Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury - A tribute

Ray Bradbury died today, and I don't have a lot of words for that. I loved what he gave the world. I loved him, having never met him.

I wrote a story for him last year. It isn't worth a damn, in comparison to the man himself and what he meant to me, but it's all I have to give. So I give it to you.

The Next Time
By Scott Lee Williams
(for R.B.)

The typewriter clicked beneath his fingers, manual, demanding muscle to push the keys. Old he might be, and his eyes might be duller than they were when he first began to write so many years ago, but his hands never lacked the strength to drive those keys. The hammers pounded the words through the satin black ribbon onto the heavy white paper where they lay in sunken relief. There was a time when all he’d had to type on for years was thin, onion skin paper that showed the words from the pages beneath as shadows on the pages above it, whole manuscripts clamouring to give away their secrets in the first page, obscured by the jostling sentences beneath them. Now reams of the stuff waited on his desk in thick creamy stacks, each sheet eager for its turn in the machine. They didn’t have to wait long.

As always, when he felt the words flowing, there was something almost automatic about it. The sentences gathered in orderly, dutiful little rows, delimited by tidy punctuation, but never hemmed in. They breathed in their space, pretty little bonsais of the real world, made to stand in perfect stillness for the reader to pick them up and turn them about in his hands, and marvel.

The bell of the end of the line dinged cheerfully, encouraging his progress. Another line, yes, and another! And he typed, not composing as much as taking dictation from the memories that stood in his mind, each waiting impatiently for their turn to speak, the queue of them snaking around the fields of his childhood, past the porch beneath the hot sun of August somewhere in Illinois, cold glasses of iced tea in their hands sweating cool beads, the ice clinking gaily as the men take off their hats to dab their brows with clean white handkerchiefs, as the women stir the breeze with stiff accordioned fans. Somewhere in his mind, someone makes a joke, and someone laughs the kind of laugh that a pretty lady laughs, and the writer thinks to himself “Oh, yes, I remember you too, dears,” and smiles, thinking of green grass and sparkling sun and blue skies piled with white clouds and the kind of summer that seems to last forever and yet ends so quickly, ever too soon.

He leaned back in his chair, and looked at the room around him. The day had snuck out the back door while he was writing, leaving the room dim and shadowed. Books piled themselves everywhere, thick with dust and memories. The wallpaper peeled at the edges of the sheets, the pattern faded. Things might be getting a little shabby, he thought. Showing their age a bit. Unlike himself.

So up from the table, up from the friendly monster of the typewriter, teeth and mouth that ate pages up by chomping the white into black words, line-by-line. Up from the chair where he felt he had spent most of his adult life dreaming his worlds into life.

This story, like most of his stories, was not so much invented as remembered, clearly, rising up within him like the smell of his mother’s clean linen and the sound of her voice, and the blue sky just outside his window and the sun shining green down through the leaves of the black walnut tree with its canker that didn’t really look like a face in the warm daylight peering out from its rough black bark. His mother’s love shone down on him like sunlight and he felt the memory of it in his heart like a warm patch of light on his face.

His face somehow now inexplicably wrinkled, his hair now gray, his eyes now faded. Mother was long dead, and her love long remembered. She wasn’t the only one. His wife, gone, his friends, everyone he knew or remembered or loved, gone, and only he left alive, like someone from the story of Job. I alone have escaped to tell thee. But there was no one left to tell.

So he wrote the stories, sent them winging into the world. Just to have someone to talk to. It wasn’t always that way, though.

He had started writing because life banged about inside him, stories, memories, dreams, begging to be told. They kept him up nights, his mind racing, pacing the floor, their insistent voices overflowing him. He felt too small to contain all the things he had inside, and when they finally spilled out of him, soaking the pages in ink, the relief almost made him weep. The dam broke, and the stories poured out of him. And when the sweet old man from the local paper had called him up and offered him five whole dollars to print his first one, “The Parsnips and Mrs. Jackson” in the Wyndanch Gazette, why, it didn’t seem so much fated as inevitable, the way the sun rose and set or the corn came in every year after the rains. It was part of the natural order. He made stories the way the pumpkin vine made pumpkins.

So he wrote. Sometimes, in the lean years right before the war, he took a job as a clerk or taught English in the local school for a few months, but the writing took care of him for years, and then when he met Loretta, well, that seemed inevitable too. The two of them at the Veterans Hall, smiling shyly across the room, both of them knowing in that moment exactly how gravity worked, that it was something like love, but bigger, and that it was so loud they were sure everyone could hear it, and that it made you glow so bright you thought they’d turned all the lights out, because all he could see was her, and (he knew, somehow) all she could see was him. They slipped toward each other, dual planets orbiting in a slow dance on the floor to a band playing Jimmy Dorsey, paper streamers that might’ve caught on fire and they wouldn’t have noticed, and they never parted after that day.

Except that wasn’t true, was it? Because everyone dies. Don’t they? It seemed true of everyone except him. Loretta died, buried in Greenfield these twenty years, a long time to live orbiting the empty space where your gravitational twin used to be. That was the thing about inevitability: her hand in his, her slipping away, before he was ready, watching her precious eyes close forever, well, what was that if not inevitable? The world was a giant machine, eating everything he loved. Everyone died. But he just kept living.

He started to grasp what he thought might be the mechanics of it a few years after Loretta died. He’d finished a story (“Carmine and his Shadow Go to the Moon”), another recollection of an old friend from Illinois, from his childhood, the memory fresh and happy like the smell of newly-tilled earth, and he was just typing in the final words when he felt something. Something in his chest, like a splinter or a nail, something sharp that had been lodged somewhere pulled itself out of the material that was his heart. He felt himself lighter, younger. Something painful (not the memory itself, no, but the recollection of it, the reminder of things past that plagued all old men, that hurt them in their hearts) was gone, and he was younger. He looked in the mirror, examining his face for outward signs of the change he was feeling, but the age spots were still there, the bristles of grey in his beard as it grew out from this morning’s shave, the humiliating hairs in the pores of his nose and the same just starting to thicket in his ears, mocking the ever retreating line of hair that seemed to thin daily on top of his head. Yet and still, he knew it was true. There was no getting away from it. He was younger in the only place that counted. His soul was younger.

He continued to write, mining the vein of his childhood, every story anyone had ever told him, every fable he’d ever read. All the library books that as a child he’d kept out until the fines raised beyond his ability to ever pay them back and he’d had to sneak them back into the return bin of the children’s library like a thief in reverse, restoring to them what he was sure was rightfully his. He poured those long ago stories out on his typewriter, firehosing ink and razing forests, and every story he told made him feel younger.

And, in confirmation of this feeling, his body just stopped aging. He didn’t get any younger, which would be cruel, and strange, and actually might have made his some sort of monster (which wasn’t far from what he already suspected he was). No, he simply stopped aging. Around 65. A good age, not great. He occasionally wished it had been sooner (40 was pretty good, still pretty hale. 50 would even have had something to recommend it, still plenty of juice left at 50, but really, could old but not decrepit beggars afford to pretend to be choosers?), but it would do.

He'd had to stop going to the doctors, lest they suspect. He’d had to stop leaving the house even, what with the pilgrimage-making fans that still occasionally camped outside his home, no matter how he asked them not to. The book jacket covers were anyway frozen in time, a picture of him from the 70’s, hair too long and bushy, his eyes sparkling paternally, no problem there. The interviews he did by phone, distance and electronic translation keeping his secret for him. It was quite easy to maintain the charade for a long time.

But how long do you really want to maintain such a thing? When his 90th birthday came around, accompanied by the tributes and the Google doodle (his publicist had phoned him about that, and he got the gist right away, even though he rarely even turned his computer on, less out of dislike than a sort of gentle indifference) and the anthology, he started feeling like it was all a bit much. Not the tributes, which he accepted gratefully, guessing, hoping what his stories meant to others, but the whole never-getting-sick, never-getting-older thing. How much longer could something like this go on?

Because he could keep writing the stories. Could keep conjuring worlds and memories, creating things and extending his life indefinitely, if he wanted to, even after the memories and thoughts had gone dry. He realized the enormous temptation offered. He was enough of a craftsman, after all this time, that he could go on until the dust of the old world choked him, and yet he would still live. He would grow no older, but the magic of these stories, which up until now had given him such life in spite of death, could, perhaps, now create a death in life, if he wasn’t careful. Every untrue, unreal word would bring him closer to that.

He didn’t want it. He’d never written an untrue word in his life. He wouldn’t start now. Tomorrow, he thought. I’ll write the next, true one tomorrow.

So this particular morning, as was his routine, he got up at six. The birds were singing on a spring day, the sun already up, but still shining wetly from its journeys through the oceans on the other side of the world, and they all smiled on him, as they usually did. Happy to see him, as he was happy to see them. He sat down at his typewriter, and then thought better of it. Today was a different kind of day. He pulled the cover over the typewriter, gave it an affectionate pat, and pushed it gently aside on his desk. He reached into one of the drawers of his old roll top desk, and pulled out a yellow legal pad, and a pen, placing them in front of him. He put his hands on either side of them, palms down, and looked at the blank page on the top of the pad for a moment. Then he picked up the pen, and began.

“Next Time” he wrote at the top in his slightly crabbed hand, the pen scratching into the pad, as it always did, until the ink began to flow. He paused again on the first line, then began to write.

“Nadeem woke, as he did everyday, to the sound of his mother singing as she made puri. The smell of the bread frying, warm and delicious, filled his nostrils and flooded his mouth with saliva. He wasn’t allowed to leave his room until she came in and got him, that was the rule, and to let her know he was awake he began to sing with her, but loudly. He always made sure to sing loudly so that she would know that he was in there, and then began making up songs, praising her."

And he began writing, as he always did, with a vague idea of what came next, and let the words tell him how the story should go. Here was the way out, away from the lonely days which would come, away from the meals alone as he continued to never age. He would write his way out, as he always had, keeping the words flowing until he found his way to the solution. So he wrote of a child, and his beautiful mother, and the smell of delicious food, just like it was cooking in his own kitchen a room away, and the sounds of a crowded bustling city, and of a river that was sacred, and of a child that ran the streets, completely assured and unafraid, his father strong and hard working and affectionate, his mother efficient and loving and sure. And as he wrote, he knew that, if he had to live again, this is where he would like to come back. This place, with these people.

It seemed more a sketch at first, a quick scribble that painted a picture, hazy and impressionistic, like a watercolor. But it gradually came into focus, growing sharper and more present, until he could smell the moist air, and hear the sounds of the city, his mother’s singing, his own small shrill voice singing along. He could feel his small body, young and alive, skinny and brown and strong, until it was all so real, so close that as he wrote he found himself longing for it, felt the pull of it, calling to him. Why stay here, where everyone was dead and he had to hide? Yes, this life had been, was, so very good to him, he had been so blessed, so lucky. But what was left for him now? Better to cash out, wasn’t it, than try to keep the streak going and keep losing until even the good memories were tainted and bitter?

And he found himself staring down at a slumped over body. He smiled down on it with affection, at the machine that had served him so well, but which he would not be needing today, not ever again. With a thought, he surged through the air, young and strong, travelling impossibly fast, faster than the end of summer, faster than a boy in new sneakers. He saw the earth spinning blue and lovely beneath him, and all the places he could visit: Egypt with its tombs, and Rome’s columns, Scottish castles and Mexican jungles and a million other lands and the oceans and all of them waiting for him. But he was looking, looking for something, and as soon as he knew that, instantly he found himself somewhere very familiar. A town beside a vast, ancient river, houses crowding up beside each other over narrow streets on a dark night beneath a spicing of dust in the air and, rushing up beneath him in one of those houses, two strong sparks of light and life twining and separating below him.

Yes! His whole heart sang with recognition. There they were, as if they’d been waiting for him. Both of these lights liquid and pulsing, beautiful, glowing as they did, catching his eye, spinning off sparks. And he saw something thicken between the sparks, sweet and small and perfectly proportioned for him, somewhere he could rest and grow to find new adventures and new memories and new ways to love this world. Once again he knew how gravity functioned, the longing, inevitable pull of love, and so he descended, swiftly at first, then faster still, until he found himself in darkness, stamped into substance, pressed into material to become real, surrounded by the push and pull of breathing and the tidal roar of blood. Waiting for the inevitable change from this world to the next.

He could feel something ending, a place in his chest closing, or opening, in much the same way a story ends, like this one, not so much ending as winding down, finding its level, waiting to make its way back to silence from which it may speak again, really the same story. The natural end which is never the end but only a way back into the story for another time, waiting for someone to take up the thread again.

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