I'm not sure I'm the best fit for this week's question: "Many characters wander in and out of our stories. Do you have any favorites?" As a short story writer—and more importantly, as one who hasn't generally followed a series with my stories—I don't typically have any characters wandering in and out of my stories, much less a favorite. One and done, that's usually been my approach.
The departure from that pattern, of course, has been with the stories in my first book, On the Road with Del & Louise, which was released back in September. The first story—"Rearview Mirror," published by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine back in 2010—was never intended as the start of anything, and when I did ultimately begin to wonder what happened next to those characters Del and Louise, they'd moved on to a new stop on the road and in the process new supporting characters as well. That pattern played through all six of the stories: new stop, new challenges, new characters.
All except one.
Louise's Mama never appeared physically in the first story; she was simply a voice on the phone—serving as Louise's sole connection to her past and to home. And as Del and Louise moved to those next stops—Victorville, California, and Napa Valley, and Las Vegas, and Williston, North Dakota—Mama remained simply a voice on the phone, increasingly one that Louise considered avoiding. Mama, after all, could be a nuisance and a nag and a problem.
And maybe all that needling is what made her such a vivid character—a favorite of readers, as it turned out, and honestly a favorite of my own.
For your consideration, then, is the first appearance of Mama in "Rearview Mirror." And is it worth mentioning here that the full book makes an excellent present for the holidays ahead? (Psst: Click here for shopping options or see below!)
From the story "Rearview Mirror"
In On the Road with Del and Louise: A Novel in Stories
That was how we spent most of our nights together, watching movies. I’d quit the 7-Eleven job at that point. It was dangerous, Del said—ironically, he said—and I’d got a job at one of the gift stores in town, keeping me home nights. Home meaning Del’s mobile home, because it wasn't long before I'd moved in with him.
We’d make dinner—something out of a box because I’m not much of a cook, I’ll admit—and I’d watch Court TV, which I love, while he did some of his homework for the business classes he was taking over at the college or read through the day’s newspaper, scouring the world for opportunities, he said, balancing work and school and me. Later we’d watch a movie, usually something with a crime element like Bank Job or Mission: Impossible or some old movie like The Sting or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or all those Godfather movies like every man I’ve ever been with. I suggested Bonnie & Clyde, for obvious reasons, but he said it would be disadvantageous for us to see it and so we never did.
“Is that all you do, sit around and watch movies?” Mama asked on the phone, more than once.
“We go out some,” I told her.
“Out out?” she asked, and I didn’t know quite what she meant and I told her that.
“He surprises me sometimes,” I said. “Taking me out for dinner.”
(Which was true. “Let’s go out for a surprise dinner,” he’d say sometimes, even though the surprise was always the same, that we were just going to Our Place. But that was still good because it real- ly was our place—both literally and figuratively—and there’s romance in that.)
“He loves me,” I’d tell Mama. “He holds me close at night and tells me how much he loves me, how much he can’t live without me.”
Mama grunted. She was in North Carolina. Two hours’ time difference and almost a full country away, but still you could feel her disappointment like she was standing right there in the same room.
“That’s how it starts,” Mama would tell me, “I can’t live with- out you,” mimicking the voice. “Then pretty soon ‘I can’t live with- out you’ starts to turn stifling and sour and...”
Her voice trailed off. And violent, I knew she’d wanted to say.
And I knew where she was coming from, knew how her last boyfriend had treated her. I’d seen it myself, one of the reasons I finally just moved away, anywhere but there.
“I thought you were going to start a new life,” she said, a different kind of disappointment in her voice then. “You could watch the tube and drink beer anywhere. You could date a loser here if that’s all you’re doing.”
I twirled the phone cord in my hand, wanting just to be done with the conversation, but not daring to hang up. Not yet.
“Frugal,” Mama said, making me regret again some of the things I’d told her about him. “Frugal’s just a big word for cheap.”
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