Over the past six months, my house has gotten a lot more crowded.
At one time, our household consisted of me, my husband, and the three dachshunds. Lately, a lot of freeloaders have begun showing up. I can barely move from room to room without bumping into one of them. It’s like this: once the word gets out that the welcome mat is at the front door, everyone and their uncle suddenly appears.
And every one of them has something they have to say, some problem they feel the need to lay at your feet, some confession they are dying (sometimes literally) to tell you.
That’s what happens when you’re a good listener.
Take last night, for example.
I was sitting in bed, trying to watch the Orioles game. I was also looking at the laptop, scrolling through writing prompt suggestions. One caught my eye, but then Adam Jones got up to bat and – well – so much for the writing prompt. But once Adam struck out, I noticed there was a lean, hard-faced man sitting on the edge of the bed.
I turned to my husband. “You see him?” I asked.
He looked at me, then at the ceiling, and sighed. “Oh Lord, not again.”
Okay, he didn’t see him. But I did. And while my husband watched the game, the man suddenly started talking to me, telling me about the woman he had been married to, and how she’d been no good – and that he’d been forced to teach her some hard justice.
After he unburdened his soul, he stood up and pointed at the laptop. I got the message and started typing as he turned and walked out of the room.
Lately, this kind of thing happens more often than not.
This evening I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, and I noticed a pretty woman standing near the counter. I could tell right away she was from a different time – it was in the way she spoke, the clothes she wore. And while I continued cleaning the kitchen, she began talking about the various kinds of horror a person might have to endure in a lifetime, and what her own special experience had been.
By the time the kitchen was clean, she’d gone out to the back porch to sit for a spell, making it clear that if I needed some additional information, she was available. As for me, I made a few quick notes and hope to tell her story at a future point in time.
It’s disconcerting sometimes, the way these folks just suddenly appear out of nowhere.
Two weeks ago, I was drinking my coffee and enjoying the early morning solitude. It was a nice day, and the window screens were letting in the fresh air. Just as I was about to take the last sip of my coffee, a car went barreling down the road outside the front of my house, a Chuck Berry tune issuing loudly from the vehicle and rattling the windows: Maybelline, why can’t you be true? Ah, Maybelline, why can’t you be true?
Annoyed at having my quiet morning interrupted, I wandered into the kitchen to refill my mug – and was surprised to see a blond-haired woman dancing around the room with a young girl in tow, both of them barefoot and laughing – and singing about Maybelline.
Before I could ask what they were doing in my kitchen, the woman smiled and pushed her thick, blond hair out of her mascaraed eyes and said, “Hi, I’m Jolene – and this is my baby girl. Got a few minutes to listen to our story?” The young girl looked at me with shining, hopeful eyes.
How could I resist? I poured myself that second cup of coffee, sat down at the kitchen table, and listened to a tale of sadness and longing.
That’s how my stories begin: chance meetings with characters who want to share something of their lives and experiences with me.
I’ve found that once you open the door to one of them, the rest of them start showing up with regularity. They’re a talkative bunch, too. Maybe they like a sympathetic ear. I can’t help but wonder if my people haven’t been hanging around for years, waiting for me to finally lay out the welcome mat. Maybe they’ve been bottling up their tales for what seems like forever, just waiting for me to pay attention, and now they can’t restrain themselves.
I don’t need a Ouija Board to make contact with ghosts from another realm. I just need my laptop – and an open mind, a willing ear and, maybe, an understanding heart.
Although I like to write a supernatural tale now and again, I’m not one to really believe in ghost stories or tales of possession. Even so, I do sometimes feel as if my people have invaded my life and, sometimes, my very being.
I hear their ‘voices’ so distinctly. I find myself speaking aloud in their dialects, using their phrasing, mimicking their expressions, their tics. Sometimes my husband will hear me speaking in a country accent worthy of Andy Taylor of Mayberry fame. Poor man, I’m sure he thinks he’s married to a crazy woman.
He’s married to a writer.
When my characters come to visit, I’m no longer just ‘me.’ I am them. Completely. I’m Jolene. I’m the guy who dumped his wife and her lover into a hastily dug burial plot. I’m the kid who had a chance encounter with an old homeless guy who just may have been an angel. I’m the old woman who feared not only the monsters under her bed, but the ones living in her town. And I’m also the slug who wanted to dump his girlfriend’s dog out in the middle of the desert – until a UFO gave the dog an unusual talent…
I am all of them – and, perhaps, them more than I am me.
One thing I know: life has sure gotten a lot more interesting since these folks started showing up. The place has gotten a bit noisier, either from their voices or the constant click of my fingernails against the keypad of my laptop. And while I may complain from time to time about their insistent, sometimes distracting, presence, I’m really glad they’ve decided to pay me a visit.
The welcome mat is out, the house is clean, there’s an apple pie in the oven. The laptop is warmed up, and there’s a blank screen waiting to record someone’s story.
In other words, I’m ready to receive callers.