Coincidence

“It would appear that you are correct.” Shana’s lawyer studied the sheaf of papers again. “But why give it to you?”

“I’m sure he thought it was something else. He’s been handing over my home office piecemeal.”

“And you videotaped the exchange?” The lawyer scratched his head.

“I film everything I have to do with him.”

The lawyer leafed through the pages and pulled out the deeds again. Five of them, rental properties, and Shana’s ex-husband had purchased all of them during their marriage. “You think this is what happened to the savings you inherited from your mother?”

“I know it.”

“And you recorded…”

“Look.” Shana pulled out her phone and played a short clip.

She paused the video when it showed Geoff handing her this particular file. She had filmed the cover page. She reached across her lawyer to flip back to the beginning of the folder. “See? He handed me this folder. This exact folder…”

Later, at lunch with her sister, Shana complained, “Well, Mr. Davidson says he’ll see what he can do with it.”

“I bet he can do a whole lot!” Marley poked her salad, but didn’t eat.

“I sure hope so.”

“But how do you think Geoff got something that important mixed up with your stuff?” Shana didn’t reply right away, and her sister said, “What? What did you do?”

“Nothing too illegal. I had a PI do a public records search for me. The properties are all registered to G.O. Housing…”

“Even the name isn’t creative!”

“But nothing directly connected him. So I let myself in the house and weeded through his files until I had what I needed, and I moved it to my own cabinet.”

“Good thing he didn’t double check.”

“Why would he? He’s never been interested in my home cosmetics sales.”

Marley whistled. “You think the judge will freeze the assets?”

“He better.” Shana sipped her water. “Else I’m out the lawyer’s fee, and the PI’s, too.”

_________________

This is the story I initially wrote for Trifecta this week, where the word is “appear”. It’s kind of boring, though, and I don’t really like the characters. Plus, I’m not sure why Shana would have to be all sneaky in the first place. I realized about six minutes after I finished writing it that I had actually done something other than a Trifecta piece.

This is based on a true story, except the “husband” in the real case was the city of Montgomery, Alabama, and the “wife” was a couple of black families who wanted their kids to be able to swim in public pools. Scott wrote me up a short factography of the events:

In the 1960s, the YMCA in Montgomery continued to be segregated.  In 1969, the YMCA, in that area, banned African Americans from its summer camps, and 2 kids’ parents sued.  The Southern Poverty Law Center sued the YMCA, but since the YMCA was private, even the SPLC did not think it would have much success. However, the YMCA’s attorney accidentally handed over an agreement, from over a decade before, where the city handed most of the pools to the YMCA, aiming to keep segregation (the city figured that the YMCA would have a better chance keeping segregation than the city, and the city had just lost the Montgomery Bus Boycott a year before making this agreement).  Without proof of the transfer, the SPLC could not have won as easily as it did. Without the case (part of which went all the way to the US Supreme Court), the YMCA would not have desegregated, and the YMCA has said as much.

____________

So you wouldn’t have seen scenes like this

The pool is empty because it's adult swim, that magical and ridiculous hourly ten minute lifeguard break when all the kids have to get out of the pool while their parents feel too guilty to get in.

The pool is empty because it’s adult swim, that magical and ridiculous hourly ten minute lifeguard break when all the kids have to get out of the pool while their parents feel too guilty to get in.

at one of these

YMCA

And here’s what really bugged me about my story. I had to insert a contrivance, the wife sneaking around to get the documents, to create a plausible scenario for her ex turning over the paperwork “accidentally”. Readers would never have believed that he would conveniently do so. But shit like that happens all the time. The YMCA case in Montgomery is a prime example.

And it’s a holy grail, embraced by everyone from Stephen King to Writer’s Digest that, while coincidence may plausibly play a role in the protagonist’s suffering, it cannot serve as a device for a happy ending. Readers reject it. I reject it when I see it in stories. It’s because I read to see an author’s trickiest writing. Getting characters out of a tight spot is far harder than getting them into it in the first place, and I want action, metaphor, and story. Not coincidence.

Ray Bradbury addresses the concept in Something Wicked This Way Comes. When Mr. Dark captures Jim and Will by making them weep as he describes the agonies their mothers have endured at his hands, he tells them coincidences happen. Dark says critics hated Dickens for his coincidences but “life’s all coincidence” (185).* In the next moment, the boys see their mothers, unharmed, walking in front of the library.

But even as Bradbury illustrates the point, he doesn’t rest his story on coincidence. Mrs. Halloway and Mrs. Nightshade, as well as their relative safety, are incidental to the plot. Bradbury gives the boys a moment of relief with coincidence, but no more. To ultimately defeat Mr. Dark and his hellish carousel, the boys and Will’s father must fight hard indeed.

But, and this is the point that brings me back to my own piece, it is impossible for me to take a story which truly relies on coincidence and render it plausibly as if it did not. Not if I tell it straight, and not if I tell it slant. I thought I had done enough by changing the case to one of divorce, but, in fact, I’d only complicated things for myself. And so I chose not to use it for Trifecta, but to illustrate the source of my frustration instead.

*My nook has the 1998 Avon edition, if that helps with the pagination.

About jesterqueen:
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.

Comments

Coincidence — 3 Comments

  1. I still like some coincidence in a story. I finished a book today that used it well.

    I think my main problem with the piece is that either she needs to stay with the lawyer until something really happens, or she needs to relay the entire thing to her sister after the fact. It is hard, in such a short piece, to establish much with the change of venue mid-stream. She comes off as shifty, and she might not in an either/or treatment.
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  2. while I liked the piece, I liked the history lesson you gave me more.

    coincidence is something I don’t trust, I buy into the cliches,
    “everything happens for a reason”, “things don’t happen in your life just because”, but the rub is that is that’s true then there is nothing random and you always have a choice..and I’m not sure I like (or agree with that).

    in my opinion this could have happened, she knows she needs that paper, she moves it (shifty or not) and he is none the wiser for now. In my mind, it could happen.
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  3. I think I most agree with Andra. The location shift was more jarring than the shifty wife. I do agree completely that leaning on coincidence to solve the protag’s troubles comes off as weak, though I suppose there must be some examples to disprove that theory.
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