My step-father is showering. The water travels from somewhere beneath the floors through moaning pipes to the showerhead. A water organ, it is, untuned. I sit at the dining room table, round--But now that of my parents. The table cloth is of blue and white circles. The table cloth is rarely removed. We dine before the television set here. I'm not particularly fond of that custom but I do not want to offend the folks by sitting apart from them. Tacos tonight. An irony in that. But an irony that will only become clear later, when I get to Mexico--and by then forgotten. Ground turkey meat. I'm a demi-vegetarian trapped in a land of meat-eating prowess. Must be real vegetarians in southern Kansas somewhere, but I've never met one. My step-father says the word vegetarian the way his father probably said the word hippie. "VegeTAREian," he says, kind of out of the side of his mouth, quietly, from the diaphragm, if you can feel that. I offered the television a taste of my taco. It responded with laugh tracks.
"Are you sure you don't want normal hot chocolate?"
"Mine's fat free and you mix water with it. I have the real stuff that you mix with hot milk."
"I'm used to the water kind."
"You use four of these..." And my mother holds up a spoon. "...heaping."
I've done no scribbling since before Christmas. But then, not much describable has happened since before Christmas. It is now mid-January and my step-father has finished his ablutions and sits reverently before America's Funniest Home Videos. The way it was hard for me to hear my grandmother's voice, it is hard for me to see my family. It is all so familiar that it is invisible. A couple of things I could mention, I suppose. I have a younger cousin who, once a girl, is now a woman. I made references to Steppenwolf and pondered peanuts and Faust while observing naked women dance on a Keller Avenue stage. But I'll return to this later. First, since there is little else to mention, I should finally get to that point I've stalled on since El Paso--How this journey began.
My grandmother says "axely" instead of "actually." She uses "usely" for "usually." Grocery store items are not "expensive" but "high." She is quite attentive in conversation or when addressed. And even though she's a year older than her brother she could easily pass for ten years his junior. Her glasses are round circles of heavy glass that hang suspended before crystal blue eyes.
This all really began in San Diego.
I will step away now for a grail, for four heaping teaspoons, for boiling water.
Maybe the stalling is because it's difficult. And how do I begin? How do I describe this? Shakespeare, I can say. Mozart. Michelangelo. With them I guess I can begin. Or with my unfinished novel. Or with the nexus between these. I mean, okay, you can duck the question and say these men were geniuses. At least I call that ducking the question because it explains nothing. Or, you can go hyper-intellectual or hyper-academic and tear their works apart and examine them piece by piece and explain how this part relates to that part and how the parts and the relations makes their works so unbelievably marvelous. But that too is ducking the question, right? I mean, it is not about pieces of the works. It is not a brick here or a brick there, a flourish, this brushstroke, or a note. It is something beyond that. It is in the whole edifice. No hyper-academic would refute that. No man on the street would contest that. Any one looking at the works of these artists and trying to understand the marvel of them would agree to that. But that brings me back to where I started. What is their secret? What is it in their works that is not in the works of their contemporaries? Why does painter X in this chapel create a fresco that is adored for five hundred years while painter Y in a neighboring chapel paints a fresco that is forgotten after a generation? What is the difference? How did they do it? I look at a serenade or the Sistine Ceiling or Hamlet and I am astonished, astonished at something, but at something I do not understand. It is there. And I feel it. And it is real. Unmistakably. You can't turn from it. You can't pretend it is not there. And yet I do not know what it is that I cannot turn from, that I cannot pretend is not there. It is mysteriously vivid; an arcanum that pricks you. And you feel the pricking and you submit to the pricking and you enjoy even its smart but you never know where the pricking comes from. What it is. What is it? What did they find? Their genius was not a mere feat of technique. A million brilliant technicians have come and passed into forgottenhood. These were feats of something else. Something I do not understand. Something I see, that I cannot deny, but that I cannot define. That is the mystery, this incomprehensible secret. And so one day I was standing over my unfinished novel. I was sitting on my creaking stool looking through a sheaf of papers, reading through its second draft, and I realized that it was not there. I realized I did not have the secret.
"...Roger Bacon was a scholar...coded the recipe in an anagram in the Latin text...the bigger the..."
My stepfather yawns watching some educational program on explosives. All those hours he works! But he'll be retiring soon. Thirty-six years with Beech Aircraft. They have given him a lot those years, those hours, that yawn. At the moment, in fact, I sit at his blue-and-white-circled dining room table, warm; warm enough even to remove my sweater, drape it over the back of this nice oak-wood chair, and sniff at the two inches of snow that blanket the back yard. And I have just relished a mug of hot chocolate--the mug, the hot chocolate both borne of my stepfather's yawn. And I'm about to draw a glass of water out of my stepfather's faucet--the glass, the water again borne of his yawn. And it is a cold winter night. And I am not cold.
"...coded the recipe in an anagram in the Latin text..." And I wouldn't mind borrowing his stereo equipment at the moment. I've become enamored of late with these young women singers. Their flat bellies. Their cool voices. Natalie Merchant. It'd be nice to marry her.
And so, sitting there, looking over my unfinished novel, I thought this: Mozart's works deserve to exist. Michelangelo's works deserve to exist. Homer's works deserve to exist. Over and over again, I thought this. And I thought it until I came to the conclusion that my work did not deserve to exist. And I gave up on my unfinished novel then. But after some more thinking I realized that if across the span of history only Michelangelo's and Homer's and Bach's works deserved to exist then virtually everyone's life was pointless. And this seemed to me unreasonable. So I revised. And I said, well, maybe such works are not the only works that deserve to exist, but they are the only works that deserve to last. So my unfinished novel may not deserve to last, but maybe it will one day deserve to exist. But again, on stating this to myself, I felt the enervating affect of their majesty, of their stupendousness hovering over me. How could I say such a thing with such perfection looking down at me? With Homer looking down at me. With Bach looking down at me. With Rembrandt looking down at me. And so I revised again. I said I guess my unfinished novel might deserve to exist, but only if it seeks to do what the greats did--and I gulped--even if it fails. I mean, if I did everything I could to make it deserve to last, to bring it up to their impossible level--Yes, if I did everything I could do to make it last, then, then it might at least deserve to exist. But then I was back to the question that began it all. What did they do to make their works last? Why do their works last?
"She went thataway," I hear my stepfather say. He speaks to my mother who stands out of earshot.
"She's under my feet," I call to them.
Their ferret, of sleek blonde fur, is roaming the house. Merlin is her name. She chases her tail.
I just scribbled six or seven redundant lines and then circled them and then crossed them out. I most feel the need for this scribbling when I have no way to work on my unfinished novel. The day before arriving in El Paso, for example, I did not feel the need because I was preoccupied with getting out of Tucson. On arrival in El Paso, however, and on finding my minutes there bare, my thoughts idle, the parching of this thirst for my work returned. Scribbling appeases it. Along the road I plan to work in wayside RV parks--in Dallas, San Antonio, Veracruz, Mexico City, Querétaro, Guadalajara, Tijuana. I will work over my unfinished novel in these places. I will gauge my unfinished novel against its source in these places. But betweentimes! Betweentimes these notes will have to satisfy. For the need is implacable. It is why I sat scribbling at my grandmother's dining room table, round, that night, half-listening to her watch television. It is why I sit scribbling at my parents dining room table, round, tonight, half-listening to commentary on Alfred Nobel, the "inventor of dynamite." And when I don't have some part-time job infringing upon my time, as I do not now, the impulse becomes acute. Real guilt I suffer if I don't take advantage of my liberty to work twelve hours a day. But I can't really do that here--Too cold in the Winnebago. And when I tried to do so yesterday it upset my mother.
Anyway, as I just alluded, one day I realized that since I did not know the secret, my unfinished novel might become a sort of case study for me. The novel lacks something. I know this. It does not have something that the works of the greats have. Maybe this something is the secret, or at least an indication toward the secret. If I went back to where the novel came from... If I revisited the novel's source... I just might...
"This is Jackie," a bass timbre intones. "This is Jackie's first new car."
An effective commercial, but sickening. As if a first new automobile elevates one into some higher, more sublime realm. They treat it like religious initiation: A subdued ambience, pregnant; a cathedral silence. All it lacks is that shaft of light falling across Jackie's brow, the stigmata appearing upon her palms.
My mother might have been upset by my working through dinner last night. But again, it's that guilt I was talking about. If I don't clock unsustainable hours the guilt picks at me. For I'm cheating myself, you know. I'm wasting a fleet opportunity. I told her that. And then I put in my twelve hour day. And then I felt much better. But maybe she did not understand. And the temperature really dropped again. And so this morning, working out in the Winnebago, as I sat wrapped in my electric blanket, as I sat breathing the stink of propane fumes, as I sat cursing the broken heater and the thermometer that would rise to no higher than forty-five degrees, I remembered I could sit here at this round dining room table, in the cozy warmth, and scribble these notes. And I realized then that still I had not explained this journey's beginning--the mystery. In I came in the late afternoon. Here at the table I fed and thought about what I might say. At last I have said it. At last it is behind me. I really dreaded that exposition. But it's over. I'm in a good humor now. I'm warm. These notes are satisfying indeed.
Last night I shivered out in the Winnebago after dark. My fingers burned with cold as I strained to recall and flesh out some dialogue for The Don Quixote Piece. I've always been infatuated with ballet dancers. Their bodies are such perfect expressions of the human form--even moreso than athletes, I think. It was a story a dancer told me once that I was trying to recall. A simple uneventful thing, but so dancerly in attitude. It's always stuck with me. That girl was a real beauty, a real Dulcinea. We only went out a few times.
Nuclear explosions now. But here again with religiosity. Some celestial strings score what must be footage of the mushroom cloud. It seems to say that project X uncovered the touchstone to the divine, or made of man the divine, or gave to man the power of the divine.
I worked The Sandra Texts this morning, and then that dialogue for The Don Quixote Piece. Then I read in Atlas Shrugged and from the Dhammapada of the Buddha. The cold is pesky. In the mornings I have to warm the connections to my computer monitor with my breath. Otherwise the display is just tiny green crosses on cool gray fuzz. And the fumes off the stove and oven burners are giving me headaches. Add to this the constant adjustments I make in my electric blanket to fend off the tendrils of cold and you will understand why I'm growing anxious to get south and into Mexico. No snow there, or frost on the monitor screen, or moaning CPU. Trapped here by money though. Waiting for tax returns. But I'm not panicked. I haven't spent a cent. It's like treading water. Tactically I suppose it could be an annoyance. I really want to be in and out of the Mexican desert before the heat hits in April. And the desert is the end of the journey. So I need to continue on.
It takes a long time to scribble like this. Just this--and in three hours.
My stepfather watches Frazier.
These images of home are not so bad a place to begin considering how foreign it will all become soon. But I guess I'm not beginning really, but already amid.
My hot chocolate sits still empty. A stray cat stands at the back door. "Buddy," I think they call him. I can't remember. You can see the cat's breath.
"Watcha doin'?" my stepfather asks. He just appeared from around the corner. He adjusts and readjusts the cereal bowl and spoon with which he will eat his tomorrow morning's breakfast before going to work.
"Just makin' some notes."
He breaks a banana off a bunch.
He peels the banana.
"Old Dude," he says, blinking down at the stray cat. Right, I think. Dude. Dude's breath fogs a dime-sized circle onto the glass door.
"It's amazing he doesn't get cold," I say with detached concern.
"He's got quite a winter coat."
My stepfather drops the banana peel into the garbage and turns the corner for Seinfeld.