"Things that interfere with writing well: Earning a living, especially by teaching."

-William H. Gass

Friday, August 31, 2007

after hiking in the rain

There is a singular, lonely feeling that comes with speaking words that have some value to you, out loud, to a person who, as it turns out, wasn’t listening. They turn and smile and say, innocently, “What?” And you’re there, trying to recover from the realization that you can’t identify what another person’s attention looks like. I woke up that way this morning. Feeling like I had to muster up the courage to repeat something. Or not say something at all, even though I had intended to say it. I was up early enough to warrant headlights. And my tank was full of gas.

Speeding over highway while the sun rises, the city shrinking in the rearview, I am singing my loudest to a song I would never admit liking had I a passenger. The windows are down and my hair is crazy crazy crazy.

The lanes get fewer and narrower. I chase the sun through windy roads; it ducks behind pine trees that are impossibly tall. When I get out, my legs take their time remembering how to walk. I just stare at the trees. A little girl in my memory had a yard dotted with birch trees. She tore scrolls from the trunks and wrote crayon stories. She put the scrolls back around the trees afterwards, letting them hang there, or sent them floating like boats down a stream. In the time between those birches and womanhood, she had come to place value only on words heard by others. Asking, always, “Listen. Listen. Hear me.” How to exhume a person who thinks trees and streams a fine audience?

I’m staring at the trail map, turning it and turning it. I can never establish which way I’m facing. I start walking without destination. When faced with a fork, I consult the map and head, I think, toward water. My breath and footfalls sound foreign, I feel like a secret guest. The mountain tops are both close and distant, indifferent to me. If they had faces they’d always look away. I stop, periodically, to appreciate my smallness.

That’s it, then. It’s the being wrong that hurts. When a little girl sends a story woven from some now untouchable imagination off to the stream, she expects no answer. She is giving her story away, and that intention protects the words’ value. When we mutter our thoughts to the woods it is so that we can hear them, unobstructed by sirens and televisions and all the metronomic ticking and clicking of city life. We so rarely get to listen to ourselves. But when we give words to someone else it is risky. Stuttering mumbling under the breath shy attempts at talking, all defenses against speaking to someone who doesn’t hear. Someone who looks you right in the eye for the duration of a sentence and then has to say, “What?”

The lake arrives, spreads herself out for me, completely silent and beachless. A patch of sand large enough for my feet sends me into the water. I float, and the water swallows me. My ears take it in and the trees’ susurrations are replaced with the muffled underwater silence that is not quiet but not loud. The sky is white, and rains a little. I stare at my things piled on the bank. Plastic and nylon and leather. It’s funny how one day can continually redefine the word necessary. I kick myself in circles, a small white naked little boat. I am the object of zero attention. The rain and the trees and the patch of sand cannot listen or speak, and cannot know that I am lost. And I can’t tell the difference between raindrops and tears, but I am crying.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Clandestine Affair with the Alphabet

The vowels were having a cocktail party in a New York City loft. U was smoking a cigar on the balcony, staring into a well-lit apartment across the street. He leaned on the railing and let his hands flop over the edge, ash falling onto Central Park West. By the time it reached the street, it was just part of the air.
“Y is here,” said A, walking toward him in the way only A could walk.
“Showed up, did he?”
U turned, resting his elbows on the railing, and faced her. He crossed his legs easily in front of him. His shoes caught the light of the red Chinese lanterns that framed the balcony.
He reached inside his jacket, extracted a slim silver case. He popped it open, held it at arms length.
A’s long fingers plucked a slim cigarette from the case and put it between her lips. She waited while U replaced the case and put flame before her. She raised an eyebrow at him, took the first drag slow. She crossed an arm over her narrow waist, jutted a hip to the left, and smiled at him through smoke.
“Really, darling. We both know A and U make gold,” he let the lighter fall into the pocket of his jacket.
She didn’t laugh but let out a smiling, “Mmmhmmm.” U had been making that joke for longer than A cared to remember.
O poked his head between the French doors, which A had left slightly ajar. “Are your glasses full out here?”
“Everything’s grand, just grand, O,” U rolled the ice around in his glass.
“Lovely, O, thank you,” A spoke in her low voice.
“Join us by the piano later, A?”
“Sooner rather than later, darling,” she winked and moved her eyes to U.
“Coming inside, dear?”
“In a moment,” said U, and he nodded his head in the direction of the piano, “go on in.”
She watched his face in the warm light, and turned.
Inside the party was gay. O was at the piano, banging out raucous harmonies. The whole room seemed to vibrate. While A walked to the piano, all fell to hush.
“Sing something for us, will ya,” called I, raising his glass to her.
“Yes, do,” echoed E.
She smiled at no one in particular, and put her hand on O’s shoulder. He looked up and back at her, eyebrows poised.
She nodded at him and sipped her drink.
Her husky voice filled the room. U stood halfway in from the balcony, barely visible behind the door. Y stood parallel to U, at the entrance to the apartment. They looked at one another briefly, but then watched only A.
She didn’t look at anyone’s face when she sang, yet every man assumed she was singing to him.
Later, on the balcony, U raised a hand and pushed the wave of hair obscuring A’s right eye back from her face. She let him look at her for a long moment, and then put the cigarette back to her lips. U stepped back to the railing and looked down at a line of limousines. The drivers leaned on doors, talked, and smoked.
U spoke with his back to her, “You’re glad Y is here?”
A finished her cigarette before she spoke. Her hands dropped to her sides and hung there. She took a long breath, went to U, reached to touch the shoulder of his jacket, and let her arm drop again.
She said, “Sometimes.”

Monday, August 06, 2007

the ants are my friends; they're blowing in the wind

That misheard Dylan lyric gets repeated over and over in Lorrie Moore's novel Anagrams via the protagonist's imaginary daughter. Like all of Moore's work, the book is funny and sad, and has forever etched this whimsical line onto my brain, leaving me picturing ants every time I hear the song and thinking about the song every time I see an ant.

This is all background information to help me explain what is happening RIGHT NOW in real time at my desk. I am sitting at my desk because zero students showed up for school today. Zero! For years on Monday evenings as a waitress, I would lean on empty tables in an empty bar, just wanting to escape the whole thing, and wonder, "Will absolutely zero people come in tonight?" Inevitably, people would trickle in. There is something horribly wrong when people will always always ALWAYS show up at a bar, but there are days when zero students show up to school.

So my chin is heavy in my hand and I'm prepping for Fantasy Football 2007 when I notice this little ant climbing the wall directly to the right of my desk. The radio in my head immediately starts humming, "The answer my friends, is blowin in the wind." I watch him walk up the wall in the determined manner of a good little ant. And he falls. I've never seen this before. He gets back up. Walks halfway up the wall, toward the corkboard, and falls again. He just keeps doing it. Either the wall is slippery at that spot or his sticky ant feet aren't sticky enough for my concrete wall. Again, up from the desk, past the light switch, and he falls. The same exact path, halfway up, and falls.

And so I just sit there, humming that song, without any students, and start to cry, getting my list of top ten running backs all wet.