Great stories are all about choices our characters make

What happened to the man on the mountain, the one who didn’t come back down.

“What’s it all about?” I asked the old man sitting in the back chair at the back table of a writer’s conference.

He looked at me strangely, a puzzled expression on his face.

“You writing anything?” he asked.

“A novel,” I said.

“Do you know anything about life?” he asked.

“Not a lot.”

He shrugged as though I was helpless, and he was probably right.

“Learn about life,” he said, sipping on a free cup of cold coffee. “Then you’ll know how to write a novel.”

He paused and watched a spider meander aimlessly across the ceiling.

The speaker droned on.

Hadn’t said anything yet.

Doubted if he would.

“It’s all about choices,” the old man said.

“Life?” I asked.

“Novels, too,” he said. “Stories are about the choices we make. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

“What kind of choices?” I wanted to know.

“When I was a young man,” he said, “I could go to work, or I could go to college. I had a choice to make.”

“What’d you do?”

“Went to work.” He shrugged again. “Couldn’t afford college.”

I forgot the speaker.

I gave the old man my full attention.

“If I hadn’t gone to work,” he said, “I would have never gone to Oklahoma City.”

He grinned.

“If I hadn’t gone to Oklahoma City,” he said, “I would have never gone into the Boots and Saddles bar.”

The old man leaned forward, his elbows on the table.

“If hadn’t gone in the bar,” he said, “I would have never met Mary Ann McClure.”

He was cleaning out the cellar of his memory now.

“If I had never met Mary Ann McClure,” he said, “I would have never quit my job and took the train to Omaha.”

“Why the train?” I asked.

“Didn’t have a car.”

“Why did you leave Oklahoma City?”

“Mary Ann McClure was a married woman.” He took another sip of his coffee. “I had a choice to make. I could stay, or I could run.”

“Was she worth fighting for?” I asked.

“She wasn’t worth dying for.”

“You think her husband would have killed you?” I wanted to know.

“He had a choice to make,” the old man said. “He could shoot me, or he could forget it, forgive Mary Ann, and let the whole sordid thing go.”

“He didn’t let it go, I guess.”

“Shot at me twice.”

“Did he hit you?”

“He wasn’t much of a lover, Mary Ann told me. He was an even worse shot.”

“What happened to Mary Ann?” I asked.

“She had a choice to make,” the old man said. “She could stay with him or leave.”

“Where would she go?”

“Certainly not with me.”

“How about divorce?”

“That was his choice.”

“What did he decide?”

“He and Mary Ann took a second honeymoon to Estes Park in the Rockies,” he said. “Love is a wonderful thing. So is forgiveness. They went hiking early one morning. She came back. He didn’t.”

“She kill him?”

“She said he fell.”

“Did they ever find the body?”

“The Ranger had a choice to make,” the old man said. “He could investigate a crime or spend the night with his primary suspect.”

“What’d he do?”

“Nobody ever found the body.”

“Anybody ever look for it?” I asked.

“No reason to.”

“Why not?”

“The missing man was never reported missing.”

The old man grinned.

The speaker was through.

And so was he.

I looked at him strangely, a puzzled expression on my face.

“Do you expect me to believe all of that?” I asked.

“Don’t care if you do,” he said. “Don’t care if you don’t.”

His grin grew wider.

He stood up and ambled toward the back of the room for another cup of coffee.

“That’s the choice you’ll have to make,” he said. It was the last thing I heard him say.

I waited for him.

There were other questions I wanted to ask.

But he was like the man on the mountain.

He didn’t come back.

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