Monday, March 22, 2010

Howard's End

If you spend enough of your life reading, you eventually experience fictional deja vu. Not run-of-the-mill deja vu, in which you cannot escape the nagging feeling that you have met that chihuahua before, or you run smack into a row of row houses and know it's not the first time those tidy little gardens have clawed their way up your optical nerves and into your brain. Rather, fictional deja vu is when you find yourself suddenly living something you've read.

This happens to me more than I am 100% comfortable with, and it's worse if I travel to a location much documented in prose. When I lived in NYC for a summer, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was wandering from novel to novel, jumping on the train in Duplicate Keys and emerging, blinking, into the half-light of the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. This despite the fact that there is no subway line connecting the Upper West Side with the Upper East Side, and not much literary territory shared by Jane Smiley and E. L. Konigsburg.

London was bad, too. The American West was only intermittently percpeptible, emerging periodically from behind its scrim of story like the moon from a fat, dark cloud. Usually, in southern Indiana, I do OK.

Until Friday, when something I'd read a long time ago stirred in my skull, then rocketed out of me, teeth snapping, as startling and single-minded as that parasite in Alien. I've never had so much sympathy for Sigourney Weaver. Mostly because she doesn't look like she needs sympathy, being so generally buff and gunslinging.

I was teaching a music lesson. My student was eighty-three years old, impatient with her fingers. At the end of the session, worn out, she sat back in the semi-comfortable chair I'd dragged out from the dining room and told me about going to see her eagle nesting.

It was her eagle because the land was hers; she'd donated it to the land trust years ago, adding acres across the decades. Her husband had been dead for thirty years. She'd built the viewing platform, made sure there was a boardwalk across the wetlands. She described how the male eagle sat on the nest, how his beak was thicker than the female's beak. The female ranged through the trees and across the low area of the swamp. You turned off of US 37 on Bottom Road, then you took the gravel turning 6 miles down. The viewing platform was only a quarter of a mile from the road.

She repeated this: The viewing platform was only a quarter of a mile from the road. It was beautiful, she said, this time of year. With the beginnings of the flowers, the sun on the swamp. The water -someone had shown her a thimble- teemed with tiny lives and the eagles were nesting. It was only a quarter of a mile from the road.

I said, I'll have to go there sometime

It's wonderful, she said. This time of year. A day like today.

It sounds glorious.

Do you want me to take you?

She was looking out the window to where the first of the daffodils were coming up. It was 3:00 on a Friday; she was past due to struggle up from her chair, make her careful way to the door. I was past due to hop in my car and drive it out to the east side for an oil changed. I'd stop at the bank while my car was in the shop, cash a few checks. I was worried about the time, getting the car back home in time for a run.

I have to get my oil changed, I said. I have an appointment.

Of course.

She slipped her instrument, with thickened fingers, back into its case. We scheduled our next lesson and I walked her to the door. She smiled. It was a half-smile, a third of a smile; some fraction of her was somewhere else. It took me a long time -after I'd signed the work order and scrawled my name across the back face of the check, after I'd sat for a while in the sun breathing in the smell of new tire and wet earth- to regret.

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