Fifteen Characters in Search of a Better Author — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The rapid, staccato knock, perk and businesslike, startled me out of the beginnings of the trance I sink into whenever I write. Sometimes a fully-formed character emerges out of the trance, but much more often I just get a really good nap. I was startled because my office, which is really a basement storeroom stuffed with boxes, camping gear, and a dismembered eternal sukka, seldom gets visitors. Good thing, too, as there is barely enough room left over for me, my computer, and my bike. I sighed at the disturbance to my carefully-honed creative process, pushed myself out of my expensive, well-upholstered, and really comfortable executive chair, and opened the door.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
I found myself facing a thirty-something woman wearing an unzipped parka over a long, dark-blue dress. She looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place her. She held out her hand assertively and frowned when I hesitated before shaking it. Behind her I spotted a middle-aged woman with a hiking pole, but she quickly disappeared into the shadows of the corridor.

“Peppy Samuels,” she said. Then, seeing that the name didn’t connect, she added “Number 70. ‘Hooligan Oil.’”

“Oh, right,” I said. “It’s been a while.”

She wrinkled her nose at the sweaty gym clothes I’d hung up to dry over my bike and took in the general mess. Coming to my senses, such as they are, I drew a plastic folding chair off a hook and opened it for her.

“Have a seat,” I suggested. She took a glove out of her parka pocket and wiped down the chair before sitting down. Then, turning toward the door, she called out “Looks like the rest of you will have to stand out there!”

“The rest of you?”

“We’re a delegation,” she explained. Leaning over, she pushed the door open wider so I could see her companions. She gestured toward a sandy-haired young man with a dreamy expression, dressed in IDF fatigues. His arm was draped casually over the shoulder of a tousle-haired teenager with downy sideburns. “This is Ami, number 62, ‘Nobody Smiles,” and number 64, ‘Odysseus Eats.’ He’s representing the soldiers. His friend here is Felix Mendelssohn, number 43, ‘Piano Lesson,’ representing the classical composers.”

Ami leaned over to peer inside the office and then commented to the shimmery figure of a woman in a long-sleeved white blouse who took form behind him: “No fish.”

“That’s Miss Violet, number 80, ‘Miss Violet’s Piano’ and number 85, ‘The Last War But One,’ representing the ghosts,” Peppy said.

“What about me?” shouted a voice in the back.

“Dave, number 48, ‘The Truth About Dave,’ representing the one-dimensional satiric characters,” Peppy informed me as she motioned forward a dark-skinned middle-aged man with a paunch. “I can’t properly introduce you to the representative of Iraqi Jewish characters from Holon, number 57, ‘Bananas,’ because you didn’t even bother to give him a name.” Peppy gave me a stern look. “And back there you’ll see Theodor Herzl, number 69, ‘The Devil and Theodor Herzl,’ representing the historical figures you name explicitly; Pini, number 71, ‘Dirty Jokes,’ representing historical figures whose names you changed and stories you played fast and free with, and Gali, number 91, ‘Next Summer’s War,’ who’s helping me represent the women.”

“How nice of you to come by,” I said, but not with a lot of enthusiasm. “Does anyone need to use the bathroom? It’s four and a half flights up.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Peppy assured me. “We want to talk business.”

“Wait, just a second,” I said as I sat down and typed out a few sentences. The woman with the hiking pole suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision but immediately vanished. “I just want to get this down before I forget it. You know, I’m writing my hundredth ‘Necessary Story’ today.”

“He’s the Galila Ron-Feder-Amit of 1800-word English-language short stories on Israeli and Jewish themes,” Gali remarked with what seemed to me to be more than a trace of sarcasm.

“Part of being a successful writer,” I shot back, “is knowing that most of my readers haven’t a clue who Ron-Feder-Amit is and the fact that she’s written over 400 books. How about Joyce Carol Oates?”

Gali shook her head. “You’re more on the Ron-Feder-Amit level.” I typed another couple sentences.

Herzl, a pair of gray kid gloves in hand, stepped into the room to read my screen. Peppy told him to stop being so pushy but he cited a professional interest, as a playwright, in my writing. He shook his head. “There you go being self-referential again,” he disapproved. “It’s the last refuge of lazy writers.” I glared and Peppy shooed him out.

“We’ve come to call your attention to the cavalier treatment you accord your fictional characters.” Peppy removed a piece of lined paper from her parka pocket and unfolded it. “We feel like we’re being used. You make us up and then cast us aside when you don’t need us anymore.”

“You appeared in a double story spread over two issues!” I objected. “And Ami and Miss Violet got two stories each. I even made Ami into a major character in my novel-in-stories Duties of the Heart!”

“Which is sitting in your desk drawer because no publisher will touch such a disjointed, depressing, and baroque narrative,” Ami pointed out. “So what good does it do me?”

“Tolstoy gave Anna Karenina a thousand pages,” Pini called out. “And I’m supposed to settle for two?”

“Look,” I said. “I write short stories. I get two pages. Fifteen hundred, eighteen hundred words, that’s what I do. You don’t like it, stay out of my imagination.”

“Point Two,” Peppy said, going down her list. “Pay. Do you think you can create us and use us for nothing? Excuse me, that’s unacceptable.”

“Given the peanuts I get from The Jerusalem Report, I can hardly afford paid labor. But hey, you get free exposure!” Great retort, I thought, as I typed it on my keyboard.

Mendelssohn groaned. “Like I need your exposure. I’m, you know, a little more famous than you?”

“Point three: pensions,” Peppy said. “Who’s going to pay for the old characters’ home two decades down the line?”

I gave her a guilty look. “I was under the impression that pretend people don’t age.” That woman with the hiking pole again. I couldn’t place her. It was driving me crazy.

“Only if your writing is immortal,” Pini snarked. Miss Violet seconded him with a sinister laugh. I felt something rubbing against my legs and looked down to see a very pregnant orange tabby cat exploring the office as if she were looking for a good place to whelp.

Hagar, number 17, from the story of the same name,” Peppy informed me. “Representing your animal characters.”

“Oh, come on,”

“Point four, damages,” Peppy said.

“Damages? For what?”

“For what? You made me out to be a selfish ingrate,” complained the banana man. “I was shamed before my entire family.”

“And you made fun of my people’s tragedy,” shouted a young man with a mustache and an Arab accent.

“Oh no,” I said.

“Yes,” Peppy nodded. “Omar, from number 19, ‘My Big Fat Iraqi Hummus Joint.’”

“It’s been really nice having you all over,” I said, turning back to my computer to type in all the previous lines, “but I have a deadline.” I pointed at the screen.

“Not so fast.” The gruff voice had a Bronx accent, and the office filled with smoke from a cheap cigar. “Leo Shocken, number 21, ‘The Oration Vocation,’ manager for the big stars and now representative of the Fraternal Brotherhood of Haim Watzman’s Fictional Characters.”

Shocken drew a wad of papers out of his briefcase and shoved them at Inga, his svelte, silver-blonde assistant, who held them up for me to see. “As you will see here, your characters have, individually and collectively, declared themselves free agents.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I’m going to find us a new author.” Shocken grabbed the papers back from Inga, who tottered on her high heels and almost fell onto Peppy Samuels’ lap. “Someone who will treat us better.”

“We have families to support!” cried out a plaintive voice. It was, I could see, the Desperate Soul, from number 51, “Confessions of a Cross-Sitter,” representing the Haredim.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. But I glanced with concern at the new story on my computer screen, where the name of every character present appeared. “Anyway, you’re all under copyright.”

“We have an offer already,” Shocken shouted. “From—what’s her name?” He turned to Gali.

“Galila Ron-Feder.”

“She’s got ten manuscripts on her desk and just needs to plug in the names,” Shocken declared. “And she makes a million times more money than you do.”

I guffawed. “Great. Go on. Get read by third-graders.”

“Joyce Carol Oates, too. I have feelers out in the States.”

It was time to call his bluff. “You know very well,” I said sternly, “that successful writers only want Jewish characters who live in New York or who have been through the Holocaust. Preferably both.”

Schocken choked on his cigar.

I had the upper hand. “This mutiny is over,” I declared. “But listen, I have a soft spot for all of you. I feel your pain. I want to help. So I’m going to do something big for you.”

I typed a few words. Peppy peered. “And they all lived happily ever after,” she read out loud to the assembled figments.

“Hey,” said a red-headed young man who’d just come in—Nadav, number 47, from “Plane Story.” “That’s really nice of you.”

“But it’s not really true, you know,” said a quiet voice from the back. It was the middle-aged schoolteacher with the hiking pole. Now I remembered her. Number 74, “The Dryad.”

I shrugged. “It’s the best I can do. Hey, this was really nice. But next time, try calling first.”

“It’s our way to appear out of the blue,” Peppy Samuels noted.

“Oh yeah,” I said. “I forgot. I guess I just need to be ready whenever. So just pop by whenever the inspiration takes you.”

“Maybe we will,” she said, as I slipped back into my creative stupor. “But maybe we won’t.” I heard Miss Violet snicker, but when I turned around, they were gone.

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More Necessary Stories!

This is Haim’s 100th Necessary Story! To celebrate, come see a staged reading of some of his favorites at Kehilat Yedidya in Baka, 12 Nahum Lifshitz Street in Jerusalem, on Thursday February 11 at 7:30 p.m. For details, and to book performances in other locations, contact Haim at hwatzman@gmail.com.

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