I am on the Blue Line. I just arrived but it feels like I’ve already been here for a week. I should be reading, but I’m fumbling with my phone.
I thought I’d take the train instead of a cab, that I might lose myself a bit in the morning rhythm of the city. Instead, I’m listening to old voicemail.
“It’s just Chicago. Fly in, fly out. One day. Please!”
Any crafty salesman can get a foot in the door, it’s the beggar who closes the deal.
I force myself to read. For some reason, when I am reading in public places I always suspect that people are looking at me. Maybe that’s the only reason I brought the book, to be looked at. No, it wasn’t that. The book had promise, a promise that kept me going eagerly through the first chapter, the promise of a serious book.
The more I read, the less the author seems to care.
The story devolves into one emotionless scene after another: look at this; look at that; here is something you didn’t expect; here is something obscene; here is yet another thing which is completely unnecessary. It’s like being force-fed vacation slides. The book becomes nothing more than a pulpy mass moving through space toward its inevitable and flaccid conclusion. Each sentence, every word, devoid of potency.
It’s not my favorite…
I can see the lake now, but I am busy with the dust jacket picture of the author. I take out a pen and draw a thin, curling mustache on his dour lip.
“There’s an ass,” says the man standing beside my seat.
I nod and the man turns away, which is not exactly what I wanted. I wanted him to attach some clarifying remark, such as:
“I couldn’t get beyond the first chapter.”
– or –
“I saw that ass on TV.”
The man is a Silver Fox. He is tall and well-dressed. His blue suit is of a superior cut. This suggests many things about the man, but does not necessarily recommend him as an avid reader. The identity of the ass remains murky.
I am at the hotel. Everything is dark. The bellman is dressed in black. His face is blank.
There are more black-clad stewards sulking in the lobby. They stand motionless behind the front desk, flanked by granite columns. Long streams of purple velour snake down the columns, which are covered in hieroglyphics. The dome above glows a disconcerting shade of red.
A sign for the conference calls beckons me deeper into the hotel.
Orange sconces flicker against blackened walls. The walls have the texture of steel. At the far end of the floor, a staircase leads up to the grand ballroom. A stout balustrade rings the space above.
The Cheerful Woman greets me at the registration desk. She looks up my name and hands me a badge. I take the badge off the lanyard and used the clip to affix the card to my shirt. The Cheerful Woman frowns when I drop the lanyard on the table.
“You’re supposed to wear the lanyard.”
The lanyard lies between us, coiled and still. The name of the conference repeated over and over in fat, white letters on what was really just a black shoelace. The Cheerful Woman’s face turns grim. It seems unkind to leave a shoelace before the Cheerful Woman, to reject her so completely.
I nod and gently take up the lanyard in my hands.
I am watching the Smiling Man. He is giving a speech by satellite to locations all over the globe. He talks about many things but what I can’t get over is the fact that he isn’t wearing socks. He’s dressed in a suit, a nice suit in fact. Nicer than any suit I will ever own. Nicer than the blue suit worn by the Silver Fox on the train… And yet, he isn’t wearing socks.
There’s really no reason for the camera to reveal the fact the Smiling Man isn’t wearing socks. They could zoom in on his face rather than show him at a distance, reclining in his chair.
The Smiling Man speaks of many things which mean nothing to the customers of the Smiling Man’s company. In the end, he waves good-bye and smiles. The Regional Sales Director takes the stage. He smiles less than the Smiling Man, but then he is wearing socks.
I am doodling on a pad of paper provided by the hotel. I draw little bats flapping around the logo of the hotel and a graveyard in the bottom right corner of the page. I write the names of the Smiling Man and the Regional Sales Director on a matching pair of tombstones.
The man sitting beside me laughs so I give him the paper.
I am sketching a villa. I begin with a graceful line of windows. The windows peek out above a tall hedge. Beside the villa, there is a winding garden filled with wispy perennials. Short fruit trees with knotted trunks frame the rear of the garden. As an afterthought, I add a terrace, knitting the old flagstones between a tangle of underbrush.
An invisible sun casts the dry light of late summer on the scene. The villa is a pale shade of lavender, the trim whitish-grey. Scrub-covered hills, brown and distant, rise up in the background. I add a rake to the garden.
My eyes are closed. I am listening for the sound of birds.
People move slowly toward the buffet, trying not to appear too eager for lunch. I head for the door. I’m almost free but out of nowhere my sales rep appears and cuts off my escape.
“Hey! You made it! Enjoying the conference?”
“Not bad, but I just got a call.”
“Oh yes, duty always calls! Well, why don’t you come and meet someone real quick?”
“I’d love to, but…”
“No, problem. Really! He’s right over there. It’ll only take a second.”
He points to a small cluster of people frozen in the gloom at the foot of the stairs. I cave and allow myself to be led away by the elbow.
The Formal Man watches us descend. He has black hair and wire-rimmed spectacles. He does not smile or nod, but I feel welcomed into his company by some strange shifting of his eyes. This is not the man I am supposed to meet. I am supposed to meet the Golden Boy, but he is pacing in the shadows behind the Formal Man, so it appears that meeting the Golden Boy consists of speaking to the Formal Man who is actually a consultant to the Golden Boy, though he himself preferred the title of Corporate Nanny.
The Golden Boy is short and blond. He wears fashionable clothes, accessorized by an expensive cellphone crammed into his left ear. The phone flashes blue and red, nearly in time with his continuous, rapid fire speech.
Once, in passing, the Golden Boy emerges from the darkness. He casts his face up to the ceiling. He sighs and shakes his head. Then he starts up again, tossing out jargon and channeling a series of new age business gurus one after the other.
“Is he always like that?”
The Formal Man smiled and leaned towards me.
“No one really wants to take his calls. Half the time, he just calls people at random to see if they miss him.”
I trade cards with the Formal Man. Instantly, the Golden Boy materializes. He jams a card into my hand and points to the flashing phone. He shrugs and vanishes into the shadows.
Behind the wire-rimmed spectacles, the Formal Man raises his eyes. He smiles.
“The kid’s on the bubble and he doesn’t even know it.”
It is raining. I am in a café across the street from the hotel. I have a cup of coffee. I pretend to read the wretched book.
A woman enters the café. Her black hair falls down around her shoulders. I’m going to romanticize this moment too much if I hold onto it, but I can’t help it. I pull out the picture of the villa. I see her moving across the terrace. She wears a simple yellow dress.
The light is so bright. I can barely stand to look at the devastated beauty of the rough countryside. I want my life to stop moving forward.
Miles away the sea rises and falls like molten lead. The wind picks up. The woman leaves with a tray of coffees, and the imaginary summer disappears as she steps off my flagstone terrace and into the rain of West Adams Street. I sketch her figure quickly.
I am in a room without windows. This is a private meeting. The low ceiling presses down on a corral of fold-up tables.
We speak in echoes, responding automatically to each other for almost an hour, promising things we both knew to be false. When the meeting is over, we agree to nothing except that we will share a cab to the airport.
In the taxi, the man pulls up his legs and places his feet against the window. He curls himself around a little device and checks his email. The man digs his thumbs into the keyboard. The meter starts.
We arrive at the airport. As I get out of the cab, the man calls after me. He is holding the picture of the villa.
I see now that it was a mistake to draw the figure of the woman looking away.
How I Almost Started Writing is a series of brief portraits focused on the times in my life where I found myself on the verge of focusing solely on the writing life.