Sunday, November 1, 2009

What Now?

“What kinds of things do you write?” asked Martha...
”I’m not exactly a writer,” Sam corrected her. “I’m a listener. I’m listening for clues about day-to-day life on the planet.”
“But do you write things down?” asked Jessie.
“Of course,” said Sam.
“Are you writing a book?” demanded Martha
“No,” said Sam. “I’m saving stories. So a hundred years from now people will know how it was with us…”

---Nancy Willard
Sister Water

I have finished writing She Bets Her Life, the book on women and compulsive gambling. Seal Press accepted it last Tuesday to be published April 2010. In some ways, I put a year of research and nine months of writing into it; in other ways, fourteen years of my thoroughly enjoyable gambling addiction carried the book more than any of my discipline or effort.
I loved playing slot machines. I wouldn’t have quit except that my body told me, “Stop. Now.” After seven months of being clean---it would have been a year and a half except for an anger-driven episode in a Yakima casino, an episode marked by rapidly escalating boredom and rapidly de-escalating numbers in my savings account---I know a little more about the chimera of the thoroughly enjoyable.
I look back now and see that while my casino time was mostly childlike bliss, the days between my binges were not. That is the nature of addiction. A real addict only feels normal when they are using. In between my casino runs, I was a deeply irritable, mean and ungrateful woman – a woman terrified of her aging, a woman longing for the childhood she barely had.
So last week I finished the book, the press accepted it and I waited to feel the rush. There was nothing. Then I remembered the nineteenth of the twenty questions Gamblers Anonymous asks its members: “Did you ever have an urge to celebrate any good fortune by a few hours of gambling?”
Yes. Always. For fourteen years.
Not this year. Instead of grabbing my slot cards, twenty $5 bills and driving to Reno, I ate as though I’d just lived through a famine and played video games till my fingers ached. It didn’t do the trick. I turned off the computer, walked out to the front stoop, looked up at the cloud-veiled stars and said, “What now?”
“What now?” and “What the fuck.” are the addict’s mantras. But, this time I asked the question not of my addiction, but of toothy Mahakala, the ogre deity who eats everything and gives much. I knew it was time to do nothing.

The next day I felt bleak. I haven’t felt depressed in years. Panic is my m.o. I moved slowly through the day, planted poppy seeds for the Spring, re-potted an avocado, opened the freezer door at least five times to contemplate the Haagen-Dazs coffee ice cream and closed the door firmly – it was what my pal, Michael and I call a yuppie crisis.
I waited till late afternoon to walk downtown. Bend’s hub of local shops and restaurants lies adjacent to Drake Park, a beautifully designed haven of grass, flowers and pine trees along the Deschutes River. I mailed my letters, stopped at Dudley’s Bookstore to talk with my friend Terri, the owner and took the side alley to the park. I hoped sitting by the river would remind me of what matters – and if it didn’t, there would be the silvery water and ducks laughing at the setting sun.
I walked across the grass toward the steps that go down to the river bank. A woman was on the path ahead of me. She walked slowly, not with the stroll of a desperately laid-back tourist, but with the careful steps of a person whose joints were stiff with arthritis. She had pure white hair. She wore a black sweater, gray slacks and beige walking shoes. Her back was straight as a young dancer’s---and she carried a long-stemmed orange carnation carefully in front of her.
She came to the steps and started down. I held back. I am a woman who walks alone at twilight and midnight. I know what I feel when someone comes up behind me. She reached the dirt path at the bottom of the steps. I started down.
The woman stopped and stood at a railing between the path and the river. She looked out over the water. The white hair. The black sweater. The perfect orange carnation. I walked toward her. She turned. We smiled.
“What now?” came into my mind.
“May I tell you something?” I said to her.
“Of course.”
“I saw you up above. I wondered why a woman would be walking the path this time of day carrying a carnation. I thought to myself, ‘There is a story there.’”
“My son died here.” Her face and voice were gentle.
“I’m so sorry.” I touched her arm. She didn’t pull away.
“He was on an outing with his church group,” she said. “He came down here to be alone. He loved it here. ‘It is so quiet,’ he always said. There were three young men. They wanted money for drugs. When he wouldn’t give them any, they beat him to death.”
She paused. “I don’t live here in Bend, but my daughters do. We always come here each year. They were both busy so I told them I would go to the park by myself. They were worried, but I told them I wasn’t afraid.”
I didn’t ask her the logical questions. There didn’t seem to be any. “How old was he?” I say. I imagine a boy in his teens or twenties.
“Forty,” she said. “He left behind a wife and a teen-age daughter.
“At the trial, my grand-daughter stood up and faced the killers. ‘You took my father from me,’ she said and she read a piece she’d written about her dad – about how they would go camping together and how much he loved the quiet places. I was so proud of her.”
We looked out over the water in silence for a few minutes. I said, “You are going to put the carnation in the river, aren’t you?”
She smiled again. “I am. It’s for him. You see, we never know how long we have – with another.”
We embraced. She turned back to the water. I walked along the dirt path. The light had gone silver, the water dark. I listened to the rowdy ducks. I wanted the light and cold air and the ducks’ laughter to last forever. I thought of how I cling to everything, how I would capture every sweetness if I could.

A few hours later, I made my supper. I read while I ate. Nancy Willard. Sister Water. I found the words I hadn’t known I was looking for and understood that capturing is what a writer does, for as long as it takes to witness, remember and record. After that, there is only this:

“…look over there,” said Sam. “A turtle.”
The turtle was making its way slowly toward the water like a man exercising for his health.
“Oh let’s catch him!”
But Sam made no move to catch the turtle. He kept on paddling in dreamy circles around Stevie. “I wonder if he’s carrying a message,” he said at last. “He’s headed straight for us.”
“Let’s catch him,” said Stevie. “Come on, Sam. Let’s catch him.”
“If you catch him, he can’t do his work.”

Sister Water