I know the answer to that one, because we all are frightened. Are you frightened of death? Lonely? Bewildered? Well then, we can spend some time together. Maybe have a couple of old Labrador retrievers in to snore and wheeze at our feet. Maybe a Portuguese Water Dog to rest his chin on my ankles. As long as we’re just imagining it, we can have a glass of gin, or a mug of coffee, or we can break the first commandment and have a smoke.
The light will fail. Outside the windows—I think we should have windows, don’t you? —outside the windows, we can see the brightness backing out of the air. We can start out laughing, but as it gets darker, we might grow less noisy. I can imagine how our voices might drop into a murmur. We can sit and listen to the snoring of the dogs. We can sit there in the darkness. Maybe one of the dogs will chase a mail man in his dreams. We can dream too. We can dream about our lost and gorgeous selves.
Which Reminds Me of a Joke. But I’m saving that one for the book. Two dogs walk into a bar… If you know the joke, write to me at email@example.com. Don’t title it “Dear Ben,” because I already have people who use that salutation for whom I am not a Dear. Pick another way to get my attention.
“This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness.”
Hear about the dyslexic, agnostic insomniac? Thrashed about in bed till dawn wondering if there was such a thing as a dog.
It’s me again. Here’s a little secret that I wish you wouldn’t bruit about. I’m old. Soon enough I’m going to die. One of many things dogs do for us is that they teach us how to die.
I need to know you’re out there. I write for myself, of course. I think most writers do. We eat our own dog food before we sell it to anybody else. When I write a book, I read that book to myself and then to my friends at least a dozen times. Few strangers will read it once. And so, the book’s primary consumer is me. But after that, there’s you.
I used to be able to imagine what you looked like. I remember when one of my father’s books wasn’t doing as well as expected, he said he could picture the people buying it. He said that a lot of them were tennis shoes.
A hollow book might take the pressure off of loved ones. Sometimes the people to whom we are most tightly yoked can’t tolerate our unhappiness. If we are sad, they want to fix it. “Take a hot bath with Epsom salts,” they say. Or else they say, “have a glass of gin.” Or they might suggest you run five miles. Often and often a 5-mile run is all that is needed.
The great feature about this book I don’t know how to manufacture— this listening book— is that it would let you be sad in front of it. Sometimes—and here’s where it gets tricky—sometimes we need to be sad. Maybe we just got the diagnosis, or maybe we simply have a sweet-tooth for self-pity. We need to be sad. We yearn for somebody to witness our sorrow.
A good book can let us alone, but the right book, the right story, can bring us into sorrow. I heard my friend Alan Sklar read Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” at the Armonk Public Library. Now that’s a story that has made the bed for you in the summer house on lake Melancholy, a story that has changed the sheets for you, and cleaned the dead mice out of the bureau drawers. I’m not at all sure that Ernest Hemingway would have liked me, or even that I would have liked Ernest Hemingway, but I am thankful for his prose.
So, there are cases in which a book with pages is even better than an empty box.
Imagine one of those volumes you can hide a revolver in or your grandmother’s diamond earrings. Put it in the book shelf and the burglar is expected be fooled. But this book wouldn’t hold valuables or a weapon, this book would hold attention. Talk to this book and this book would listen.
“You must be kidding,” this book would say, after you’d opened up your heart.
“Oh my God, she did that to you!” it would say.
Or, “Oh my God, he did that to you!”
“You are right. You are right. You are absolutely right!”
This book wouldn’t judge its owner, nor would it offer advice. This book would have time in it. This book would be full of the time to listen. What most of us want more than anything else in this world is to be heard and seen. It’s best, of course, to be heard and seen and loved, but even hatred is better than indifference and neglect.
Dogs listen. There must be exceptions, but most dogs won’t neglect their people. Many people neglect their people. Many people neglect their dogs as well.
One of the great dog trainers I studied under said that people like to adopt dogs from shelters, because they think they are rescuing animals that had been abused and neglected. And some of them were abused and neglected, he said. But most of them were just plain neglected. And he knew whereof he spoke. He’d worked with a Rottweiler that had been left alone and untouched for so long that the beast’s collar had grown into its neck.
After my customer had signed the papers, I relaxed and spent an hour listening to the guy. He was (is) smart and well-informed. He’d worked at Orange & Rockland Utilities when I was a reporter at The Rockland Journal News. We both knew Linda Winikow. Linda was great copy, and she was also simply great by which I mean that Linda was immensely fat. A colleague once said Linda was so large that she created her own gravitational field.
I told the Buick buyer that I heard that when she was arrested, Linda didn’t used her single phone call to hire a lawyer. Linda used her single phone call to order a meatball wedge.
If you read the book, you’ll hear more about Linda, but my epiphany that afternoon was that what this man really needed—more even than he needed a Buick sedan—was to have somebody listen to him. Right away I was wishing that I could write a book that listened.
Are you still there? I need you. Take the finger of your right hand and touch your sternum. Can you feel the bone? Okay, then you’re real. Do you ever imagine a fist in there, and does it sometimes grab your heart so tightly that you find it difficult to breathe?
When I argue with you, my dearest reader, it’s about the smugness I have grown to expect. Today’s reader is sometimes a customer first and a reader afterwards. Do you have it between those pretty ears of yours that because you’re a customer you are always right?
This is nonsense. This is the lie that salesmen tell you. And I know, because I’ve been a salesman. Sometimes a customer will actually find a good price on the right car. Sometimes we buy cars we can’t afford. Back before 2008 a lot of us bought houses we couldn’t afford. We like to go to casinos where we can buy hope and end up destitute. Nor is that the worst purchase our species ever made. Hundreds of thousands of intelligent young men bought The First World War. They bought the war to end all wars. They bought those trenches. They bought mustard gas. They bought death. They could have had it anyway, but they bought it early.
But I’ve liked Stephen King on the page. And I still relish the memory of a novel by Joyce Carole\ Oates. I’m not into gratitude, but when it comes to writers, I have often been uncharacteristically thankful. I spent most of a year in high school being thankful to Edward Albee for “The Zoo Story.” I read that play on a rainy afternoon, and I wasn’t bored anymore, nor was I lonely. It may even have stopped raining.
Once, when I had a fever, I dreamt that I sat beside Albee on the train to Manhattan. The Hudson line. We didn’t speak until we reached the terminal and I stood up to take down my suitcase. Then I told Edward Albee how much I loved his play. The dream still lives in my head. One of us was wearing a blue, button-down shirt. A Brooks Brother’s blue, the shirt distinguished by the absence of the pocket.
At boarding school, I used to wake up fifteen minutes early, so as to devote fifteen minutes to “Walden”. “Walden” was heavy sledding. But Walden gave me a chorus I yearned to sing along with. Walden articulated the love affair I was having with the out of doors. And no, I never imagined meeting Hank on a train. I did once go to the front of the car on a train from Windsor, Connecticut to Grand Central Terminal and read from “Walden” to passengers who were at first annoyed and then bored by my messianic excess. ‘Walden” tantalized me with the prospects of ethical certainty. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Some of my imaginary readers groused to me that the book I might write would take up space reserved on the shelf for their own intimate cri de coeur. They pictured the book I hadn’t yet written elbowing aside the volume they hadn’t yet written.
I understand about envy, and it’s a flu I’ve had often, but don’t let it paralyze you. If you need to write a book then, for God’s sake write it. I’m not the reason you didn’t write your book. Blame your husband. Blame your dog. Blame Stephen King. He’s taken up a lot of space on shelves. As has Joyce Carol Oates.
If nobody’s going to read this, then why am I writing it?
Good question? But I’m not writing something new here just jotting down what’s already been composed. I’ve been working on this book for a decade now, and I spent a lot of time in my head arguing with imaginary readers such as yourself. Wait a minute. Are you imaginary? Take the lobe of your right ear in your right hand and pinch. If that hurts, then you’re not imaginary.
Are you gorgeous? I’m not gorgeous either. Just on the page, though, let’s all pretend to be gorgeous.
In the experiment which has been my life, I have learned that what I desperately need is a handful of decent friends. Mix the sexes and come up with eight friends and two large dogs and I’m ecstatic. I’m whistling a happy tune. And I’m not happy. And I don’t whistle. Five hundred friends and they aren’t friends at all, are they? Unless of course they are imaginary.
Laura, the sweet and highly competent woman who created and has managed my website, assured me that, if I added text without setting up links, there was very little chance that anyone would stumble upon what I had written.
Which seemed okay. And also, not okay at all.
I don’t want readership, you remember, but I’d like readers. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
I considered catching your attention as the representative of a long lost cousin who died in a tragic automobile crash in Nigeria and has left 30 million in cash in your name. Or I might have listed “The five foods most likely to precipitate your heart attack.” *
But I have the distinct impression that the people who write that sort of copy are well paid and in advance. Samuel Johnson asserted that no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. But then Samuel Johnson lived in different times. Today’s writers seek fame. Or fame is a stage they expect to pass through on their way to the grotesqueries of extreme wealth.
I can’t be certain, but I have the distinct impression that fame is poison. Sometimes it makes the audience sick unto death. Sometimes it kills the famous.
* Fell for it. I have no idea. Fat back? Pig’s feet? Carrots?
Is this anachronistic—me calling you a dear?
I could just say your name, but then I don’t know your name do I? I don’t even know if you’d like me, or if I’d like you.
Writers who wouldn’t let me touch the inside of a forearm have been promiscuous on the page, addressing perfect strangers—such as myself— as intimates. Can you taste the pubic hair in your mouth? And I—for one—have been deeply touched. Didn’t matter what either of us looked like, or even if our breath stank. Didn’t even matter if one of us was stone-cold dead. We were together on a page. That was okay. Better than okay.
Readers then were individuals and not part of an entirely different phenomenon that’s risen up and which I’ll call—for lack of a better word—the audience.
Readers I am desperate for. Readership not so much. An audience I could do very nicely without. An audience has expectations.
Often as not an audience wants to be lied to. Which reminds me of another joke.
What did Raggedy Anne say when she sat on Pinocchio’s face?
“Lie to me. Lie to me!”
Seems every dramatic scene in family life involved a dog. Once in New Hampshire the trail back from Welton Falls was blocked by a river that had risen since we’d waded through it earlier in the day. Cassie, despite her webbed paws and breeding as a water dog, was frightened. My father took Cassie in his arms and tried to carry her across the current. He looked as frightened as she was. Cassie scrambled free and swam across, though when she clambered out on the other side it was way down stream.
My father used to wear what were then called wash pants, and a crew neck sweater somewhat the worse for wear.
I remember him saying “Cassie,” in a reproachful tone whenever he cut a fart.
He was funny. Still is funny on the page. I treasure the jokes my father told me. I’m older today than he was when he died, but the jokes make me a child again, with him leaning in and confiding humor. He was a full grown man and smelling of tobacco and of gin.
I think I’ll start with the most offensive joke he ever told me. So you’ll know right away if we can stand one another. The joke is dated, of course, but then it’s also immortal, or less mortal than the person who told it to me.
Which reminds me of my big surprise. You have to have a surprise, don’t you, in order to fool anybody into reading a book? Information withheld. Which seems dishonest, doesn’t it?
but back to the joke.
A stunning redhead comes into a talent agency looking for work. The agent wants to know what she does. “I sing through my asshole,” she tells him.
“What do you sing?” he asks.
“Oh boy,” she says, “You name it. Folk songs. Show tunes. The dying cowboy.”
“All right,” says the agent. “Sing me something.”
“Okay,” she says, “You asked for it,” she says, kicks off her pumps, pulls down her stockings, folds them up and puts them on the rug. Then she spreads her legs, squats and lays a big turd. It looks like something you might have ordered at Carvel, but it’s dark brown and with a couple of corn niblets.
Agent: “What the fuck are you doin?”
“What do you think I’m doing?” she says indignantly. “Clearing my throat.”