The Thrill of Words
Thrills surprise in all kinds of disguises—beyond the quiver accompanying first love and the shiver attending roller coaster dives. They can come as a realization of the power of love, of danger, or of words. The movie Picnic with William Holden and The Ballad of the Sad Café are forever linked in my mind as cause and effect. In Picnic we see the teenager (a term hardly used in the 1950s) who becomes infatuated with an older man passing though a small, conservative Midwest town. She is reading Carson McCullers’ Ballad, a book banned or disapproved of by her community, obviously a book that might tempt a young woman, subvert her expectations, damage her morally, or harm her psyche. It ranked right up there with drinking and smoking.
I’d read Little Women before I was ten, read the Brontes long before I understood the passions running deeper than the words revealed, read Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles never realizing that she “ruined” until the baby came. In high school classes, we were led through some Shakespeare, understanding the plot superficially, caring not a whit for Lady Macbeth’s anguish or Julius Caesar’s betrayal. Thus, not knowing what I didn’t know, I couldn’t comprehend the evil that must be inherent inThe Ballad of the Sad Café, the immorality that offended parents and librarians. I tucked the title away in my memory.
When I got to college—church-related—I made a beeline for the library and lo, the book was on the shelves. Soon, without a single demurring word or disapproving frown from the staff, it was in my hand and in my dorm room.
What did I expect? Torrid sex scenes a few notches above those confessions in my mother’s True Romance and True Love magazines? I really don’t know because I couldn’t quite imagine what would get a book banned other than sex of an illicit, forbidden nature. And what exactly was that?
The Ballad of the Sad Café may have been the first book I had sufficient maturity to read, though how that maturity occurred between high school and college is a mystery to me. Its characters, weird, eccentric, irrational, southern, were like real people, not literary types conveying allegorical or metaphorical significance, not pilgrims, either Chaucer’s on the road to Canterbury or Bunyan’s on the road to a state of grace. Though I didn’t know a tall cross-eyed, whisky-making female store owner or a dwarf, or even, close at hand, a convict, I recognized these people. Now I can say they resonated with me; then I didn’t know that word. The thrill of discovering “my kind of writing” stayed with me through the decades. I realized that if these characters could people the pages of books, I’d be spending a lot of time at the library. And I’d be looking at my own small town differently, seeing for the first time living, breathing characters who could step right into McCullers’ pages—or onto mine.
Fake Thrills and Real
The problem is, nothing much thrills me anymore. I get a story accepted in a quarterly—that brings a smile. My grown son speaks at his old school’s commencement and is hilarious—that’s an upper. A cool front moves into New England while I’m sitting on the deck and can watch the air turn the leaves upside down and make the branches dance—sweet.
But the kind of heart-tumbling thrill I used to get—I can scarcely remember what I used to get that thrill from. From glimpsing somebody I was secretly in love with, that’s a given. From giving birth, that’s the ultimate one; it’s been a long time since I did that. Maybe the time I had a glider ride, which was so thrilling I threw up.
The most recent heart-stopper I can remember was a phony one, an amusement-park ride called, innocuously, the Water Slide. I detest amusement parks, but I had taken my ten-year-old granddaughter, who said this was her favorite ride. I’ve seen everything, I thought, it can’t be too bad. I let her talk me into it. When our boat came to the lip of a waterfall with a 90-degree drop in front of us, I admit I screamed.
I don’t think fake thrills like that count. But here’s one I’m counting:
That same granddaughter is a sophomore in college now. She likes to go out to dinner with my husband and me and discuss crucial subjects, like herself and her future. Sometimes she seems a little diffident and we try to buck her up.
It has to be said my spouse is one of those perfectionists who finds it hard to compliment anyone. A really good dinner gets, “That was better than usual.” This particular night, over sushi, he said to our collegian, “Something you should remember, Anne, is that as you go through life you won’t find many people smarter than…”
I expected him to say, “…smarter than you are” A little something to boost her through tough times in the classroom. Instead he said, “smarter than your grandmother.” My heart flipped and I stared in shock at both of them.
Now that was a thrill.
My Night with John Updike
It’s not what you’re thinking. It’s not at all what you’re thinking.
It started with a flyer in the mail room. On cream-colored paper, a man with a teacup. John Updike. He was coming to our rural Midwestern university.
You could hear the whispers in the hall. “John Updike? The John Updike? Why is he coming here?”
I fell in love with him when I was in college, when I read one of his stories in The New Yorker, “The Music School.” His phrasing was lyrical, precise, so delicately balanced—like a Mozart piano concerto.
Later I worked as a copy editor at Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company in Boston. I was the proofreader on a book called Enchantment, by Linda Grace Hoyer. When they told me she was John Updike’s mother, I was star-struck and probably spent too long checking to make sure I’d caught all the typos.
In a creative writing class I took a few months after the birth of my child, our assignment was to imitate the style of an author we loved. I chose a piece by Updike, “Wife Wooing.” Sensuous and lyrical, it spoke poetically about the juxtaposition of male and female bodies in a marriage bed, and ended with the sentence, “Oh.”
I changed the theme from married love to mother love. Updike’s prose gave me a way to express my feelings about the intense physical connection of my body and my baby’s, and our emotional bonding.
When I saw the poster in the mail room at the university, I knew I would be there.
He spoke to a large crowd in the Student Center. Handsome and refined, he read poems, a story, and an excerpt from his most recent novel. Then he took questions. I usually didn’t raise my hand in a room full of academics, but this time I had to. “Would you mind talking about your writing routine?” I asked. Shivers went through me when he heard my words, and he replied precisely to them.
“Would I mind? No. It’s a little boring, though.” He proceeded to recite, as I’m sure he had done thousands of times, how he wrote from 9 am to 1 pm, in the maid’s quarters of his big old house. He wrote by hand, he said, and then revised on the computer.
After his lecture, there was a book-signing. When I reached the table, I told him that I had been the proofreader for his mother’s book.
“Enchantment,” he said, looking up. To find a Boston publishing person in the middle of Moo country must have been perplexing to him, and perhaps—dared I hope?—-even a little enchanting.
I didn’t sleep at all that night.
A Rare Spice
The magazine seemed my lone lunch companion. Little did I know.
The adzuki bean stew, between skimmed articles, steeled me to visit yet another psychiatric hospital. In the decade since my son became ill, he has hauled the words, “Anything can happen,” into my life festooned with razor blades.
There was that time at a national monument, at rush hour, when it took six cops to subdue him. There’ve been court appearances, jail.
This time, he’d lived in a nearby car through autumn, then through a blizzard.
“It beats the shelters, mom.”
I’d feared finding him frozen to death. I’d talked him into the hospital I would soon visit. The years have tossed me a bouquet of autoimmune illnesses. I’ve fought to keep him and me alive. Hence the hearty stew in a vegetarian restaurant, another handhold on life.
I rose, shrugged into my coat, and took my tray to the little station. Recyclables here, waste there. I was turning to leave when the man stood and spoke, blue eyes a-dance.
“I sat here so I could watch you,” he said. “You’re beautiful.” He extended a hand toward me, across race, across rejection. “I’m a painter. I’d love to paint you. A portrait in a morning.” He pulled out a chair. “Please, just a moment.”
I was intrigued, doubtful. The place was full of witnesses, but still I hesitated.
“Ask me something, dear, anything.”
“How old are you?”
“Sixty-eight,” he said.
“I’m sixty-three. Do you always pick up women here?”
“If I can get away with it.” Humor, honesty.
“This is crazy.”
“Do you like normal, dear?”
I sat down. With the years, my eyes see faces in soft focus. It blunts the edge of judgment. This man’s face brimmed mischief, light. We talked a moment, but I’ve learned not to keep social workers waiting. When I stood, he gave me his card.
“Please call me.”
The hospital visit went well. My son shuffled on frostbitten feet, but good winter housing seemed assured.
At home I celebrated his safety and my moment of fun with a scented bath. Out of the tub, steaming and rosy brown, I looked in the mirror. Not too bad, though the thighs need work. I hugged myself, closed my eyes. Something nuzzled my neck. My eyes flew open, yet I barely glimpsed the bright, mischievous face before it was gone. But I had hours to ponder the guises that angels choose.