Robin came into the coffee shop where I was writing and slapped some wrinkled papers down on the table with a thud. I glanced over and saw it was a stapled printout of my latest short story, “The Coffee Cup Collateral Damage Incident.”
The story was about a retired boxer who confronts a group of bullies in a diner and ends up punching out their leader by feinting a roundhouse with his left hand and then snapping off a few devastating jabs his right. I’m a lefty, but I jab harder with my right. This is how I had always imagined myself winning a fight.
Robin plopped into the seat across from me and looked me dead in the eyes. “This is crap,” she said. “This is terrible, awful, no good dreck. Hackneyed, cliched, boring, self-important tripe.”
My face flushed red. “Geez,” I said. “Tell me how you really feel.”
She continued, her words, as usual, cutting like razors.”I’d say that this story isn’t good enough to line my bird cage, but even my bird wouldn’t poop on it.”
I groaned. Robin didn’t have a bird, but the point was taken. “What’s so bad about it?”
She grabbed a coffee stirrer and started poking at the edges of the story like she had just discovered a dead squirrel in the street.
“Where do I begin?” she says. “First of all, let’s talk about the setting and the characters. A lonely old tough guy with a troubled past. A late night diner? A pretty middle-aged waitress with a heart of gold? A bunch of young jocks acting like jerks? Geez, where have I seen that before? It’s every Clint Eastwood movie. It’s every 1980s movie. It’s Diner meets Alice meets Diner again. It’s the Karate Kid meets Dirty Harry, but without the great art of either of those two fine works.”
I could feel my chest start to tighten. At the time I had sat down to write the story, it had seemed like a good idea. A character study in a compelling setting. I was hoping to make a point about not judging a book by its cover, about the nobility of old men who lived by the code of the warrior in a world of young jerks.
Instead I had made an embarrassing mess of a story that had been stillborn on arrival and was now being coldly and accurately dissected by my chief critic.
Speaking of which, I looked up to see that she had turned that piercing gaze directly at me. She giggled. “I can picture you sitting at home writing it late one night. You were probably drinking whiskey and probably had your shirt off and were probably congratulating yourself on being some kind of Ernest Hemingway or Charles Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson type of tough guy writer.”
“Not true!” I protested as the color spread into my cheeks.
She waved off my protests and continued. “You were probably walking around the house throwing punches and imagining that this is how you would win a fight and be the hero if a bunch of young jerks ever came in to this coffee shop and started trouble.”
The thought had crossed my mind, but this was no time to mention that.
“I will give you this, though” Robin said. “There is one glimmer of hope in this homage to the written turd.”
She made two fists and assumed a fighter’s stance. “I’ve taken a few self-defense classes, and you are technically correct in that most people tend to throw the first punch from their back shoulder. So it could catch someone by surprise to be hit with the front hand first. And it would make sense that an ex-boxer would know how to do that”
I exhaled a long sigh of relief. “So it wasn’t all bad, then?”
“Let’s not go that far,” she said. “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.”