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It’s astonishing how much time you can sift away doing nothing. Just yesterday, from your place 6000 miles from home, you told two people on the phone that your writing was going nicely, that it took a week to get the ball bearings oiled, but now you’re on a roll, and things are fine.
And things were fine, yesterday.
But today you woke up feeling a little shitty but not shitty enough to call yourself sick, and it’s raining, and the calendar says it’s mid-spring but you haven’t seen the sun for ten days and you realize you talked about it, that the writing was going well and your first rule is never to talk about it when anything’s going well because it might evaporate, it always does: the fuel pump goes out ten minutes after you’ve said great car, an incisor shatters the moment you finish bragging about not needing to give any goddamned dentist a cent of your hard-earned money, and the living/breathing topics of your writing dry up, dead seals on the beach. But it’s OK—you forgive yourself—you’ll get to it and anyway the dishes need to be done, and then dried, of course, and you need to finish that article on Mailer’s letters to Styron, and then an interview with this writer Kennedy who lives in Copenhagen, a guy you’re sure you’d like if you met him, whom you would drink a couple of beers with in what he calls serving houses, and you think about Denmark, about drinking, remember the Danish man you met in Athens when you were traveling with your wife and kids, who said Come visit if you get to Denmark, and you did visit, and he took you to his wood shop and gave you a carpenter’s plane, an antique—1889, it said—and at dinner he got half-drunk but stayed gentle, and his wife didn’t like his drunkenness so they got into an argument, shouting, the wife asking you Don’t you think I’m right? and this wasn’t Discourse: European we’re talking about, it was her complaining that every weekend he goes out with his friends and they ride the ferry back and forth between Rødby and Puttgarden, all Saturday night into Sunday because they’re in international waters and no state can shut down the bars as they do in their town and because the booze is cheaper, and he just keeps paying for more booze, more rides, and you and your wife wouldn’t take sides and the woman was angry at you for not doing so, she herself drunk now—Don’t you have an opinion, she’d say, not interrogative but accusative, and you hardly knew these people, and you said no, no opinion, and no thanks to their offer of beds, you were all set up to sleep in your camper van, so you slept out in their driveway, the kids tired, quick to sleep, but you and your wife saying What the hell was that about? and laughing, and you got out of there as fast as you could the next day.
You’re still reading the Kennedy article, killing time so you don’t have to Face It, and you remember a cool thing the Dane showed you. You’d worked with wood quite a bit by that time, and remarked on the beautiful finish of their pine floors. Ivory Soap, he said, and explained that you get a box of Ivory Flakes and slowly add water, make a paste, put it on with a cloth, buff it when it’s dry, that’s it. Easy to clean, and when it starts to wear, repeat the process.
Time’s moving on, and this is great, because you’ll have fewer hours to write. This is terrible.
So you check your email, and write a few, one telling Maria the editor that you misspelled S. K.’s name—here’s the correct spelling and thanks, and sorry—and you think of the hero she is, she and Ricardo and Herb, putting out that magazine year after year, poor and staying poor, but true to The Word, their word. There should be a prize, a Nobel category: Science, Literature, and this year’s winner, in the category of Tenacity… and you know that if she came into money she’d just keep doing the same thing, a magazine about poetry—who in this world can imagine such a thing? She can, they can, you think, and the raindrops on the metal ledge outside make you feel inundated, and you think about that, about… what was it—two summers ago?—Paris, Piscine Pontoise, that was the name of the swimming pool just a few blocks off the Seine. You wonder if it has a website, and sure enough, there it is—all art deco, blue water, two stories of blue-doored changing chambers, a roof that retracts on the dozen days a year Paris gets good weather—and you remember that they wouldn’t let you wear your baggy American trunks; they gave you Speedos, and it was a damned good thing you knew no one. Still, it was fun, and that mini-park down from the pool—a solitudinous enclave among stone buildings. You ate a sandwich there.
Time to get a sandwich at the bakery up the alley. The good ones will be gone if you don’t go now. Chicken and sliced eggs and that homemade mayo. Out the door you go.
Back soon, but before eating let’s clean this place up. Put away the dishes. Wipe the counters. And that stovetop—when your wife gets here next week she will not be happy, and wouldn’t it be passive aggressive just to let it go, to have her do it out of her own you-call-it compulsion-but-she-calls-it-simple-sanitation? Buff that baby up now—it’ll just get worse—get it while it’s still easy.
The sandwich, delicious. You finish the Kennedy article (funny, just last night you read a Ted Kennedy article—Kennedy’s father saying There will be no crying in this house, and another scene—very young Ted doing something silly, childlike, and his dad summoning him for a conference, saying I love you and will continue to love you, but I am finding you not Serious, and if you continue to be not Serious, I will have no time for you. I have too many other children who have chosen to be Serious, and it is them I’ll pay attention to…
And of course you’re horrified when you read that, but now you wonder if you’ve led a Serious life, if you’ve been Serious—or did you have too damned much fun, too much laughter, too little work?
The night before you were reading about Sam Johnson, a review of a new book about him, and the author talked of Johnson’s prodigiousness—that dictionary! That Shakespeare! Two lives right there, but also, his own copious writings—he who called himself The Idler, ha! You liked how the author of the article marveled at today’s writers, who complain—My novel’s not coming together, I can’t write more than two hundred words a day lately, The writer’s life is so hard—and then, of course, to remember that Johnson, and every other writer until recently, wrote each word by hand, and indeed even with the advent of the typewriter, every draft was done again, and again. Remember those days? Typing it again, again, and making errors, sticking the skinny flat tapes in, backing up the carriage, then typing not the correction but the same error again so that the white paint on the back of the tape would enter that black “f” in finger and you’d go back again, type in the proper “l” for linger? Oh, boy.
And this pale labor you’re involved with, anyway: have you emptied the well? It does give you comfort that on your way up the street for a sandwich you passed a tall young guy, black t-shirt, bread-loaf belly, gold earring, leaning against the building in the rain and making a phone call. You wondered whom he was calling, and why out there in the rain, and that wonder itself gave you hope—you’re still interested in the narrative, the great un-umbrellaed narrative.
So now you’d better get to work. There’s a mockingbird singing, and its subject is you.