I never know how characters come to me. They seem to simply materialize in my mind and stay there like squatters, occupying space that I thought had been allocated elsewhere. Sometimes, their dialogues and dialects create such noise between my ears that I fall prey to difficult sleep. And once I finally do sleep, they invade it. (But that’s another many stories entirely.) Just before I started my second novel, I heard a voice say in a clear, low whisper, “It serves me no purpose to speak for the dead.” How could I not follow a character attached to a voice like that?
But the most interesting characters that appear to me are often the offspring of an observation of- or a chance meeting with real people.
During a recent visit to my grandmother’s nursing home, I encountered a few people who lodged themselves instantly into squatterhood. There was a woman in a wheelchair, wearing a purple visor, screaming to her aide, “I need to go home! I want to go home! I need to cook my husband his lunch!” The aide, patient and abiding, wheeled the woman past us in the common area, and the woman cast her eyes about, seeking the other women in their wheelchairs against the perimeter. She yelled as though provoked, “You may not have husbands at home wanting their lunch, but I do!” Her aide rolled her down the hall and still we could hear her. “My husband needs his lunch cooked!” And then, plaintively, “I need to kiss my husband his good morning.”
My grandmother, aged ninety-two, and with an entire personal history worth sharing, said, “Oh that poor dear. She sounds really upset.” Someone—one of my aunts perhaps—had recently painted her nails; her hands, which are so well-integrated into her conversations, are always lovely. She was wearing a red headband that she said she’d won in a Bingo game. Each time someone in uniform—a security guard, a bus driver—entered the building, she watched with great interest. The sight of an EMT triggered a wartime memory, and she talked for some length about the men serving in the war. I asked her when Grandaddy had gone, and she thought about it for a moment and decided it was 1972. Perhaps it was 1942, I suggested. “Oh yes,” she said, and laughed again. “And he returned in 1986.”
At the end of our long and lovely visit, my sister and I settled our grandmother in the dining room with her new acquaintances. Willy, a tiny man with a neck-to-knee terrycloth bib and no teeth, but who maintained a tremendous dignity and deference. Roscoe, whose impressive height was reduced in his wheelchair, and whose confused expression suggested he was not at all certain of where he was. Kemp, the gentleman, kissed our hands and spoke of his time in a C-41 transport, the same our father flew in Vietnam. These three elderly men sat with our grandmother and so pleased was she with their company that she said, “When I leave here, I’d like to have everyone here over to my house in Port Arthur. We’ll have a dinner party. Wouldn’t that be nice? Kemp, will you come? Willy, will you? Roscoe?” One by one they nodded, solemn and thoughtful, and this seemed to make her very happy. I said that I’d come and bring a pecan pie, and that my sister would sing in the backyard, and wouldn’t that be lovely.
My grandmother hasn’t been in Port Arthur for more than thirty-five years.
My sister had to excuse herself, and I found her sobbing on a bench outside. An angel—a character—named April appeared, and she said, “Now don’t you be doing that, else you’ll make me start to cry too.” We cry-laughed, and she told us, “Lemme tell you, today my doctor told me I was starting the menopause.” And she began to cry, saying, “I love these old people and now I’m forty-six and I’m about to be one of them!”
A bus passed, with a driver, who no doubt had a story of his own, and the business office manager passed by with her severe bob of red hair, and an old man sat shaking in a chair under the heat of Texas sun. All of these people, who touched me that day in some small way, are now part of my character collection. Roscoe, re-imagined, has become the protagonist in my novella-in-progress, 12 STORIES. I don’t know which of the others, if any, will end up in a book or a story, but nonetheless they are there. Willy and Kemp and April, the bus driver, the screaming lady. And of course, my grandmother, who’s taught me by example a great deal about character and integrity, and whose grace I can only hope to someday capture with as much dignity as she deserves.