My writing group of friends, "Write, Post, Eat, Bathe," is working on this prompt this week. It comes from a technique that I use when I have a character in mind but can't quite grasp what he or she is about. I find that writing reveals more writing. I can't work everything out in my head and then put it down. I have to write to write. Literally, putting my fingers on the keyboards brings words out of my head, which bring with them more words. Ideas form in the blank white spaces and at the end of lines. The character tells me things through the writing.
Here is an example of my exercise of writing to get the character. The book of short stories I am writing includes a story about a mule driver. I sent him shopping, as is my habit, to find out what he would tell me about himself. As I sat down to type, I realized right away that this man would shop for precious little. He would shop for something his mules needed or a thing that he used in his work. So, he went to the leather goods shop. He is in a very small town that is a row of shops facing a railroad, circa 1965.
[The mule driver at Frank’s Leather Goods]
The mule driver stood to the side of the main aisle near where the transactions were made, holding a mule harness. Four people came and went. Not one of them spoke to the mule driver.
Dr. Mason brought his daughter Letitia into the store for a pair of soft slippers—pink—ordered in from Memphis. The mule keeper watched in the mirrored front window as the reflected girl twirled about in her new shoes.
“Ok, take those off now, dearest. Mother will skin us if you get dirt on those slippers before you get them home.”
Just as the doctor left, two farmers came in talking ninety-to-nothing about cotton pickers and hands and how they couldn’t get a day’s good work from twenty that they used to get from ten. They stopped to say nothing to the mule driver and precious little to the keeper except that which was necessary, their own discussion being the prime mover in the morning’s errands.
“Here for your boots, Eddie Lawrence?” The keeper held out his right hand, his left clutching the tops of a pair of well-worn but serviceable work boots sporting new heels and soles.
“Yep.” A tall farmer slapped his yellow ticket onto the counter on top of the sign that proclaimed: Claim ticket must be presented when picking up shoes. No exceptions.
The keeper tilted his head to the right and looked over a pair of half-glasses at the farmer. A fly buzzed in the ear of the second farmer, who swatted absently, looking from his companion to the keeper, who kept his right hand out, empty and demanding.
Presently, Eddie Lawrence picked up the yellow ticket and placed it into the keeper’s palm, and in so doing, the farmer covered the keeper’s smaller hand with his larger, rougher, tobacco-stained one. For just a moment, the keeper’s hand was obliterated by the farmer’s hand. Eddie Lawrence, his companion, and the keeper were attentive on each other’s eyes, Eddie Lawrence staring into the keeper’s blue ones, the keeper slowly blinking while raising his eyebrows such a tiny fraction of an inch. The farmer-companion, who had been switching his gaze from one to the other of the men, missed the tiny detail of the transaction and the responsive lowering of the eyebrows of the farmer as his withdrew his hand from that of the keeper. Eddie Lawrence could feel the tips of the keeper’s fingers curl to take the yellow claim ticket. The keeper placed the boots on the counter and turned to the cash box.
“That’ll be two dollars to settle, after deposit.”
Eddie Lawrence pulled out his wallet and chose out two bills, dropping them onto the counter and sweeping his boots up. The conversation about field hands resumed as the two friends walked out. When the shop was empty of all but the mule driver and the keeper, the mule driver still waited. Not a muscle flinched.
The keeper grabbed a broom from the corner behind the counter and walked the main aisle. He swept at real and imaginary dust and grass particles that had hopped a ride in on the farmers’ boots and those of the workmen of the morning’s trade.
Still the mule driver stood, mute, immutable, like a chiseled statue brought in from the grassy area between the railroad siding and the place where ladies waited under cover of sun for the 10 o’clock run to the county seat. This particular statue had brought himself into the store on his own two feet. No town hands touched his bulk. His hands touched precious little save harness tack and mule flanks. He represented no one of renown and was son of no town father. No father at all anymore.
“Well, what you want?” The keeper had swept every inch of floor save those inches covered by old leather boots which were astonishingly free of any field dirt.
“Girth near clean broke just here. I needs a new one sewed up.” The mule driver relinquished the harness pieces, staying rooted to his spot on the tidy floor.
The keeper looked up at the face of the mule driver and down at the girth. “I reckon you ain’t got another spare?”
“Nah, sir. It’s the one of four matched.”
“And I reckon you cain’t plow up Aunt Annie May’s garden for her if you ain’t got this one. “
“No, three mules won’t pull.” The keeper swept passed the mule driver and pulled on sleeve covers. He checked his rolls of leather straps. “I reckon I got what you need. Fittings seem ok. I just punch this up pretty quick.”
The mule driver turned to look over at the keeper, seated at an old sewing machine, table covered with awls, sharp knives of all shapes, and shaved bits of leather.
The keeper turned to look at the black face of the mule driver. “You gonna stay while I work?”
“Nah,sir. I got another job o’ work to do down to the gin.”
“Well, then, you come on back about half past noon, thereabouts. I have this done.” The keeper turned to his table, selecting an awl and punch. “’Cain’t have Aunt Annie May late on putting out her tomato slips.”
“Nah, sir. I be back. What you take for the leather work?”
“You bring me my dinner from over to the café. They know what I want. It’s all on my account. Be here about half past noon with my dinner and this will run you about a dollar.”
“Thank you, sir.” The mule driver turned and walked down the center aisle toward the door. His particular walk was unlike that of any of the others who had trodden the aisle that day or any other. His legs seemed to brush the floor with his feet. Shoulders rolled and biceps rippled under his faded blue work shirt. There was no sound to the whole affair of his leaving save the click of the door hardware and the tingle of the door’s bell.
The keeper looking up from the leather watched him go. He strides real smooth for a man carrying what he does.
The mule driver was nice enough to bring along some other characters for the book. He also tells me what Betsy saw under the dashboard of her grandfather's Impala. Maybe someone else will tell me his name. Note that I don't have all of the information that I need for this to be included in the story. I don't know for sure that the keeper of the store is "Frank" from Frank's Leather Goods. He might be a son or somebody who bought the shop already named. I have no idea what is up with Eddie Lawrence and the keeper. But they tell me there is something. I know that the mule driver carries burdens and has lost a child. He is patient, not unliked, and he is definitely black. The way he stood still and other people went about as if he didn't exist told me that. Ok, I already knew that. But he is a real person for me now. He has revealed himself. Sometimes, the shopping excursion makes the final cut, sometimes it just reveals character and is cut entirely. I can't wait to see what the mule driver does.