A Moment of Praise for Characters

My dad’s best friend when I was a child was a guy named Steve Courtney. He was in the Army with my dad, and they remained friends for many years after his term of service was up. There are actually some grainy, yellow pictures (gotta love that mid-80s film quality) of a 1- or 2-year old me in a stroller being pushed by the man, whom I have never actually met in my conscious lifetime. He resembled my dad in many ways – same tanned skin, same trimmed brunette haircut (short enough to be fitting of a military man, but long enough to make them feel like the “guv’ment” wasn’t controlling their hairstyle anymore), same childlike smiles. There’s a picture of them somewhere that pretty much says it all, not that I could find that picture in the tens of photo albums in my parents’ house – but the picture says “These two are characters.”

And Steve Courtney was and is a character. I don’t think he and my dad talk much these days – he married and moved off to another area of the country, decades ago. But occasionally there is a phone call from him, to check up and see how Steve (also my dad’s name) and Judy are. My dad will grab one phone, my mom the phone from another area of the house, and they try to cram 10 years of “catching up” into a short phone call.

Perhaps we aren’t simply limited to the daily things we do, but rather we are the aggregate of the stories we create in our lives. I would like to think so, as it’s the only reason I really ever began writing in the first place.

And that is what I look for in people, I’m realizing more and more. I am drawn, like a moth to a flame, to characters. Maybe this is not special, but maybe what is special is how we identify the people who come off as “characters” to us. So I’m taking some time out from my series on musical memories to instead discuss a few characters who swim around in the novel that is my life. They may be silent characters, but for some reason, just watching the way that the world puts them together is so interesting to me.

Are you a character? Am I? Who knows.

There’s a guy who works the meat counter (Dear God, this is random) at the Whole Foods in Greenville. I guess this makes him a butcher, technically, which is obviously an awesome “character” profession. He is absolutely fascinating. Even Jonathan has admitted “There’s something about that guy” (“No homo,” he says to clarify). I don’t know what his name is or how old he is, but if you frequent the store at all, I’m fairly sure you may know who I’m talking about. He is covered, it seems, in detailed, beautiful tattoos. I mean, really, they are very nice pieces – not cliche or gaudy, they just seem to fit him. And he has this dark look (hair and eyes). I guess he almost resembles that Adam Lambert character from American Idol a few years back (because WOW, that guy was seriously a character…I mean whoa), but I’m pretty sure he’s into girls. I could be wrong, just a feeling I got. We’ve seen him pulling into the parking lot before as we left the store, and even his car sort of fits this aesthetic he seems to have cultivated. Frankly, he’s just one of those people that would catch your eye in a crowd. I joke that he has “trouble” written all over him, but really, he just seems like a really good basis for a character in a movie or book. Or like a rockstar, two months before he hits it big and quits his job to move to Hollywood. Reaching? Probably. But he’s a character and I dig that.

My friend Liz is a character and she is wonderful. Full of heart and soul, but without an ounce of pretension and with absolutely no self-preservation when it comes to baring her struggles and her stories. It’s actually really funny because back in college, before I met my husband, I think she went on a date with him. So when he told me this later on, I was so flattered. I know that sounds wild, and when Liz found out I knew about that, she goes “Oh, thank GOD…cause that was gonna be awkward.” But really, I was flattered that my husband was interested in someone like her – as if it somehow reflected on the fact that I came afterward (which it totally didn’t because I am nowhere near as cool as Liz). You don’t meet someone like Liz and then just go back to humdrum, boring life. No – after you meet someone like that, whether in a friendly or romantic application, you don’t just go back to accepting vanilla as your flavor of choice in friends and companions. When I think about some of my favorite female characters in film and literature, I see attributes that Liz has, and it just makes me smile to myself (especially because she’s currently raising one of the coolest little girls ever and it gives me hope for my future daughter-in-law prospects – Haha!). Women like Idgie Threadgoode (Fried Green Tomatoes), Clairee Belcher (Steel Magnolias), Bette White (in basically ever character incarnation ever, because she’s just beyond amazing)…chicks with that certain combination of weirdness, sarcasm, strength, heart, and edginess. That’s Liz. She’s a character.

Okay, here’s the weird part where I randomly talk about the Starbucks barista who made my doppio espresso this afternoon. Maybe espresso just puts me in THAT good of a mood, but this guy was pretty awesome. He was going salt-and-pepper around his temples, but you could barely see them because dude was actually 6’9″ tall. I shit you not, he made my husband look average and me look…well, tiny. Best part? Think about a handlebar mustache, the well-styled kind with pomade artfully applied on the wings of it. Well imagine how big that handlebar mustache has to be to fit the scale of a man who is 6’9″, probably about 330 pounds. IT WAS AWESOMELY HUGE! And he had this coy sarcasm and a deep, gruff belly laugh that just made my day. What a character. Can you picture him? Awesome.

My mom is a character, though I don’t think most people realize it. As a kid, my friends would beg me not to ever let my mom cut her hair – and still to this day, her long brown locks hang to her lower back. She is 60. This is not an average woman that we’re talking about. She’s birthed four children without drugs, but she’ll scrunch her lips up and almost hesitantly admit that “Childbirth can be…uncomfortable.” She watches too much Fox News and that makes her say crazy things sometimes, but I love that about her. Qualities that I couldn’t always appreciate in other people seem so endearing in her. In a lot of ways, she is like a girl still – and that is probably my favorite thing about my mom. It makes me tear up as I write this to realize that I’m just like her, and that I’m thankful for that. I know that even when she is 80, she will still seem a little girlish, a little untarnished by the world – and I would wish nothing but to be just like her, because she’s truly something. This is not for a lack of hard knocks, but rather for the pervasive, stubborn belief – which I am hell bent on sharing with her for a life time – that the world is more good than it is bad. And that even in the bad, there is good to find. This is especially true in sales racks and southern preachers.

My life is really just a journey marked with characters. Sometimes I think I need to go back and reread Alice in Wonderland, because maybe that’s what I’m doing here. Maybe I’m just passing through and every person who walks into my life was put there for a defined purpose, a reason for that interaction. Even if it brings pain or inconvenience, there has to be a reason for it all – it’s one of the chief driving forces behind my belief in God. Our lives are much too intertwined for our existences to be by chance, I believe.

I can pick them out the moment their path intersects with mine, these characters. Sometimes they walk right in and walk right back out again, like that odd guy in the meat department. Never saying a word, never an interaction, simply the recognition that this person has a light about them, an energy. It’s refreshing to pick up on that in a world where we are so closed off from each other, so focused on ourselves.

But sometimes, they walk in and they stay, and that’s what I really love.

The awkwardly tall guy with the shaggy brown hair who sits behind you in English class and smiles, listening while you talk about the lyrics of a Nine Inch Nails song. He stayed. The friend I have known since I was 13, who shares my views on so many things and who could tell me just about anything without it shaking me either way – still a character. The mom of two with the rocking shoulders and the odd walk, who wouldn’t take no for an answer when you said you couldn’t keep up with her workouts. She stayed, and inspires me every day.

If you are a character, know that I love you for it. And please: don’t ever, ever change.

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