Still struggling with characterization, I called my old friend Bill Foster (not his real name) and asked him to go for a walk with me. We met at Greenlake last night, between the playground and the place where they rent out paddleboats. The 3-mile circular path around the lake is the perfect place to catch up.
I explained that he’s a character in my story, sort of, and that I needed more information about him to make him a stronger character. That was awkward. But Bill’s a good sport and agreed to let me grill him while we walked.
“So…where did you grow up?” I began.
“In the bizarre state of Texas, unfortunately,” he said cheerfully. “I’ve been running from Texas ever since.”
“Noted. What part of Texas?” (I hadn’t brought a tape recorder or even a notepad, so this dialogue is not entirely accurate, but as I remember it.)
“East. Small town. We had a grocery store, a gas station, and three honky tonk joints.”
I already knew that Bill played guitar in a local blues band in addition to his day job. “You still playing?”
“Oh yeah, two or three gigs a month, plus rehearsals. I’m a rock and roll star, baby!” He tipped his hat and I noticed his hair had gone all the way gray since I last saw him.
“Have you made any…enemies…in the music biz?” I felt a twinge of guilt for hoping he had enemies to tell me about.
“Sure. Unavoidable. Cutthroat world.” Bill seemed to be avoiding my eyes.
“But…no offense but…you guys are just a little local group playing small events. What’s cutthroat about it?”
“Our circuit is bigger than I ever told you about, and the California guys…” he trailed off.
“What? California guys what?” I felt we were on to something here.
“Let’s just say there’s plenty of animosity to go around and leave it at that.”
Disappointed, I decided to push him in another area. “Didn’t you go through a bout with cancer a few years back?”
“Yeah…prostate. Very common, I’m told. They radiated the hell out of me and turned me loose.” Bill seemed much more comfortable with this line of questioning.
“So you are all better? Really all okay now?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, turning his blue eyes on me. “ALL parts in perfect working order.”
Good thing dusk had settled in, because my cheeks had gone all blushy.
We walked on.
“Bill,” I said, “tell me a story from your life. Any story you choose.”
He kept quiet for a while, thinking.
“Okay,” he began. “I got it. By 15 I’d made my parents miserable enough to send me to a boarding school for Bad Kids. In Texas, that means they beat your ass when you break the rules, which I did all the damn time. At 16 I started plotting my escape. I told you I been running from Texas, right? That’s when it started. I did some petty thieving in the dorm—pilfering the quarters other boys would leave in the drawers of the tiny cupboards we had to store our gear. I took a detour on the way to chapel one day and nicked the wallet from the housemother’s purse. Stuff like that. I collected up what I judged to be enough bread to survive for a few weeks and I sneaked off in the middle of the night with just a schoolboy pack. I took a couple pair of skivvies, a jacket, and my music journal. Had to leave my guitar behind…that sucked.”
“Wow. Where did you go?”
“Did a lot of hitchhiking until I got to a town big enough to have a train station. Headed north.”
We’d come full circle around the lake at that point and I had to get home to my kids. I thanked Bill for meeting me and giving me a glimpse into his head.
“My pleasure!” he smiled.
I gave him a big hug and he hit me with the blue eyes again.
“Can’t wait to read my story,” he said.
“I hope you survive it,” I thought as I drove away.