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. Not that I haven’t met my share of weird real people over the years, and, 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 in enclosed shopping centers or the sidewalks of strip malls. 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 artist but a person I originally thought was a customer. The following is true and took place in San Francisco in about 1980.
* * *
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 calm and 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. I was protesting, you see. It was twenty dollars, and you have to admit twenty dollars for lunch is ridiculous.” He paused, continuing to look perfectly normal. “It's inflationary, that's all. I said I would pay seventeen dollars, but the other three were 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,” I said. 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.” In a little while he'd be gone and 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 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 had 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 pocket. I never saw him again.