Carmine Carmichael smoked his last cigarette twenty minutes ago. The sun rose above the row homes on Sutter Street as he sat down on the marble steps at the corner. He hadn’t slept in three days, hadn’t eaten in two days and hallucinations had begun. His four-week-old blue jeans felt crunchy as he ran his hands up his shins, to his knees and then his thighs.
A dead leaf blew down the sidewalk, past his battered sneakers and he thought of how peaceful the dead leaf must have felt. It was, after all, devoid of all feeling. The leaf had lived its life on a tree somewhere as people passed it by without a thought.
Carmine knew exactly how that little leaf felt. Another leaf blew past and Carmine reached his filthy hand down and scooped it up with care. The weak stem felt dry in his fingers as he twirled it around, looking at the rips in the body of the little leaf.
“I’ll bet you were once so beautiful, little leaf, just like me. I was a strong man once, little leaf.”
The little leaf stood lifeless in his fingers and Carmine felt his eyes well up as he clutched the leaf to his chest. Little leaf pieces fell to the ground as Carmine sobbed.
Footsteps echoed in the distance and Carmine put his filthy hands back on his thighs and watched the leaf blow away in a dozen pieces. Carmine watched as shiny, pristine shoes stepped on and over the leaf.
Noodles lived in a decent part of the city. His wife left him five years ago for a circus clown named Rickety Randy the Rolling Roundhouse. Noodles couldn’t figure it out. The ostentatious Rickety. He would purposely wear a purple beep nose just to show everyone else up at the circus with their plain red noses. Oh, and that flower that squirted Chardonnay. What was he thinking? Frigging loser. Everyone knew he squirted the flower wine into his own mouth because he was such a drunken lush. He would beep his nose and squirt the flower at least every twenty-seven seconds. The clown of clowns was falling down drunk in an hour. Turned out he had a hose connected to a plastic pack riding his back filled with his juice.
A freaking drunk clown! Noodles was mortified. Noodles swore revenge on Randy, but never got the chance. Rickety Randy had been at the main gig at a two ring circus in Burgboro. His only job was to arm/paw wrestle Turdster the Tiger while simultaneously playing catch with a six hundred pound bear named Scuttles. Turned out Scuttles and Turdster had a deep-seated hatred for each other and amidst the paw fight between the two, Rickety slipped on Tiger drool and broke his neck. Turdster and Scuttles took turns eating Rickety much to the absolute horror of the crowd.
To this day Noodles sends his ex-wife a subscription to Circus Animals Weekly each year.
It was a Tuesday.
I never listened to the radio in work – I was more of a compact disc person since I just figured out how to make my own CDs with music I ignorantly downloaded from the Internet.
I met a guy the previous year – also ignorantly on the Internet – which is a story in and of itself. He walked out on me after a disagreement about money and drove his car down to Virginia to see his sister whom he had not seen or spoken to for three years. After two days he had called me to beg for forgiveness; for a home.
Anyway, my co-worker, who was in the business of talking customers into an extra bundle of pizza boxes, yelled from the back office, “An airplane crashed into one of the twin towers!”
My first thought: What are the twin towers? My second thought: That’s what happens when you drink on the job.
I continued to print reports while working on a short story for my creative writing class. It was nice to have a job where I could get things done for me.
It made up for the shitty pay due to my lack of office skills.
My coworker shouted from the back again: “Another plane hit the other tower!”
Okay, so I guess it’s not drunk flying. I turned on the radio and listened to WMMR as Pierre Robert told me what he heard so far.
The phone rang.
It was my boyfriend.
“Airplanes flew into the twin towers,” he breathed.
“I know,”I said. “I just turned on the radio.”
“Oh Jesus, something just flew into the Pentagon.” He screamed.
“Doesn’t your sister work there?”
“Yes. This is unbelievable.” I could hear the panic in his voice as he sipped his 56-ounce refill cup of Pepsi and dragged on his cigarette.
I looked out the door again at the vehicles whizzing by. Did they know what was happening? One of the owners appeared outside, framed in the aluminum door – it was the one with the cane and the pimp daddy suits. He was a large man; Jewish; arrogant.
I didn’t like him.
My boyfriend told me he spoke with his dad. Her promotion carried her to the side of the building that was hit.
I was crying. The arrogant Jew asked me what was wrong. I told him. He asked me to come in his office. He held me and said it was going to be okay; everything was going to be fine and he would take care of me.
Suddenly, I was on my knees, under his desk, between his legs. When he finished, he helped me to my feet, handed me a hundred dollars and a Percocet. He gave me a long, molesting hug and said, “I’m sorry.”
I stared at him right in his eyes – silent and searching like a wounded doe searching the eyes of her hunter.
“Sorry for what?” I finally managed.
“Sorry for your loss,” he said.
*This story is a personal essay based on factual events.
As a kid, I loved the idea of telling stories and evoking emotions in people. As I got older, my life had such crazy, insane, ‘did that really just f**king happen’ events, I didn’t need to delve deep into my childish imagination to dish out juicy prose.
Come on, clown pajamas for a Halloween costume, throwing up in my reading book (in front of the whole class), and milk in my Puff the Magic Dragon Thermos were so traumatic I thought there was no way I could continue. And all that was in second grade.
Had I known my life would be a major story every year, I would have kept a better diary. I mean, all that and more happened before I turned eight years old. What was next?
Fantasy monsters, spaceships, and candy eating aliens are cool (and could happen) but I love a real life story because I can relate.
Right now I am writing a memoir and a novel based on events in my real life. I have a friend who is a psychic who gave me a free reading after my husband tattooed her. She told me my life would change after I told my story. I swear, there were no animal feet or blood used in the reading.
So why am I dragging my feet like a kid in a dentist office?
Fear of success.
It is a thing.
I have written the first half of my memoir (the juicy good part with all my screw ups) and then I just stopped. WTF?! Yes, stopped and moved on to something else. I do this often.
But, I always come back. Always… I use real life in a lot of my writing. I think we all do, right?
I was talking to a co-worker the other day and he was telling me a story about how once he had to hand out church flyers when he was about eight years old. Of course, he had better things to do than hand out flyers… so how could he get rid of these pesky papers? Well, wouldn’t you know, he passed a farm every day and at the fence of the farm were goats. He couldn’t believe it when he jokingly put a flyer in front of the goat that the goat started eating it!
Handing Out Flyers problem: solved.
I used this story as a scene in my latest novel. It fit so well, I couldn’t pass it up.
Take a trip through your memory and pluck out those moments from yesteryear that you might think were no big deal, or maybe you thought you forgot about them. But you didn’t. Write about it.
…Then write about it from another point of view and embellish it a little. Or a lot.
Leaves crunched under Becca’s feet as she walked toward the gazebo. She remembered to get flowers other than roses this time to spare her hands. A chill pierced through her pants as she sighed and sat on the curved, marble bench under the big oak tree.
“I can’t believe I am here again. I swore I’d never come back,” she whispered and looked at the gazebo on the hill, amazed at the thick mass of starlings that sat atop looking back.
“You’ll always come back. Always,” Charlie said, a touch of exasperation in his voice.
“What’s your problem?” Becca asked as she laid the lilies on the bench next to her.
“My problem is you said you were gonna come with me and yet here we are, still arguing about it. The flowers are pretty. Too bad they’re not roses.”
Becca pursed her lips, “Yeah, well, I had second thoughts. And the roses hurt my hands, not that you give a damn.”
“Second thoughts? We made a pact, remember? A promise?” Charlie said and stood in front of her.
“Did we? I don’t remember saying anything of the sort. Besides, you know how I feel about heights.”
Charlie laughed and moved closer. “You know how I feel about roses. And it’s not like you’d feel anything.”
“I guess I am supposed to be afraid of you now or something?” Becca scoffed and stood up.
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry, please don’t leave yet. I just want to talk,” Charlie pleaded and knelt on the ground. “Please.”
“Fine. But I already told you that I am staying here,” she said. “I like it here.”
“What? Are you kidding me? Six months ago you told me you hated it and wanted out. Remember? Remember that conversation at the cliff? We cut our hands and joined them for eternal solidarity? That conversation is why I’m here and you’re there.” Charlie walked over to the tree and tried to lean against it, his efforts in vain. “You’ve got no sense of loyalty.”
“Yes, Charlie. I remember. I remember everything. That’s the problem. Do you know what else I remember?”
A stiff breeze raked the temperature down as storm clouds claimed victory over the sun.
“Don’t.” He said and laid on the ground.
“Why are you lying down?” Becca asked as she zipped up her jacket. “I’m trying to tell you how I feel.”
“It’s exhausting, all this walking and talking. It’s different for me now.” He sat up slowly and looked at the flowers.
Becca laughed, “Different.” Her upper lip quivered as she rubbed her arms. “Seems the same to me, always blowing me off.”
“Are you going to cry? Don’t cry. I’m telling you, if you listened to me, things would be great.”
“I always listened to you and things were never great,” Becca shouted.
“Come on, it’s wonderful, I promise. I keep my promises,” he said. “Do you still have the bottle? Did you bring it?”
Becca looked back at the car on the dirt road, “No.”
Charlie stared at her emotionless. “You’re lying. I know when you’re lying and I can tell you’re lying. Go get it. Come on, go get it.” He said and crossed his arms.
Becca walked over to the headstone, “Why are you doing this to me? You haunt my dreams, I smell you all the time and…” she trailed off as she watched Charlie move slowly toward her.
“Don’t you miss me, Becca? Don’t you miss me touching you and kissing you?” Charlie said as he extended his arms in her direction, a solemn look crossing his face.
Becca plopped down on the bench and pressed her face into her hands, “Yes. I miss you, I swear I do.” She sobbed.
“Then come on, we can be together forever. We can be lovers again and not worry about anything. It’s so beautiful. Please, Becca. Don’t be selfish,” Charlie said as he sat next to her on the bench.
Becca stood up. “Okay,” she said and walked back to the car.
She returned holding a small, brown bottle with a tattered ivory label. The typeface had been worn off from years of handling.
“You did bring it!” Charlie said.
“Yes, because I had to show you how I really feel.”
“Oh sweetheart, finally we can be together forever,” Charlie whispered and stepped close to Becca’s body. She expected to feel heat or cold – something, emanating from his body.
She opened the bottle, looked into Charlie’s empty, black eyes and placed the cap into her front pocket. Then, she turned the bottle upside down and watched the liquid pour out onto the parched grass.
“What are you doing?” Charlie gasped. “I thought you wanted to be with me forever? Are you insane?”
“I changed my mind, Charlie.”
“You can’t do that. You promised. I’ll keep haunting you. I told you we’d be together forever. I wasn’t kidding, you know.”
“I know. It’s a chance I have to take, Charlie,” Becca said and threw the flowers on the grave. The starlings chattered and flew off together as Becca walked away from the grave.
“It’ll be different for me now too, Charlie.” She said as she got in the car and drove away.
I never knew what a character defect was until I stepped into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. I am breaking my anonymity, but it is no secret I am sober almost eleven years and I didn’t get sober alone. No one gets sober alone.
I found an interesting list of character defects in my research of things I’ve not committed to memory. Check out the list and see which ones might be screaming at you on any given day. This can be a kind of liberating fun (alkie or not) and if you are a writer, a great tool.
One of my chief character defects is laziness… interpreted through the Seven Deadly Sins: SLOTH. But my laziness is an asset in moderation. For example, it’s Sunday (as I write this it really is Sunday – this will be posted on a Tuesday) and I am feeling sleepy, unmotivated and well, lazy. I can turn my laziness into an asset by assessing why I am feeling lazy. Am I just being a tree-climbing sloth or am I legitimately tired and need some rest? Once I do an honest inventory of my sloth-like ways, I can make an honest judgment and figure out: Is my slothiness justified?
How does this relate to writing? Because any great character is full of defects… I don’t know about you, but reading about perfect people with perfect lives and perfect meatloaf is borrring.
I would much rather read about people I can relate to in real life. Do they curse a lot? Make sandwiches instead of hot meals three times a week? Maybe they always have the best intentions, but then that little sloth on the shoulder whispers “It’s okay, naps are more fun.”
Damn you Sloth… and your Slothy wisdom.
Defects are unchecked assets. An asset is saving money… but if you save too much? You’re no better than Scrooge McDuck and his miserly ways. Maybe you like eating ice cream or chocolate cake… maybe you like casinos. Moderation? It’s all alright… Overkill? they have groups for that if you have a serious problem.
Sure, that glass of wine tastes good and by the second one, you’re feeling alright… But by glass number seven? Um, welcome to my old world when drinking and stupidity synonymously were my things.
Our characters need to be screwed up so much that they are interesting but not unbelievable. Like, Suzy might have a fetish for her own blood… but she can’t cut off an appendage and leave it to fester. Honestly, I’m not sure what defect that would fall into, except totally f**king weird.
Get lost, Weirdo Suzy.
Check out the list of character defects/assets… are any familiar to you? How do you research defects for your characters?