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Marginal Notes

Editor's Clinic: A Writer, a Shoe Salesman, and a Corpse Walk into a Bar


Mark Twain once said that analyzing a joke is like dissecting a frog. You can learn a lot, but the frog tends to die in the process. Still, we’re going to ignore the warning this morning and take a look at what does and what doesn’t work in this passage.

The writer prefaced this submission – which I assume is the opening of a comic novel — by saying that humor is hard, and, yes, it is. So where does the humor lie here? Mostly from putting the narrator in a situation that’s already uncomfortable, then, with a straight face, pushing the discomfort beyond the bounds of reason. Ralph (we learn his name from later in the passage — I’ve cut it down for brevity) is already caught up in a life he’s not enjoying, as a traveling shoe salesman who has to deal with awful hotels and a penny-pinching boss. Then on top of this, he suddenly has to deal with a dead body in the hallway. The incongruity of seeing a corpse as just one more inconvenience is what gives the passage its comic twist. The joke is then extended with the clerk who doesn’t speak English and the EMT’s problems in the stairwell.

So why doesn’t it work as written?

One problem is that the writer leads with the body. This not only throws away the opportunity to spring it on readers, it makes it seem as if the body is something more than just one more problem for Ralph. It takes the body seriously.

And this creates a problem with Ralph’s character. Treating the body as just another inconvenience runs the risk that readers will see the narrator as callous. That risk gets worse if Ralph turns from treating the body seriously to whining about the smell in the bathroom. If, instead, the body comes at the end of a long line of complaints, readers are more likely to recognize it as humor – to work Ralph’s apparent callousness into their suspension of disbelief.

Incidentally, editing the piece involves moving large blocks of material around. I have sometimes edited clients to this degree, but if you’re not used to it, it can be hard to thread the large chunks of strikethroughs and different colors into a coherent narrative. So I’ve simply presented a clean, edited version for the sake of clarity.

Original

I have spent the better part of an hour deciding if I should call the police. The body of the dead man is just down the hallway. The dead guy is maybe forty. He won’t be getting any older. There is blood. It drips from his forehead and onto his blue silk shirt and flows down onto his crotch, leaving an ugly, red stain.

The hotel is quiet at this hour. I sit in my room knowing someone should call the cops. It is the right thing to do, but then I would have to walk around the dead man again, past the elevator that hasn’t worked in years. The steps at the end of the hall are dark and littered with cigarette butts and condoms. The smell of urine is overpowering. I will have to take those stairs down two flights to the hotel lobby.

I had to step over him to use the bathroom. The bathroom is another thing. It is the only bathroom on my floor. I do not want to think about the smells in that room, ever again.

I have decided I no longer want to live in the hotel. My company has booked me into some awful places before, but this one was the worst I’d seen over the five years I had been selling for Mr. Forty. “Shoes,” he told me, “Women got to have them. Your job is to sell shoes, my boy, don’t be concerned about the hotels. All you need is a bed for the night, no fancy extras. A dollar saved is your dollar earned.”

I decide I will pack my bag and rush past the body in the hall, past the broken elevator and down the dark stairway to the lobby. I will alert the desk clerk and then I’m out the door.

The name tag pinned to the desk clerk’s shirt says his name is Relmo. I think he is Indian. He does not speak English. He knows: “That be ten bucks a night,” and “sorry, don’t I no way understand.”

“We should call the police,” I tell him calmly. “There is a dead man on my floor,”

He squints at me through thick glasses and scrunches up his nose.

“The telephone,” I say, putting my closed fist against my ear. I use the other hand and extend my forefinger as if I am dialing a phone. Then I point upward toward the ceiling and then run my forefinger across my throat. “Dead man,” I shout.

The Indian [1] jumps back. He grabs a paperweight off the counter and raises it over his head, his arm drawn back, ready to launch the object. His eyes are bouncing up and down behind his thick glasses as he crouches in a defensive stance. I am afraid he is going to throw the paperweight. I use my better judgment and run for the door.

[2] The detective wants to know how long I have been living at the hotel. Did I know the deceased? Had I seen him before? Had I heard anything in the hallway? Why was I threatening the hotel clerk? Where was I going, rushing out of the door with all my belongings? [3]

The cops called in an Indian interrupter to get the clerk’s side of the story. “The Indian guy said you were going to hit him with your fist, poke him in the eye and slit his throat.” The detective sneered at me as if I were some detestable little bug.

Two men in white jackets rolled the dead man onto a stretcher and headed for the stairs. They were halfway down when the guy at the top slipped on a condom and lost his balance. Throwing his arms in the air, he fell backward. Losing his grip on the stretcher. The dead guy’s body rolled forward hitting the guy on the opposite end of the stretcher, sending both tumbling to the bottom of the stairs. The attendants, mumbling and shouting at each other, rolled the body back on to the stretcher and hurried out the door.

As Edited

In my five years on the road hawking shoes for Mr. Forty, this is the worst hotel I’ve have to deal with. My boss, Earl Puggett [4] (Mr. Forty himself) tells me, “Your job is to sell shoes, my boy, not be concerned about the hotels. All you need is a bed for the night, no fancy extras. A dollar saved is your dollar earned.”

But he doesn’t have to deal with an elevator that hasn’t worked in years or dark stairwells filled with cigarette butts, used condoms, and an overpowering smell of urine. Not surprising, given the state of the bathroom down the hall – the only bathroom on the floor. It’s every bit as bad as you might imagine.

Well, probably not quite. Now I have to step over a dead body to get there. [5]

He’s lying in the hallway, halfway to the elevator — maybe forty and not getting any older. Blood drips from his forehead, onto his blue silk shirt, and flows down onto his crotch, leaving an ugly, red stain. His shoes — Italian knockoffs, I carried a line that looks a lot like that [6] – are clean.

I don’t know who he is, and I certainly didn’t put him there, but I really should call the cops. It’s the right thing to do. But then I would have to walk around the dead man again to take those stairs down two flights to the hotel lobby.

I decide I’ve had enough of this place. I pack a bag and head for the stairs, stepping delicately over my late neighbor and through the detritus drifted into the corners of the stairwell. I will alert the desk clerk, and then I’m out the door.

Judging from the plastic tag pinned to his shirt, the desk clerk’s name is Relmo. Judging from the colorful Ganesh hanging on the wall, he’s Indian. So far, our conversations have circled around the two phrases of English that he knows: That be ten bucks a night, and Sorry, don’t I no way understand.

“We should call the police,” I say. “There’s a dead man on my floor.”

“Sorry, don’t I no way understand.”

“I know. Me neither.”

He squints at me.

“The phone.” I put my closed fist against my ear and poke one finger in the air as if I’m dialing. “You know. 9-1-1.” I point toward the ceiling and run my forefinger across my throat. “Dead man.”

Mr. Relmo jumps back, grabs a paperweight off the counter and draws his arm back, ready to launch it at me.

I run for the door.

It’s not long before two uniformed officers drag me back. A detective and an interpreter stand at Mr. Relmo’s side.

“Look, detective,” I say, “I don’t know anything about this, honest. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

The detective eyes me sideways. “Well, we could start with why you left the scene of a crime.”

“The clerk was going to brain me with a paperweight.”

“Mr. Relmo here says you threatened to punch him, poke him in the eye, and slit his throat. And that was before we found the dead body upstairs.”

“This is all a big misunderstanding, I swear it.”

Just then, two men in white jackets carrying a stretcher with the sheet-covered body come into view on the stairway. They’re halfway down when the guy at the top slips on a condom and falls backward. The dead guy’s body shoots forward, taking out the guy on the opposite end of the stretcher, sending both tumbling to the bottom of the stairs.

The detective watches all this and shakes his head. “It’s going to be a long day.”

Notes:

  1. 1. Be careful of stereotypes. Ralph can’t simply assume he’s Indian and should use his name in any case.
  2. 2. You’ve got a jump in time here. If Ralph was heading for the door, where did the detective come from?
  3. 3. We need to hear this dialogue, to hear the detective in his own voice.
  4. 4. Mr. Forty needed a name.
  5. 5. Note how leading with the interior monologue about the hotel downplays the significance of the body. Also, having Ralph address the readers makes the passage feel less serious.
  6. 6. It says something about Ralph’s character that he would notice the shoes.