Independence Day: Bascombe Trilogy | Chapter 10 of 22 - Part: 1 of 9

Author: Richard Ford | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 14947 Views | Add a Review

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It might be of some interest to say how I came to be a Residential Specialist, distant as it is from my prior vocations of failed short-story writer and sports journalist. A good liver would be a man or woman who’d distilled all of life that’s important down to a few inter-related principles and events, which are easy to explain in fifteen minutes and don’t require a lot of perplexed pauses and apologies for this or that being hard to understand exactly if you weren’t there. (Finally, almost nobody else is ever able to “be there,” and in many cases it’s too bad you have to be.) And it is in this streamlined, distilled sense that it’s possible to say my former wife’s getting remarried and moving to Connecticut is what brought me to where I am.

Five years ago, at the end of a bad season that my friend Dr. Catherine Flaherty described as “maybe a kind of major crisis,” or “the end of something stressful followed by the beginning of something indistinct,” I one day simply quit my job at a large sports magazine in New York and moved myself to Florida, and then in the following year to France, where I had never been but decided I needed to go.

In the ensuing winter, the previously mentioned Dr. Flaherty, then age twenty-three and not yet a doctor, interrupted her medical studies at Dartmouth and flew to Paris to spend “a season” with me—entirely against her father’s best judgment (who could blame him?) and without the slightest expectance that the world held out any future for her and me together or that the future even needed to be taken into account. The two of us struck off on a driving tour in a rented Peugeot to wherever seemed interesting on the European map, with me paying the freight from the proceeds of my magazine-stock buyout and Catherine doing all the complicated map reading, food ordering, direction seeking, bathroom locating, phone calling, and bellman paying. She had, naturally, been to Europe at least twenty times before she was out of Choate and could in all instances remember and easily lead us straight to a “neat little hilltop restaurant” above the Dordogne, or “an interesting place for very late lunch” near the Palacio in Madrid, or find the route to a house that was once Strindberg’s wife’s home outside Helsinki. The whole trip had for her the virtue of an aimless, nostalgic return to past triumphs in the company of a non-traditional “other,” just before life—serious adult life—began in earnest and fun was forgotten forever; while for me it was more of an anxious dash across a foreign but thrilling exterior landscape, commenced in hopes of arriving at a temporary refuge where I’d feel rewarded, revived, less anxious, possibly even happy and at peace.

It’s not necessary to say much of what we did. (Such pseudo-romantic excursions must all be more or less alike and closed-ended.) We eventually “settled” in the town of Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme, in Channel-side Picardy. There we passed the better part of two months together, spent a great deal of my money, rode bicycles, read plenty of books, visited battlefields and cathedrals, tried sculling on the canals, walked pensively along the grassy verge of the old estuarial river, watching French fishermen catch perch, walked pensively around the bay to the alabaster village of Le Crotoy, then walked back, made much love. I also practiced my college French, chatted up the English tourists, stared at sailboats, flew kites, ate many gritty moules meunières, listened to much “traditional” jazz, slept when I wanted to and even when I didn’t, woke at midnight and stared at the sky as though I needed to get a clearer view of something but wasn’t sure what it was. I did all this until I felt perfectly okay, not in love with Catherine Flaherty but not unhappy, although also futureless, disused and bored—the way, I imagine, extended time in Europe makes any American who cares to stay an American feel (possibly similar to how a larcenous small-town road commissioner feels during the latter part of his stay in the Penns Neck minimum security facility).

Though what I in time began to sense in France was actually a kind of disguised urgency (disguised, as urgency often is, as unurgency), a feeling completely different from the old clicking, whirly, suspenseful perturbations I’d felt in my last days as a sportswriter: of being divorced, full of regret, and needing to pursue women just to keep myself pacified, amused and slightly dreamy. This new variety was more a deep-beating urgency having to do with me and me only, not me and somebody. It was, I now believe, the profound low thrum of my middle life seeking to be seized rather than painlessly avoided. (There’s nothing like spending eight weeks alone with a woman two decades your junior to make you wise to the fact that you’ll someday disappear, make you bored daffy by the concept of youth, and dismally aware how impossible it is ever to be “with” another human being.)

One evening then, over a plate of ficelle picarde and one more glass of tolerable Pouilly-Fumé, it occurred to me that being there with winsome, honey-haired, sweetly ironic Catherine was indeed a kind of dream and a dream I’d wanted to have, only it was now a dream that was holding me back—from what, I wasn’t sure, but I needed to find out. Needless to say, she had to have been bored silly by me but had gone on acting, in a vaguely amused way, as if I was a “pretty funny ole guy” with pretty interesting, eccentric habits, not one bit to be taken lightly “as a man,” and that being in Saint-Valéry with me had made all the difference in getting her young life started in the most properly seasoned way, and she would remember it all forever. She didn’t, however, mind if I left or if she stayed, or if we both left or stayed. She already had plans to leave, which she hadn’t thought to tell me about yet; and in any case, when I was seventy and in adult Pampers, she’d have been fiftyish, in a surly mood from all she’d missed and in no rush to humor me—which by then would be all I’d want. So that there was no thought of a long haul for the two of us.

But in just that short an order and on that very evening, and without a harsh word, we kissed and broke camp—she back to Dartmouth, and me back to …

Haddam. Where I landed not only with a new feeling of great purpose and a fury to suddenly do something serious for my own good and possibly even others’, but also with the feeling of renewal I’d gone far to look for and that immediately translated into a homey connectedness to Haddam itself, which felt at that celestial moment like my spiritual residence more than any place I’d ever been, inasmuch as it was the place I instinctively and in a heat came charging back to. (Of course, having come first to life in a true place, and one as monotonously, lankly itself as the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I couldn’t be truly surprised that a simple setting such as Haddam—willing to be so little itself—would seem, on second look, a great relief and damned easy to cozy up to.)

Before, when I was in town writing sports, as a married, then latter, divorced man, I’d always fancied myself a spectral presence, like a ship cruising foggy banks, hoping to hang near and in hearing distance of the beach but without ever bashing into it. Now, though, by reason of Haddam’s or any suburb’s capacity to accommodate any but the rankest outsider (a special lenience which can make us miss even the most impersonal housing tract or condo development), I felt towny: a guy who shares a scuzzy joke with the Neapolitan produce man, who knows exactly the haircut he’ll get at Barber’s barbershop but goes there anyway, who’s voted for more than three mayors and can remember how things used to be before something else happened and as a result feels right at home. These feelings of course ride the froth of one’s sense of hope and personal likelihood.

Every age of life has its own little pennant to fly. And mine upon returning to Haddam was decidedly two-sided. On one side was a feeling of bright synchronicity in which everything I thought about—regaining a close touch with my two children after having flown the coop for a while, getting my feet wet in some new life’s enterprise, possibly waging a campaign to reclaim lost ground with Ann—all these hopeful activities seemed to be, as though guided by a lightless beam, what my whole life was all about. I was in a charmed state in which nothing was alien and nothing could resist me if I turned my mind to it. (Psychiatrists like the one my son visits warn us about such feelings, flagging us all away from the poison of euphoria and hauling us back to flat earth, where they want us to be.)

The other feeling, the one that balanced the first, was a sensation that everything I then contemplated was limited or at least underwritten by the “plain fact of my existence”: that I was after all only a human being, as untranscendent as a tree trunk, and that everything I might do had to be calculated against the weight of the practical and according to the standard considerations of: Would it work? and, What good would it do for me or anybody?

I now think of this balancing of urgent forces as having begun the Existence Period, the high-wire act of normalcy, the part that comes after the big struggle which led to the big blow-up, the time in life when whatever was going to affect us “later” actually affects us, a period when we go along more or less self-directed and happy, though we might not choose to mention or even remember it later were we to tell the story of our lives, so steeped is such a time in the small dramas and minor adjustments of spending quality time simply with ourselves.

Certain crucial jettisonings, though, seemed necessary for this passage to be a success—just as Ted Houlihan mentioned to Joe Markham an hour ago but which probably didn’t register. Most people, once they reach a certain age, troop through their days struggling like hell with the concept of completeness, keeping up with all the things that were ever part of them, as a way of maintaining the illusion that they bring themselves fully to life. These things usually amount to being able to remember the birthday of the first person they “surrendered” to, or the first calypso record they ever bought, or the poignant line in Our Town that seemed to sum life up back in 1960.

Most of these you just have to give up on, along with the whole idea of completeness, since after a while you get so fouled up with all you did and surrendered to and failed at and fought and didn’t like, that you can’t make any progress. Another way of saying this is that when you’re young your opponent is the future; but when you’re not young, your opponent’s the past and everything you’ve done in it and the problem of getting away from it. (My son Paul may be an exception.)

My own feelings were that since I’d jettisoned employment, marriage, nostalgia and swampy regret, I was now rightfully a man a-quiver with possibility and purpose—similar to a way you might feel just prior to taking up the sport of, say, glacier skiing; and not for sharpening your acuities or tempting grisly death, but simply to celebrate the hum of the human spirit. (I could not, of course, have told you what my purpose actually was, which probably meant my purpose was just to have a purpose. Though I’m certain I was afraid that if I didn’t use my life, even in a ridiculous way, I’d lose it—what people used to say about your dick when I was a kid.)

My qualifications for a new undertaking were, first, that I was not one bit preoccupied with how things used to be. You’re usually wrong about how things used to be anyway, except that you used to be happier—only you may not have known it at the time, or might’ve been unable to seize it, so stuck were you in life’s gooeyness; or, as is often the case, you might never have been quite as happy as you like to believe you were.

The second of my qualifications was that intimacy had begun to matter less to me. (It had been losing ground since my marriage came to a halt and other attractions failed.) And by intimacy I mean the real kind, the kind you have with only one person (or maybe two or three) in a lifetime; not the kind where you’re willing to talk to someone you’re close to about laxative choices or your dental problems; or, if it’s a woman, about her menstrual cycle, or your aching prostate. These are private, not intimate. But I mean the real stuff—silent intimacies—when spoken words, divulgences, promises, oaths are almost insignificant: the intimacy of the fervently understood and sympathized with, having nothing to do with being a “straight shooter” or a truth teller, or with being able to be “open” with strangers (these don’t mean anything anyway). To none of these, though, was I in debt, and in fact I felt I could head right into my new frame of reference—whatever was beginning—pretty well prepared and buttoned up.

Third, but not last, I wasn’t actually worried that I was a coward. (This seemed important and still does.) Years earlier, in my sportswriting days, Ann and I were once walking out of a Knicks-Bullets night game at the Garden, when some loony up ahead began brandishing a pistol and threatening to open up on everybody all around. Word went back like a windstorm over wheat stalks. “Gun! He’s got a GUN! Watch it!” I quickly pulled Ann inside a men’s room door, hoping to get some concrete between the gun muzzle and us. Though in twenty seconds the gunman was tackled and kicked to sawdust by a squad of New York’s quick-witted finest, and thank God no one was hurt.

But Ann said to me when we were in the car, waiting in a drizzle to enter the bleak tunnel back to New Jersey, “Did you realize you jumped behind me when that guy had his gun?” She smiled at me in a tired but sympathetic way.

“That’s not what I did!” I said. “I jumped in the rest room and pulled you in with me.”

“You did that too. But you also grabbed me by my shoulders and got behind me. Not that I blame you. It happened in a hurry.” She drew a wavy vertical line in the window fog and put a dot at the bottom.

“It did happen in a hurry. But you’re wrong about what happened,” I said, flustered because in fact it had all happened fast, I’d acted solely on instinct and couldn’t remember much.

“Well, if that’s what happened,” she said confidently, “then tell me if the man—if it was a man—was colored or white.” Ann has never gotten over her old man’s Michigan racial epithets.

“I don’t know,” I said as we made the curve down into the lurid world of the tunnel. “It was too crowded. He was too far up ahead. We couldn’t see him.”

“I could,” she said, sitting straighter and flattening her skirt across her knees. “He wasn’t actually that far. He might’ve shot one of us. He was a small brown-colored man, and he had a small black revolver. If we passed him on the street I’d recognize him again. Not that it matters. You were trying to do the right thing. I’m happy I was no less than the second person you thought to protect when you thought you were in danger.” She smiled at me again and patted my leg infuriatingly, and we were all the way to Exit 9 before I could think of anything to say.

But for years it bothered me (who wouldn’t be bothered?). My belief had always been with the ancient Greeks, that the most important events in life are physical events. And it bothered me that in (I now realize) the last opportunity I might’ve had to throw myself in front of my dearest loved one, it appeared I’d pushed my dearest loved one in front of myself as cravenly as a slinking cur (appearances are just as bad when cowardliness is at issue).

And yet I found that when Ann and I divorced because she couldn’t put up with me and my various aberrations of grief and longing owing to the death of our first son, and just flew the coop (a physical act if there ever was one), I quit worrying about cowardice almost immediately and decided she’d been wrong. Though even if she’d been right, I felt it was braver to live with the specific knowledge of cowardice and look for improvements than never to know anything about myself on that front; and better, too, to go on believing, as we all do in our daydreams, that when the robber jumps out of the alley brandishing the skinning knife or the large-caliber pistol, terrorizing you and your wife and plenty of innocent bystanders (old people in wheelchairs, your high-school math teacher, Miss Hawthorne, who was patient when you couldn’t get the swing of plane geometry and thus changed your life forever), that there’ll be time for you (me) to act heroically (“I just don’t think you’ve got nuts big enough to use that thing, mister, so you might as well hand it over and get out of here”). Better to wish the best for yourself; better also (and this isn’t easy) that others wish it too.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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