In a recent interview on Big Think, writer Paul Auster tells of the inspiration for his novel City of Glass. He was called on the phone by someone who asked, “Is this the Pinkerton Detective Agency?” He answered, “No, wrong number,” and hung up. The same thing happened the next day too, but after he hung up the second time, he immediately regretted it. He began to imagine what might have happened if he had kept that person on the line and pretended to be the Pinkerton Detective Agency. This became the starting point for his novel.
Seems to me we all regularly experience these kinds of moments. Something as simple as thinking in retrospect of a biting retort you could have given an uncooperative salesperson. Or perhaps you only realized when the train pulled out of the station that the person who was sitting next to you was inviting you to flirt.
Here’s an incident I experienced a while ago:
I live in a sleepy suburb and I have a dog (these facts in themselves are a long story, but some other time). I often take the dog out after lunch, you know an old-fashioned constitutional. At that time of day, most normal people are at work. Of course, I’m working too, you just can’t tell by looking at me; I’m a writer.
On this particular day, it was during the summer holidays, I saw someone I didn’t know sitting behind the wheel of my neighbour’s expensive SUV. My neighbour and his family were on holiday in Tunisia.
From a distance it looked like the guy was trying to hot-wire the car, as he was fiddling around below the steering wheel. The man was large, had cropped hair and a scrunched up face that seemed to bear witness to numerous fist fights (that I imagined he had won). So there I stand, a timid, bourgeois man with a little dog and a terrible dilemma. Should I approach the man and ask him straight what he’s doing in my neighbour’s car? Should I pretend I haven’t noticed?
I can’t decide, so I walk around the parking lot, pretending to attend to my dog, while keeping an eye on the suspect in the car. I think things like: Should I call the police? Should I go away? The man starts the car. Shit. Now I really have to decide. Then he spies me watching him. Fuck. He’s going to kill me. Now my heart is pounding. He drives the car slowly across the parking lot. Why slowly? This doesn’t make sense, and worse, he’s coming towards me. I act like one of those animals that feigns death when faced with a predator.
The man stops the car and climbs out (really, like he’s a gorilla). That’s when he smiles at me, and I feel a wave of relief. This is also when I begin pretending to myself that I’m courageous. I ask him who he is, and he tells me he’s my neighbour’s brother-in-law. I suddenly see the resemblance. He says he couldn’t work out how to get the mirrors out… fucking fancy-shmancy cars… He says he saw me watching him, and I tell him something about us neighbours looking out for each other and so on. Turns out he’s going to the airport to pick them up, they’re coming home from Tunisia today.
Now then… in retrospect I feel I should have been braver. I should have gone up to the car right away and asked who he was. But who knows what would have happened then? What if this had been a car thief? Or what if this was some goon sabotaging my neighbour’s car for the local mob? He might have pulled out a gun and shot my dog… or asked me for help with the mirrors, or tried to escape… who knows.
See? A simple, uneventful incident for which your imagination can supply any number of alternative continuations if you let it wander.
One thing’s for sure, next time I think in retrospect of something I could have said or done, I’m going to play it out in my mind and see where it takes me. I’ll keep you posted.