How do you start a new novel? Where does it begin?
First you straighten up your actual desk, then your computer desktop. Which leads to Facebook, of course, and Wired Magazine, and rereading the last story you submitted, finding a typo. A malignant one—dyzogotic instead of dizygotic in a story about twins. You will begin again. You will.
I know roughly what my new book is about, who’s in it, where it’s set. That place, where I go in my head, I’m going to set it there. I’ve been taking notes. But you know how it is, how at the end of six months, you have a draft, except you think it’s baloney and throw it away because you’ve read a bunch of better books in the meantime that make you think: what the hell am I doing? I’ve either got to be THAT, or nothing. So, roughly around the six month period, you begin another draft, which will already have the stink of death about it. There is nothing really wrong with the baloney draft and you should have gone with that. It isn’t fillet mignon but it doesn’t have the taste, the stink of dead meat. Someone would have eaten it. Washed it down with a glass of milk or apple juice and wiped their mouths with their sleeves and said, ‘That tasted all right for baloney.’ And, guiltily, they will press their finger onto the crumbs on the plate and in the crumbs they can still taste remnants of the baloney.
You know baloney is bad for you. What do you call it, a guilty pleasure? You never called it that when you were a kid. You didn’t even know that it was actually spelled, bologna, or that one day you’d be calling it mortadella and buying it for your own kids in fashionable butcher’s paper instead of molded PVC packaging with the familiar red and white logo. You just called it baloney and you ate it because your mother gave it to you or because that was all that was in the refrigerator at your dad’s house. A baloney sandwich is like reading a book better than yours. You can’t put it down. I mean you can. But by then it’s too late. It’s in, absorbed at the molecular level and and changing you until it becomes bigger than you, like a memory of the future. I remember every baloney sandwich I ever ate. I remember eating baloney on rye with my grandfather and step-grandmother at their kitchen table in upstate New York (linoleum the color of dried blood). I remember baloney roll-ups, which were baloney and cheese and mustard without the bread. My mother put them in my sister’s lunchbox because she was worried about my sister’s weight, something my sister has never forgotten (or forgiven), but I wanted them that way too because I didn’t like bread (or because I wanted to be cruel to my sister). I knew I’d be looking back one day and I’d need to remember that too. I remember eating baloney sandwiches with my friends on endless summer afternoons and putting it in my pocket. Not the baloney, although I did that sometimes too, for later, but the time, that afternoon. For later. Peggy’s big Georgian pile down by the lake, how her brother, John, would be at home instead of out with the other boys because he had ms. Susan’s downstairs apartment she lived in with her academic mom who’d been reportedly raped in NYC, and her brother, Henry, the first boy I kissed. And Suzy’s clapboard house at the edge of town with the unmade bunk beds and the smell of farts and macaroni, and fancy Janet who lived in a three hundred year old farmhouse and had horses and whose mother was the 4H leader. Janet had the freshest baloney, stacks of Oscar Meyer packs we pulled out of an Avocado green refrigerator, and French’s mustard on Wonder White. Glasses of milk or cherry Kool Aid. Dark Shadows playing on a TV in an empty room. If I close my eyes I’m there, throwing it forward into the future so I’ll catch it, and hold it.
How I take a wrong turn back from the bathroom (I’m ten or eleven years old) and there it is. This small TV in a corner of the room, an empty room, little used, an old fashioned room, one that probably used to be called a parlor (Janet’s grandparents were born in this house), and I hear voices in the room, thinking it’s some grown-up we didn’t know was there. But it’s summer and all the grown-ups are at work (houses all to oneself, a fly buzzing in the mudroom, the happy sound of your own sneakers on the porch) and the noise is coming from the TV. I know that before I see it. The screen glows blue, not digital blue, but underworld blue, cold and incendiary, like an old man’s eye.
I’m pinned to the doorway and I can’t move. There’s Barnabas Collins, on the screen, with his sticky-out ears and jagged bangs, impossible and inexorable, (this was the seventies so it must have been a rerun) and it’s just me and him and the taste of baloney in my mouth. The taste of the past.
I am not allowed to watch Dark Shadows, the only experience I have of it is in houses where there are older children. Janet has siblings I’ve never met, teenagers in riding boots who slink out jangling truck keys—has one of them left the television on? The room is empty, recently vacated in that way that rooms have of concealing crimes. It smells musty, ancient, yet somehow inhabited. There is a catch in the close air, a sharp and foreign odor I am unable, at that moment to identify, as liquor. Between the small screen squeezed into its corner, and myself is a horsehair couch, and an old upright piano and a bunch of framed pictures, except I can’t tell if the furnishings are in the room or on TV, because the world’s gone blue. I don’t know any more how to get back to the other place where my friends are drinking Kool-Aid out of chunky plastic cups slick with condensation, and there is one part of me that doesn’t care, and wants to contain and preserve this moment of surrender to the world of Barnabas and Collinwood, that ringed hand extended like a scalpel, inviting me in, which is what I want more than anything (to be grown-up, to drink liquor). So I do. I go on in and close the door behind me and sit down on the horsehair chaise, which bites at the back of my legs because I’m wearing shorts. Where are we going? I ask. And Barnabas says, into the future. And I feel a fingernail of fear at my breastbone and wonder if I’d ever eat baloney again. The episode wears on with an unrelenting uncertainty so corrosive in its shadows (neither day or night), that when I get up off the horsehair couch, I feel as though something inside me has been scraped away. In its place the print of the hunter, an other against which there is no possibility of self-defense.
Of course I think I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen kids coming to school with bruises in summer and broken shoes in winter. I’ve been cornered in the bathroom by seasonal workers, a half-dozen faces peering down at me from above the cubicle as I pee my pants. But Barnabas has shown me another place, a world in which hunter and hunted meet in a war over form itself, and that fight is just another word for flight.
I wipe drool off my chin. In childhood we find truth where it falls, the anachronistic spiral of an arrowhead in a bed of shale; the face of a friend’s father peering in through the window at our upstairs pajama party (lucky he didn’t fall off his ladder); or from a cheesy Gothic soap opera, from dead meat. I get up and turn the porcelain door knob and go back into the hallway. I know my friends have gone, envy their continued trust in the universe, not knowing, as I now do, that the night isn’t black, it is blue, the color of flames at their coldest. And as I unlatch the front door and step into the cold light of a duplicitously endless summer I will have begun my first novel, and the ones after that.