Behind the Story: “Star of Zoe”

I just have to see her.

How “Star of Zoe” first got going, well, it was without Zoe. Not technically, I mean. I was riffing on this idea, this phrase: I just have to see her. So right there comes a She Who Must Be Seen. A proto-Zoe in the mix. My first riff, though, opened with our point-of-view “I” in the equation, our man-on-a-mission. Jimmy.

He’s banging at a door, desperate. In love, still in love. Being denied entry. What door? Who’s blocking it? Didn’t know, but questions like that are why we riff.

I just have to see her.

A relationship. An enduring attachment, however one-sided. Of course, he can’t see her straight out, right? Never give ‘em what they want. The door-blocker formed up as a family member, a protector of an estrangement, and the idea took off: an in-law, which made Zoe a wife. An ex-wife. And Jimmy had to see her.

I liked writing Jimmy. He’s not especially clever but not especially dumb. He’s a petty thief but still an identifiable guy. A big heart, a sense of how to push his luck. And damn, he wanted to tell this story. I turned on that cold riff, and Jimmie started talking and talking and talking. About himself, sure. But about Zoe, too. He spoke of her with real tenderness. As I found his voice, it became clear he didn’t know her. It was like his words formed a loving filter of Zoe, her shape without her inner self.

Anyway, while Jimmy is telling me about the Zoe he’d held onto, what hadn’t formed up yet was Inner Zoe. She waited silently on the other side of that door. Draft one went along with Jimmy trying to jive or bust his way into her hospital room, to no luck. And no reaction from Zoe. Eventually, it occurred to both Jimmy and I why she kept quiet. Zoe was dead.

Say what you will about finality, but it has a way of focusing a riff. The story had a compass now, loss and our reasons for losing. And it found its evitable ending (an essay all its own, but no spoilers for now). Other characters could step forward and eulogize the lost Zoe, even if their own grief painted her a shade too-saintly. In that space Jimmy had to confront how he’d really lost his wife a long time ago. How it she’d never been the better for having met him.

“Star” borrows a caper’s structure, if flipped some. Jimmy’s big plot and grand gesture of love is to give (not take), the Star. He’s breaking into an unusual and well-guarded spot at some risk to himself: a funeral home full of angry in-laws and one mint-dispensing, truth-telling mortician. A trespassing arrest he can’t afford. In the end, like a good caper, Jimmy fails right at the critical moment (again, no spoilers), though I’ll say Jimmy profits by his failure. As a human being scoured of his misconceptions. He can move on, maybe. This editing (and more editing) took a year to riff, write, and edit. Problems solved? All but one. The central one. Dear Zoe.

Four thousand words. Those re-focused drafts ran four thousand words, and we only saw Zoe in her coffin at the very end. I’d held her out as Jimmy’s prize for getting past her family guard. When he got there, it fell flat. The thing was, I’d made the same mistake as Jimmy. In putting her on a pedestal–literally–those drafts only ever showed that shape around Zoe. Yes, people would empathize with Jimmy. We all have friends going through loss. It hits harder when that loss hits home. When it’s family.

So. Zoe. What if she actually participated in the story? We wouldn’t just hear the characters mourn their projection of her. We could meet Zoe for ourselves and judge if she was worth the mourning. I wrote her in via flashbacks timed to the caper’s inflection points: how Jimmy picked her up, how a one-night stand blossomed, how Jimmy’s thieving sent their love story south. And Zoe the actual character burst onto the page, a match for Jimmy. It turned out she had a closetful of pattern nursing scrubs, horrible taste in cocktails, and excellent taste in Elvis impersonators. Zoe became Jimmy’s loss to bear, not that shadow of his loss.

We just had to see her.

# # #

“Star of Zoe” is proudly featured in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, March/April 2019.