On November 12, I will launch my new book of essays, What's the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long, with a reading at the Phoenix Book Store in Burlington, Vermont.
The book is nothing if not eccentric, in that it consists of about seventy essays, the longest of which is four pages. Others, like the one below, tend to be in the one- or two-page category. If there is a binding concern in the collection it is this: to what degree does my version of "reality" conform to some other putative version? Clearly the incident I describe in "Short Sad Story," for instance, shows a disconnect in that regard, shows me behaving with inappropriate certainty to a circumstance that I didn't begin to understand.
Please buy the book at your local indie shop or from the Phoenix itself. I prefer avoiding amazon, though, having bought local, you might write a favorable amazon review if so inclined. To use Phoenix, go to http://www.phoenixbooks.
Short Sad Story
As he pushed open the door of room 116 at the Longhorn Motel, I noticed the stranger’s befuddled grin. “Oh, this is–” he mumbled, trailing off, backing out. I had hours to wait before I flew back east from Denver, so, seated at a chipped Formica table, I’d been trying, with small success, to rough out a piece of writing. As if it would help my efforts, I locked the door against further distractions, even benign ones like this petty mistake.
A few minutes later, however, the knob began to rattle. I slid the bolt. “What’s the matter?” I snapped when I saw the same man standing there. “Can’t you read numbers? One-One-Six. That’s me, not you.” The other didn’t appear to hear. He leaned against the door with one shoulder, cradling an ill-sorted bunch of clothes in both hands.
“Get the hell out of here!” I snapped, because he started directly to lean against me. The interloper was a younger but smaller man than I. Putting my forearms against his chest, I shoved him hard, so that he fell outside onto the lot’s asphalt, a plaid pajama top flying one way, a gravy-stained shirt the other, and a sock landing over both eyes like a flimsy blindfold. Even masked, his face wore that silly smile. It might have been a comical sight otherwise. I relocked my door.
My writing continued to go nowhere at all, so, in spite of the time gaping before me, I decided to repack my own clothes. Then I shaved, though I really didn’t need to. I couldn’t make those minor chores last long, however, and soon I headed for the lobby to grab a cup of coffee from the motel’s vending machine. On my way, I spotted the erratic fellow once more. He was up on his feet at the very spot where I’d bowled him over, his odd bundle of garments re-gathered, the smile still showing, though not directed at anyone or anything in particular, least of all at the one who’d shoved him.
I asked the desk clerk. “What the hell’s the story with that guy?”
“Seems like he’s lost,” the clerk answered. “I gave him the key to room 124, but he keeps tellin’ me he needs to get into 116.”
“My room,” I mused, obviously.
“I figure he’s drunk as a skunk,” the clerk snarled, turning brusquely back to his affairs.
I went out for breakfast, dawdling for more than an hour over my meal and small talk with the sweet old waitress at a beanery called The Country Fare. When I returned to the Longhorn, I found the showroom-clean, white Ford 150 still parked in front of 116, but its owner was nowhere to be seen. I stepped into the motel lobby again.
“What became of our friend?” I asked. The clerk said he’d found him in some other room, not 116 but not 124 either, the room he’d been assigned. Apparently, all he could say was, “I’m waiting for my daughter.”
In the end, not knowing what else to do, the clerk had called the police. In due course, the cops summoned the EMTs.
I don’t know what happened after that, because I left for my flight, much earlier than I needed to. On the way to the airport in the rental car, seated by the gate, airborne, and all through the long drive northward to Vermont after touchdown, I couldn’t help feeling rotten about having heaved that guy onto his backside. I understood why guilt might bother me as it did; but I couldn’t quite sort out the other ways I felt. I tried to console myself, of course. How, after all, could I have known that the trespasser was not of sound mind?
Yet almost a year later, I still sense that same mix of guilt and whatever else may be. If anything, my trouble of spirit has strengthened, broadened, as if it may last me lifelong. Perhaps at least I can write about it. Maybe I have always written about it in some vague way. Whatever it is.
I remember arriving at our house that night, dog-tired in body and heart, and, right after supper with my wife, going up to bed; but a more powerful memory is of a dream I had some time toward dawn, in which that wonderful wife stood by me and the second of our three daughters before a bonfire we’d lit at the end of our woodlot road. A quiet bliss pervaded the vision, or rather a feeling like the peace that the apostle Paul describes, which passeth all understanding.
For a moment, still pretty much asleep, I guess, I arrived at the warming conclusion that such peace might actually remain in the world even after I left it, and that somehow it could be available to any person sufficiently needing it. Coming to, I felt desolate to recognize my fantasy as just that.
There had been times when I needed such peace for myself, and there would be other times to come. I knew as much. I hoped it would be accessible again, though I understood I couldn’t simply will it into being.
I didn’t think of the smiling man at the Longhorn right away, though shortly I realized I might have.