I blame my uncanny love of book stores on my mother. “Smell the books,” she’d say to me. “Feel the pages.” To her, the words and characters were real. Something to hold on to. Some hidden truth to pursue, unveil, and appreciate. And so, like most little girls, I wanted to do what Mother did. I wanted to read. I remember sitting in the floor of bookstores and debating between six or seven pieces of fiction. “You can choose two,” she’d whisper. “But how can I? They all look so good.” And inevitably, I’d get to keep them all.
Words always flew around me–I’d write them with my fingers as we shopped in the grocery store, whisper them as I played in the sandbox, and write them in little notebooks at a card table my parents allowed me to keep in my bedroom. It was never something I could explain to other people—the voices—the narratives—the characters that appeared to be so real to me. No, little girls who make up stories about imaginary people rarely make friends of their own—and so, I saved my characters for my pen and paper—for the confines of my dimly lit bedroom. Squirrels were given names and personalities. Adventures were taken by little girls with red hair and freckles. Whole worlds were created.
The funny thing about the ability to day dream–to imagine–to create–is that it never fully leaves you. So, as a twenty-two year old woman, I find myself meeting characters while doing the most mundane activities. I use the term “meeting,” quite specifically because that is what happens. Ideas and characters are formed…and then they introduce themselves to me. Those who do not dream and who do not write cannot understand. Those that do, however, need no further explanation. And so–while running the other day in the park, a conversation began between a little boy named Thomas Laney and myself. He had a story to tell. A story about a homeless man, a little girl in a red dress, and a summer in a town called Hummingbird, Mississippi.
I once read an article written by one of my favorite children’s authors, Kate Dicamillo. She said (not verbatim) that the only way to ever improve in anything that you do is to do it without shame, without pride, and without the fear of it being flat out crappy. This advice, she said, is especially pertinent when writing. And so, I write and share a bit of Thomas’s story. Not because it is well written, insightful, or will offer you (the reader) any enjoyment. I write it for this reason alone: to bring some sort of reality to the creative juices that pump from my head to my heart.
Thomas Jefferson Laney soaked up the sticky summer sun as he sat on the large, twisted branch of an Oak tree outside his great Aunt LouAnne’s house. His hands, small and stubby, were covered with the remains of a red cherry popsicle; the treat had left a red ring around the boy’s pursed lips. Thomas sat back and sighed as he thought about the happening of the day. Images of his mother filled his mind–the scent of gardenias still dancing around his shirt from the hug she had given him upon her departure. Her voice seemed so real to him up in the treetop–almost as if she was still there with him. “I’ll call you Thomas. We’ll be back at the end of the summer.” He had stood limp in the gravel driveway, his blue, cotton tee gathering sweat around the neckline as she hugged him. Over her shoulder he could see his mother’s boyfriend, Roy, sitting in the front passenger seat of his father’s old beat up mustang. Roy had looked at Thomas and coyly grinned. “See you later, Kid.” Salty tears mixed with chalky dust as the car peeled out of the driveway.
Hummingbird, Mississipi. He had been here before. Once, when he was three, before his father’s heart had stopped beating; before the world seemed a little less green in the spring. That’s the way his mother had explained it to him when she started returning home later each friday night–wearing smudged red lipstick and low-cut tops. “The springtime isn’t a dance anymore, Thomas. My heart hurts. But you wouldn’t understand. You’re still just a little boy.” She would kiss him on the forehead and go sit in the dark–in bathtub of their two-bedroom apartment. Sometimes he’d hear her crying but he would keep watching The Jetsons on cable TV. He understood more than his mother thought. When he looked out the window, all he could see was black and white. That is what he began to see that night in the treetop–the darkness that emerged as the sun set over the hill–the twinkling of the stars that one by one began to appear in the night sky.