April 30, 2015

Room Nine

In the most recent post of my juvenilia series, I promised to share a story from fifth grade that is maybe supposed to be a mystery, though it leaves the reader with rather more questions than it answers:

"Room Nine"

"But I can't, I just can't take a room numbered nine!" cried Ms. Raven.

"Mother," said Kitty, "please be reasonable. It's the only room the hotel has. It's eleven thirty, and you can't drive with all this rain."

"You're right, Kitty," sighed Ms. Raven. To the desk clerk she said, "We'll take it."

When they were settled in their room, Kitty wrote in her diary.

August 9, 1983

Poor Mother. Ever since Father's death on September ninth (that's 9/9), she has been so scared of the number nine. And now, on the ninth of the month, we have room nine. I wish she would get over her fear.

Kitty put away her diary and went to bed.

Though she was only fourteen, it sometimes seemed that Kitty was taking care of her forty year old mother. True, Ms. Raven earned the money to support herself and her daughter, but it seemed that she needed Kitty to survive.

In the middle of the night, Kitty awoke with a start. She had heard a huge crack over her head, and it wasn't lightning.

"Kitty, did you hear that crack?" called Ms. Raven out of the darkness.

"Yes, Mother."

Kitty got up and turned on the light. When her eyes grew accustomed to it, she realized that there was a big branch coming out of the ceiling!

There was a knock at the door. Kitty opened it and found the manager standing there.

"I see that old tree finally came down," he said. "If that branch is bothering you, you can sleep in my room."

"No, thank you," said Ms. Raven. "We're fine."

When the manager had left, Ms. Raven showed Kitty an old piece of paper. On it was written: "This room was built by P.Q. Raven."

"Why that's Father," exclaimed Kitty.

"Yes," said Ms. Raven. "He must have built this note into the ceiling, and the branch knocked it out. Now I remember that nine was his favorite number. Now it's mine, too."

I mean, what?

The comment offered by wonderfully (overly?) supportive teacher is, "This story is so good that I think you could send it to Cricket." The children's magazine Cricket was a classroom favorite, still printed today, that I guess published occasional submissions from kids, though most stories were by grownup (and sometimes quite famous) authors. I did not follow up on Mrs. Hilton's suggestion, so it wasn't until many years later that I faced my first rejection letter.

I find this story ridiculous but fascinating. I know I've been hard on all my childhood writing, but I do recognize that it demonstrates some early competence with storytelling. What I love about this story is that it has a pretty solid setup of the problem, complete with diary entry that explains (if a bit clunkily) the logic behind it, and then the resolution throws plausibility right out the window.

I wish I knew what ten-year-old me was thinking as I wrote this story. Did I have anything planned out when I started, or did I write myself into a corner? Did I actually think builders might be in the habit of leaving behind secret notes placing their mark on individual hotel rooms? Did it occur to me that the story would greatly benefit from an earlier indication that the father was in the hotel construction business in this area?

While I don't know the answer to any of these questions, I do have some exciting insight into the writing process of this story, because there are in fact two surviving drafts. The first is on the cheaper yellow paper, both sides, and the second is on white paper, one side only. What I've presented above is the second draft of the story. It's dated one day later (the drafts are from October 7 and 8, 1985) and shows that I wasn't always as committed to revision as I am now. Aside from some very minor tweaks and the addition of "out of the darkness", the drafts are the same until the final few lines, so we can see that I didn't, for example, think of adding in foreshadowing to make the conclusion less bonkers. And I certainly didn't bother tinkering with the plot in any way. However, I did slightly flesh out the ending for the better. This first version makes even less sense:

When the manager left, Ms. Raven told Kitty she had something to show her.

It was a letter that said, "This room was built by P.Q. Raven."

"Why that's Father," exclaimed Kitty.

"Yes," said Ms. Raven. "It must have been knocked out of the ceiling by the tree. I don't hate the number nine anymore."

Looking at the book reports in my fifth grade writing folder, it's clear that my interest in mysterious and spooky tales was influenced by what I was reading at the time. (Not Poe, despite the character surname Raven, which I don't think is a deliberate reference.) In the next installment, I'll share my early forays into book reviewing.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Robin Black asks in the New York Times Opinion Pages, What's So Great About Young Writers?: "I have an interest in the nurturing of 'late blooming' writers. I have long grumbled about the conflation of the words 'young' and 'emerging,' and particularly about the many prizes set aside for writers in their early careers below whatever cutoff has been picked, usually 35 or 40."


Henri Picciotto said...

I loved the ending! It made me laugh out loud.

Sally said...

Was it intentional that the father's initials were PQR?

Lisa Eckstein said...

Henri: Thanks! I laughed when I found this story, too.

Sally: I didn't even notice that, but it's possible it was deliberate at the time.

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