(An excerpt from something that might be in progress or might not be.)
I started reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek on a warm spring afternoon in a seedy bar in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I was a senior in college, spending more time as a stringer for the local Standard-Times than I was spending in class or studying. I had arranged it this way. I had taken enough classes as a sophomore and junior to give myself an easy glide-path out of college.
I had filed a story that day about a car wreck. A full-time reporter had written the main story and they had given me a sidebar to write. The driver, shitfaced at 10:00 in the morning, had swerved to miss some imaginary thing in the road and had crashed into a convenience store.
The store owner, his back to the window as he stood at the cash register, never saw it coming. The car roared through the front window and crushed a candy display and knocked the lottery machine off its table and into the legs of the owner. The machine snapped one of his femurs cleanly in two.
I had been a block away when I heard it and got close enough to watch the EMTs stabilize the leg while the mean screamed and then passed out. He was screaming in Portuguese and I hardly knew a word, but I did fashion a quote out of the screaming with some help from his son. “Mamãe! Meu Deus, Mamãe!” I decided I would have been screaming the same thing.
I filed the story and walked to the bar. I had to settle my nerves. It was my second car wreck in two weeks. I had covered the first one for a local radio station where I also freelanced. They didn’t have a real night-time reporter so I went out there alone, steno pad in hand. The cop wouldn’t let me near enough to see anything, but there were two bodies on the street. Someone had produced drop cloths to cover the bodies. They were soaked through with blood. I walked a block away and puked.
I ordered a boilermaker, Old Thompson Whiskey and a 16-ounce Narragansett beer, and I pulled Dillard from my jacket pocket.
I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest….
(Well, heck, I used to have a cat, too! The summer Midnight went into heat—and the only summer she lived through—she would jump from roof to roof up the two-deckers lining one side of my street. She would then climb, squirrel-like, down one of the 4-by-4s that framed our back porch. She would scratch on my brother’s screen until he let her in.
That fall, Midnight wandered a bit too far onto the next block. Something got to her—a dog maybe but more likely a pack of kids—and a friend found her, scraped her into a box, and brought her to us. She was still alive, but when we got to the vet he didn’t have to look at her for very long. He tried to soften the blow for me. “It looks like you are going to have to get another kitty.”)
The boilermaker felt good enough to order a second and then a third. I soldiered on through Dillard.
The sun in the west illuminates the ground, the mountains, and especially the bare branches of trees, so that everywhere silver trees cut into the black sky like a photographer’s negative of a landscape.
“Goddamn that is good writing.” I must have said it aloud because the bartender turned to me. I wasn’t quick enough to explain myself so the bartender brought me a fourth boilermaker. I downed the shot and chased it with half of the beer before I took a breath.
At some point the bar filled with reporters, including Dave, who had filed the full story on the crash. He dropped a copy of the paper in front of me. The Standard-Times was an afternoon paper and the story I had finished writing two hours before was now miraculously in front of me, printed and folded, my byline in bold 10-point Futura.
“Six inches, my little man.” The city editor had cut my story, which I always knew would happen, but she had also cut my lede, including the first line, which I had been celebrating in my head the whole afternoon. “An otherwise perfectly normal day for Alberto Gomes took a bad turn this morning when a Buick LeSabre crashed through the front window of his Union Street convenience store.”
Dave was downing his first beer. “Don’t use adverbs. Carol fucking hate adverbs. And ‘bad turn.’ Jesus, kid, have an idea.”
Carol was the city editor. She had moved up from covering crime for nearly twenty years. She chain smoked and sounded like Robert Loggia. I had filed 20 stories with her after doing only sports for the first two years. She had lopped off every one of my ledes. Dave had tried to coach me a little. “If you like it too much, little man, it probably sucks.”