One of my classmates submits some of the most beautiful prose for critique. In his last class submission, his character drives through small rural backwater towns with no traffic lights, where the gas pumps still sport analog dials. The character speaks of being a voyeur, seeing only that moment in time, a snapshot of the town, while wanting to know it more intimately. I always love reading my classmate’s work, but this example struck home for me. I grew up in just such a small town. 60 people in my graduating class. We all knew each other, and everyone’s mother knew me, sometimes to my chagrin. As kids, we could never get away with anything. But I knew things about that town and its inhabitants that a passerby would never see—the old white mule left to roam in an overgrown corral with a tumbledown shelter, so lonely that when I would go to visit him (always with a carrot or an apple), he came running at the sound of my calls. He hated it when I left. Or the old man who used to sit under his carport across from the ball field and tell stories to anyone who would listen. I don’t remember his name now, but it was cool to hear him ramble. Or the nosey old woman who got us in trouble over and over, probably not because we did anything terribly bad, but perhaps because she was so unhappy herself that she had to share some of the load with others.
At the time, I couldn’t wait to get out of that place. Now, I’d give a lot to go back. But that’s another story.
I am currently sitting in the town center of a city near our home. Bobby and I shared lunch here and the spot was so nice we decided to stay a while. Across the street is an enormous pool with a bevy of water fountains spraying rainbows in the Spring breeze. Ducks and geese amuse themselves on the surface. A smattering of pedestrians dot the sidewalks around the pool and I make up stories about them. The guy in the camo hat and denim shorts who can’t take his eyes off his cell phone? Yeah. He’s a serial killer who salves his conscience by donating huge cuts of his big-business profits to needy children in third-world countries. The young group down the patio from us playing guitar and singing? They are about to hit it big in the music industry. The singer will go on to do great things, but the guitarist will discover drugs and spiral into insanity. The brown-skinned woman with the short salt-and-pepper hair and the snazzy running suit is the incognito leader of an up-and-coming small nation state here on a diplomatic mission. She has dressed like the average American so as to not stand out, so that she can see us as we “really are.”
Far across the pond a Sumo wrestler spends his down time in a red shirt and shorts hanging out with his friends. A burgundy-haired young woman strolls with her mother. Mom is a model; she’s sharing tips of the trade with her eldest, who has decided to follow in mom’s footsteps. The security guard who walks by every so often performs in the evenings at comedy clubs and is steadily building a following among the local crowds. One day soon, he will show up on a cable spot and make his first million. The long-legged woman strolling by with earbuds and a mobile is a chemist who has recently discovered an important link between some common kitchen spice and cancer, and is already hard at work on pushing through for a cure.
I do this everywhere I go. At the gym. In the bank. At work. (Sorry, clients!) (The guy walking by right now is an archeologist who will soon discover irrefutable proof of a heretofore unknown branch of the human family, or perhaps contact with aliens millennia ago.) I peer at the people around me, wanting a window into their lives, and knowing their real stories are probably far more interesting than anything I can make up on a bright spring day. I find most people endlessly fascinating. Unfortunately, I haven’t time to commit to them all, so I just peek.
Like my classmate’s character, I am a voyeur. Don’t be surprised if you see me sitting to one side staring in your direction. Chances are there’s a whole story unfolding in my head where you play lead.