Defying Winter

Defying Winter

He smoked too many cigarettes, drank too many cups of coffee, didn’t get up enough from his desk, didn’t go outside, never exercised. He was a writer. His laugh was loud and his thoughts were private. He didn’t care if you liked him or not, he didn’t like himself. There was a demon inside him that he tried but couldn’t ignore, a demon that haunted his waking hours, which were long because he didn’t sleep.

When I first met him, he had just finished his fourth novel. He wasn’t a novelist at heart, he preferred satire. Who wants to be made fun of? he said. It’s a shame that no one has a sense of humor anymore. But fantasies, in which a handful of fearless warriors defend their homeland against a powerful, menacing, invading force, people can’t get enough of.

The booming laugh, his private joke. When the world has become so dull, he could still enjoy a laugh at his own expense.

Why do you see the world as being so humorless? I asked.

It isn’t humorless, just thick, too full of itself, he said.

I agree, I said. People need to lighten up.

Too late for that, he said. Ignorance is too widespread. People are all the time writing to me telling me how much they enjoy my novels. A lot of toady fools. What do they know about fiction? Hemingway shot himself because he couldn’t write one honest thing. Not one. Steinbeck became sad and disconsolate, the world a dreary place. It’s sad, only when Steinbeck was facing death did his words become real at last, even if they weren’t true.

No, people don’t want to hear the truth, it’s too harsh. This is what he told me before I could understand what it meant. When we’re young and can do something, we don’t understand. When we grow old and understand, we don’t care.

Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley: In Search of America, “There are two kinds of people in the world, observers and non-observers…” This pretty much sums it up. From this, one can surmise the rest.

He laughed even when he had no reason to laugh. It must have been the absurdity of the world that he laughed at. I’ll never know. He died when I was too young. If he would have stayed around longer, maybe I would have learned something. Now, I look back trying to guess what he saw.

The days are short and cold with the sun low in the sky. I have spent all fall trying to defy winter. How absurd, that’s like trying to defy the setting of the sun.

The demons are stirring inside of me. I resist them but they are insatiable. When I try but can’t laugh, I think of him, his hand gripping a coffee cup, swirling smoke from a half-smoked cigarette balanced precariously on the edge of his desk, his head thrown back, a sparkle in his eyes that see something I can’t see. Yes, what else can we do but laugh?

One day he said to me, you want to be a writer? I nodded. He laughed. I am sorry for you, he said. If there is no other way, I ask one thing of you, don’t write as if you learned to write. You don’t learn to write. You bleed words from your heart.

I know now it isn’t that a writer has a talent for bleeding words from the heart, it isn’t that at all. Rather, words bleed from a writer’s heart because the demons are clawing their way out.

He seemed old to me then, but now that I’ve reached the age he was when he died, I realize he was too young to die. I have another thirty years left in me. Maybe. I don’t smoke, I exercise regularly, I follow a healthy diet, but still, I am a writer and that carries with it certain risks. I would give it up if I could, as I have been able to give up other unhealthy habits. Writing pesters me to death. It simply won’t let go of my pants leg. I shake it off but as soon as I’m free of it, I look down and there it is, tugging on my pants leg again. A nuisance. But I think I would be sad if I managed to shake it off for good. I have grown used to walking stiff-legged, dragging that little extra weight around with me.

My memory of him tugs at my heart more than my pants leg. It seems like so long ago, yet just like yesterday that I would sit at his kitchen table while he laughed, pulling deeply on a Chesterfield, tapping his stiff fingers on the polished tabletop. Tap, tap, tap as if he were sending me a message in Morse Code. In reality, he just couldn’t keep his hands still.

He died while I was in college. At the time of his death, he was working on his fifth novel about a physicist whose life work was devoted to finding holes in Schrodinger’s equation. On the phone, he told me how much he enjoyed this novel because he adored Einstein. The main character in his novel was based in large part on Einstein, who, when reading about Schrodinger’s equation describing quantum mechanical behavior, locked himself in his study for three days calculating, thinking, ranting, pulling his hair, and finally, humbly, coming out exhausted to say that the equation shows just what he, Einstein, believed all along: there is no certainty, only probability.

I could hear him on the other end of the phone, inhaling his Chesterfield, laughing out loud at the thought of these two brilliant men, Einstein and Schrodinger, arguing over what they saw as problems in the sub-atomic world.

A couple of days later, I was walking between classes when all of a sudden, I stopped in my tracks, overcome by a rush of despair. And I knew he was dead. I thought of Schrodinger’s cat. Although I had no way of knowing he was dead because I did not witness or even hear of his death, I knew nonetheless by the wave of despair that engulfed me. Can something exist and not exist at the same time? I think everything is always in a state of flux. There is no certainty, only probability.

The sun is lower in the sky. Winter approaches. The days are shorter and darker. When I come out of the library, it is that time of day between dusk and total darkness, the moon a smear on the clouds. Before I get home, it is dark, but Main Street glimmers with Christmas. I think back to college and how I looked forward to Christmas break and the time I would spend with my family.

He had a son, but his son never came to visit him. I was always saddened by this. I thought it too raw, so I never asked him why. I learned after his death that his son was angry with him because he didn’t attend his wife’s funeral. His son, a devout Christian, never forgave him. This man, this writer of novels, this observer, this slayer of demons, this man who knew how to laugh, what was he so afraid of?

Some things we will never have answers for. This is life. There is no certainty, only probability. And there is no truth, only reality.

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