How to describe a character by letting the character do it.
An excerpt from a work in progress, “Anna Kalupski’s Gift”
This was the first time I had seen Pete’s apartment. It looked like an old abandoned house, as if someone had picked up and moved and left it dirty with all their belongings behind. He picked a pair of cups from the sink and splashed them under the faucet and shook them. He put them between us on his table and uncorked the Chianti. We began to drink and he told me about the first time Caprice left him.
“I was miserable. Why did she go? Where did she go? How would I exist without her, the other half, more than half of me? It was awful. Days, weeks passed, aching. I thought of killing myself. What did I care of the sinful nature of the act? I would be dead, wouldn’t I?. I imagined being found, fully clothed. Dead or not, Farley, the embarrassment of being found in my underwear would be too much, too tragic. Yes, fully clothed with a clean, round hole in one side of my head that went out the other side like a Bocce ball. But no, I couldn’t, you see, because of that something, that one something, which on its own, prevents a man from committing such an egregious act on himself.
“Tell me, Farley. What is that thing? How does it fail in one man and triumph in another? Never mind. I’ll tell you. It was my family, my mother and my father and my sisters. From the time I was a child, I watched my parents with their friends from school, some of them brothers and sisters who became my aunts and uncles. My father drank and played golf with his chums, and they played noisy poker into the morning hours, laughing and loving each other and cursing the cards and drinking until they couldn’t keep track. My mother was always so gay and aglow with her friends, the wives and sweethearts of my father’s friends. They were full of girl talk and joy, and they criticized their men, but in a loving way, teasing. Ah, it was something to behold, Farley, watching friends and relatives gather.
“And as time passed, they began to die off; my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, from disease, old age, that sort of thing. They became slowed and bent and shuffling. The beautiful hands of young women became like branches, spotted and clawed with rheumatism. They just seemed to wear out. My father would come home from work and my mother would tell him, in whispers to keep it from me and the girls, someone close to them had died suddenly, or finally, after a long struggle in a hospital bed. Dinner would be somber. My father’s jaw popped when he chewed. Sometimes we made fun of him, but now, as we ate our pork and boiled potatoes and cabbage – I can still taste that day – his jaw popped in a most mournful way.
“Time does fly, Farley, more so having looked back than when we live it, and it wasn’t long, or long enough, before my parents were left with only each other and their memories. An old song would play on the car radio and my mother would say, ‘Geez, I haven’t heard that song in such a long time.’ I didn’t know then, but I know now, as they listened, some part of their lives far away played along with all the old romantic songs.”
Pete sipped his wine. He looked off across the room for a moment. I was embarrassed. He was about to cry. Then he began to sing in a quiet, private voice: “You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a smile is just a smile. The fundamental things apply as time goes by.”
Then he managed to smile at me, his eyes moist. He sniffed. “Am I being too maudlin, Farley? Am I being dreary?”
“Oh, no. Not at all, Pete. Of course not.”
“It must be the wine. Yes, I watched my parents and their friends, watched their lives go by, watched them mourn their friends and their good old days to the familiar melodies of old songs, and it endeared them to me. Every friend they wept for, I wept for them. It did. It endeared them to me. It was beautiful in a way, the micro-epic of their time, a monumental history to them, but insignificant against the macro-epic of all Mankind… but it was none the less their lives. Their only legacy was their children and the shared memories they left behind with their friends who survived them.
“Once you understand that, Farley, there’s nothing left for you to feel for humanity but sympathy and compassion. So, you see, we’re all relatives. Family is the symbol of Mankind, wouldn’t you say? Only a Goddamn fool would throw his life away for the woman he loves.”