We meet the character formerly known as Citizen Jim — He is told he will be called Hugo Sark — Bargaining and negotiation commence between author and creation — The real story begins
It had been a good writing day, an occurrence I am less used to than I would like to be. I had only paused to peer at an illegible note when whatever could have remained good about that morning’s writing suddenly made its way through the cracks in the windows and under the doors, leaving my life suddenly and silently.
Kind of like the way my friend Hugo usually shows up on my doorstep.
Hugo Sark. He’s been a part of my life since the last decade of the 20th century, a confusing time for sexual politics, music appreciation, and the direction popular literature might take whether we liked it or not.
We met so long ago that the cereal aisle at the grocery store where we first encountered one another was stacked high and deep with boxes bearing the word “sugar” in their product names. Aunt Jemima was still a 1930s domestic stereotype on syrup bottles and boxes of pancake mix.
Also, fruit wasn’t tricked out with coded labels that told you the name of the product, so as a cashier-in-training I’d had to walk through the produce department trying to memorize each different type of apple, orange, pear, lettuce, tomato, potato, and squash (not to mention the weird things I’d never seen before: jicama, star fruit, fennel) in order to ring them up correctly for customers who maybe didn’t know what the hell they were buying.
I’m not sure where I was going with all that. I’m sorry.
“Whoa! Hold up! What’d you call me?” Hugo asked.
“That’s what you’re called, now.”
“No it isn’t?” he said.
“Yes it is,” I said.
“What is it again?”
“Your new name? Hugo Sark.”
Oh, how I’d been dreading this moment – night and day for years I’d been dreading this moment – and it had finally come. My heart knocked in my chest like a woodpecker on a telephone pole while the hair stood on the back of my neck.
“You can’t just change my name from Citizen Jim to Hugo Sark! Why, I’ll sue you to the Channel Islands and back!”
“You can sue me to the moon and back, but I can’t call you Citizen Jim,” I said. “And that’s that. Drop it.”
Hugo placed a hand on each hip and tapped his foot. “Uh huh. Explain yourself.”
“Marketing-wise, search-engine-wise, everything-to-do-with-the-future-wise, it’s just not feasible. Twenty years ago it didn’t really matter, but calling you Citizen Jim just isn’t going to work anymore.”
“You just said it’s been working for twenty years!” he said. “But now all of a sudden it’s not going to work? Why the hell not?”
“Because that’s how life is,” I said. “That’s what the world is like these days.”
He was trying to assert his power in such a way that it would seem unusurpable, and this became clear when I almost gave in and continued to call him by the name he’d been given from the very beginning. However, it was at my sole pleasure that this character continued to exist, and it was my wish and decision that Citizen Jim should be relegated to the footnotes section of literary history along with the likes of Connie Gustafson, Sherrinford Holmes, and Pansy O’Hara.
Hugo rapped on the window of my reverie with his hairy knuckles. “You’ve got a lot of nerve trying to stuff yourself into a clown car with Truman Capote, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Margaret Mitchell!”
He knew that was the furthest thing from my mind, but I felt solid, forward momentun as soon he reminded me of what he was sure I would never be: a real writer. To keep it going, I decided to swallow my pride and say what I knew he wanted to hear. “You’re right, Precious Lamb. I’m a fraud.”
“That’s better,” he nodded. “I guess Hugo is all right. But can’t you give me a better last name? Something as strong and powerful and virile as I am?”
“How about Hugo Roquefort? Like the cheese? That’s really, really strong,” I said. “Or Hugo Camembert? That’s even stronger!”
“If you don’t get serious about this, I’m gonna punch you in the mouth!” he said, making a fist and biting his bottom lip to make his infamous “tough face.” Then he smiled. “How about Falcon? Falcons are awesome! Hugo Falcon would be an awesome name!”
It was an awesome name, which made not being able to use it that much suckier.
He offered his hand in introduction to an imaginary person. “The name’s Falcon. Hugo Falcon,” he said. “I like it! If you have to stop calling me Citizen Jim, I want to be called Hugo Falcon.”
“That name’s already taken,” I said, snatching two cups from the cabinet and carrying them to the kitchen counter.
“Oh, bullshit! I just made it up a second ago. What real person has such a great name?”
“Some doctor in Georgia,” I said. Sadly enough, this fact had stopped me from giving the name to a detective in a story I had written years before.
“So what?” he said. “There’s plenty of doctors with the same name as characters in books. I bet Ernest Hemingway didn’t care if there was a doctor somewhere named Robert Jordan when he wrote The Bell Tolls for Nobody. Hell, James Oliver Rigney, Jr. didn’t even care that there was a character in a Hemingway book called Robert Jordan. He already had a great name, but he loved the name Robert Jordan better and he just went for it!”
“And? Your point is?”
“I think we should go for it, too, and call me Hugo Falcon!”
“You’re probably right. But I don’t think Hugo Falcon wants to ever have it pointed out that there’s a character like you bearing his awesome, unique name in a story like this. He might be a highly respected radiologist with a robust practice.”
“Yeah, well, he might be a quack, too -” Hugo started.
“- please please please don’t say that!” I said. “Just live with it. We can’t call you Hugo Falcon.”
Also, for some reason, every third or fourth time I typed the word “Falcon” it came out “Flacon.” In addition to being nothing I wanted to deal with for the remainder of ever it also seemed like a good, old-fashioned Bad Sign.
He hit the table with his fist. “Hugo Sark! That’s a helluva note. If I can’t be a powerful Falcon, how about a sly Fox? Fergus Fox is on the case!” he said, shoving an index finger high in the air. His arm dropped to slam his fist on the table again. “All those cool names you’ve given to other characters, and I get stuck with something awful. Why can’t you call me Jack Saturn or Lance Rocket? And don’t say they’re already taken, because, for one thing, those are made-up names for made-up people!”
Hugo was right, in a way. The names he mentioned were used for some of my “made-up people,” not real people who could be pissed off and turn litigious.
“We writers like to call ‘made-up people’ characters,” I said as I got some coffee creamer out of the fridge.
“Ha! Don’t make me laugh! The second thing I was going to point out about using those made-up names was that you never finished any of the stories those other made-up people were in,” he said. “Real writers finish what they start. I think you must be a made-up writer.”
Despite being a demented idiot, and no matter what he was called, Hugo Sark sure knew how to push my buttons like nobody else.
“You know, sometimes I wish I’d never even made you up! Because even with less body hair and less fat you’d still be a pig – and E.B. White’s already got the market cornered on books about pigs!”
“You better watch it,” Hugo said. He flared his hairy nostrils. “I will beat the tar-water out of you if you say one more word!”
“And you know what else? The pig in Charlotte’s Web was actually worth being saved! By a writer! Ha! Ha ha ha!”
Hugo’s head dropped until his chin touched his chest. His bottom lip stuck out and looked like it was quivering.
I said, “Wah wah wah!”
He looked up, but there weren’t any tears in his eyes. They were flashing like strobe lights – with anger!
“I can’t believe you’re saying all this to me. To me, of all the made-up people you’ve ever made up!” he yelled. “I oughta snatch every hair off your head and make a rope to strangle you!”
“You will be called Hugo Sark! End of discussion!”
I rubbed my forehead and took a deep breath. Did other writers have to fight like feral cats over a lump of liverwurst with their characters about what they were going to call them? I knew there were instances in literature where writers’ creations conspired against them, even plotted the murder of their creators. And though I do remember a character yelling at his creator for giving him terrible legs in Spike Milligan’s book Puckoon, I searched my mind and could think of no book where the author and one of the main characters had to negotiate and come to a suitable two-way agreement regarding what that character would be called.
It brought to mind something my grandmother always claimed she would say to her children if they asked her to babysit when she didn’t have the time or desire to watch her grandchildren: “You sure had fun making them, now you can have fun taking care of them.”
Like the conception of most human beings milling around on this ball covered in water, dirt, shit, plastic, and filthy politicians, creating Hugo Sark had been an accident I never quite regretted enough to denounce, even as his character veered from its origins as annoying but well-meaning into the territory of twisted and regrettable, even as his actions and reactions grunted and strained against the edge of every envelope that was supposed to contain them.
“I won’t respond to that name,” he said, standing up. “I’ll bash your head in with a brick before I let you change my name! I’ll slap you so hard you’ll have to stand with your back to a mirror to brush your teeth!”
“If you don’t settle down and let me finish this story, I’ll call you something worse than Hugo – how would you like to be called Carlos Blackheart? Clive Stinko, maybe? How’s Pablo Cosby sound to you?” I asked.
Before he could ponder this and agree to these names I hated, I continued: “One day you’ll go too far, my friend, and you won’t need a name at all. Because I’ll delete every page of every story I’ve ever written about a violent-but-lovable asshole who will be known from this point forward as Hugo Sark.”
Hugo narrowed his eyes at me, but I could still tell they were blazing with revenge-seeking violence. “All right, then! Shut up and tell the story!”
Well. I will. But not today.