Stories are strange, the way they come about. I've been inspired to write stories based on people I love, on diseases I've heard about, on scars, on titles that came first.
Just recently I had to put aside a story I've been fighting with for months--I've rewritten the opening pages at least five times--because something new came up. Something better. And this something better came from a strange, strange place.
A part of it came from a piece of graffiti I see every time I drive home from Buffalo. It's the word seven and a picture of a heart. Seven love. I don't know why I love the sound of that phrase so much, but I do.
But it's more than the phrase that gets me. There's something else going on at that certain stretch of highway. A little ways down the road from the exit sign that has been spray painted with seven love is a plastic flamingo--you know, the lawn decoration type. Well, it used to be a flamingo, singular, but now there is a growing flamingo family. The first one sat up there--high on the banking, nestled next to a tree--for months. It made me wonder if the person responsible for seven love was responsible for the flamingo, too, and all the other flamingos that came next. About a month after the first arrived, another lawn decoration surfaced on the hill. And then another. I'm sure it's only a matter of time until a fourth surfaces, expands the family.
But just who does that? Just who takes the time and makes the effort to sneak up the hill on the side of a highway to plant plastic flamingos there? What kind of motivation prompts that action? Thinking about these questions got me thinking about other questions: was anyone going to ever get rid of the graffiti, of the flamingo family? Whose job was that? Who was responsible for driving up and down the roads of western New York, taking stock of the things that weren't supposed to be there? I figured it was someone in the Department of Transportation, probably the same type of guy who was responsible for getting rid of the dead animals that get kicked to the side of the road.
I had all of that in my head for a few weeks, and then one night I was watching Dirty Jobs, because there's nothing I like more than Mike Rowe getting suckered into artificially inseminating horses or catching river snakes or rounding up ostriches or collecting owl poop. And on this particular night, there was Mike, standing on the side of the road with a big shovel, ready to heft a mangled deer into the back of a DOT pickup truck. After Mike and the DOT guy filled the truck with as many dead things they could find, they took those carcasses to a big mulch yard, where they buried them under tall hills of sawdust. They would break down under the sawdust. They would become mulch. They would become part of some unsuspecting gardener's daily routine.
And that was enough for me. It felt like divine intervention that I'd seen that particular segment, that I now knew a little bit more about that job and about the type of person who held it, and I wanted to write it. I wanted to write about a guy whose job it was to make things a little more beautiful, who had to clean up the things that reminded people things weren't always beautiful--graffiti, dead animals--and I wanted to have him taunted, tortured by whoever was being so insistent about leaving strange messages on the local exit signs. I wanted him to obsess over it while he was picking up dead deer, dead possums, dead raccoons, dead foxes. I wanted him to try to figure it out, try to imagine who would do such a thing. Really, I wanted him to do what I was doing every day I drove past those things. And I wanted him to figure it out, to get some answers. Because I know I never will.