Fall broke this week. One day, the sun is bright and the world is still warm enough for sandals and shorts and wispy, sleeveless things. And the next morning, the wind is cold and blustery, pushing through the cavernous streets between downtown high rises like a formless freight train. Bodies are wrapped in coats and sweaters and gloves and I always think of things like this when autumn descends.
I’m a writer. We tell stories. Personal essayists, like those you’ll find on this site, tell stories that are their own. Fiction writers tell stories that are their own in the guise of someone else’s. That’s the brutally short synopsis of it all.
Even if you’ve got a cast of fictional characters bumbling about in a fictional town on a fictional planet doing highly unlikely, fictional things, it’s still your own experience you’ll be drawing from. If your hero is unlucky in love, you’d damn well better know what it’s like to be unlucky in love. If he’s a cowboy, he’ll be most believable if you’ve wrangled a heifer once or twice in your life.
In the end, it’s the stories from your own life that will help you guide your creations in a manner that others will believe in and empathize with. I think that’s something a creative writing teacher once told me, but that’s no reason not to believe it.
So I think about stories a lot. The ones I hear, the ones I write, and the ones I’ve lived.
You’d think a writer would have more stories of his own. But as I think back, I find little in my past that I could honestly call a story. Bukowski and Carver aside, stories follow a certain form, a certain arc: a slow beginning leading up to a conflict, inevitable or otherwise, speeding, speeding, peaking and then — maybe — the slow drift down and away, conflict resolved. It’s a structure much like coupling, only longer and not as sticky.
I know it’s a massive generalization that doesn’t take into a count a half-score of forms from post-modernism on, but browse through a bestseller rack and you’ll find it basically true.
The problem is, I find little in my life that I can honestly call a story. Should I ever attempt to write a piece based solely on my own experience, I would find it a rambling, half-formed thing — truncated, with withered limbs, shriveled organs, not long for this world. The best I can do are vignettes, short snippets of action or inaction gleaned from a memory that always remembers faces but drops names like a toddler fumbling with marbles.
I’m in the passenger seat of a car moving fast through some wooded hillside. John’s behind the wheel and we’re both too stoned to mind the cold wind whipping through the open windows. We left on a five-minute drive to get whiskey sour mix an hour-and-a-half ago. He’s telling me about a plan he has to spirit his girlfriend away for a trip to Disney World. He’s going to tell her to pack a bag for warm weather and one for cold and not reveal their destination until they get on the plane. I’m saying it’s a wonderful idea and I hope he can pull it off, and I swear myself to secrecy.
A year later and I’m in a second-floor apartment and John is thin, withered and nearly unrecognizable. The cancer’s caught up with him and there’s no answers left in chemo or transplants, and the painkillers don’t work anymore. I hug him and say, “I’ll be seeing you,” and he nods like he knows what I mean, and the next time I see his face, it’s staring up at me from a coffin, hollow cheeks filled lovingly by the hands of an undertaker.
I’m 13 years old and standing waist-deep in a mud-choked river somewhere outside of Hot Springs, Arkansas. I’m being baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and there’s a mass of people on the shoreline praying and shouting and crying and my parents are there. The river is home to thousands of cottonmouths, poisonous pit vipers, but no one seems to mind. I can’t swim, and as two deacons lean me back under the water, I see gray and black shapes and I wonder what death by poison would feel like.
It’s an auditorium meant for orchestras and opera, but the pit is empty now and I’m on the balcony looking down at one of the last survivors of the Beat Generation. Ken Kesey is looking back up and he’s telling me and a thousand other souls what it was like to live and write and fuck and die (but not him yet) with the likes of Kerouac and Ginsburg and Burroughs and all the rest, the prankster crew, the acid, the bus tours. And rather than an invocation of memory, a lush telling of personal history, it resembles nothing more than a huddling over fading embers, trying to make a flame out of ashes that have long grown cold.
An Amtrak commuter that I picked up in Wilmington is hurtling towards Boston at the speed of light. But it’s two in the morning, so no one notices. I’m on my way to visit a school that won’t accept me, but I don’t know that yet. My girlfriend is curled up in the seat next to me and doesn’t wake when the train comes to the station in Providence for a half-hour of waiting. I can’t sleep on trains or planes or in cars, and so I walk outside for a cigarette and a Russian is there fumbling in pockets too deep for matches he probably lost. I oblige.
He tells me in an accent from the steppes of Siberia that has not left him in 15 years of living in the States of his boyhood, of growing up in a USSR stumbling along on its last, dead-rot communist legs, heading for the inevitable brink of capitalism and chaos and not even knowing it wasn’t long for the world.
He’s going to Boston as well, to meet with family freshly emigrated, to tell them of the wonders and hardships that America will greet them with. From his pocket, he pulls some tiny, red treats and reaches into his satchel to feed them to the kitten hiding there. The train does not allow pets, but the kitten is small and quiet and he hopes an observant security guard does not notice him cooing to his luggage. I tell him not to worry. This is America, and no one is observant here.
A bench off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Fried fish and chips are warm in my hands and beside me is a man who stepped out of a folk tale, a hunchbacked, white-bearded Irishman playing a mournful dirge on a weathered violin. I slip a pound coin into the case at his feet, softly so as not to disturb him, and for the first time in my life I realize that there isn’t any place I would rather be.
Philadelphia, and it’s raining. A sprinkle turns into a torrent of earthbound water and I take shelter under a walkway linking two halves of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where deaf people from around the country have gathered together for a three-day event. Two dozen are standing outside and I’m surrounded by twenty-four silent mouths, forty-eight hands — twisting, flicking, folding — and silence, save for brief slaps of fingers glancing off palms. It sounds like a flock of birds pushing towards the sky.
My second trip to what’s heralded as the greatest city on earth and I’m sleeping on the street. It’s February and the worst weather of the year — rain mixed with snow mixed with sleet, and wind that whips through wet clothes like a cold, steel blade. I’m not really sleeping. Propped against the theater wall, waiting for the front-row tickets that will be handed out at twenty bucks a pop come noon the next day. It’s the early morning hours, the witch’s midnight, and few of us are still awake.
Josh is in an alley down the street, pissing the recycled remnants of a fifth of Jagermeister on a rat. A man comes by, homeless or near to it, and asks me what we’re all doing out here. I tell him we’re in line for the cheap seats, and he says, “Yeah man, me too.” And he walks away. And maybe I should be thoughtful, sad, thoughtful, but I’m just giggling my fool head off.
Another city, a thousand miles south, and I’m walking hand in hand with a woman that I love — walking along the Mississippi, past the closed-for-the-night Café du Monde, past the street kids and the suburban goths that paint their eyes dark and play-act the life, past Jackson Square, the heart of the French Quarter. And at the gates leading into the small park I see cats, a dozen and more, all the same tan, tawny color that says close siblings. They’re gathered at the gate eating from a big dish, and I’m wondering who fed them, where they came from — are they all descended from a single mother and father, left to fend for themselves on the street? — and where they go when the sun comes up.
And I’m on the phone with one of the most prolific, profound writers of the past century. I ask him if he thinks man will keep moving outward into space, back to the moon, onward to Mars.
He says, “Of course we will. We have to. That’s what’s next. That’s what human beings do.”
I’m small, five or six years old, still young enough to be led by my father’s hand. We’re at a carnival, one of the small, big-tents that used to criss-cross the country, propping up their poles and opening the animal-cage doors in parking lots in harvested cornfields — anywhere with a population that can handle it.
I don’t remember what happened under the tent. All I remember is the side show, and I know in a world of a thousand TV channels and a Web site for every freak, that’s something I’ll never see again.
There’s the World’s Smallest Horse, and I lean over a wooden gate and look into a trailer and indeed there’s a horse inside shorter than me. And nearby there’s a fire-eater, and a fat lady, who I didn’t think was all that big. And the one I remember the most: the Elastic Woman.
I don’t remember her face, but I can still see her short-cropped hair and skin-tight, bright blue suit as she stepped into the shallow box. And the caged lid was closed and the barker began sliding thin swords into the holes in the lid, and when a dozen or more were in there, sticking up like a forest of metal trees, we were allowed to go look. When I stepped up on a crate and looked into the box, I saw the Elastic Woman staring up at me, blinking, her limbs twisted around the blades, joints at impossible angles, like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and I felt that mix of fear and elation and wonder — even then I thought that if the rest of the show was a bust, it was still worth the trip. That’s how circuses should make you feel.
Halloween is coming and I have to find a costume, and if that’s the worst problem I have, than I guess this season won’t be too bad. Maybe the cold weather depresses some people, but it just makes me thoughtful, and whether it depresses me is all up to what thoughts I have.
My memory is for shit, and even my own stories have holes I need to fill in, but at least I still get snippets, vignettes. I think that might be all we can ask for. And, as writers, we make up the rest as we go along.