“So what if you’re trying really hard to do the job right—you think the world gives a damn? Stop whining, you red-faced little twerp! This is what failure feels like. Get used to it.”
Me at Forty-Nine
It is my earliest memory. Which means, in a sense, it is the moment when I—that is, the self that I know today—came into being. It is the earliest retrievable link in my chain of consciousness.
I’m sitting on the floor in my room, getting dressed for—for what? preschool maybe? kindergarten? Anyway, I’m trying to tie my shoes, and I don’t understand why it’s not working. This is how you do it, this is exactly how you do it. You cross this lace over that lace, then you slip it underneath and pull both ends, you make a loop, you…. I’ve done it before, I know this is right, so why isn’t it working? It’s absolutely infuriating; I’m boiling with frustration. What is wrong with these laces?
I didn’t think about this experience for years, but it was lodged in my long-term memory. Later, as an adult, I would sometimes be drifting through my childhood memories when it would step out of the fog unexpectedly. Something about it must have resonated with me, or it would have evaporated like thousands of other experiences that came before it and after it. But it didn’t, it stayed with me, and now I see it through the lens of the person I have become.
“Why can’t the world behave?” my nascent self wanted to shout. “Stop thwarting me!”
My self today is more resigned. “So what if you’re trying really hard to do the job right—you think the world gives a damn? Stop whining, you red-faced little twerp! This is what failure feels like. Get used to it.”
* * * * *
One time when I was a cab driver in Houston, I picked up a woman who was middle-aged and probably always semi-drunk. We drove to a couple of places so she could get money and liquor, then back to her home. She had lost two sons and had led a hard life, and was doing what she could to survive. As she got out of the cab she said to me, “I’m forty-nine, you know that? That’s pretty good, isn’t it? A person lives to forty-nine these days he’s lucky. When you get forty-nine, you remember me.”
I’m forty-nine now and I do think about her sometimes. My life has been nothing like hers—no dead children, no alcoholism—but still, I think she had it right: the years have a way of wearing you down.
* * * * *
I’ve written a book. It’s called A Human Sampler: Portraits of Adults with Intellectual Disabilities. I’ve written four drafts and put five years’ worth of work into it, spread out over the last seventeen. I think it’s good, but so far it’s been rejected by ninety-three agents, publishers, magazines, and literary journals, so maybe it’s not so good.
* * * * *
Lately I’ve been rummaging through boxes of old papers—letters I wrote to my family, essays, stories, journals—the accumulated deposits of my mind over the last three decades. All I intended to do was organize the papers a little better, but sentences from the past, like old snapshots, kept drawing me in, leading me on; and what I thought would be a quick chore turned into a month-long rumination. I’m proud of much of the writing, fond of most of it—but then I get discouraged, I wonder why I never amounted to anything.
* * * * *
I used to read a lot of books. Now I start a lot of books, but rarely finish them. I’ll read fifty or a hundred pages, then find another book that interests me more. Usually on top of my bookcase I have a stack of unfinished books. I keep thinking I’ll get back to them but I never do; eventually I just reshelve them. It’s the same with my writing: I don’t seem to finish things any more. My mind is fragmented, skittish; I’ve lost my focus. It’s pathetic.
* * * * *
A clearing has begun to develop on top of my head, near the back. The hair on the sides is still full, but I’m worried about the front. A few years ago, the hair there was densely packed; now the space between adjacent hairs is big enough for a horsefly to walk through.
* * * * *
In the late 1960s I was captain of my high school speech and debate team. I won seven trophies and seventeen certificates. Back then it seemed like the natural order of things: if you do good work, people will notice; achievement and recognition were as inseparable as conjoined twins. In the ensuing years I rarely thought about the awards, and for decades they were packed away in a box. As I got older, however, I gradually lost faith in the connection between achievement and recognition; their couplings now seem as rare and as uncertain as the mating of California condors.
Several years ago I got out the box and unpacked the trophies. They had suffered some over time: one had a penholder but no pen; the little windup clock that was attached to one trophy no longer worked; and two of the nameplates had come off. The tallest trophy was blue and gold, with a wooden base. There probably wasn’t three bucks’ worth of materials in it, but I liked the way it looked and I liked the memory of winning it. I put the trophies on display in my study, a few feet from where I’m sitting now. It’s like applause from the past, I suppose, but to me it’s better than no applause at all.
Me and Money
I’ve been working since 1972—as a steelworker, construction superintendent, and teacher, among other things—but have never made as much as $20,000 in a year. In the last three years, 1997-1999, I’ve earned a total of $11,843—all as a part-time tax preparer. The job has one major benefit: it allows me to spend at least part of the year writing. The owner of the tax office says my work is excellent, but I earn less than just about everyone whose tax returns I prepare, including Burger King order takers and Kmart clerks. Theoretically I make $6.50 an hour, but considering all the unpaid hours of class and study I have to put in, it’s really been only $4.92—slightly less than Montana’s minimum wage. I have a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees, but my academic success has not been convertible into currency. I work hard, but in financial terms, I guess you’d say I’m an underachiever.
* * * * *
My wife Dale makes $37,080 a year as a licensed clinical social worker. Almost $12,000 of that we never see; it goes for taxes, retirement, and health insurance. Of the remaining $25,296, over the last year we spent $8400 on rent, $1568 on utilities, $2983 on Dale’s student loan (sixteen more years and we’ll have it paid off), $499 on life insurance, $79 on renters’ insurance, $946 on car insurance, $300 on license tags, $423 insuring a house we built in the mountains, $311 on property taxes for the house, $716 on gas, $5139 on food, $2196 on credit card balances from the past, $1286 on our daughter’s piano lessons/art/soccer, and $930 on doctors and dentists. Already this is almost $26,000, and that doesn’t even count clothes, vehicle maintenance, house repairs, travel, and occasional big-ticket items (clarinet for our daughter, treadmill for my wife, vacuum cleaner for me)—all of which we try to cover with my piddling income as a tax preparer. We aren’t living in a roach-infested tenement and we don’t eat in soup kitchens, but we aren’t exactly prospering, either.
* * * * *
Money. My wife earns it, I manage it, together we squabble over it. Between paychecks, our bank account is like a car running on fumes; I keep wondering if we’ll make it to the next gas station. It’s Sunday now, payday’s not until Thursday, and we’ve got $1.70 lying around the apartment and $10.15 in the bank. Dale has to get a pair of stockings for work ($4); she has to chip in $10 for a going-away party; Kari has to pay for her school yearbook tomorrow ($13); and we’ve got almost nothing to eat—at the very least we have to buy yogurt, bread, peanut butter, and milk (total of $12). All of which might not be so bad if I didn’t know that every day between now and Thursday will bring its own list of things that we absolutely must have but absolutely cannot pay for.
Me and Writing
Immortality is kind of an issue with me. I could switch to a real career, earn a real income, but that wouldn’t leave any time for writing; and giving up writing would be like watching my life evaporate. I have thoughts, I have experiences, they matter to me; I can’t just let them disappear. Writing turns them into something concrete, something I can revisit, something I can preserve—and something that can preserve me. To slog through the dense thicket of thoughts and feelings and experiences, to find the ones that are worth saving, to extract them from this thicket so they can be clearly seen, and finally to transmute them into words, the right words—I find this an arduous undertaking, but one I feel obligated to pursue. To run from it would be a self-betrayal. “Don’t. Stop. Writing,” I tell myself, before moving from a plainspoken decree to an oracular one: “Bring forth that which is within you.”
The summer after we graduated from college, Dale and I bicycled from Santa Fe to Houston—1118 miles, most of it on two-lane highways baked by a relentless sun. Sometimes we’d spend hours riding from one nothing-town to the next, but these towns were our oases: they meant Coke machines and shade. Early in the trip, on a day we biked fifty-seven miles, our only such respite was Yeso, New Mexico. When I was going through old papers a while back, I ran across my notes on the trip. Near the top of a list marked Memorable People, I had written, “Gasoline kid in Yeso.” Probably we stopped at a gas station to get something to drink, and a young guy who worked there said something memorable—only now I don’t remember it. I don’t remember anything about him. The incident meant something to me then, but now it’s as though it never happened. I want to hop on a bike, I want to go back to Yeso, I want to find this guy, I want to ask him what he said to us twenty-seven years ago; but I don’t have the time, I don’t have the money, I’d never find him, he wouldn’t remember, he’d think I was insane. I should have written about him when I had the chance; I should have preserved his words. I let the moment slip away, and now it’s gone forever.
Only writing can save me from oblivion. If the things I see and the way I see them live on, then I’ll live on; if they don’t, I won’t. And that’s as demoralizing a prospect as I can imagine: being swallowed by the black hole of time, as though I’d never been.
* * * * *
Small talk makes me nervous, so I avoid people a lot: other tax preparers, parents at soccer games, people my wife works with. I make up lame excuses for missing company get-togethers; I dread coffee breaks, and try to find some pretense for staying at my desk; in a store, if I spot someone I know, I act as if I’m utterly absorbed in my shopping. Probably people figure I’m either arrogant or misanthropic, but that’s not it; I just don’t want to have to discuss my dead-end career, to explain what the hell I’m doing with my life. (What the hell am I doing with my life?)
“What do you do after the tax season ends, Glenn?”
“Uh, I’m a writer.”
“Oh really? Gee, that’s great. I’ve never known a real writer before.”
You still don’t. Actually, that’s what I’d be thinking, but what I’d say is this: “Oh. Uh-huh.”
“What kind of writing do you do?”
“Well, right now I’m working on a couple of essays. Before that, I wrote a nonfiction book.”
“Wow. Has it been published?”
Are you kidding? I haven’t even found a publisher who’ll read it. “No, I’m trying to find an agent for it first.”
“How’s that going?”
Not too great. I’ve been sending out query letters and sample chapters since 1984. So far I’ve gotten ninety-three rejection letters. “Not too bad. It’s just kind of a slow process.”
“Well, good luck with it. Have you written anything else?”
“Mostly what I’ve done in the past has been shorter stuff—magazine articles, things like that.”
“Really? Anything I might have read?”
Not unless you happened to pick up either the summer 1978 issue of Colorado Quarterly or the March/April 1981 issue of Montana Magazine. “Probably not. I’ve been going through kind of a dry spell lately.”
“Well, that happens, I’m sure. Does writing pay pretty good these days?”
“Yeah, it’s not bad. A couple of my articles have gotten up around the four- or five-figure range.” Specifically, $75.00 for one, $100.00 for the other.
“Wow, that’s impressive.”
* * * * *
For years you sit at your desk, writing a book. You have no publishing credentials, no scholarly credentials, no journalism background. You are a literary nobody. The only thing you have is your own belief that you can do it. You’re not bringing in any income, but you and your wife scrape by on hers. You know that once the book is finished, you’ll get your money.
But you don’t. You find the publishing world impenetrable. You spend years tramping from agent to agent, publisher to publisher. You buy books that tell you which agencies or publishers might be most receptive to your work, which persons to contact, how to present your case. You try it all. None of it works. No one cares about your book. Your folder full of rejection letters grows ever thicker. “Thank you for your interest, but we wouldn’t be the right agency for you.”
You decide to start over. The problem, you figure, is that your book isn’t good enough—that’s why no one’s interested. If you write it again, if you make it cleaner and stronger, they’ll want it for sure. You go back to your desk. You put several more years into your book. You labor over every sentence. The book is a collection of character portraits, and you strive to make each one a work of art. When you’re done, when it’s as close to perfect as you can get, you start making the rounds again. Please, sir, may I have a paycheck now? Please, ma’am, could I have a cup of gruel? You knock on the doors of ninety-three people—ninety-three people who have income—and you say, please, madame or monsieur, may I have a little income, too?
“Thank you for your interest, but we wouldn’t be the right agency for you.”
This is what a writer does; this is what the writing life is all about. To be a writer is to trudge, slump-shouldered, from door to door, rattling your tin cup. A writer is a groveling little salesman who peddles words that nobody wants.
* * * * *
When I was in college, a friend of mine once remarked that I possessed a kind of fireproof confidence. No matter what obstacles came my way, I always knew that in the end I would prevail. Over the years this confidence has shriveled up like an old pumpkin, but traces of it still remain. Although the literary world has been unanimous in its rejection of my book, in my head I sometimes hear the voice of a contrarian—less forceful than it was many years ago, less sure of itself, but still there. When everything around me says, “You’re destined to fail,” this voice quietly but persistently says, “Your day will come.”
I almost never remember the dreams I have at night, but there’s one I had in college that I still think about. There was a small valley surrounded by mountains, and a group of us was climbing one of them. The man in the lead slipped, dislodging some rocks. We shouted at him, but it was too late: a rockslide was coming toward us. We ran down the mountain and across the valley, then started up the other side. Suddenly, over the top of the mountain we were now scrambling up came a torrent of water—an unspeakable and inexplicable flood. We were washed down the slope; in a few moments the valley would fill to overflowing; and I knew that all my companions were dead. But I said to myself, “I have faith,” and I knew that I wouldn’t die, no matter where the water might carry me. At that moment I felt—physically felt, even in my sleep—the incredible buoyancy that this faith gave me; and I knew that if I maintained this faith, my head would effortlessly remain above water; and I knew that I would maintain it. And I knew that after many years I would find my way back home, an old man; and all my friends and family would exclaim, “But how could you be here—you died in that flood!” But I had faith.
Me and Our House
Our house in the mountains has been under construction for over twenty years. In 1978 Dale and I bought some land in Montana. That summer we moved out there, put up a tent, and started building. We designed the house ourselves and have done almost all the work on it. Our plan was to finish the outside of the house by November, then live there in the winter and finish the inside.
It didn’t work out that way. Heavy rains, a muddy road, a sloping homesite full of buried boulders, our relative slowness as builders, the fact that we weren’t using power tools, our dwindling funds—all of this put us way behind schedule. By the time we finished the foundation and the floor and had framed a few walls, there was three feet of snow on the ground and we were done for the year.
The next summer we tried again. Five more months living in a tent, five more months working twelve-hour days. This time we finished framing and sheathing the outside walls, got the rafters up, and did the roofing. Since then, we’ve done whatever work we could during the summers—the decks one year, siding another, later the windows, doors, outside stairs, stain, and so on. Most years we haven’t had a lot of time to put into the house, and we haven’t had much money. The last ten years we haven’t been able to do any new work on it—just recaulking and restaining, plus repairing the damage done by woodpeckers and humans.
What we have now is the shell of a house, protected from the weather but unfinished on the inside—no interior walls, no plumbing, no heat, the studs and rafters still exposed. The winter that we once dreamed of spending out there—the rock outcrops and fir trees blanketed with snow, warmth radiating from the wood stove, a herd of elk passing through our valley—never came to be. Perhaps some day, for our daughter, it will.
* * * * *
Between our apartment in town and our house in the mountains there are sixty-two miles of highway and fourteen miles of dirt road. One time when we drove out there last summer, we found that the house had been broken into. The three outside doors are all handmade; we designed and built them in 1985 using cedar siding, with ¾” plywood cores for rigidity. They’re 2½” thick, with deadbolt locks and old-style handles and hinges. To build and fit each one—including the hardware, the jambs, and the oak threshold—took us a full week. To bust one of them up—the deadbolt bent, the jamb badly split—took someone maybe a minute. It felt like the world’s way of showing its disdain for our efforts.
The isolation of the house makes it vulnerable to intruders, so we don’t leave anything of value there. Our hand tools, our propane stove, our lantern, our radio—we haul these things back and forth each trip. Whoever broke in didn’t take anything, but he did rifle through our boxes of work clothes and books. And not far from the damaged door, on one of our tongue-and-groove floor boards, our visitor deposited a medium-size turd. We threw it out—it was dry as a brick by the time we found it—and cleaned the board as well as we could.
* * * * *
There’s a creek bed by the side of the house. Most of the time it’s dry, but in late spring the snowmelt and the rain produce a short-lived, meandering creek. Pokey Creek, we call it—and our place, Pokey Creek Homestead.
“Quite a hacienda you’ve got here!” a woman once hollered at us from her truck. With its distinctive features, our house often catches the attention of passersby: the rows of telephone poles on which it’s built; the tower that protrudes above the rest of the house and looks out in all directions; the parallel shed roofs; the eaves angling upward, piercing the cobalt blue sky; and the imposing front wall, ten feet in the air and eleven feet tall. If you enter the house around dusk, with twilight seeping in through its thirty-four windows, you’ll just be able to make out the long cedar beams, the high sloped ceiling, and the sheer openness of the place; it has an almost spiritual quality. One time my brother Hal and I drove out there at night, and as we went inside the house, illuminated only by moonlight filtering through the thin muslin curtains, he said it was like entering a cathedral.
Yet every moment I’m in that house it eats away at me. It’s situated in a small, beautiful valley, but neither the reddish-brown rock outcrops on the slope above Pokey Creek, nor the green wall of Douglas firs on the hill facing our front deck, nor the purple silhouettes of the distant mountains can overcome the profound sense of discouragement I feel when I’m out there. If our house is like a cathedral, then it’s a cathedral we can’t finish, a house we can’t live in, a cathedral we can’t afford. If it’s a monument to anything, this extraordinary structure, it’s a monument to failure, to a dream we couldn’t make real, a dream that was postponed and postponed and postponed again, until gradually I realized that the postponement wasn’t a postponement, it was a cancellation. The dream had passed away so quietly and so furtively it was years before I knew it.
* * * * *
There must be a way out of this. Somehow other people get their books published and their houses built; somehow other people have bank accounts that aren’t always empty. There’s probably a solution right around the corner, if only I could see it—a different approach, a different attitude, a different something. I must be looking in the wrong direction; I need to turn my head.
We share our house with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of flies. They don’t really harass us; basically, they congregate around the windows in the southwest corner of the house, trying to get out. Still, they drive me nuts with their incessant, infernal buzzing and the ugly spots they leave on the glass. I can’t figure out where they all come from. Our house is tightly built and doesn’t have any obvious points of entry. Inside, we keep the garbage covered and our food in coolers and closed containers; and when we go back to town, we never leave any garbage or food up there. We’ve tried using fly strips, but they capture such a small percentage of the population it’s hardly worth it.
Early fall is the worst. Before September, the flies exult in the sun and the heat and have no interest in coming inside; after October, it’s cold, and they’re all dead or dormant. One sunny September day I was up at the house by myself and the buzzing got into my head, it’s like the flies were in my ears, I couldn’t stand it any more, and I grabbed a flyswatter and started swatting like a madman, whap-whap, whap-whap-whap-whap-whap, not stopping until I’d silenced every single one, fifty or sixty in all, leaving behind a trail of black, gooey bodies splattered on the glass, on the windowsills, on the floor. Afterward, as I cleaned up the mess, my anger dissipated and my blood pressure gradually went down to normal human levels. Then I heard the buzzing of a solitary fly. Looking up, I spotted him, along with another one walking on a window. I shook my head. You just can’t win.
A couple of weeks later I went back up to the house and was greeted by a new generation of frantic, imprisoned flies. It sounded like I was walking into a hive. The windowsills were black with their dead brethren—dead from hunger, I guess, or old age. They’re nauseating to look at, so the first thing I did was sweep them up—a dustpan full of crunchy, loathsome bodies.
All they want to do is get outside. They crawl over the windows, hour after hour and day after day, endlessly scrutinizing each square inch, trying to reach the daylight that draws them. They know where they want to go, they can see where they want to be; they’re a windowpane away from freedom. It’s not like I don’t try to help them. Our windows are all fixed glass, so I can’t open them, but I do open the front door, which is about ten feet away. I point to the door, I shoo the flies in that direction, but they’re too stupid to get the message. Their buzzing rises to a higher, more frenetic, pitch; they think I’m trying to thwart them; they return to the windows with a vengeance. “Look!” I say. “Over there! What you want is right over there!” But I can’t get them to turn their heads. There’s warmth and light right here, they figure; this must be the way out.
I know how they think: if only we keep doing what we’re doing, if only we do it a little longer, a little harder, we’ll find what we’re looking for. But the glass remains stubbornly impenetrable; and sometimes a fly, infuriated, will start buzzing loudly, angrily, then launch himself full speed into the pane, two or three times, bap-bap-bap, as though the intensity of his rage would overwhelm the glass—until finally the blows knock him silly. Docile now, beaten, he lands on the pane and staggers in circles, resuming his search for a nonexistent opening.[Written 1998-2000. Revised 2019.]
[A longer version of the cab-driving story appears in “Hacking Houston—The Passengers (I).”]