When a child has imaginary friends, the child is considered normal…maybe a bit above normal. When an adult has them, he is considered insane. That’s not right.
I mean, consider the novelist or playwright who creates entire casts of characters, to each of whom he attributes a complex set of personality traits, character flaws, life story, and so forth. Aren’t those characters playing the same role for the author as the child’s imaginary friends do for the child? Aren’t they helping the author and, ultimately, the reader make sense of an extraordinarily confusing and frightening and, at the same time, wildly alluring world?
All right, now that you’ve come around to my way of thinking, I’ll share a few of my latest cast of imaginary friends with you. I may write more about them later, when they’ve had more time to settle in to their personalities and get used to the parts they play in this confusing, frightening, and wildly alluring world.
“Scorch” is the nickname Rodney Dearth earned when he set fire to an overgrown lot on Avenue C in Robstown, Texas in 1966. He and his friend, John Stoltz, had nothing productive to do. All the pieces were in place: the boredom of an unengaged fourteen year old, an abandoned and badly unkempt lot down the street from his parents’ house, a box of matches, and the memory of his father’s complaints earlier in the week about how the only way the city would do anything to clean up that lot was for someone to throw a cigarette out of a car into the bone-dry weeds and grass. Rodney knew better than to do it, but he did it anyway. He lit a match, a large ‘kitchen’ match, by striking it on the sandpaper-like bottom of his shoe and threw it into the tangle of dry grass near the curb. In an instant, a three-foot by three-foot patch of waist-high weeds were in flames. John said, “Put it out!” Rodney, though, surprised and scared by the rapid growth of the flames, did nothing to put them out. Instead, he stepped back from the flames and stared into them, mezmerized by the orange and red and yellow streaks before him. Rodney was the dreamer. John was the pragmatist. John jumped into the middle of the minor inferno, kicking wildly at the flames and tamping down with his feet, all the while screaming at Rodney, “You asshole!” In less than thirty seconds, John successfully snuffed out the flames while Rodney watched. Rodney and John were the only ones who ever knew the genesis the nickname John gave Rodney. But John’s insistence on calling Rodney “Scorch” from that moment quickly caught on with Rodney’s friends and family, who thought the moniker was quite clever. He has been known as “Scorch” ever since. His flirtation with fire evolved as he reached adulthood, morphing into multiple extra-marital affairs, a too-close friendship with alcohol, self-inflicted business failures, and a conflicted personality. Scorch was at once a deeply sensitive, empathic, and caring man and a selfish, bullying tyrant whose psychological mistreatment of those closest to him caused him more pain than he would ever willingly share with another human being.
Marc Westing’s father died when Marc was in high school. It may have been a heart attack, though no one seemed to know, at least the kids didn’t. The parents probably knew, but they didn’t talk about it around the kids. Scorch was no fan of Mr. Westing. One afternoon, when Marc told his father he and Scorch were going up the street to Chatter’s Place, to get some beef jerky, Mr. Westing said, “No, son, that’s a damn beer hall! You’re not going to a damn beer hall!” That upset Scorch, because Chatter’s Place was his parents’ hangout; it was a neighborhood hangout that happened to sell beer and very good beef jerky. Marc told his father Scorch’s parents were there, but Mr. Westing said, “I don’t care who’s there, you’re not going to a damn beer hall!” Scorch didn’t let on to Marc that he thought Mr. Westing’s death was pay-back for the insult to Scorch’s parents. Nonetheless, Marc sensed that Scorch’s condolences were not heart-felt and they drifted apart during their remaining time in high school. Scorch went off to college and Marc drifted in and out of college for a while. Several years later, in his early thirties, he got serious about school, finishing his undergraduate degree in biology, then attaining a master’s degree and, finally, a doctorate in oceanography. He moved to California several years later and co-founded a highly successful pharmaceutical company whose initial products were extracted from sea anemones. Forty years after Scorch graduated from high school, he tracked Marc down, but Marc’s arrogant aloofness discouraged any pursuit of rekindling the friendship. The coldness of the response to his overtures to reignite the friendship prompted Scorch, instead, to scrutinize Marc’s company in great depth. That, unfortunately for Marc, would ultimately lead to action by the Food and Drug Administration and, possibly, jail time for Marc and some of his colleagues.
John Stoltz didn’t allow Rodney’s fire to continue to burn, nor did he ignite many of his own as he matured. Failing to attain an adequate GPA in his first two years at Texas A&M to permit him to attend veterinary school, he turned instead to coursework in finance and banking. John married his high school sweetheart with whom he had two daughters. His involvement in his church and in his community earned him the respect and admiration of his new communities of friends as he moved from place to place, climbing ever higher in the banking hierarchy. From Scorch’s perspective, after they briefly reconnected online forty years after high school graduation, John’s life was too perfect, too staid, too dull to warrant anything but pity. But Scorch harbored a sub-surface resentment that John’s dull and plodding life had yielded fruits that Scorch would never taste: a financially secure retirement during which he would take deep-sea fishing trips and visit family members as they moved around the world in careers that took them from one exotic place to another. Scorch asserted his disdain for what he called “middle-class, white-bread, inbred dullards,” but his resentment of John’s life resided barely beneath the surface.
No one really knew what became of Nancy. She may have joined the Navy after the first year or two of undergraduate school or she may have waited. Or, maybe, she never finished school. But everyone who knew Nancy Dalrymple assumed she would do exactly as she said. And what she said she would do was to commit to serving in the Navy in return for a commitment that the Navy would pay for her undergraduate college degree and her dental school. Then, she would serve as an officer in the Navy for at least as long as the quid pro quo commitment required. Just before high school graduation, Scorch and Nancy began a relationship that resulted in one passionate kiss and, after they both left for college, several months of letters and telephone calls. In hindsight, Scorch knew Nancy was not as serious as he was, but at the time he was deeply, hopelessly in love with her. Nancy, on the other hand, viewed Scorch simply as a diversion and later, as his need to call her, write to her, and hear back from her grew, as an annoyance. She did not bother to formally end the relationship, if that is what it was. She simply stopped calling him, taking his calls, responding to his letters, and acknowledging his existence. Though Nancy’s presence in his life gradually dissolved into vapor, Scorch never let go of a sense of want; he wanted her, physically, and he wanted her to feel the pain he had felt those months after she erased him from her life. Every time Scorch saw Bernadette Peters in a film or on television, the memories of Nancy bubbled to the surface; Nancy looked to Scorch so much like Bernadette Peters that he could not help it.
Even in the 1960s, Robstown was predominantly an Hispanic town. Most of the Hispanics in Robstown, though, were not new arrivals; they were born in Robstown, as were their parents and, in many cases, their grandparents. They retained much of their culture and their traditions, but not to the exclusion of assimilating with the Anglo community. They spoke Spanish, most of them, but also spoke English and took great pride in mastering fluency in both languages. The white community, though, was by and large a patronizing and deeply bigoted one. Whites socialized with Hispanics, but in a somewhat superficial way. While learning English was a necessity for Hispanics for success in the community, learning Spanish was neither necessary nor particularly valued by whites. Jack’s full name was Jack Joseph Guzman. It was not John “Jack” Joseph Guzman; it was Jack Joseph Guzman. He spoke Spanish at home, especially with his grandmother, but he spoke English and only English in public. In fact, he sometimes pretended to have difficulty with Spanish because he wanted to fit in more fully with his Anglo friends, many of whom would tease him and anyone else of Mexican ancestry for speaking “wet back.” Though Jack took deliberate steps to fit in with the Anglo culture that he knew held the social and political and economic power in Robstown despite its numeric minority, he was ashamed and embarrassed at what he saw as his own disrespect for his culture and his history. The only other person with whom Jack shared his thoughts and emotions about his cultural balancing act was Scorch. Scorch was the only white person Jack knew who respected and revered the Mexican-American culture. Scorch was the only Anglo who urged Jack to speak Spanish when they were together because Scorch wanted to learn. Jack was one of the few people with whom Scorch could be completely open, too. They were real friends, not simply acquaintances. They called one another ‘Water Brothers.’ When anyone asked what that meant, they suggested the questioner take time to read Stranger in a Strange Land.
Born in 1956 in Cuernavaca, Mexico to a Mexican father and a Swedish mother who spoke to one another in English, Olivia Martinez grew up in a world of diversity. When she was eight years old, her mother and father divorced. Her mother, Veronika, who had lived in Mexico for the better part of sixteen years, decided to deal with the pain of divorce by taking her only daughter to Stockholm, where they would live with Veronika’s brother, Axel, and his second wife, Aimée, a French woman who had joined the family only two years before. Axel’s first marriage, which had lasted twelve years, yielded no children and cemented Axel’s commitment to remain childless. The presence of an eight year old Mexican child in his relatively new multi-cultural European family had been a challenge, but Axel adapted quite well. Ten years after moving to Sweden, Olivia returned to North America, this time to attend college at the University of Corpus Christi. Her father had moved to Corpus Christi in 1970 to teach at the University. It was in response to his urging, and with his assistance, that Olivia made the move. Olivia may well have been the only person in south Texas at the time fluent in English, Spanish, Swedish, and French.
Her deep blue eyes and her usual air of peace and tranquility hide an explosiveness that can, when unleashed, shatter the sky. Candace Wimbish is Canadian, but she rarely acknowledges an affinity to a patriotic connection to any country. Instead, she espouses the position that she is a citizen of the universe, as is every other living creature. Most of the people in her small circle of close friends, as well as many others who gaze upon her face, say she has an other-worldly beauty about her, something unlike they have ever seen. Perhaps that is because Candace explores the cosmos and is intimately familiar with it. She is a mystical woman, not in the sense that she is mysterious but in that her presence conveys an inexplicable sense of safety and serenity. Yet that sense of safety and serenity evaporate in an instant when her sense of injustice is triggered. Then, the gates of hell open and the fire of the sun dwarfs the cauldron that is her rage. Candace has never been to Robstown, Texas. But she has connections with Robstown. Scorch is among those connections. And her connection with Scorch resides on the rim of that raging cauldron.
All right. Enough for now. These imaginary friends need time to themselves.