The nap was ill-advised, one more sign of a subtle slide into the blues, and the interruption was jarring, a phone call from my mother, one more call punctuated with "and on a family note," as if my mother's life is a scripted television show. I pulled the blanket in, got up on my elbows on the couch, and started to watch the shaft of sunlight that cut through the room like the ductwork of this celestial basement. The air was full of dust, and I was reminded how much I used to love this pastime, just sitting and watching each mote as it makes a leisurely passage through the sunlight.
I sat and watched the shaft of sunlight and the way each fragment of dust has its own character and path through the air, how some little bits of fluff are shaped like corkscrews and spin as they drift, while others are too small to make out, just little specks of something in the warm light.
The couch I was curled up on is the one I just "pre-herited" from my mother, or, rather, finally picked up after casually mentioning that I might take it off her hands some months prior, and it was already sitting in some stuffy parlor when Lincoln was shot, a veteran of six or seven generations, depending on how you count. Its ergonomy and comfort are fully in line with the mindset of the time, in which the body was seen as a lustful, demonic object of temptation, and the sofa is built with that in mind, to never let one forget the price to be paid for sin.
I sat there, suspended in the wrong time, wrapped up in a blanket and propped up against the worn-smooth wood of the sofa's arm, and watched the specks of dust twirling in the sun.
I drove up to Baltimore with my stereo blaring, singing along as hard as I could in hopes of dispelling the sense of displacement I've been feeling lately, and I listen at levels that leave my ears ringing when I step out of the car, in spite of all wisdom as to why I shouldn't.
Sometimes you just need the damage.
I swept off the highway, followed the curving street around the baseball stadium, turned right onto Pratt Street, and sat there in traffic, crawling along at a rate that turned a six minute stretch of road into an hour and twenty minute one. As I crept along, I took in every microscopic detail of the stretch of the Inner Harbor, watching faces, watching cars, watching the way people were walking, watching their smiles. The music blared, but it did not touch me. I got angrier and angrier.
When the traffic reached its final point of constriction, where they'd closed down the whole road and shunted everyone northward on Gay Street, I stared down the street to where a sparkling mass of fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances clustered around a building that I assumed had very recently been burning. There was just the thinnest haze of smoke in the air, and I felt disappointed.
Sometimes you just need the damage.
I used to lug my two-tone Royalite portable in its imitation calfskin case to odd places, places where I could just sit and type out pages and pages of yearning, incomplete text that I'd look over with a jaundiced eye, thinking why doesn't this ever seem right?
The best place of all was right down at the highway, right where the comparative bustle of Route 216 passed followed the line of the ridge where our house stood, and I'd carry the imitation calf-skin case through the hostile lands of the neighborhood they built by tearing down the wild woods at the dead end, make my way down the sloping street to where all the new houses were coming into being in a desert of red clay, circumnavigate the muddy drainage pond there, and disappear into the concrete pipe that'd been built to drain the hillside into the low-lying swampy flats under the power lines. The landscaping was wrong, and the drain swales merely sent the water into long, curving ditches that lined the exit ramps, where mosquito larvae would breed with abandon, twitching and flipping around in the stagnant water there, under the faint rainbows of an oil sheen.
Because of this, the concrete pipe was almost always dry, and a perfect refuge.
I'd cart my typewriter and my bookbag through the pipe, walking a staggering, stooped-over walk until I reached my tiny nirvana, an open chamber between the two sides of the divided highway where sunlight filtered in through a drain grating overhead and made a beautifully noir painting of lines against the rough-cast concrete casing of the connecting chamber. I'd get settled in, curling up under the grating, pull out a book, and read, losing myself in the text for hours, sometimes, and then I'd unzip the case, pull out my little typewriter, and start clattering away in the echoing concrete hideout I'd found there.
I finally cleared the traffic, threading my way through the last vestiges of traffic, and reached for my cell phone an instant before it started humming on its own.
"Joe, are you still coming?" asked David.
"Yeah," I groused, "I've been stuck in fucking traffic for a goddamned hour and a half on Pratt Street. I'll be there in five minutes or so."
It was actually fifteen, but I stopped in front of his apartment, a former barber shop converted into a residence by a few modifications that didn't begin to disguise its former use, beeped my horn, and picked him up to run a few errands before we'd get to work.
"I need to go down to the post office on Fayette, Joe."
We headed back into the traffic.
I'd sit and read there, with my back propped against my book bag so I wouldn't have to lean against the raw concrete, and I read my way through whole worlds, following Jean Valjean through his fugitive life until I wore the covers off my copy of Les Miserables, escaping the destruction of the planet with Arthur Dent, and drifting from place to place to place in a pre-cast buried concrete drain culvert. In all those books, I found places that so real that they exist in my memory today right alongside the places I'd actually been, and I can close my eyes and have the sense of them come back to me with such force and power that it's enough to take my breath away.
I want to do that, I thought. I want to make places like that, so I can go there and get away, so that I can be anywhere but here.
I'd tuck in a bookmark, lay down my book, reach for the two-tone Royalite portable, and start writing, right there under the highway, where the sound of passing traffic came through in waves, low and rumbling, like the sound of surf, or of small earthquakes, so localized that I felt like I was the only one in the whole world who could feel them. The keys would echo in the tunnels, a lonesome sound, almost, but for the dreams they were bringing to life.
Jay Carson stood at the edge of the highway, holding an old duffel bag and the beat-up case of his trusty typewriter. The traffic came and went, and no one stopped, not for a long, long time, until his protruding thumb finally attracted a passing driver's attention. A light grey Studebaker with a mismatching lavender fender pulled up, and the driver rolled down her window and asked Jay where he was headed.
"Anywhere but here, Misd," he said.
"Goddammit," I grumbled, and reached for the correction fluid.
His apartment is exactly like what you'd expect a writer's apartment to look like, a combination of clutter and a lifetime of collecting, scattered in the old barber shop under a wall of shelves made of concrete blocks and planks that is so overloaded with books that I think it's more likely he'll die in a literary avalanche than from cancer. I march in, still angry from my time in traffic, dump my things on the well-worn Eames lounger that sits facing his writing desk, and sit down, staring at his other desk, where his forty year-old Hermes 3000 sits on the floor, locked in its case.
David puttered, looking for something, and I did what I always do while he's puttering, just exploring the place with my eyes, seeing the poster Robert Indiana gave him here, or the photos of David having Borges sign his bare chest in one of those astonishing grand gestures he's capable of, one of those things that's the fuel that keeps me going when his chaos gets to me. I glance through the titles on the teetering shelves and the names are not just familiar—they're interconnected, all friends of his, or coworkers, or people whose lives have crossed paths with his.
While I was waiting, I looked at the slides arranged on his desk, part of the ongoing project we've been working on, and one set is a collection of fading shots of one more of his insane, impossible events—a one-on-one demolition derby between David and P.J. O'Rourke over a woman, and I can't help but smile and feel as if I am in one of those places of power, a place so perfect that it may as well have been one more memory taken from the pages of a book, like Burroughs' Tangier or Manderley or the Heart of Gold, one more place I'd've had to dream up if it didn't already exist.
"Would you like something to drink, Joe?" asked David, and I shook my head, not looking up from where I rooted through his desk, rooting through his personal things and his work as though I belonged there.
"Turn on the stereo so we can listen to the new mix I made of 'Frozen Tears', okay?" I said, and touched the pale green case of his Hermes 3000 with the tip of my shoe, almost expecting to be healed of my case of the blues, redeemed by the touch of that marvellous machine.
Eventually, I found that I was the only person who ever visited the junction chamber under the highway, and I started to leave my things there, hanging my bookbag and the case for my Royalite on the rough stubs of rebar that jutted from the concrete wall on one side. I'd make my way down there, after school, and sit and read and type and dream and listen to music on the old Craig cassette recorder with a shiny metal joystick instead of the more common piano keys, and I'd stay there until it started to get dark out, suspended in my own time zone, in my own world.
Over time, my protagonist began to lead an interesting life, albeit one with rendered amid a splatter of correction fluid,
Jay stood on the sidewalk, sheltering himself against the rain under the awning of a grimy-looking typewriter repair shop, waiting for the owner to arrive. The traffic drove by, sluggishly, and it made him melancholy and a little anxious, like he wasn't sure if he expected someone to pull up and hand him a million dollars, or laugh at him. A grey Studebaker pulled up, parked, and the owner of the typewriter store str[[ed
"Hey, David—did you find the key to the case for the Hermes?"
"No, you'll have to use a screwdriver," he said, going to the kitchen to find one. I was being oddly unproductive, but then I'd done my work ahead of time, and was primarily there to report on my progress, and show off the latest mix I'd done of the sound piece we'd been working on for years. The cancer's changed his whole manner, and sometimes, I can't help but catch the feeling of panic from him, flooding my own system with the hard realization that there's just not enough time, that the end of the world is slamming backwards, towards us, towards everything, and there's just nothing that can be done, nothing at all.
He handed me the screwdriver, I gingerly pried the latch open, and the case swung up like a giant clamshell, revealing the amazing green of the Hermes—the pale, delicate industrial green of the case, the keys the color of mint pastilles, the lighter green of the markings on the back that read Made in Switzerland - Paillard S.A. Yverdon. I rolled in a piece of paper, pulled the carriage return lever, and started, slowly, to type.
With this machine, I could rule the world. With this m
"Crap, David, it always wants to hang up at this point on the page," I complained, "but man, oh, man does this thing have a smooth action."
"It needs a lot of work, Joe," said David, more than a little annoyed that I could not seem to stay on task, or focus on the work at hand.
I babied the carriage past the sticking place and kept on typing, clattering out a rambling line about my prospects for world domination, over and over, until I'd nearly filled the page.
"Hey, would you mind if I borrowed this for a while?" I asked.
David rolled his eyes.
"I'll clean it up and oil it and get it working right again," I added.
"Fine, Joe," he said, "but can we please get back to work?"
I shrugged, nodded, and carried on, but all I could see was green.
Watching my mother work, I got ideas. My mother was an accomplished commercial artist, most famously the person who executed the design on the Kiwi Shoe Polish cans, as I'd brag to everyone I knew, all of whom knew her work as if it were a tin Mona Lisa, as if she'd changed the world. In my head, I saw her as a cultural force, even if, in retrospect, she changed the world in very small ways, or, more precisely, in very subtle ways.
She'd sit at her table, carefully laying out Letraset type and strips of print my father would type out on his Selectric, putting it all together with a little machine that waxed the backs of each piece so she could meticulously arrange it on the page until she'd have a perfect flyer or poster or postcard ready for the printer's camera, a sandwich of layered cutouts that would soon enough come together into something perfect and professional.
I kept getting stuck with my protagonist, kept losing the threads that strung his shaky, thematically-unstable life together, and retyping the pages, over and over, just made me want to cry, and made me want to give up, and leave him standing there at the side of some road, forever waiting for another grey Studebaker to come along. I watched my mother and found my inspiration and headed back down to the drainage pond and the culvert with a pair of scissors and a tube of mucilage that looked almost like maple syrup, with a wedge-like rubber tip used to smear the horse glue onto paper.
Laying out my work in progress on the cement floor of the chamber, I started to cut and paste, cutting out paragraphs and perfect lines and laying them out on new pages, arranging them so that the story made some sort of sense, or at least as much sense as it was likely to make, given my unformed grasp of narrative. For a time, I'd go there and alternate between typing and gluing, and in a roundabout way, Jay Carson started to have a life, albeit a relatively stilted one, given the fact that I was trying to write a road novel and I'd only ever traveled with my family.
As the light dimmed through the grate, I'd clip all the pages to a clipboard, hang it on a nail I'd pounded into the concrete with great difficulty, and hang my Royalite beside it before making my way down the long concrete pipe and back into the last golden hour of sun.
"I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred.
That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Miserables."
- Victor Hugo
In time, my protagonist started to live my life for me, making up for all the things that were wrong with the world, heading out onto the road with little more than his clothes and a typewriter, writing the world he wanted, too, in an infinite regression of things, in a story about someone telling a story about someone telling a story, as if, somewhere down the line, at the center of that endless tunnel of words, there would be hope and redemption and love, all the things I thought I needed, all the things that seemed so far from me.
In a storm of keys and scissors and mucilage, I started to dream, and hard.
We talked a while longer, then I folded the Hermes up in its case, packed up my things, and headed for the car, with David following close behind, walking me out in the grand manner in which he does everything.
I drove across Fells Point to Canton with one hand on the green case, smiling.
My great Aunt Ann Mclelland was someone I rarely saw, the widow of my poor uncle Bud, the fattest member of our family, from the side of the family that was geographically closest to us, and yet the most distant, when it came to actually getting together. Still, she was amazing, one of those people so full of light and raucous energy that you couldn't help but be drawn in, and she'd purloined my brother's acoustic guitar at a gathering and regaled us with a whole concert of rowdy, bawdy songs that made everyone laugh and do their best to sing along.
In a quiet moment, one of those in-between times when everyone else was working away at keeping the party going, I sat and talked with her and told her my best stories and listened and felt like I was with a peer, someone who got it, who understood the complex, conflicted nature of things.
"You're gonna be a writer one day," she said, and I just laughed, still thinking that I'd become a scientist or computer programmer or inventor one day, still deluding myself as hard as I could.
"Aww, I don't know about that," I said, but she grasped my hand and held it hard, smiling a bright and joyous smile.
"Take my word for it," she said, "and one day you're going to write a marvellous book and sign it 'To my silly old Aunt Ann, who knew what she was talking about,' okay?"
"Okay," I said, and slipped away to pick at the edges of the cakes and pies that sat in a tantalizing formation in the dining room.
It rained that spring, and rained and rained and rained, so much that the oily trenches along the exit ramp overflowed their banks and sent muddy water coursing through the concrete pipe of the drainage culvert. Blocked from my hideaway, I bided my time, confident that my typewriter and bookbag and clipboard were all hanging at a safe height above the deluge.
Besides, there were other things to be done, other projects to begin.
I stood at the bar at my friend Lorraine's place, just staring at the Hermes 3000 and tapping out little fragments of type as we chatted. Lorraine was busy cooking, washing and slicing exotic mushrooms for dinner, and I was fixated on David's typewriter, noting the amazing accumulation of cigarette tar and grime that had built up over the years, trying to stay fully engaged, but still drifting back into the machinery of the Hermes like a junkie dreaming of his works.
Lorraine's a patient person, though, and she took my demented stenographer act with her usual genteel tolerance, just smiling at my absurd fascination with the beast, even as I fell so deeply into my obsession that I'd just drift off, losing the thread of the conversation at times, responding to her questions and observations with accidentally-amusing non sequiturs even more accidental than my usual non sequiturs.
"I'm sorry, I'm being rude with this thing," I said, getting up to join her in the kitchen to get my hands off the keys, so I could shake it, shake that gnawing compulsion to type type type type type everything I heard or said or thought.
"It's okay," she laughed, and I smiled back, because she knows me well enough to let such offenses slide, and that is a very, very good thing, especially when I'm feeling the way I've been feeling, like I'm just out of time, somehow, like the whole end of the world is looming, slamming backwards in time, driven by the force of a thousand deadlines, coming to crush me.
I'd handwritten the next chapter, scrawling it out in my lumpen penmanship on page after page of college-ruled notebook paper, and I looked forward to the chore of typing it out, of turning it from rough script to something more. I walked down the concrete pipe, hunched over like a monkey, until I reached my sanctuary.
The typewriter, bookbag, and clipboard were all perfectly intact, even after hanging there, unattended, throughout the rainy season, and I smiled, lifted the typewriter case from its hook, and unzipped it, removing the paper sack of silica-gel drying agent I'd thoughtfully tucked in there to keep my machine from rusting, and laid it on the floor where I was going to be working.
I reached for the clipboard, and the instant I touched it, a flurry of dislodged paper fell out of the neatly-clipped stack of pages, falling like curly bits of snow onto the concrete floor of the chamber. In a second, I saw that every single edit I'd done on the sixty-four pages of my novel in progress had come unglued from the humidity and fallen out of my manuscript.
For a moment, I didn't even breathe, not until the scale of the disaster became clear.
I cried for a long, long time, beat the walls, kicked helplessly at the bed of carefully-trimmed sentences and paragraphs, hung the typewriter back up on the wall, and headed back home, my stomach churning from the sucker punch of that moment, from one more unnecessary reminder that I'm just an idiot.
I'm an idiot.
I arrived home, set up a card table and my tools, put out a little alcohol in a sake cup I persuaded Terry to purloin for me from the sushi restaurant we like, and set to work.
David's Hermes was absolutely filthy, smeared with ink and correction fluid and grease and grime and a myriad of other evidences that this was a well-loved, well-used machine, almost radiant with a kind of creative energy that I crave like liquor, that moves me when my spirit is so badly beaten that all I really want is a life like everyone else seems to have, with linear problems and linear rewards and simple distractions.
With a jeweler's screwdriver, I unscrewed the back panel of the machine, laid it out on the side of the table, and stripped away the pieces and parts until the machine was splayed out and exposed, a bristling undersea creature gone furry with lint and grime. I picked out each tuft of lint with a dental pick, brushed away the grit with a fine paintbrush, and vacuumed out everything that didn't belong there.
The mint green plastic knobs were barely green, just caked with forty years accumulation of oils from David's hands and cigarette smoke, and I dipped an old toothbrush into the sake cup of alcohol, lightly brushed the knobs, and scrubbed it all away, until everything was the mint green it was meant to be. Some things are meant to have a crust, to have a dark, rich patina, but a Hermes is the clockwork of the gods, meant to be attended to and venerated, and I removed and polished each piece I could, finally taking out the broad roller of the platen and scrubbing it in the sink with alcohol, then soap, then rubber rejuvenator solution until it was clean, free of correction fluid and residue from the ribbon.
In the other room, I heard my computer going "woo…woo…woo," which it does to alert me that someone's trying to get my attention in one of the internet chat clients I keep running during the day to maintain the illusion that I'm not on my own. I took a break and typed "howdy."
latinoluxe: hey stud! long time no see!
(me): how's it going?
latinoluxe: couldn't be better, guy. in fact, i'm off today…
(me): that's nice, they been workin' you to death, still?
latinoluxe: LOL, yeah, but i saw you were online and was thinking…
(me): hmmm. what were you thinking?
latinoluxe: you want me to drive up there for a nooner?
I had to laugh out loud, sitting there with my fingertips stained black from all the grease and grime I'd been carefully scrubbing out of the Hermes and realizing that I was going to say "no."
(me): sorry, man, can't today, am working on something
(me): yeah, I know, but I'm cleaning a typewriter and I really can't stop while it's all taken apart, or I won't remember how to put it back together
latinoluxe: >:( you're turning me down to clean a typewriter???
(me): it's a Hermes!
latinoluxe: jesus, Jay, it's been forever since you and me played
(me): yeah I know, I'm sorry, I'm just kind of in a weird frame of mind lately
latinoluxe: there's a surprise ;) don't let me down again, stud, okay?
I excused myself from the chat and sat down at the card table again, carefully taking apart the little mechanism that regulates the carriage return advance. I scrubbed it clean with my toothbrush soaked in alcohol, sopped up all the liquid with a piece of old t-shirt cloth, and drizzled a few droplets of PTFE/silicone/teflon lubricant over the piece, leaving it to drain on a folded newspaper. Sitting there, it looked almost like one of the bones in the human ear canal, so elegant and simple it could have evolved, rather than been engineered.
I went through the machine, piece by piece, cleaning and oiling and laying out all the parts in rows on the table, went as far as I planned to go, then leaned back in my chair, took a deep breath, and went to the kitchen for a glass of water.
I just turned down an easy quickie with a 25 year-old latino wonderboy to clean a fucking typewriter.
I am such an idiot.
It struck me as I stood there, drinking my glass of water in front of the sink. Given a choice between forty-five minutes of relative abandon with a handsome young man whose backside would have made Michelangelo throw down his chisels in despair and a couple hours of scrubbing mint green plastic, gently-curved aluminum cowlings, greasy springs and connecting rods, and little bits of chrome, I chose the Hermes.
So much for meeting the cultural expectations of sexual irresponsibility and general shiftlessness of the creative minority. I sat back down, assembled the whole thing into a typewriter again, gently bending and tweaking and adjusting every piece until the machine worked nearly as well as it would have on its first day in the world, back in 1962. I rolled in two sheets of fresh typewriter bond, thought briefly of latinoluxe's nearly perfect posterior, and started to type.
The action was magical, so smooth and precise and quick that I didn't feel like I'd missed a thing, not a thing.
The last time I saw my great Aunt Ann was on the day of my grandmother's funeral. I'd missed seeing her at the reception, but as I was pulling out of my parking spot, she came by, smiling, looking small and frail, and I rolled down my window.
"That's some car, Joe," she said, smiling at my Citroën.
"Yeah, it's from France," I said.
"Being a Citroën, it would be, wouldn't it?" she said with a smile, and I beamed back, impressed by her worldliness. Feeling a little spark of mischievousness, I hit the height control lever with my foot and the car sank to the ground. My brother, Will, scowled at me as I hit the lever again and raised the car back up to its normal height, but Ann laughed, a warm, friendly laugh in spite of the kind of day it was, and for a moment, I just felt better somehow, as if maybe everyone wonderful in the world wasn't already gone.
"I'm still waiting on that book," she said, and we talked a little longer before Will and I drove off.
"Nice lowrider show," Will said, smirking at my crass display as we headed back to Scaggsville. "You should try to jump a schoolbus or two at the next funeral."
Yeah, I know. Idiot.
I went back to my lair just once more, to retrieve the Royalite and my bookbag, and I sat there, staring at all the paper that'd fallen out of my manuscript and gathered like dustbunnies made of dreams for a long, long time. In a feeble gesture, I unclipped the clammy sheets from the clipboard, dug the tube of mucilage out of the bookbag, and tried to glue one of the lost sentences back into place, pressing it against the page and finding that it just stuck to my hand instead, and then to my shirt, and then my pants, and finally, I just got to my feet, stomped on all of it, screaming until my voice turned hoarse, screaming the same things over and over, the same words that have informed so much of my existence.
WHY CAN'T ANYTHING EVER WORK RIGHT!?
WHY CAN'T I STOP MESSING UP EVERYTHING I TRY!?
WHY IS EVERYTHING ALWAYS WRONG!?
I knelt down, wadded the papers and scraps up until I had a big pile of paper there, pulled out a kitchen-sized box of matches I'd secreted out of the pantry, and set the whole pile on fire. It burned hard and fast, the mucilage giving extra fuel to the flames, and as the last pages burned, whole shriveled fragments of the text lifted up and floated into the air, taking a leisurely route out of the grating overhead with the rest of the smoke.
I sat back, watching the last scraps burn, and when I was sure it was all gone, that no one would ever be a witness to this most recent humilation, I gathered up my things, hunkered down, and made my way out of the concrete pipe, coughing from all the smoke.
"My cousin Charles called and let me know that Aunt Ann McLelland died over the weekend," said my mother, and it was an item of news I processed only halfway.
"We were just saying we should go see her," I said.
"That's how it always seems to happen, isn't it?"
…and it's exactly the way things always happen, that there's never enough time, or enough motivation, or anything, and so much just goes wanting, and goes undone. I sat up, wrapped up the conversation, and just sat there, watching the dust motes drifting through the shaft of sunlight, noticing how some of them twisted and twirled like little corkscrews, like shriveled-up ashes made of unused sentences, following the whims of the air currents to who-knows-where.
I finished cleaning the Hermes, and it was a small triumph, a moment of preservation, in which I'd taken something beautiful and kept it going, given it another day and another thing to say, and though I have been feeling melancholy and overwhelmed and as if the end of the world is slamming down on me, I've done the very best I could this time around, and I've not been an idiot, or not much of one, I hope. The Hermes will go back to David, in perfect working order for the first time in years, and I hope it will remind him what a beautiful thing it is, and what a beautiful journey he and his typewriter have had for so long, as they've worked to bring so much beauty into the world.
I work with David and sometimes I just feel sad, looking back on all the things he's done, on his stint as Barbara Jordan's speechwriter or his work with the filmmaker Paul Sharitz, and how fully-engaged he's been for his whole life, even when he's at his worst, and I just regret so much, and wish I'd had the energy not to give up, not to toss that match into the biggest thing I'd ever undertaken out of the fear of one more humiliation. I look back with him, even when it's hard and when it takes all the denial I'm capable of just to not break and face into the ugly reality of his cancer, and there's so much to regret, but regret is the one thing that can still stop me, that can stand between me and the stories that need to be told.
I look back at all of it, and the smell of smoke is everywhere in my life, even now, but the fires are fewer in number and farther apart, and maybe I'm not such an idiot after all. Maybe I had to take this trip by this route or I'd not have been me, and not had the life I've had.
I close my eyes and the feel of those keys, the exact color of mint pastilles, is so clear and real it's just like all those places I read about until they became real to me. I feel the stories start to tell themselves again, and this time, it won't be my trusty two-tone Royalite portable in its imitation calfskin case but a borrowed computer, and all the setbacks make me blue and slow me down, and sometimes the loneliness just gets to me, just digs so deep that I reach for whatever hand is offered to me, but these are all just distractions, just all the cars that race by me as I stand here, alone on a metaphorical road, waiting for a certain grey Studebaker and the whole entire world that's still to come.
The stretch of Route 216 looks nothing like it used to, and is quickly being reengineered into a bigger, faster road, all the better to build more of the neverending stretches of crappy townhouses that are spreading across the old farmland like a brush fire. On a whim, and on the way home from my mother's house, I pulled over, leaving my little sedan on the side of the road with its hazards blinking. The old drainage pond at the low point of the development there is gone now, filled in so they could fit in three more faux-Colonial nightmares, but I found the drain grate in between the lanes of 216 and followed an imaginary line across the road until I found the mouth of the concrete pipe, buried in a bristling thicket of tall grass and Ailanthus trees.
Was it always this small?
I tried, briefly, to stagger through on two feet, bashing my head against the rough globs of cement where the sections of pipe met. "Sonuvabitch," I mumbled, got on all fours, and crawled the rest of the way, until the tunnel opened out into a tiny room lit by the film noir sunlight streaming in through the overhead grate. It was just so small, so very small, but all the places we revisit are small, dwarfed by the myths we build around them as life goes on. I squatted on my haunches there, just listening to the traffic as it passed by, sounding like faraway surf or the sound of tiny earthquakes that only I could hear, and remembered how I felt there, how the place had been somewhere to go. somewhere to dream, where no one could stop me from conjuring up whole new worlds.
I reached up and touched the metal nail I'd pounded into the concrete, where I'd hung my clipboard, and almost thought I'd find a little burn mark on the floor there from the moment when it'd all come apart, but it's been too long—lifetimes ago. Still, the rusty stub of rebar protruded right beside it, the place where I'd hang the imitation calfskin case of my little Royalite, and I smiled, realizing that the faint stain at the inside top of the handle had come from there, and it was nice to remember, to see that I hadn't just imagined it all. I peered around, using the flashlight built into my cellphone to examine the corners, hoping I'd find a burned scrap of paper there, something with my protagonist in action, or inaction, just standing there, waiting, but as lucky as I've been, sometimes, that'd've been too much, too perfect.
I crawled back out and into the sun, and back into now, feeling sad and a little proud, too.
The motes swirl and twist in the sun, and I feel so lonely and empty, just wishing I'd known more than I could have known, that I'd finished the book on schedule, so my great aunt could've read it and told me what she thought of it, punctuating her words with that radiant smile, but this is not an easy life we're given, and so much is wrong, and comes too late, and comes only after we've sabotaged ourselves time and time again, and all that blame and doubt can't do anything but cost us even more.
I watch a little tuft of lint sparkle in the air, just turning over and over and over in a little eddy, and I follow it in the sun until it drifts into the keys of my old Royalite, like a lost sentence returning home after so long.
I feel blue, but something makes me smile, just barely, and I tell myself that when I do finish my book and have my very first copy in my hand, I'm going to inscribe it just as I was supposed to, back when I was foolish enough to believe that life's just a simple road from point A to point B, on which we never get lost, and which we navigate perfectly without instruction or help.
My protagonist waited for twenty-five years, standing there at point C, and it's only very recently that I realize that he was me all along, that what I started back then was the story that I'm living right now, and it's been a good one, even when it's been hard, even when everything imaginable's gone horribly, horribly wrong. I took the road less traveled, and it has made all the difference. Funny thing, that.
© 2005 Joe Wall