Back in high school, in New York City, I had a teacher (a mentor, a friend) who took to my writing voice unconditionally, embracing it with the passion that was his trademark—a singular passion.
When I was 16 here is what he wrote onmy report card, in his patented script, with his omnipotent black-ink fountain pen:
Let us now praise famous women—or one in particular, who has suddenly taken that fatal leap into literature. And we who have witnessed this transformation can only stand by in awe and wonder at that most human of miracles. And the flesh was made word.
When my mother read this—this unearthly praise, this fantasy— I remember she shook her head, smiling, and said to the indisputable fact before her, “He’s a poet.”
Let us now praise famous women. It was a reference and homage to James Agee, whose work my teacher had introduced me to, reading aloud in his resonant baritone gravel the miracle of prose that serves as prologue to “A Death in the Family” (having been placed there by the editors after Agee died, suddenly, seized by his worst attack to date, in the back of a New York taxi on his way to the doctor for another checkup, leaving himself in no position to take the month or two he had decided he would need to make such editorial decisions himself).
Agee, need I say it? becomes my first literary obsession. On weekends throughout high school I wander through the West Village, seeking out the buildings where I have read that he lived. I savor my steps along the haphazard squares of concrete, and then I sit on the stoops and I savor the bricks against my back and my feet on the eroding steps; and I write. I write in my earliest and most brilliant voice—a voice I will go on to lose because I will start to expect
! things of it.
I begin an Agee collection, the only one I know of. I begin to collect different editions of his “Letters to Father Flye” (teacher, mentor, friend), and I collect different editions of “Agee on Film” and of “The Short Prose of James Agee” and of his first novel, “The Morning Watch . . .” and finally of the verbal symphony that is “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”—about which I should tell you nothing at all, except perhaps that it was written with reading it aloud in mind, and this is what I vow to do, and in one sitting.
And I vow to some day write Agee’s only legitimate (because mine is a singular passion) biography.
I tend to remember my teacher in a poetic idiom—the idiom of his comments and his inscriptions in books and his letters. These, in lieu of stories, poems, essays, novels, are his literary output, and therefore how I really know him.
On my 18th birthday he gives me a book by the Sicilian writer Elio Vittorini, “A Vittorini Omnibus,” and on the inside cover he inscribes these words:. . . and there are some writers who honor humanity. They are to be reverenced. And this—before I ever reach the first page—is how I come to know the word reverence, a beautiful word, particularly when it is a verb; and it is how I come to sense that there is a connection between these things—literature, humanity, honor, reverence—and although I am not sure what constitutes honoring humanity, it becomes my ultimate goal.
Years later I open the Vittorini book again and I am reminded of some things: I am reminded of rhythm, and I am reminded of repetition. I am reminded, in a word, of prose. And as I sit here in awe and wonder at this prose, I realize how far I have strayed from it. I realize how sacred it is, and how it ought to be reverenced.
It does not surprise me when the first passage I see is:
. . . Every man is ill once, halfway through his life, and knows this stranger that is the sickness inside him, knows his own helplessness against it. Thus
every man can understand his fellow . . .
But perhaps every man is not a man; and the entire human race is not human. That is a doubt that arises on a rainy day, when a man’s shoes are tattered and water seeps into them; when his heart is no longer captive to anyone in particular, when he no longer has a life of his own, when he has accomplished nothing or has nothing to accomplish, nothing to fear, nothing to lose, and there, beyond him, slaughter is being perpetrated in the world . . .
In the 12 years since I was 16, I have not honored the vows I made then. Now I am looking through the series of letters my teacher and I exchanged shortly after I finished high school (I am looking through my half of them anyway, which is to say the ones he wrote), and I see how nobly he rose to the task of responding to my impassioned, zealous inquiries, long before I had any idea that I would go on to so thoroughly fail.
I wonder what I had written, to have received this response: This reply has been begun on a Friday afternoon, and I have no idea when it will be finished. But I begin now, while I am still caught up in the magic of your prose; and I know I am a great teacher, but you don’t know how often and how painfully I wonder how and why and what for. Your letter is a what for, and I wonder if I will ever teach a writer as good as you again. Probably not, but it doesn’t matter a damn.
I am ashamed. I shudder at an image I have of him sitting at his desk, or in an old chair, in the basement of his house in the Bronx, reading over his half of the letters, which is to say the ones I wrote.
My complaints, I see, have remained frozen in time.
Ten years ago, my teacher and friend, a man and also a poet, in the middle of the middle, suffering his own fears and his own complaints, saw clear through the countless differences between us, and honed in on our bond, our singular passion, and rose nobly to the task of delivering unto me this lesson, that you don’t write for yourself, and you don’t write for others:
:You write. And I did not hear him, because the other voices were so loud in my head. And now, at 28, the other voices are louder still: At night when I cannot sleep because of nothing, I think it is probably only insomnia, many must have it. And when I try to explain last winter—last winter when the universe began to slip away—the words that come to mind are That winter I was plagued by abstract furies. And sometimes, when I think about my childhood, when I try to get a sense of it, and a sense of the way memory feels, these are the words that soothe me: We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.
Well. I have never been to Knoxville, Tenn., and none of the italics thus far have been mine. I do not mean to say that I am a liar… but I think perhaps I am carrying reverence to the grave.
It is around this time—Now—that I come across a writing exercise: “Going From Nothing to Something.” The exercise is simple: Find an area, walk around it (this is crucial—physical movement is itself a wonderful example of Something), pay keen attention to this place you are in—be aware of this place—and then describe it, using words, as accurately as you can.
I realize that this also was Agee’s goal:
For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned
,for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: :so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.
The exercise is simple: Find a place.
Recently I returned to the East Coast after five years in the desert. I returned to my native New York state—not to the city with which I was one, but to the valley north of it, the Hudson River Valley—just in time, after five years without, for autumn.
Autumn is a miracle, and my voyage here maiden.
So. I drive through it, relentlessly; I drive throughout the valley, often the same roads, day in and day out since my return, determined not to miss this change:The same road, in the course of a day, becomes a different road.
It is in the midst of these explorations that I am arrested by the sight of a church—
It was a good enough church from the moment the curve opened and we saw it that I slowed a little and we kept our eyes on it. But as we came even with it the light so held it that it shocked us with its goodness straight through the body, so that at the same instant we said Jesus. I put on the brakes and backed the car slowly, watching the light on the building, until we were at the same apex. And we sat still for a couple of minutes at least before getting out, studying in arrest what had hit us so hard as we slowed past its perpendicular.
—I do not look closely at the church, I do not slow the car—but I know I will be able to find it again; I know that there is something arresting about this church, and that I will be able to find it again. I don’t know the name of the road it is on, but I will. I will know the name of the road, and I will know the name of the church, and I will know many other names, and I will know the shapes and the histories, and I will know other things for which I have no names, which are lying beneath these names, which have inspired these names, which are now somehow suggested by these names.
The title of this volume is “Let Us Now Praise Famous
The title of the work as a whole, this volume included, is Three Tenant Families.
The nominal subject is North American cotton tenantry
“as examined in the daily living of three representative white tenant families.
Actually, the effort is to recognize the stature of a portion ofunimagined existence, and to contrive techniques proper to its recording, communication, analysis, and defense. More essentially, this is an independent inquiry into certain normalpredicaments of human divinity.
Now, with my goal to achieve nothing less than Something, I retrace my path to this place. I do not know whether I will be—as Agee—an agent of defense; if I will be a prophet, a hero; if I have a voice, if I have enough love, humility, grace, endurance, strength; I do not know, as I set out, anything.
On my way to this church
One time I asked a poet who had once been a junkie to describe to me the heroin high. “Heroin” he explained, “feels like this dawn. This beautiful dawn—it just keeps coming on.”
Along the way to this church I am seized with a longing to capture the perpetually obsolete moments of autumn—to do them this injustice.
Describing autumn becomes a painful obsession as I drive through it, the same roads twice daily, and each moment more lush and varied than the last. Each tree, and there are countless of them, bearing no resemblance to any other. What I would need to do is describe each individual tree and then update each description every minute until winter which will be any second now and this is the hardest and most beautiful part of all, that the present tense is dissolving before our eyes, in blazes of unfathomable splendor.
This, then, is the best definition of autumn I arrive at. Would it help anyone if I mentioned that sometimes there is purple, sometimes an entire tree is purple, but it may be the only purple-bearing tree in an acre, the trees near it may be oranges, all manner of orange, and some trees may still be green, and some partly green and partly yellow, and even on these the green may vary, and the yellow will be a spectrum of lemon and sun and summer squash and other flowers and gourds and stars for which I have no names, and there may be gold and lime and sometimes there will be burgundy—
I cannot keep up with autumn, autumn is alive and dying, autumn is nature’s highest peak ofbeauty,for it is so much and it is so quickly past. Every curve in every road, every time you open your eyes to autumn, you hear that hint of elation in the death cry.
I arrive at the church
I arrive at the church. I might have preferred that the sensation be that of a dawning, the inanimate offspring of God rising from the land exclusively for my moment here … but actually, the church is very pretty, clean and peaceful. It sits atop a small hill, and it gazes out over a meadow on the other side of the road, and this, I think, is what makes it, as I remembered, arresting.
This church has a name: Clinton Alliance Church. The name is in white wrought iron on brown wooden planks, three horizontally, and next to the words a symbol, also in white iron, that I cannot identify. I know that part of the symbol is a cross, but overall it seems to me to represent a woman and also a man. I cannot explain this.
The flowers surrounding this sign and the flowers planted as a moat around this church are far too manicured, far too pretty; there is too much of a plan in a place that ought entirely to be informed by the spirit. The church itself is also too pretty, despite its inherent stillness and grace. It is a wooden church, it has a perpetually fresh paint job, mostly white, but the shutters of the tall windows which are rounded at the top are black, and the tops of the posts of the railing around it are black, and the porch and the front stairs are gray.
There is a driveway that runs around the building, and when I first turn into it, I circle the church in my car like a vulture. It is when I feel the preying instinct in my veins that I stop the car abruptly and step away from it.
At the same moment, another car pulls in the other end of the drive and parks at the neighboring house, which is blue and stands confidently behind the American flag erected on its porch. I am still appalled by the way in which my car, I at its helm, has preyed upon this most human of divine tributes, and so I can barely look at the person who emerges from this other car; but I feel that she is stayed by me, I feel that I am on her terrain, and so my head gestures toward her—though my eyes remain on the ground beneath us—just enough for her to feel comfortable asking me, in what is either a territorial or Samaritan tone, “Is there something I can help you with?”
She is plain; I do not look, but I know that she is wearing navy, and that her hair is blond; she carries a briefcase, and her car is very acceptable.
I am embarrassed, but by now I am so accustomed to being in places without ever having a reason, that I am able to admit to her, “Actually, I just suddenly felt like looking at this church. If that’s all right?”
I walk around to the front of the church to look at the meadow across the road. I had thought the church looked out over it, but now, as I sit quietly on the gray steps, I see that it is the meadow that is regarding, in silent, motionless respect, the church.
The sign, Clinton Alliance Church, which is too neat, and the flowers which are too manicured, are placed exactly in between two very old and dying trees. One of the trees in particular is barely justifying itself; most of it has been cut away, there are two branches left, and these hang quietly down toward the road, the few leaves there paying pathetic homage to autumn: a burst of orange amid the fading green. The other tree is also as good as dead, but it is this first tree which has endeared me, which has absolved all that is planned and manicured around it.
I am still regarding this tree and this meadow, which has not once swayed in any breeze, but has remained fervently still, when I have the joy and the rare—despite its daily recurrence—privilege of dusk.
Dusk brings with it the manic work of the crickets. But I do not think I can—and I do not feel the desire to—compose a new song to crickets. Agee’s is enough, and ought always to be remembered.
. . . Meantime from low in the dark, just outside the swaying horizons of the hoses, conveying always grass in the damp of dew and its strong green-black smear of smell, the regular yet spaced noises of the crickets, each a sweet cold silver noise three-noted, like the slipping each time of three matched links of a small chain.
Now it is the next day and I am returned to this town.
The Clinton Alliance Church lies directly between the Clinton Town Court and the little hamlet called Schultzville (a distance of perhaps a quarter of a mile); Schultzville, I will learn, is one of seven hamlets comprising the Town of Clinton. But before I learn this, here is what I know:
When you come to the end of Route 18, about an eighth of a mile past the Clinton Alliance Church on your left, you find yourself at a four-way stop at one corner of a triangle of lawn which appears to be something of a village green, though there is nothing on it but a few playful wooden road signs, two pointing to your right and one to your left, toward the Taconic Parkway, which will connect you to New York City; and next to these signs a small row of mailboxes. The only business you will see on this green is the Schultzville General Store, est. 1807; it will be the second house on your right, just past the brown wooden house with shutters the most unlikely green you ever imagined; to your left is a large, stoic barn that bears the name, in large faded black letters, SCHULTZVILLE GARAGE but appears to be an artist’s studio now; this structure is stark and dignified in exactly the same manner as Agee’s church, and you are arrested in the manner that Agee is: to this sudden birth of
a building in your field of vision, larger somehow than the space it occupies, you are moved to say Jesus. You feel in your veins that this place remains suspended in time and in grace:All of the structures in this little hamlet—the Schultzville Garage, the Schultzville General Store, and the apparently private house across the street on your left, with a large screened-in porch that is clearly the hub of life there, affording, as it does, a view of grace—are just as churches are, shrouded in that aura of peace that humanity creates through faith and reverence.
And a quarter mile back, the Clinton Town Court—a name which I think is an afterthought, judging by the additional quality of the sign—is comprised of two structures. The first is house to both the Town Hall and the library, and it also is like a church—but not as much as the second building, which looms behind it, suspended in this time warp we have entered. This is a barn of a building whose front is predominantly garage doors, with its name in large letters across these doors, CLINTON HIGHWAY DEPARTMENT. This—in addition to its general sense of decay—leads me to believe that the structure is no longer in use, for why would a Highway Department be among the functioning offices of a town that does not even have a tavern? Then I see those massive garage doors begin to open and close, and open and close … and I realize that roads must indeed be very important to the people here.
At the Clinton library, I learn what I have already sensed:
The Clinton library is so far from the libraries of the cities where I have lived, that I think I have entered not so much a new place as a new time. I sense that on the shelves I will find nothing and everything that I will look for. I am right, for today I will look for nothing. What happens into my hands is “The Town of Clinton—An Historical Review,” which tells me more than anything a great deal about its author:
We have looked back into the past and found it good to do so;for the past is the foundation of the present, and in the present we are laying the foundation of the future … we thrill at the telling of great deeds and revere the leaders who are recorded with them.
But what of the many others whose faith and labor made it all possible.
Into the wilderness of central Dutchess they came from the south, the east and the west. They came on horseback and with ox carts, with hand tools they cleared land and built a log house.
They cleared and planted more land. Almost all food required for their simple needs could be raised on their own land. Their sugar and molasses was gathered from the maple trees, wool and flax of their own raising made their clothing, their leather was in proportion to their own beef and mutton ...
I am thinking that here is a voice. Here is the voice of a preacher; here is a poet; here is a woman who is moved to remember her world, and when her hand moves to do so it comes out in a song. I see now that there is a strain among us for whom the world is a song:We are moved by the world, and we are moved to move, and when we move, the movement is for the world, and when we move, the movement is a song, and when we sing, the singing is for the unsung. And I see that when a person is moved by the world, and the movement comes out in a song, that this is a sign of honor.
I read further. At the end of her song, the author has decided to include the song of another which has presumably moved her; for which she is presumably grateful; without which, presumably, she feels her own song would be remiss. It says it is from Ecclesiasticus, and this is how it goes:
Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.
Leaders of the people by their councels, and by their understanding men of learning for their people.
All these were honored in their generations, and were a glory in their day.
There be of them that have left a name behind them to declare their praises.
And some there by which have no memorial; who are perished as though they had not been.
And are become as though they had not been born, and their children after them.
But these were men of mercy, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.
With their seed shall remain continually a good inheritance. Their seed shall remain forever, and their glory shall not be blotted out. Their bodies were buried in peace and their name liveth to all generations.
People will declare their wisdom and the congregation telleth out their praise.
Indeed, as there are those among us who would remember their
world, I find other books about Clinton. I discover that Clinton has, as all places have, a past—and that this past, as I have already felt, is particularly present:
slower pace one can appreciate the farms, now mostly fruit, produce, and horse; the early architecture; the scenic views; several landmarks on the National Register; the unchanged hamlets; and all of those elements which have kept the community firmly connected to its past.
I want to talk to the librarian about this but she is busy telling a neighbor about the grilled eggplant soup she was served last night, and the stuffed sole. She is wearing red pants and a white T-shirt that is brightly silkscreened with tropical birds and it advocates protecting our rain forests, and she is dutifully and happily covering new children’s arrivals in plastic covers and labeling their spines; she knows everyone who comes into the little library, she greets them with their own names and their own concerns and she cuts off another piece of plastic to cover the next book in her pile. In general, and in every other way I am sure, she is far more functional than I, and so how can I defend her from anything? Nor do I believe she is in need of defense.
I return to the history book: I find that the remedy for Muscle Ache is Ladys’ Bedstraw, “celebrated for that purpose amongst Authors who say the Decoction of the Herb and Flowers being yet warm, is of admirable use to bathe the feet of Travelers.”
It suddenly occurs to me what I must do. I must go deep into the place I have selected, and I must stay there until it tells me why I have come.
In my travels I have seen far prettier meadows than the one I am looking at now from the steps of the Clinton Alliance Church, and I think this is why I have selected this place—because I am concerned with those of us who are not gifted; I am concerned with the cruel radiance of what is.
This is how the church sees the meadow: It is a distinct portion of land, rectangular in shape, running along the road, bounded on the far side by trees, and bounded on the left side too, but the trees there are shorter, and on the right side is a row of even shorter bushes. The meadow is not at road level: One would have to go down a hill about six feet in order to reach it. This hill is scattered with bushes and with the same tall grass that fills the entire meadow, alternating between green and lavender-brown, though the sense of the meadow is that it is all lavender-brown. The sense also of the meadow is that if you were to stop and look at it, the tall grass would be swaying in the breeze; but when I stop to regard it, it is as still as a photograph. This is part of the temptation to enter it: to see if it is real and, if it is not, to enter its state of grace.
I want to embrace this meadow; I want to cover it completely with myself—walk every inch of it, or scatter myself like seed. I want to know this meadow; I want to feel what this meadow is seeing when it looks across the street at this church.
My goal is to allow my feelings—as I sit in any place, or stand for that matter—to dictate the manner of my prose.
When I say “place” I am thinking of several realms: the emotional place, the intellectual place; and of course the geographical place—the one with which we are always contending, always, no matter the presence, glory, priority of another place.
So. What I mean to say—about my goal—is that it is to have the spirit become word. On all of Agee’s pages are series of places—places where Agee is. I see him, I feel what he feels; the world is passing through him in its entirety. And he allows it—he requires it, demands it—he understands his function as a conduit, a man with a gift: the ability, despite himself, of keen, sensitive, and above all poetic observation; and the instinct to return to humanity the honor he perceives there.
I am standing now, and I gaze up at my graceful tree. This tree, I decide, is like a head:The trunk, just about dead, perhaps all dead, what do I know about trees? is the face, all sorrow, and the two small branches that curve over the road are a shock of hair, multicolored but mostly orange, and the only sign of life here. I am sure it is this sign, these few brave leaves, that has saved the tree from eviction.
I am heading toward the meadow spontaneous and unprepared: no food, no tent, nothing to keep me warm if the temperature drops, and I don’t know if the temperature will drop because I have done nothing to prepare for this—and above all else, no books; and this last is the stake upon which my goal rests. I will go into this meadow (and further still, if further beckons) with nothing except my memory. I do not think I will be able to recall anything, but who knows? Maybe I will discover that I am more than I think I am, and that I have memory of more than my own experience.
I head for a space between bushes that I see is my threshold to the meadow, which is louder even as I walk toward it, the crickets in a frenzy for each other s attention. When I arrive at the threshold, one cricket in particular pipes up. I can’t see it, but its sound is distinct from the rest. For a moment I think it is warning me not to step on it, and I realize that I may have to step on it.
Tough luck, cricket. This is my way.
But I remain at the side of the road, at the top of this incline into the meadow, for several minutes, because suddenly I am afraid: It is a steeper incline than I had imagined, and I am not at all sure that the ground under these shrubs is where I think it is. Finally I convince myself that a broken ankle would be the worst of it, and at least that would save me from my task.
I proceed down the incline, wary, sideways, feeling ridiculous and homicidal.
Now I am arrived at the track of grass which encircles the entire meadow but is hidden from the road and the church’s view. I can’t help myself: I start to jog along this track of grass until I am on the far side of the meadow. I know I can keep going, but instead I stop abruptly and turn to see what I have come here to see: but the church continues to defy my expectations of rapture. The tree, however, with which I have already fallen in love, is sporting the only color on the entire mountainside behind it. Brave little goddamn tree.
So I forget about the church. When it is time to look at the church again, I will know. In the meantime a world not visible from the road is opening up to me. Behind the meadow, these woods give way to the orchards of neighboring farms, and of the farm upon which I am certainly trespassing. There are little secret paths, and there is water, though I do not know how far the water runs. I plan to find out; I plan to prowl around this land and spy on the farmers who have this secret little piece of heaven.
But the best laid plans, and before long I discover that I have waltzed into a universe of insects that have already made of my forehead a map of where I’ve been.
I tell myself that they are only bug bites and that I can survive this. I tell myself that nothing will come of nothing if I do not stay and endure this.
And then I return to the Schultzville General Store to buy insect repellent.
I tend to think that the way I covet places is common, and I will therefore see other strangers, like myself, like flies, hovering about the door and milling through the aisles and hanging out on the porch and drinking coffee at one of the tables. But people’s needs here seem to be brief, the traffic slow.
I have wanted an excuse to come back to the Schultzville General Store. As usual, I can’t explain this impulse, except to say that I
1 sense I will find out everything I need to know here.
The store is neither dirty nor clean. A word that comes to mind is utilitarian: It does not stock what it has found it does not need. There is a front room that is made up of a few aisles—peanut butter, tuna fish, Coke, paper towels, Cascade … there’s a magazine stand, and coolers on the left for sodas, juices, beer, water; there’s a reach-in freezer for the ice cream, which I will discover is a highly desirable item here. The right side of the store is the deli counter and cash register. And the back room is where the grill is, and a counter with three stools, and there are four booths there as well.
At this counter, a really pleasant man with regular, thin brown hair, a regular brown mustache, brown plastic eye glasses (a little too large) and a small mouth that’s always kind of pursed, wearing a loud green T-shirt, the pocket over the left breast gaping but nothing in it, and an unlikely but not ostentatious gold chain around his neck, smiles at me when I come in through the screen door. I don’t know if he’s a regular or if he’s the person who is there to serve me—even after he offers me assistance because I must look as though I need it.
“I can show you where something is,” he suggests.
I tilt my head slightly, and my arms go out to the sides (a gesture that is meant to excuse myself for being there).
“Insect repellent?” I finally suggest back.
With this he is up in a beat and halfway across the store and around the aisle nearest the door, his left hand on a red can of Raid on the shelf, and his right hand already holding out to me a green can of Deep Woods Off. I am sure now that this man is the proprietor.
“That oughtta do it,” he assures me, even though I’d trust him with my life.
At the register I’m fishing through my little waist bag that I carry around in my hands, when I see what is unmistakably a fresh pot of coffee over to my right. It is dusk now, remember, and I’m here to tell you that dusk is never the best time to find a fresh pot of coffee; but this pot is fresh, I can tell it is, and I have never wanted a cup of coffee quite the way I do right now: I think the fabric of the universe will shift slightly when I drink this coffee, and everything that is wrong will be right.
I put the green can of Deep Woods Off into my waist bag and I carry the cup of coffee (about which, as it turns out, I am right) out to my car, and I feel prepared to face nothing, should nothing come up.
I return to the church steps
Now the sun is about six inches above the horizon and it is directly in front of me, and I wish that I was anywhere but here, because surely I am in the only place on earth where even dusk provides no magic.
It occurs to me that I really don’t like nature, that I’m really uncomfortable in nature, that the sounds and the smells do not remind me of anything. The only memory nature has ever triggered for me is of a pet store on Bleecker Street I used to stop in sometimes on my way home from grade school. I never felt any particular ancestral pull luring me to this place, but there was something special about the store; it was deep and lush and sexy, and the air would come at me as soon as I crossed the threshold; it couldn’t help it, it was as natural as the snakes gulping down like lightning the utterly unsuspecting little mice that the clerks would periodically put into their cages, explaining that they had to, and explaining that the snakes would not touch the mice until they were hungry. The mice would walk all over them, sniffing, ferreting, blissfully unaware that they had been delivered to a cause higher than any of us—higher than any except perhaps the snakes (the clerks didn’t say as much, but I always suspected that we were all blindly, in fear of their absolute, unknown, unforgiving power, serving the snakes), and that as soon as nature called, a snake would casually snap up a mouse in its entirety, in a single gulp (did the mouse die?), and then there would be a mouse-size lump in the middle of the snake.
I imagined that this lump would decrease with the various stages of digestion. And this was the thing that I always wanted to see—that I’d heard about but never saw and never quite believed—a snake with a huge lump in it, evidence of an action past, so blatant it was as though we were still seeing it, the conquest itself. Whenever I saw a mouse prancing stupidly around and on top of a snake coiled motionless and bored without its appetite, I would be arrested there in front of the cage, knowing that I could see it if I waited long enough, and secretly terrified that it would occur just at the moment I was walking by and looking.
I drive away from the church
I drive away from the church. As soon as I am out of its realm the world begins once again to take on the splendor I have been detecting everywhere lately except the place I have chosen. I ask myself why am I running from this little pocket of land; why do I feel so unworthy of recording, communicating, analyzing, and defending it; why don’t I care about this place; how can there be a place on earth that I don’t care about?
Abruptly, not one hundred yards before the main highway, I turn back. I retrace my path back to the place I have jilted. I don’t know what I expect will happen. What I do know—and this is the only thing I know anymore—is that I am looking for Something, and if I can’t find it on my own, it is time that I ask for help.
When I am passing back through the realm of the church and the meadow, I now notice that the sky is a soft haze of very light pink swirls against a very light faint blue, and that the moon is oblivious to this haze all around it, it shines as though it were required to provide light for another earth as well as ours.
Suddenly I am able to stand by in awe and wonder at the world of nature around me. And I realize it is because I have relinquished the obligation to honor it; I have decided I will leave such honor to the naturalists.
I pass by the shock of hair hanging proudly on my dead tree, which stands vigil before the Clinton Alliance Church … and then I
1 arrive at what is apparently my destination.
. . . The communication is not by any means so simple. It seems to me now that to contrive techniques appropriate to it in the first place, and capable of planting it cleanly in others, in the second, would be a matter of years, and I shall probably try none of it or little, and that very tortured and diluted, at present. I realize that, with even so much involvement in explanations as this, I am liable seriously, and perhaps irretrievably, to obscure what would at best be hard enough to give its appropriate clarity and intensity; and what seems to me most important of all: namely, that these I will write of are human beings, living in this world, innocent of such twistings as these which are taking place over their heads …
For a while I remain in my car and observe the occasional customers make their way home. I am waiting for an opening. When it gets down to two teen
–age girls who are like colts they are so slender and so awkwardly graceful and I wonder how they can eat all that ice cream they are clearly buying on a regular basis, I re-enter the Schultzville General Store and I head quickly over to the coolers to observe the soda while the colts pay up.
When I am the only customer left, and there is no way I could have missed anything in the cooler, I grab what I think is water but turns out to be diet orange soda, and return to the cash register and place the bottle on the counter, and explain, as though I have to explain: “Back again.”
The proprietor—I’ll call him Amenable even though later I will hear someone call him Jim—is not interested in my reasons for being. Soon he will be finished ringing me up, and then maybe another person will come in; before long I will lose him.
I try to find a way in; I stumble on a pile of old clichés: “
’This is the hot spot, huh?” I ask, referring to the only business in town.
Amenable is kind and unsuspecting: “This is the spot. Ha.”
Yes. Go on. Please go on.
“Would you like a bag for that?”
“Hm? Oh. Actually … I think maybe I’ll sit a while—if that’s all right.” I’m heading into the back room now with my soda.
“Sure. Stay as long as you like.”
There is a very brief moment—it is about to be over—that we remain in our positions.
I take my next unbelievable chance. I say, “You from around here?” A question I have never asked anyone before.
“Well,” says Amenable, starting to straighten out the condiments behind the counter, “I’m from New England originally, but I’ve been here a little over 30 years.”
Yes. Go on. I open the orange soda, which I still think is water.
“You?” says Amenable.
I take my first sip and then instead of answering practically spit all over him because I haven’t had a soda in 10 years. It takes me about three seconds to become addicted again. “I’m from the city originally, but I just moved back to this area. It’s really beautiful here,” I say, as though he made it. “I was really drawn to this particular spot. It’s hard to explain.”
Amenable wonders, with good reason, what the hell I’m talking about.
“Actually,” I say, sitting down at the counter, “I’m trying to write about this area, and I’ve kind of come up against a … wall.” I’m gesturing now, and shaking my head. It’s all coming out; I can’t believe what I’m hearing. “See, I’m lost in Nothing,” I say. “I’m rolling around this well of Nothing, and I’m trying to come up with . . . something. Anything. Actually, I was thinking you could probably help me …” I wait for any sign at all from Amenable, but he’s waiting for this whole mistake to blow over.
“So,” I say, disguising it as a joke, “tell me all about Schultzville.”