Another new book. My hands are sticky from peeling an orange badly.
I’m sitting here in the dining car of my treeplanting company.
I find it very interesting that I’ve lost the touch for writing well, both physically and mentally. My script is childlike and the going is slow. My walkman is on, some tunes Steve volunteered. Already my wrist is starting to hurt, but my writing is improving.
I expect to be a very different person when I leave here. Going home should be fun, going home should be a shock, going home will be good. I do miss home, but here is interesting. If nothing else, that: interesting.
Random thought process. All too typical of a first page
This book feels as if it’s being written to myself.
We get up at 6 in the morning, every morning, but Saturday. Some days I may actually get a job with weekends off and maybe even a pleasant nine to five. No more 6 to 6 or whatever. Naw, that’ll never happen.
Dammit, watching Air Force One in the camp trailer and I can’t concentrate. Be back later.
The surprising thing is, neither do I.
Sadly this is a tale in which there are no major characters, save one: your humble narrator. I wish I could paint more salacious grins like that of Darya, my friend from university — hers left a Cheshire tooth impression on my heart — wish I could give friends with quirks and beards, this funny thing that they did, that they said, this clever turn of phrase one evening while we laughed. But there’s no such thing. Bit players. Each to his own stage. All the lines that mattered were delivered as a whisper to the dirt, closed over, and stomped on.
All the action happened behind the curtains? Say it ain’t so, Mr. Narrator? Such a dull play.
Machines of the company that stomped and scratched like chickens in the dirt. A few of us tried to draw near to one another. I may have, but I made no attempts on the walls of our solitudes that didn’t end embarrassingly.
Not to worry, I’ll get to that soon.
All minor characters. Myself, one of them, I’m afraid. A multitude of stories, a major role in only one, that’s all I had. Only my own. That’s why we were all so estranged. We were each our own story, unwilling to shrink to fit into another. Shit on a plot, eh, that sort of separation. How inconsiderate of us.
I’ll try to remember at least one day’s work as a declaration of conquest against the piece next to mine, a tale of plunder, of pugilism, pirates of the creamy seas. Beats the pants off of the real ding-dong job we were actually doing.
But if I remember wisely I can’t do that. The lines remained firm between us. Hard to share our tragic flaws, our impractical protagonism. We stayed within our own stories, telling them our own ways.
Were we close to one another? No. But with retrospect, more alike than I thought.
look extra hard
Parenthetically, looking back now, it’s possible I fell victim to the phenomena I usually wax philosophic about when I’m feeling in the mood to repeat myself. Mind you, it’s possible that I’ve heard someone joke about it so long ago that I’ve since mistakenly adopted it as my own, forgetting its origin....
It’s this: there’s always one weirdo on the bus.
Somewhere in the universe, wherever the fine print has been jotted down haphazardly, there’s a little clause that states that every bus trip over two hours needs a weirdo. It’s a great, mostly undiscovered, universal constant. When you’re taking a long trip someplace, and everything is cool and quiet, stand up and look around. Try to spot that weirdo, he’s always there. This is verifiably true.
It is possible, however, that the phenomena is self-fulfilling, the bus itself generating a weirdo of its own from the stock of people it has onboard.
But here’s the rub: if you don’t spot him, it’s you, you’re the weirdo, if for no other reason your fellow passengers are trying to catch a little bit of sleep and keep whatever secret foibles they fight in check ... and you’re standing on the bus searching for weirdoes. It’s quite a rub, and you don’t want to win that title if you can avoid it. So keep that eye peeled to spot him. Look extra hard. Lean over seats and look up noses if you have to.
Those first days in my first camp, sitting scrunched up in a small smelly trailer that would be our mess for the next eight weeks, I looked around at all the shy and eager and shiny cheeks, bandanas and school jerseys, the rain outside pattering dangerously, and I didn’t see the alien creatures of my imagination, and well, maybe that was why. It’s very possible I self-generated myself into that guy who was looking around. I’d come seeking bizarre and circumspect creatures who would alter my outlook on life for good, but if I wanted to get what I came for, I would have to take a really good look at myself.
Some people have a sort of planetary charisma about them, busy people especially, a self-contained aura made of confidence, pheromones, good genes, and usually a total commitment to ignore the rest of the world. And like planets, you either get out of their way or you get sucked in; attracted or repelled, no other options. Whenever we had a beef, or simply news, we’d go into Hugh’s office and the intensity of his stare would shine like headlights. Most of the time he wouldn’t deign to look at you, but when he did, there you were. Attract or repel. Most of the time: repel, repulser beams set to a gentle maximum. Management wanted little to do with us unproven rubes. We were the meat levers attached to the side opposite the business end of the shovels, little else.
That first day Hugh gave us our orientation: expectations, conduct, tax forms, and I looked around the room at my fifty-seven new companions. Which one is Chomper and which one was Bud? But mostly I saw a swirling of features, faces like brief dashes of sunlight, hands like grasping wisps of smoke, voices like the creaking of trees in the wind.
Allow me to explain.
Camp life is transient. You meet a hundred people each season, take comfort from sharing the same aims in belonging, breeze through the same gains with them. Friendships form, relationships form, yet the majority are partnerships of poor paste and separation happens again with a warm squish not long after, sad for a short sweet burst, farewell, goodbye, so long, I swear I’ll write, but with only the tackiest of tendrils keeping you together.
Faces fade, blend. Simply one of the muttered facets of being human.
After a few years at my career company, I’d walk down the road at the end of the day with other veterans of three or four seasons and play ‘Who do I remember that you don’t?’ It was a funny game in that you had to influence the other person’s reality in order to convince them that you’d won — No, you really did know Adam. We lived with him for two months. Winning didn’t really come with the sweet sting of victory, and the longer you played, the worse you became at it.
To re-inhabit my body in that old converted trailer, I see a condensed overlay of eight weeks, one season, laid on top of one another, the pencil lines of the wood panel walls and the long lunch tables thickened because they occupied the same space every day. Arrange the weeks like a flip book and let time run its thumb over the edge. Flip. Flip. A slip of a smirk from the second shift, a quip heard in the fifth week; each has its echo in every other moment remembered. Flip. Flip. I smell the dust burning on the baseboard heaters in the morning, the polluting musk of all our wet clothes mouldering by the propane heater. Flip. Flip. I hear the clomp of soggy boots over the reinforced boards; I remember the daily trepidation in squeezing myself down between two strangers to tuck in my elbows and slurp my soup.
What I don’t see are fifty-seven true faces, only tangential pieces of them, images caught as the pages flash by. This applies especially for that first day as a lot of those faces weren’t around much longer. Many remain wholly fogged, many are waterlogged cameos. I remember a smile of one of the native crew members, wide cheeks and teeth back to his ears, but not his name nor any conversations; I remember the gaiters of one of the highballers, my first time seeing them; and the terrible allergic reaction one girl had to mosquito bites, eruptions over her pretty cheeks. There’s delight in pushing against bedtime to continue conversations, a deep satisfaction for steaming dinners, all the cold bones in bodies around me singing for hot fresh bread; heartache for having to breathe the wet air of morning again, eyelids in gentle protest. Laid over it all a condensed relief of dozens of evenings of allowing myself to do nothing.
In the trailer that first day, sitting next to me on one side was Faisal from Ottawa; we’d be friends through the contract. From him, simply by watching, I learned a lot about how it was okay to be a kind human. These days I consider that important. On the other side I remember only a haze of red flannel, a person who never lasted and didn’t leave me with any impression other than that red shirt.
Every person met in life leaves a little bit of themselves with us. Sometimes it’s a nice jacket on the subway, a rueful look on the street. Usually it’s so small as to be unrecognizable, but it’s these pieces that we snip from the world around us that we use to construct ourselves day by day. Like a study in biology, look back two years and your cells have recreated much of you a tiny twist at a time. Similarly, its tongue stuck out stubbornly, your soul has followed apace, incrementally smushing together all the pieces that you’ve garnered from the world, trying to make sense of all the oblong bits. Slowly, you rebuild yourself using the tender timbers of experience while, behind you, time begins to poke holes through the chaff of the remaining raw materials.
As I re-inhabit the old converted trailer, that’s what I see, what remains, people leaning against the tables quietly, others filling out forms and tapping their feet, the room growing warmer with all the musty breath being blown inside it, but the people themselves are mostly blurry faces, figments of fog, amalgamations of unfinished tales, people I knew for a brief time but who made little impression on me other than a few shared quips, the evening hungers, the morning dreads, the pains of endurance, a few laughs on the bus. After a few years, unimportant details like faces have faded. All that remains are the pieces I’ve taken from them in recreating myself.
never did install that fourth wall
At the time it was too much to ingest. I was engorged by the changing tastes of the days. And I was desperate for change. Why, I don’t know. I knew only that I relished it, and felt it growing apace within me. But to be able to tell that story with any sort of continuity I would have had to yell at the time, “I am in the glorious now!” to everybody within earshot, a lucky few, and would have needed to have been understood — osmotically, no other way for anybody who heard, read through the know of their own ablutions to the dirt.
Some kind of crucible, sure. But I can’t hold up a gold nugget I’ve gleaned from my bowl and spread it flat across a piece of paper to be admired. I can read a list of the ingredients and stir the mixture well, but not much else for another body.
Kerouac, too, for all his pretty words: high school boys in their letterman jackets below his window, misunderstanding the point of his story, which was only pretty words.
Huck Finn retired from rafts and painted fences, and uncompleted Holden probably joined him, painting over the words he saw, waiting for the real message that never came, a boy forever.