From Shrinking Solid to Expanding Gas: The Writing Life

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They were rusted and unwieldy, heavy like useful things just aren’t anymore. Carved shakily into the left blade of my father’s scissors it read in magic: COPY BOY.

Born to the newspaper editor of a small town in the south in 1941, he spent the majority of his life with ink under his fingernails. He began writing for the paper at fourteen and when, at seventeen, he was caught skinnydipping in the community pool, his punishment was to write the article. He was unremitting and quick tongued, used words like lascivious and deplorable, and put it smack dab on the front page. His father, a man with a big heart and big principles both, was goddamn proud.

My dad was almost killed once looking down the barrel of a machine gun in occupied Czechoslavakia while working for Radio Free Europe, once by an erupting volcano he stood on the rim of in Hawaii for the sake of reporting on it, and more than a couple times by drug overdoses in San Francisco apartments (which I have the addresses of but have never chosen to actively walk by) and once, at the age of three, by an electrical socket he put in his mouth. A therapist later told him, in words that haunted and writhed in his mind, it was because he was “trying to go home.” But none of these things killed him; he died in his favorite chair, pen in one hand and coffee in the other, of an illness doctors had predicted would kill him more than ten years before. I was nearly sixteen, and quite more than nearly heartbroken.

He used to make me memorize words from the dictionary and use them in a sentence before I was allowed to go out and play barefoot sunset games of cowboys and indians. I was constantly assigned readings and writings, I was given The French Lieutenants Woman for my thirteenth birthday instead of the gift certificates to popular stores in the mall I had requested, I was hailed upon coming home from school with questions regarding my philosophy and personal morale.

The man whose blue eyes and love-of-the-story I inherited was nominated for the Pulitzer prize, wrote for Cesar Chavez’ newspaper El Macriado and organized UFW boycott centers in places they weren’t welcome, saw places in the world most have a hard time imagining. He was regarded by colleagues and friends and lovers as fiercely brilliant and funny; he was also a deeply troubled individual who suffered from pernicious depression and an overly tender and bleeding heart (at least the latter of which, in addition to the blue eyes, I have also inherited).

He died unmarried, thrice divorced, with three hundred and twenty two dollars in his bank account and a large pile of rejection slips from publishers who were very sorry indeed, but could not at this time publish his memoirs, awkwardly titled Growing Old Preposterous. I was deemed at the time too young to handle the cataloging his things, save a few which I cherished: the UFW belt buckle Cesar Chavez had given him, which I wore proudly for years until the metal wore down and would no longer clasp (I wept), a long-unpolished tiger’s eye ring he had worn on his index finger for thirty odd years which is too big for me, a framed photograph of him grinning at his keyboard that had been published in the paper with his Pulitzer nomination, a large standing globe which had been warped by a heater so that some countries were inflated and some depressed and the whole thing spun, as if drunkenly, at a wobble.

Shortly after my nineteenth birthday I received a phone call from a friend of his whom he’d written letters to frequently since 1969. Phil was my father’s biggest fan, a man who loved the stories but wasn’t quite bold enough to chase them himself. He told me that he had the majority of my father’s letters typed up, had been waiting until I was “old enough.” Old enough is a phrase I’ve never made any sense of:  was thirteen old enough to change his bedpans because there was no one else to do it? Was fourteen old enough to see him aphasic in a hospital bed, grimacing through the tubes in his throat, passing me messages in a second-grader’s scrawl that read “WHERE AM I I HATE IT PLEASE GET ME OUT OF HERE?”  Was fifteen old enough to witness him, through the crack in the door, speaking into the bathroom mirror to his friend who’d died a few years prior, anticipating his own departure and practicing for a reunion? “Max ,” I heard him say, saw his bright, dreamy-delusional smile: “I just can’t wait to see you. It’s been so long.”

The letters, which I read hungrily but couldn’t quite digest, then put away for years, are rife with anecdotes and joyous, emphatic exclamation marks, but also pictures of desperation, paranoia and frantic, misplaced groping. They are rampant with monomania: he is constantly sure he has found a theorist that has brought him the final truth about life, or is covering the story of all stories, or has found a woman  whom he’ll be with forever. In some letters, it’s indicated he has attached large pieces of writing and begs: “Please. Read my new science fiction novel, Holoworld.” But the next note pleads to ignore that draft, that the project is being reworked entirely.

My father once gave a good friend who needed to get out of town his car even though all the guy could offer him were his boots. They were, he said later and with a grin, damn fine boots. His closing salutation was often “Yours in the apocalypse.” He professed to missing everyone he’d ever known and loved, including his sixth grade girlfriend. He oscillated between an all-consuming ambition and the deep fear that comes from feeling one has failed to use it correctly. He was endlessly fascinated by galaxies besides our own. In 1980, in that rare state of melancholy which manifests itself as teleological, he wrote to Phil:

I’m a reporter with no story to write this afternoon, a man with a lot of past and no future; flesh-and-blood that thinks it’s ephemera… Space is not empty!  That’s the biggest news I can think of.  I want to be expanding gas, not shrinking solid.  I want to have an effective dream.

A few years after I received the letters, I drove to Sacramento to get the rest of his things from his sister, who had been keeping them for me until, once again, “I was old enough.” I had been old enough for quite some time, probably, but old Victorian apartments in San Francisco where I live are cramped; they don’t allow for the storage of ghosts. There were photographs upon photographs of people I’ll never know the names of, a marine sextant from the year he spent at sea, a blown-up print of my grandfather at his typewriter (cigarette clenched in his teeth and too involved to look at the camera), unpublished manuscripts, drawings I’d done at the age of three, every report card of mine and of his, every newspaper article he’d ever written.

 

While of course I’m fascinated by so much proof of his life because it’s all paternal insight I have left, I’m interested in this excess of carbon for reasons that extend far beyond my specific grief or aching lack. Like my father, I am a writer. Like him and every writer I’ve ever met, I’m driven by the love of a story that, in growing older, I’ve realized I have to monitor and constantly evaluate. I’m aware I have a proclivity for bringing people into my life not for their kindness or essential integrity, but for details I find compelling and weave into chains that don’t always, well, make sense. I have a hard time saying no to situations that will prove indelibly memorable.

I once swam in the ocean by Coney Island until sun-up with three intoxicated New Jersey cops. I have scaled more than a few terribly unsafe old buildings to see how the view was.  I am not allowed in the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco ever again, because I couldn’t resist sneaking into their 1920’s pool to float on my back, gaze up at the rounded all glass ceiling and the reflection of my body mingled with the images of tall buildings. I have known and easily loved a disgustingly charming law student, a melancholy and eminently sweet son of a Tibetan monk, a circus performer, an alcoholic who carried toffee and fireworks in her purse who burned herself and showed me the wounds, a wildly respected pianist who called on tour from all over the lonely world and spoke so gently I had to ask him to repeat himself, a staunch Republican who was secretly a brilliant poet, a lost preacher’s son with a huge confused heart, more than one brilliant woman in an abusive relationship who, upon being hit by her lover, hit them back harder.

And is it worth it? Was it for my father, is it for me, for nearly every writer I’ve met, whose default answer is “Yes”? Am I exhausted? Certainly, sometimes. There’s a prodigious part of me that wants, like so many people do, a small yellow house. A good dog, probably a boxer,  that will not mind when my son Liam, a natural scientist, rides him and pulls his ears. A man who is scary-smart, who makes me laugh until I have to run to the bathroom, and loves me more for appearing wrinkles and sagging breasts. There’s almost as large a part of me, however, that worries that all these stories and the yellow house–the hardwood floors of which we lovingly refinish ourselves then have loud, uncomfortable sex on–are mutually exclusive. Or that I’ve met that man but given him up for the sake of a few more years of adventures on rooftops and a whole catalogue of Greyhound trains going everywhere for not much money. Or that once the paint has dried in our kitchen, which we fell in love with for the gas stove and large old windows, I will begin to long once again for a new story. I know quite a few older writers who have forgone the yellow house, who are still on those glittering rooftops and riding those trains, and I can’t decide if I love them or if they absolutely terrify me.

For all his accomplishments, my dad died generally unknown, and at the end of his life, emaciated and ever-attached to an oxygen tank, the only work he could find was as a cashier at gas station–he pretended he was doing it for the stories until he believed it. In the journals of the last years of his life, there is not one shred of anger. Remorse is present but quiet, and it is part of the gratitude. He wrote with quiet wonder of his knees giving way, his lungs crying out, his body slowly submitting to a different author. He wrote that he should have died many different ways many years before, and so even walking half a block in the sun, without falling down, without having to take a break, with the thoughts of his whole life behind him, felt so glorious it made him shiver and weep.

My father’s name was David Lee Alcott. He was born on April 4, 1941. He loved jazz and Neruda and brown liquors straight. When I found him, the record on the turntable had turned to static and seemed to be listening to him, instead of the other way around.

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Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Kathleen Alcott’s first words were “Ooh, the lights,” and they will probably be her last. Her debut novel, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, is forthcoming from Other Press in September of 2012. She came of age in Northern California, studied in Southern California, fell in love with San Francisco, hid for a while in Arkansas, and presently resides in Brooklyn. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Slice Magazine, American Short Fiction, Rumpus Women Vol. 1, and The Bold Italic. A copywriter by day, she is currently at work on her second novel, a book that traces the lives of four tenants of an apartment building in New York City and their rapidly deteriorating landlord. Excerpts and thoughts at kathleenalcott.com. More from this author →