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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Scene of the Crime
The reason I was heading to Cleveland, the place I’d grown up but hadn’t seen since I left for college, was to promote my novel, Erased. After all, the book’s about a guy who goes to Cleveland because he gets a postcard from his dead mother, a transcriber, and I myself had been transcribed, in a way, from there to Los Angeles, where I have pretty much lived since then. Aside from the improbable idea that a single reading at a single bookstore might cause any leap in sales figures, I‘d been looking forward to seeing the mythic land of childhood.
My last view of Cleveland had been on a rainy day years ago, from the Greyhound bus station. It was on my last trip out of town to go to college; I was waiting for my bus, and at the same time marveling at the stupidity of anyone who would hang a sign such as I was looking up at. It said: Do not buy a watch from anyone standing beneath this sign. The watches are likely to be stolen or fraudulent.
A man standing beneath the sign caught my eye. “Hey, kid,” he said. “Want to buy a watch?”
Ah, Cleveland, I thought, and still do.
And so, like Henry James, in “The Jolly Corner,” I was about to return to imagine the me who might have been if I’d stayed in town along with the guy beneath the sign, if I had bought that watch, so to speak.
But while initially I had looked forward to this trip, as the days approached the actual visit I felt more and more a sense of dread and enervation. Surely it couldn’t be the fear of seeing my past less glorious than I imagined, because I never imagined it glorious at all. Was it that I had left Cleveland as a boy, innocent in many ways, and now I would be returning as some kind of a monster, knowing more than I wanted to? Was I afraid of discovering the difference between then and now? Or that there was no difference?
To make myself feel better the day before I left I rushed to the local library and checked out three books by Richard Brautigan. I had no idea why I was choosing Brautigan—I hadn’t read him for thirty years. Just to make sure (of what?) I also took along William Gass’s book on Rilke, which I’d already begun.
In the airport I sit next to a woman who is talking sincerely to her suitcase, and it is only after several uncomfortable minutes that I figure out there’s a dog inside. Nonetheless her one-way conversation is so distracting I get up and wind up buying yet another book, Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, which I missed the first time around. I’m a fan of Powers, and this one starts with a Loren Eiseley quote about us, as former fossils, “carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences.” That’s me and Cleveland, all right. And speaking of fossils, the book comes with a plastic bookmark cut-out of Larry King, wearing pinstriped trousers, a black shirt, slightly open, and a tie. Larry’s arms are folded and he looks as if he’s ready to engage me in some sort of intense conversation I do not wish to have. I put the bookmark away and take it out again. He looks the same as before. I think about opening the book to read and finding King there, waiting, wanting to have a chat with me every time. I’m a grown person, but I don’t think I can bear it. I take the bookmark out, and hide it in a newspaper someone has left behind on the table next to my bench.
On the plane I find out that Brautigan is still fresh, fun, and a bit too easy, but reading him again after nearly thirty years makes me think of—oddly—Barthelme, a writer I never would have lumped with him. What they shared was an era where the purpose of writing was allowed to be delight and wonder, as opposed to the revelations of everyday life (misery overcome, and excess brought to heel), which I suppose is what passes for wonder these days. Powers however, is a surprise. Uncannily, The Echo Maker turns out to be about extinction, the difference between being alive and not, and—gulp—returning to the place where one began: practically a catalogue of the concerns of Erased.
In Cleveland, I discover two things: first, that I am lost, and second, no one has a map to help me find the motel where I’m supposed to be. Not the car rental people, not the newsstand across from their counter, not the three gas stations where I stop. “Maps . . .” everyone says, as if maps were the memory of by-gone days, “you don’t have GPS?” When I finally buy one in a Rite-Aid, I open it to discover that the section I need isn’t included. And so for about an hour and a half I enter the sort of dream-wonder-zone I remember from my childhood, where no sooner is a direction given than it’s erased. “Turn left, go three blocks, turn right, then left, drive a couple of miles and look for the Steak ‘n’ Shake.” Huh?
None of this is aided by the fact that everyone is trying to be helpful, sending me off in directions where they think there might be a motel, or possibly a hotel, or just maybe some fuzzily-remembered place to stay. The result of this is a pleasantly panicked time that reminds me of my earliest years of being a child here in Cleveland, a place where I could never figure out where anything was. I drive by familiar roads, see names I half recall, but nothing connects. Then I’m in a place called Brooklyn, a city I didn’t even remember existing, but it must have, because a sign says it is home of the nation’s first seatbelt law (1966). Safety first.
Finally in Brooklyn I discover my motel in an industrial hospitality zone, for lack of a better description, and the ES, which I thought stood for Embassy Suites, actually stands for Extended Stay, with all the allure of a rest home (who thought of that name?). There are two or three motels and a half-dozen restaurants (including the Steak ‘n’ Shake, in sickening candy stripes, like a toppled barber pole). Then a small miracle: I check in, and a tranquil-browed woman at the desk asks what I’m doing here. I tell her I’m doing a book reading.
“Your book?” she wants to know. “Did you write it?”
“Yes,” I say, and then she says, “Oh, well you should know that if you need anything transcribed while you’re here I can do it because I’m a transcriber.”
That night I get dinner (takeout) at a place whose slogan is: “There is no love more sincere than the love of food.” A sad reduction of the human condition, but all things considered, possibly too, too accurate.
The next morning I wake to extreme disorientation and all the signs of near panic. I hugely oversleep, lose my wallet, find it, go to the car and am about to drive off when I see I’ve forgotten the maps I asked the clerk/transcriber to print out for me, so I go back, retrieve them, and shut the car keys in the room, all because, I guess I’m going back to visit the house and elementary school of my childhood, like going back to my most vulnerable self again. I can feel my pulse racing and my breathing getting shallow as never happens. This is the real thing.
The printed-out maps are great and the house is still there. The neighborhood, that always had the look of a slightly feral cat, now looks like a feral cat that has been savaged by one or two feral dogs: alive, but barely. On every other telephone pole there’s a sign: This is a drug free zone. And then, not at all surprisingly, as I’m standing on the sidewalk looking at my old house, a grey heap that resembles nothing so much as a gray pile of concrete slag someone has left behind after pouring a driveway, trying to decide if anyone still lives in it, a guy pedals up on a bike. “Hey buddy,” he says. “Are you looking to score?”
I stand in front of the house, staring at it, waiting, I guess, for some kind of jolt from the past, but there’s nothing. Heart and breath are back to normal.
I decide to visit my elementary school, which is less ravaged, though it appears that I’ve arrived one day before the building is going to be abandoned forever, and then, in a month or so, demolished. The pleasant school nurse offers to give me a tour of the building because, she says, she’s bored. She says she’s just killing time so as not to leave early and make everyone else feel bad. The building is empty of students, but has a few teachers still there, cleaning out their desks. She presents me as a curiosity, and I suppose I am. “This man came all the way from Los Angeles to see us. He says this used to be a great school.” At which remark all the teachers shake their heads and smile in rueful disbelief.
In a way, this is the most heartbreaking moment of the trip—the only heartbreaking part—because for the kids who attend this school, even if it isn’t a great school, it’s hard to hear the teachers admit it. The kids don’t know they are being short-changed; they think this is the way things have to be. Then the PA comes on, just like in the old days, except in the old days it would be to play excerpts of classical music performed by the Cleveland Orchestra. Today it says, “Whoever took the first two sheets on the payroll return them right away or nobody is going to be paid. I mean it.”
It turns out that I remember almost nothing of the school building, rooms, or halls. Out of all that is left, the only thing that strikes a chord is a tiny water fountain, the same one, I would swear, where as I tried to drink kids would come up and try to knock my teeth out against the metal splash guard. How good the school really was, I have no way of knowing. I remember when I was in the first grade the principal pushed a kid down a flight of stairs because he’d made the mistake of walking on the wrong side, breaking the kid’s arm. Every week or two I was hauled into the office for fighting. By grade four I had moved to another district.
On the way back to the motel I decide to drive by the old house once again, and I get out to take a closer look, I suppose as another try to feel something. There’s a grapefruit-sized hole through the front window, which makes me pretty sure that nobody’s there. Around back, I find another window that’s been totally kicked in, and so I boost myself inside. Clearly the house is abandoned. I walk from room to room, where there are layers and layers of leftover high school textbooks, black plastic bags stuffed with clothes someone decided were too much trouble to take, wholes and parts of plastic children’s toys, magazines, loose sheets of paper, and a woman’s suede high heel, size seven—nothing at all to leave a sense of who lived here except for a half-read paperback about a foster child who’s searching for his father. Run-of-the-mill sadness and squalor. The exterior of the house hadn’t seemed smaller, but once inside, each room is terribly and oppressively shrunken, and, as at the school, I can remember almost nothing specific: a banister, the bathroom sink, the feel of walking up the stairs to my bedroom, which I don’t recognize—that’s all—like the scattered memories of a traumatic accident.
Back outside, I walk around the back yard. A neighbor’s dog snarls at me and then resignedly lies down. The one thing I really hoped to find is gone: a Bartlett pear tree I used to climb on, because even today the taste of a Bartlett pear will still bring back Cleveland, my childhood, everything that went with it. Back in front, on the street, a skinny guy in an Indians baseball cap walks by and I feel compelled to blurt, “I used to live there.”
“Yeah,” he says, “you could buy it if you wanted to,” then he laughs, because he knows exactly how true and how unlikely that is.
Finally, that evening, the reading takes place in an upscale, mostly empty bookstore. It’s attended by a handful of people, two of whom I know: the sister of a friend of mine, and my friend from high school, who I’ve reconnected with over the last few years. He’s a former teacher who now takes pictures of flowers (“Doesn’t everybody have a friend who takes pictures of flowers?” a Los Angeles friend said, just a little huffily, when I told her about him. “Not from my neighborhood,” I wanted to say.)
So after the reading, standing in the parking lot of the snazzy shopping center where the bookstore is, my old friend and I keep talking. It starts to rain, and he begins to list everyone who stayed in Cleveland and has died from drugs, from accidents, from sickness, suicide, murder. There are lots and lots and lots of them, and I finally drive in the rain back to the motel, where I spend the entire night unable to sleep. In the morning I get on a plane, and am gone.
I continue to read the Gass book on Rilke, taking my time because it is so shudderingly lovely. Then a day or two later I finish the Powers novel, which turns out to be remarkable in that its characters, as the book goes along, actually become less, not more, likeable. Similar to Cleveland, I suppose.
And to me, I might add.