If a picture is worth 500 words . . .

I was looking for research notes gone astray this morning, and discovered a folder of writing exercises I’d done at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival almost a decade back.*  And, having no other ready means of writing avoidance, read them. 

I know, I know, but I did.   Believe me, the embarrassment is worth knowing that I’ve improved.

But one of them caught my attention for other reasons.  It isn’t the best thing I’ve ever done, God knows, but it’s the first of its kind I’d ever done. 

The prompt was a captionless newspaper photo of an old man as seen through a fish-eye lens, as if he was peering at you through the peephole in his door.** It wasn’t in the folder, or I would have posted it, but I remember it well— it was truly creepy.

And the story it prompted out of me was unlike anything I’d written before, which was probably the point of the exercise.    I suppose that’s the point of all writing exercises:  to give the writer a chance to try something new, look at something from a different angle, plug the power cord into a different source.  They can’t all be meant to give the writing instructor time for a smoke and a trip to the bathroom, right?

Our instructor—who, to his credit, didn’t smoke, gave timely breaks, and did the exercises along with us—said that a picture in his class was only worth five hundred words, and we were supposed to write a five hundred word story worthy of the picture.  I have no idea if these five hundred words are worth beans—far too many of them are adverbs, adjectives, and articles.  And I’m pretty sure I buried the twist.

But you know, I think I like it, strange as it is.  And the exercise did show me that I was capable of  a darker mindset than I would have suspected.  I suppose it’s good to be warned.

(and I swear, I have improved)


“Come in,” said the gimlet-eyed man, standing too close for Ryan’s comfort.  “I’ve been expecting you.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Ryan, easing back from the odor of old dentures and recent onions. 

A small smile rearranged creases in the aged face.  “Come in,” the man repeated, and turned to walk in slow, stiff steps down the hall.

Ryan followed, automatically pricing the art on the walls, the thick woven rug underfoot.  The hall opened up into a living room festooned with old velvets, gold tassels, and crystal droplets, multiplying his estimates by–carry the three–a shitload. 

Ryan was waved to an overstuffed parlor sofa in royal blue, where he sank among the small silk pillows.   He eased a finger around the inside of his collar, hating the tie, but still glad he’d worn it.  It didn’t help him blend–he’d need a cravat and spats for that–but it showed a certain respect.

 His host perched on a winged armchair upholstered in purple and gold brocade.  “Do you know me, young man?”

“Yes, sir.  You’re–”  He stopped as a hand lifted.  “Yes, sir.”

“And you know all about,” the small smile reappeared, “the job?”

Ryan nodded.  “I don’t usually–”

“Meet the client?  I suppose not.  But this is a special case.”  His smile widened, yellowed porcelain teeth appearing between thin, blue lips.  “A very special case.”

“That’s what I was told.”  Ryan tried to shift his weight, but the pillows held him in their soft grip.  He noticed the crystal decanter set on the small Queen Anne desk in the corner.  A drink, even a cup of coffee, would give him something to do with his hands, a polite way to avert his gaze.  But he guessed under the circumstances, refreshments wouldn’t be offered.

“And what else were you told?”

“How you want it done.”

The client leaned back in the chair without bending the authority-fused spine.  Long bony fingers curled around the ends of the armrests.  “But not why.”

Ryan shook his head.  “Why gets in the way,” he said, without meaning to.

“Yes, I can understand that.  But under the circumstances . . .”  The thin lips pursed, relaxed.  “I’m certain you’re no stranger to the greed and desperation of waiting heirs–you must be, in your line of work.” Grey eyes, sharp in the age-blurred face, examined Ryan.  “And no doubt you know something of insurance and beneficiaries, and possibly about protective measures, in case of deliberate ‘accidents.’  But do you know about betrayal and cruel disappointment?” He leaned forward.  “Do you know about revenge?”  Porcelain flashed in an unholy grin.  “Do you know about the St. Francis Home for Stray Cats?”

Ryan blinked.  And, unprofessional or not, grinned back.

A pocketwatch was produced.  “I believe it’s time.”  The client stood and Ryan followed suit. 

“Goodbye, Mr. Ryan.”

They shook hands.

“Goodbye, sir.”  Ryan raised his gun and fired twice between the gimlet eyes.

Then he called in the boys to start packing up.


*Of course I kept them.  Why do you ask?

**I’d originally been given one of a cute hamster in a wheel, but the aspiring children’s writer next to me had asked to swap.  I don’t blame her—and heaven knows what I would have done to the poor animal.