I don’t remember how exactly I ended up in their yard, asking about the flowers that grew behind their house, but I’m grateful for whatever twist of fate brought Lucy and Rusty into my life. They were in their sixties and I was five, but age doesn’t matter when there’s friendship to be had. They lived two houses away from me, and after making their acquaintance, I visited them nearly every day. I was a precocious kid with insatiable curiosity, and they had a big house full of antiques, a yard full of beautiful plants, and a garage full of all kinds of neat stuff I wasn’t supposed to play with. They indulged my neverending questions and they told me really good stories. During my childhood, there were few places I’d rather be than on their back porch, sipping lemonade.
Rusty was especially fun. Rusty wasn’t his real name, rather, it was a nickname, a shortened version of his long, German last name. But somehow, it fit him exactly. He explained things with patience, but he also had a constant gleam in his eyes and a sly wit. He liked to tease me, and I learned it was okay to tease him back. He also enjoyed enlisting me in teasing his wife. Lucy would pretend to be exasperated, and I thought this was the most fun game in the world.
But then I got older, we moved to a new house, and I no longer visited every day. In fact, I only went to see them once, during summer vacation when I was in college. After that, I’d see them around from time to time, and I always thought I should visit, or that I would sometime, but for one reason or another, I didn’t. It’s been five years since I last went to their house, but I realize now that none of my excuses were good enough, because I learned this week that Rusty died this past Sunday.
There are lots of things I could say here about missed chances and regret, but I guess I won’t say them. Instead, I’d like to change the subject a little bit.
Hearing the news about Rusty made me think about my childhood and how it was always full of stories (a great many of them told by Rusty himself). And thinking about stories made me think about the art of storytelling, which is what makes stories in the first place. Certainly, in writing, there’s something to be said for craftsmanship and wordplay and all of those technical things, but really, when it comes down to it, perhaps the most important thing is the ability to spin a good yarn. Or is it? You tell me.
I’d also like to ask you what makes a good story. Is there a certain formula, or is it just one of those magically ambiguous things that you know when you read? What are some of your favorite stories? Why are they your favorites?