On a good writing day I’m lost. Not lost in the full force of the day’s movement forward but outside of it, when suddenly a poem or a story will cause me to drop out of that stream of time – under water or up in the air, there is no correct analogy, but it’s out of time. You’re in that place that has no centre except whatever coheres as you. Today a line from David Foster Wallace story my memory paraphrases as and whatever had happened never thenceforth mattered. Or is it a quotation? I am working on a story today that depends upon the reaction of a boy’s father after he himself gets lost.
Often I am nostalgic for the days when each new poem was the poem and each new story was the story. Now I am fine with potential failure or of never finishing, knowing more will come. You must write the first story to write the second to write the third and on and on. The writers I admire most know this (it seems to me, reading their work) and their writing, while not ignoring style and form, is a never-finished document of their engagement with the world. It’s a kind of search they love (again, this is how it seems to me, reading their work) and the thing being sought is impossibly elusive. Their search is recorded in a kind of secular prayer transcribed as they leaf through the hymnbook that includes songs calling them back to childhood, smells that recall distant homes, faces suddenly old, and voices and text from all their numerous teachers, and everything they’ve ever felt.
And this is while feeling content with my girls at the playground of their school and thinking of this essay on the day that never ends, which includes a day from another summer when I read a review of a John Ashbery biography on the plane home from my Aunt Iris’s memorial and deciding right then I have to read all of Ashbery’s work, and in order. And my dog, Abby, too, who is gone and who saved me with her basic love when my brother suddenly died. I scattered her ashes near the Spirit Mound in South Dakota because she was from there. All of it is happening now.
As days and years accumulate I don’t believe in them anymore. I don’t believe in increments of any kind. The memory of Iris on that flight was made of moments of memories—the powder blue winter coat she wore playing hockey with us on the outdoor rink; her quiet laugh as she blew smoke out the corner of her mouth; our conversation about a book of Anne Szumigalski poems—and they’re all present there on the plane and in this moment here, on the playground while each daughter tests herself in some new way or swings expertly from bar to bar.
The preceding paragraph is impossible as well because we all know this sentence occurs some other time, at my desk, and is presented in a way that mimics Gerald Murnane, whose work is my most recent teacher. Somedays end emphatically and some days don’t.
Today I am working on a story about a boy who grew up in the same era and location as I did. He’s in a shed on a farm, and the shed is cool under the shade of poplars that grow tall up against three of its walls. It’s dim in the shed and it smells of old oil and a dirt floor, though it has a wood floor and doesn’t sit on the ground. The dirt smell comes from the bare ground at its door. It’s a tool shed and the space outside the shed is where the machines go when they need fixing.
There is a 5 gallon metal drum that he sits on, and an old card table that is his workbench. He is resealing some old windows. The windows are 2 feet by 2 feet and each is made of grey wood that is solid still, but its dry white paint is half flaked off. That the frame is solid is important, because it’s his job to remove the caulking from the perimeter of each of the nine glass panes held in a single window and then recaulk each one.
Right now in the story the boy has come to understand that he loves this work, but that it has taken him too long to come up with a system that makes his task elegant and satisfying. He has never found pleasure in work before, though sleep after a long day of stacking bales in a pickup and then unloading them in the barn is a pleasure. He’s discovered now that if he removes the crusted and cracked sealant from all nine panes at once, and uses the putty knife to also remove any slivers of wood that may impede the next step, that if he prepares each hole, removes and cleans the panes and sets them each flat in their smooth square socket, he can do nothing but apply the new caulking for hours.
It is not hours, of course, but as he extrudes the grey putty along one edge of one tiny window, then the joining edge that proceeds at a right angle from the first, something happens to time. He takes the putty knife and smooths the putty along the first edges so that the soft grey matter makes a 45 degree angle from the clear plane of the glass to the grey old wood that frames it. This angle is so perfect, so neat, that he cannot imagine he’s the one making it, but the real pleasure comes from making, almost accidentally it’s so easy, another 45 degree angle horizontally at the joint, as the corner of the knife that touches glass stops at a point he intuits as the intersection of those lines. He sees this as his eyes watch his putty knife reach the joint and part of it is stationary but part of it is not.
The surface of the putty’s plane is not perfectly smooth. It’s like skin, maybe, and if you look close, if you can look close, you will see it is pocked with small craters from the air that is part of it. But we can’t see that and he can’t see that, just as when he’s used the perfect quantity of putty he can’t see the gentle irregular pattern of waves that makes what to him is a straight line where the putty joins the glass parallel to the window’s wood frame. If he thought about it, he would understand the line he’s making is not absolutely straight because in his first attempt, at his first pane of glass, he’d used an insufficient amount of putty and the uneven joint that he wanted to make precise and straight was visibly not, but he didn’t think about it because he was moving the perfect amount of caulking in a perfect line and, carefully, continuing at the corner and both lines met in what was to the human eye a perfect right angle.
If there was a problem it was that his father had told him the ragged line was fine, and that he was not to take too much time, and that the purpose of the exercise was to seal the glass, not to make it pretty. But there was no problem, because time was not a consideration, and though he didn’t understand it then, beauty was. Beauty and simplicity.
All of this happened in the unlit shed and he worked alone. Between windows he would drink from the jug of water at his feet, but other than that the physical world disappeared, its heat and wavering light did not exist, nevermind the creatures including people that moved about in time and space. The total effect was soporific in a way that belied the energy it took for him to attend to the task, which was to express the putty in as true a line as possible, and to believe in perfection.
This is a story I may never finish because the boy must exit the shed and the pleasure that comes from re-entering the human world with its thump of heat and its bright blinding absence may only happen again years later as he, as an adult, ascends the concrete stairs to the street from a basement theater on a summer weekday afternoon. The boy can’t see anything in the bright light for some moments. Oh, my father.
I hope somebody somewhere will understand, even if his father doesn’t.
Sean Johnston is a novelist (latest is Listen All You Bullets) and short story writer (latest is We Don’t Listen to Them). He lives in Westbank, BC, with his wife and daughters and teaches at Okanagan College. He’s just finished a manuscript of short fiction called Multiplicanda Ah Um or Negatory, Babyloo, and is at work on a sequel to his first novel, All This Town Remembers.