“I don’t know if there’s such a thing as life after life,” he said, but I didn’t know what he meant, even after he throat chuckled as if it was a joke, so I half-raised my glass to acknowledge his wit, but there was nothing I could say, and I caught myself thinking, more or less, “What a douche,” and then, “How do I get out of this conversation? How do I escape the smell of his sweaty cologne?” and I started to say something about a friend just walking in, but the guy put his hand on my shoulder, not just resting it, but cupping it, like his hand was a baseball mitt and my shoulder was the ball, something like that, and he pulled me over to the window, nodded out to the parking lot, and he said, “See what I mean? Is there life after that? After asphalt and streetlamps and garbage dumpsters?” – that horrible chuckle again, and a quick look, like he was testing me to see if I was in on the joke – but I still had nothing to say, just stared out at the parking lot, avoiding his eyes as best I could.
She was wearing patent leather pants and a bronze metallic jacket beneath hair bleached to bone white. There was a boy trailing behind her into the bar, dressed in nondescript jeans and a plaid shirt. I caught his quizzical look when she ordered a Lemon Drop Martini, saw him hesitate before the row of craft beer taps and ask which of them was most like Coor’s Light.
She was shorter than him by three inches, but her heels made her taller. She tottered as she walked. Even so she whipped him in three straight games of pool, cocking her hips and leaning over every shot as if for the benefit of the bar’s collective gaze. He took his beating with the same befuddled look, more than once visibly disbelieving at her more difficult shots.
When she led him out, tottering no more and no less after three martinis, he followed with the gait of a man who knew his place.
She wears purple rainboots and purple yoga pants to lose an argument with her child about the toy he wants.
From under her matching purple straw hat, a “no” turns into a “maybe next time” into a “we’ll come back tomorrow” into an “okay, I’ll go get my wallet, but this is the very last time.”
She doesn’t even try to argue when he demands a pizza, which she orders on a phone in a purple protective case.
She tells him they’ll go pick it up in twenty minutes, but he’s hungry now, right now, so she buys him a chocolate bar while they wait, buys herself one too, in a purple wrapper.
“Mrs Timms,” Reverend James asked, “could you pick up some coffee filters for the coffee machine while you’re out?”
“Do we need any? I’m sure there are some left in the cupboard. Quite a few.”
“I know, but they’re the small ones, and the grounds keep spilling over the edge into the coffee. We need the big industrial size.” He held out his hands wide to show her.
“Shouldn’t we use up the ones we have first? I can pick up the bigger size when we run out.”
“Mrs Timms, I know you’re trying not to be wasteful, but I can’t serve people coffee full of grounds. I’ll pay the hospitality budget back out of my own pocket if it makes you feel better, but we need some larger filters.”
“Fine. I’ll buy them separate and bring you the receipt.”
“Mrs Timms, where did you put the new filters? I can’t find them anywhere.”
“They’re right here.” She opened the cupboard and pointed to a bag identical to the one already open.
“But those are the same size as the ones we had.”
“They were the biggest size they carried.”
“But they’re still too small. Why would you get a size that you knew was too small?”
“You told me to pick up some large filters. Those are the largest filters they had. I can’t help it if they don’t make the size you want.”
James slumped back against the counter, hung his head. “Okay. Don’t worry about it. I’ll just get them myself.”
“But we have lots.”
“Yes. Lots that don’t do the job. I’ll just pick some up the next time I’m out.”
“Okay, but you still need to reimburse hospitality for the ones I bought.”
“Mrs Timms, do you know what happened to the new filters I bought? The ones that actually fit the machine.”
“I put them up with the cleaning supplies until we get through the old ones.”
“The old ones, Mrs Timms, as I’m sure you remember, are too small. They get grounds in the coffee. They need to be tossed.”
“I’m not just going to throw out perfectly good filters!”
“Then take them home for your own coffee maker. Consider them a gift.”
“I couldn’t possibly. They were bought with church funds. They’re not mine to take.”
James lunged for the cupboard, pulled out both bags of the too-small filters and threw them into the sink. He jerked open the utensil drawer, grabbed the barbecue lighter, and held it to the plastic of the nearest bag. It failed to light very well, just melted into smoke and the smell of chemicals.
“What are you doing?” Mrs Timms screeched.
“James tossed the lighter on the counter and began tearing the bag apart, pulling the filters out and crumpling them into a jumbled pile of plastic and paper. “I’m solving our filter problem,” he said, jamming the lighter into the midst of the pile and lighting it repeatedly.
The filters began to burn strongly. James tore open the second bag and began feeding handfuls of paper into the inferno he had made of the sink. The room was filling with smoke despite the industrial fan running through the window. The flames licked at the wood of the window sill.
“I’d go pull the alarm if I were you,” James told her, tossing another handful. “This fire isn’t getting any smaller.”
What good is it, my love, that words outlive us if we are no longer there to read them? I am uninterested in posterity. The path I trace on the flare of your hip is a literature far greater than the contents of any book. It’s meaning is truer, more certain.
“Do you know that the door of the ladies’ bathroom is always propped open?” The woman leaned over the librarian’s desk, her arms folded across her heavy breasts in a way that was probably intended to look stern.
The librarian looked up from her computer, startled. “I…”
“The gentlemen’s is always closed,” the woman continued, “but the ladies’ is always propped open.”
“Well, I know the custodian leaves them to air after he cleans at night. Maybe you’re just the first one in.”
“No.” The woman looked condescending. “It’s always open. Even in the afternoon. People outside can hear everything.”
The librarian shrugged. “Maybe it’s someone who needs accessibility. Lots of washrooms now don’t even have doors.”
The woman slapped a hand against the desk. “Yes, and people can still hear!” she almost yelled. “It’s disgusting!”
“I see. Well, I don’t think anyone would mind if you just closed it when you went in.”
“Oh, I close it. I assure you. I just don’t feel that I should be put through the inconvenience, do you?”
“No, Maam,” the librarian said, “of course not.”
I just finished reading Nickel Mountain by John Gardner. I’m restricting myself to one Gardner novel a year, just to make them last longer, and this one was (as almost all of them are) well worth the wait. It has all his capacity for creating a sense of the uncanny in the everyday, for revealing the profound in the common, for creating human-impossibly-human characters. It’s a beautiful book.
All of which brought me to wonder, however, why Gardner has largely been forgotten by literary posterity. After all, he was famous during his lifetime, not only as a novelist, but also as a critic and as a creative writing instructor. He also wrote children’s stories (strange and beautiful), translations, poetry, and biography. One of his books on writing, On Moral Fiction, is among my favourites in the genre. Of the novels I have read — Mickelsson’s Ghosts, The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, October Light, and Grendel — I would rank all but October Light (because it seems a failed experiment to me) and Grendel (because it is great in a far different way) as the best novels in the Faulknerian tradition between when Faulkner himself died and Cormac McCarthy published Suttree (though I concede that there might be more than a few who would dispute this evaluation). Still, his work was influential enough while he was alive and is of a caliber even still that it deserves far better recognition than the occasional inclusion of Grendel on some university syllabus to serve as a modern comparison to Beowulf.
The reason for this neglect, I think (and I do absolutely mean to cast some shade here), is that readers, even those who read so-called literary books, are too often unwilling to read books that take work. I have been told over and over again, by otherwise “good readers”, that certain writers — like Faulkner and Lowry and Bolano and Pynchon and Llossa and McCarthy (his Suttree and The Orchard Keeper especially) and yes, Gardner — are too difficult. They move slowly. Their sentences are unwieldy. Their formal experimentation is off-putting. Their description is excessive. Their plots are ambiguous. And so on.
What most readers want, even in their literary books, is something easy on the palette. They want to be able to say, “It was a real page-turner. I couldn’t put it down. Stayed up half the night to finish it.” They want obvious motivation and character. They want easily recognizable plot structures. They want minimal description and reflection, maximum action and snappy dialogue. In other words, they want the print version of a Hollywood film.
All of which is fine, I guess, but it means that most readers are missing out on some of literature’s great books. A little patience, a little effort, would open up some truly wonderful literary experiences. You might be okay with that, but you shouldn’t be. You should read Gardner, at least once a year, and savor each one until there are no more.