“Hello. My name is ___ ____, and I work with your mother. Could you please call me at ___-___-____? Thank you.”
I turned off the machine though it still blinked. I punched the number in my phone and got a busy signal. There was no reason for this woman to call me. No birthday party to plan. No anniversary. I listened to the next message. “Marta, this is your grandmother. Please call me.”
I smacked the off button. I realized I was crying though no one had told me anything was wrong. My grandmother wrote me almost every week, but she hadn’t called me in three years. I dialed her number, and while waiting for her to pick up her phone, I decided on this–mom had been in a car accident and was in the hospital. I would fly home and stay by her side. I could delay my last two semesters. I’d live with her and help her with rehabilitation. This image of sitting by mom’s bedside was lodged in my head by the time a woman answered my grandma’s phone.
Maybe I had the wrong number. “This is Marta. Is my grandma there?” She was supposed to say, “You have the wrong number” or “Everything is all right.” What she really said was, “Yes. Wait a minute.” Later I found out that Aunt Susan was the one who answered. My aunts were already there. They’d known for hours.
A week earlier I’d talked to my mom about grandma and her cancer. “I don’t know what I’ll do without my mother,” mom had said. “I can’t imagine her not in my life.” I didn’t know what to say. My mom sighed. “I won’t know how to be an old woman without her,” she said. That was the thing about grandma. No matter how she got, she had yet to be an old woman.
Grandma got on the phone. “Marta,” she said. “Your mother got sick very quickly.”
Sick? What did that mean? I knelt down on the floor. My keys were still in my other hand. They poked into my palm and I held them more tightly. Sick? Did that mean okay? Did that mean come see her in the hospital?
“She’s gone,” she said, and my aunt took the phone away from her.
In fiction on a good day, I think I can write tension. Makes me tense anyway. But that moment the tension breaks–the lovers come together, the world falls apart, the character dies–is something else. You work hard to get a reader to that climax of the story and then…
Real life is often that way. The wedding is rarely the amazing moment a couple plans for. The first love may not live up to anticipation. The winning seems less grand when you get home alone and put the medal on the shelf. That’s it? Adding fireworks to any of these events is not going to promise a payoff either.
Some events deserve to take your breath away though, and how do you get that moment on the page? Obviously you’ve got to get the reader to care about the characters. You’ve got to make the climax worthy of the characters’ desires. You’ve got to… oh, gee. Is that all? I’m exhausted just thinking about it. This is why I keep changing the ending. At least I’ve got that choice in fiction.