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Peludis & Radames
Another of my microstories.
I doubt many of you have read enough of my work to notice how weird my character names can be. I find a lot of energy in names. This is a bit odd because early on I had such a terrible time finding names for my poor characters. One occasion especially was a nightmare. I wrote my novel Precious calling my main character Barry Johnson, which was the name of the real person who inspired the character, a former colleague of mine when I worked the overnight desk at the Montreal Star (in the good old days when the Montreal Star still existed). Barry was a great and inspirational character, a man with a huge personality, well worth basing a novel on. But, good Lord, when the time came to publish the book, I had to change his name. I remember interminable days scouring phone books, writing out name after name, looking for rhythm, for something slightly unusual but not fake sounding. No name I came up with matched the aura with which I had invested “Barry Johnson” mainly, I suppose, because he was real and I liked him. Eventually, I called my fiction character Moss Elliot. Then I stuck Claude in the middle. Moss Claude Elliot. A name I could make jokes with, but also rhythmic, slightly unusual, but not too distracting. Whatever name I picked was going to feel artificial and fake to me because, well, it was fake. But I reasoned that no one else would ever know about Barry Johnson. They would come at Moss Elliot fresh. He would seem real to every other reader except me.
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After that I began to invest a lot more energy and more of my unconscious in the production of names. Any time I see an evocative name, I write it down. But most of them now I dream up in those idle moments when I am not thinking of anything in particular. I often think of names before I think up stories to go with them. My naming impulse is a bit Dickensian. I like the names to be dramatic, slightly extravagant, with an interesting sound. I like to think that the names might be a short story in themselves.
Just recall the names in the stories that I’ve featured here on Out & Back. Max and Yolanda Blender. And in the story “And This, With Wings”: Finbar Hanlon (the plagiarizing creative writing teacher), Hydrangea Fenwood (the brilliant victim student), and Spence (the agent). In “Teeth,” Hackenfeller (the bombastic dentist; I have at least two other unfinished stories with a character named Hackenfeller), Alve Olar, Redonda, Fuchs, and Vickie Wonderlight (a name I have been trying to get into a story for 30 years).
I have lists of names, often in pairs.
One day I wrote down the names Peludis and Radames. They just floated up. I have no idea if they are real names or from what land they might derive. I had no idea for a story to go with them. But Peludis had a vaguely naughty sound. Pe-lewd-is. And some time in that era I was reading about Pompeii and Herculaneum, towns buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and the amazing archaeological discoveries therein: beautiful wall paintings in domestic living rooms, brothels with graffiti on the walls, fast food joints, and, of course, the mysterious casts of human bodies caught fleeing the eruption. I was fascinated by the idea of this vibrant, ordinary urban life, rich and poor, young and old, bubbling along in sight of the smoking volcano, paying no heed, and then suddenly caught in the hyper-blast of heat and ash. Life obliterated and entombed in concrete in an instant. A thousand stories ending abruptly.
And so this little microstory was born. Peludis is naughty. He and his friend Radames are in love with the same young man, a kitchen slave. (I was thinking of the brothel wall graffiti.) I could have made this a conflict between the two friends over their mutual lover, but that, of course, was too easy, trite and uninteresting. So actually they get along and share the slave, swingers before they were invented, only to discover that their erotic complacency has hidden the real action, Melenctha and Denudo (both invented names; Denudo, De-nude-o, is my 12-year-old unconscious self making dirty jokes). Melenctha steals Denudo, who remains a slave (Melenctha is pragmatic, not so much a romantic). And that’s all, except, of course, for the smoking mountain outside Melenctha’s window. That image is like a window out of the story, a window that let’s the reader know what’s going to happen next. In effect, there are two sudden alterations of expectation: Peludis and Radames think they have Denudo’s charms all to themselves, when suddenly he is whisked away from them. And then, all of them are about to have their little loves, schemes, and pleasures extinguished by the volcano.
A lesson to us all: we have our little lives, meanwhile, reality grinds on in the wings, just out of sight, waiting to pounce and puncture our dreams.
That wasn’t quite enough for me. Denudo had remained a quiet little manikin throughout, a perfect slave sex object. I hadn’t made him come alive. I hadn’t given him a chance, as a character, to have a self. So I ended the story with him, the mystery (and comedy) of his tattoos. In the end, we see the little kitchen slave better than any of the other characters. He is the one with personality.
Like many of these microstories, despite its paucity of text, this one contains a front story and a mostly concealed under story. It also has two reversals of expectation (one written in the story, one implied) and multiple story lines (Radames, Peludis and Denudo; Melenctha and Denudo; and Denudo alone, the slave cook with his mysterious tattoos). These microstories are also funny, a virtue not to be discounted in this world of woe.
Peludis & Radames
Peludis and Redames were both in love with the same boy, the kitchen slave Denudo, owned by Procurator Syrax. Of course, the two men were old friends from school and the army, so they never quarreled and managed to share Denudo’s favors amicably until the day Melenctha, Peludis's older sister, went to Procurator Syrax and bought the boy for herself. Apparently, she had been in love with Denudo, too, and together they had plotted his escape. Now he was second pastry cook in Melenctha's kitchen where he was very happy. Nights he slipped up to Melenctha's bedroom, the one with the satyrs and naiads cavorting to drums and flutes around the walls. From her windows they could see the glowing cone of Mount Vesuvius, looking, in the distance, like the hump of a sleeping bullock.
That's all you need to know as the story begins, except for one curious fact: at some point, Denudo had been tattooed. He could not remember when. Across his chest was the word "Always" and across his back "Never," both in Greek.
Here is my first microstory post, with an explanation of the form.
A couple of years later I met up with Barry in the Spadina Tavern in Toronto and gave him a copy of the novel. He was touched, having a novel based on him. He kept that copy till the day he died. You can read about this in a piece I wrote for my old magazine. It’s called “Saddened and Riddled with Nostalgia.”\