of the main characters, Brian, is a struggling magician who turns to “comedy magic” when he learns that he has better luck making people laugh than he does wowing them with his magic. Brian learns that a video exists of him from his days as a “serious” magician, working under the name The Great Tostini.

All that made the final cut of the story, but I cut out the origin of the name: he had a job working at supermarkets around the Cleveland area, doing in-store promotions and handing out free samples for various products, one of which was a line of tostinis. Brian is so taken by this name, feeling that it sounds vaguely exotic and mysterious, that he adopts it as his stage name.

Going through proofs, I was pleased that I’d taken out that detail—it really does nothing for the story and doesn’t give valuable new information on Brian. But I also felt like it really fit, and remained true even if it wasn’t something I told readers. I’m hoping the name The Great Tostini suggests some kind of story.

This is something I often tell fiction students, that frequently sounds artsy fartsy or almost cultish: knowing more about your story and your characters than you let on, cutting things out of a story, can have a surprisingly powerful effect. Part of this advice comes from the writerly truism that you can omit information from a story, but as the writer you should know what’s not there. Part is a more nebulous sense that the cut material leaves behind a kind of residue that sensitive readers will pick up on; or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that readers can detect a kind of negative space where that information was, and know that an answer exists, that there is more to the picture even if they can’t tell what it is.

Anyway, that’s my perspective on this story, and hopefully not the most interesting or compelling thing for other readers. Definitely check out this really excellent journal. The thing that attracted me to Storyscape in the first place is the way they curate the journal, not using “fiction” and “non-fiction” as categories but “truth,” “untruth,” and “we don’t know and they won’t tell us,” where neither editor nor writer helps you out by declaring what’s true or not true. This last category is so much up my alley as a fiction writer and a thinker about fiction, it’s kind of funny to me that my story is squarely in the “untruth” category: it kind of feels like everything else I’ve been writing for the last couple years should be in that “we don’t know” box.

Signifying Either Nothing or Everything about America Today

Just one day after I wrote this, about a news story that was basically a novel in capsule form, came the news of the three Cleveland women found alive and escaping from a rundown house where they’d been kept captive for about a decade. I imagine somewhere book deals, television rights are being discussed right now, if they have not been finalized, and there are certainly novel-length accounts of the case to be written.

I don’t have anything particularly novel or insightful to add to the story, except to note the weird (or not weird at all, maybe) pervasiveness of fast food restaurants in this story.

For your consideration:

Charles Ramsey, the man who saw Amanda Berry crawling out of the house and went to her aid, said when interviewed, “I heard screaming. I’m eating my McDonald’s. I come outside. I see this girl going nuts trying to get out of the house. I go on the porch and she says, ‘Help me get out. I’ve been here a long time.’”

This was certainly well-noticed on Twitter, where enough people tweeted at McDonald’s that they’ve announced they will “reach out” to Ramsey, whatever that means.

But there’s also the fact that Amanda Berry was abducted at age 16 in 2003 after returning from working a shift at Burger King.

And among the details that have come out subsequently are the seemingly inevitable recriminations and clues missed. One of these pertains to warning signs about Ariel Castro, the man who owned the house where the women were kept captive, and who has been confirmed to be the father of the six-year-old girl found inside the house. In 2004, Castro was suspended from his job as a bus driver for 60 days after leaving a four-year-old boy on his bus for several hours. From the Wall Street Journal: “The report, which doesn’t make clear who called, alleged that Mr. Castro told the boy, ‘Lay down, b—,’ while he went to eat in a Wendy’s restaurant.”

So there you have it. Fast food is somehow intimately connected to this case. Perhaps the hormones in the beef patties affected Ariel Castro’s judgment, or some additive in the McDonald’s Ramsey was eating gave him the momentary courage to—

Nah, not really. Poor neighborhood, cheap and admittedly tasty food, fat nation. Case closed.

But as a writer, it’s hard not to see these details in news stories and think of them as perfect, crucial details that lend texture and atmosphere to the depictions of reality—and of class, especially, in this case—the journalists present. You might knock a fiction writer in this instance for going back to the same well one or two too many times. But in nonfiction terms, these details are superb at telling us something about the world and times we live in.

Brief Menu Item Reveals Inescapability of Steelers Football in Pittsburgh

From the weekly menu of Zenith, a great vegetarian-restaurant-cum-vintage-store in the south side neighborhood of Pittsburgh:

POLAMALU (need you to play) WRAP

BLACK BEANS, RICE, PINEAPPLE, YELLOW  PEPPERS, COCONUT AND ONIONS IN A SPICY TROPICAL SAUCE WRAPPED IN A FLOUR TORTILLA

If this were just “Polamalu Wrap,” you could suspect the scrawny vegetarians at Zenith of pandering to Pittsburgh’s well-known obsession with its NFL franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The revealing touch here is the parenthetical plea to Troy Polamalu, the Steelers’ otherworldly, locally beloved free safety, to get back in the game. (If you want to know why Polamalu is beloved, among other reasons, check out either one of these videos of him diving into the crowd during the Steelers’ 2005-06 and 2008-09 Super Bowl victory parades.)

If a Washington, DC vegetarian-restaurant-cum-vintage-store served the “Orakpo Wrap,” I’d similarly suspect those pale, feckless herbivores of pandering to that town’s football crowd. But if they served the “Orakpo (Really Going to Miss You) Wrap,” I’d be impressed, as I am in the case of the Polamalu Wrap, and surprised. You just don’t expect the same level of casual football knowledge among residents in other cities. Here, it’s sort of de rigeur. (Orakpo, by the way, is Brian Orakpo, linebacker of the Washington Totally Racist Team Name. You may recognize the name from his appearances alongside a caveman in these Geico commercials. He was injured this past week and will miss the rest of the season due to a torn pectoral muscle. I’d never cheer anyone’s getting injured but Washington fans’ loss is the Philadelphia Eagles’ gain.)

Steelers fanship in Pittsburgh is serious and widespread enough that it’s spawned a sort of backlash contingent of people who sniff and tell you, in the same tone they might use to inform you that they never watch television, and in fact don’t own a television set at all, that they don’t follow the Steelers, or football in general. Among fans of other teams, too, there’s a sort of common response of despising the Steelers and rooting against them. (A few weekends ago I was in Cleveland for the Eagles’ home opener against the Cleveland Browns. On the way out of the game there was some mostly calm discussion between Browns fans and Eagles fans (who were, in total, surprisingly numerous there in (the refreshingly named) Cleveland Browns Stadium), and it turned out one gnarled, hard-living couple in Eagles jerseys was from Pittsburgh. “We hate the Steelers, though,” the man said hastily to a guy in a Browns jerseys. His female companion turned and nodded that this was so. When they got outside, the two men shook hands and the Eagles fan, in parting, raised a fist and said, “Let’s both beat the Steelers this year” and they were joined in solidarity re: beating the Steelers. (This year teams in the NFC East play those in the AFC North, so the Eagles and Browns will indeed both be playing the Steelers.))

More telling, though, is the number of people you’ll find in the supermarket during Steelers games (which I watch part of, usually; if I’ve gone through the drama, the heartache and/or euphoria, of a Philadelphia Eagles game, I have no more patience or emotional energy to then watch the Steelers as well). You would think that Giant Eagle would be a ghost town during the game, but enough people have made the same simple mental calculation—All those sheep will be inside, glued to the tube, rooting for their ‘Stillers,’ drinking their ‘Ahrn City,’ etc., I’ll have the run of the place!—that it’s often no less crowded than it is on a Saturday morning, or midway through the evening on a weeknight.

The backlashers, people who hate the Steelers or who are indifferent but nevertheless organize their Sundays around the team, have always seemed to me to be caught in a simple binary trap: love the Steelers or hate them, they still seem to know exactly when the game is on, and to plan accordingly. Steelers football is just kind of the water you swim in in Pittsburgh, which is a crucial difference between the sports culture here versus nearly anywhere else.