There once was a little boy whose father was busy and whose mother was ill, and so he was sent to live with his grandparents. The first Sunday they found him sitting at the top of the steps, looking out the window there.
“It’s time to get dressed for church, Mali,” they said.
“Well yes. Yes, Mali, that’s what we do.”
Pointing out the window, he said, “But this is not my world.”
The old man told me this story in Dairy Queen. He pulled it from his collection of funnies, of kids say the darnedest things, and yet before the last words were out, they quarried him deep, as if it wasn’t his familiar story. His wife had just died. Perhaps it had taken every bit of courage he had to walk out his door that morning. Perhaps he had laid long in bed and remembered all the days he had known, and considered all the strange new things he would face alone, and felt at a loss to say just what he was thinking about it all, until right then.
He looked down. Perhaps his cold hands reminded him that if it wasn’t his world, at least it was his butterfinger blizzard. He resurfaced triumphantly as men do, just as he did after his first dive as a boy, when he went down much deeper than he imagined and desperately pulling his weight toward the light, he rose with a swoop of the head that peaked his hair and a look that crowed. In the same way, the old man looked up brave through his watery eyes and began another story that was pure comedy, about a different little boy who gathered all the car keys at the family reunion and threw them into the muddy lake.
They say comedy equals tragedy plus time, but I don’t know. Maybe I just need more time, but there is only so much we have, even all put together. I have also seen tragedy equal comedy plus time, and I have seen time utterly fail them both. I haven’t even lived very long. There might be more these things can do.
Years ago, a friend sent me a letter and asked me not to share it. I read it just once, quickly, and then went out into the cold with a box of matches. I lit it in my hand and dropped the last little fiery piece on the stone path, burning myself a little. It was a windy day and the ashes swirled and scattered. I cannot remember now exactly what it said.
In spending time with elderly people, I have heard many stories that were not mine to tell. They say for a writer all the world is your raw material, but this isn’t true, not really. Not for me. This is like the man who was fined for spreading four o’clock seeds on the highway. It wasn’t his garden. I’ve known all along that I would need to live well to write well, but I didn’t realize that writing well would be such a minor side effect of living well, and how many countless letters would need to be burned up and blown away.
I have written mostly to cheat death. I have examined this motive, considered my ways and continued on, like a sinner. I excuse myself because it is not my death of which I speak, but the reader will see this is not exactly true. I have written what I could not let go of. I realize my stories are as common as the ones that fill your own days, maybe more so. You do not come here expecting to be wildly entertained. You enter only as you would a neighbor’s house, understanding that you will find it much like your own. And yet, you never know.
He gets the key from under the post-cap. He opens the familiar door. There are crumbs and coupons on the kitchen table. There is a puddle of pears on the counter. There are seven blinking messages, a mystery novel face down on the desk and half a cobbler in the refrigerator. Her delicates are in the wash. A wadded up kleenex is in her rocker. Sixty-six years they were married. He climbs the stairs and looks out the window. It’s time for the six o’clock news. But this is not his world.