Monday, August 22, 2016

James M. Chesbro on Arrivals and Invitations

Inescapable Booming: On Arrivals and Invitations

The mind, the mind—it’s probably not what first comes to mind when one thinks about the personal essay, but it’s certainly on the mind of essayists who write about it.
-Carl H. Klaus

Sam lived across the street from our first house. His arrival in my imagination this morning, as I woke before the three children to write, surprised me, since we moved a few years ago and now live across the street from woods. For some reason, when I was trying to decide what to write about, my eyes wanted to find him leaning against a tree, smoking a cigarette. I was debating whether to begin something new or go back to an essay I started about my father when I lived in our old house, where, between sentences, my eyes often rested on Sam washing the school bus he drove, or edging his lawn, or standing under his portico wearing black slippers, gray sweatpants, and an undershirt, exhaling smoke. I’m so often going back to drafts of material about my deceased father that perhaps this morning’s unexpected delivery of memories of my former neighbor constitutes the kind of material most worthy of essaying, as it elevates the chances for revelations. Or, maybe Sam sprouted to the surface of my mind like a fallen acorn that bursts in the earth after so much rain because I had recently read Steven Church’s essay “It Begins with a Knock” from his collection Ultrasonic, where he recounted the times he “got a true window into” the lives of his elderly neighbor, Myrtle, and her boy friend, Larry, and sought to “figure out how to see myself again in the reflection.” Like Myrtle, Sam was in his seventies. And if I wanted to ruminate from a fresh perspective, how much differently must my life have looked for Sam when he peered out his windows into mine. We were different races, different generations, and came from different parts of the country. I sought periods of quiet to write when my babies and toddler slept, while Sam was alone most of the time. Perhaps my mind wanted to locate Sam again because essayists need to populate the landscape of reflection with people. Insights are abstractions, after all, and they arrive for the reader through the engaging concrete forms of characters, outfitted in the recognizable attire of lived experience.

Sam invited me into his home once. He met me in the street, under the motionless oak tree branches in front of his house, like he had done many times, except I could tell something was wrong by the hurried way he spoke. “You know any carpenters? Do you have a handyman I could call?”

“I don’t really have one, no.” I said. “Why? What’s up?”

Sam turned and waved me in the direction of his front door. “Let me show you,” he said.

I wiped my feet on the welcome mat and gazed briefly up the stairs that bisected the two main rooms. The smell of smoke lingered in the rugs, couches, and cloth-covered chairs. The wood floorboards creaked under our footfalls through the small dining room where stacked mail and newspapers sat on a table next to two candleholders.

“Here’s where they tried to get in,” he said when we reached the kitchen. “Busted right through the doorjamb.”

Earlier in the day, Sam said, our neighbor, Janice, saw two men walking in the Rooster River, which wasn’t so much a river as a weed-filled creek that wound its way through the neighborhood and under roads. The men must have fled once Sam’s alarm went off. We both stood there, staring at the cracked wood and the broken glass at our feet.

“I gotta get this secured by tonight,” he said. Turning to look at me, with hands on hips he added, “And it’s already getting late.”

I imagined the two men in the creek, hunched over between the cover of tall weeds, stepping around puddles, making plans with deep whispers of intention. After a snowfall, men would bang on the door and offer to clear the steps, sidewalk, and driveway. Hungry for a buck. Their hunger rapping the door, the clank, clank, clank of the knocker reverberating against the doorjamb, through the wood frames of our walls. I never opened the glass storm door at their clanking, the desperation on their faces turning to anger at my shaking head. It was those faces that came to mind when Sam mentioned the men in the creek.

Untrodden stretches of snow delivered a semblance of isolation, even though we lived on just .11 acres of land, with houses on all sides. A calf-high snowfall offered temporary stillness, and the illusion of remoteness, of open landscapes, of privacy and safety—until the rapping at the door. The oldest child found me in the kitchen. “Dad,” was all he said, his face searched mine to make sense of the sudden violent sound. In our house, snow days meant working from home, while children watched cartoons and ate pancakes in fleece pajamas. To others, however, the clanking was a relief, a way out of the driveway and onto plowed roads.

Sam always hired the first knockers. As a retired man in his seventies, whose sons would be my age if they had been alive, he needed help. He drove a school bus. Between shifts, during the pleasant months, he groomed his lawn and the hedges, and planted flowers. He watered and snipped them. He washed his school bus. He wiped each window with glass cleaner. He smoked on his stoop.

Meanwhile, I wrote on the couch in our living room, or at the dining room table, or, before our second child came, in the empty bedroom upstairs, and always with a full view of Sam’s white colonial with black shutters. While writing about my father, who died when I was twenty-four, sometimes, between sentences, I wondered how old Sam’s two sons had been when they passed away, both of them dying on the Fourth of July, in separate years. Sam’s life invited me to consider my own from new perspectives, though I don’t think I thought about that too much when I lived across from him. The clanking at my door was an intrusion for me, and a relief to him. He heard the shouts and cries of our children carrying out our windows, while his children were framed in the silent pictures they displayed. In our old neighborhood, one man set off 4th of July fireworks that rivaled the display presented by the city. Parked cars packed our blocks as families filled the sidewalks, walking to the show carrying lawn chairs. When my son was twenty-two months old, he sat on my knee, looking out his bedroom window, his eyes finding the exploding colors, above the rooftops. I saw Sam across the street, standing in front of his house, his head tilted toward the flashes in the night. For some, of course, holidays are an occasion of grief, rather than celebration. I wonder now how Sam and his wife, Beverly, could endure such an anniversary—the inescapable booming.

As I wrote about my father, searching for ideas, for moments that carry with them the emotional surge worthy of essaying, like the swift current of rain running over tall weeds through the creek after storms, I never considered Sam a potential character for nonfiction prose. And yet here was a man who roamed in many rooms of the human condition. A devoted man who once told me he and his wife slept in separate bedrooms. She liked the air conditioning, and he liked it hot. The more humid, the more he felt like he was back home, in the South, in the heat. “I followed her up here, though,” Sam told me. “She’s my old lady, and I support her.” He drove the school bus every weekday morning, even in the summer. His wife came home around seven p.m., and left for work after him in the morning. I suppose they ate together, before she went out in the evening to visit her mother in the assisted living home. Sam’s wife visited her mother every night. “Like I said,” Sam added after sharing her schedule, “she’s my old lady, and I support her.”

Every day, he walked along the sidewalk inspecting the finely edged lines of his lawn. After he inspected his work, plucked the dead stems from the geranium and watered the ferns, then what? What to do after washing and drying the school bus he drove, after sweeping out the dirt from the aisle left by other people’s children? His wife wouldn’t be home until seven. After he watched the news, did the trimmed shrubs and edged lawn bring some order to the long, lonely hours as he exhaled under his portico, missing the heat of his home town, all those lost years with his sons?

“The essayist attempts to surround a something—a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation—by coming at it from all angles,” writes Phillip Lopate in his introduction to the seminal anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, “wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter.” What I like about reading essays is a humble voice speaking with a sincerity that isn’t socially constructive on the sidewalks of our everyday interactions. How peculiar of Sam’s figure to appear in my imagination, leaning against a tree, across the street in the woods from my current home. I never had the temerity to ask Sam any meaningful questions about his life. The time Sam told me about his sons’s deaths, both occurring on the Fourth of July, in separate years, I told him I was sorry. He told me how many years it had been without them. And I can’t remember his exact response.

But remembering Sam, here, in the exercise of this essay, floods me with a humility I didn’t expect to experience when memories of our interactions began circling in my mind. We had child-locks on every cabinet, drawer, and door handle. Plastic outlet covers protected curious little pointer fingers from electricity. Gates barricaded the crawling, stumbling, diaper-wearing young ones from tumbling down the stairs. Remembering Sam and all those years in his childless fatherhood defuses the interior bemoaning that occurs when I grow tiresome of the children’s needs. Essayists are after an unanticipated thought, a new way of looking at a familiar subject, provoked by the desire to illuminate what it means to be human. We are truth seekers, but we can’t force our way in. For the truth belongs to everyone. That’s why we write for an audience, populating reflections with the scenes we were invited to see.

This year James M. Chesbro’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, The Collagist, Pilgrim, Zone 3, River Teeth online, and Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @Jamie_Chesbro

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