"Cliff-hangers, they called them," he ventured.
She frowned at him. "I know that, Mister Smart Guy. Gosh, sometimes I think you must believe I'm awful stupid!"
"I don't, Annie, really." She waved a hand at him impatiently, and he understood it would be better - today, at least - not to interrupt her. "It was fun to try and think how he would get out of it. Sometimes I could, sometimes I couldn't. I didn't really care, as long as they played fair. The people who made the story." She looked at him sharply to make sure he was taking the point. Paul thought he could hardly have missed it.
"Like when he was unconscious in the airplane. He woke up, and there was a parachute under his seat. He put it on and jumped out of the plane and that was fair enough." Thousands of English-comp teachers would disagree with you; my dear, Paul thought. What you're talking about is called a deus ex machina, the God from the machine, first used in Greek amphitheaters. When the playwright got his hero into an impossible jam, this chair decked with flowers came down from overhead. The hero sat down in it and was drawn up and out of harm's way. Even the stupidest swain could grasp the symbolism - the hero had been saved by God. But the deus ex machina - sometimes known in the technical jargon as "the old parachute-under-the-airplane-seat trick", finally went out of vogue around the year 1700. Except, of course, for such arcana as the Rocket Man serials and the Nancy Drew books. I guess you missed the news, Annie.
For one gruesome, never-to-be-forgotten moment, Paul thought he was going to have a laughing fit. Given her mood this morning, that would almost surely have resulted in some unpleasant and painful punishment. He raised a hand quickly to his mouth, pasting it over the smile trying to be born there, and manufactured a coughing fit.
She thumped him on the back hard enough to hurt.
"Can I go on now, Paul, or were you planning to have a sneezing fit? Should I get the bucket? Do you feel as if you might have to vomit a few times?"
"No, Annie. Please go on. What you're saying is fascinating." She looked a little mollified - not much, but a little. "When he found that parachute under the seat, it was fair. Maybe not all that realistic, but fair." He thought about this, startled - her occasional sharp insights never failed to startle him - and decided it was true. Fair and realistic might be synonyms in the best of all possible worlds, but if so, this was not that world.
"But you take another episode," she said, "and this is exactly what's wrong with what you wrote yesterday, Paul, so listen to me."
"I'm all ears." She looked at him sharply to see if he was joking. His face, however, was pale and serious - very much the face of a conscientious student. The urge to laugh had dissipated when he realized that Annie might know everything about the deus ex machina except the name.
"All right," she said. "This was a no-brakes chapter. The bad guys put Rocket Man - only it was Rocket Man in his secret identity - into a car that didn't have any brakes, and then they welded all the doors shut, and then they started the car rolling down this twisty-turny mountain road. I was
on the edge of my seat that day, I can tell you." She was sitting on the edge of his bed - Paul was sitting across the room in the wheelchair. It had been five days since his expedition into the bathroom and the parlor, and he had recuperated from that experience faster than he would ever have believed. Just not being caught, it seemed, was a marvellous restorative.
She looked vaguely at the calendar, where the smiling boy rode his sled through an endless February.
"So there was poor old Rocket Man, stuck in that car without his rocket pack or even his special helmet with the one-way eyes, trying to steer and stop the car and open the side door, all at the same time. He was busier than a one-armed paperhanger, I can tell you!" Yes, Paul could suddenly see it - and in an instinctive way he understood exactly how such a scene, absurdly melodramatic as it might be, could be milked for suspense. The scenery, all of it canted at an alarming downhill angle, rushing by. Cut to the brake-pedal, which sinks bonelessly to the mat when the man's foot (he saw the foot clearly, clad in a 1940s-style airtip shoe) stomps on it. Cut to his shoulder, hitting the door. Cut to the outside reverse, showing us an irregular bead of solder where the door has been sealed shut Stupid, sure - not a bit literary - but you could do thing, with it. You could speed up pulses with it. No Chivas Regal here; this was the fictional equivalent of backwoods popskull.
"So then you saw that the road just ended at this cliff," she said, "and everyone in the theater knew that if Rocket Main didn't get out of that old Hudson before it got to the cliff he was a gone goose. Oh boy! And here came the car, with Rocket Man still trying to put on the brakes or bash the door open, and then... over it went! It flew out into space and then it went down. It hit the side of the cliff about halfway down and burst into flames, and then it went into the ocean, and then this ending message came up on the screen that said NEXT WEEK CHAPTER II, THE DRAGON FLIES." She sat on the edge of his bed, hands tightly clasped together, her large bosom rising and falling rapidly.
"Well" she said, not looking at him, only at the wall, "after that I hardly saw the movie. I didn't just think about Rocket Man once in awhile that next week; I thought about him all the time. How could he have gotten out of it? I couldn't even guess.
"Next Saturday, I was standing in front of the theater at noon, although the box office didn't open until one-fifteen and the movie didn't start until two. But, Paul... what happened... well, you'll never guess!" Paul said nothing, but he could guess. He understood how she could like what he had written and still know it was not right - know it and say it not with an editor's sometimes untrustworthy literary sophistication but with Constant Reader's flat and uncontradictable certainty. He understood, and was amazed to find he was ashamed of himself. She was right. He had written a cheat.
"The new episode always started with the ending of the last one. They showed him going down the hill, they showed the cliff, they showed him banging on the car door, trying to open it. Then, just before the car got to the edge, the door banged open and out he flew onto the road! The car went over the cliff, and all the kids in the theater were cheering because Rocket Man got out, but I wasn't cheering, Paul. I was mad! I started yelling, "That isn't what happened last week! That isn't what happened last week!"" Annie jumped up and began to walk rapidly back and forth in the room, her head down, her hair failing in a frizzy cowl about her face, smacking one fist steadily into her other palm, eyes blazing.
"My brother tried to make me stop and when I wouldn't, he tried to put his hand over my mouth to shut me up and I bit it and went on yelling "That isn't what happened last week! Are you all too stupid to remember? Did you all get amnesia?" And my brother said "You're crazy, Annie," but I knew I wasn't. And the manager came and said if I didn't shut up I'd have to leave and I said "You bet I'm going to leave because that was a dirty cheat, that wasn't what happened last week!"" She looked at him and Paul saw clear murder in her eyes.
"He didn't get out of the cockadoodie car! It went over the edge and he was still inside it! Do you understand that?"
"Yes," Paul said.
"DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?" She suddenly leaped at him with that limber ferocity, and although he felt certain she meant to hurt him as she had before, possibly because she couldn't get at the dirty birdie of a scriptwriter who had cheated Rocket Man out of the Hudson before it went over the cliff, he did not move at all - he could see the seeds of her current instability in the window of past she had just opened for him, but he was also awed by it - the injustice she felt was, in spite of its childishness, completely, inarguably real.
She didn't hit him; she seized the front of the robe he was wearing and dragged him forward until their faces were nearly touching.
"Yes, Annie, yes." She stared at him, that furious black gaze, and must have seen the truth in his face, because after a moment she slung him contemptuously back in the chair.
He grimaced against the thick, grinding pain, and after a while it began to subside.