Memory/Character Essay: Thirteen Examples

Brooklyn, Madness, Lust, Death, and the Apocalypse

Chadbourne Oliver

Genny tells me she’s finished her first novel. Over the phone her voice is reserved but I can tell she’s proud and excited and so am I. “It’s almost fifty five thousand words,” she says, “I think I’m gonna send it to McSweeney’s.” I know she dreams of being published in that quarterly, a thick hardcover volume that usually incorporates some kind of abstract delivery by means of strange artsy packaging.

“I’ll print it out so I can read it on the train,” I promise her as I open the lengthy file on my computer screen, not yet realizing that the money in my wallet isn’t enough to feed the printer for eighty-six full pages. Never have her prose and beautiful run-ons reached such a length as this. It is called Dust Rules Everything Around Me, or D.R.E.A.M., and the opening page bears a quotation:

“(theory: just like the kingdom of God, hell is within us): and I feel in myself, on certain days, such an overwhelming inrush of evil that I imagine the prince of darkness is already beginning to set up hell within me.”

She credits it to a book I do not know by Andre Gide called The Counterfeiters. I can hear her voice speaking the words, see her poring over that long sentence. I can see her green eyes flash and her mouth turn involuntarily up at the corners like mine does when she realized how beautiful, how perfect it was.

“What’s it about?” I asked her when she first told me she’d decided to work on a full novel. She’d always leaned towards short stories.

“It’s about Brooklyn and the apocalypse and lots of lust and death and madness.” She paused and smiled as if to say “Don’t worry,” or “I’m not crazy.”

I saw her read a passage aloud to a significant audience in the very borough she wrote about so deftly, without ever having lived there. She stood behind a podium before them, seated in rows of folding chairs under the lofty ceiling of a grand dining room in some posh new hotel. She spoke perhaps a bit too fast, as she’s always been wont to do, her thickly written account of darkness projected up like an old movie, a grim tale and a black dress to match.

My sister and I are perhaps the most genuinely happy people I know. I believe it comes from the unbridled enthusiasm for our work that we both possess, and the social confidence that I’ve always had; that she’s learned partly from me. She’s been writing since we were children, through all the times I played the younger brother and begged her attention, begged her to stop reading or writing in her little book or typing on the computer and just come play with me for the love of god. She’s always had a bit more of the quiet pensiveness I credit to our paternal grandfather than I can bear for lack of patience. In both cases, regardless of our primarily positive outlook on life itself, we both have an affinity for dark things, a fascination that can be seen shining through our dark and yet colored eyes when brought up. Even as I read the opening quotation of her novel I think of a line penciled into one of my lyric books not too long ago. “…Every single thing I do I mean, ’cause I’ve got a little evil in me….” I snarl into the microphone before moving on to a cryptic song of perhaps love. The words bring a smile to my face as hers do.

I remember reading one of her short stories back when we lived together in the house on Bedford Road, sitting on the double bed of black wood that was once mine. It was about a high school with an overarching thirst for blood. Each year there would be grand ceremony surrounding a bare knuckle boxing match in which one of the contenders was to die. Betting preceded the match, and I remember imagining the basement scene in our own basement, cramped and sweating by the boiler in a press of excited teens. I recall that the reader receives only a small glimpse of the fight and the aftermath and I recall how that made me feel. I felt the same way years later when I read her piece about the devil and the dusty plain and the light in the window as we sat together on the couch at our grandparents’ house. The same piece would become the second-to-last chapter of her novel.

“I kind of scare myself when I write” she says as she passes me the joint later that night in our car, the smoke and the steam from our breath clouding the windshield. We wonder if anyone will find out, or care.

She didn’t used to smoke, and it seemed to me that pot appeared in her stories before it appeared in her life. Indeed I was not present for her freshman year of college, so it is hard for me to say. I certainly never knew she smoked cigarettes until one night when I pulled out my pack outside the venue in Northampton she’d brought me to for my birthday when I came to visit her at college.

“Don’t tell mom,” I said over a loud heartbeat or two.

“It’s ok,” she said, “I have one every once in a while too.”

I watched her take a few shallow drags and felt a little guilty for the influence I was sure I had. When we drink I have about three to her every one, something I am only sometimes proud of, but she buys me a seven dollar beer at the concert last spring anyway and we drink them together, cross legged on the floor. I finish mine and with a wry smile hint for another round but they’re too expensive and she’s probably feeling hers anyway. I’m grateful, to be sure, since she bought the tickets and brought me to the concert, something I hardly do on my own for lack of motivation, or funds. In fact it was she who brought me to my first concert. It was at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park; Summer Stage as they call it during the season. She loved the bands and had thought to bring me along, a young musician and lover of music who needed to lose his concert virginity. I’d only been to local shows for local bands, and I’d marveled at the punk rock aesthetic of those, while she found more pleasure in seeing the big bands who played big places in New York City. We were there early and she brought us to the front row, where we stood stalwart, hands clenched to the rail with white knuckles as the waves of humanity sought to crush us like insects and she held tight her bag and me and shouted over blare something of a coming of age “what do you think?” and I smiled back, glasses in my pocket, sweat and adrenaline on my face. After the first of two bands I pushed back through the throng and bought a soggy boat of french fries.“ Just take ‘em,” said the twenty-something-year-old lady at the booth as she handed back my money.

I sat on the tall bleachers in the back and watched the second band. I knew my sister was still in the front row. Just like she would be when we returned to Summer Stage, maybe that same year, for a free show featuring her favorite group at the time. We arrived at around noon, hoping to avoid the inevitable sprawling line that issued like a young and colorful host from the front gates of that huge temporary concert hall. We spent the day in the grass with our sunglasses on, playing a game of cards which I’ll never remember. It was hot and when we finally got in it had begun to rain slightly, a prospect that at the time seemed pleasant and cooling. Before long it had begun to pour, and as our wallets, cell phones, and other personal effects were barraged by the liquid onslaught we once again stood fast and waited. My heart nearly failed as the cold began to seep in, and I walked almost to the gates with a swarm of retreating concert goers, only to turn back for the thought that she would weather the storm while I quailed. When I found her again we stood in a pool, inches deep, of brown water and raised our hands to the clouded heavens as they cleared and then advanced once more during the band’s set, and we both felt something stir in us then that neither shall forget.

It must have been the shared passion for music that brought us together in our youth. Before we were adolescents we fought incessantly. I the extrovert, she the introvert, we would quarrel as many a brother and sister do. Once, on the walk to school, she struck me with force that knocked my glasses into the high grass and from that sorry void they never did emerge. I remember that afternoon in rage I held up my guitar as an unwieldy bludgeon against her and she probably laughed and turned away. It was not until we both reached high school did we become fast friends. Something clicked then, and to this day I cannot recall precisely what it was. On the subject, she told me once that she saw something deeply respectable in me, a passion or serious part of my persona that had not been clear before. We spent time together listening to the radio and sharing music until our inevitable parting when she left for college a year before me, at which point I tattooed her and I the same symbol and she left the next day.

Fortunately we both have the opportunity to see each other frequently enough these days, as I’ve visited her at school and she’s often come to New York for weeks in the summer to work, or for a weekend away from her busy semester to see a concert. This past New Year’s Eve was one such night, and I met her outside the subway station in Brooklyn to walk with her to my friends’ party a few blocks away. It was past midnight and I had been drinking most of the evening. When we got to the party we promptly took a seat together on the couch and stayed there, talking and joking as herds of our friends stumbled past on their way out for a cigarette or otherwise. A girl who earlier inquired of me “Where’s Genevieve?” sat down with us and joined the conversation. I recall she said “God I love you Olivers” and we smiled.

Discussion Questions

  • Why would somebody want to read this piece (the “Who cares?” factor)?
  • Can you clearly identify the author’s intention for the piece?
  • How well does the author support the intention of the piece? Cite specific details that support or take away from the author’s intention.
  • Is there information missing from this piece that would make its intention clearer? What else would you like to know?
  • Does the author portray herself as a round character? How does she do this?
  • Do you trust the author of this piece? Why or why not?
  • How clearly does the author establish a sense of setting/space in this piece? Cite specific details that support your claim.
  • How clearly does the author establish characters other than the self in this piece? Cite specific details that support your claim.
  • Did you learn anything new from reading this piece? If so, what?
  • Are there particular passages with engaging language/description that stood out to you? Describe the appeal of these passages.
  • Would you read more writing from this author? Why or why not?

 

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