"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Friday, January 4, 2013

Listening to the voices in my head

When I began writing Freezer Burn, I knew my main character. My buddy Robin and I had joked around about "Peri Menopause, Private Eye" for such a long time, it was easy to give her a better name and make her a real woman.

For this new mystery, I had the idea for a murder, but not characters, so I had to invent a new population. Would my main character be male or female? Amateur sleuth or seasoned professional? After much thinking, I decided on a female sleuth. I made her younger than Peri and mostly different. Peri is a tall, icy blonde. Willie (short for Wilhelmina) Adams is a short, curvy brunette. She is a little like me in that she has to watch her weight more than she'd like, and she'd like to pay more attention to her looks than she does. She is unlike me in that she is a widow.

I considered giving her children, but in the end thought she might be more interesting to be a woman who thought her life was going down the married-with-children route until her husband died of pancreatic cancer. Now she's in her 30s and wondering if that ship has sailed, and how she feels about it.

How do I know how her husband died? Because once I started to write her life story, in her voice, she told me. If you write, you know this feeling. If you don't, all I can say is that you give your characters a few physical, emotional, and behavioral boundaries, and they do the rest.

Here is Willie's story (please forgive her for the occasional grammar lapse - she thinks she's just writing for me):

I thought I'd have the normal life. Married with children. A job, maybe a career. They say we plan and God laughs.

I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. We were very middle class average people. Dad was Irish, Mom was German. I could have been a tall, fetching redhead. Instead I got the wrong side of both tracks. Dad's shortness, mom's curves, dad's freckles, mom's dark hair. We did normal family stuff. Went to church on Sundays after bbq'ing with friends on Saturday nights.

Maybe it started to go awry when I went to college. I was the baby although not by much. I have a sister one year older and a brother 3 years older. We didn't give Mom much time to do anything but raise us.

When I moved into the dorms at U of Illinois and began taking classes for a teaching career, I started to see how my mom sacrificed for us and how I didn't want to spend my life taking care of kids.

I changed my major after a trip to the counseling office, to engineering. Mom thought I was pissing away money on a degree I'd toss once I got married. Dad didn't say anything, but kept paying the tuition. I got my BS in CS and was recruited to work at a big aerospace company on the west coast. I had just moved into my new apartment when Trina, my sis, called.

Dad had a heart attack and died. Trina and my brother Stefan still lived in Chicago, but somehow Mom thought I should be the one to move home with her. I wasn’t married, didn’t have a family, etc. I gave up the new job and apartment and moved back. It’s what dutiful children do, right?

The first year was rough. We were both grieving our loss, and acting out as people do, by being alternately angry and clingy with each other. It slowly started to get better. We each found our own niche in the household and worked together instead of battling over territories. One year after Dad was gone, the light switched back on in Mom’s spirit.

Actually, it was less of a light and more of a disco ball. It seems Mom woke up one morning and realized all she had sacrificed as a wife and mother, and set out to reclaim her freedom. Suddenly she was never home. She found a group of single women her age and they were always out to have as much frivolous fun as possible. There was a lot of shopping, a lot of drinking and dancing, and a lot of money running out of the house.

I had gotten a job at a bookstore back home, the only thing I could find that at least kept my mind active. There were no engineering jobs in the Chicago vicinity for me. But I had money coming in. Dad had left Mom comfortable, had she continued with the lifestyle they once shared. I could see this new way of living was going to drain every bit of money he had left her. She was in her fifties and in fine health. She’d also never worked outside the home.

I tried not to butt in, but finally I had to speak up. I had seen her latest bank statement and it was a train wreck. I sat her down and showed her the statement and pointed out the increase in her expenses. I even extrapolated a few numbers, to show her how soon her money would run out if she kept spending this way. The house was paid for, but she still had taxes and insurance and utilities. She could sell the house and get some money from that, but it would not solve the problem of her out of control spending.

She said the most amazing thing to me: “We’ll pay the household expenses out of your pay. You may have to get another job to support us both.”

I met Trina and Stefan for lunch that day, and explained the entire situation to them. Then I packed my bags and bought a one-way fare to southern California. There was only so much duty a dutiful daughter would perform. Enabling my mom’s second childhood was not on the menu.

Mom stopped speaking to me. I heard via my sibs that she refused to cut back or slow down, despite their protests. Stefan even explored legal action, but when a person is sane there’s not much you can do. You can’t fix stupid.

I quickly found a job at a video game company. It’d be fun to say I write all these great games, but they wanted my services in the administrative end, so I work on their employee database, payroll software, game catalogs, processes, etc.

That’s where I met Tom Adams. He was exactly the kind of guy I was attracted to — not too tall, the kind of strikingly awkward looks that made him adorable, and a sense of humor. We hit it off like peas in a pod. Although we both knew from the start that we were completely compatible, we took our time with courtship. Neither of us was in a hurry to run off and marry. I enjoyed being in the relationship, and so did he. After a year, we moved in together.

Two years later, we married. It wasn’t a huge affair, but my sibs came out to celebrate with us. Mom returned the invitation. “Recipient Unknown.”

Life was so much fun. We went to concerts and plays, saw the latest movies, had friends over for dinner, did the big fat social scene. Tom wanted kids, and so did I, but we weren’t in a hurry. We had plenty of time.

Then one day Tom woke with a stomach pain that kept hurting the next day and the next. After a week, he went to the doctor. There were tests and tests and more tests, and painkillers because the pain was increasing. I drove him everywhere. He used up a lot of his sick days. It took two weeks to diagnose him. Pancreatic cancer.

Two months later he was dead.

Trina and Stefan were out in sunny SoCal again, except it wasn’t so sunny anymore. They helped me with everything, along with my friends. Quite frankly, it was all a blur. I thought I knew what grief felt like, after Dad died. I had no idea what it was like to lose someone who was beyond family, more than close, intimate in ways that you don’t discuss in polite society. When my eyes weren’t weeping, my soul was.

Mom was still a no-show, which was doubly painful. I thought that, being a sudden widow herself, she might have reached out to me. Stefan reported that she had finally opened her bank statement one day and realized she had a thousand dollars left. Dad had left her $250,000 and she had one thousand left. She called my brother in a panic. Taxes were due, what was she to do?

He got out the newspaper and turned to the Help Wanted section. Then he got out his checkbook. “This is the only money I’m going to give you. Your children tried to warn you and you wouldn’t listen. We are not going to pay for your mistakes. You will have to get a job now and re-learn how to live on a budget.”

She’s not speaking to him now, either. Oh, she cashed the check, but she’s not speaking.

Eventually, he and Trina had to go back to Chicago, and I had to re-learn how to live as a single gal. My friends helped me a little, for awhile. I tried not to burden them with my recovery, and they tried to include me in everything they were doing. The problem was that they were couples and I was not. After a few months, I started to feel the awkwardness instead of the comfort. It was not their fault. They were always inviting, warm, friendly. Maybe they just made me miss Tom too much.

I took the advice of every columnist on the planet. I got a dog for company, a schnauzer I named Hansel. He kept me from spending my days in bed. I signed up for classes, did volunteer work, tried new things to keep busy. Most of it didn’t fit, until I tried horse riding lessons.

I had wanted to ride as a child, but Mom always said no. “Too expensive. We can’t afford things like that.” Maybe that was in the back of my mind when I called the local stables looking for lessons. Ha ha, Mom.

I’ve tried skiing, scuba diving, and all kinds of sports. None of them seemed a good fit for me. Being short and curvy does not translate to athletic grace. But from the first time I gave the lesson horse a deep massage with the curry and saw him stretch his neck out in pleasure, to the satisfaction of controlling his movements through my own riding, I knew this was it. There was no other activity I had experienced where I loved the prep work as much as the action.

Soon I was riding my trainer’s horse and competing in horse shows in the area. It’s becoming a consuming passion with me. Now I’m looking to buy a horse It’s been two years since Tom’s death, and I finally feel like the fog is lifting.
So, that's Willie. What do you think of her?

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