How to Write an Ending No One Can Guess

writingThere are two ways to do it best. One is to start with an ending and work backward. I did this in Postmarked for Death, which began as a nightmare I had, involving an abandoned missile silo taken over by a madman. Not the usual scenario, either: there was no Hollywood missile, as in the movie “Twilight’s Last Gleaming.” It was just two guys in the dark, each with a gun, listening intently for movement in the utter silence. The advantages to this method is that once you know where you’re going, it’s a journey of discovery to get there. Why are these two guys there? How did they get there—what led to it? Once you know who they are, and have established them vividly, the novel will write itself. Better if each is not a walking cliché (walking dead man) but a fallible, real person with both good and bad in them. They have made wrong decisions in the past, but redemption comes in making the right decision in the end. The second method is not knowing the ending. Again, you have the main character fleshed out. And a firm idea of what his or her dilemma is. In the case of The Methuselah Gene, I knew it was going to be a thriller about Big Pharma: how pharmaceutical drugs are tested and produced, combined with how the science of longevity may produce a drug in the near future to extend life by a decade or more. (Science validated recently in the Ron Howard series Breakthroughs.) With the main character (a bachelor researcher tortured by anxiety) fleshed out, it became a matter of doing research, and interviewing a few scientists in the field of genetic engineering so that the plot idea would be plausible. After that? A blank sheet of paper. No idea what would happen to this character, who he would meet, and how the plot idea would evolve. I simply put him into a situation, and listened to what he might say. As one of my fav actors, James Garner, once put it in his biography: “I don’t act, I react. Give me a reactor over an actor every time. As soon as you look like you’re acting, you’re dead. You’re just chewing the scenery.”  That’s the way I did it. I put him in motion, and told it from his point of view. He surprised me. That way, there is no way the reader won’t be surprised too. Just let go.

kim jong un

Patrol, Lads!


The thing on the bar of the smoke shop was oblong, heavy dark plastic with a simulated wood grain. Its tiny black curtain opened on a retro telephone. The telephone’s cord looked like an umbilical—thick, twisted, blue, and translucent. 

“Why, it’s a miniature confessional booth,” Magnum said, staring in bemused astonishment.

Ron Brell beamed, blowing a smoke ring out past his hand-rolled and personally blended cigar. “Oh yes,” he confessed proudly. “And I’m going to order five thousand of them initially, for a Sunday ad in Parade magazine.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Am I?” The two men stared each other down. Former friends during their University of Hawaii fraternity days, they’d been known to swap pranks in the past. But this was middle age now, a reunion for them a lifetime later in the choice-blasted landscape of compact cars, sensible shoes, and 401Ks.

“What have you been drinking as well as smoking?” Magnum asked. He noted Brell’s thinning red hair, one hand resting on his widening paunch, where his fingers drummed as if testing a market watermelon. “You got some weed mixed in there, too?” Magnum added, and nodded at Brell’s cigar. “Is this what a mid life crisis looks like?”

Brell smiled thinly, hiding his golden teeth. His pate might look like a cue ball soon, perfectly round and hairless as he regularly used a razor to reject God’s meagre allowance. By contrast, Magnum’s gut was still flat, due to innumerable sit-ups and the tight support of elastic. Above a Madras shirt, Brell’s eyes fluttered like American flags—red, white, and very blue. “I’ve bet the farm on development costs,” he told his ex roommate, evenly. “It’s a sure thing, which is why I’m already celebrating with a fine cigar.” Brell took another long draw, savored it, then exhaled slowly, bathing Magnum with the aroma as if to chastise him, Higgins-style, for driving a Fiat instead of a Ferrari.

Magnum glanced back at the confessional telephone on the bar, noticing a thin cord which snaked behind it under the counter. His stool squeaked under him as he turned fully to study it more closely. “You’re not even Catholic, though,” he heard himself say, testing the first of an entire litany of objections he knew would soon come to his attention.

Brell laughed. “My market base is non-Catholics. Do you know how many non-Catholics there are? Or Catholics with a sense of humor about the Pope?”

As if on cue, the phone rang in its miniature confessional enclosure. Or rather chimed. The bartender answered it, exchanging glances with Brell. “It’s for you,” he said, and handed the receiver to a surprised Magnum.

“Who knows I’m here?” Magnum asked Brell, whose smile now flashed golden in the recessed lighting as he tilted back to lock his hands behind his head. Into the phone Magnum said, “Hello?”

The voice on the other end was upbeat, up tempo. “What do you think so far?” it asked him.

“Excuse me? Who is this…Higgins?”

“Gordon Bellamy, Magnum. Ron’s publicist and manager. Yours too, if you come aboard.” Magnum was speechless, although his mouth dropped slightly before hanging to one side. Half an hour later, as he pulled shut the tiny black curtain with his forefinger and thumb, Magnum was chastised again with a long, slow ring of smoke which encircled his head like a noose.

“I have to confess,” Magnum began, over lunch the next day at Ric’s New Cafe, “it does have a kind of kitschy appeal.” He stabbed a hunk of beef with his fork, lathered it in A-1, and chewed for a moment of consideration. “I like the ad too. Avoids sacrilegious references. Challenges the buyer. How’d you come up with the idea of promoting truth and honesty?”

Brell smiled. “Makes a great gift for the boyfriend, son, or gossipy old aunt, doesn’t it?” Magnum lifted the mock ad, as it would appear in Parade should he agree to write a check for it in a sum equivalent to his savings during five years as a P.I.. In the image at the upper left was the confessional booth, seemingly full size, its curtain closed. Is there something you need to confess? the ad asked. In the lower left was an image of the confessional open, the phone showing. Remember–you must not tell a lie. Or else.

“Makes a great gift,” Brell repeated, tapping the slogan in the lower right, where details were given, along with an 800 number. He grinned. “The price is right, too. Twenty nine, ninety-five. Under thirty, because if you go any higher than that magic number, you lose half your audience. At five thousand initial stock, if we sell out we clear ten bucks each, that’s–”

“I can do the math,” Magnum said. “But what if we don’t sell out?”

We. Oh boy, he’d said it, now. It had slipped out, and he knew what that meant. Brell knew it too. Now it was Brell’s job to move past it as fast as possible.

“That’s just initially,” Ron cooed, ignoring the question. “There are other ads to run as well, and other magazines, like the Enquirer. Other venues too.”

“Such as?”

“Late night television. The Home Shopping Network. We should get plenty of free local publicity too, with such a unique product. Imagine the possibilities. We could go on radio and TV talk shows and talk about how we want to clean up phone sex with minors. Talk about how good people will feel to get things off their chest and tell the truth for once. How people need to communicate with someone they’ve neglected calling, or treated badly in the past. A former classmate, an in-law. We could say that’s how we got back in touch, too. You and me! We could say we had a fight back years ago, and that we hated each other, underneath it all, back then. Then a late night phone call, a little reunion of old buddies, plenty of confessions, forgiveness on both sides, and now we’re thick as thieves.”

“Good analogy. You’re not serious.”

“No? Well, I’m thinking of writing a book, too. A companion volume to the phone, titled I Cannot Tell a Lie. How confession leads to discovering your inner self, and that speaking the truth sets you free! With sample conversations…even tips on how to confess your sins and cleanse your soul. Hell, it should be a bestseller! Buyers of the confessional phone can be pitched about the book later, or get it now as part of a deal for thirty-nine ninety-five.”

Magnum shook his head in amazement. “You got it all worked out, haven’t you. You and. . .”

“Gordon. Yeah. He’s presenting the idea to various talk show hosts now. He’s very creative. The phone call to you at the bar was his idea, you know.”

“For what percentage?”

“He gets fifteen percent. The rest of the profit goes to pay back our development and advertising costs.”

“You talking net or gross for Gordon?”

“Net, of course! After unit product costs.”

“What if the units don’t sell? Who pays Gordo then?”

Brell pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’ve got to think long term, Magnum. I know that’s hard for you, but after we’ve paid ourselves back the investment we made for development and startup, it’ll be pure profit, plenty of money for everybody.” He looked up and grinned. “We’ll be rich, my son!”

Magnum sat back and studied the half moon of fat rimming his plate, where his steak had been. He didn’t realize he’d been so hungry. When the bill came, though, Brell got up to take a smoke outside.

Sunday morning, five weeks later, 9 A.M.. Magnum approached the corner table of the smoke shop, near the window. He set down his Colombian–-cream, no sugar-–and lit up a Dominican. Then he pulled Parade magazine free of the newspaper he carried in his other hand. Next he sat and began to leaf methodically through each page, scanning the contents like a typical reader might, letting the articles and ads catch or lose his interest in turn. As he neared page 21, where Gordon told him the half page ad would appear in nearly every newspaper in America, he tensed involuntarily, and then paused before turning.

Then he did it. The page turned and fell. He was staring down at a full page ad for a commemorative medallion celebrating the battle of Gettysburg, in .999 fine silver, shown 4x size, at $99 plus $8 shipping and handling. Visa and Master card accepted.

 He looked down for the page number, and stared at it as his heart skipped, beating erratically now, faster and faster, like an old Fiat—accustomed to slow speeds and needing a tuneup—when it is floored for the first time in years.

Page 21. There was no mistake. The opposite page displayed an article—an interview with grade school students on what they thought of mandatory school uniforms and turnstile metal detectors. He flipped to the end, hoping for some last minute placement adjustment, but the last pages displayed discounted vitamins and interviews with aging movie stars. Now he went in reverse, thumbing through each crisp, colorful page like a nervous junkie in search of a fix. When he got to page 1, he accidentally spilled his coffee, sloshing one leg. The heat of it burning into his thigh failed, however, to stop his head from turning to view the pay phone just outside. He rose and exited, walking robot-like, oblivious to stares from an old geezer in the corner, his throat emitting a low, sustained growl of pain edged with a plaintive, almost pleading quality. He dialed Brell’s number first. There was a click, then a mechanical voice said, “We’re sorry, but this number is no longer in service. Please hang up and try again.”

He did, but this time he dialed Gordo. “We’re sorry,” the same voice repeated, “but this num–”

Magnum slammed the phone back hard into its cradle for a ten count. Number ten cracked the black plastic on the receiver end, and drew a series of honks from a laughing gaggle of frat boys passing outside in a Camaro. He clamped shut his eyes and took several deep breaths as he remembered Brell’s words: We hated each other, underneath it all, back then. Had it been true? For Brell, at least, it was now obviously true. Secretly, Brell had hated and envied him all along. Had it started when he began dating Brell’s ex girlfriend, Jill Conners, their Junior year? Jill and Ron had seemed finished at the time, but maybe Ron had hoped to rekindle something with her, and he had spoiled it. What a bizarre way to get revenge, though, twenty years later. Unless he was looking for a mark, was in town for a while, and Magnum seemed easier to scam than a stranger. Maybe Brell had gotten the plastic confessional phone out of some Taiwan novelty catalog. Was he in Hilo already, showing the thing to some other patsy in a bar or smoke shop?

Smoke shop.

Magnum called the owner over, asked asked for a phone book. No matter what it took, he would track Brell to the gates of Hell. If what he did next required a priest for absolution. so be it. Not that he cared. He wasn’t even Catholic.

“Why, it’s a miniature confessional booth,” Ed Weiss said, staring in bemused astonishment.

Ron Brell beamed, blowing a thick smoke ring straight up toward the ceiling. “Oh yes,” he confessed proudly, once again, for old times sake. “And I’m going to order five thousand of them initially, for a Sunday ad in Parade magazine.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I never kid,” Brell replied, smiling his golden smile. As if on cue, then, the phone chimed in its miniature confessional enclosure. The bartender answered it, exchanging a surprised look with Brell. “It’s. . . for you,” the bartender said, and then handed the receiver to an even more surprised Ron Brell.

“Hello? Gordon?” Brell said tentatively, looking out at the L.A. skyline. For an odd instant he half imagined a killer standing beside the dead body of Gordon Bellamy, gripping a still smoking 45 mm. Then he shook it off. “Gordon?” he asked again.

The phone went dead. Brell replaced the receiver slowly. His face drained.

“Who was that?” the newest mark named Weiss asked.

“I’m not sure,” Brell confessed. “And as you know, on this phone, I cannot tell a lie.” He smiled, then sat motionless for a moment, stymied, as his own smoke ring gently settled back down over his head like a noose. –0–


© 2004 in Plots with Guns by Jonathan Lowe



The Deplorables

trump-worldOnce upon a time a family of wandering gypsies arrived in America by way of steamer from Istanbul, and later, by banana boat from Costa Rica. The clan was headed by Haggar Deplorable of the Hungarian Deplorables, a stout, red faced man with big hands and a devious heart. His wife Rubellah loved those big hands, and placed her trust in them because they never failed her.  Haggar’s hands were big enough to hide wallet leather, strong enough to force any hinge, and yet delicate enough to carry crystal or fine gold necklaces back across any threshold. Although the knuckles of the right hand were callused from striking the bony jaws of many an interloper, no one could help but admire the stealth and consummate skill with which those hands moved. Legends are born of less.
—Rubellah was just as impressive herself, but with her it was her eyes. Dark, penetrating, almost hypnotic in their effect, Rubellah’s eyes could hold the gaze of any others just long enough. Then, with a swish of long black braids, bound by golden bands, she would be on her way again, a little richer for the encounter. Besides man and matriarch, there were sons and daughters numbering four each. Stone Deplorable was the bald one since birth, but he made up for his unusual genetic condition by growing hair almost everywhere else. His thick, coarse chest hair had, on first sight, an animal attraction to women, and his marital engagements and subsequent disappearances averaged ten a year. Stone was bold, unlike his brother Jacob. Jacob was the one trained to fit through tight openings, late at night. He had to be coaxed early, and later used a penlight. Jacob would not participate in any daylight escapades, such as those perpetrated by Igor and his brother Ahab, who were the identical twins and bungling comics of the clan, and who would often approach a seated mark from either side as Stone moved in from behind with the ether-drenched handkerchief.
—Of the daughters, Ruth was the only homely one. She kept the books, invested the family earnings, and dabbled in the market. Her sister Salome, however, looked like she’d stepped out of a Botticelli painting.  Voluptuous, volcanic, verbose, she exuded despicable passions from every pore, and went through men like a diva goes through chocolates.  Meanwhile, Beulah was merely flirtatious, beguiling by comparison; she posed and accessed while Salome pounced. Finally, Caprice also liked to flirt, but she did not possess Beulah’s detachment, and so often needed to be extricated from amorous situations by Stone’s intervention and wrestling technique.  All four sisters were blessed with their mother’s long dark hair and hypnotic eyes.
—Several years before its demolition the family moved into the projects in Brooklyn just long enough to establish residency, U.S. citizenship, and to play the welfare roles.  Jacob obtained SSI disability payments for his timidity and frail looks, and all the “children” got allowances for food stamps which were later sold on the street at the usual discounts.  As it turned out, they did not need to lie very much, and Haggar even went for worker’s compensation by claiming a fictitious slump in “intrapersonal lifestyle analysis.”  Soon after, they set up a mail drop, scored one final fake drug bust on the building’s pushers, and moved uptown into Trump Tower, which had excellent Hispanic room service.
—“This was a real adjustment for us,” Igor later confided to a cab driver. “Since poppa was getting older, and found it harder to work with his hands, we hired tutors to teach us proper grammar and etiquette.  Hotel employees who’d complained when they heard Hungarian folk music and Liszt Rhapsodies echoing through the cooling ducts decided they could tolerate us when we stopped singing and dancing, and started tipping. Guests were not so sure. Once I was on the elevator during a psychologists convention and got asked if I thought what we were doing was wrong.  After pressing the hold button I explained to a curious shrink what poppa had always taught us, which is that God created us the way we are, so He must rejoice when we do what we do.  Then I asked what he knew, and demanded payment for my session, refusing to release the hold button until I was given a Ulysses S. Grant, although I settled for a Jackson and a Lincoln, which was all the bum had.  After that I started dressing differently too, and began to resemble a politician or a game show host. It never occurred to me to question our family philosophy or moral judgment, whatever that means. Like Popeye or The Donald, I yam what I yam.”
—The Deplorables all began to wear different hats from that point. Beulah and Jacob ascended into high society, attending arts openings and benefits in order to case the patrons’ jewelry. Salome, finally achieving a modicum of self restraint, was able to play the witty rich divorcee just long enough to lure her gentlemen victims to secluded bedrooms where they were seduced and left exhausted and semi-conscious without their dignity, their Rolexes, or their credit cards. Confiding in Stone, Salome scoffed at marriage.  “American millionaires,” she laughed. “No wonder women divorce them.  Besides, the only reason to get married in America is to have kids, and I’m sorry, but I haven’t got eighteen years to spare. What if I have quintuplets, or Siamese twins when all I really wanted was a Siamese cat?  And what will my baby’s first words be?  ‘Wii Wii?’  Get real.  Babies don’t come from heaven anymore, anyway.  Heaven has been out of babies for quite some time.  Then when the kid starts asking Why, what would I tell it?  I don’t know Why.  To top it off, what if my baby is switched at birth, and I don’t find out until nine years later when someone named Galifianakis shows up, and with a basket?”
—Stone responded in kind.  “With me, I find I’m often forced to leave Xerox copies of one dollar bills as tips on dinner dates.  Afterward I send the women flowers with dead insects in them.  If they don’t get the message, I describe my idea of an exciting evening as curling up on the sofa with a book by Kafka while listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations and eating Fruit Loops straight from the box.  If they manage to find me, I disguise our empty refrigerator with plastic roasts purchased from appliance salesmen down on their commissions, and I allow them to discover this while I’m watching Dancing with the Stars and sipping Ovaltine from an elephant-shaped mug.”
—Speaking of politics, Igor and Ahab had some misadventures of their own.  Identical twins on each side of the game, they raised funds which they also skimmed from both Democrats and Republicans.  Their education on the matter was obtained by attending phony real estate seminars run by former televangelists, and taking copious notes on technique.
—Ahab:  “I told them what they wanted to hear.  I defined class envy as something which occurs in people who don’t have any class, liberals as near-sighted people prescribing rose-colored glasses, and high school grads as young punks who can whistle all the top forty tunes but still can’t read their own diplomas.  Was I tough on crime?  Well, for rape I suggested the perp do a stint as playmate for amorous eight hundred pound gorilla. For DUI the stint would be as a bumper in a bumper car concession run by crazed 8 year olds.  For slapping, yelling at, or otherwise preventing a child from learning to speak English and to vote Republican the perp got incarceration for twenty four hours with an abusive life insurance agent suspected of murdering his mother. And just for allowing your kid to watch TMZ on TV as much as he wanted required you to be bound, gagged, and forced to watch House of Cards reruns for two days straight, your eyes stuck open with Crazy Glue.”
—Igor:  “With the Democrats, I tried to cover myself by taking the rich versus poor debate one giant step forward.  I proposed an actual class war by claiming to have inside information that the other side was already mobilizing.  For K rations my lower class battalion would have grits, toast, and powdered milk for breakfast, Spam, Coke, and a slice of government cheese for lunch, and tuna casserole, tea, and a dollop of rocky road ice milk for dinner.  Of course for the rich it was, I admitted, German Sausage Coquettes, fresh squeezed orange juice, and Belgian waffles for breakfast, Tuscan Veal with pine nuts, Amaretto Custard Cake, and cappuccino with chocolate garnish for lunch, and for dinner it was Roast Rack of Lamb Tiffany, Medallions de Trois Viandes aux Trois Poivron, Fresh Mango Sherbet with coulis of raspberries, and Mouton Rothschild 1938.  Unfortunately, I was heckled as any bad stand up comic might be.  This wasn’t the kind of reaction I wanted, so I slipped out the back way with as much slush fund money as I could carry.”
—There were other failures for the twins. For instance, they later infiltrated the gangs, and attempted to convince various gang leaders of certain credentials, much like a national fraternity official might when visiting a local chapter.  They even set up a school, or rather skool, to teach homies the history of gangs which they’d failed to learn.  To qualify for GEDs {Gang Education Diplomas} kids were told that it wasn’t enough just to know how to blow smoke rings, or how to walk around with their belts unbuckled and shirt tails out without dropping their baggy pants, or even the proper way to flash “get stuffed” to other gangs in order to provoke a shooting spree.  They needed to learn how to fail at everything else in life in order to get into ANGER U, of which the twins were admissions coordinators.
—“Unfortunately, we had a high dropout rate,” Igor soon complained. “Many were fascinated at first when we told them CRIPS stood for Class Rebels Immortalizing Paint Spray, but when we said that BLOODS stood for Bitter Lads Objectifying Oppressive Dysfunctional Society no one knew what ‘objectifying’ and ‘dysfunctional’ meant, and then it was too late to change it to Boys Learning Of Oppression, Drugs, and Suicide. So I blurted out something about two splinter groups of the Bloods that went to war–the B Positives and the B Negatives, and who did they think won?  Then Ahab, thinking it a good joke, tried to up me by invoking the LORDS, and asking which faction did they think came out on top, the Legion Of Raging Demented Sociopaths or the Lovers Of Really Delicious Shortcake?  Alas, our humorless would-be subjects suspected we were dissing them then, and we barely made it out of klass by remembering that we needed to attend the funeral of Bloods impressionist graffiti artist Chico Rameriz, who was killed for having a ‘blue’ period.”
—Although the twins did manage to start a gang of their own in Chinatown, that didn’t pan out either.  The short lived Kung Yu Gang followed no particular martial arts code, although they had plenty of black belts, purple belts, and quite a few gold chains.  To the twins fiscal disappointment, the gang’s rumbles became mainly intermural food fights, pitting the Japanese VS. the Vietnamese, or the Chinese Szechuans VS. the Taiwan Mutant Ninja Tenderloins. For fun the upstart youngsters even vandalized price and options tags at American car dealerships.
—Meanwhile Ruth continued to buy Krugerrands, gold stocks, and commodities futures in preparation for the coming economic collapse, which “any fool could see” was inevitable once one of the two candidates set up in the Oval Office.  Such became her acumen in international currency exchange that she had three additional phone lines installed into the Trump casino suite where Rubellah had once sung songs of the old country and cooked goulash for Haggar.
—“They tried to audit me once,” Ruth confessed to a hotel maid, “but I put the kibosh on that and diverted the audit by slipping an herb concoction into the auditor’s tea which had an aphrodisiac effect.  Then I seducing him with what really turned him on–-new ideas for torturing an auditee (or candidate unwilling to release their tax returns for public dissection.)  One suggestion I made was that he strap the evasive taxpayer to a Delco battery and jolt the truth out of him for two hours while his property was sold at auction to a bunch of yard sale junkies.  The auditor was so excited by my concepts that he had to go back to his office to relieve himself with some day trading.”
—For Rubellah’s part, she worked part time as a self employed psychic hotline operator, so she could be near her children.  When the kids were out she told fortunes with her crystal ball in the Marriott ballroom.  Rubellah relished her job, and often repeated a favorite fortune for people she disliked, which was that their ambulance driver would favor the scenic route. But secretly she also longed for the old days, when her family danced and sang with Bollywood stars.
—As for Haggar, he found employment by becoming a reincarnation of The Prophet.  Simply by growing a long gray beard and calling himself Ahred Dustafo he was able to make a video tape dispensing Gibranesque wisdom, and was soon asked to speak at prestigious area colleges.  This, after trying other unsuccessful boasts, like claiming his grandfather was King of Liechtenstein.
—Haggar:  “Before I found this particular niche, I was bragging to everybody I met that granny played gin rummy with Queen Victoria, that our family psychiatrist was Freud himself, and that before I was ten I’d been on eighteen boxes of cereal, including Muselix.  But then I met a shoe salesman who told me his family was so rich once that even their butler drove a 1936 Auburn Speedster and had a winery in the Napa Valley he’d never seen.  I grew tired of my con job after that. And then one day when a hot dog vendor asked me the meaning of life, for some reason I told him I couldn’t tell him or he’d go mad, shave his head, and attack the Pope. Other people asked me even sillier questions, like why I wore a long white robe-–which was better to hide things under–-or why the city of Toledo is considered holy. This was the last straw.  It was time to get back to the old ways, to get on the move again, and to find happiness. So Rubellah bought me some Ben Gay for my hands, some iron-free cereal, and we gathered our children together and hit the road. I can’t tell you how good it felt to laugh and sing again as we danced our way across America, doing what we do best in the land of freebies and the home of the Atlanta Braves.”
—So confessed Haggar Deplorable in a letter to the Trump Tower doorman, explaining why they’d left, and how much they enjoyed trashing the room and insulting everyone.  And to this day it seems that everyone is looking for the clan, because we all need someone to blame. This may also be why politicians on both sides of the debate are suspicious of each other, and why they continue to talk about those despicable Deplorables.


©2016 JLowe