It is not a little unnerving to meet a fictional character you’ve created.
Yet there, yesterday, was the character named Rope who, when I last imagined him, was kneeling face down on a downtown sidewalk with his eyes full of broken glass, slowly bleeding to death to end a short story called “Orange and Peel.” Yesterday he sat, flesh and blood, on the steps of a flower shop between Hingston and Beaconsfield in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grace neighbourhood.
Or at least there was the real-life inspiration for Rope, my entirely fictionalized doppelganger that I now instinctively think of as really being the really real person. I did not even recognize him initially, and was about four strides past before the sound of his voice calling out for spare change made me stop and go back to put $1.65 in the white panhandler’s hat lying beside him on the sidewalk.
Completely unsurprisingly, he did not recognize me at all, though I used to stop and chat with him daily, often twice a day coming and going, when he was operating on the block of Peel Street between Ste. Catherine and de Maisonneuve. In those days, three or four ancient years ago, he was routinely drunk, frequently horribly physically damaged, yet exuded the toughness of rope stretched to its snapping point.
Today, or more precisely yesterday, I saw a dead man walking sitting on those flower shop steps.
He did not have any broken glass in his eyes. He did not have any window light, either. He has, he told me, HIV. His left arm has been battered by a last gasp fight with a coke head who was wielding a baseball bat. I reminded him of the time I saw him put the run on three smart-mouthed McGill kids who thought they were dissing a broken down bum and got the spit scared out of them when he jumped straight up from his sitting spot on the sidewalk and challenged them one and all.
“The last I saw them, they were running away from you down de Maisonneuve,” I said. “I hope they learned something.”
I thought the memory might make him laugh. He looked sorrowful. He looked away from me. He lowered his head.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “I did a lot of stupid things.”
His past tense, in this case, did not indicate a changed life. It signaled hope lost for any future tense. I know his real name isn’t Rope. I spoke his real name out loud.
“Billy,” I said. “That’s your name, isn’t it?”
“It’s really William,” he said.
“But you go by Billy, don’t you?”
“That always helped me fool the French cops. They could never figure that one out.”
Then he did laugh with a mouth full of missing teeth. I gave him some folding money for what he said was the purchase of hamburger meat and bread. I fiercely refuse to insult him by doubting. He walked with me to a small grocery market a block away. I went on my way and he went on whatever is left of his.
Fiction writers, being neurotic and interiorized, are known to fuss over the appropriation for their own craft (crass?) purposes the elements of other people’s lives. I, being no less neurotic and interiorized than anyone, stumbled around in that square peg-round hole country until I accepted that making up stories from the raw materials of God’s world is just the way my brain works, just the way my central nervous system experiences the world. And it works at least until the genesis of one of those stories is there, flesh and blood, really real.