Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Openers

I was in a bar once--oh, in fact many times--but once I was sitting at the Esquire Lounge, making notes for a new short story on a napkin when a woman I did not know put her head on my shoulder. I noticed her sitting beside me and had shuffled my stool to avoid her cigarette. I had yet to develop an allergy to liquor, but as I had a bad case of asthma I was determined not to suffer her smoke.

So, this woman, as tall-tale openers usually go, just leaned over, put her head on my shoulder, and began reading aloud my plot line. "Hanamoto," the notes began, "works in a flower shop in the suburbs of Osaka and is troubled by the sounds of heavy screwing coming through his apartment walls late at night. In fact, the sounds blast through his wall by-day too, almost all the time, and are made by a red-headed American woman and her Japanese boyfriend. The florist, in his 70s, has survived the war, watched as the Yanks occupied his country, and now resents this girl and her profligate ways."

The notes sounded a little off-key read by this stranger in the bar in the middle of the Illinois winter, a February so cold that you had to pour scalding water on the door of your car to get the locks moving in the morning. And this woman, reading boozily aloud made the story sound more of a cheap comedy than the serious fiction I was planning. Maybe it was a comedy.

I asked if she could put out her cigarette. The ash had grown to almost an inch on the end and it tumbled off into my beer.

"Where do you get your ideas?" she asked.

* * *

In the summer in a very humid June in Virginia, I waited outside the baseball stadium to buy a ticket for the Triple-A class team of the New York Mets, the Tidewater Tides. The sun grilled you like a flatfish and the stadium, located adjacent to the zoo and airport, was built on recovered swamp-land, swarming at mid-day with gnats and mosquitoes.

I had come to watch the rehabilitation assignment of pitcher Doc Gooden, an amazing fireballer who had suffered tendinitis and had been sent from New York to Norfolk to work his way back into shape. The word got out in the Norfolk papers that Gooden would make a start, so the line began forming around the stadium at eight, and I had been out there from the start to snag a good seat. I had my yellow legal pad, a few ballpoint pens tucked into my shirt pocket, a sandwich from home, and a copy of Graham Green's Another Mexico in my backpack for inspiration.

The previous winter I had traveled to the Yucatan with Dr. Z, my zesty companion from graduate school, and we had celebrated Christmas in the homes of friends in Merida. It was an amazing eve, wandering the neighborhoods where Mexicans had opened their doors, set out meals of puc-chuc, turkey in black mole, egg tacos with pumpkin seeds, and cochinita pibil. In some instances, the family was out visiting neighbors, so you helped yourself and ate with whomever else had come inside, then wandered the streets, house-to-house, paying respects and dining into the night.

I wanted to write a short story about an American couple, lost in the jungle outside Piste, near the Mayan ruins of Chitchen Itza. I sat cross-legged on the concrete, outside the stadium in a precious square of shade, writing a few words about the village of Piste where in the cooling dusk families sat around smoking coils of mosquito repellent and cooked tortillas over an open fire.

Every few moments a jet roared into the pale Virginia sky and broke my concentration. I was writing about mosquito coils and swatting the real ones that were lighting on me. Sweat beaded up on my forearms and trickled down to the yellow pad, spotting light blue where I had been writing.

The American couple was truly lost. The husband sat in the jungle wondering if his wife was having more than the one affair he suspected. She had been writing postcards all morning at their hotel before they took the bus to the ruins. And now they had been separated in the jungle and he couldn't help but think she had wandered away deliberately.

I could hear the whirring gnats and the afterblast of a jet that had landed behind me, and then the ticket window opened with a whack and I got my ticket to watch Gooden toss four innings in the blistering Norfolk sun, giving up three hits and fanning two. No walks. I never finished the story about the couple in Mexico.

* * *

I was renting a cottage in the woods outside Colfax, on a meadow at 2,000 feet with a brook and tall pines. We were so far from town that you couldn't get internet service, save by a satellite hookup that was spotty at best. But my desk looked out a sliding glass window on a broad field, with a narrow bridge over the creek, and a single Japanese maple that had blushed brilliant red in the snap of fall weather.

In the pane of the software window I was typing a story about the pony express. I had always wanted to try my hand at a Western, and the road leading to our property spun under the heavy forest, down into a dirt track that snaked its way to the north fork of the American River. Called Yankee Jim's Road, it dropped suddenly over 2,000 feet to the river, where a rusted forest service bridge spanned the whirlpools and flowing current. At the north side of the crossing, you could still walk into the small cave that had been carved into the cliff face to provide shelter for the pony express and, later, the Wells Fargo stagecoach that crossed the American en-route to Folsom and, further down in the valley, Sacramento.

I spent the morning working on a description of the chenille brocade dress with detachable sleeves worn by a woman that worked in the Auburn cafe. Panners were coming in for late breakfast, some with bound sacks of gold dust they had taken from the Bear River.

Then my friend Derek came over from Forest Hill, driving the stage route in his white Japanese pickup truck to sit on my porch and yak about recovery. I had to save the story in the software and get up to greet him. And he was barely in the place, when another knock came at the door.

It was my neighbor's daughter, weeping, barely able to tell me that a local kid came speeding around Yankee Jim's and hit a fawn. I went out to the drive and neighbor Grace had the baby wrapped in a bloody blanket. The fawn struggled to get free, but both its rear legs had been snapped in the impact. The kid had shrugged, looked at the deer where it lay in the road, and drove off elsewhere.

I nested the deer in my arms and sat on the edge of the drive, trying to keep it from struggling while Grace called the sheriff. The deer cried out. I had no notion that deer made any sound at all. The family--two does and six fawns--were always in the meadow in the dusk, grazing on the wildflowers and grass. I had come to recognize the twins, including the spotted fawn that now rolled its eyes and moaned, its head covered with ticks.

Grace came down the steps in tears. The sheriff, she said, couldn't come for an hour. But there was a vet in Colfax and the office was still open.

I put a wet washcloth to the fawn's mouth, praying, assuring it that her misery would soon be over. And we drove to town along Yankee Jim's in the Toyota, crammed into the front seat, the doe squirming on my lap in its blanket.

We had only been there a few minutes when the vet came back into the waiting room to say she had put down the fawn. Its legs could not be repaired and it would have been easy prey on the side of the road. The vet had been crying.

"Most people just leave them lying there," she said.

We drove home in silence, and then I went into the cabin, washed up, and sat down to talk recovery with Derek. I had forgotten about the woman in the Victorian dress and the apron she was wrapping tightly about her pinched waist as she eyed the gruffy sourdoughs that had trod their muddy boots into her fine cafe.

10 comments:

Starlene said...

Do you ever read someone's blog and wonder what they wanted as a response? I do. Sometimes I wonder why someone has blogged something at all and then realize people must think that about me as well.

I find yours somewhat hard to respond to because they seem to echo some already extant part of myself so the only thing I'd really be able to add is 'I know what you mean' which can be really lame, depending on how you look at it.

So for whatever it's worth, I know what you mean. In all three cases. Oh, and the cigarette ash in your beer got an actual out-loud-laugh in an otherwise quiet house. It scared the cats and then I realized I need to laugh more.

Jim said...

It's the starts and the distractions that make writing a challenge to me. Like shopping for something, picking it up in the store and after walking around, lose interest in it, looking at other things. You put it back. Once it's out of my system, I don't ever pick it up again. The distractions..I found this enlightening, thank you.

Yoli said...

You had me at the bar. So tell me, how many women have you picked up writing by yourself in bars?

A Cuban In London said...

Wonderfully written. The first passage had surralism mixed with a little of femme fatale. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

tangobaby said...

I guess when I read your "memories" I just figure there's no need for you to write fiction because you have so many wonderful real stories to share. But then I think that any chance group of words you string together are magical so whatever you write, I want to read.

All I know is that I don't want you to *stop* writing. Ever.

A Cuban In London said...

And apologies because I forgot to thank you for the link the other night to that The Who clip. It's just that I am listening to Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here' now and you know the way your mind plays tricks on you :-). Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Starlene said...

I agree with Tangobaby...your experiences seem to be a goldmine.

Mikes@Your Daily Word said...

haha this post is a story in itself already. very funny.

Your Daily Word

JayMichaelHarden said...

Hello Gaby!! Very nice stuff here, I´ve been looking for some good reflective writing blogs, and this is one of the best!!! I´ll definitely check back often!!
Peace Jay

dutchbaby said...

I felt like a good read this morning and I knew just where to go. You did not disappoint.

The first time I used a decent camera, I was a shooting fool. I saw the world through a lens from that moment forward. For you, the world must be a string of short stories and novels. Where I ask Photoshop to please produce the picture that I know must be somewhere inside the photo I shot, you sit in front of the pane of the software window (love that phrase!) perfecting a description.

It's all about the lens we choose to see the world, isn't it?