What’s the Story?
You learn a thing or two by getting along in years, or so it’s said. My poor, cursed friend Mike, dead so young, didn’t get a chance to test that claim. He crashed his motorcycle, or rather, someone in a car smashed it for him. That, I suppose, is another story.
But Mike may belong in this one after all, because, after all, he was my dearest friend back then. He was also and always his doting grandmother’s pet. I knew the old woman well, a sweet-as-pie lady if ever there was one. Is that another story too, or stories, plural? Anyone’s personal history doubtless comprises subplots galore; who can be sure which is impertinent?
In any case, I’m sitting here just now, waiting to see a doctor for minor emotional problems. I’ve visited him with some frequency over time, though never for anything that made him or me or anyone believe I was on the cusp of true crisis. Just a little unease, that’s all. You could roughly liken this appointment to an oil check, I guess.
The waiting room’s walls are yellow, so that may be what’s going on inside me just now. Despite the flowers on their corner tables, that color invades me. It brings a solo hunting trip rocketing out of my far past, because on my way home, all but out of gasoline near midnight and nowhere open to replenish the tank, I spent some doleful hours in a motel in Maine, whose walls were of this same pale hue.
I’m sure the building was something much different, back when the town thrived. The white clapboard frame house may have taken boarders, but now a flat-roofed row of rooms jutted out from its rear side into a former pasture. I wouldn’t be surprised if that extension were razed by now, the place turned into a Bed and Breakfast, as has been happening for some time to so many of these old New England home places, so grand and so tired. An out-of-towner buys one, spruces it up, then hangs out a quaintly lettered sign, usually with some name designed to be evocative but in fact absurd: “Quail Acres” maybe, in a part of the world where quail never existed, or, likewise, “Elk Meadow.”
But back to the year I recall here, when the town had little left but a paper mill, itself close to extinction, the industry having moved south to places with cheaper labor: Arkansas, Mississippi, what have you? I took the room –there was really no choice– though I knew it would be full of an unmistakable mill-stench. Almost fifty years later, merely to think of that sulfurous reek makes me queasy, not to mention actually smelling it as I pass through the few towns where mills have somehow survived, however shakily.
Here is the odd part: that night in the motel I felt I was doomed. Nothing would ever come to good for me. Why such melodrama? I couldn’t and can’t make sense of it, because in fact my life was pretty average at twenty-five, neither particularly good nor bad. In any case, the restless tick-tick-tick of my young dog’s paws on the scuffed linoleum floor made it seem ten years until morning broke and I could go find fuel at a station down by the tracks. That clatter from my nervous pointer sounded like a prelude to judgment.
As it happens, when I first sat down in the doctor’s office a few minutes ago, I took Psychology Today from a table, finding an article there by a certain Dr. Silver. The doctor opined that a person normally mourns a dog for three weeks. Well, I’ve buried too many dogs since that night I speak of, and whenever I think of one, no matter how long he or she has been dead, I almost weep. On every one of those dogs, be it pet or hunter, there hangs more than one tale.
Of course I don’t weep, really, not out loud, as my friend Mike’s grandmother did off and on until the day she died herself.
Am I so abnormal? I can’t say, but at all events, that night I pictured a chasm yawning before me, and I felt certain that one day I’d fall into it. And so I did in a way, though at length I’d climb out on the other side– or mostly out, as I’ve said. I’ll talk about that at some other point. It’s hard to stay on track here.
What made that night in the yellow motel so taxing? What about it induced this vision of the abyss? That particular dog was, if anything, too alive. Mike still blithely trod the earth– or maybe not blithely, but he did move around on it for certain. Yet somehow I knew, or believed I knew, there was something terribly wrong on that earth, and it involved an evil act or thought of mine, even if I couldn’t for the life of me have said what or when or how.
I remember a train’s passing through that patch of village. It must have furnished the moribund mill. The freight cars’ clanking and rumbling woke me up around daylight, and the engine’s whistle seemed to scream misery and condemnation of my ineffable sin.
I’d keep on living with this kind of vague anguish for years, still unable to give it a name. Things today are better for me, much better, but to this day, I cannot really assign that name, no matter the anguish lurks, all but imperceptibly, deep inside me. How do you work out a narrative when so essential an ingredient is missing?
The spooked dog’s paws. My long-gone boyhood chum. His sobbing grandma. The train. The stink of the pulp mill. What do I know of psychology? What does anyone know? That I ended up with the wife of my dreams and with five good children and, so far, four grandchildren– well, all that is simply a wonder.