Closed for Business
The weekend after I got hold of the Bobbins novel, I started reading it. Like I said, I was confused. And intrigued. I wanted to just go up to the man and ask him, Hey, what’s this all about? But then it hit me hard one night as I was reading. My world was ruptured and important ideas began to come to mind.
Sure, as soon as I opened the book, I was consumed. That much I know. I wanted desperately to understand this work. But as it started to make sense to me, as I started to see the craft jump out from the page, I heard music. And so I was on my way to Brooklyn, on my way, actually, to Ozzie’s, to get to Bobbins and tell him thank you thank you thank you for reminding me what writing is supposed to look and sound and feel like and for showing me what’s important. There, on the train, on my way downtown, I heard music still and this was while re-reading. No, the music wasn’t angelic, but it was beautiful, sad music. And then I got upset and depressed and closed the book and thought about what I was doing in school, at thirty-eight, with barely any time to write anymore. And then I reminded myself I was in school to work on writing and then it occurred to me: all that I write is weak. I asked myself, sitting on that nonmoving train, what comes out anyway? What is it?
I felt like what I had been writing these last twelve years or so—from when I first sat to type a story about, among other things, a morbidly obese man who lunges at his friend to lick a speck of sauce off her cheek, to my latest pieces which are, I think, experimental—has been absolutely self-indulgent, overwritten, morbidly trite vanilla that I wouldn’t spoon-feed to my worst enemy. There I sat on the train as it was stuck at Ninety-Sixth Street wiping my eyes and thinking about my nieces and nephews and my sisters and their husbands. They worked. They were responsible. They had families. They lived real lives. Me? I didn’t even have bookshelves!
I am still a student. Divorced. I’d spent two years in South Korea, fucking around and keeping track in a journal of all the things I didn’t do, and my writing hadn’t found itself anywhere, hadn’t improved. In fact, it got worse. I suck! I cannot even re-read most of my material before submitting it to workshop.
I can, however, read and re-read Bobbins. And that’s what I was doing on the train. Somewhere in Bobbins was the key to whatever world I needed to open. I obsessed over a passage for three or four readings. The writer has this gracefulness on the page which comes through so subtly and then he violently shifts the landscape, or, I should say, his positioning of the narrative eye shifts so suddenly that it feels violent and the effect is visceral.
“Papa,” the boy, a mere fifty-seven pounds of innocence and emptiness, called, expectantly, as he stared down the abyss, the dark, sullen, frightful shaft in which, for the last fifteen years, his father had been working, stubbornly maintaining the conviction that there was something to be gained, something to be taken that no one yet had the salt to claim.
The pleas intensified. Papa’s dead, the boy thought. Fatalist. Optimist. At ten years-old this boy already knew death. His mother. His three sisters. A brother. Dead. The miller’s daughter and her dog. Dead. Mr. Curdle, the old dentist in town, lover of the laughing gas he’d give to his patients? The boy, on a routine cleaning visit, walked in to see the old man take his last of way too many breaths of the poison before—right before—he went on to the sweet endless seamless sleep of eternity.
Indeed! The pleas were pleas for clarity not for sorrow, loss, or regret but just to make sure that, yes, this one too, this man the boy called Papa, was no longer, was passed on, was defunct, was terminated, was with Ma and Sis Mimi and Sis Layla and Sis Bess and Bo—and that now this boy, fifty-seven pounds and only ten years old, in a town of hostile hopelessness and a world of indifference and destruction and pain, this boy was alone.
I read that passage three times just to cry again and again because it brought me back to what writing should do. It was beautiful, instructional. It was education! On the page right before my eyes, Bobbins was telling me, See, Domenick, this is what you have to learn to do. This is for you, Domenick. I needed, I decided right there, on the train, to unlearn all that I had learned to do as a writer and just learn how to be and how to compose and how to feel.
The doors on the train closed. The train lunged forward. The train stopped. The doors opened and teeth were sucked and breaths were exhaled. The train was stuck for a long time.
And as I read and re-read Bobbins, my feelings started to change, slightly, not toward the work but toward the man. I was on my way to, hopefully, find him at Ozzie’s, and I was starting to feel little tinges and kinks of what some may call hostility.
My wannabe workshop instructor voice took over as I re-read the passage. I thought: Bobbins, I think, needs an editor. He overwrites and some of his imagery is a bit, well, too pedantic? Suddenly Bobbins was sitting across from me, on the subway. I’m not sure how to put it but when I read your work, Jon, like especially The Lilac. I have a hard time remembering that this is the work of a man who grew up in this landscape.
I also had begun to think that Bobbins really draws things out in ways that are just not necessary, not justified. There are no allusions. There are no significant signs or ideas. It’s often slow-moving, sensual plot. It’s visceral. These are issues set in the Midwest during the Dustbowl years. These were enduring people. They were not neurotic. Why Bobbins is trying to give all his characters neuroses is beyond me. They wouldn’t get the no salt organic raw almond butter at Trader Joe’s. These people walk a mile to get somewhere, not to exercise. This could work if his stories were set, say, in New York City. Today’s New York City. Aren’t Midwesterners, like, tough?
Three hours later, I stood outside Ozzie’s, my hand on the door handle, reading a sign
OZZIE’S WILL BE CLOSED UNTIL DECEMBER
FOR MUCH-NEEDED RENOVATIONS. CRAPPY? YES. NEEDED? YES YES.
TRUST US: WE’RE SORRY.
Now how I am going to find Bobbins? How are we going to get this Bobbins guy? I thought. This was a lot of work.
And there I was. The Lilac in hand and failure in sight.
“Sucks, I know,” said the vagabond sitting on the stoop next door and smoking a clove cigarette. “It’s not a good sign, man. Like, there’s no good coffee in this area. Place’s got the best. I kid you not, my friend.”
“When did this”—I asked, and just as I was asking I wondered why I even was bothering to ask. It wasn’t like knowing that Ozzie’s had closed two days or two weeks ago would have changed the fact that I was in Brooklyn and my only fucking purpose for being in Brooklyn at this moment was to find an impossible-to-find man who just so happened to work at an easy-to-find place that was now closed for the next few months—“happen?”
“A couple days ago. I work there. Or I used to work there, I should say. I mean, I still do? But I am just on, like, a long vacation, unpaid (haha) but, you know, it’s not that bad.”
“Do you have another job?” And why did I fucking care if he did?
He took a pull of his cigarette and exhaled slowly before answering me. I wanted to drum his head like a member of Kodo with the spine of the book in my hand. “Nah, man. This is good, it’s good. It’s good. No, like, really. It gives me time to work on my,” he paused. He had that lost in thought look to him.
“My stuff, man, my . . .” and he shook his head and looked at the sign on the door.
“Novel?” I suggested.
“Yah, man, yeah. My novel. I’m a writer.”
“You don’t say.”
“Wait,” I said. “You work here, right? I mean, yes, not now, but when it’s open you work here? You serve the coffee, make the donuts?”
“Yeah, but we don’t have donuts. We have scones though. And bagels.”
“Oh, okay. I came here looking for a writer by the name of Jonathan—”
“—yeah, yeah.” He paused, took a last drag of his cigarette, and crushed the butt in a metal bottle cap. “He works here. Sits in the back and writes and daydreams all the time. Or he did. He’s talking about how, like, we totally killed his vibe. I get it. I get it, you know? You a writer?”
“So what d’you do?”
“I type. Did he say where he was going to work now that this place is closed?”
“Not really, man. You type? What, like stenography? Wait. Are you, like, five-oh, man? Shit.”
“Like,” I said, pausing and holding his eyes for what felt like forever, “yeah.”
I turned and walked away, damp and sullen, and took out my cell phone to send the guys a text, since none really speak on the phone. Maybe someone was around.