Writing Calisthenics

AvatarA collection of short stories, essays, and exercises to keep my brain from rusting between larger works.

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(This is a character development background sketch.  It's not really about developing the character himself, but giving him enough background that I can justify his behaviors later on.  Once you read it, let me know if this person sounds interesting or multi-faceted enough to base a novel around.  Anything seem trite here?  Cliched?)

Counselor: So, tell me a little about your childhood.
Reid: Childhood?  What about it?  I mean, in general or what?
C: Whatever you think would be important.
R: Important.  Hmmm.  Well, we moved around a lot.  It didn't give me much of a chance to make friends.  Not, like, I didn't have chances, but…  You know how they say you can go two ways with something like that?  How some kids learn how to make friends easily, learn how to fit in to new groups and that?  I went the other way.  Moving around all the time - it gave everything a sense of impermanence.  Is that a word?  Like…  like you could pull up stakes at any minute and be somewhere else the next day.  It was like a game to my Mom.  She used to say she could have the house packed in three days and have it unpacked again in two.  As if that was something to be proud of.
C: What about your dad?
R: He didn't like it all.  He hated moving.  He was a lot more outgoing than I am, but still, I think he liked that sense of feeling 'rooted' I guess you'd say. 
C: Why did he do it then?  Was this something his career forced on him?
R: On him?  Oh no.  No, it was Mom.  I'm sorry.  Didn't they give you those forms or whatever?  I wrote all this out already.  Whatever.  Never mind.  My mom was the one with the career.  She was a Major in the Army medical corp.  She was the reason we moved around all the time.
C: I see.

R: Yeah, she was really focused on moving up the ranks.  It was different then than it is now though, you know?
C: How do you mean?
R: I mean being a woman.  She always felt like she had to put on a hard face for everyone.  Be a member of the boys club.  And at the same time, she still had to be "Mom."
C: I'm sorry.  I'm sure this is on the forms as well, but did you say you had siblings?
R: No. No, it was just me.  Honestly, I think they were both happier that way though.
C: In what way?
R: I just don't think either of them really wanted more kids.
C: Did you ever feel that you weren't wanted?
R: Oh, no.  Nothing like that.  Well, I mean, not me specifically.  Maybe me as a concept.  You know, as an obstacle they wished wasn't there, but no, not me specifically.  More than once I remember thinking they were staying together just for my sake though.
C: Interesting.  What makes you feel that way?
R: They pretty much said so.
C: In front of you?
R: No, but sometimes I'd hear them arguing when I was supposed to be in bed asleep.  This was mostly when I was very small though when we were always in Army housing.  The walls were thinner than hell.  They could have whispered and I would have been able to hear them.  They never argued loud.  Never.  The whole hard face thing.  She was hyper-conscious of some neighbor over-hearing one of their fights.  My mom was always very, very conscious of what other people thought.
C: You've mentioned the fights, and putting on her "hard face".  What other ways do you feel your mother acted out her awareness of what other people thought of her?
R: Hmmm.  [The patient sighs here, and there's a pause before he begins again]  Well, there was the house.  The house always had to be immaculate.  No matter how late it was or how tired she should have been after some grueling shift, she'd come home and clean.  It was like she was always on guard for some General to drop in unexpectedly.  Even when we could afford to move off-base it was the same.  The house was always spotless.  My dad would do some things - laundry and the beds and stuff - but he could never clean enough to make her happy.  No matter what he did, you just knew it wasn't going to be good enough.  Except the lawn.  Mom hated lawn work and dad seemed to thrive on it.  Honestly I think he did it just so he wouldn't have to listen to her harp on him for some thing or another.  I asked him about it once though and he laughed.
C: Laughed?
R: Yeah.  He just shook his head and said "no."  He said there was music in the mechanical.  he said there was a rhythm in the motor of the lawnmower that would change pitch and tone as he cut.  He would cut and cross cut the grass in different patterns - he said - just to listen to the different patterns sing to him.
C: Your father was very musical?
R: Oh yeah, that's what he did.   He taught piano.
C: That's interesting.
R: Interesting?  What do you mean?
C: The reversal of roles in your house.  Your mother was the doctor with a career in the military, and your father stayed home, raised you, gave piano lessons…
R: Oh, she wasn't a doctor.
C: Oh, I thought you said [at this point I had to refer back to my notes] … here … "She was a major in the Army medical corps."
R: Yeah, right.  She wasn't a doctor though.  That's exactly what she'd want you to think though.  [The patient laughs at this].  Just habit.
C: What do you mean?
R: She was in records.  She started in information technology and came up with some system for organizing medical records into a database that could be accessed anywhere in the hospital, other bases, what have you.  It was a pretty forward-thinking application for the time, but… [The patient laughs again, stops, and shakes his head]
C: But what?
R: It wasn't enough.  She never actually told anybody what she did unless pressed.  It was always "I'm a Major with the Army medical corp," the implication being — with the rank and everything — that she was a doctor.  Hell, some people would even call her Dr. Baughman, and she'd just give this coy, shit-eating smile and politely correct them: "Please… Major Baughman if you don't mind."  She'd eat that shit up.
C: I see.  And what did your father think of this?
R: Of what?  Of what she did?
C: Of the way your mother saw herself.
R: [At this point the patient's face turned dark and he paused for quite some time before answering]  I think after a while it sorta disgusted him.  Mostly because the higher she built herself up, the lower on the totem pole he got pushed.  After a while these delusions of grandeur where just a drop in the bucket to how she felt about him.
C: And how was that?
R: Like a nothing.  Like… I don't know.  Like an appendix.  Or a wisdom tooth.  Or tonsils.  Disposable.  Dispensable.
C: What makes you feel that way?
R: 'Cause it's true.  Dad took his music seriously.  He had boxes and boxes and boxes of LPs, and he'd tell these wild-ass stories about being friends with Brian Eno and David Byrne and Laurie Anderson and all these other unbelievably talented musicians before they'd made it big.  He loved it.  He lived it.
C: And your mother didn't appreciate his love for music?
R: Oh no. No, in fact, I think that's one of the things that brought them together in the first place.  A long, long time ago, my mom used to like music too.  I think they both thought he was gonna be something big.  He had all the contacts, he knew the right people, but something just never… for whatever reason, something never clicked with him.  He used to tell me he was too white [The patient laughs at this].  No offense.  I'm not racist or anything, but, you know what I mean?  He just had too much of that 'Bob' in him.  As much as he really wanted to be a musician, I think he wanted the plaid shorts,  the can of PBR, his Ray-bans, and the hammock swinging over a freshly-cut lawn even more.  He was a suburban boy at heart.
C: And how do you think your mother felt about that?
R: I don't know.  There's two sides to it.  On the one hand, it almost seemed like she went out of her way to sabotage his music.  Maybe this is just my dad talking, but … see … Every time we moved… 
    Wait.  Let me back up. 
    My dad played the piano.  I said that, right?  He played the piano, and he made his living giving lessons.  We had this old Schubert baby grand, beautiful instrument.  So, on the one hand, there's this piano.  There's this idea of my dad as musician, and I don't think my mom ever fell out of love with that ideal.  No matter where we moved the piano was the centerpiece of the house.  It was always the first thing you saw when you walked in the door, and my mother was always very gracious about making sure everyone knew it was my father that played.  Whenever we were entertaining brass, she'd trot out my dad like some kind of circus monkey to play for everyone.  Sorry, that sounded kinda nasty, didn't it?  I didn't mean it like that.  She seemed proud of him as long as he was playing, but whenever the music stopped and someone got around to asking my dad if he played professionally or what he did for a living, she'd quick and change the subject, you know what I mean?  Like she was embarrassed that her husband did something so lowly or — god forbid — feminine as give kids piano lessons.  So, see?  There's this one side that really digs the idea of being married to this famous musician.  But then when that idea doesn't pan out, she has a hard time coming to grips with it, and there's this other side of her that comes out.  My dad always felt like mom's constant reassignments were directed at him.  Sort of passive aggressive.
C: How do you mean?
R: They were always a disruption.  She didn't have to take every assignment they offered her.  You know that, right?  They were opportunities, and at one point, keeping her family happy was a priority.  That was before any time I can remember though.  By the time I was old enough to be aware of what was happening, it seemed like with her, it didn't matter where she was.  She worked with the same people no matter where she was.  The Army became her family.  But my dad really settled wherever he was.  At least he did at first.  Remember how I was saying there were two ways of handling all that moving around?  For the longest time he was that first kind of person.  He was a genuine kind of person.  He didn't know shit about sports or anything like that - I take after him like that too I guess - but he could always find something about someone that he liked.  He'd talk to them and he'd find something they liked about themselves.  He had this way of pulling it out of them.  He did it with music too.  I always admired that about him.  He could read people that way.  He'd watch them while he played and he had such a huge repertoire of pieces he knew.  He'd study the greats - Emerson, Wakeman, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett - and classics too - Beethoven's piano concertos, Bach.  He'd watch you while he played, what you responded too, what you liked about the music.  He always told me that what you like about music is what you like about yourself.  That's true I think.  And he'd change up while he played until he found just that thing that would bring you out, that piece that would shine a light in that corner of yourself that you really liked but maybe were afraid to tell anyone about, and he'd drag it out until it was singing and dancing where everyone could see.
C: [The patient had been smiling broadly throughout this description of his father, but at this point he stopped smiling and started to cry.  I offered him a box of tissue which he waved off]  Take your time.
R: Sorry.  I have no idea what that was all about.
C: How are you feeling right now?
R: I don't know.  A little sad I guess.  Pissed off too, I guess.
C: Why do you think you feel pissed off?
R: Because my mother killed that.  She killed that in him.
C: What is it that she killed to you?
R: That… that joy.  That life he saw in other people.  That life that fed him.  That simple joy in coaxing someone from their hiding place out into the sunshine.  Once that was gone he had nothing left.  He started drinking and it never came back.
C: And how is it that your mother killed that to you?
R: It started with the piano.  It was beautiful.  Beautiful, but sensitive.  Very sensitive and my dad could not stand to have it out of tune.  It drove him nuts.  He wouldn't play it.  It took him fucking for-ev-er to find a tuner he could trust.  I remember once, god, I must have been what, twelve years old? and he found this old black guy, Rosco - we were living in Denver I think - guy was blind as a bat, but he could tune a piano to perfection.  Nowadays it's all electronic tuners and whatnot, but Rosco did it by sound and feel.  He'd spend half the day workin' on that Schubert and my dad would just keep feedin' him beers and every once in a while he'd stop and play some ragged old blues.  Sometimes they'd play a duet together and I'd just sit and giggle like a school girl because blind ol' Rosco had no idea just how white my dad was. 
    I don't know.  That's what my dad'd say, anyway.  Personally I think he had an old black man's soul despite the fact he wore black socks with his sandals, you know?  Anyway, Rosco worked out of a shop in this grungy little corner of the city and we'd go down there sometimes.  Some days we'd drive into the city and hang out and they'd open the door of the shop and Rosco and my dad would battle back and forth, you know? kinda like dueling pianos.  People would come into the store and pretty soon it got so jammed there'd be people standing outside the store just drinking and laughing and having a good time.  Sometimes someone'd bring a horn or a guitar and join in, but most of the time it was just Rosco and dad, jammin' away, taking requests, drinking beer, and laughing their asses off. 
    It was always on weekends or whatever, but this one time I found out he was heading off-base to go see Rosco and I begged my dad to let me stay home from school and go with him.  Anyway, somehow my mom found out and she went fucking ballistic.  She just shredded him.  "This is not Chinese arithmetic for chrissakes!  He's a twelve-year old boy!  How hard is it for you to figure out what he should and should not be doing?" 
    Chinese arithmetic. 
    Famous 'mom' phrase.  "It's not Chinese arithmetic fer chrissakes."  Everything was simple to her.  Everything was black and white.  Having trouble making friends at school?   "Well that's not Chinese arithmetic, Reid.  You just march right in there, introduce yourself, and make them your friends mister!"  She viewed dad's entire life that way.  Small and simple.  She had the solution to all of his problems, even if she didn't have the solution to her own.
    Seems like it wasn't even a month later when mom announced we were moving once again.  Every night for weeks afterwards I could hear them fighting through the bedroom wall.  And then we'd move.  Again.  And the piano would sit there, painfully out of tune from the move.  I don't know if you know anything about pianos, but moving one is pretty traumatic for it.  They're very sensitive to changes in position and temperature and humidity.  You can change the sound of a nice piano just by opening up a different set of windows in the room and changing the way the cross breeze blows.  Loading one up in a truck and carting it halfway across the country - well that just fucks it up royally.  I mean bad.  So bad that even I could tell.  Not like I have a tin ear or anything, but if it's so bad I can tell it's out of tune, it's seriously out of tune.  It seemed like every time we moved it took longer and longer before dad would find someone to tune it, until one time when I was — what — sixteen maybe? he didn't bother getting it tuned at all.  By that time though, he had crawled so far into the bottle he wasn't coming back out for love nor money.
C: Do you ever talk to your father about how this made you feel?
R: He's dead.
C: Oh.  I'm sorry.
R: No biggy.  Wrecked his car.  Went off the road near Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.  Smashed into a tree.  He wasn't wearing a seatbelt and they say he died instantly.
C: [I paused for a moment to gauge the patients reaction to the description of his father's death.  He seemed rather passive so I pressed him.]  How did you react to your father's death.
R: There were no skid marks.
C: Excuse me?
R: No skid marks.  There were no skid marks.
C: Was your father intoxicated?
R: Yeah, that's the funny thing.  He, uh, I mean there was alcohol in his blood, but my dad could hold his liquor.  I'd ridden with him when he was way over the limit - well shit, before there was a limit - and he could drive drunk as well as most people could sober.  He wasn't anywhere near that hammered.  I think he just couldn't take it anymore.  I think he just couldn't take my mom telling him how easy all his problems were.  I think he just couldn't take her ambitions for him anymore and the secret shame she carried because he hadn't lived up to them.  Sometimes I think he just couldn't see the sunshine anymore.  In himself, or in anyone else.
C: And what about you?  Is that why you're here?  Do you feel like you're having a hard time seeing the sunshine these days?
[Unfortunately, I was unaware that the tape had run out so the last ten minutes of the session went unrecorded.  We agreed that the patient should return for regular counseling sessions, twice a week if possible.  That was three weeks ago and I haven't heard from him since.]

2 comments:

June 8, 2010 at 1:40 PM Kevin Moriarity said...

After I read it, I thought I'd like to read about the mother and father's life and relationship. I get nothing about Reid's life that compels me to learn more because I don't detect his pain (though his father's pain is well illustrated). Why is he there? He doesn't have any symptoms noted; he speaks matter-of-factly, with very little emotion.

June 30, 2010 at 2:52 PM Mark Juric said...

Yeah, that's kinda what I thought. It's all back story. I was trying to find motivation for this character.

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