“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Someone's Trying to Tell You Something: The Opening to the Story I'm Working on

            The driver of every third vehicle you pass in Woodcliffe will wave. The residents don’t exactly appear friendly so much as they always look to be in a pleasant mood. Away from the roads, along which runs nary a sidewalk, you may on occasion hear the fractured echo of playing children’s voices, but the new-growth forest elbowing its way into the leftovers of the three-decade-old development produces for each house an uncanny simulacrum of a lonely cabin in the woods. The tires of all the overpriced, oversized trucks on the meticulously paved dark roads send out nothing more than a muted whoosh, barely distinguishable from a high wind passing through the crowded tree tops. Once in your driveway or garage, it’s easy to forget you have any neighbors at all. And all this just a twenty-minute drive from the city proper.
Being so disconnected must make them crazy, Ada thinks as she’s passing the second truck with an unwaving but pleasant driver since turning into Woodcliffe. Or they were crazy before and the hushed isolation simply allows them space to preserve their craziness, like so many exoticisms in a museum. To anyone visiting Fort Wayne from a real city, these exurban short-distance commuters, well-to-do by local standards, are offputtingly self-impressed, obnoxiously oblivious, and bewilderingly silly. A community of kingly dunces. But more than anything else, what they are is stagnant. They may as well be living in the dark ages—the way they think anyway.
Just after making the first of the two turns before reaching her father’s home—or what was formerly her father’s home—Ada sees a red hybrid approaching in the opposite lane. It’s not until this car has outdistanced her mirrors on the road behind her that she realizes she answered the driver’s smile and wave with the look she’s picked up from her years in the city, the one that says, “My time is too important to spend greeting strangers—the only reason you’re even seeing me now is that they haven’t invented an invisibility cloak yet.” 
The annoyance comes to her in what seems to be a regular cycle of emotions. Next will come the panic, which attaches itself to thoughts about her lame job, her pathetic love life, and the precarious situation with her age. After that will be amusement tinged with impatience, which will gradually shade back into annoyance. All conveniently removed from any encounter with the reality of her father’s death. Will that come later, she wonders, perhaps with a vengeance?
Each of these emotions pulls along a tethered line of thought. For the annoyance, it’s the effort to parse a phrase she’s been picking at the meaning of for the past couple weeks: “Someone’s trying to tell you something.” Ever since picking up the rental car from the Fort Wayne International Airport—or more specifically since reaching down to move the seat up and feeling slightly nauseated by the artificial reek of newness (waxy, citrus, musk) oozing out of the meticulously scrubbed interior, she’s been compulsively repeating the expression and being disappointed in herself for its ever having entered her mind.
Outside the car, the preternaturally oppressive heat hangs in a dusty gold haze over the trees, choking the blue sky in a sticky imitation of big city smog. The someone, Ada thinks, must be God. Or fate. Or some other guiding spirit. Trying to tell me what? What I’m supposed to do, how I’m supposed to live, what I’m supposed to pay attention to? The saying had surged through her mind with bizarre urgency the moment Ada pressed the button to end the call informing her that her father had passed. (Just some official using a quaint formalism that. Passed from this world to the next, that expression was easy enough to parse—if a bit presumptuous.)
            Ada was approaching her dad’s house for the second time in as many weeks. The first had been for the funeral. Now she was going back to inventory his belongings, oversee the movers who were coming tomorrow to box it all up and haul it away, and meet with the real estate agent. The flight, and now the drive, are affording her an abundance of time to contemplate why she, not even religious enough to pronounce herself an atheist, would have a thought like “Someone’s trying to tell you something” commandeer her mind upon hearing the news of her dad’s demise. His death. Two weeks before she got that news a drug store pregnancy test had given her some news of its own. Someone was trying to tell her something—but who was trying to tell her what?
The darkening of the sky that comes into view over the trees as she turns onto her dad’s street finally distracts her. She hasn’t exactly been enjoying the topic of her thoughts, and she prides herself on being able to avoid topics she doesn’t like.
            There’s something achingly pleasant about reminiscing, she thinks now as she tries to calculate the speed of the oncoming clouds. Ada, as a rule, does her best to avoid reliving her past because it causes as much displeasure as delight—that bittersweet tug of nostalgia, stroking the defenseless nerve of cherished memory, oh, with innocence and the charm of the undiscovered fresh untrammeled world and all that, but with the tragedy of loss and disappointment woven into the very texture of remembering.
            Ada, reflecting on how it wasn’t always necessary to search her mind for her present age, reminds herself that the scales were tipped against dwelling on any of those precious scenes from her early years when she began experiencing the added throb of having to measure the distance between them and the present. God, how long ago was it…? Twenty-seven years! Just ten years ago it was unimaginable that I’d ever be older than twenty-seven; now I’m taking twenty-seven-year-spanning trips down memory lane. Jesus. But the temptation over the weekend to ruminate on lost childhood memories is probably going to be sufficiently overwhelming to warrant a moratorium on the rule.
The funeral was, what, a week ago now. A week. A blink. She tries calling up the events of the days between when she stood in the cemetery and when she got on the second plane. Sunday I was here, at the church, then staring at that gaudy, god-awful coffin—you picked it out stupid ass!—feeling as disconnected from all the people, family, standing in half embraces with trundling tears on their cheeks, feeling as disconnected from them, strangers, as they seemed from the rest of the world. Small town in a big world. Still, they get all the newspapers and magazines, the same TV shows—nowhere is really disconnected, not in this country. Most of the people here seem pretty backward though. I guess they choose, insofar as anyone chooses where they end up, a place where life is less hurried and hectic. Less crowded and anonymous. Where homes are cheaper and you don’t have to be rich rich to feel rich.
            Called to the church podium to commemorate her dad, Ada gave the assembled rows of familiar strangers the obligatory story that showed just how he was—and that his way of being was really great and left an indelible mark and all that. “A few years ago now—I really can’t remember how many—I talked to my dad about all the disappointment that attends settling into middle adulthood. You know, how when you’re young it’s all but impossible to make any decisions because the possibilities are infinite and choosing just one path for yourself inevitably comes with this foreboding sense that you’re reducing your future to some miniscule share of life’s potential. That was the kind of dad he was—I could get all highfalutin with my dreary complaints and he’d never bat an eye.
            “And I’ll never forget what he said to me after he listened to me complain for like an hour. ‘You know,’ he says, ‘a lot of people feel the way you do—that adulthood is all about disappointment and foreclosed on potential. But the older I get the more pleasant surprises I find waiting in store.’” She paused, as if to search her memory or calm an upwelling of emotion. “He said, ‘Just imagine all those possibilities, all those doors of opportunity slammed shut—and so many of them without you even making the decision to let them be shut, the opportunities you miss just by waiting too long or being too distracted. You marry one person and forsake all others. You choose one career and it defines you for the rest of your life. I mean, if you dwell on everything you’re missing out on in life you’ll be miserable. And no one wife or husband and no one job can possibly compete with all the fantasies you have about the infinity of people you might’ve been with, the whole gamut of professions you might have pursued.
            “‘But think about it,’ he tells me. ‘Not too many people go around miserable all the time. Sure, some do. The really amazing thing to me, though, is with all the missed opportunities, with all the squandered potential, with all the failures and all the crashing down to earth—I mean, think about it—it’s amazing everyone over thirty isn’t miserable. And we’re not. Most of the time, most of us are happy. I can’t speak for everyone, but let’s face it—I’m old. And yet I still wake up almost every day with things on my mind that I want to do, people I want to talk to, women I want to flirt with and fantasize about’”—chuckles from the pews because that was so what he was like—“‘books I want to read, places I want to visit. We all know our lives are bookended with sickness and pain, or if we’re lucky a gradual slide into oblivion. But it doesn’t stop us from living. Neither does the realization that we’ve reached adulthood and never had one of those storybook romances. We won’t ever be billionaires or sports stars or famous actors. You know, who cares? The pleasant surprise of getting old for me has been that all that stuff has started to seem really, extraordinarily flimsy. Not to mention exhausting. And meanwhile I live my life every day, looking forward to things like these phone calls with you.’”
Every last one of the assembled solemn heads fell silent as Ada stepped away from the lectern with her hand over her mouth. It really was a great tribute to the man, she thinks now. My old pops. Ha! And she made the whole thing up on the spot. Oh, she had toyed with a few ideas for good anecdotes she might tell. That’s what you’re expected to do at these things. But as she was walking up to the front of the church the feeling of disconnection, the sense that this was all theater anyway, these weren’t real people anymore, not to her, nor was she properly real to them, it all conspired to put her in a mind-space for saying whatever sounded good. Wasn’t it all for the sake of appearances and social functionality—so what could it matter?
            Still, it’s pretty shocking that she hasn’t thought about it till now, the fact that she lied. It wasn’t even close to the truth, she thinks. I lied my ass off. They all laughed about the flirting and fantasizing line—it was rather inspired, if I do say so myself—as if it captured the essence of the man so perfectly. Mom left when I was eight and I never heard him so much as mention another woman. Not that I knew him all that well, especially after I left for school. There was never any such routine as a weekly phone call that would have given him a chance to dispense his great accumulated wisdom. (Another missed opportunity?) I totally lied and yet a year from now I’ll probably remember the speech itself much more vividly than I’ll remember driving to his house and pondering the implications of having so brazenly lied. Bald-facedly. Through my teeth. But I had to make a speech and the lie served its function. People do it every day. 
            Pulling into the driveway, the annoyance, the hurried tension, dissipates all at once, almost as if she were happy to be returning home. But her train of thought leaves her doubting how much of what she remembers here is reliable. The most vivid images she can conjure come from the dreams about her brother, even though Dad’s been insisting for years (Dad insisted for years?) nothing even remotely like what happens in the dreams could’ve actually occurred.
The weird thing is that the dreams had already started again, after more than a decade without recurrence, even before she learned that her father was dead (someone trying to tell her something?) and began trying to anticipate all the tasks that would be required of her with regard to the funeral and the house. At least he died with some money. It would all have been much more complicated if there’d been no money. As for Ada, she wasn’t sure that her inheritance would mean a whole lot beyond not having to worry quite as much. I’ll still get up and go to my lame ass job every morning, she thinks. Maybe I’ll have enough after paying off my student loans and setting up a 401(k) to go on a trip somewhere. I’d have to pay Judy’s expenses too—unless I go alone. Taking Guy with me would defeat the whole purpose.
            A spreading inner warmth contends with the caldron of heat she opens the car door into as she stands, laughing softly, on numb feet and bloodless, tingling legs. Guy Saunders has one of those smiles that make you think the person is trying to exert all the muscles around his cheeks and jaw, a big meaty smile exposing big flesh-ripping teeth. He’s just so stupidly irresistible when he does those damn face workouts of his though. And he’s actually onto something, she thinks. It really does feel good to stretch your smile muscles; I’m just never happy quite as vigorously as Guy always seems to be.
            The dreams started up again the night Ada saw the plus sign on the pregnancy test. She tries to calculate how long ago it was that she experienced that particular shock. Dad died two weeks ago now. It would have been at least two weeks before that. Jesus. I’m probably two months pregnant. In a few weeks, I’ll be in my second trimester. Damn it—I have to make an appointment somewhere the minute I get off the plane back home. But where? How do you find a good place for something like that? Would it be listed in the yellow pages? Do I just Google it?
            Rolling her carry-on bag toward the garage whose machinery is locking itself into place and going dormant, wiping its hands with a tiny shudder after the completion of its one simple task in life, Ada feels a sudden chill and wonders if it prefigures the storm she’s been watching approach. Today is the last day of June, she thinks. I guess we might as well send it off with a bang. Anything that tags an event as significant appeals to her, as she finds ever more disturbing the tendency of time to slip away unheralded. You go to bed one night in June, and you wake up in July. A week later you have to logically deduce June ever happened. She leaves her bag standing at the edge of the garage before wandering down the driveway to try and get a better view of the sky.
            The heavy clouds are riding in on sudden gusts of a sort seldom encountered in a town like this. Ada is pleased too with the idea of a storm to mark the occasion of her final trip home, but the raging intensity of the wind, already blasting the uppermost branches of the trees around the house, already tossing about prickling droplets, and the precipitousness of the clouds’ takeover of the overheated blue sky are making her wonder if there might actually be cause for alarm.

Also read: Waking Up a Completely Different Person: From "Dr. McAdams' Method"

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