Great guest post, and conversation from Phyllis Humphrey.
Since you know I‘m a writer and blog mostly about writing, you might think that by “Characters,” I mean imaginary ones, the kind we put in our fiction. In fact, I put some colorful characters in my mainstream novel, CHOICES, published under my maiden name, Phyll Ashworth.
I spent nineteen years selling my husband’s artwork at those art shows you might have seen. For my fictional purposes, I changed only mildly eccentric artists into murderers, philanderers, cheating wives and even gay bashers. And those were my friends.
The absolute most interesting character I ever met was not an artistbut a person I originally thought was a customer. The following is true and took place in San Francisco in the 1980s.
* * *
The smooth-shaven man was of medium height, wore a conservative black suit with a maroon striped tie and highly polished shoes. He pointed to my display. “You did these?”
“My husband did. They’re original pen and ink drawings, with a wash over them for the color.”
“I can see that. They’re very good.”
“Thank you.” I paused, thinking perhaps I could make a big sale out of this. “They look nice in groupings of two or three. Which do you prefer, the animals or the birds?”
“Oh, I like them all.” He walked over to a display board with animal pictures, and I followed at a discreet distance.
“You see, I know animals. I have hundreds on my estate.”
I didn’t answer. Hundreds of animals? Who was this guy?
“My family has made me stop adding to my collection, but I could have pictures of them, you see.” His face remained perfectly serious, and I still didn’t say anything.
“How much for all of them?”
“You want all of them?” This had to be a gag. I looked around to see if some friends lurked nearby, watching my reaction.
“Yes,” the man said. “You see, I want to hang them in the White House. I’m the Acting President of the United States. The White House is going to be remodeled, you know.”
A nut. If that wasn’t a joke, then he was a nut. I decided to humor the guy. “No, I didn’t know.”
“It’s not my headquarters, you see. I’m turning it into a restaurant. The chef at the Crown Room will run it for me.”
“Oh, I think a restaurant is a very good idea. Much better than what they do with it now.”
“Quite so. I had lunch in the Crown Room the other day, and they wanted to put me in jail because I wouldn’t pay my bill, but I was protesting. It was twenty dollars, and you have to admit twenty dollars for lunch is ridiculous.” He continued to look perfectly normal. “It’s inflationary, that’s all. I said I would pay seventeen dollars, but the other rest was pure inflation and I wouldn’t pay that. They made me wait in a back room. My family came and got me out.”
I smiled. “That’s nice.”
“How much for all the pictures?”
“I’ll have to think about it.” The man might be crazy, but he was consistent. He remembered he wanted all the pictures. “Why don’t you come back a little later and I’ll let you know.” I hoped he’d go awayand that would be the end of that. I didn’t need to get mixed up with any crazies.
“Fine. I have to see some other artists anyway.” He strolled over to another artist friend. Pity I couldn’t warn her.
But in ten minutes he was back. “Ah, yes. Do you have those figures for me now?”
I pulled a number out of the air. “Five thousand dollars.”
“That’s reasonable. I want you to deliver them, of course. Here’s my card.” He scribbled something on a folded business card and handed it to me with a smile. He walked away, still looking like just an ordinary shopper.
I looked at what he’d written. The blank folded card had a few words scrawled inside: “$5000. Accepted. Gerald McDonald, Acting President of the United States of North America.” So he thought he was the President, not Napoleon. I shrugged and put the card in my purse. I never saw him again.