Tuesday, September 11, 2007

More Than One Character Here

Last Saturday I posted a conversation between myself and a client. There were several things going on in that conversation, that might not be evident from what I posted. One was that the man I was speaking too sounded so old, I was startled to hear him call himself a "computer technician". I was sure I was talking to some gin owner or gin manager who was trying to save some money by taking care of the computer hardware himself. Clearly there was also some age discrimination going on by me during our talk. To say his speech patterns and gravely emphysema-filled voice set me on edge, and didn't help the situation any further would also be an accurate assessment. Perhaps most irking of all was my frustration with myself. Usually I can put myself into a customers shoes, and normally I am quite sympathetic and empathetic with their position, yet on Saturday I clearly wasn't. Enter my writing class. The assignment was to write a 2-3 page character sketch, showing the character in action - doing something that revealed personality. Presenting the characters thoughts would be okay, but the instructor did not want an internal monologue. Next week, we're working strictly with dialogue, so I figured I needed to flesh the dialogue scene out. I've also been struggling with "Point of View". When I write about myself and my adventures, it's very easy for me to write in the first person (duh). When I started writing with Josiah, I wrote in the 3rd person - because I wanted to explain what he was seeing and what was around him. A very early first draft was in the 3rd person. Then someone asked me to move it to the first person. This created some challenges ... and quite frankly, I didn't like the way it turned out. It's hard for me to write about context and viewpoints in the first person - and I think that's a large part of Josiah's story. It's about his conflict with himself, the physical world he lives in and the ethical/spiritual world he aspires to achieve in his life. Feeling like I'd failed the first person POV challenge, I was determined to move the story of Methuselah into the first person. I also wanted to acknowledge that I did/could understand the position he was in - and present him in a more flattering light, and keep the less than flattering portrayal of me. So - here it is, the story from Methuselah's view point.

    Leaving the cool shade of the rumbling gin, I walked towards the office. To my left stood the old oak tree where long ago cotton wagons waited to be ginned. Changing my direction I cut across the yard toward the sheltering tree. In the fine and powdery dirt there were no wagon wheel marks, just tire marks from the modern module builders we used now. I closed my eyes but the distant echo of horse bridles and hoofs, jingling and stamping with impatience, was too far in the past to hear. Opening my eyes I squinted to see the office clearly. Bringing a tanned arthritic hand to my shirt pocket, I mindlessly patted around, searching for my glasses. Instead I encountered a soft-pack of Winston cigarettes. Pushing the pack out of my pocket I shook one free by tapping the package on my index finger’s burled knuckle. Placing the cigarette in my mouth, I dug into my work-pants for the Zippo lighter they gave me after completing 40 years of service. Lighting the cigarette I inhaled deeply. A coughing spasm generated by my flue cured lungs was in no danger of dislodging the cigarette dangling from my lips.

    Just one more puff and then I knew I must continued my journey through time and across the gin yard to the office. Arriving at the door, I remembered to pause and knock the dust off my work boots. Who ever heard of carpeting in a gin office? I missed the old office, with its exposed wall-studs and wide, hardwood floor slats which were unharmed by dust, lint, dirt, oil or mud. At least they kept the old county map and had it framed for the wall. That old map, the size of an elementary school room map, had graced the office wall since the gin was originally built, back in ‘32. The young’uns had raised a fuss over the cost of framing and matting the old map, but it was part of the heritage, so it stayed. Heading down the hall towards my office I heard a voice call out behind me. “Methuselah, put that cigarette out! You know this here is a non-smoking office.” Removing the cigarette I started to throw it down on the floor to stamp it out, but caught myself just in time.

    “Don’t notice I didn’t drag no dirt onto the damn carpeting, but gotta holler about the smoke. The way y’all complain you’d think this was a hermetically sealed box, none of that fancy circulating air in here,” I said loud enough to be heard. Unable to find an ashtray, and afraid of a further scolding for dumping the still burning tobacco into a trashcan I headed towards the “Men’s Room”.

    “Used to be just the “bathroom” and didn’t need to worry ‘bout which one I walked into either”, I grumbled as I pitched the cigarette into the toilet. I wanted to call out that I’d remembered to flush, but somehow I didn’t think Kathy would be impressed.

    Reaching my office I sat down in my swivel chair I and stared at my desk. I wanted to prop my feet up, lean back, pick up the “Ginner” magazine, and peruse it for old familiar names still in the industry. But instead, I knew I had to deal with the blinding blue screen staring accusingly at me from the other side of the desk. When I’d started this job 50 years ago, I’d been the assistant Night Ginner. Just one step above broom pusher. Over the last 50 years I’d held just about every job in the place; Night Ginner, Day Ginner, Gin Engineer/Mechanic, and finally Gin Manager. Five years ago I’d stepped aside and took on a this role, ‘cause I wanted to stay involved in the business. “How hard could it be”, I’d reasoned “to maintain the computer system?” I’d wired controlled panels, installed junction boxes, and wrenched on hydraulic rams. How could such a small box with hardly any moving parts defeat me? Yet there it still sat with the error message flashing. I’d already tried turning the damn thing off and on. That was always the first thing those support people told me to do. Never fixed anything, but I guess it made them feel better. Each time I cut it off, with a consistency not to be believed, the error message popped back up. “Well, can’t be put off any longer,” I thought picking up the phone and dialing the support number.

    Hello, Cotton Computers,” said a female voice on the other end.

    I get this here error message when she tries to open up the computer,” I told the voice. I was such a frequent caller, I didn’t even have to identify myself.

    "What's the message Kathy keeps getting, Methuselah?" she asked me.

    Forgetting about the smoking ban and lighting up another cigarette, I said, "I don’t know, it was an error, said to call your company, so I am."

    "Can you get to the error message again? I can't fix the problem without the exact message," she told me, as if I weren’t too damn bright.

    “It was something about some file missing, I’m juts calling so y’all can fix this here thing.”

    Chopping her words like weeds in a cotton field she said to me, "Did you just install the program on a new computer?"

    "No, I jest copied over some files onto this here computer, no need to waste time installing the whole thing again I figured."

    The longer she talked to me, the more uppity she became, "Okay, you can't just copy the program files. You need to install the program. Then restore the data. The program needs to be installed on the root of the server. Not in the shared folder. Everyone who will be running the program needs to have full admin rights."

    "I don' know what you’re talking about." I told her as I coughed again while cursing myself. “Should have got out of this cotton business when the horses did”, I said under my breath. “In those days I knew where to shovel the shit, now I just gotta sit here and listen to it.” Or at least I thought I said it to myself. The peel of laughter from the other end of the line let me know my voice had carried across the miles to the young lady, and I use that term sparingly, on the other end of the phone.

Tonight we read our sketches - and had them critiqued. Next week we'll get the Instructor's written critique back. One of the most interesting things she told me though was she thought this story would be best told in the 3rd Person Close. This means I can still have him seeing and thinking things, but I can also have the narrator step in and point out things. Like the fact he's worked for the company for 50 years and all the jobs he's held. I am SO excited she said that, because those were the elements of the story I thought were essential, but didn't like the way I handled them! So yay! Rewriting each piece from the critique is part of the course curriculum - and in this case I am looking forward to it.

1 comment:

TP said...

Wouldn't it be nice if people could hear us when we mentally apologize to them ? Seems that would unhurt a lot of feelings - 'cause most of the time people don't verbally apologize - even when they know they should. Just too hard to say those words, I guess ?
It was really warming to read your 1st paragraph.