Character counts. Where you are in life, and I’m talking in the most immediate terms here, often has undue influence on character development in your writing. When I was working in the Grand Canyon, my stories took on an adventure-ism that strikes me as funny all these years later. Conversely, when I was holed up in my poorly converted factory apartment in the midst of the skyscrapers with zombie armies of homeless prowling just outside my steel door and the ceiling boards creaking from the hermit that lived above me walking around and eyeballing me through the gaps- well then my characters were for the most part suffering from any number of existential maladies. You can’t help it; you write where you are.
But there is no such thing as a simple life. Everyone has been a hero in some little adventure. Every person plays the villain. As dear, sad Jaques puts it, “All the world’s a stage… one man in his time plays many parts.” What I’m getting at here is that you don’t have to recreate the cartoon archetypes of Hero, Villain, Weak-innocent, and or Redeemer. Isn’t it more fun to have your heroes as villains and your villains strangely attractive? It certainly more interesting. George R. R. Martin does this well in the Song of Ice and Fire novels (note: the SofI&F series is the greatest work of fantasy ever. Yes, it is better than Tolkien. Read it before the HBO series comes out next summer!). Characters that in Martin’s the first novel are so despicable and unredeemable are, by the third novel, tragic and compelling heroes. These novels are great because the characters drive the story. Humanity and all its reasons are the plot, not some arcane quest (there isn’t one). We are all heroes. We are all villains.
So I won a bunch of money gambling in a pub outside of Cambridge. Technically I won and lost. I didn’t have much money, so I wagered my very long, curly red tresses against a whole slew of pounds. I won, but they shaved my head anyway. So that was how I found myself living on a beach in Ibiza. Bearded, pink sunburnt head, and sore at British security for pulling me out of line and strip searching me because I looked like a psychopath (with a gun, as my guitar case was a bit suspicious). I spent most of my time reading, playing guitar and hiking around the tiny little rock that was the disco capitol of the world at that time, but had until the last century been a semi-autonomous droplet of oil floating on the shifting waters of history’s empires going back to the Phoenicians that founded it’s first settlement in honor of the goddess Bes- the goddess of music, celebration and revelry, i.e Disco.
It is not fun to be an ugly, hungry, broke American on an ancient island full of rich Teutonic tourists bent on consuming as much absinthe, cocaine and Moroccan hash oil as their two months paid vacation will allow. I supplemented my caloric intake by getting friendly with a local bartender who would give me free gin if I translated Leonard Cohen lyrics for him into French. I spoke very little Spanish.
I befriended a couple of kids from Burgundy that had rented a house on the mountain above the little beach I was living on. I had enough French and they spoke enough English that after a couple of weeks we had welded together a pidgin that made enjoyable conversations possible. They were huge fans of Louisville rock. They had Slint CD’s.
When they left they gave me a set of snorkel gear that they had been lending to me and I spent most of my days from that point on snorkeling around the little bay I was living on. I got friendly with a huge moray eel that shared a rock I liked to sit on. At night I would swim past the lip of the bay into the ocean and watch the thunderstorms out over Africa. These were the low pressure sinks that would now and again spin out over the Atlantic and become the named monsters that like to destroy Miami, or New Orleans, but there they are just distant lights and comforting swells that I would float in.
I had a ticket home. I had more than a week before it was time to go. I had no money. Not a dime. I had crust of bread, a tin of beans and an orange. The next day I had nothing. I figured as long as I had water I could just get very Zen and starve for a week. Twenty-four hours later I was scoping out alleys where drunk Dutchmen stumbled home from discos at four in the morning. I was going to rob someone.
I knew my victim. I had, on late night ramblings in town, seen him. A German or Dutch office manager, flush with gilders and sangria and abandoned by his friends at club Ku because he really thought he had a shot at going to bed with the girl from Barcelona, and what is an Ibizan vacation anyway without some sort of local conquest? I would wait on the stone stairs of the alley that was a long shortcut from the club to the hotel (it was at least all downhill). He would stumble past me and I would ask him for a light. When his hands went into his pockets I would move on him. It would be quick. I was, after all, a frightening beast at that time. A year of swinging a sledge hammer to earn the money for the trip and scores of miles of swimming and hiking had turned me into a thing carved out of stone. He was pasty and fat. I was blistered and red and made of American metal.
I had my location and my plan. I just had to kill time. I decided to go snorkeling. The buoyancy of the water made me forget my empty belly. The small bay I lived on was a popular night moorage for the yachts that plied the Mediterranean and I waited until the last of these were underway before slipping in to explore the grassy bottom of the bay. I found a starfish as big as a dinner plate. A small, shy shark fled from my shadow as I pursued it. Then the sun glinted on something metal. It was in the middle of the bay, lying in an empty patch of sand between grass beds and perhaps thirty feet down. Thirty feet on a lung full of air is not difficult if you are just going down and up. Thirty feet on a lung full of air to a specific and tiny target that is occasionally obscured by the shifting grass is not so easy, especially when my mask would leak at any depth over six feet, meaning that for the last ten or so feet of my descent I was completely blind. It took four agonizing attempts just to get to the right spot. On the last try I knew I was near, but my hand kept closing on sand. Finally, with my lungs burning acid, I ripped off my mask and opened my eyes to the saltwater. I could see a tiny yellow smudge in the sand before me. I reached out and grabbed it, shoved skyward as hard as I could. The sand that I had clawed up with the shiny object sifted out and away and revealed the shape of a palm sized disc. I broke the surface hard, sucking air into my dying body. I held my hand to my face and squinted the burning seawater out of my eyes. In my palm were some bits of shell and sand and a huge gold coin.
I got about 800 dollars American for it in Ibiza City. I bought a bottle of Kentucky whiskey and had a steak dinner at a tiny restaurant off a dark, dangerous looking ally. The next day I went to the hippy market and bought my mother a hand-made Spanish dress and a huge salad bowl with a sun glazed on the bottom. Heathrow baggage handlers did for the bowl, and I learned that I have no idea how to size up my mother, but she seemed happy for the thought. I spent the last of the money in London five days later on the best Indian food I’ve had to this day. That meal carried me twenty-six hours until I arrived in Nashville. I had longed for the greenery of home for weeks, but to my great disappointment the state had gone brown under the worst drought in twenty years. My mom took me to eat Mexican on the way home.
I must be honest that I’ve never spent much time thinking about how an antique gold coin ended up at the bottom of a bay for me to find. I’ve thought some on the near mystical timing of its discovery, but only to marvel at it. I was a very cynical man when I left on that trip, burnt by politics and hard labor. When I returned it was with what I felt was an experience of the ineffable, the mysterious, the universe sighing. It’s rare to be forced to look at the mirror. We live our lives in a steady, even flow of events. Our spiritual and moral trials are rarely more complicated than finding your checking account short for the cable bill, or contemplating some unexpected advances from an acquaintance. I was forced to look at who I was- who I am.
Remember who I am: A scientist, a man who loathes violence and loves puppies, a person that excels in the natural arts, a musician, a poet.
Remember who I am: A guy that will roll your ass if I don’t eat for twenty-four hours, and take your money and your drugs, and leave you busted up in an alley.
We’re all heroes. We’re all villains. All we need is the right opportunity.
Science of Fiction.
This is the bay. My home was the third little inlet from the sea on the north side.
Next up: Who wins in a fight: The Enterprise or an Imperial Star Destroyer? And I beg for votes to be taken for yet another list.