The Characters in Your Life

Your life is full of people. Make your stories sing by including character sketches of the people you love and the people who make your life more challenging. Use strong visual words in your writing to provide a lasting mental image of the person you are writing about. How does that person make you feel? The descriptions of the person you love and admire, or the person who drives you crazy, come alive in the reader’s mind with careful use of adjectives and words that evoke feelings. Will the reader come away from your story with a better connection with you and the person who you vividly describe?  I wrote an essay about my brother Larry, not only describing him, but also with insights into the challenge of being his sister!

He was the kid sitting on the floor reading Encyclopedia Britannica when all the other 10-year-old boys were out playing ball. He told me he liked the Q volume because it was more likely to have weird stuff to learn compared to, say, the B volume which was way too conventional for him.  He was my big brother Larry, eccentric and wildly weird. I was 3 years younger and looked up to him as he taught me that normal was not something to be aspired to.

Gerbil Pythagorus was kept out of reach of Shakespeare.

Larry liked to carry Pythagoras around in his pocket. Pythagoras was his gerbil and I liked to see him run up to Larry’s shoulder and around the frizzy hair that grew up and out instead of down. Larry told me he had some black blood, that somehow even though I was the palest white with Swedish ancestry, he was proud of his African heritage. The mystery was solved as my dad snorted when I asked why my brother was African and I was Swedish, but Larry pointed to his mass of bushy hair as if that was sure proof. Pythagoras skirted around in the brown frizzy bush and showed up on his opposite shoulder. He lived in a cage that hung from the rafters in the basement which Larry rigged up to keep Pythagoras safe from our black cat Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s unrealized dream.

Of course I had to have a pet too and finally convinced mom to let me buy a small white mouse and named him Algernon. Larry teased me when I shuddered at the naked pink tail as it slithered through my fingers, but Algernon became my wee buddy and I too walked around with him poking his whiskers out of my pockets. Algernon’s cage was kept in my room which was strictly off limits from the stalker Shakespeare. At night I would fall asleep either to bells that chimed the hour and softly melodic hymns from the church up on the hill, or to the incessant rhythm of Algernon’s treadmill.

When I was in junior high I stressed out about what to do for a project for the science fair. Of course I asked Larry to help, hoping his intelligence would trump his weirdness as he helped me select a topic. I was eager to start when he suggested that I try to train Algernon to do tricks. He extolled the traits of Algernon and told me that white mice were bred to be lab animals, so surely they must be pretty smart. Was I dumb enough to think the mice were doing experiments instead of being experimented upon? I listened to my big brother and we made our plans. Poor Algernon hid in my pocket nibbling a carrot while we discussed his fate.

Larry helped me build a small box from scraps of wood in the basement. It had a 2” piece of net across the center which made it look like a mouse sized tennis court. I was going to train Algernon to jump over the net. I thought I could just put a treat on the other side and when I said “Jump” he would see the food and hop on over there. That seemed harmless enough, but Larry said that was too easy. “Algernon won’t hear the word “Jump” and hop over the net, your idea will never work”.  He said, “To be scientific we have to be more sophisticated than that! This is a science fair Algernon is going to after all!”

So he lined the bottom of the box with copper screening and got some wire and a switch. I was getting a bit nervous watching him. His mouth twitched a little like it did when he made me a Dagwood sandwich and snugged sardines up to my pickles and then topped it off with an Oreo and mustard. He then hooked the wire up to a black box. “What’s that?” I asked, wondering how this project had gotten away from me. He said it was a transformer. The new plan was to put Algernon in the box on top of the shiny copper screen and then while I said, “Jump” Larry would flip the switch and allow a jolt of electricity to snake down the wire to the screen and shock my wee buddy. Larry said that would help Algernon learn what “Jump” means and he would leap over the net and get his treat. The plan was to train the mouse and then eventually be able to remove the screen once he learned his lesson.

What was I thinking? It was MY project, MY mouse and I didn’t want to shock him! Where was PETA when I needed them?!  But PETA wouldn’t come along until 1980, way too late for poor Algernon.

I made a chart to track our data and on the first day I gently put Algernon on the screen, said “Jump!” and Larry threw the switch. Algernon’s whiskers twitched, his tail twitched and went straight up in the air. His nose quivered and caught wind of the cheese over the net and he jumped and nibbled the cheese. Did it work?

We tried it again, twitch, quiver, jump. Twitch, quiver, jump. I put my finger on the screen one time when Larry let ‘er rip and felt a burning tingle go up my hand. But Algernon was a trooper and really loved cheese. Plop as he landed on the screen, “Jump!”, zap, twitch, quiver, jump!  I got a red ribbon at the science fair and aside from being a bit plumper; Algernon seemed none the worse for wear.

But day after day Algernon got more sluggish. I no longer heard his treadmill at night and I noticed a funny rash forming around his tail. It was spreading and his sleek white fur was falling off around the rash. Shakespeare needed a vaccination so I took Algernon along to the vet. We sat on the bench waiting our turn, the sleek black cat and the white mouse, together awaiting their fate. I was given a white powder for Algernon’s rear end. My mouse had diaper rash. Or so the vet thought.

I dangled Algernon by his tail and shook on the powder, but it didn’t seem to help. Algernon was getting worse and worse. His whiskers didn’t seek treats and he no longer poked his head up in his cage wanting to ride in my pocket. I was sad and wondered if that copper wire had shocked my poor pet to an early death.

My granddad came to visit and I heard my dad and Larry talking to him about what we had done to Algernon. Granddad decided the most merciful thing would be to put Algernon out of his misery. He gently took my innocent Algernon, stroked his back with a gnarly finger and put him in his pocket. “I’ll take care of it, don’t you worry”. So I wiped my eyes and went to my room trusting my Granddad to do the right thing. But Larry followed him out the back door and watched my Granddad clobber Algernon with a shovel, smash him good, and bury him out under the bushes along the edge of our yard.

Algernon was a true lab mouse, smart as his little mouse brain allowed, and sacrificed for the advancement of science. Larry wasn’t supposed to tell me what happened out in the backyard that sad day, but years later he let the mouse, er, cat out of the bag and told me the whole story.  Algernon was replaced by a gerbil named Aristotle. Aristotle was never subjected to such shocking treatment and lived to the ripe old age of 2. During his allotted years on earth I treated him gently. But every once in awhile I would go to the bushes in the backyard and take flowers for Algernon.

Larry currently lives in the mountains of southern Arizona and is still eccentric. He definitely made my childhood more interesting!