THE STORY (NOTES) STASH
The picture sleeve for arguably Desi’s most famous single, though “Cuban Pete” wasn’t without its charms…
HOW DOES a 70+ year old, beloved sitcom become an alternate history ghost story? All it takes is the right prompt, a bunch of research, a little verisimilitude, a comment in a rejection letter, and a bit of time for all that to come together.
Up front, let me say without my friend Barney Dannelke, there'd be no "Daddy, Play That Babalú". In that nebulous world where ideas come from, this one was spurred by a prompt Barney dropped on Facebook in 2018:
While I saw where he was going, with the social, physical and psychological horrors to be mined, the idea that called out to me loudest was a ghost story. Like most of my generation, I saw I LOVE LUCY stripped for syndication, five days a week on a UHF channel. Within the gags, there was a wholesomeness, a decency and warmth to the show that stuck with me. A visceral take on the prompt never sparked, and I found I wasn't up for body politics. Instead, the very first image I had was of Desi, wandering around a darkened stage, playing his conga and talking to the protagonist, whose identity I didn't yet know. Mourning.
If Lucy lost the baby in this alternate timeline, then Desi Jr. had to be the deceased. But it didn't mean he had to be the ghost. That's when things got interesting.
The first rule of alternate history stories is figuring out whether or not your idea dovetails with established fact. It's one thing to posit that Lucy losing her baby causes something to happen, but the something still needs to fit the framework of everything that came before the change. In Lucy's case, as both the central figure of a television series and someone whose pregnancy was mirrored in the show, there were logistics and details aplenty with which the idea needed to interlock. Fortunately, the shows has been thoroughly documented from just about every conceivable direction. As I dug into the filming logistics, the plan for the pregnancy episodes, and Lucy's planned birth, I saw an almost glove-like fit for the pivot from reality to its alternative.
I also needed an everyman character to bridge the reader to the narrative, someone who could plausibly be on the inside when an inside view was needed, but not so close his invention was obvious. I settled on a fictitious mid-level member of the production staff named Malden. He has no specific human inspiration; nor does he have a specific title, except to say he's involved in the production side - part of the machine, but not a cog who'd turn up outside of an IMDB deep dive. He also became the recipient of all of my new-found knowledge of I LOVE LUCY, Desilu Productions, and - through the fictional version of Desi - Babalú Ayé.
Also, while the reason for singing “Babalú” is fiction, Desi’s conversational explanation of Babalú Ayé, including altered lyrics and what he, as a deity, is known for all came out of research and was more of that weird, glove-like, ‘story with a mind of its own’ thing.
Or "the appearance of reality". Some of it is using the right facts for the time: the probably actual sanitarium for Lucy to ride out a breakdown, the right Senators to make hay out of working conditions in Hollywood, a passing reference to a film in the works with Lana Turner and Ricardo Montalbán (that's LATIN LOVERS, 1953, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, by the way). Others elements are named and moved past for texture in evoking the world: Arthur Godfrey, the Villa Capri, the Dumont network, the Schwab's at Sunset and Crescent Heights, a Barbara Walters interview. Others are whole-cloth but plausible creations, such as Ben Hecht adapting THE FRONT PAGE for television, or a buddy cop pilot episode no one will ever see with James MacArthur and Rod Taylor. All sprinkled in just the right places and amounts to set the scene without becoming a box of nostalgia. Writing a piece with one foot in reality requires the same sort of dressed set a period film does, and it all - tightly or loosely based in reality - helps paint a realistic picture.
One of the last rejections for the story before I sent it off to the GAF contest was from an editor who sent me a very nice personal note explaining the story had her up to the ending, which she didn’t feel worked. Personal responses are few and far between these days, so when I get them, I tend to pay attention to what the editor is trying to tell me. And when I reread the story with her note in mind, I saw she was right - the original version ended too softly, a wistful, Hollywood-style long pull-back when it needed a two-beat closeup.
I cut back a couple of pages (to the start of Malden working on the cop show pilot), removed a conversation Malden had with another character in favor of the note and the tape, and then did what I hadn’t done: made the haunting true all the way through the last sentence. And ultimately, this was the ending it deserved, the kind that leaves you satisfied but still wondering - not in a cliffhanger way, but a more intimate ‘what if’ to top the whole exercise off - which I needed an outside observer to point at, however obliquely, so I could discern it from where I was.
I'm proud of this story - the rhythm, the cadence, the characters, how it plays, how it came together. A lot of stories fight you, piss you off, make you want to buy a garbage can, a box of matches, and s’mores supplies. This was a joy, a marvelous puzzle box of a thing, and while I'm chuffed to see it win a prize, nothing can beat the feeling of making good art. With ghosts. In Hollywood. In another timeline. With icons. Because what fun is making stuff up if you can’t make it weird?
The Story Stash is a place where I’ll drop work from time to time - pieces from the trunk,
reprints, even new fiction that hasn’t ever found a home. Stories will be here for
a random time (at least a week, probably longer) before they get replaced
by the next in line. Typically accompanied by some insightful story notes.
(Insightfulness not guaranteed.)