And no, I’m not talking about the card game my wife can find with a click of her mouse, I’m talking about the more literal meaning of the word, as in building a bridge to other people. They’ve all been built, you say, but they haven’t, not completely, even with Facebook, Twitter, and all that instant texting from IPhones. What’s missing is the automatic translation from one language to another of messages sent from one country to another. To Japan, say, or Libya. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a Bridge website we could log onto, enter our passwords, scan messages from various parts of the world, the followers and the following, and then weigh in with our own views on this or that. And if we have any, offer our problem solving skills. How to dig a deep enough trench, say, outside of Tripoli during the upcoming siege. For those left behind we could offer a recipe for that pecan pie they’ve never had, or advice about flossing. Or just say we’re thinking of them, praying for them. To show the depth of our sincerity we could I Photo pictures of our loved ones, close ups, no flat screen televisions in the background, no Mercedes Benzes in the driveway, nor any portion of our five thousand square foot houses. We could, over time, Bridge our way to world peace. Couldn’t we?
Of a young man trying to figure things out. In this first scene, the whereabouts of his sales commission. Told in the first person, his story is one of desperation, which like a newly planted seed, grows:
“What’s it say!” I yelled, trying to fight my way through. Jimmy at the front, smack against the building, his face practically on the square of paper. From three rows back all I could see was FBI in big letters across the top.
“Is it Broadnax they’re after!” I yelled, but
Jimmy wasn’t turning his head. He couldn’t because people were shoving from both sides, all trying to read what he was reading. Other employees of Live Well, I was sure. The few that weren’t shoving simply stood, passersby who after arriving flashed looks of irritation, like this woman in front of me. In a huge sweater, she was almost as old as our customers, but strong, using her elbow to keep me from passing. Having seen the article she had nothing better to do than plant her big butt here on the sidewalk.
“Is it Broadnax!” I yelled again.
“Course it is.” Rod Renelli, a first year salesman like me, had come from her other side. “Who else would scam Medicare?” he said from over her shoulder.
Our founder, he was talking about.
Another elbow, in my ribs this time.
“Please, lady, I work here. It’s my job at stake.”
She sniffed, looked to the front again.
“What are you saying, Rod?”
He wedged himself between her and a black guy who was closer.
“Rod, talk to me.”
“Later, I gotta see if there’s a place to go.”
He didn’t know either, that’s why he and the rest of us were fighting, trying to see where we’d go to get our commissions, in my case a better than usual month’s worth: four hundred and eighty-eight dollars.
From the front Jimmy was edging his way back, shouldering people aside, the smaller ones, getting through another row, a moment later he was almost to mine. “Hey,” I said, reaching out to him, the woman swatting my arm away. “Stop that.” She glared at me, then turned her angry stare, her jowly face hidden by a bush of hair.
Jimmy broke free of her two hundred plus pounds and at last I could grab his shoulder, the top of it. His face turned. “What’d you read?” I said. “Does it say anything about us, where to go?”
He’d broken free of me and everyone else. He pulled the hood of his sweatshirt higher, and after turning, headed down the sidewalk, like he’d never even seen me.
For the past year I’ve been writing a novel in Houston, where I’ve lived since ’73. A fictional memoir, a first for me, also the first first person story I’ve told. The time period is the eighties and nineties. But now, 2011, when the news we’ve been hearing from Japan is so horrific, it’s hard not to think, to empathize, to wonder, about the people who’ve survived the earthquake, tsunami, nuclear melt down, if they do in fact survive. The Tokyo Electric Power Company hasn’t instilled much confidence with its reporting on fuel rods, salt water cooling attempts, cores of containment. What is crystal clear is the character of the people, the strength of them so much stronger than those containment vessels. How else can you describe those who walk the streets where houses once stood. As stoic as soldiers on their way to battle, which in a sense they are, for their way of living. When devastation strikes, whether it be floods or earthquakes, in the poor countries especially, or New Orleans, there’s been a history of looting, of desperate pleas for help, scenes of people crying, begging, a natural display in times of great need. That ‘s not what we’re seeing in Japan. It’s almost superhuman how reserved they are. How orderly, lawful. What is it about them, these people being scanned for radioactivity, as calmly as if they were having their luggage checked, this steely sense of self discipline that keeps them going in the worse of times. I could say we should have the same steel wills here in the U. S. And there probably are some who do have that strength, never to bend. Not me. I do what I want, when I want. Most of the time. Because my wife’s going to play golf this morning, I have to answer the door soon. Our Spring check up of the air conditioning system. The kind of things we do in suburban Houston, where I live for fiction.
My wife and I flew to California over the weekend to see my son, Ran. Besides being an audience coordinator of “The Talk,” he designed the cover of my novel After Isaactown. Flying in we saw snow on the mountains. A gorgeous spring day followed at Malibu where we stopped for lunch. A movie star sighting, Kate Hudson with small child at her side, another inside from the looks of her sleeveless top, ballooned at the waist. After lunch we went to the beach, watched porpoises bob up and down. In the far distance where the coast curved some hazy buildings, Santa Monica, Ran said. Back to the car, we drove to the Malibu Country Stores, an outdoor mall that seemed anything but country with its Rolls Royce and Bentley convertibles. We drove from their to Studio City, where my son lives, within biking distance to the CBS set of “The Talk.” The CEO of CBS is married to Julie Chen, the show’s moderator. I read in the Times that he, the CEO of CBS, visited Charlie Sheen recently and told him he had to go into rehab. Sheen refused, said he’d do it at home. The CEO left, unable to insist, because Charlie Sheen’s contract did not contain a requirement of this sort, having been removed by him, through his attorney. The kind of clout a money maker of Sheen’s size can deliver to the chin of even the mightiest of media moguls. Back at Ran’s apartment, small but modernly decorated, their little Maltese scampering here and there, my son helped me do what I couldn’t, link my computer to a radio station in Santa Barbara where I’m scheduled for an interview. An opportunity to talk about After Isaactown not just in the Santa Barbara area but all of LA County and areas southeast, Palm Springs and other places rich people go. And Australia, the Queensland area, I was told by my publicist. We flew on Southwest back to Houston. My wife seated next to a woman whose twenty-eight-year-old son would’ve died of a heart attack had he not been seated next to a trauma surgeon, a perfect stranger during a concert. He now has a defibrillator, as does my wife, who also would have also died had she not fainted on a plane from New York to Houston. Later tests revealed scar tissue on her heart. One of those coincides that happen, make you feel damn lucky, in mine and this lady from Philadelphia’s case, to have someone you love, still alive.
“Warm Nights, Cold Noses,” the title of an article in the Times caught my eye when I saw on the cover of the Home Section a bed on which a woman lay, her unruly hair spread on the pillow. Less noticeable at this first glance was the thing cradled in her arms. The reporter explained: “Every night for the last year, Kathy Ruttenberg has been taking a bath, putting on pajamas, turning on CNN, and getting into bed with a little pig named Trixie.” The 16-pound Vietnamese pot bellied pig is, she says, “a great cuddler if you lie still. But if you’re restless, she gets annoyed, and her hooves are very sharp.” Ms. Ruttenberg has the black and blue bruises to prove it. This 53-year-old woman who lives near Woodstock, N.Y. is not alone in bedding down with an unusual sleeping partner. Paris Hilton also slept with a pig, this one “of the four-legged variety,” the article said, and this cover girl of checkout counters was also bitten at her home at 3 a. m. by a kinkajou, a tiny raccoon-related creature.
Extreme examples, to be sure, but at a deeper level the bond we all long for, the warmth, the contentment, the feeling of being loved in an unconditional way. That’s why 14 to 62 percent of the 165 million dogs and cats in this country bed down every night with us, a not so amazing statistic the Times reporter dug up, not all that surprising when you think of how many lonely people there are. A lot of them old, of course, these widows and widowers, but also younger women without a child or husband, men even, though less in number, and the orphans lucky enough to have a pet, a place to sleep. A form of love that takes when encountered many shapes. In romance novels the shape tends to conform to a heroine or a hero, their desire regardless of gender shown in explicit fashion; this and other emotions displayed lavishly, as clothes are in a Saks window. There are, of course, more subtle ways to display love. So subtle they might not be seen at first glance. One could argue, for example, that To Kill a Mockingbird, most commonly thought of as a fable of sorts, a lesson of morality about the vice of prejudice, the sin of bigotry. But it’s more than that. It could be seen as an elegy, a daughter’s worship of her deceased father: Scout, the narrator, looking back at her life with Atticus Finch. And what is worship if not the deepest, most persistent kind of love. Or take The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s great novel about the dutiful butler who serves an English Lord. His sense of duty, his iron clad loyalty, both like suits of armor prevent him from showing affection, certainly not overtly, to Miss Kenton, the housekeeper. She has feelings for him, too, and muses over lost opportunities, as does he, eventually. The poor butler unable to show, because of his reserve, the love offered to him during their years together. By the end they have nothing but kindness to offer one another. But the very absence of love, the unfulfilled desire, is what makes love so powerful, so moving in this story. The more recently released Room by Emma Donoghue is another love story. In the cruelest of circumstances, it keeps a mother and son in a world of their own. This contemporary novel is more plot driven than those mentioned earlier, as is mine. After Isaactown is at its core a love story. But there is so much more swirling around that core.
So, you may wonder, how did I write this story about a fifty-seven-year-old lawyer and a forty-two-year-old college professor and mother of a ten-year-old? By doing what most writers do when they begin a story, sit before my keyboard, perhaps a little longer, a little more patiently than some, because for me it takes time for people like Norm and Harriet to appear, to begin slowly, to show who they are, how they walk, talk, think, feel, and yes, love. And not only when that most hidden of all emotions shows itself so openly, so woundedly and passionately, as is often does to romance writers. For me, it’s the little things, the tying of Jenny’s shoes by Harriet, the kiss on the cheek. Cool, in the case of Norm’s mother, who lives in a nursing home. Norm’s lips rarely touch hers or anyone elses’s, with the exception of his sister-in-law, Bev. Ah, but that’s the beginning of the story, before he meets Harriet. This younger woman came to mind more slowly than Bev. Because of her past Harriet is a more complicated character, and like Norm, she took a while to assemble. Both flawed, like others in the story (especially Herb Winters, the Dean of Humanities), and in these states of imperfection they begin to act, to lead their lives, go places. But like teenage drivers they don’t always make the right turns, they have to be steered in a new, truer direction. And in the end, after all the back and forthing, they arrive after traveling all those pages, all those revisions, cups of coffee, nights and days when we, their creators, wonder for the hundredth time: Is this any good? Still we go on, we writers of love stories, because for us writing is a kind of love, the kind we wrap ourselves around, snuggle up to, and hope that after what we’ve written is out there, to be read, reviewed, and discussed, we won’t be bruised too badly. Like Kathy Ruttenburg sometimes is by her Vietnamese pig.