My life is an ink blot. Or is my writing the ink blot? Is this a memoir of my life? Or a memoir of my fiction? I’m not sure which is the artifact and which the living organism. If I look back on my life, I find stories. If I re-read my novels, I find a life.
The old inmate Ezekiel gestured toward Roz who ran the prison literacy program. “She understands both sides of the wall,” he said. “She’s been teaching here for years. She knows how we live inside”—he gazed with dim longing at Jefferson City resting in calm sunlight beyond the limestone wall—“and how people live on the outside. She passes through the wall time and again. She climbs over and digs under it every day.” The old man placed his hands together, palm to palm, and brought the tips of his fingers to his chin. “You know, limestone is made of ground-up fossils. The wall is fossils. Everything is ground up over millions of years. Everything is ground up again and again.”
*From The Limestone Wall, unpublished novel.
1942. First memory: a little gray puppy named Fatty. He was not our dog. Mother taught me his name but didn’t encourage me to pet him. There is a mild fear in the scene, a sense of uneasiness, Mother none too eager to pamper a dog. She’d grown up on a farm where animals were business.
But a piano is a different matter. About that same time, in Bushton, Kansas, the banker’s wife invites us into a fine house that smells of coffee and furniture polish. Against one wall an upright piano enchants my mother. “You should see its carving, its sheen,” she tells my father that night after I’ve been put to bed. “It has a wall to itself. Even the wallpaper looks musical. You can almost hear it.” I turn onto my stomach and smell the sun-clean sheets that dried on the clothes line today. How happy music makes my mother. How she loves the piano. I turn onto my back again and smile. She’s silly. You can’t hear wallpaper.
I hurried back to the abandoned hotel, turned left at the newel post, and worked my way down the long hall, throwing open closed doors. The first room held mattresses piled on the floor. Chunks of ceiling plaster lay on the stained ticking. The next door was a bathroom, its long, claw-footed tub filthy. Then a cleaning closet. A door to a balcony that no longer existed. Farther down, a room filled with fishing net gathered into an enormous mesh pile, soft as hair. Finally, at the end of the hall, a circular room hanging over the street corner; bay windows letting in blue-gray island light, daylight as pure as a flute note. On the far wall, pushed against yellowed, still-flowering wallpaper, an old upright piano. I drew in my breath, thrilled.*
*From The Absent Woman, unpublished novel.
A core story, short and true, wrote itself into my memory one day: Mother talking to someone on the other end of the phone line, perhaps my father or one of his colleagues. Through the little telephone window in the wall beside the piano where I was practicing, I heard her discuss her illness. As usual in those weeks and months, she wore a long, purple bathrobe, seldom dressing in street clothes anymore. With my hands I continued playing “Minuet in G.” With my ears, I listened through the phone niche. With my eyes I clung to the music notes that swam and blurred on their stems. Alarmed, sick at heart, I heard her make plans to enter the hospital. The piano and I stopped communicating. Sound was without music.
“Are you going to die?” I asked.
“I might,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone intended to strengthen me for reality.
The hushed shock was like a strange twenty- fifth hour without air or sound. Karl, dying, had swung open something nameless on hinges. Clara longed for him to be sitting next to her. For a moment she thought he was. The hang of his shoulders, the bright gaze of his eyes, the laugh lines. She felt she could touch him; he’d never been more real to her. She heard his voice that she now knew to be her favorite music. She began to cry from joy. But the happiness could not be caught and held. Nothing could preserve his voice as she heard it now. As long as the caroling sound lingered, Karl was not dead. And then it faded. Slowly the hinges of momentousness swung shut and she was merely sitting at the kitchen table again.*
*From Cross-Country Flying, unpublished novel.