January 06, 2008
I’ve been thinking about the power of fiction, or the power of good writing, to transport us to another time.
A talented writer can remove us from our dreary, repetitious lives with a well-wrought scene or a fully realized character.
Or simply a single object.
For me, this happened recently while reading Josh Henkin’s wonderful novel Matrimony.
A main character reminisces about a cafe with a backward clock.
Simple as that and there I went.
When I was in fifth grade in Florida, my friend Greg Mullen was the coolest, most suave guy around. He had an inground pool, he belonged to a tennis club, he went scuba diving, he wore a leather jacket, his parents drove matching Volvos (the oddest looking cars on the block back in the early ’70s).
Although we lived in the same neighborhood, my parents were divorced and we lived in the house our father left us with. My mother’s meager salary as a church secretary barely kept us in that house — we struggled, but we stayed.
I was timid, unwilling to take chances or go against the grain for fear of upsetting the status quo. It came with the territory, being a child of divorce I guess, always eager to please adults so nothing else bad would happen. I still struggle with this, but I have my courageous moments.
Yeah, poor me.
Greg says hey let’s go get some donuts.
Silly, timid me, I amble toward the cafeteria. Oh, they’ve started a free breakfast program for poor kids and kids from broken homes, I thought. How kind.
No, follow me. Greg flipped up the collar on his brown leather bomber jacket and we headed for the front gate.
He waved to the crossing guard, called her by name (I’d never spoken to the woman, never dared leave the yard before school), asked her if we had time to get some breakfast. Sure. She had yellow teeth and sounded like my Uncle Bill, a lifelong smoker. Stay on the sidewalk boys.
A block away, cars whizzing by on the four-lane, we entered the adult world.
Not as if it was a strip club or a gin joint, but hey, they had a drive-thru. The ABC Liquors my dad went to had a drive-thru.
Chaos inside, people smoking, drinking coffee, doughnuts flying off the shelves. On the wall, the backward clock. I’d never seen anything like it in my sheltered little life. I took it as a sign that things had changed for me. Time had been altered. I was stepping outside myself, turning a shoulder to my fears, being somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. It would be a long process, but it was a start. A delicious, time-warped start.
With my milk money I bought a lemon-filled donut. Greg bought two and a cup of coffee for the guard. He knew how it worked.
He knew how to work people, the system, whatever. Maybe he’s a politician now. Or in sales. He’s probably still cool and rich.
Even now I can smell that coffee shop, hear the white noise, feel the grease settling over my head and onto my face.
All because a novelist mentioned a backward clock.