An old running journal contains some code for torture:
1m warm, 6 x 400 @ 75 w\ 200 jog rest, 800 jog rest, 6 x 400 @ 75 w\ 200 jog rest, 1m cool
I’m too old to imagine my body at five-minute mile pace—even for one lap of the track, much less twelve separate times—and can’t believe in the metronomic mind that held itself to this rhythm of exertion and release. Another soul surged to the line, accelerated until the turns felt slippery, pushed to just the right possibility, and cupped breath like fire in its hands. Another soul relished this graduated exhaustion, the regular slip of power that, like looped rope dropping down a tall tree, sought ground again, wanted to look up and see descent plain.
Hardest to accept is how I loved it. When I wrote that code, I wouldn’t think of shirking. If I didn’t make it true, I wouldn’t be myself.
But, if he’s real, where has he gone?
Fundamentally, creation is making something where nothing was before, so I don’t much like the term “creative non-fiction,” which is wrong on two counts—if it’s truly non-fiction, it existed before being written down, and if it’d never been written down, just doing so makes it “creative.”
Plus, it’s a fiction-writer’s condescension… as if you really have to work very hard to make nonfiction creative.
Devon couldn’t catch me. Only seven, he leapt a moment too late, and, if I gave him my shoulder and took it away, he lunged helplessly off-balance. I darted in another direction, and his arms embraced air. He pursued me too but, as I was older, I could easily outrun him or turn abruptly until he charged past and I ran in the opposite direction.
At first, he laughed. The futility surprised and delighted him, but, as he grew tired and our effort slackened, he made only fitful attempts, relying on surprise instead of persistence. His face flushed with exertion and grew grimly annoyed with it all. When I offered truce, he grunted assent. He wouldn’t play chase with me again and made me sorry I’d missed the chance to let him catch me.
I fear becoming my mother in one respect—I don’t want to repeat stories as she does. I don’t want to wear out already threadbare anecdotes. It would be one thing if someone requested the account of my brother pulling one screw a day from my sister’s crib or the description of how my sisters fought in the closet to elude detection and punishment, but these stories resurface randomly like prairie dogs at the mouths of their holes, sniffing to see if the wind is right.
Recently I pulled a version of Huckleberry Finn from my shelf at school to retrieve some notes I remembered inside its cover. I stopped teaching that version long ago—never at my present school—and holding it felt strange. I’d forgotten the printing inside and, if I hadn’t recognized my handwriting, the words could have been someone else’s.
Turning to the title page, I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and, beneath that, in my own hand, similarly composed, And a Man With a Hacking Cough. In an almost cinematic flash, I remembered this addition, remembered writing it in a moment of boredom during a faculty meeting, remembered who was speaking, remembered the subject under consideration, remembered smirking, remembered how pleased I was with amusing myself, remembered remembering the next time I opened a new book.
I pulled more texts from my shelf, Catcher in the Rye and a Man With a Hacking Cough, The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time and a Man With a Hacking Cough, and my favorite, The Sun Also Rises on a Man With a Hacking Cough.
The margin of the last one hundred and fifty pages of Lord Jim and A Man With a Hacking Cough featured a flip book cartoon of the man at work, hacking.
I’m told smell is the most evocative sense. A whiff of chamomile returns you to your brother’s med school apartment awaiting his return from class. Wintergreen places you in the starting blocks, the oppressive heat shimmering off the track’s turn ahead. Some indescribable scent you call macaroni promises snow soon… because it did once.
You might be lost, and the smell finds you, shifting you into forgotten space.
The car eased to a stop, and, though I’d been driving for a while, I sat with the engine off. I wasn’t ready to go inside. My son was sleeping in his car seat. My wife was in Dallas, doing work. My parents expected me, and I’d spent the previous night at my sister’s house half way. She’d have called my mother to estimate when I’d arrive. My mom might have been standing at the window when I pulled into the driveway or heard the car dying beneath my parents’ bedroom window.
But I wasn’t ready. I could wake my son—he’d sleep better later if he woke. Yet, as the car’s air heated to match the temperature of late afternoon, I felt paralyzed. My father was also inside, his voice stilled by throat cancer surgery, and I couldn’t face the silence between grandfather and grandson, the perverse repetition of silences between my father and me, his son, most of my life. The odor of used diapers would soon fill the car, but still I sat there anticipating the moment I’d feel compelled to move.
I must have gone in eventually, but I only remember waiting.
“Forget injuries,” Confucius said, “but never forget kindness.”
Kindnesses are hard to forget, but, forgetting injuries depends on how injurious they were.
Some events I forget to remember, and they disappear even when I shut my eyes tight and say, “Remember.” Later they may wander back as I’m looking elsewhere. Or I’ll find them, lost just where I left them.
I build every barrier I can against black events I ought not re-examine. I always remember to forget them, but they return as well, seeping from corners and seams that can’t be properly caulked. They drip dark water like ink.
The wing hung loosely from the bird’s shoulder, and it couldn’t pull the wing entirely in. She wanted me to pick it up, but every time I came near, the bird hopped under the patio furniture near the door and then further inside again. If I moved more earnestly to grab the bird, it tried to fly, which turned it toward its injured side until it beat against the floor and slid. Every attempt only reminded it of its loss. After four or five near captures, I heard her crying behind me, the wringing, nervous cry of someone desperate for relief.
I stopped using my hands and relied on my feet instead, kicking it when it lifted an inch above the floor. She opened the screen door, and I kicked it out. It stood just where it landed, one wing down as if caught mid-curtsy, on a steppingstone just outside the porch lights’ illumination.
The other couple arrived soon after she’d composed herself. All evening she turned away from conversation to glance toward the steppingstone. When she laughed at something someone said or did, she finished by turning that direction, her smile dying as her head twisted back to look at me.
I had a Jew’s harp once. I’m not sure how I came by it, but, for years, it sat in the top center drawer of a dresser I still own.
If you’ve never seen one, it’s a loop of metal shaped like a light bulb’s profile, and a tine descends from the top of its loop to the narrowed end. The tine turns up at 90 degrees—you will have to think in three dimensions now—in what’s called its trigger.
This possession came up in class somehow and a student persuaded me to bring it to school the next day. I’d said I could play it, but I never really had, and I meant to give it a try before class but was too busy. So I presented the Jew’s harp and, after speaking expertly about how to use it, could produce no sound.
“Maybe if you held it in your teeth,” Terry Bach said. I did, and its spring reverberated in my skull, the audio to one morning’s humiliation, the sound I’ve associated with humiliation since.
Writing so much leaves me few memories left to mine. Major events have been partitioned and presented apart and whole, and I’ve polished minor illustrations and examples to the glossiest sheen. The remaining episodes seem broken, potshards too muddy, scattered, and puzzling to assemble. Or they seem olifacts, whiffs of scent so fleeting you couldn’t say where they came from or where the wind would carry them next.
Maybe that’s why other writers prefer fiction—it allows assembly, making art from all the parts lying about awaiting harvest. Nuance doesn’t need particular truth, and, if the real meaning of the moment rests in its effect, who cares what detail creates it?
I don’t know why I don’t go along, why I’d rather be an archeologist than a shaman, a librarian instead of a bard.