28 February 2024

Getting More Than You Bargained For

Image by Freepik

Frankly, I love a good deal. Complementary appetizer or dessert with purchase. The trial products our grocery store app sometimes sends our way. One free night each year at a hotel chain we're loyal to—and then the occasional complementary upgrade on rooms between times. I recognize, of course, that many bargains come with costs (no free appetizer unless you buy an entree, of course, and credit card points only accrue if you've been charging on your card), but you obviously have to consider many factors whenever you try to weigh which deals are worth it. The man who paid for a lifetime pass on United—not cheap!—and has been living it up ever since? I really admire that guy.

Many years ago (this phrase will come up again), back in the days before Groupon and Living Social (which I was also a fan of), I lived in Raleigh, NC, and while I can't remember the specifics, there was a coupon book that I bought which was full of promotional offers from restaurants, stores, event venues, and more throughout the Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill). As I recall, many of these offers were "two for one" deals—BOGO in more current slang. The woman I was with at the time and I thought it was a real treat, and we tried restaurants and activities that we probably wouldn't have tried otherwise. A real deal! 

...but it also reached a point where the coupon book seemed a burden of sorts. If we were going our to eat or looking for something to do, shouldn't we use another coupon? The expiration window would be closing, after all, and there were so many coupons left, and we wanted to get our money's worth, didn't we? 

And so, many years ago (I told you so), I wrote a story about a couple who'd been enjoying all the many benefits of such a coupon book ("Dine-A-Mate is Dine-A-Mite! Thousands of dollars in savings! A year of opportunities awaits!") but after awhile, one of them wants to break free a bit, try a new restaurant that's not in the coupon book, and—honestly—maybe break out of some bigger rut in the routines of the relationship too? Sandra and Wiley were my characters, and the story—"Two for One"—tried to chart both their relationship struggles and also some larger questions about what people want out of life and how to balance those wants against another person's desires. While it wasn't technically a romance, the story also focused pretty intently on desire and seduction and on storytelling as an aspect of expressing desire and maybe manipulating seduction. It also wasn't—I need to stress this—a suspense story in the traditional sense either: no mystery, no crime, nothing like that. This was, as I said, "many years ago"—before I'd really come back around to writing in the genre at all.

I wrote the first draft while a student in the creative writing program at N.C. State University, and then I reworked it again (and again) in a "Revision" course my first year in the MFA program at George Mason University. Though I felt very pleased with each subsequent version of the story, it never found a home, and I ended up just putting it aside. 

...until SleuthSayers announced the call for Murder, Neat, and I remembered the bar at the restaurant that's at the heart of "Two for One" and began thinking about how one kind of story might become another kind of story. What are the tensions—the dangers even—in a relationship when one partner wants something different from the other? Where might temptation lead to trouble? Or adventure into adversity? What happens when you bite off more than you can chew—or to stick with the anthology's theme, sip more than you can comfortably swallow?

Often when I look back at the drafts of stories from many years ago, I find myself wincing a bit—prose that's not up to par, plotting a little underdone (or overwrought), or characters without much... well, character. Often, I end up just tucking those drafts away once more—out of sight, where they belong. 

But in this case, returning to those early drafts of "Two for One," I found myself pleasantly surprised, particularly by some of the playfulness at the line-level—a bit of fun with language and phrasings, particularly in descriptions of food and drink. The story felt like it had some energy to it, it felt like that writer—the old me—was having some fun, and that fun was infectious. I found myself excited to dig in for a fresh revision. 

Here's a little sample of the story to, um, whet your appetite?

Sandra worked as a receptionist at a law firm in downtown Raleigh, and on Friday mornings she browsed through the newspaper between calls, looking for new ways to lure Wylie away from Dine-A-Mate. In recent weeks she had been drawn repeatedly to an ad for the new Royal International Buffet.

Alaskan King Crab Legs! Peking Duck! London Broil! Chilean Sea Bass!—each entrée was encased in a starburst. Drawings of the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal, of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Golden Gate Bridge stood in each corner of the ad. Visit the world on our 70-foot-long buffet! Chefs of all nationalities! Kids buffet for tiny travelers! Elegance and sophistication!

 Elegance and sophistication? She knew better. A buffet was a buffet. But that wasn’t the point.

“I saw this new restaurant,” she told Wylie on their regular Wednesday. “Want to try it one night?” She handed him the paper.

They’d finished the steaks she’d pan-fried with a little Marsala sauce. Capers and green peppercorns and a hint of Dijon—though she’d called it pan gravy for Wylie’s sake. Last Wednesday, she’d added a single finely minced porcini mushroom into a quick pasta sauce, even though Wylie claimed an aversion to “funguses.” Another Wednesday, she’d glazed some pork chops with guava paste, telling him it was a new barbecue sauce from Hunt’s.

Had any of it encouraged his appetites?

Had it? Well... you'll have to read and see.

I hope readers will enjoy the final story too, and I'm grateful to Michael Bracken and Barb Goffman for editing Murder, Neat and to all my fellow contributors—so pleased to have my work alongside yours. 




  1. Art, it seems your story aged like a good whiskey. I haven’t received my paperback copy yet, but already I blame you, Michael, Barb, and all the other contributors for my increased alcohol consumption. Maybe your next anthology could contain stories involving dieting.
    Edward Lodi

  2. Well, now I'm hungry! Look forward to reading the whole story, Art! Mail takes a little longer to get up here. I was nodding along to your comment about reading your earlier work, and wincing a little bit. Characters with no...character! Thanks for letting me know I'm not the only one, smile. Melodie

  3. "Two for One" is a classic example of "when someone shows you who they are, BELIEVE THEM." Thanks!

  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone! I'm behind a bit—mid-term week at Mason AND my mom is visiting! But so grateful for the comments here. And hope folks enjoy the story itself!


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