Image by Diego3336. Creative Commons license.
Dusty. Not the day, March 3, 1976, because there’s been a light rain. It’s my mind. I woke with images of empty North American streets taken over by unstoppable swirls of suffocating dust devils. It’s a recurring dream though sometimes the dust devils are tumbleweeds. Never nice.
Here in the village of Vulpellach, in Gerona province, Baix Ampurdan, Catalonia, Spain, it tries to be spring. But the heat could snap like a thread and humid cold slip down from the Pyrenees on a mean wind and land in my head as depression.
I realize I’m homesick. Not for a place, exactly. More for the life that unrolled for me there.
My morning train for France leaves from the Estacion de Francia, which is next to Barcelona’s harbour and near the zoo where Snowflake, the albino gorilla, lives. I stare out the window. At first there’s nothing to see but third-rate galleries of graffiti on endless factory walls graffiti but then we’re passing stands of pine that like ill-fitting curtains offer tantalizing glimpses of the sea.
I share the compartment with three talkative Americans. I listen to their chatter without uttering a word until another American (Carolina accent) sticks his nose into the compartment to ask if we have books to trade. He holds out Maggie Cassidy and The Art of Thomas Wolfe. When no one speaks up, I do, holding out a Graham Green and a Norman Mailer.
So my secret is out. Betrayed by my desire for the Kerouac. Maggie Cassidy is one of the only books of his I have not read. The young men want to know what State I’m from, what college, what teams I support, but I’m examining the books, reading the blurbs, and they lose interest.
Now the pines have spread themselves out. There’s more of the sea to be seen.
It seems to me that we Americans are not as interesting in Europe as we used to be. We still drink manically but since there are more of us it shows up more, like larger watermarks on the wallpaper. We still show not enough respect for persons or property, and don’t usually do well in exchanges of wit, even in our own language. The Second World War Americans were, of course, heroes but extending the image of liberators across generations gets worn out quickly. Now we’re hippies, a new wave of outré but less engaging, less vital. It’s only natural. The first wave were existential warriors with the key to the prison. Suddenly French life was worth living again. The Allies added new depth to the French belief in liberty, fraternity and equality.
Hipsters were always welcomed. The best of the USA with their smooth style, understated confidence and bop and blues, the French connected deeply with them in the thirties. The hippies may practice free love or pay lip service to it but there is no aura of romance about them.
My seatmates, bored, again want to know what State I’m from. I trot out a complicated lineage. Part this, part that; from here and there; from then to now, and quickly bore them.
Dying took up too much of his life. Poor tired screwed up alcoholic sad older brother of us all, morose and alone, Jack Kerouac. After Maggie, after the heart’s initial sexual throbs, the long slow death. Forty pages in I’ve barely glanced at the sea.
There was a Maggie in my life. Not all guys have one. In Kerouac’s descriptions I see mine. The fit is stunning. I was a kid living thousands of miles from New England but my grandfather was from Nashua, New Hampshire and, loving him, I felt an honest affinity with K’s mill town. I transposed the book’s scenes to my mental images of Nashua. If I’d had a pencil, and was an artist, I would have drawn a mill town, put me grandfather in it and have him eyeing the young man, Jack, from a window of his house on River Street. In a fantasy it’s not hard to make the timelines converge.
The human heart’s death beat starts at the onset of youth’s inaugural, overwhelming passion. Once love left, Jack could only play with its remains. Prodding embers on Front Street, Lowell like River Street, Nashua; prodding memories as if they were still-hot embers in a cooling fire. Even with the ashes cold, love remains but as a lament flavouring searches for the impossible, the original’s return.
Kerouac in my image of him is a man like me. Kayoed by beauty, Kerouac didn’t grow up. I know the ways in which he didn’t. I didn’t either.
Sweet child, sad child, naïve child; and in his case, dead child.
To avoid the cuts administered by sharpened memory, I put down Maggie Cassidy and pick up the book about Thomas Wolfe. Another fucked up man kicking dust on my road. Sad, savage writer. Is there something morbid about my desire to read an explication of the work of a man whose books I won’t re-read; whose books I read with avidity, looking for I don’t know what, a key to life, to writing, to myself? No. I think the attraction is to the man behind the writing. Tall like me writing in pencil on paper laid on the top of the refrigerator. A writerly image of who I hoped to be.
Undeniable, the faith I had in both of Kerouac and Wolfe. Writers too manic and too depressive, too untethered, too highflying, too naïve, too hopeful. Too excited by life to live long.
And me, sixteen years old, already living for literature, seeing salvation in it. Finding myself in it. As I said, naïve.
In this hermetic train compartment I smell dust.
I am not independent. I do not want to become independent. I want to be looked after. Perhaps like a happy child who for a few more years doesn’t have to trouble himself with the struggle against ferocious odds to paste his mug on the graffiti of existence.
I don’t want to stand alone on a mountaintop. I tend toward valleys warm and loud with jazz and packed with images from the strange minds of poets. I want life dealt to me by soft fingers, erotically. I want the milieu of jungles, not the hard openness, the struggle of the dusty plains. Not cold winds that turn minds torpid so they can tune out the blare and blast of the catastrophe at the door. I want suppleness, endless curves in light that’s ever changing from rich to mellow.
I have no idea how the world functions. Or I do. I just don’t want to think about it. I’m an unabashed, mirror-gazing narcissist, the centre of the one world worth passing time in, my own.
So, this happened: my life turned weird. In the eighties, as if cursed, I toiled in oilfields. For a dozen disciplined and baleful winters I made a living shattering the silence of northern forests, working at high-pressure natural gas wells, alone with s flow-prover, thermometer, dead-weight gauge, ear phones and a forty-eight-inch pipe wrench (with added leverage from a six-foot cheater) to dismantle and reassemble wellheads.
It was purgatory to earn me redeeming social value.
Money came fast. It was too good so I lost it. But social value – aye, Laddie, that I had. Cred all over my snow-burned mug.
Finally madness saved me.
It has gotten warmer, not cooler. It truly is spring. The smell of shit wafts from the village garden plots beyond the back wall.
A woman from California, who is to be married in London next week, lies in the sun, a wash cloth cooling the delicate flesh of her pubis.
In summer tomatoes from the field will be fat and red, bombs of juice and flavour.