After my golf addiction was under control, the next addiction became writing. I’d be lying on my back on the greasy tiles of some greasy kitchen, and I’d be reaching into some onion flavored reach-in cooler trying to replace some sharp, metal part and not being able to start the screw because the space was too tight, so I’d be lying there and reaching in and cutting my hand and bleeding all over the inside of the cooler and swearing beneath my breath, but there was this other, grand calling that I truly believed was the true path to my true life and this goddamned piece of equipment was standing in the way of it. My destiny. So I’d snatch moments between service calls. Sometimes I wrote on upturned buckets in the middle of mechanical rooms hoping the customer wouldn’t find me out, but that never worked very well because you can’t write with any sustained effort while simultaneously scouting the area for the approach of the customer. Coffee shops were the best places. I wrote little coffee-fueled manifestoes, high on the idea that the dawn of my day as a writer was very near and soon the brilliant light of God would shine upon my keyboard and I’d write something worthwhile. That addiction ended with the publication of my first and, to this point, only book, a memoir detailing my marital infidelities and fidelities that attended the flooding of our old neighborhood in Iowa City during the spring of 2008. Scribner published it. My agent, a wealthy, well-connected New York City woman who was married a guy who at one time was high up in Random House, sold it to them. She discovered me when I got an essay published in the Modern Love section of the New York Times. I imagined, when I finally broke through and had a book published by a revered publishing house like Scribner, who also published the work of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, that I would enter in to some larger stream of thought. I believed I could dismantle the idea that the writer was somewhere else. And in some other time. That the writer was distant from the reader. I would never let you forget that I was very near. Inside you even at this moment. That I cared about you. About your reaction to my words. It’s the same intimacy I loved in Camus. I would be like Camus. If I were Camus…. Yes. I have used the subjunctive. Are you surprised?
I thought that what I was doing was radical. Because I would do more than break down the imagined barrier between writer and reader. I would break down the imagined barrier between each of us. I believed there were spirits in the world. I believed they formed a stream of thought and we all took from it and contributed to it. A stream of memory. A stream of fear and joy and want. We were all living the same life in this way. This spiritual way.
This is the stream into which I imagined I had plunged. And then the three readings that comprised my book tour were over. And my three radio interviews. One of which was with Phillip Lopate’s brother, whose first name I have forgotten and who has a radio show in NYC. He and I went back and forth, before the interview, about our autistic children. He also had an autistic son. “But my crazy wife took him away from me and moved to California,” he said. And then, after becoming buddies before the show, we were on air and he asked me why he should believe anything I wrote. “What?” I said. “Why should I believe you,” he said. I was not used to being interviewed. And I strained against saying something like, “You shouldn’t. It’s all fiction anyway. All words are fiction. Even the articles and conjunctions.” But that’s exactly what I said. At least, something along these lines. And then the interview was over. And my little jolt of attention was over. And the glowing emails thinned out. And I was back to fixing reach in coolers on the greasy floors of greasy restaurants again. Still convinced that my true life lay somewhere else.
I guess it took the death of my father to change me. Not just his death. But changing his diapers while he was in such pain. His legs got locked in certain positions and when you tried to move them, he’d holler in pain. So you’d try to go easy, but there was shit in the diapers and it wasn’t just going to evaporate. You needed to move his legs. Straighten them out while you lifted his midsection and tried to gently roll him to one side. And then the other. Same with changing the sheets.
I’d been writing about death for the previous two or three years before my father’s death. Ever since my writing partner, a woman named Lauren, died. We weren’t shy about talking about it. The End. When she would be no more. We both knew it was somewhere in the future. Even though she’d had cancer for seventeen years and she was still alive. We talked about her death, and I felt like a daredevil doing so, not being the sick one myself, but still I somehow believed it would never come. And when it did, I was working on a 1,000 ton chiller at the John Deere plant in Evanston, Iowa. Her husband Michael called, and because of all the noise in the mechanical room, I needed to walk out onto the roof of the assembly plant to take the call. He told me that Lauren had died a few hours earlier. And he just wanted to let me know. Lauren and I had spoken about this moment for years. Through all those seasons. We had written about it. And spoken about it. We read books with death in mind. And still, when I heard the news, my legs gave out and I sank to my knees. It’s true about that happening. You get driven to your knees. Driven there.
And so, I had a few years of death writing under my belt when my father was in his final stages. And I thought I had matured due to all the thought I’d put in on the topic. But thinking about death doesn’t matter. It’s nothing when you place it side-by-side with the thing itself. The void we will all be swept away in eventually. That swirling dream. Without body. Where the past matters only to those we will leave behind.
Here we have thinking about death.
And here we have death.
Here we have writing about death.
And here we have death.
Here we have the last words.
Here we have the last touch.
Here we have the last bite to eat, in dad’s case, a little bit of chocolate.
Here we have the past. The boat shows. The chicken shed. The blue Ford tractor. The new VW. The house in Phoenix. The house in Vermont. The final spring. The final summer. The final fall time. And Christmas so close. And I was driving back to my family for Thanksgiving. I told my father I’d be back soon. I told him we’d listen to Christmas carols.
And here we have what will be left of my time on this earth. Now that I have proof positive that nobody lives forever. Not logical proof. But exhibit A. And exhibit B. And this longing for some other life, some life not ordained to me, some myth about streams of thought, some idea of intellectual discussions while sipping highballs on a deck overlooking the rocks and surf on Marblehead. Some crazy notion of validation. When the validator is drifting in the ether. Attenuating. Mixing with the particles of space. Gone forever. Validation.
There is something buoyant that leaps in me when it’s cold outside, the wind strong, the sun obscured, and a customer leads me to the secret sanctum of a building. The boilers pulsating. The pumps circulating. And the customer says a few words. Maybe about the equipment. Maybe about football or basketball. And then the door is closed and I’m left alone with some broken circle of an automatic control circuit and it’s mine to repair. Of all the repairs that might have developed. This one did develop and it is in my hands to repair. And I know that I’m capable of repairing it. Because I have the tools in my pouch. And I have a truck full of other stuff I might need. And if that’s not enough, I can take a drive to a supply house or tool warehouse and pick up whatever else it is I might need. A pump coupling. A motor. A valve. A controller. An ignitor. And then I might have a cup of coffee at the supply house. And maybe I’ll know the people working there. And maybe someone will shake out a cigarette and I’ll take it and they’ll light it for me. And there I’ll be. Knowing that I have the part that will fix some problem in the world. Knowing I’m going to return to the warm, orangely-lit mechanical room and I’ll replace the broken part. But not yet. Now I’ll finish this coffee. And I’ll sign the paper. And then back in my truck. Back along those familiar roads. All leading, eventually, to my wife. Who is still alive. As I am. And I’ll come home having repaired something. And I will think,This is my joy. This is the height of it. It’s as high as I can go. As high as anyone could ever ask to go. Because this is it, man. This is that sliding moment. That extinguishing spark. Nowhere else. At no other time.
And maybe a book to read. I installed two little wall-mounted lights above our bed. One for Deb and one for me. And I have one of those pillows with the big belly and two arms you can lean against the wall. Deb calls it the boyfriend. Maybe a book to read. Maybe a book to write. But not for the agent. Not pushed forward for acceptance of rejection. Not for the publisher. For either an offer or a pass. Not for my father or mother. Not for the people I went through grad school with. But for rebellion. I could stop myself from writing if I wanted to, but I don’t want to. I will do it for myself. And also for you. That’s all. Even if you’re the only one who ever reads it. Especially if you’re the only one. For me. And for you. Both of us, at this moment, alive. Eyes on the page. Mind doing its normal tricks. Its calisthenics. Its shaggy imitation of something else. Like a dog sleeping while dreaming of running on the beach. Its legs twitching. Running. Running. The waves so strong. The wind so strong.