“Gwendolyn ran up the stairs to the roof.”
Randall backspaced, deleting “to the roof.” He hesitated, then deleted “ran up the stairs,” and stared at the computer screen. He’d heard that Flaubert could spend an entire day on one sentence, but this wasn’t exactly Madame Bovary.
“Gwendolyn teetered on the edge of the roof.”
Randall backspaced again, leaving him with just Gwendolyn, about to do something, but what? Maybe he should start with some setting instead. Something that would hint at what was about to happen next. But what was about to happen? Was Gwendolyn actually going to die? He couldn’t kill off the character who’d been his bread and butter for ten years, could he? Readers loved his Gwendolyn Fairchild mysteries. Or rather a certain demographic of readers, elderly women, loved his Gwendolyn Fairchild mysteries. Cozies, they called them in the industry. Lighthearted mysteries with chatty amateur sleuths, descendants of the geriatric Miss Marple.
He loved Gwendolyn too, the grandmother he’d never had. He didn’t know what he’d do without her. But after all these years, he craved excitement. He pictured a new series of adventure novels, maybe an updated James Bond. Would that sell? He could use a suave alter ego, a tan, fit, younger version of himself. Someone irresistible to women and light on his feet, ready to scamper across the rooftops dressed all in black like a cat burglar.
He stared at the screen. He wished he hadn’t given up smoking.
Gwendolyn teetered on the edge of the roof. The only thing that kept her from going over the edge was Randall. She’d often wondered what life would be like without him. What if she could do whatever she wanted, instead of always doing what he wanted her to?
Would she even be on this fucking roof? No, she would not.
Would her surname be Fairchild? No, it would not. She would have returned to her maiden name.
She strained to remember life before the long and unfortunate marriage to Gerald Fairchild left her widowed and prone to stumbling across mysteries that she felt bound to solve. That would have been long before Randall, of course, happy years that had never figured as plot points. She’d worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, where she earned a lot more than Randall did. She’d had a string of lovers. She’d traveled in Europe and the Far East and lived in Baja. For Randall she was a flat character and perpetually 78. She’d been 78 for ten years and she’d remain 78 until Randall died, which could be 20 or 30 years from now. Sooner, if he didn’t get a handle on his diet, alcohol consumption, and exercise.
She didn’t think she could stand it. She balanced precariously on the edge of the roof, wondering whether this was her only way out.
Randall decided to dictate some notes on his new DVR. He stood and began pacing around his study. “Gwendolyn rushes up five flights of stairs. Wait: she’s a spry 78, but can she really sprint up five flights of stairs? Maybe three? And now she’s on the roof with no weapons and not many options. But she’s always been clever so maybe she’ll talk her way out of this?” Randall paused as he thought about that, and considered making another cup of coffee. He’d been having problems with acid reflux and should really cut down. “Or scream for help? But how fast could help arrive? Or defend herself by throwing something at the murderer? Who’s about to be unmasked as an impostor who’s been masquerading as the late vicar’s brother. Note: is this too similar to the third Gwendolyn Fairchild novel?” He wished he had a nubile secretary instead of a digital voice recorder. Someone to appreciate the drama and urge him on. “Will the murderer be apprehended? Or will this be it for Gwendolyn?”
The amateur sleuth couldn’t possibly die in a cozy. He knew that. But what if this became his crossover book? He imagined a bevy of admirers gathered around him after an MLA panel, “Defying Genre, Subverting Tropes.” An interview over martinis in a bustling rooftop bar at one of the fancy conference hotels. A curvaceous grad student from some university journal hanging onto his every word. “Was killing Gwendolyn on Derrida’s birthday intentional?” Banks of tropical plants, orchids maybe, waiters in tuxedos. He stopped.
“Rooftop garden?” he said into the DVR.
Yes! He saw a rickety wooden chaise lounge, bleached from the sun, and the setting for his climactic scene snapped into focus. The flat roof had once been a roof garden. There was a scattering of white gravel, a low table with a rusty watering can and an abandoned pair of cloth gardening gloves. And some very large ceramic pots of dead plants grouped near the edge of the roof.
Gwendolyn was grateful to Randall for giving her the ceramic pot with the dead geraniums, since she knew it was the best he could do, but she’d really have preferred a gun. She picked up one of the large pots, staggering under its weight, ready to heave it with both hands.
The door to the roof banged open and Randall emerged, short, pot-bellied, balding, panting after struggling up the stairs. He was sweating profusely. She was surprised he’d made it to the roof at all. For a man in his mid-fifties, he was not in good shape. She was not surprised to see that he was the villain.
“God damn it, Randall, enough is enough!” she shouted, hoping it wouldn’t be necessary to kill him, but prepared to do whatever she had to.
“Let’s talk about it,” he said. “I can’t live without you!”
What was there to talk about? She was tired of knitting baby blankets and solving dumb mysteries. Randall was incapable of imagining her on a solo trip around the world, or embarking on a hot love affair, or murdering someone herself. Talking wasn’t going to help.
“Don’t come any closer,” she said, but he lurched forward, clutching his chest. Was he having a heart attack? It all happened at once: she dropped the flower pot and leaped aside, collapsing to her knees; he fell toward where she’d been standing, arms outstretched, his inert body tumbled with one of the heavy ceramic pots over the edge of the roof. She heard the muffled crash as the pot exploded on the street below.
It was not one of Randall’s signature happy endings, but Gwendolyn had never liked seeing everything tied up with a bow. She stood, testing to see that no bones were broken (you had to be careful at her age), brushing gravel and potting soil and dead geranium leaves off her clothes.
So you may still be wondering a lot of things, like maybe: what was Gwendolyn wearing? Well, that’s a more interesting question than you might think, because she decided to get rid of the tasteful floral dress and stockings and low heels (and pearls, a bit like Queen Elizabeth) and chose instead to wear torn jeans, green suede boots, a black sweater, and a vintage fur jacket. A bit ratty, the jacket. But she’s 78, you protest.
I can’t help it, that’s what she was wearing after her rooftop metamorphosis.
Should I introduce myself, or remain invisible, in the background? Gwendolyn’s creator is presumably dead. (Can you fall off a five-story building and survive? Probably not, but it depends on the writer’s worldbuilding, doesn’t it?) Randall’s creator—that would be me—is alive and well.
“There’s no reason I should turn into Miss Marple at 78,” Gwendolyn said to me later. Miss Marple was 73, by the way, and Agatha Christie was 37 when she wrote the first Miss Marple mystery. I’m not sure why I’m writing a 78-year-old character when I don’t know any 78-year-old women, though I do know an 80-something artist and an 80-something poet, and both wear decidedly bohemian clothes. Lots of bright colors and fluttering scarves. Chunky tribal necklaces, not Queen Elizabeth pearls.
Maybe I’m compensating for the absence of grandmothers when I was growing up. Or, more likely, I’m reacting to the ageist stereotypes I’m already getting a taste of at 60-something, worrying what it will be like later, as I hurtle toward Gwendolyn’s 70-something age bracket. Time accelerates as you get older. Dramatically. You think you have plenty of time and then, presto, it’s gone.
Randall’s gone over the roof. Gwendolyn and I peer over the edge and see him splayed on the street below. Tomorrow he’ll be nothing more than a chalk outline. “I love your jacket,” I say, which is a pretty irrelevant comment under the circumstances, but I approve of her wardrobe change for this scene. The dowdy flowered dress was getting on my nerves. A massive winged creature lands on the rooftop air conditioning unit across the street, appearing out of nowhere, scattering the pigeons. Lilac blue, with a skinny neck and long beak, it looks like a pterodactyl. Could it be a pterodactyl? She laughs. I laugh. The creature squawks and takes off again, wings flapping. The world’s wide open.