Sunday was my birthday. I turned thirty-seven.
Here is one way to celebrate your birthday:
Wake up in a thirty-eight-dollar motel room with nothing but a laptop and a paper bag full of clothes. Lay in not-clean sheets for about an hour staring at the ceiling, wondering what your wife and one surviving child are doing back in Pennsylvania. Wonder how much they must actively loathe you for your act of almost inconceivable moral cowardice. Almost call them (even dig your Sam’s Club prepaid calling card out of your wallet) and instead weep for a while—you don’t want to, but it turns out that’s one of those things you don’t have much control over—and when you finish fucking around withthat, go back to looking at those ceiling cracks.
They look like a map.
Over the last few days since coming back up here, I’ve been reading Joe Schreiber’s novel Chasing the Dead
, picking it up and putting it down in short bursts. It’s not challenging reading, the chapters are short, the prose unpresuming—and the end result almost unendurable. Schreiber, whatever else he may be, has obviously been here, and the towns he writes about, their history, and the history of Isaac Hamilton and the Engineer, are not fabrications; they are simply matters of record.
Yesterday I broke down and placed an anonymous call to Ballantine Books—an imprint of Random House—and after fifteen minutes of winding my way through receptionists and automated menus I was connected to someone named Keith Clayton, an editor…Joe Schreiber’s editor, as it turns out. Clayton was reluctant to tell me much more about his author than what appears on the back flap of the book; he became even more circumspect when I refused to give him my name. He did inform me that the original manuscript submitted to him by Schreiber’s agent was presented as fiction, and there were never any issues of factual confirmation. Yes, there are seven towns in Massachusetts by the names Gray Haven, Stoneview, etc. and the basic events were based in fact, but Clayton assured me the resemblance ended there. Then, courteously but without further preamble, he said goodbye.
I am here in Balmville, Massachusetts, just outside White’s Cove—a historic recreation of an “authentic” 1800s New England Colony seaport. There is very little here this time of year, the tourists have gone home, and the motel where I’m staying is virtually empty. The air is cold and smells like rain. It’s basically exactly the way Schreiber describes it. I’ve been here since Sunday.
Here is one way to finish your thirty-seventh birthday: drink until you’re sick. Walk aimlessly through a strange, empty town for several hours, trying to keep from ripping your eyeballs from their sockets. Stop from time to time and stare down at the ground. Examine the narrow, empty streets. See the oil lamps and mansard roofs. Remind yourself that in the Year of Our Lord 2006 with geniuses like George W. Bush and Karl Rove steering our nation, our children are so much safer than they were back in the 1800s. Dwell on this for some indeterminate length of time. Continue well past nightfall. Move on.
Stop when you find you’ve reached the end of the street. Look down at the alleyway to your right, where the last of the oil-light dies in a thick bed of shadow. You’re drunk, lost, miserable.
There’s nothing here but you.
Come back to your motel room and lock the door. Listen to the sound the rain makes on the glass.
Stare at those cracks, the ones in the ceiling.
They look like a map.