Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Girl in the Lime Green Dress: CriMemoir by Mark Pryor

Mark Pryor is an Assistant District Attorney in Travis County, Texas and author of the Hugo Marston series of books. His latest, The Hollow Man, is a stand alone thriller set in Austin. His contribution to the CriMemoir series draws on experiences as a prosecutor and y'know, based on this piece, I'd say it sounds like a good place to take inspiration from.

Girl in the Lime Green Dress: CriMemoir by Mark Pryor

I sat at the prosecutor's table and waited for the jailers to bring in the prisoner. Keys jangled on the other side of the steel door, which finally opened with a clank. All eyes watched as two burly deputies escorted her into the courtroom, shackled at the wrists, the ankles, the waist. She was tiny. A crumpled, pale, waif of a girl and her eyes were wide with something that could have been terror, or surprise. Maybe even hope.

She shuffled before the judge, standing there in her prison pajamas, the black stripes faded to gray and the white stripes dirtied with age and use. They hung from her narrow shoulders, she was the image of a broken bird in drab and dropping feathers.

She was there to ask the judge to take part in the county’s drug court program, a way for her to get clean and stave off the heroin charge she had pending, a serious felony. Those in the program attended court once a week, engaged in treatment and classes, and when they finished their required steps I dismissed the charges. I liked doing that because I believe in rehabilitation over punishment--for most crimes, but especially for drug offenses.

We all watched, me, the judge, defense counsel, and the thirty or so participants in the courtroom, as her soft voice pleaded with the judge to let her into the program, promised she'd succeed, vowed to stay off the drug that was killing her. The judge, a kindly old man, was always going to welcome her in but she wasn't to know that, and so the desperation in her voice, combined with her pathetic figure, captivated us all.

"You'll come back to court next week, you understand?" the judge said.

"Yes, sir, I'll be here, I promise."

She signed some papers at the bench, awkwardly because of the handcuffs, and then she shuffled away through that steel door, back to her cell. I expect she was released a few hours later.

The same time the next week we were back in court, thirty or so t-shirt and jeans-wearing ruffians, former gang members, construction workers, unemployed drifters, all chaffing at the strictures of the drug court program but playing along to get clean, or at least keep their records clean. The bailiff announced the arrival of the judge and a hush settled over the courtroom as he took his seat. He looked at the docket, the list of people supposed to be there. Maybe he'd forgotten about the waif of a girl, I know I had.

And then the double doors to the court swung inwards and, in that quiet moment, we turned to see who it was, completely unprepared for the woman who’d entered, a woman transformed.

She wore a lime green dress, fitted and a little retro, with bright red shoes that seemed to make her ten inches taller. She walked with her head held high, not looking at anyone, and her hair had gone from a tangled mess to a coiffed, shining elegance. She was still pale but her skin seemed to glow now, alabaster. She looked like a 1950's movie star, not just her appearance but her bearing. We were all, every one of us, dumbstruck.

I don't remember the rest of that evening in court. All I recall of the evening was her entrance and the effect she had on us all, the transformation that resonated and confused me.

What I do remember is that she never came back.

In subsequent weeks her name was called by the bailiff but she wasn’t there to respond, and her assigned counselor said she'd not even reported for her initial intake. No one, as far as I know, ever saw her again and I assumed, I suppose we all did, that she’d fallen back into the grasp of the drug that wanted to possess her forever. A drug that, if she didn’t escape it, would one day put her back in handcuffs, in prison rags, and eventually into a grave.

My novel Hollow Man started that second night of drug court, started with her. Two moments with the same human being, flashes of a person who could be in the same place but appear as two utterly opposite things--a shell of a girl, drawn thin and desperate by heroin, and a glamorous, startlingly confident and beautiful woman. Those conflicting images stayed with me for years, and I couldn't stop thinking about how we can be such different versions of ourselves, not just the things we become but the way people see us. Who they think we are. And how they can never really know.

Another true story set me to writing the book. The girl in the lime green dress had smoldered in my imagination for more than two years, waiting for something to bring her to life on the page. It happened over beers one night when a friend told me about a client, a man from Central America who came to Austin and bought a trailer, fixed it up, and rented it out. With the money from that venture he bought another one and fixed it up also, and again rented it out. He continued doing this, one more trailer, then another, driving to each one at the end of the month to collect his rent. He did this for two years. By the time I heard this story the man had around a hundred trailers and, because old habits die hard, he continued collecting his rent, by himself, in cash. Can you imagine, my friend asked, how much cash he has in the back of his van every month?

I could. I could well imagine it, and I also knew I had to put this story into one of my own. I connected them, this quirky, daring Central American businessman, with the beautiful, anonymous girl with alabaster skin, using a sociopathic musician called Dominic. A man who wanted a conventional life, who wanted the normal trappings of a successful career, but a man who wasn't as he seemed, a man who could never be normal no matter how much he wanted it. Like the entrepreneur, he worked hard along the fringes of society but like the girl in green, his demons would out him.

A character tells the tale of the trailer-renting man early in the book, and Dominic and some friends talk about his cash-filled van, a discussion that leads them to give their ideas as to what makes the perfect crime. They don't agree on the elements, and it becomes clear to Dominic that what's perfect for one isn't for another.

Quite soon, the question of the perfect crime becomes more than just theoretical. The girl in the green dress is a central character, too (of course!), and together she and Dominic are faced with the consequences of a crime they’ve cooked up.

This is the tipping point of the story, when Dominic has to decide whether to release the demons living inside in order to save himself, or whether he should try to contain them. One choice puts his survival into his own hands, the other leaves any salvation to the vagaries of chance.

Photo by Dylan O'Donnell
When I started this book I saw this tipping point as a binary decision for Dominic, a choice between two things, a choice that he gets to make. But as I thought about the real girl in green, and the man who drives through dangerous places with a van full of cash, it occurred to me that what seems like a choice may not be. Just as those two, very real, people influenced the creation of Hollow Man, I’m reminded that our habits and addictions, our personalities and the people around us, all combine to shape the events that control our lives and also the directions we chose. The question is whether we have the will and determination to overcome the negatives, the resolve to redirect our lives to where they should be. And, in Dominic’s case, whether he’s willing to live with the collateral damage such redirection will inevitably cause. (Hint: he is…)

I still wonder about the girl in green, I even mention her in the book’s Acknowledgments. I hope she chased away her demons, had the strength and resolve to become the movie star that I caught a glimpse of so briefly, one evening, several years ago. Whatever her situation, I’m grateful that she captured my imagination that evening and provided the spark that eventually set me to writing Hollow Man.

Mark Pryor's latest book, Hollow Man, is out now from Seventh Street Books. Find Mark at his website


Anonymous said...

Hi there, you are using a photo of mine on this page.

I won't charge you but I would like a credit on the image. just (C) Dylan O'Donnell.



Anonymous said...

Its originally from my website

jedidiah ayres said...

sure thing - thanks, Dylan