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    The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

    Gabrielle Zevin 9781616203214

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1 Burnside Literature- A to Z

Winter Journal

by

Winter Journal Cover

ISBN13: 9780805095531
ISBN10: 0805095535
Condition: Standard
Dustjacket: Standard
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Excerpt

 

You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.

*   *   *

Your bare feet on the cold floor as you climb out of bed and walk to the window. You are six years old. Outside, snow is falling, and the branches of the trees in the backyard are turning white.

*   *   *

Speak now before it is too late, and then hope to go on speaking until there is nothing more to be said. Time is running out, after all. Perhaps it is just as well to put aside your stories for now and try to examine what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one. A catalogue of sensory data. What one might call a phenomenology of breathing.

*   *   *

You are ten years old, and the midsummer air is warm, oppressively warm, so humid and uncomfortable that even as you sit in the shade of the trees in the backyard, sweat is gathering on your forehead.

*   *   *

It is an incontestable fact that you are no longer young. One month from today, you will be turning sixty-four, and although that is not excessively old, not what anyone would consider to be an advanced old age, you cannot stop yourself from thinking about all the others who never managed to get as far as you have. This is one example of the various things that could never happen, but which, in fact, have happened.

*   *   *

The wind in your face during last weeks blizzard. The awful sting of the cold, and you out there in the empty streets wondering what possessed you to leave the house in such a pounding storm, and yet, even as you struggled to keep your balance, there was the exhilaration of that wind, the joy of seeing the familiar streets turned into a blur of white, whirling snow.

*   *   *

Physical pleasures and physical pains. Sexual pleasures first and foremost, but also the pleasures of food and drink, of lying naked in a hot bath, of scratching an itch, of sneezing and farting, of spending an extra hour in bed, of turning your face toward the sun on a mild afternoon in late spring or early summer and feeling the warmth settle upon your skin. Innumerable instances, not a day gone by without some moment or moments of physical pleasure, and yet pains are no doubt more persistent and intractable, and at one time or another nearly every part of your body has been subjected to assault. Eyes and ears, head and neck, shoulders and back, arms and legs, throat and stomach, ankles and feet, not to mention the enormous boil that once sprouted on the left cheek of your ass, referred to by the doctor as a wen, which to your ears sounded like some medieval affliction and prevented you from sitting in chairs for a week.

*   *   *

The proximity of your small body to the ground, the body that belonged to you when you were three and four years old, that is to say, the shortness of the distance between your feet and head, and how the things you no longer notice were once a constant presence and preoccupation for you: the little world of crawling ants and lost coins, of fallen twigs and dented bottle caps, of dandelions and clover. But especially the ants. They are what you remember best. Armies of ants traveling in and out of their powdery hills.

*   *   *

You are five years old, crouched over an anthill in the backyard, attentively studying the comings and goings of your tiny six-legged friends. Unseen and unheard, your three-year-old neighbor creeps up behind you and strikes you on the head with a toy rake. The prongs pierce your scalp, blood flows into your hair and down the back of your neck, and you run screaming into the house, where your grandmother tends to your wounds.

*   *   *

Your grandmothers words to your mother: “Your father would be such a wonderful man—if only he were different.”

*   *   *

This morning, waking in the dimness of another January dawn, a scumbled, grayish light seeping into the bedroom, and there is your wifes face turned toward your face, her eyes closed, still fast asleep, the covers pulled all the way up to her neck, her head the only part of her that is visible, and you marvel at how beautiful she looks, how young she looks, even now, thirty years after you first slept with her, after thirty years of living together under the same roof and sharing the same bed.

*   *   *

More snow falling today, and as you climb out of bed and walk to the window, the branches of the trees in the back garden are turning white. You are sixty-three years old. It occurs to you that there has rarely been a moment during the long journey from boyhood to now when you have not been in love. Thirty years of marriage, yes, but in the thirty years before that, how many infatuations and crushes, how many ardors and pursuits, how many deliriums and mad surges of desire? From the very start of your conscious life, you have been a willing slave of Eros. The girls you loved as a boy, the women you loved as a man, each one different from the others, some round and some lean, some short and some tall, some bookish and some athletic, some moody and some outgoing, some white and some black and some Asian, nothing on the surface ever mattered to you, it was all about the inner light you would detect in her, the spark of singularity, the blaze of revealed selfhood, and that light would make her beautiful to you, even if others were blind to the beauty you saw, and then you would burn to be with her, to be near her, for feminine beauty is something you have never been able to resist. All the way back to your first days of school, the kindergarten class in which you fell for the girl with the long blonde ponytail, and how often were you punished by Miss Sandquist for sneaking off with the little girl you had fallen for, the two of you together in a corner somewhere making mischief, but those punishments meant nothing to you, for you were in love, and you were a fool for love then, just as you are a fool for love now.

*   *   *

The inventory of your scars, in particular the ones on your face, which are visible to you each morning when you look into the bathroom mirror to shave or comb your hair. You seldom think about them, but whenever you do, you understand that they are marks of life, that the assorted jagged lines etched into the skin of your face are letters from the secret alphabet that tells the story of who you are, for each scar is the trace of a healed wound, and each wound was caused by an unexpected collision with the world—that is to say, an accident, or something that need not have happened, since by definition an accident is something that need not happen. Contingent facts as opposed to necessary facts, and the realization as you look into the mirror this morning that all life is contingent, except for the one necessary fact that sooner or later it will come to an end.

*   *   *

You are three and a half, and your twenty-five-year-old pregnant mother has taken you along with her on a shopping expedition to a department store in downtown Newark. She is accompanied by a friend of hers, the mother of a boy who is three and a half as well. At some point, you and your little comrade break away from your mothers and begin running through the store. It is an enormous open space, no doubt the largest room you have ever set foot in, and there is a palpable thrill in being able to run wild through this gargantuan indoor arena. Eventually, you and the boy begin belly-flopping onto the floor and sliding along the smooth surface, sledding without sleds, as it were, and this game proves to be so enjoyable, so ecstatic in the pleasure it produces, that you become more and more reckless, more and more daring in what you are willing to attempt. You reach a part of the store where construction work or repair work is under way, and without bothering to take notice of what obstacles might lie ahead, you belly-flop onto the floor again and sail along the glasslike surface until you find yourself speeding straight toward a wooden carpenters bench. With a small twist of your small body, you think you can avoid crashing into the leg of the table that is looming before you, but what you do not realize in the split second you have to shift course is that a nail is jutting from the leg, a long nail low enough to be at the level of your face, and before you can stop yourself, your left cheek is pierced by the nail as you go flying past it. Half your face is torn apart. Sixty years later, you have no memories of the accident. You remember the running and the belly-flopping, but nothing about the pain, nothing about the blood, and nothing about being rushed to the hospital or the doctor who sewed up your cheek. He did a brilliant job, your mother always said, and since the trauma of seeing her firstborn with half his face ripped off never left her, she said it often: something to do with a subtle double-stitching method that kept the damage to a minimum and prevented you from being disfigured for life. You could have lost your eye, she would say to you—or, even more dramatically, You could have been killed. No doubt she was right. The scar has grown fainter and fainter as the years have passed, but it is still there whenever you look for it, and you will carry that emblem of good fortune (eye intact! not dead!) until you go to your grave.

*   *   *

Split eyebrow scars, one left and one right, almost perfectly symmetrical, the first caused by running full tilt into a brick wall during a dodgeball game in grade school gym class (the massively swollen black eye you sported for days afterward, which reminded you of a photograph of boxer Gene Fullmer, who had been defeated in a championship bout by Sugar Ray Robinson around the same time) and the second caused in your early twenties when you drove in for a layup during an outdoor basketball game, were fouled from behind, and flew into the metal pole supporting the basket. Another scar on your chin, origin unknown. Most likely from an early childhood spill, a hard fall onto a sidewalk or a stone that split open your flesh and left its mark, which is still visible whenever you shave in the morning. No story accompanies this scar, your mother never talked about it (at least not that you can recall), and you find it odd, if not downright perplexing, that this permanent line was engraved on your chin by what can only be called an invisible hand, that your body is the site of events that have been expunged from history.

*   *   *

It is June 1959. You are twelve years old, and in one week you and your sixth-grade classmates will be graduating from the grammar school you have attended since you were five. It is a splendid day, late spring in its most lustrous incarnation, sunlight pouring down from a cloudless blue sky, warm but not too warm, scant humidity, a soft breeze stirring the air and rippling over your face and neck and bare arms. Once school lets out for the day, you and a gang of your friends repair to Grove Park for a game of pickup baseball. Grove Park is not a park so much as a kind of village green, a large rectangle of well-tended grass flanked by houses on all four sides, a pleasant spot, one of the loveliest public spaces in your small New Jersey town, and you and your friends often go there to play baseball after school, since baseball is the thing you all love most, and you play for hours on end without ever growing weary of it. No adults are present. You establish your own ground rules and settle disagreements among yourselves—most often with words, occasionally with fists. More than fifty years later, you remember nothing about the game that was played that afternoon, but what you do remember is the following: The game is over, and you are standing alone in the middle of the infield, playing catch with yourself, that is, throwing a ball high into the air and following its ascent and descent until it lands in your glove, at which point you immediately throw the ball into the air again, and each time you throw the ball it travels higher than it did the time before, and after several throws you are reaching unprecedented heights, the ball is hovering in the air for many seconds now, the white ball going up against the clear blue sky, the white ball coming down into your glove, and your entire being is engaged in this witless activity, your concentration is total, nothing exists now except the ball and the sky and your glove, which means that your face is turned upward, that you are looking up as you follow the trajectory of the ball, and therefore you are no longer aware of what is happening on the ground, and what happens on the ground as you are looking up at the sky is that something or someone unexpectedly comes crashing into you, and the impact is so sudden, so violent, so overwhelming in its force that you instantly fall to the ground, feeling as though you have been hit by a tank. The brunt of the blow was aimed at your head, in particular your forehead, but your torso has been battered as well, and as you lie on the ground gasping for breath, stunned and nearly unconscious, you see that blood is flowing from your forehead, no, not flowing, gushing, and so you remove your white T-shirt and press it against the gushing spot, and within seconds the white T-shirt has turned entirely red. The other boys are alarmed. They come rushing toward you to do what they can to help, and it is only then that you find out what happened. It seems that one of your cohort, a gangly, good-hearted lunkhead called B.T. (you remember his name but will not divulge it here, since you do not want to embarrass him—assuming he is still alive), was so impressed by your towering, skyscraper throws that he got it into his head to take part in the action, and without bothering to tell you that he, too, was going to try to catch one of your throws started running in the direction of the descending ball, head turned upward, of course, and mouth hanging open in that oafish way of his (what person runs with his mouth hanging open?), and when he crashed into you a moment later, running at an all-out gallop, the teeth protruding from his open mouth went straight into your head. Hence the blood now gushing out of you, hence the depth of the gash in the skin above your left eye. Fortunately, the office of your family doctor is just across the way, in one of the houses that line the perimeter of Grove Park. The boys decide to lead you there at once, and so you cross the park holding your bloody T-shirt against your head in the company of your friends, perhaps four of them, perhaps six of them, you no longer remember, and burst en masse into Dr. Kohns office. (You have not forgotten his name, just as you have not forgotten the name of your kindergarten teacher, Miss Sandquist, or the names of any of the other teachers you had as a boy.) The receptionist tells you and your friends that Dr. Kohn is seeing a patient just now, and before she can get up from her chair to inform the doctor that there is an emergency to attend to, you and your friends march into the consulting room without bothering to knock. You find Dr. Kohn talking to a plump, middle-aged woman who is sitting on the examination table dressed in a bra and slip only. The woman lets out a yelp of surprise, but once Dr. Kohn sees the blood gushing from your forehead, he tells the woman to get dressed and leave, tells your friends to make themselves scarce, and then hastens to the task of sewing up your wound. It is a painful procedure, since there is no time to administer an anesthetic, but you do your best not to howl as he threads the stitches through your skin. The job he does is perhaps not as brilliant as the one executed by the doctor who sewed up your cheek in 1950, but it is effective for all that, since you do not bleed to death and no longer have a hole in your head. Some days later, you and your sixth-grade classmates take part in your grammar school graduation ceremony. You have been selected to be a flag-bearer, which means that you must carry the American flag down an aisle of the auditorium and plant it in the flag stand on stage. Your head is wrapped in a white gauze bandage, and because blood still seeps occasionally from the spot where you were stitched up, the white gauze has a large red stain on it. After the ceremony, your mother says that when you were walking down the aisle with the flag, you reminded her of a painting of a wounded Revolutionary War hero. You know, she says, just like The Spirit of 76.

*   *   *

What presses in on you, what has always pressed in on you: the outside, meaning the air—or, more precisely, your body in the air around you. The soles of your feet anchored to the ground, but all the rest of you exposed to the air, and that is where the story begins, in your body, and everything will end in the body as well. For now, you are thinking about the wind. Later, if time allows for it, you will think about the heat and the cold, the infinite varieties of rain, the fogs you have stumbled through like a man without eyes, the demented, machine-gun tattoo of hailstones clattering against the tile roof of the house in the Var. But it is the wind that claims your attention now, for the air is seldom still, and beyond the barely perceptible breath of nothingness that sometimes surrounds you, there are the breezes and wafting lilts, the sudden gusts and squalls, the three-day-long mistrals you lived through in that house with the tile roof, the soaking noreasters that sweep along the Atlantic coast, the gales and hurricanes, the whirlwinds. And there you are, twenty-one years ago, walking through the streets of Amsterdam on your way to an event that has been canceled without your knowledge, dutifully trying to fulfill the commitment you have made, out in what will later be called the storm of the century, a hurricane of such blistering intensity that within an hour of your stubborn, ill-advised decision to venture outdoors, large trees will be uprooted in every corner of the city, chimneys will tumble to the ground, and parked cars will be lifted up and go sailing through the air. You walk with your face to the wind, trying to advance along the sidewalk, but in spite of your efforts to get to where you are going, you cannot move. The wind is blasting into you, and for the next minute and a half, you are stuck.

*   *   *

Your hands on the Hapenny Bridge in Dublin thirteen Januarys ago, the night following another hurricane with hundred-mile-an-hour winds, the final night of the film you have been directing for the past two months, the last scene, the last shot, a simple matter of fixing the camera on the gloved hand of your leading actress as she turns her wrist and lets go of a small stone that will fall into the waters of the Liffey. There is nothing to it, no shot has demanded less effort or ingenuity in the entire film, but there you are in the dank and dark of the windswept night, as exhausted as you have ever been after nine weeks of grueling work on a production fraught with countless problems (budget problems, union problems, location problems, weather problems), fifteen pounds lighter than when you began, and after standing for hours on the bridge with your crew, the clammy, frigid Irish air has infiltrated your bones, and a moment comes just before the final shot when you realize that your hands are frozen, that you cannot move your fingers, that your hands have turned into two blocks of ice. Why arent you wearing gloves? you ask yourself, but you are unable to answer the question, since the thought of gloves never even occurred to you when you left your hotel for the bridge. You film the last shot one more time, and then you and your producer, along with your actress, your actresss boyfriend, and several members of the crew, go to a nearby pub to thaw out and celebrate the completion of the film. The place is crowded, jammed full, an echo chamber packed with roaring, clamorous people bobbing back and forth in a state of apocalyptic merriment, but a table has been reserved for you and your friends, so you sit down at the table, and the moment your body makes contact with the chair you understand that you are depleted, drained of all physical energy, all emotional energy, utterly spent in a way you never could have imagined possible, so crushed that you feel you might burst into tears at any moment. You order a whiskey, and when you take hold of the glass and raise it to your lips, you are heartened to notice that your fingers can move again. You order a second whiskey, then a third whiskey, then a fourth whiskey, and suddenly you fall asleep. In spite of the frenzy all around you, you manage to go on sleeping until the good man who is your producer hoists you to your feet and half-drags you, half-carries you back to your hotel.

*   *   *

Yes, you drink too much and smoke too much, you have lost teeth without bothering to replace them, your diet does not conform to the precepts of contemporary nutritional wisdom, but if you shun most vegetables it is simply because you do not like them, and you find it difficult, if not impossible, to eat what you do not like. You know that your wife worries about you, especially about your smoking and drinking, but mercifully, until now, no X-ray has revealed any damage to your lungs, no blood test has revealed any devastation to your liver, and so you forge on with your vile habits, knowing full well that they will ultimately do you grave harm, but the older you become the less likely it seems that you will ever have the will or the courage to abandon your beloved little cigars and frequent glasses of wine, which have given you so much pleasure over the years, and you sometimes think that if you were to cut these things out of your life at this late date, your body would simply fall apart, your system would cease to function. No doubt you are a flawed and wounded person, a man who has carried a wound in him from the very beginning (why else would you have spent the whole of your adult life bleeding words onto a page?), and the benefits you derive from alcohol and tobacco serve as crutches to keep your crippled self upright and moving through the world. Self-medication, as your wife calls it. Unlike your mothers mother, she does not want you to be different. Your wife tolerates your weaknesses and does not rant or scold, and if she worries, it is only because she wants you to live forever. You count the reasons why you have held her close to you for so many years, and surely this is one of them, one of the bright stars in the vast constellation of enduring love.

*   *   *

Needless to say, you cough, especially at night, when your body is in a horizontal position, and on those nights when the breath tubes are excessively clogged, you climb out of bed, go into another room, and cough on madly until you have hacked up all the gunk. According to your friend Spiegelman (the most ardent smoker you know), whenever someone asks him why he smokes, he inevitably answers: “Because I like to cough.”

*   *   *

1952. Five years old, naked in the bath, alone, big enough to wash yourself now, and as you lie on your back in the warm water, your penis suddenly springs to attention, popping out above the water line. Until this moment, you have seen your penis only from above, standing on your feet and looking down, but from this new vantage point, more or less at eye level, it occurs to you that the tip of your circumcised male organ bears a striking resemblance to a helmet. An old-fashioned sort of helmet, similar to those worn by firemen in the late nineteenth century. This revelation pleases you, since at that juncture of your life your greatest ambition is to grow up to become a fireman, which you consider to be the most heroic job on the face of the earth (no doubt it is), and how fitting that you should have a miniature firemans helmet emblazoned on your very person, on the very part of your body, moreover, that looks like and functions as a hose.

*   *   *

The countless tight squeezes you have been in during the course of your life, the desperate moments when you have felt an urgent, overpowering need to empty your bladder and no toilet is at hand, the times when you have found yourself stuck in traffic, for example, or sitting on a subway stalled between stations, and the pure agony of forcing yourself to hold it in. This is the universal dilemma that no one ever talks about, but everyone has been there at one time or another, everyone has lived through it, and while there is no example of human suffering more comical that that of the bursting bladder, you tend not to laugh about these incidents until after you have managed to relieve yourself—for what person over the age of three would want to wet his pants in public? That is why you will never forget these words, which were the last words spoken to one of your friends by his dying father: “Just remember, Charlie,” he said, “never pass up an opportunity to piss.” And so the wisdom of the ages is handed down from one generation to the next.

*   *   *

Again, it is 1952, and you are in the backseat of the family car, the blue 1950 De Soto your father brought home the day your sister was born. Your mother is driving, and you have been on the road for some time now, going from where to where you can no longer remember, but you are on your way back, no more than ten or fifteen minutes from home, and for the past little while you have had to pee, the pressure in your bladder has been building steadily, and by now you are writhing on the backseat, legs crossed, your hand clamped over your crotch, uncertain whether you can hold out much longer. You tell your mother about your predicament, and she asks if you can hang in there for another ten minutes. No, you tell her, you dont think so. In that case, she says, since theres nowhere to stop between here and home, just go in your pants. This is such a radical idea to you, such a betrayal of what you consider to be your hard-won, manly independence, that you can scarcely believe what she has said. Go in my pants? you say to her. Yes, go in your pants, she says. What difference does it make? Well throw your clothes in the wash the minute we get home. And so it happens, with your mothers full and explicit approval, that you pee in your pants for the last time.

*   *   *

Fifty years later, you are in another car, a rented car this time since you do not have one of your own, a spanking-new Toyota Corolla that you have been driving for the past three hours on your way back from Connecticut to your house in Brooklyn. It is August 2002. You are fifty-five years old and have been driving since you were seventeen, always with skill and confidence, known to everyone who has ever driven with you as a good driver, with no accident on your record beyond a single scraped fender in close to forty years behind the wheel. Your wife is up front with you in the seat to your right, and in the back is your fifteen-year-old daughter (who has just finished a summer acting program at a school in Connecticut), sprawled out asleep on the quilts and pillows that have served as her bedding for the past month. Also sleeping in the back is your dog, the ragged stray mutt you and your daughter brought home off the streets eight years ago, whom you dubbed Jack (after Jack Wilton, the hero of Nashes The Unfortunate Traveller) and who has been a much loved if lunatic member of the household ever since. Your wife, who worries about many things, has never worried about your driving, and in fact has often complimented you on how well you handle yourself in various kinds of traffic: passing other cars on multi-lane highways, for example, or negotiating the tangle of city streets, or easing your way around the twists and curves of backcountry roads. Today, however, she senses that something is wrong, that you are not concentrating properly, that your timing is slightly off, and more than once she has told you to watch what you are doing. You should know better by now than to doubt the wisdom of your wifes words, for she possesses an uncanny ability to read the minds of others, to see into the souls of others, to sniff out the hidden undercurrents of any human situation, and again and again you have marveled at how accurate her instincts have proven to be, but on this particular day her anxiety is so acute that it has begun to get on your nerves. Are you not a famously good driver? you tell her. Have you ever had an accident? Would you ever do anything to put the lives of the people you love most in the world at risk? No, she says, of course not, she doesnt know what has gotten into her, and once you reach the tollbooths at the Triborough Bridge, you say to her, Look, here we are, New York City, nearly home now, and after that she promises not to say another word about your driving. But something is wrong, even if you are not willing to admit it, for this is 2002, and so many things have happened to you in this year of grim surprises, why shouldnt your mastery of cars suddenly and inexplicably abandon you? Worst of all, there was your mothers death in mid-May (heart attack), which stunned you not because you didnt know that people of seventy-seven can and do die without warning but because she was in apparent good health, and just the day before the last day of her life, you talked to her on the phone, and she was in buoyant spirits, cracking jokes and telling such funny stories that after you hung up you said to your wife: “She hasnt sounded this happy in years.” Your mothers death worst of all, but there was also the blood clot that formed in your left leg during a nine-hour coach flight to Copenhagen in early February, which kept you flat on your back for several weeks and forced you to walk with a cane for months afterward, not to speak of the trouble you have been having with your eyes, the tear in the cornea of your left eye to begin with, then the tear in the right cornea some weeks later, followed by repeated, altogether random instances in one eye or the other over the past several months, and the damage is always done in your sleep, which means there is nothing you can do to prevent it (since the cream prescribed by the ophthalmologist has had no effect), and on those mornings when you wake up with yet another torn cornea, the pain is ferocious, an eye being without question the most sensitive and vulnerable part of the body, and after you put in the painkilling drops the doctor has prescribed for such emergencies, it generally takes from two to four hours before the pain begins to disappear, and during those hours there is nothing you can do but sit still with a cold washcloth over the afflicted eye, which you keep shut, since opening that eye will make you feel as if a pin were being jabbed into it. A six-month siege of coach leg, then, and a chronic case of dry eye, and also the first full-blown panic attack of your life, which occurred just two days after your mothers death, followed by several others in the days immediately after that, and for some time now you have felt that you are disintegrating, that you, who were once natures strongman, able to resist all assaults from within and without, impervious to the somatic and psychological travails that dog the rest of humanity, are not the least bit strong anymore and are rapidly turning into a debilitated wreck. Your family doctor has prescribed pills to keep the panic attacks under control, and perhaps those pills have been affecting your ability to drive this afternoon, but that seems unlikely to you, since you have driven with these pills in your system before, and neither you nor your wife ever noticed any difference. Impaired or not, you have now passed through the tollbooth at the Triborough Bridge and have begun the final stage of your journey home, and as you drive through the city you are not thinking about your mother or your eyes or your leg or the pills you swallow to keep your panic attacks at bay. You are thinking only about the car and the forty or fifty minutes it will take to reach your house in Brooklyn, and now that your wife has calmed down and no longer seems concerned about your driving, you are calm as well, and nothing out of the ordinary happens as you cover the miles from the bridge to the outskirts of your neighborhood. It is true that you have to pee, that your bladder has been sending out signals to you for the past twenty minutes, ever more rapid and dire signals of distress, and therefore you drive a little faster than perhaps you should, since you are doubly eager to get home, home for the sake of home, of course, and with it the relief of being able to emerge from the stuffy confines of the car, but also because getting home will allow you to run upstairs to the bathroom and relieve yourself, and yet even if you are pressing a little more than you should, all is well, and by now you are just two and a half minutes from the street where you live. The car is traveling down Fourth Avenue, an ugly stretch of dilapidated apartment buildings and empty warehouses, and because pedestrian traffic is sparse along these blocks, drivers rarely have to worry about anyone crossing the street, and on top of that the lights stay green for longer intervals than on most avenues, which encourages drivers to go fast, too fast, often far above the speed limit. This poses no problem if you are going straight ahead (that is why you have chosen this route, after all: because it will get you home more quickly than any other), but the onrush of traffic can make left turns somewhat perilous, since you must turn while the light is green, and while the light is green for you, it is also green for the cars speeding toward you from the opposite direction. Now, as you come to the juncture of Fourth Avenue and Third Street, where you must make the left turn that will take you home, you stop the car and wait for an opening, and suddenly you forget the lesson you learned from your father when he taught you how to drive close to forty years ago. He himself was a wretched, incompetent driver, an inattentive, daydreaming motorist who courted disaster every time he put his key in the ignition, but for all his shortcomings behind the wheel, he was an excellent teacher of others, and the best piece of advice he ever gave you was this: drive defensively; work on the assumption that everyone else on the road is stupid and crazy; take nothing for granted. You have always held these words uppermost in your thoughts, and they have served you well for all these years, but now, because you are desperate to empty your bladder, or because a pill has affected your judgment, or because you are tired and not paying close attention, or because you have turned into a debilitated wreck, you impulsively decide to take a chance, which is to say, to go on the offensive. A brown van is coming toward you. Going fast, yes, but no more than forty-five miles an hour, you think, fifty at most, and after gauging the distance of the van from where you have stopped in relation to the speed of the van, you are certain you will be able to make the left turn and get through the intersection without any problem—but only if you act quickly and step on the accelerator now. Your calculations, however, are founded on the belief that the van is traveling at forty-five or fifty miles an hour, which is in fact not true. It is going faster than that, at least sixty, perhaps even sixty-five, and therefore, once you make the left turn and begin hustling through the intersection, the van is suddenly and unexpectedly upon you, and since you are looking forward and not to your right, you do not see the van as it comes crashing into your car—a ninety-degree-angle hit, straight into the front door on the passengers side, the side on which your wife is sitting. The impact is thunderous, convulsive, cataclysmic—an explosion loud enough to end the world. You feel as if Zeus has hurled a lightning bolt at you and your family, and an instant later the car is spinning, out of control, madly rotating down the street until it collides with a metal lamppost and comes to an abrupt and jarring halt. Then everything goes silent, the entire universe is enveloped in silence, and when at last you are able to think again, the first thought that comes to you is that you are alive. You look at your wife and see that her eyes are open, that she is breathing and therefore alive as well, and then you turn around to look at your daughter in the back, and she too is alive, jolted from the depths of sleep by the double blow of van and lamppost, sitting up and looking at you with large, bewildered eyes, her lips whiter than any lips you have ever seen, lips as white as the paper you are writing on now, and you understand that she has been saved by the quilts and pillows she was sleeping on, saved by the fact that ones muscles are utterly relaxed in sleep, and therefore no bones are broken, her head has not been hurled into contact with any hard surface, and she will be all right, is all right, as is the dog, who was sleeping on the quilts and pillows as well. Then you turn back to have another look at your wife, who was closest to the impact of the collision, and from the way she is sitting there beside you, so still, so mute, so absent from her surroundings, you fear that her neck might be broken, her long and slender neck, the beautiful neck that is the very emblem of her extraordinary beauty. You ask her how she is, if she feels any pain and if so where, but if she manages to answer you, her response is muffled, spoken in such a low voice that you cannot hear what she says. By now, you have become aware of noise outside the car, things are happening around you, several things at once, most noticeably the shrieking voice of the woman who was driving the van, who is hopping around in the street, angrily insulting you for causing the accident. (You will later learn that she was driving without a license, that the van did not belong to her, and that she had been in trouble with the police on several occasions—which would account for the vehemence of her anger, since she was afraid of running afoul of the law—but as she stands there shouting at you now, you are appalled by her selfishness, stunned that she does not even bother to ask if you and your family are all right.) As if to blot out the vicious behavior of this woman (who, to use your fathers words, is both stupid and crazy), a small miracle then occurs. A man is walking down Fourth Avenue, the only pedestrian on a thoroughfare that normally has no pedestrians, and against all reason, all logic, all presumptions about how the world supposedly works, this man is dressed in hospital whites, he is a young doctor, a native of India with smooth brown skin and an exceptionally handsome face, and seeing what has just happened, he approaches your car and calmly begins talking to your wife. There is no glass in the window anymore, which allows him to lean in and talk to her in a low voice, his soothing Indian voice, and as you listen to him ask all the standard questions a neurologist would pose to a patient—What is your name? What is the date? Who is the president?—you understand that he is doing everything he can to keep her conscious, to keep her from lapsing into a state of profound shock. Given the impact of the crash, it does not surprise you that for the time being she can no longer see any colors, that the world in front of her eyes is visible only in black and white. The doctor, who is not an apparition, who is a real man (but how not to think of him as a divine spirit who has come to save your wife?), stays with her until the ambulance and emergency team arrive. You and your daughter and Jack have left the car by now, but your wife must not move, everyone is worried that her neck could be broken, and as you stand there watching the firemen cut open the right front door with an instrument known as the jaws of life, you study the demolished car and cannot comprehend why all of you are still breathing. The car looks like a squashed insect. All four tires are flat, splayed out, twisted, the passenger side is caved in, and the back, which you now realize is the part of the car that crashed into the lamppost, is crumpled up, with no glass left in the rear window. Slowly, the paramedics strap your wife onto a board to keep her immobilized, they slide her into an ambulance, you and your daughter are put in another ambulance, and then you all set out for the trauma unit at Lutheran Medical Center in Bay Ridge. After two CAT scans and a number of X-rays, the doctors announce that no bones are broken in your wifes back or neck. Happy, all of you happy, then, in spite of this brush with death, and as you leave the hospital together, your wife jokingly reports that the doctor in charge of conducting the CAT scans told her that she had the most perfect, most beautiful neck he had ever seen.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Paul Auster

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Grandma Ruth, January 30, 2013 (view all comments by Grandma Ruth)
A very thought-provoking book. I would recommend reading it in spring or summer.
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Virginia Sharp, January 2, 2013 (view all comments by Virginia Sharp)
Although this memoir is about the author himself, his observations apply to anyone [perhaps more so to those over 40]. The writing is so seamless, readers of any age will appreciate the flow and currents of his prose. He deal with themes familiar to most -- childhood scrapes [literally], teenage discovery of girls, his parents, work, and home in Brooklyn. But the writing isn't "cute" or "cringe-making"; neither too soft nor violent. You will find yourself stopping and thinking about your own life - and in a good way -- nothing sappy or mawkish here.
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MarkDCart, January 2, 2013 (view all comments by MarkDCart)
The older twin of The Invention of Solitude--but even more thinned-out, into-it and all that it entails.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780805095531
Author:
Auster, Paul
Publisher:
Picador
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Personal Memoirs
Subject:
Biography-Literary
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
20130723
Binding:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Language:
English
Illustrations:
6 CDs, 7 hours
Pages:
240
Dimensions:
8.25 x 5.5 in

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Winter Journal Used Hardcover
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$10.50 In Stock
Product details 240 pages Henry Holt & Company - English 9780805095531 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "'You think,' begins Auster in this quietly moving meditation on death and life, 'it will never happen to you.' But because this is not fiction and Auster (Sunset Park) is as human as the rest of us, 'one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.' The things that happen and which he chronicles are both momentous and mundane, the stuff of everyday life — the childhood baseball games, the succession of New York and Paris apartments (21 in total), even the women longed for, two of whom became wives — and the events that shook and shaped him. From the vantage point of the winter preceding his 64th birthday, Auster lets his body and its sensations guide his memories. There is no set chronology; time and place bleed from one year to another, between childhood and adulthood. His mother's death in May 2002 is one of the most deeply resonant sections, drawing on childhood memories of her as a Cub Scout den mother — though she'd entered the 'Land of Work' — along with her slow decline after the death of her second husband, made all the more painful as Auster relays it in retrospect, after the reader knows his mother is dead. This is the exquisitely wrought catalogue of a man's history through his body, a body that has felt pain and pleasure because ' body always knows what the mind doesn't know.' Agent: Carol Mann." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Review" by , "Auster's memoir courses gracefully over ground that is frequently rough, jarring and painful....But there are summery memories, as well....Some of the loveliest sentences in the text — and there are many — are illuminated by love....A consummate professional explores the attic of his life, converting rumination to art."
"Review" by , "An intensely sensuous account of strange and dramatic events punctuated by jazzy lists of everything from the places he's called home to his favorite foods. Auster's most piercing recollections are anchored to injury and illness, close calls and bad habits, age and...the ghoulish trigonometry of fate....Auster is startlingly forthright, mischievously funny, and unfailingly enrapturing as he transforms intimate memories into a zestful inquiry into the mind-body connection and the haphazard forging of a self."
"Review" by , "This book is called a memoir, but as might be expected of the brilliantly offbeat award-winning author of The New York Trilogy, its not a standard retelling of life events. Instead, as he approaches his mid-Sixties, Auster considers bodily pain and pleasure, the passage of time, and the weight of memory, stirring in reflections on his mother's life and death. High-minded readers will anticipate."
"Review" by , "[A] graceful, moving new memoir...a kaleidoscopic reflection from one of our most important writers as he enters life's winter....Auster's brilliance is in how he makes his deep love for his subjects palpable....With Winter Journal, Auster has given us a remarkable mosaic of his mother and his second wife, the most vital women in his life, while, at the same time, allowing readers to catch glimpses of themselves in the expansive life that's woven together in this stirring memoir."
"Review" by , "[A] remarkable meditation on 'what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one.' Notice his use of the second person? One of the first pleasures of Winter Journal is its feeling of immediacy, as if we are inside Auster's head staring with him into memory's mirror, listening to him talk to himself....Auster catalogs his memories with all the entertaining artistry of the best medieval poets."
"Review" by , "For a reader of a certain age, perhaps a male reader of a certain age, there's a sharp shudder of recognition at the admission of minor vices, of neglect and breakdown, of the slow ravages of the body over time. As someone who shares many of these predilections, I find myself rendered nearly breathless by Auster's willingness to tell."
"Review" by , "Readers of [Paul Auster's] string of beguiling novels, which include The New York Trilogy, The Brooklyn Follies and Sunset Park, will enjoy picking out the autobiographical roots of some of his fiction....Thoughtful ruminations on the nexus between the mundane and the meaningful, the physical and the emotional."
"Review" by , "Auster's memoir recalls his free-spirited mother and the history of his own body. We experience Auster's appetite for food and drink and literature but foremost for sex, as well as the crippling panic attacks that plagued him after his mother's death, the epiphany he experienced watching a dance performance that cured his writer's block, and the intense shame of nearly killing his family in a car accident. Over time, as Auster's body alternately ages and is revitalized, the composition of these elements creates an intimate symphony of selves, a song of the body for all seasons."
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