Sketching Out a Character by Liam Sweeny

Liam Sweeny

As a reader, I’ve always been most drawn to strong characters. Not to say that a strong plot and engaging descriptions aren’t important to a great read, but I have to view a story through the lens of a character. A great plot without great characters will give you give you a path you don’t care about, and great description is beautiful writing, but it becomes empty prose if there’s not compelling people (or talking animals, trees, rocks, planets, aliens, etc.) for it to bring to life.

I’m a people watcher. That’s a job-title of most introverts. And people-watching isn’t about judging random people, not for me, not for most people-watchers. It’s a way to engage, a way to make a stranger into a friend through inductive reasoning. The woman looking around as she throws out her coffee cup is signaling her contact that the flash drive is in the coffee cup. And the homeless man coming up wheeling a shopping cart is her contact, and beneath the plastic bags is radio equipment. Point is, life is interesting if you’re willing to create the exciting parts.

It was in this spirit that a wrote a story about a man that has become a legend in legend-making. And without further ado, I give you…

“The Myth”

I zagged into the Morgan’s convenience store parking lot like a mad bastard, feeling a special jolt in my bones from cruising the old neighborhood again. Ricky, friend and brother, got my old house, and I’d stopped by to smoke cigarettes and make fun of the universe. But I needed coffee and a hot egg sandwich, no doubt about it.

I pulled into the last crooked set of parking lines when I spotted him, sitting with his back up against the store’s industrial heater. It was the Myth, I was sure of it. I opened the door and slid out, as if the Myth was some deer that would spook and run. Of course, he paid me no mind.

I went through my Morgan’s routine like I worked there, pouring coffee in a twenty-four ounce cup with one hand as I eyed the revolving tray for my very own sausage-and-egg on a sesame seed roll. I gathered my goods and unfolded my bills, and after I cashed out I walked out, coffee balanced on the plastic sandwich container. I shoved my change in my pocket and fished for the car keys, which I must have put in the other pocket, because it was less convenient that way. Juggle and fiddle and I was seated with a heated brunch on the passenger seat.

But he didn’t move, the Myth, that is. He hadn’t gone off into the woods like I’d seen him do so often in our impromptu encounters. I never had such an opportunity to study the man, so I decided to eat in the car for an excuse. I caught glimpses, and caught him in my periphery. If he looked in my direction, I tried to lock eyes. I wanted to wave, maybe get a nod back. I mean, it was the Myth.

The Myth had a long matted beard, orange with grey streaks. He had a matching mustache, and a face like Charlie Manson, minus the swastika. He had a hard, squinty stare with black eyes, but you’d never see him staring at you.

I’d be driving, and once and a while I’d see him walking down the road, same grey slacks and dirty grey hooded sweatshirt, busted shoes. But he’d walk. I’d wonder, when I was roaming for muses for my latest story, that maybe he was God, or Jesus. Not in a delusional way, but he could be. Because as many people there were who knew of him, there was no one that actually knew him.

He would sit in Morgan’s and read the paper every morning. Maybe he bought something; maybe not. Mary, the manager, didn’t believe he could read. But I believed it. He was a genius scientist who heralded the apocalypse thirty years ago, and he was reading the headlines, his silence was penance. Maybe. Maybe he was reading the business news, because he’s really an eccentric multimillionaire. Again, maybe.

He took half-smoked cigarette butts from the receptacle outside of Morgan’s. If you left him an unsmoked cig, it would stay there. Dropped a pack for him, by accident, someone else would pick it up before he does. You can’t give the Myth a dime, he was allergic to charity.

I finish my brunch. He just kept sitting there, his legs crossed, a backpack on his lap and the stray sounds of the intersection catching his flashed glances. I twisted the key and pulled out, back to Ricky’s house.

Ricky was clearing out the metal on his side yard. Copper was going for ninety cents a pound, but he knew a guy who’d give him the ‘pro’ price, a buck a pound. His back yard was clean, littered only with a covered grill, a few low back stackable chairs and a table made from a wire spool covered in linoleum squares. I sent my Joe on the spindle table and snaked a half-crushed pack from my jeans. Ricky walked up, fist out. I gave him a pound and we wiped the pine needles off the chairs before we sat down. I lit up, and he followed that with one of his home rolled smokes.

“Dude, I saw the Myth at Morgan’s.” I said. Ricky puffed out that first drag. “He was just sitting there on the side. I ate my sandwich and tried to see if he’d look over.”

“Did he?” Ricky said.

“No, of course not.” I tapped ash on the concrete. “He ain’t crazy, man, I can tell. He wasn’t, you know, lost in his head or anything.” I took a sip of my coffee, mindful that I burned the fun out of my mouth when I took the first sip in the car. I pointed beyond Ricky’s backyard, in the direction of the woods. “You know he lives back there, down the trail, near Honda hill, right?”

“Wait, what’s Honda Hill?”

“Oh, it’s just a hill they used to push beat-up Honda’s down in the eighties. If you see the rusty lumps in the woods back there, that’s Honda Hill. But he lives there.”

“The Myth lives everywhere.” Ricky said.

“I wonder how many other people are like us, ‘cause I’m sure we’re not the only ones who wonder what his story is.”

“Yo bro, mad people have seen the Myth, nobody knows.”

“We should make him a website.” I said. “That would be cool. We could get him some fans, people could post sightings.”

“Yeah, but they couldn’t go up to him,” Ricky said. “That’s the rule. You can’t mess with him, bother him or ask for his autograph. You see him, you take a pic on the down-low, and you post it to the site, and where you spotted him.”

I leaned back and the creak of the plastic chair back gave me a reminder that I should lay off breakfast sandwiches.

“You know, if we did a website, and he got busted for vagrancy or some stupid thing, we’d have to bail him out.”

Ricky laughed. “Man, you’ll be bailing him out. I’m a check away from being him.”

Ricky and I spent a good half hour making up things that the Myth was, saints and sinners, scientist or illiterate, high school football star or chess champ. God or the devil. Maybe he lost it all to the drink and the drugs, or maybe shellshock, before it was called PTSD. Maybe the world treated him so shitty, it was all he could do to live off of its scraps and dregs. Or maybe God found fit to fashion Himself a throne made of upholstery scraps at the bottom of Honda Hill.

Later that night, I had my coffee and my cigarettes on the balcony, staring at the tree in my yard, trying to cancel out the screeches and screaming of the neighborhood kids whose parents were engaged in the arduous task of sending text messages to each other, stopping periodically to throw a random word of ‘parenting’ to the unruly young mob.

I had my own unruly mob to deal with, squatting in my laptop. It was a good story, but I was only ten thousand words in. It was early. Good characters, good premise, plenty of room for expansion, but I needed something. I was short a character. In fact, I was short a legend. I lit up, and looked in my head for a stock guy I could make after-market parts for. But my mind kept drifting back to the Myth, just sitting there outside of Morgan’s. The power he had by simply not being anything.

I began to see the Myth, not sitting, but walking down the road. And his beard receded. Every thread in his dirty grey clothes came apart to shift and change form and color, and the busted shoes became polished wingtips and his scraggly beard became five o’clock shadow. He had lost forty years and as I rounded the last paragraph, there was no longer a Myth, for he became…

Liam Sweeny likes making great characters, mainly because he likes meeting great characters. His experience is that people will tell you anything you want to know if you’re ready to listen. He’s all ears. Check out his Jack LeClere thriller Welcome Back, Jack, available in the Down & Out Bookstore.