Thursday, March 11, 2010

Character sketch: Jeff Greenberg

Jeff Greenberg serves as comic relief in The Devil You Don't Know. He rarely takes anything seriously, except when he absolutely has to.

So when he turns to Michael Reed during a key scene in the book and say something deadly serious, it's that much more effective. Theoretically, of course.

Jeff is the courts reporter for the fictional Peoria Times-Standard, where both Michael and Kris Reed work. Michael is Jeff's boss as well as friend.

Jeff is Jewish. And never lets anyone forget it. He's not the only Jew in the novel, but he's the only one to whom it truly matters. His religion was useful to me, as the author, in making several theological points. He also makes a good foil for Michael's rather dour and cynical personality. Whenever I wrote a scene featuring the two of them, I could see Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in my mind's eye. (For all you kids out there scratching your heads right now, Google them.)

Plus, I really really like Jeff's character. Staley the book editor loved Jeff's character. He's got a heart as big as his sense of humor and he's there when Michael needs him. Mostly, anyway.

The scene below is set on Christmas morning. Michael and his family are getting ready to eat dinner, but Michael is terrified that young Jordan Crane is going to show up and ruin what he hopes will be a quiet and uneventful holiday. But instead of Jordan, it's Jeff looking to vultch Christmas dinner. As usual.



When the doorbell rang shortly after noon, Michael started so violently he knocked his half-full coffee mug over and scattered parts of the robot he was assembling for Connor all over the kitchen floor.

It’s him. It’s Jordan.

“I’ll get it,” Kris called from the living room. Michael stood barefoot amid the toy parts as he waited for his wife to let in the Son of God.

Dear God, I’m losing my frigging mind.

“Well hello there,” he heard Kris say warily. Michael felt on his bare feet a blast of snowy air swirl into the kitchen from the open door. He held his breath.

But instead of the Messiah at the door it was Jeff Greenberg, the only Jew in the world who makes annual Christmas visits. Apparently, he’d finally forgiven his old boss for walking out on him.

Each Christmas, Jeff purchased the most ridiculously dangerous or annoying toys he could find and brought them for the Reed children. He never wrapped them, and instead would just toss each child a Wal-Mart bag. It was his idea of a religious joke, Michael figured, although Kris failed to see the humor in it.

“Jeff! What a pleasant surprise,” Michael said from the kitchen as he wiped up spilled coffee with a paper towel. He’d always appreciated it when Kris bought the expensive two-ply ones and not those cheapies that felt more like rest-area toilet tissue. “And look, presents for the kids! How thoughtful of you.”

“No problem boss,” Jeff said, plopping down on the sofa and putting his wet shoes up on the polished oak coffee table. Kris hurriedly grabbed the morning paper and stuck it under his feet.

“You know Jeff, we’re saving all of your gifts so that if you ever actually procreate, we can re-gift them,” Michael said. “For Hanukkah, or whatever.”

“Awesome,” Jeff said. “So what’s for dinner?”

Jeff always managed to invite himself to all holiday meals. And to be truthful, Michael and Kris enjoyed having him. Despite his offbeat sense of humor, Jeff Greenberg was a good guy and a loyal friend. And Kris had said he was having a tough time at work these days, with no one around to protect his lazy ass.

And so he stayed and ate roast beef, mashed potatoes with gravy, green bean casserole and cherry pie with whipped cream. It was a toss-up as to who ate more, Jeff or Tyler. Either way, there was little left as Jeff burped contentedly, pushed back from the table and unsnapped his jeans. Kris looked alarmed but said nothing.

Ahhhh,” he said, winking at Connor. “You Christians sure know how to celebrate.”

“You really don’t believe in Christmas, Uncle Jeff?” Connor asked, wide-eyed. “That must have been terrible when you were a kid.”

“Awful,” Jeff agreed. “But it’s our punishment for killing Jesus.”

“That’s enough,” Michael said. “No killing Jesus jokes this year. It scares the children. And frankly, it’s in bad taste.”

“What’s gotten into you, boss?” Jeff asked.

“I’m getting cranky in my old age,” Michael said, looking away. “Let’s drop the Jesus humor. It’s not funny.”

“Go ahead and tell him, Dad,” Tyler said, grinning. Kris looked up from her dessert.

“Tell me what?” Jeff asked.

“Don’t,” Michael said menacingly to his eldest son. “I mean it.”

“Dad thinks this goofy kid in town might be the Messiah or whatever it’s called,” Tyler said, ignoring his father. “He thinks he performed some kind of miracle.”

Michael glanced at Connor, who still didn’t know he’d been killed by a car. Luckily, the kid was shoveling pie into his mouth and didn’t notice.

“That’s enough, Tyler,” Michael warned.

“What kind of a miracle?” Jeff asked, grinning. “Did he walk across the Illinois River? Feed the masses with catfish and Wonder Bread?”

“Dad doesn’t like Wonder Bread,” Connor said, cherry pie all over his face. “He makes us eat that yucky whole grain stuff.”

“It’s healthier,” Michael said. “And if you must know, Jeff, the goofy kid is insane. And so is his mother. End of story.”

“Sounds interesting to me,” Jeff said.

“It’s not,” Kris said, and something in her voice quieted both Jeff and Tyler. “Let’s go into the living room and have our coffee.”

COMING TOMORROW: Nothing. I'm working long days and evenings on Friday and Saturday. I'll be back Sunday night with a personal post and will resume the character sketches on Monday. Please let me know if you are enjoying them. I only have a few left. I think I'll introduce you to Matt Folds on Monday. He's a prim and proper elderly theology professor at a fictional private university who struggles mightly with his faith. Maybe the fact that he's a closeted gay man has something to do with that? Stay tuned. :)


  1. "Feed the masses with catfish and Wonder Bread" -- LOL

  2. Hey Terry,

    I just want you to know that I am thoroughly enjoying these character sketches. You have created such great characters and I love your, I mean, their sarcasm and sense of humor.

    I am playing catch up today on all the comments. Forgive me for the lack of commenting. I have been visiting everyday and reading though.

    Your doing great Terry

  3. Thanks Gina. I wasn't sure if anyone was enjoying them, although I am. :)

    Glad to know you're alive, well and out there. I'm courtside in Peoria right now, allegedly working. Ahem.

  4. Another great character and nice to have a comic foil in the novel. I'm loving watching this unfold! Good luck at the game today!