First published in Salt Hill 30, 2013. Copyright 2013 by Tetman Callis.
It’s right over here. Stand over here. Right where I’m standing. Here.
No, here. Right here.
Now, smell. You smell it?
What is it?
It’s something burning, isn’t it?
It’s something burning. We should sniff around the walls, see if we can find out where it’s coming from. You take that wall, I’ll take this. Sniff around the baseboards.
Get down there and sniff. Along the molding.
Yes, it’s coming from the walls. It could be the wires, they’re in the walls. The wires could be burning. Wires do that. This whole place could catch fire. Burn down in an instant. Go up in a flash.
Feel the walls.
Get up. Get your nose away from there and feel the walls.
Not just with your fingertips, with your whole hand.
Use both hands. Put your hands on the walls. Flat. Flat against the walls.
It’s hot. This wall is hot. Feel it. This wall. Right here. Put your hands right here. Flat against it.
Feel it? Feel it?
It’s hot, isn’t it?
Don’t you feel it?
Right here. Put your hands right here. Where mine are. I’ll move. Feel it?
Are you sure? Feel it again.
Feel it with your lips. Put your lips against it. Lips are real sensitive. You can feel a thing like that with your lips.
I’ll feel over here with mine.
Oh, it’s hot. It’s hot. This one’s hot. This whole place is about to go up. Did you check the alarm?
You should check the alarm. Check the light. Is it on?
It isn’t on? Why isn’t it on? Isn’t it supposed to be on?
You mean you don’t know? The walls are hot, the wires are burning, the whole place is about to go up, and you don’t know? Well, partner, know this: the smell will get stronger, the walls will get hotter, the alarm will go off. Just like that.
We have to be ready. Get over there. Stand by the alarm. Pick up a pillow.
A big pillow.
You’ll need it. You’ll want it. You’ll be glad I told you.
Stay ready. I’ll feel the walls.
Oh, they’re even hotter now.
Say, what about the thing? The whatchamacallit. The dealybopper. The fire-puter-outer thing. The red thing. Is it charged?
No, you stay where you are. You’re in the ready position. I’ll check the thing. We’ll need it, though I don’t know what good it’ll do. It’s small. No telling if it’s charged. It doesn’t need to be on the wall, that’s for sure. The wall’s getting hotter every second. It’ll be better if I put the thing on the floor here in the middle of the room.
When the alarm goes off, it’s going to be loud. Loud! You throw the pillow over it. I’ll grab the thing and you run over here and we’ll make our last stand, for all the good it’ll do. The walls’ll probably all four go up at once. Foomp! Just like that. Foomp! It’ll be a firestorm. We’ll be in the middle. The air will be sucked from our lungs. Our eyeballs will explode.
Unpacking the Object
“Extinguisher” was written twenty years ago. It was rejected many times. At some point, in a misguided attempt to make it more interesting or artistic, I took its vowels away. This evaporation was too clever and cute and didn’t work. I put the vowels back in a few years later, opened up the paragraphing, and made a few other small but important changes. The published version is a polished version of the first draft, but not a significant rewrite.
When I wrote “Extinguisher” I was very much under the influence of Gordon Lish, with whom I had recently studied. To craft the story I applied several of the principles or methods he taught, most fundamentally the method he referred to as “unpacking the object.” What does this mean, this “unpacking the object”? What is the “object”? What does it take to “unpack” it?
The object can be your being-in-the-world. It could be argued that this is your most fundamental object. But your being-in-the-world is a squishy object. It’s a big unwieldy carpetbag stuffed with all kinds of what-all. While it’s useful to keep in mind that it’s probably your most fundamental object, it’s almost certainly not the best place to start if you’re wanting to craft prose fiction. You’ll need to pull something out of that bag.
You could pull out almost anything and with it start almost anywhere. You’ve got to start somewhere. Pick a spot. Make it a spot that counts, then make it count. That’s another of Lish’s principles: don’t waste your time and effort on false objects. While the surface details of life vary from person the person, what’s important and worth addressing is the same for all of us. Pick an object that takes us to this vital heart. Is this object an idea? Probably not. An idea is squishy. You want something solid, something your reader can see or smell or touch. An object in space is always a safe bet, when it comes to choosing a point from which to begin your unpacking of the object. “Extinguisher” is about fear. Fear is a squishy object, so the story’s object presents as a point in space. A point is infinite; there’s plenty that can be unpacked from it.
To unpack the object is to start with a sentence that makes a good starting point and to extract from that sentence, as it were, everything it could be holding that could be spun into a story. In “Extinguisher” we have a person in a place. What place? We don’t know. Do we need to know? Not so’s we can tell. “Unpacking the object” isn’t the only aspect of the Lishian method at work here. Being stingy with the information is also important. If you don’t have to say it, don’t say it. If you do say it, make sure it’s necessary and—and this is important, this is crucial, this cannot be emphasized enough—make sure it follows from what you’ve already said. It doesn’t have to obviously follow, but it must give the appearance of being inevitable. You want to keep up the momentum. Don’t give your reader a chance to get away. Your reader shouldn’t even think of getting away until you’re done, and then your reader should be sorry it’s over and eager for your return.
Don’t explain. Present to us the world you are creating. Serve us the cooked dish, not a list of ingredients. Explanation is an anchor, a momentum-killer in prose fiction. In “Extinguisher” we have a voice, implying a person, speaking to another—person? An entity in the story. Textual evidence strongly suggests it’s a person. Who? Do we need to know? Is there anything in the story that demands we need to know to whom the speaker is speaking?
Choose the right words. Be careful about this. Very careful. Don’t assume that the first thing that pops into your mind or flows out of your hands onto the page or the screen is the best and most inevitable way to unpack your object. Make it a habit to interrogate your choices of words and how you deploy them. Ask yourself, “What is a better way to put this? What’s a different way? What else can I try before I settle on what looks best? How do I even know what looks best if I haven’t looked around?” In the market of words and deciding which ones to use and how to use them, don’t be a buyer—be a shopper. Try on different things.
Stay in control. This takes practice and attention and discipline in writing just as surely as it does in tennis or chess or playing the violin. In “Extinguisher,” I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. To do this, I had to stay tightly on top of the words and sentences. The goal was to explore, without wasting time, without taking the pressure off, what it was like to be in a room and fear that right next door, or even all around, in rooms or who knows where?—we don’t know—the story never says—there is a killing conflagration about to erupt.