Plots always intimidated me. Does the character drive the plot or reverse? If so, what happens next? You spend enough time with them and they’ll show you. From as far as I could remember, Moms always said,
“You know, I bet the stories about our family would make a good book. One day…” she’d say. There was the time pops tried to steal electricity from our next-door neighbors. Our lights had been out for a year. Mr. Edwards discovered an orange extension cord plugged into the side of his house. It lead to the cracked window of my parents’ bedroom. Edwards was having an affair with his other neighbor’s wife. They got married. When I was seven, sitting on pops’ lap, he let me drive through a tomato field. Our grey beat up old truck was full of tomatoes. I steered the front left tire into a ditch. The Mexicans had a laugh and helped us push it out. Riding my go-kart that my uncle made me using a lawnmower engine, I think I knew better. I wanted to see what would happen.
Eventually Moms did start to write a book. It was about her childhood.
“What about the rest of your life,” I asked her.
“Oh, that’s about my marriage. You know yo daddy is gonna have a fit. He ain’t gonna like that, but I’ma write it anyway.” she said.
She had it all planned it. She showed me her notes. They were all written in cursive on yellow legal pads. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think she wanted me to help her.
“What did you think?”
“It’s cool, keep going.”
I think she could hear the passive interest in my voice. At the time I was young, too self-involved and self-conscious to take on the incredible trauma that she had lived through. It was so far over my head. When that “one day” came, perhaps I was ashamed of her growing up in a one-room shake with a dirt floor. I didn’t understand the revelation of her awakened voice. She was always recalling images that you could practically touch, like the texture of a homemade spinning top, made of twine, rusty nails, and found wood. She never said it, but I’m pretty sure Moms wanted to be writer.
“I don’t think you tried hard enough,” said she to me on a visit home.
One of the first books that ever sucked me in was The Last Shot by Darcy Frey. I couldn’t stop spending time with those real life characters. Frey’s images animated like a film strip. He didn’t judge, he just observed. -Their life is the story. I love and loaf them. They are the self-referential voices that reflect your experience. “Eyes are the camera, memory is the film,” to quote the 90’s rap group, Boogiemonsters. It’s perceived reality translated into words.
It’s like watching my oldest brother draw. I’d sit there next to him at the kitchen table, a yellow perfect circle till it connected to the counter. He’d flip through a Sears furniture catalogue looking at chairs. What is he looking at chairs for? Some furniture company wants a couch in their logo. He’s doing something for a screen-printing job?
“Hey Cliff, why are you drawing a chair?” my 8 year old me said.
He mumbled something that amounted to “I’m busy.” I’d watch what part of the chair he’d start drawing. Does it matter? Is it easier to start with the chair’s left arm than the right? He is right handed. I’m left handed. I write upside down and sideways. My middle brother Pete is left handed too. Why didn’t Cliff start at the couch’s back and work his way down. How does it work? Looking at the picture of the chair, telling your hand to draw it. Is it exact in different proportions? Is it a copy, an imitation, meaning to create an illusion of something similar, but not the same, leaving room to impose your interpretation of what you see, or how you see it? He draws it with different shades, depth, darks, lights and pencil strokes to avoid lines like a cartoon, giving it the impression of something that wants to be real, that could pop out of his sketch pad. He had to look at the picture, think, respond or figure out…then his right hand did the rest. How did he do that? I picked up a pencil made of hard grey paper, but it had no lead, just a paper tip.
“What’s this?” I asked him.
He had long greasy jheri curls and thick black-framed glasses (it was the 80’s, cut him some slack),
“It’s a blender,” he said.
Oh, he uses that to blend the darker layers with the lighter ones, or spill some of the darker layers into pure whiteness. I’d run to the refrigerator with a good idea of something to eat. Pops went grocery shopping. I just stuck a fruit roll-up in the freezer. We got pop tarts. My middle brother Pete just baked chocolate chip cookies. It was a field trip to the kitchen. Get my cookie out the crystal cake holder. Lift the lid, clinking the hourglass stand upon lifting to hear the glass lid hum. Grab the top fudged chocolate chip cookie that was at the top of the cookie pyramid. Moms walks in the kitchen.
“No, it’s not my bedtime yet,” I’d say.
Pete walks in the kitchen.
“No, I still have twenty minutes left, sucka.”
Go watch Family Ties, kitchen table, build a tent in my room, kitchen table, play Transformers. With each go away and return it was as if the chair was always on that piece of paper and Cliff just monochromatically gave it life. How did he do that?
I’d draw next to him and mimic his process, but my couch looked more like something that hides under my bed, waiting to snatch my foot and eat it, than something to sit on.