A gap year, he calls it because he’s learned to speak in tweets. So a gap year he says, at gatherings of his family and at reunions with his friends, and at the job interviews he’s been spending his days going on lately, where I envision bald and bespectacled men and staccato-speaking women sitting across their desks from him and (zeroing in on the blank space between the lines toward the bottom of his resume) asking, in voices that are raising their eyebrows, “I see that you graduated more than a year ago now, but that you haven’t done anything since. So what happened there?”
A gap year, is how he answers them, because he long ago came to realize that this world has little patience for answers that don’t fit cleanly within the parameters of a 140 character tweet. But he’s the son of a close friend of mine (a nephew of sorts) and I’ve read the steady stream of postcards he sent home while he was moseying through that year and the journal he was keeping as he went, so a gap year he may say, but I’d say this: He had a blind date with America, is what happened there, and America didn’t disappoint.
And, with that, I would only just be getting started, because it was a blind date he’d made all the way back in second grade (I would then continue on to explain) while sitting in his classroom at Saybrook Elementary in Ashtabula, Ohio, where, with spring swelling through the propped open windows and his teacher rooted to her spot by the chalkboard, and the wall clock seeming to have stalled at 2:14, he’d opened his social studies book to a painting of Lewis and Clark, minute against a sweeping landscape, with a ribbon of river shimmering beside them and a waterfall cascading in the distance behind them and snow capped mountains soaring toward the heavens on either side.
It had continued to tug at his elbow, that moment, as if to say Now? through all the years that followed, until there’d come an early Sunday morning, during his senior year at Bowdoin, when — after too many sleepless nights of grappling with the question of how to fill the void that lay ahead, since the grad schools most of his classmates were headed toward and the jobs in skyscraping offices with skyrocketing salaries the others were taking held no appeal for him — he’d found himself sitting in the sand on the beach half an hour from campus at the tip of the Phippsburg Peninsula outside Bath, Maine, where the sun had left golden skid marks across the water as it had ascended into a sky that now whirred with wings as sea gulls and starlings and Canada geese and crows and one solitary soaring heron painted the new day onto the canvas of the world, and where he had found himself thinking not only about that second grade moment, but about a moment several years after it, too, when in sixth grade, or maybe it was seventh, he’d first heard Steve Goodman’s City of New Orleans playing on the radio, the saga of that train’s five hundred mile southbound odyssey past houses, farms and fields so calling out to a hunger deep inside him that, that very afternoon, he’d gone to the library to copy down the names of every one of the Amtrak lines that criss-crossed the country so that he could repeat them to himself until he’d memorized them (The California Zephyr, The Pacific Surfliner, The Southwest Chief, The Maple Leaf, The Coast Starlight, The Empire Builder, The Wolverine, The Texas Eagle, The Silver Meteor…, he would whisper into the darkness like a lullaby as he lay in bed at night, hearing the rumbling of the wheels on the rails and the clanging of the bells at the crossings above the dripping of the faucet in his bathroom), and had found himself repeating to himself again there on the beach on that decade later morning, where the brush stroke of crimson at the horizon had been fading toward rose, and where he’d soon heard the memory of that lullaby singing in chorus with the memory of the spirituals his beloved housekeeper, Eula Mae, used to sing to him all the way through grade school on rainy afternoons, when he would do his homework perched on a chair in the laundry room while she ironed his father’s shirts, her voice like honey he could hear, filling him with a homesickness for places he’d never been in a way he hadn’t fully understood, but that had returned to him then, on that Sunday at sunrise, along with the memory of the scent of the iron’s steam and the echo of her deep, quavering vibrato, in the shape of the answer he’d given to that second grade moment as he had stood and brushed off the sand and had headed back to his dorm: Yep, now.
The odors of fish and of salt and of seaweed and distance; with the wind-blurred voices of the sailors high up on the decks of its ocean liners…
Within a week of graduation, he’d bought a dented red Chevrolet pickup truck with money he’d saved from his summer jobs, had outfitted it with a Rand McNally, a sleeping bag, a compass and a copy of Walden, and had hit the road. That’s what had happened there: Him, motoring to the rhythm of Springsteen or Garth, his elbow hanging out the window, his hand catching the breeze, or just rolling down both windows and listening to the sounds of the wherever he’d happened to be making his aimless way through. The Anywhere Anthem, he’d dubbed it: The clacketing of a freight train interwoven with a factory whistle’s call. The drumming of the surf offering its back beat to the bel canto of church bells. The trill of a school bell. The hum of a combine. Those distant out-in-the-summer-air voices where he could never quite make out the words, but had somehow heard the message in their music anyway.
It had been like sliding between the stanzas of America the Beautiful and pulling the lyrics up over his head. That’s what he’ll always remember. That he’d felt the spirit of Woody Guthrie, riding shotgun beside him, as soon as the amber waves of grain had begun to parade past his windows. This land had been his land right then, and he’d laid claim to it every time he’d looked up through his windshield into a velvet sky sapphired with stars, or had pulled over at the edge of a tall grass prairie lit with rain as a thunderstorm rolled in, the denim sky zippered with lightning, the sweet William jitterbugging to the tempo of the wind, or had stood on a riverbank blanketed in mist in the final fading moments before daybreak, with the first piercing calls of invisible birds making it seem as if the water itself was singing.
It had been as though he had been looking at it from above, America, and could see it all, whole, from a distance; as if he could stand in the hush left in the wake of a storm in Colorado and hear the moan of a freight train crossing a trestle somewhere deep in Mississippi and the oboeing of loons across a Minnesota lake, and know that, somewhere in Tennessee, a woman was strapping her baby into his high chair and bending to pull a casserole from her oven, inhaling its steam to test the doneness of her dreams. Would it give her what she’d always hoped it would, this life she was living? he would hear her wonder.
Would hear everyone wonder, it had seemed, as he’d made his slow, winding way westward, stopping to pick up odd jobs every now and again, doing construction work or tending bar or washing dishes in restaurant kitchens, but then always moving on, his ear tuned to the rhythms not only of the land, but also of the lives being lived upon it, a kind of call-and-response composing itself in his mind, so that the memory of the small boy he’d seen spluttering into a bugle in a Fourth of July parade on the Main Street of a southern hamlet, his cheeks puffed with intention, his hope croaking forth, had risen before him in a city four states over when he’d come upon a wilted man leaning up against a lamp post, silking sorrow from his sax in the blue o’clock of dusk, and he’d known that that man was remembering a time when he had croaked forth hope instead.
…he’d come upon teens flirting in the parking lots of Dairy Queens in towns whose names were painted on their water towers, twisting and twirling to a rhythm they believed they’d composed….
And so that the sight of a lineup of cowboys on horseback silhouetted against an amethyst sky at daybreak across the span of an open range had conjured the image of the string of newspaper-reading passengers he’d seen framed within the yellow-green windows of a commuter train that had blurred past him at a railroad crossing a thousand miles earlier, or of the toll booth workers dittoed across the six lanes of an expressway he’d traveled, which had left him musing, as he’d moved onward, about how alike we all are, and yet how far apart from one another, each with our own separate universe sealed and singing in silence within the borders of our skin.
The universes, he’d often found himself imagining into existence, as if composing lyrics for the melodies he’d heard playing around him: He would pass a woman walking beside a man who appeared to be her father, the two of them making their slow way down a tree-lined sidewalk, with him pushing a walker and her leaning in to guide its wheels over the crevices and cracks, and, by the time he’d turned the corner and had left them behind, he would be seeing them on a Saturday afternoon decades earlier instead, with her climbing onto the seat of a pink two wheeler and him the one now leaning in, his hand clamped on the back fender and his mouth close to her ear, promising her that gravity didn’t have a prayer against her daddy’s magic powers.
He would look at the man puddled onto the stool across from him at the bar where he was working and see his carrying on in his shoulders, see his evenings in his eyes, see him as he imagined he would be a few hours later, having braced himself, before opening the door to the room he imagined he rented in a pay-by-the-week motel, against the sucker punch of the silence that would be waiting there for him, and then having sighed down into a chair upholstered in layers of lingering loneliness just inside it. Would see him as he imagined he would be, sitting in front of a flickering TV, but not looking at it; sitting looking at the four white walls of that room instead, but not seeing them either. Seeing, in fact, the vision of a faraway seaport, one in the Bosporus perhaps, with its buoy bells clamoring and clanging and its foghorns trumpeting and moaning and its seagulls cawing and calling and its air sharp with the odors of fish and of salt and of seaweed and distance; with the wind-blurred voices of the sailors high up on the decks of its ocean liners and tramp steamers painting pictures in the air for him of the kinds of destinations where they would soon be heading and where he longed to head, too, knowing that Fortune would be waiting on every pier for him, with her one eyebrow raised and her arms opened wide and her hips swinging to the beat of her welcome, already dancing.
He would see a woman working in the garden in front of a white clapboard house push her bandana back on her hair, check her watch and stand up, just as a little girl came running up the sidewalk and into the driveway, her backpack bouncing behind her, both of her braids unraveling and one of her sneakers untied, and, within the cascade of light across their faces in the instant of their spotting one another, he would glimpse years of patty cake and Pampers and popsicles and play doh and peanut butter sandwiches and patience and prayer.
He would hear a woman in a laundromat say, “Do you think you’ll EVER manage to get it right?” and, in the split second before her husband detonated the whipcrack of his response, he would see a “Hey, it’s me. It’s us. Remember?” flash across his face and be gone.
He would stop to watch a Little League game in a park on a Saturday morning and, when a mother in the stands took out a camera and held it up to the field, he would see the photo she clicked as he imagined it appearing, faded and yellowed and tossed with others like it, in a bin at the rear of an antique shop a hundred years from now, the words baseball game, American Midwest, early twenty-first century scribbled across its back, and then his mind would make an about face and he’d again see the people all around him in the bleachers, cheering for the players, and chatting with their friends, and passing around doughnuts, and scolding their teenagers, and blowing their toddlers’ noses, and popping open soda cans and squealing at the spray, and waving to their neighbors, and answering their children’s questions, and arguing with their spouses, and laughing with their spouses, and high fiving one another, and looking at their watches, and yelling at the ref, every one of them part of a family unlike any other in the history of the world, living a Saturday morning that would never come again.
He’d seen it all, is what had happened there. He’d seen it all, finding an aching beauty everywhere he’d looked, even though some of the lives he’d come upon — in towns where factory whistles blew across boarded up main streets, calling lunch breaks for the ghosts of men now long gone, or in city neighborhoods gasping their last breaths through the toothless grimaces of abandoned buildings with empty sockets where their windows and doors had once been — had been beautiful only in their lostness, or in their loneliness, or in their decay, or in the stories they’d told of the sheen that once was, of the shelf life of hope, and of the defiance that rises up once that shelf life has run its full course.
One day, he’d seen an elderly woman standing at a bus stop, the wooden plank that had been nailed across the doorway behind her spray-shouting NO!!! in a shriek of neon red, the straightness of her back, the quiet folding of her hands around the strap of her pocketbook in front of her, the purple silk peony she’d woven into her hair just above her right ear, saying: yes. Of course yes, is what he’d heard every time he’d come upon teens flirting in the parking lots of Dairy Queens in towns whose names were painted on their water towers, twisting and twirling to a rhythm they believed they’d composed. He’d read their desires, brailled right there in the darkness around them, had heard their secret wishes, whispered up to the first star, had seen the quilt of their yearning, spread from sea to shining sea.
And his own yearning? Had grown quietest, he’d discovered, whenever he’d stepped into a forest, every time he’d stepped into a forest, its cool dimness sighing into place around him, its homeness rising up to greet him as if there were a lamp turned on inside. He had sat for hours, unmoving, his back up against a tree trunk, listening to the wind play the tambourine of the leaves and to the harmony of birdsong so haunting that he’d had to untangle his awe from the sadness of knowing that the moment, the morning, even the memory of it, would be so soon gone.
He’d noticed how the sunlight had slanted through the canopy of blazing leaves on autumn mornings as if passing through stained glass windows, to pool in puddles of scarlet and amber and gold in the brush beneath, and how the snapping and cracking and whistling of winter afternoons had woven themselves together into silence. He’d learned to scout out yellow birch trees by honing in on the wintergreen scent beneath their bark, and cottonwoods by listening for the flutter of their song. He’d visited the six thousand year old bristlecone pines that grow on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, and had stood in the dusk of a wooded California hillside, certain he could hear the ocean exhaling the fog that watered the sequoias and redwoods growing there.
That’s what had happened there. And what happens here, again and again, is that a gap year he says, and his listener says, how nice and, with that, the conversation is done.