“What’s your name?” James asked the hostess.
She furrowed her brow, “Claire. Do I know you?” She donned a small, professional smile.
“No. Readers like knowing the names of the characters. If I just call you the hostess over and over, they’ll get detached from you; it’ll annoy them.”
“What?” Claire asked.
“I’m writing a story, but without a name you’ll feel faceless, like a tack on, a discardable character. I don’t want you to be that way. I don’t want any of my characters to feel like that to the reader.”
“Here’s your table,” Claire said to James, wheeling on her heel and hurrying back towards the front of the restaurant. James imagined her heart was pounding.
“Hello, my name’s Dave, and I’ll be your server.”
“Dave, how nice to see you!” James exclaimed.
Dave tilted his head, cocking an eyebrow, “Do I know you?”
James shook his head, “Truthfully, I don’t know, but something has to draw the story on, don’t you see? What will there be to this story if we don’t create our own truth?”
Dave narrowed his eyes and then beamed, “Are you writing a story? Are you at the university?”
James shook his head, “Not anymore. I was, but I was expelled.”
“Oh, well, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be! Being expelled from the University of Mississippi has been a dream of mine for many years. It feels wonderful to accomplish it, like my hero William Faulkner before me!”
“Well, um, can I get your drink order?” Dave fumbled.
“Aren’t you burning to know what I did?” James goaded.
“Nothing really. I’m a dreamer, but hardly a doer. I cheated on some tests, I paid a student to accuse me of assault, I sent rude letters to the president, I expressed my freedom of speech in ways that disgust me. That was the hardest part, the awful things I said through a megaphone, but how am I to become a great writer if words scare me? I needed practice to be freed.”
Dave let his eye widen for a second, before recovering his professional countenance. James chuckled at his effort, all to woo a tip. “I asked your hostess for her name, but she was loathe to give it.”
“She’s the hostess. It’s a little out of the ordinary for her to be asked her name,” he defended.
James wondered if they were friends, maybe they were lovers. They weren’t unattractive; they met the criteria for people in a story to feel passion.
“Why did you want her name?”
“People don’t care about characters without names. They are the maid, the painter, the factory worker, the waiter; but she is Claire, and you are Dave, and now the readers will care. They will empathize with you as you work to be professional in the face of such an outlandish individual. You will fight the fear that naturally arises from meeting the unknown, the strange, the quasi-imaginary.”
Dave stared blankly, then, “Why not just make up her name?”
“Fiction!” James shouted.
Dave took a step backwards.
James reset his face to a sunny calm, “I’m sorry to stress you. You must be afraid my outburst might upset the other guests; I’ll be quieter, but you must try to give me less reason to feel such intensity! Fiction has been done, in and out. Fiction is the old man’s art. Fiction is telling truth with lies. What a roundabout fool’s way of doing things! Why not tell the truth through the truth!”
“You mean non-fiction?” Dave hazarded.
“No, for fuck’s sake!” James exploded.
“Sir, please!” Dave whispered, putting his palms out. Sweat dotting his forehead, he mouthed apologies to other tables. His eyes roved the restaurant for his manager.
James laughed. “Don’t worry! I don’t know the names of the people at the other tables. They are half-characters at most. The reader will not care about them, and they will certainly not engage with them. They are the vague brush strokes representing trees in the distant background. Don’t you see? We are the sharp, pointed people in the foreground. Dave! You and I are everything.”
“Sir, what do you want to drink?” Dave pleaded.
“You see, non-fiction is disorganized. It’s a ship without a captain. Trying to garner truth from non-fiction is like trying to drink water from a pressure washer. Everything is fair game in non-fiction! No, what I am creating is a hybrid. It is a story told with the tools of fiction and the truths of non-fiction. I am here to shape the reality, to show the truth, to destroy the undesirable and distracting! I am transcending the author to become the grand architect, and you are here to not only witness, but to be a part of the first story!”
Dave’s muscles tightened. James could feel Dave realizing how long he had been at the table, “I’ll have a rum and coke,” James announced. “I won’t live long enough for my liver to be compromised. I’m going to eat a shotgun like Hemmingway.”
“You can’t mean that!”
James laughed, “Words about the future are meaningless. Telling of the future is like telling fiction; you can make up whatever you want, but it won’t make it remotely true.”
“It’s not funny to joke about,” Dave glared.
A burly man approached the table, “Sir, is there a problem?”
“Can I get your name?” James asked.
Dave looked to the burly man and shook his head no.
“Zachary Smith. I’m the manager of this restaurant.”
“Zachary!” James shouted, “Claire, Dave, myself, and you are in the process of becoming immortals! We are transforming an organic moment of human life into a thought, an idea. A new idea, so different from others that it will be remembered for millennia.”
“Order or leave, sir,” Zachary growled, his face displaying more open disgust than his employees dared show.
“He, uh, did order, sir,” Dave mumbled, “He took quite a while to do it, but he gave me an order.”
“Fine, you can stay. Just act civilly,” Zachary dismissed, turning from the conversation.
“No, I rescind my order!” James exclaimed, jumping to his feet. “I grow tired of this setting, this boring mid-American restaurant. Where does the story have to go, to evolve? No! Extricate me from your restaurant, bodily if you have the back for such labor! That will wrap us up. That will end our tale. It will be wholly contained, a complete story. Even as we forsake fiction for seemingly meaningless and unending reality, still we must tell contained and complete stories. And we shall: the tale of how a mad man was bodily thrown from a restaurant after exhausting the staff’s patience. It isn’t the most exciting of tales, but it is a tale!”
Zachary rubbed his fingers against the sides of his nose, “Please leave,” he rumbled through labored breaths.
“Make me!” James goaded. “Toss me to the street!”
“Dave, call the police,” Zachary spat.
“No! Build a legacy! Be a bigger part of the story. Don’t be like Claire, the most forgettable. Don’t be like all of these nameless, faceless people surrounding us, lost to history. That’s what you’ll be if I abandon this moment in time, choosing a different memory to start this scintillating new genre!”
“Shut up,” Zachary roared.
“I’ll move him for you, sir,” a behemoth with a crewcut declared in thundering staccato.
Zachary exhaled, “I’d be much obliged.”
“Ah, good! A man has emerged from the nameless forest!” James cheered.
With long strides, the giant approached the fracas. Looking down on James, the hulking titan bellowed, “My name is Andrew Williams. I completed two tours with the marines, and now I sell hand-made wooden models of ships and aircraft on eBay. My wife’s name is Ellen Williams, she is a poet of unbelievable talent, hardworking but unknown. Her work is readily available on Wattpad. Anyone who reads it will be thankful they did. My daughter Elise will never doubt that she can be anything she wants if she works hard and believes in herself.”
With one hand, Andrew lifted James by his shirt and carried him to the restaurant’s entrance. The nameless stared with immaterial expression, already drowning in the ephemeral memory of the present. “Best of luck, writer. You dream big. I admire that, and I’m happy to help you, but don’t you dare forget Ellen and Elise’s names,” Andrew said as he hurled James from the restaurant.
James smiled as he sailed through the air. He crashed to the sidewalk, scraping his hands and knees. Rising to his feet, he dusted himself off. “I wonder if other artists ever felt physical pain for their art,” he muttered as he walked towards his next tale.