Your story starts with a memory of third grade. Square dancing in P.E. class. Honor your partner. Right hands around. Left hands around. Do-si-do. Head couple, down you go, take your gal to the rodeo. You are a suburban child, you know nothing about the rodeo, but here is a chance to dance with a boy. You have a crush. You line up before the music starts, figuring how you can partner up with him. Your teacher notices, says something to you one day, bending her lanky body to meet your ear. It is something like, "I see you have a little crush."
His name, the crush, was Greg. For your story, you change it to George, then you think it is too similar. You choose Tony. But then Tony reminds you of someone else, so you hunt through a book of baby names, looking at Xavier, Denton, Ikabod, Saul. You decide those names are not at all like boys you knew in elementary school, though you did know a boy named Sebastian who sat next to you in class. Where is Sebastian now? You remember his big teeth, how they got in the way when he spoke.
You choose to stick with the real name. Greg. You name the dog Sebastian. It's a toy poodle that can fit in a large handbag. You hadn't figured on a dog, but there it is, its pink-tinged white fur like the hair of an old woman in a salon. Soft, tender. You aren't sure yet if the dog will play a part in the story, though you consider from your days in advertising how kids and puppies sell products.
The story starts with memory, and so that is what you begin with. You turn it into dialogue, a "remember when" between two friends. You decide one friend is getting a divorce. She has decided it is too much—her husband doesn't understand her. You wonder what he doesn't understand, but you wait. You write dialogue about old crushes, old loves.
Jack Daniel's helps. You start to loosen up and your typing gets worse. You make your other character an ad executive who is considering quitting her job.
You type, pause, eyes sweeping to the clock. It is almost time to wake the girls. Just three more stories and your collection will be complete—your agent will be happy and you will be happy, and then your husband will be happy and everyone will dance around in some glee circle.
You read over what is on the page and wonder about the use of you. Second person narrative makes you think about your high school English teacher who had a breakdown. You decide the friend, the one getting a divorce, is breakdown material. She shakes, she sleeps, she has stopped eating. You say she is spooky, ghost-like, wavering in and out. You name her Willow.
The other character—who is you and not you—listens to the friend weeping, and begins the conversation about old crushes. She says, "Remember Greg Holliday? I saw him on a TV commercial." You make this character a brunette; she is tall, slender. Her name is Annamaria. She is Italian and carries the purse with the dog.
Jack Daniel's helps. You wonder. You look back and see countless typing errors. You see Hack Danels and remembering brushes and spoky got. You continue, leaving the typos. You are on a roll. Roll, ha, ha, you will name a character Kaiser, thinking your own personal joke will always be there; you will know it, maybe explain it one day at a reading, where you will tell real life stories and make some up too. At the reading, you will be witty and charming and nervous. No one will know that you fear you will pee in your pants. If you do, you will use it as an opening for your story about an elementary school teacher. You will say, "Excuse me," and cry in the restroom.
In your story, the friends are having lunch in a greasy diner, though you have rarely eaten in one. Sometimes you run in for coffee on roadtrips, and when you leave, large cup in hand with trickles of hot coffee burning your wrists, you know your shirt and hair smell like grease. You hate it, the smell, and you think you must change clothes, but an hour back on the road and you don't notice it anymore. You turn the music up louder, sing along to songs you want to know by heart. The kids in the backseat complain about your singing. They shout with wide-opened mouths, "Stooooooooooooop!" You tell them they should be happy they have such a hip mother. You turn and sing into their cranky faces.
You have fifteen minutes until the kids get up. You type, you let words spill, slide from you. You think, "This story will not hold," and you feel a flush, it is warm, summer heat even this early in the morning. You stand to stretch, reaching for the ceiling fan to turn it higher. When you sit, you close your eyes. You take a look around the diner, introduce a waitress who is not typical—an atypical character. She is lovely, purely lovely, an innocent, and after she sets two cups of coffee on the table, she sits down with the two women—right next to Annamaria's purse—and says, "It can't always be like this." You wonder what she means, and your characters wonder what she means. Her nametag says—you pause—Eddie.
Willow, her red eyes only slightly hidden behind tiny sunglasses, says, "Eeeeedie, what are you talking about?" She says it in an agitated tone; it is in fact, a breakfast to discuss her problems, not some waitress who is far too lovely to be in this greasy diner.
"It's Eddie," says the waitress, fingering her nametag. The nametag has a children's sticker, a small panda carrying a yellow balloon, right there next to the big E.
What are you talking about, Eddie? you think, but there is no more time. You've got teeth to brush. Yours first. It wouldn't be good for Becky and Deena to smell whiskey so early in the morning. Brush your teeth, brush your hair, wake the girls. Later, later you'll sit back down and find out why Eddie is sitting at the booth, her French-tip manicured nails drumming lightly on the tabletop while her green eyes look to the door, the floor, and back again. She'll finally notice the dog, reach one hand to scratch at the top of his head.
Eddie, what can't always be like what?
You so badly want to know what she means. You have no idea though. Not an idea you want to follow or one you think will work, and your mother's voice on the phone yesterday, "So when will you go back to the agency?" keeps going through your head, it loops there.
Tell me, Eddie, you think, a tiredness coming over you. Tell me.
Copyright © Shellie Zacharia, 2005. Title graphic: "In Character" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2005.