The following personal essay originally appeared on the web site, You Must Be This Tall to Ride, which was released at the same time as the print anthology of the same name. Both the web site and anthology were put together by the excellent writer, BJ Hollars, whose work you should check out.
Since the web site has recently been discontinued, I thought I’d re-post it here to give it another home on the web. Cheers.
The Character Who Came to Life
by Michael Larkin
I’m a thief. I steal stories. I’m not proud of the fact, though it is something most fiction writers do. If it isn’t nailed down by copyright, we’ll use it. Any resemblance to actual persons is coincidental. Art imitates Life and all that. But there are times when Life reasserts itself, and things get a little more complicated.
I once wrote a manuscript of linked short stories centered on a pair of boys who grow up in a leafy and stultifying California suburb. One of the boys, the sometime narrator, is a bumbling, well-meaning lad who makes mistake after mistake as he learns a series of life lessons (yawn), while the other, his buddy, whom I’ll call D, grows up down the street in a ramshackle house painted across the front with vivid flowers, rainbows, and a bright ruby pair of Rolling Stones lips the size of a VW Bug. D’s hippie, divorced mother regularly sunbathes in the nude, brings home shaggy men with sketchy backgrounds, and gets into shouting matches with her rebellious teenage daughters over their smoking dope and having waterbed sex with their boyfriends in the house even though she does the same herself. Just inside the front door, a poster emblazoned with the words “Fuck Housework!” effectively captures the aesthetic of the interior, which features unattended dog poop, peeling linoleum floors, dark corners piled with all manner of junk, and a muddy smell seeming to signal that the house is being claimed by the earth. The excitement of activity inside rarely shuts down before three in the morning. All of this slowly drives D mad.
And it was all true.
D was a childhood friend of mine, one of the first I met upon moving to California. We were especially tight in preadolescence, spending countless hours doing standard boy stuff: throwing touchdown passes, setting fire to toy soldiers and KISS albums, dubbing Leave it To Beaver episodes with sex-laced dialogue, and, for D’s sake, trying to ignore almost everything else going on in his house, which I regularly and eagerly visited.
During one such visit on a hot summer day when we were both about nine years old, D and I raced outside where we were met by the vision of D’s mother padding around their backyard as she watered her sunflowers, and—occasionally, incredibly—watered her naked self. At first sight, her body morphed into a kind of Cubist painting: I knew the pieces and the shapes, what they were called and where they fit, but they initially scrambled as my brain struggled to make sense of what the eyes were delivering it. That, my boy, is a woman’s peach fuzz bottom; those are pink-brown nipples at full salute. The distortions gradually resolved into the real-world figure of D’s mother. She was thin as a shoot of bamboo, which accentuated her womanly curves all the more. Her skin, sprinkled with freckles, was the color of redwood, not a square inch of it pale like her son’s, and none of it covered save what was obscured by a pair of oversized Jackie Onassis sunglasses. Normally, while clothed, she struck me as girlishly pretty without being desirable; she was my friend’s mother, after all. But without her clothes on, she became a woman, all sex. She was naked, for Christ’s sake—with boobies! And pubes! And everything!—so it was stunning and frightening and fantastic. This first encounter set off a response that the three of us would repeat many times over the next few years:
I would gape while pretending not to—nonchalant gaping, you might call it—thus conveying that I saw and did things like this all the time.
D would be livid, his head bent in shame, and he’d spit out a revision on the holy trinity: “Jesus, Mom…Gaaaahd!”
Then his always amiable mom would offer an unperturbed explanation. In this case, it was: “C’mon now, D, you know I need my naked time.”
I should emphasize that this was all taking place in a tidy suburban context where other boys’ fully clothed mothers were telling their sons to sit up straight, dragging their tie-strangled sons to church, expressing horror at their sons’ accidental use of the “F Word,” tacking extensive lists of chores carefully typed on 3×5 cards to their sons’ doors as if they were Martin Luther’s theses, and also entering the exquisite clutter of their sons’ rooms while, in masterful displays of manipulation, they forlornly sighed things like, “Michael, the mess in here is depressing me.”
Another time, perhaps a year later, during a drive to the beach, D and I were holding forth on matters scatological, the way young boys do. Eventually, D’s mom piped up from the front seat and helpfully announced, “You know, the reason why guys like to poo is because it reminds them of buttfucking.”
Nonchalant gaping ensued.
“What? It’s true!”
You get the idea. By the time I was fictionalizing such memories years later, these parts of the manuscript wrote themselves.
After grad school, I published a few of the manuscript’s stories, and then eventually let the rest lie, deciding they were the work of a young writer that were best left in the filing cabinet. By then, more than a decade had passed since I’d last heard anything about D. His family had grown up and moved out. His funky old house had been torn down and replaced with an unremarkable beige abode that didn’t draw attention to itself—a classic new suburban home trying to deny the history of the land on which it sits. D had passed into the realm of myth, of character.
The parts of the story of D the Character that I extrapolated in the manuscript were what happened after we lost touch. The fictional D fell into a depressing post-high school run of extended drug abuse, which led him to bank robbery and then to jail time and eventually to hope for a fresh start, even as the two friends in the stories grew apart at the end. It was a bittersweet but Hollywood ending, for sure. With each passing year, as I got further from my manuscript and the childhood experiences which had inspired it, D increasingly became an abstraction for me—more a creature of my fiction than a flesh and blood human being.
However, our characters don’t always want to stay anonymously ensconced in filing cabinets or between the covers of a book moldering on the shelves of a university library. They’ve got lives to lead. They may track you down to tell you so. One morning, almost 20 years on from when I’d last heard tell of D, I got an email out of the ether which began: “Hello Mike: Many moons ago, when the world was young…”
It was, of course, D. He noted that we’d taken separate paths since high school, each of us exploring different depths: for me this meant “higher scholastic aspirations,” and for him “mindfully destructive narcotics” and the obscurities of Peter Gabriel lyrics. Though he’d mostly kicked the drugs, things sounded pretty bleak: he was living on disability payments, out of money most of the time, and suffering from bipolar disorder. The brief note was sad in its particulars, while bearing a tone that managed to be both matter-of-fact and affable. He expressed hope that he might hear from me soon.
What do you do with this information? What do you say to someone who’s been a character in your fiction, safely tucked away in your memory and your failed art, longer than he’s been a person in your real life? For one, you wonder how you got so close to the truth of what actually happened. You also feel a little guilty about having presumed to write a fictionalized version of his family in the first place. And you wonder at the mental illness you never knew your character had. But then you put that to one side, you reply in kind, you receive the character’s phone number, and then one day a few months later—on New Year’s Eve, in fact, as if you’re fulfilling an old resolution before it’s too late—you call your character and make him real to you again.
We talked for a long time, playing catch up, the discussion pinging randomly and easily from one subject to the next, D’s voice on the phone sounding like a faint, deeper echo of my memory of it. D tells me he’d put himself in some bad situations in his 20s and early 30s, using all sorts of drugs, knocking back a six-pack every night, freaking himself out in front of the TV as the characters held there, both fictional and real, made him manic. Now he’s living in a cramped space in a rough neighborhood with no car, no money, no steady job. He’s trying to stay clean and sober, to manage his depression, with mixed results. He says, “The neighborhood around here, it’s unsafe. Nobody reads, nobody has discussions. They all argue and yell at each other. They’re all conservative or super religious. It’s really loud. My neighbor is a medical marijuana guy, and he just smokes all the time. It’s a bad place for me to be.”
He loves his mother, doesn’t know what he’ll do when she’s gone someday, but he also wonders what role his upbringing had in accounting for his current state, how it affected his mental illness. He tells me, with palpable pain in his voice, that the sister he was closest to (“my hero,” he calls her, “she always says the perfect thing”) now lives 2,000 miles away. He can’t work. He’s having trouble sleeping. His psychiatrist won’t prescribe him sleeping pills because he’s afraid D will overdose.
But there is hope. He’s feeling good these days. He takes acting and English Lit classes at a local college, and literature has become, he says, his cup of salvation. He’s an autodidact, reading voraciously and keeping notebooks full of favorite sentences. Faulkner and Bellow are currently blowing him away. And now he’s ready to write poetry: “I’m just bursting with material! I’m ready to get it out.” Strangely, the two of us end up talking about writing more than anything else; it’s our common ground in the present and future tense, a place where we both find solace. It may just be that there is a redemptive ending for D’s story after all, something richer and truer than anything I could have imagined for him.
Yet here I am writing about him again. I can’t seem to help myself.
However, it’s time for the character—the human being—to reclaim his rightful narrative and rewrite the work of the fiction writer who’s been hiding in the shadow of the naked mom, nonchalantly gaping while refusing to take a hard look at himself. At one point in our conversation, when D is recounting one of his harrowing tales and the depressing realities that have spun out of them, he pauses for a moment and asks me, “You’ve never struggled with anything like this, have you?”
The question roils the acid in my stomach, and I answer him truthfully: “No.” Though D has asked in a way that is more inquisitive than accusatory, and he’s asked specifically about drug abuse and mental illness, his question strikes more deeply. He’s unknowingly called me out for my narrative appropriations, for making fictional hay with his miseries. He’s also commented, knowingly, on my good dumb luck. Our boyhood friendship was real, the empathy I felt for him both then and now is real, but the travails of his childhood—no matter what justice I tried to do them in my fiction through our character selves—were largely vicarious ones for me. Had D written a fictionalized version of my childhood, he might have titled it Most Likely to Be a Lucky Bastard. At the ends of those summer days of our youth, I always got to return to my house situated behind its quite literal white picket fence.
We fiction writers are fond of saying that when we’re really in a zone, the creative force of our art seems to be coming from someplace outside ourselves, and that the characters start speaking their own minds and take the story where it’s supposed to go. So it is with D and me. Is it any accident that the stories I wrote based on him and his family weren’t among those that I published? The stories we write, the stories we tell, the stories we steal and make our own—sometimes we’re the ones meant to be telling them, and sometimes we’re not. These aren’t my stories, they’re D’s. And they’re not stories either. They’re poems, just as they always have been.