Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Southern Writer and a Town Called Port Chester

A few weeks ago, my agent, yes, oh dear, I admit I have an agent . . . she took me in like a stray dog last summer and tolerates my vices and may sell my book in the near future, angel that she is. Well, ANYway, a few weeks ago, she says to me over the little table that we meet and discuss my messy little manuscript and all its foibles over, she says, oh, would you like to come to this luncheon in Big Town with me in a couple of weeks? Its a fundraiser for a local literacy program and there will be a few authors there to read. And she hands me this folded brochure, and I read the list of authors, and there, at the bottom of the list is my old boyfriend G., so I say to her, “oh, my old boyfriend G. is reading.” and her eyes go kinda wide and she leans in over the table we have been exchanging edits over for six or so months now and she says, “You’re old boyfriend?” and I repeat, “My old boyfriend.” She leans back and inspects me as though I just stepped off an airplane full of refugees from another planet. I see her confusion, her near distress that might turn to a digestive disorder, and so I decide to break the silence, “Yeah, he was my boyfriend for some months, maybe six months, some 25 years ago . . . I was practically a child, just twenty years old and he was a graduate student, working on his dangerous flamboyant persona, and he was perhaps twenty-seven or twenty-eight.” She eased up a bit. Something about the idea that I was just a child when I was involved with this Rasputin of the Southern Literary community comforted her. Surely, if I was that young then I simply didn’t know any better. And she was right . . . if that’s what I read correctly in her gaze.

I took the opportunity to accept her invitation to the luncheon. It was a good cause, to spend a few hard earned dollars on a catered plate of over-cooked chicken to support our county’s literacy program and to see someone who had such a profound footprint on my soul. I hadn’t seen G. for over twenty years, although I hadn’t lost track of him. I heard tell of him and his published works and while I was curious, I only picked up the books in the bookstores just to carefully put them back on the shelf, while uttering some koan to myself . . . a tangle of words to cloak myself in a force field of goodness and safety.

G. doesn’t know it, but he was the reason I stopped writing twenty or so years ago. It wasn’t something he set out to do—to intentionally kill a girl’s desire to write, but he did it all the same. And I used to hate him for it. But now I want to thank him for it.

I was a wunderkind when G. plucked me out of a little crowd in the green hallway of the English department. I say green because the tiles on the floors of the department hallway were speckled green and they were big squares. I used to sit on that floor between classes and put my elbow to one corner of a tile and barely reach my boney hand to the other diagonal corner. Light poured in from the front of the building and zoomed down that hallway to the other end which was closed in by a loud locking metal door, that when opened led to the art building where sculptures of scrap metal stood around moping and rusty. Randall Jarrell had walked that hallway long before I was a student there and I would read his poetry silently to myself in that dusty hallway just to feel his ghost. But I was just a little stupid blond thing, who could turn a quick story, like a trick in a back alley. Cheap stories really, except for one, there was one that wasn’t cheap or a trick. But the rest of the stories were like shell games, played by a street urchin and like a grifter, I took everyone in that department in with my game . . . including myself.

G. was a graduate student. And while he was a grifter himself, developing the classic alcoholic artist persona, he had the goods—I want to be clear about that, he really could write, and so let that be his saving grace. But he was searching for a girl—I think he was always searching for an interesting girl to spend some time with. And he got wind of me, in that green hallway and I guess he thought that we would be some sort of stunning literary pairing, like Stieglitz and O’Keefe or Bogart and Bacall, and before I knew what hit me, I was in a bar down on the college row with him, having a beer and falling for his appeals to my more vulnerable and perhaps vain side. His reasoning that I was the undergraduate wunderkind and that he was the bad boy Thomas-Pynchon-born-again didn’t seem half baked. I had kept quite to myself as a writer up until the moment of meeting him . . . I hibernated in my apartment every afternoon to write furiously until the sunset and then I would have a story, scribbled in pen on lined paper in a red spiral notebook, because it was always a red spiral notebook that I wrote in back then, to type up that night and throw into the hands of a certain professor in the English department the next day. This professor was my mentor, my main man—he declared me the best undergraduate writer to hit that green hallway in a 100 years, perhaps the best undergraduate ever. Was this bullshit? Maybe . . . I don’t know. He said I would never write a novel. That short stories were my trade and to stick to them. So I did, I religiously wrote two or three for him every week. And they all were born of a first line. I wrote first lines all day long and recorded them in my red notebook and some of those first lines lived to tell a tale, like an embryo that becomes a child, while others just sat frozen in a petri dish, just goo, going nowhere.

So my extended tryst with G. began and honestly, it was the strangest, numbest romance I ever had. It was perhaps the only love affair I had with someone who was truly ambitious and saw me as some accoutrement to his career. I was the trophy girl to an aspiring Southern writer. And the more time I spent with him; going from bar to bar and pool room to pool room, the more I lost myself. I was no longer a writer in my own right, I was reduced to a pretty girl who knew what a writer needed. It became apparent that there was room for only one writer in the room and that was him. My ability was quaint, interesting, and novel, but his ability was full of depth and importance. His ability would endure, mine would go out like a falling star on a night so cold and cloudy, that not a soul was outside to see the momentary flare.

I was to be published for the first time that year, in a small review; my one story that wasn’t a cheap trick, and it lay in the review only a few pages from one of his stories. He was on the staff of the review and despite the fact that it was one of the more important professors in the department that read my story in class who said, this is it girl, this is the one you need to publish, somehow it got twisted that there was a fix put in for me and that was how the story got published -- it wasn’t that it was a good story, it was who I knew, who I was, perhaps, sleeping with.

The fall dragged on. I was failing most of my classes and out drinking every night with G. I was sitting in on large gatherings of graduate students, writers-of-great-importance-to-be, and they all leaned in to their beers and expounded upon their projects and then they would look at little me, a decade younger than all of them and I thought, I should be at home writing! But there I was, with G., and I was producing nothing, but I was part of the scene, the big artistic scene.

Then it happened. The day of reckoning. I was hanging out one sunny afternoon with G. and for some damn reason he asks me how long I had been on the Pill. I said, I don’t know, since I was seventeen, I thought. He was shocked, “How come you went on the pill at such a young age?” Cause I didn’t have my period G., cause I was real skinny and real athletic and my grandmother was all worried about me, so she took me to the doctor and he said, she’s too thin, she’s too muscular, and she’s got polycystic ovaries...put the kid on the Pill and that’ll make a girl out of her and so they put me on the Pill and I became a girl I suppose. Well, G. stood up and cracked open another beer and says to me, “I can’t believe this, you are the second woman in a year to have polycystic ovaries. That means you can’t have kids.” and me, being all of twenty years old looks up at him and asks why the hell should he care? He goes all silent on me and I realize, oh shit, this guy has bigger plans for me. And he tells me maybe I oughtta go home now. And I get up and say, okay, sure, and I leave his apartment and go out into the brilliant fall evening and walk the few blocks back to my apartment, with no stories in my head except this: I am twenty years old and my boyfriend doesn’t want me anymore because of my ovaries . . .

A few nights later I am walking up the college row with a back pack and my head just beginning to be full of stories again, and I pass the pizza joint. I look in the window and I see G. sitting at the bar with a girl, a blonde very much in my likeness. I think, you know, the bastard still has my stuff in his apartment! We haven’t really ended this thing and now he’s with some new girl who just might have better ovaries than me. So I walk in the bar and confront him. “Hey G! I was thinking of going back to your place to get my stuff, is that going to cramp your style with this one?” I pointed to the new girl. It was a cheap shot, but I was feeling cheap, like a toy in the bottom of a cracker jack box. G. looked like he wanted to crawl into a hole. I turned on my heel and headed out of the pizzeria and up the street to his apartment. I still had a key. I let myself in and started gathering up my stuff. I remember feeling good about it, like, wow, I should have done this a week ago. Well, G. came back and found me packing up my toothbrush and nightie and he took a swing at me. I dropped my stuff and then he got hold of me and swung me around the living room, and on my way round I managed to get hold of a lamp, some kind of ugly thing and I hit him with it -- square on the head. He let go of me and went to his knees. He said, “Hey! You can’t do that!” and I said, “I just did man, I just did.” and I gathered up my belongings and walked out.

I went home that night with a hole in my soul. I woke up the next morning and found the hole still there. So I did the only thing a self respecting girl with supposedly damaged ovaries and a hole in her soul could do, I cut my hair real short and hit the books—got my grades in some sort of shape so that I could come back to school the following semester.

Two months later I met the guy who would become my husband and I managed to squeak through school to graduate. I put my aspirations of writing in a box—literally. I put all my notebooks with all those first lines in an old Corona beer box and taped it up. It traveled with me everywhere, even to Bermuda and it was in Bermuda, ten years after hitting G. with the lamp that I opened the old box and discovered words again. I was a decade older and a decade wiser. The words came out in a much truer way. And as I began to write again on those lonely days on my island in the sea, I thought, maybe G. did me a favor. Maybe I was meant to go dormant for a while. My voice is not the voice of that young girl and if she had continued to write the way she did back then, with a slight of hand, she would have just burned out anyway. So there you go, there you go.

So 25 years later, on a cold February morning, I found myself standing in the lobby of a hotel with tables of books and the local hoi palloi all in anticipatory fervor over the expected catered lunch and an hour or two of readings by a few literary glitterati. I arrived fashionably early and found my agent in conversation with a group of donors. She waved hello and pointed over her shoulder. I followed her hand and my gaze fell upon a familiar old face. It was G. -- rough and gray, but the same, surprisingly handsome somehow. I called his name and he looked up from some piece of paper he was looking at, he squinted and smiled a crooked smile and said, “Hey Slick.” This was an old habit of his, to call women Slick, especially ones he didn’t recognize. He kept his eyes on me though and I moved closer, “How are you G?” and then it hit him, like a small car at a slow speed, he realized who I was. “S?”

“Yeah man, its me.” He smiled sweetly and put his arms out to embrace me. I don’t know why, but I obliged and wrapped my arms honestly about the man. He stood back and looked at me. He charmingly said it was a such a nice surprise to see me and he asked me if I was still writing. I wanted to say, you old goat, I am still writing in spite of you. But I just smiled back and proudly told him that I had finally completed a book. We spent the next twenty minutes catching up on where we had been for the past twenty five years. Ironically he tells me he's been living with a woman for more than a decade and they have no children, just lots of dogs . . . just like me, no children, but lots of dogs. Somewhere in the conversation he said he hadn’t had a drink yet and I said, “Man, its only 10:45.” and he looked around at the crowd and said, “Really? Oh, well, these things make me nervous.” I breathed deeply for him and joked that I would have thought he’d be an old pro at these gatherings, these public appearances, I mean, he’s published seven books, but apparently he was still nervous as any new writer might be.

We all filed in for lunch. Speaker after speaker and finally the writers who we came to see came up and read from a recent work or told a story that related to their experience with literacy. G. read a terribly funny story. I hadn’t heard him read a story for 25 years and it was a good story -- a sweet and sickly hilarious story, his specialty. I was proud of him. Proud that I had some sort of weird history with him.

Another author came up and tearfully told the story of how he grew up as a black boy in Westchester, NY -- how hard it was to be black in moneyed White town. He became a crack addict and ended up living underneath Grand Central Station. But something happened -- one day, he didn’t have crack to smoke, but he had the pencil he used to clean his crack pipe and he had a small notebook. So instead of getting high, he wrote a story about a friend who was dying. He was so excited by the feeling of writing that the next day, he wrote something before he got high. Eventually writing replaced his need to get high. He cried as he told us this story and I was in tears with him. How powerful is the pen? or pencil? That’s how powerful!

When the lunch was over, I went out in the hallway and stood in line to have my books signed. I told the crack-head turned author that I grew up in Westport. And he looked up at me and a smile came across his face. He said, “You kids, you white kids in Westport used to drive over the state line to my hometown Port Chester to drink. The drinking age was a year younger in NY than it was in CT. And then you white kids would drive home drunk and get yourselves killed on the Merritt Parkway. ” I nodded and put his book down in front of him to sign for me.

I said, “Yeah, I was one of those kids. But I made it home.” He took the book and put his pen to it, he wrote To S. the one who made it home.

I stood in line to have G. sign a book of his stories for me. When it came my turn he looked up and said it was so good to have seen me. He asked me if his story made me laugh. and I said, oh yes, of course it did. He said he was glad, he was pleased that he made me laugh. He asked me if I had published anything since that story, the one real good story, all those years ago, and then, miraculously, he recited the name of the story to me, “Wasn’t it called ‘God Drove a 1965 Mustang’? I liked that story.” and I said, yes, that was the name of it and no, no nothing published since then, but I’m working and that's something, isn't it.

1 comment:

T.S. Dogfish said...

When we look at our demons, confront them, they lose their power. Often times it requires a certain distance and the passage of time for us to understand how papery thing this strange power they had over us really was.