Essays

Unfinished Business

[first printed in The Seattle Weekly]

He was the comet that came that year.

I met C. one afternoon as I was walking my dog in the Montlake neighborhood.  Someone had stolen his Saint Bernard while he’d been inside the local espresso cafe, where he liked to do his writing. He, too, was working on a novel, and he seemed as eager as I to pursue the acquaintance.

C. lived just down the street, and when he needed another place to stay I offered the cellar room of the house I shared with two others.  He was a year older than me, though it looked more like ten.  He had studied writing with Richard Hugo, an idol of his.  His mother was a librarian, his father a teacher who had passed along to his son a passion for baseball.  Bill James’ Baseball Abstract was never far away from C. and his supply of Earl Weaver stories was inexhaustible. Neither of us had played much organized baseball.  But C. rekindled a love of the game in me, and after we were done talking baseball—a link with America’s pastoral past, he’d say—we’d move on to books.

John Irving and William Kinsella were two of his favorite authors.  Or we’d discuss some of mine, J.G. Ballard and Conrad.  Then we’d discuss our own writing.  The title of my novel paled in comparison to his—The Lyrebird Suite—as did the events of my life.

His wife had left him seven years before, while she was pregnant with another man’s child.  I often wondered that if that happened to me, I might not get over it, either.  He told me about his breakdown in Los Angeles, a more recent event, where he’d been working 14-hour days as a free-lance graphic artist for advertising agencies.  I, too, had a job in that field once, so I could sympathize.

He was a night owl like me, and our conversations would often end at 3 a.m.sharing final thoughts—with mouths full of churning toothpaste—before heading off to our respective rooms.  His life was like that of a comet: his perihelion the time in the world of high-octane admen and deadlines; his aphelion the menial jobs he took after his burnout, the jobs he justified as an artist trying to write the Great One.  I was just content to tell a story and see it in print.  You had to play within yourself, I’d say, risking the cliché.  A dream that’s unattainable is self-deception.  I said that because for a while I thought he could pull it off.

Sometimes, when C. was down the street working as a fry cook in the local restaurant (he had no car), I’d go down to the cellar, shaking my head in amazement at the clutter—the ashtrays full of Camels, the stack of men’s magazines and, always and last, the typewriter—to see what he’d done on The Lyrebird Suite.  Usually it wasn’t much.  But those rare times when he’d written a page were a thrill that would carry my day, promising a deeper and continuing bond between us.  Maybe I knew then, instinctively, that friends have to walk at more or less the same pace to keep on.

I’d often say to my girlfriend and later wife, that if C. could write as well as he talked, he’d win the Pulitzer.  I was in awe of his verbal skill, how he listened, never dismissing anything anybody said but making his own point well enough if he disagreed with you.  He could talk about anything and was passionate or logical as the case demanded.  People were at ease around him.  He put energy into those friendships and not his writing—a priority I in turn envied, admired, and lamented because his raw talent was better than mine.  Yet he couldn’t string the pages together as he did the popcorn for our Christmas tree that year.  He wasn’t the fullback he gently chided me for being—two pages a day and a cloud of dust.

He was alternately generous and careless with his friends, including me.  He might have an appointment with one, but if another stopped by unexpectedly at the house, he would chat away, the other meeting delayed or forgotten.

On those few occasions C. showed me what he’d written, I was honest but gentle with him because he had a perfectionist’s aversion to criticism.  The much more frequent critiques he gave my chapters were a beauty of form: fair, concise, supportive.  Always leave the pilot light burning, he’d say.

Now I see his critiques as sentences of an epitaph, for the closer I came to completing my novel, the more I sensed our bond weakening.  Our early-morning talks centered more and more on the misery of his poor-paying job—which I could share, since I worked in a restaurant, too.  But I had the promise, however remote, of release.  He had created none for himself.  Even his romantic idea of visiting all the baseball stadiums in a single season—and then writing about it—faded.  The loss of that dream saddened me more than he knew.  I’d gone so far as to offer the homes of relatives and friends, places he could stay for a few days as he made his glorious circuit.

After a call from an L.A. Buddy who wanted C. to partner a sure-fire money-making idea, he borrowed “good” clothes from me and went down to get out of his rut.  He ran out of money and I wired him $750 when he asked.  He was my best friend.  He came back with a scheme for marketing the kind of chair that has no back, where you kneel more than sit.  I thought of Willy Loman when C. showed me the bright red jacket he said would help him get noticed in the offices of potential clients.  The color of perihelion.  He was serious.  I thought he’d flipped.  There was no more talk of writing or books or baseball.  I rarely saw him.

The scheme eventually fell through and C. got a job through another friend, working as a janitor, sweeping the floors of a corporate building at night, taking his breaks with the watchman, listening to the Mariners on the radio.

I sought him out twice after he moved away but never got the money he owed me.  I was angry and bitter at that.  He’d listened to my frustrations at having to wait on tables; $750 was a month’s worth of sweat.  Even so, it was more an answer I was after, the answer to the puzzle of why one who had so many friends, who counted me as one of his best, could turn his back.  One who had told me that no man is a failure, or poor, if he has friends.

The last time I saw him he was working in a factory and thinking about resurrecting his art, working on the novel.  Aphelion.  He asked me about mine.  He showed me his car, a beater a friend sold him cheap.  I wanted to ask him why he was still friends with that person, why our friendship had to dissolve, but I never did, because the answer came soon enough.

I’d thought of friendships as the new additions to the house, built over time, repainted, spiffed out on occasion but always there to go into.  I learned that sometimes they’re not.  Sometimes they’re the wing that’s boarded up, the room that’s closed off because winter is approaching and the cost to keep it heated is just too high.  Sometimes they’re merely way stations.

I don’t remember all of C.’s reasons for naming his fallow book The Lyrebird Suite.  But it was, and still would be, a beautiful title for a novel.

*****

A Model Boy

[First printed in The New York Times]

SEATTLE—One month into his 30s, he decided he wanted to buy a plastic-model kit of the space shuttle Columbia.  He hadn’t built a model in 16 years of so, and he was suspicious of his motives now, busy as he was with certain job deadlines.  He could smell procrastination with keen senses developed over the years.

Yet with the shuttle’s launching coming up, he wanted to do something to mark what he increasingly came to believe was a watershed event, despite what his neighbor, a salesman, thought was another waste of the taxpayer’s money.  On the contrary, the shuttle would begin exploiting not only the spiritual resources of a fractious country and world in need of a new frontier, but also material resources as well.

If Apollo was an intense affair with space, here was the beginning of a marriage that would be fertile, that would end with the stars, with the science-fiction stories he had read so eagerly as a boy.

So he wanted something to put on his shelf, something more than the newspaper front pages he had saved to commemorate Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.  And more than that, he had an urge to build a model, a shuttle for his dreams.  It was an embarrassingly strong urge.  It would be done behind closed doors.  The High Church of Proper Adult Activities would wring no confession from him.

He selected a toy store, though he preferred to think of it as a hobby shop.  As soon as he went in, he knew something was wrong.  He felt uneasy, like the time when, as a boy, he and his cousin skulked about a seedy drugstore to buy their first men’s magazine.  It wasn’t that he was afraid of running into someone he knew in the store.  There wasn’t one in a hundred chances of that.  His peers were too busy with Proper Adult Activities.

No, it was a sense of displacement, or misplacement, of being Gulliver in Lilliput.  He had entered a domain that was not his anymore.  Or was it?  He might have pretended to be a father shopping for his son’s birthday. Yet for all his feeling foolish, he lingered by the rows of models, found himself searching for the ones he had built as a boy.  He looked for the Viking Ship, the Constitution, the Missouri, the B-17, the UFO from a TV series.  Even then he had been different.  He had made ships and planes, and every other kid was making hot rods.  He looked for the Pirate Ship his uncle had given him when he was recuperating from a serious illness.  The proprietor of the shop gave him a curious eye first, then the standard offer of assistance.  “Just looking,” he said sheepishly.  He did not find, of course, the model he had made of Alan Shepherd’s booster and capsule.

He thought of his grandfather, who was in World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker’s outfit, the 94th Pursuit Squadron, and of the time he came into his room to watch him work on some plane or ship.  He remembered overhearing his grandfather telling his mother later:  “The boy has good hands.”

He found the model of the Columbia.  It was in a huge box, which only made him more uneasy.  He couldn’t hide it.  He looked it over and saw the side-panel picture of a boy holding—almost possessively it seemed—the completed model, all of 20 inches long:  one seventy-second scale.  He knew then he wasn’t going to buy it.  The boy seemed to say to him, “This is for me, not for you.”  And, anyway, it was silly, he didn’t have the time to put it all together, and the model was expensive.  And he’d have to shell out out more for enamel paint, tiny-bristled brushes, and cement.  He scrubbed his mission.

He felt cheated the rest of the day, and his preoccupation with his decision made him irritable.  The President had almost been assassinated, black children in Atlanta were being killed, and all he could think of was whether it was foolish or not for a 30 year-old man to buy a kid’s model.

That night during news coverage of the second countdown, a French correspondent, who had covered all the Apollo missions, was voicing concern about preparations for the shuttle’s mission.  There was talk of NASA’s scrimping for funds, the delay in completing the Columbia, the tile problem, the workmen who were killed.  Days before, there had been a segment on a TV news-magazine show detailing the near-fatal Apollo II trip.  That the shuttle would give NASA a rescue capability was not, he thought, emphasized.  Everyone was apprehensive.  Could we do it again?  Were we washed up as a vigorous, confident nation?  As if to underscore the point, the anchorman was shown veering off the runway, blowing out tires, in a simulated shuttle landing.

The day after thousands and thousands cheered the launching of Robert Crippen and John Young, he went to another hobby store and made his purchase.  It was a different brand, though still one seventy-second scale.  It boasted fully engraved tile detail, and he toyed with the idea of painting a few black, to simulate the tiles that had popped off the Columbia.  It would be a difficult job to paint them distinctly but he had a steady hand with a brush, no matter how tiny.

There was no picture on the box’s side-panel of a boy holding the completed model.  But as he walked out of the store, almost $20 poorer, he reflected with some satisfaction that he would have bought the model, commemorating a new era of possibilities, whether there had been such a boy or not.

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