by Amy Lane
I live a tiny life—most of us do, unless we’re traveling. But for most of us, work is a thing of routine. Even writers, whom many people assume simply write when the “muse” moves us, set hours when we write for a living. “These are the hours I work. This is when I have to be productive. I can quit when these tasks are done.”
And outside of work, the rest of our lives are often circumscribed. I swear, I could put my car on an electric track that went from the gym to one kid’s school to the other kid’s school, to Del Taco to the grocery store, and 80% of the time, those are the only places I’d need to go.
But in spite of having a predictable tortoise life, I have a rather hoppy rabbit mind, and if it doesn’t have new places to hop to, I shall go simply mad.
Books are my escape—but reading time is limited to in my car as I’m waiting for my kids to get out, or a few precious pages a night before I fall asleep. On the whole, most of my brain travels happen from talking to other people.
Talking to strangers is my gateway to the world.
One day, as I was pushing for a deadline and thinking, “Oh God, what do we have to eat? The kids are going to want dinner, what am I going to feed them? It’s sort of a job requirement!” I heard a knock at my door.
The teenager waiting there was adorable. Curvy, pretty, and Latina, with a slightly crooked smile and apple cheeks, Daisy’s first words were her sales pitch: “Hi, I’m Daisy, and I run a business where I make and deliver tamales. I was in your neighborhood making deliveries and I have extra and would you like to buy some of my overstock? It’s ten dollars per dozen, I have pork, chicken, and beef, and I’ve been selling tamales for five years, and I helped my mom buy a house, and now I’m trying to raise money for a car so I can go to college next year after I graduate.”
I mean, wow.
It was like, here I was, my rabbit mind dying to go hopping anywhere but my computer, and Daisy dropped a giant load of carrots, personality and dinner on my doorstep.
Of course I had to talk to Daisy.
Daisy had learned to make tamales from her mother, who had learned from her mother and so on. One of my best friends in high school had a tamale making family—it’s often a part of Hispanic culture—and I’d been there to help what was usually a family endeavor. I asked Daisy about her family and found out that she was one of the first people in her family to go to college, and that her grandparents were from Mexico and that selling tamales had been Daisy’s idea and her mommy (her word) helped her. Daisy went out into the world and sometimes her uncles helped her deliver and sometimes her brother did, and now that she had a license she borrowed her uncle’s car.
She was going to college. She wanted to run a catering business because she loved cooking authentic Mexican food and she wanted to do it right, and make money, and do something she loved.
I loved talking to Daisy—and the tamales were seriously some of the best I’d ever had. I told her to visit the next time she had overstock, and she did. That time I talked to her about business cards and schedules and publicity. The next time we talked about filling out college applications and which junior college she wanted to go to.
Every time I opened the door to her, Daisy said, “HI, it’s the tamale girl again. Would you like to buy some tamales?”
Once, when I was gone on a business trip, Mate told me that “The girl came by—“
“She said she was the tamale girl.”
“Okay. Daisy.” Mate is always puzzled by the small talk that allows me to know people’s actual names.
“Anyway, the kids told me I should buy her stuff because it’s good, but I don’t remember what you do to it.”
I walked him through—salsa or tamale sauce (we go with canned stuff because I’m not a cook) and cheese. Take them out of the wrappings first, even the cornhusks, layer the sauce and cheese and bake. Mate’s not stupid—he can cook with some direction—and the tamale girl became a blessing. It felt like serendipity—every time I thought, “Oh Lord, I am so timed out, I am so tired of fast food, and I would really like to cook for my kids!” Daisy was there.
The last time I talked to Daisy she told me that she was starting college and she might be too busy to keep up her little cottage industry. I was sad for me because I would miss out on her tamales, but excited for her, because all of that energy, all of that initiative—this kid needed to go somewhere, somewhere awesome. Somewhere besides my front door, which is just as much of my tiny life as it has always been.
That was the time I told Daisy that I’d written her in a book. (Coming out in January.) I told her that I wrote gay romance, so I’d needed to give her a gay older brother who took over her deliveries and found a prince, but the inspiration had come from her.
She was so excited she teared up and hugged me. She didn’t think she was very interesting. She didn’t think her story was cool enough to be in a book.
I thought she was awesome.
And her lesson is invaluable.
My restless, hoppy mind is great at wandering off by itself. I will be plugging along on my actual work and suddenly my brain is bouncing in a faraway locale with exotic companions—sometimes even off world surrounded by people more humanoid than human.
But the most fascinating people don’t always exist off world or far away. Very often the human struggle you understand the most, with the human beings you wish most to portray, originates in your back yard. Yes, even in the space of that that same old circuit sweep between the gym and the schools and the store, life and death and love and loss are dancing delicate arabesques that can sustain your attention for hours and leave you feeling better for it.
Sometimes the best characters are the ones who knock on your door.