All the traffic that I have in this with the public is, that I borrow their utensils of writing, which are more easy and most at hand; and in recompense shall, peradventure, keep a pound of butter in the market from melting in the sun:
“Ne toga cordyllis, ne penula desit olivis;
Et laxas scombris saepe dabo tunicas;”
[“Let not wrappers be wanting to tunny-fish, nor olives;
and I shall supply loose coverings to mackerel.”]
—Martial, xiii. I, I.
And though nobody should read me, have I wasted time in entertaining myself so many idle hours in so pleasing and useful thoughts?
—Michel de Montaigne, “Of Giving the Lie”
Here is a story:
In the fall of 2006 into winter 2007, my wife and I lived in Jerusalem. I was a guest professor at a university, and while we were there plenty of friends came for visits, giving us more than enough reason to see pretty much all the holy sites in Israel. But in January and nearing the end of our stay, we decided we wanted to see Petra, the ancient city carved into sandstone canyons, over in Jordan. Our friends Jeff and Hart from here in Charleston were visiting us then, and we spent one cold and sun-drenched January day hiking the bright and towering red stone ghosts of the ruins.
But on our way back the next morning there came a snowstorm, and we found ourselves snowbound in a taxi at the crest of the King’s Highway between Petra and Aqaba, elevation 5,000 feet, hours and hours from our home in Jerusalem. Forty-five minutes after the driver called in our predicament, members of the Jordanian army—yes, the Jordanian army—suddenly emerged from the white all around us, having driven their emergency response truck as close as they could to us, then hiking up the highway to the cab. Jeff and I helped the soldiers push the taxi out of its snow-mired fix, the driver pulling away and driving off—he couldn’t park and wait for us to climb back in, because we’d get stuck in the snow again, of course.
That left Jeff, me and five soldiers to walk a mile or so through a blizzard back to their rescue truck. Along the way we pitched snowball fights, America versus Jordan (I actually yelled that out as I reared back to launch a snowball, and was nailed in the shoulder before I could even let go), all of us laughing, talking—they all spoke English—and trying our best not to think of the cold and this wind and all this snow. Then here was the rescue truck, emergency yellow, sharp and big with its pug-faced grill and running boards two feet above the snow-packed road. We all climbed into the warm quad-cab, the driver inside and ready for us. Eight of us jammed inside, Jeff and I in the back seat in the middle, a soldier on either side of us.
Then one of the men in the front seat pulled from the floorboard a battered Thermos, another soldier produced from somewhere a stack of four thick glass tumblers, and the one with the Thermos poured out steaming hot tea, Jeff and I given the first two glasses.
I don’t even like tea, but I cannot remember tasting anything as perfect as that sweet and strong hot tea, its steam immediately clouding over my glasses.
That was when Jeff, glass in hand, turned to me and said, laughing, “This is going to be a great story.”
“Yes it will,” I said.
We weren’t even warmed through yet, not even reunited with our loved ones and that cab—the story of our being saved in a snowstorm by the Jordanian army wasn’t even over yet—and already we both were thinking, We have to tell this story!
That’s how important story is.
I am writing this because I want to write it. I want to tell it. I want to share this.
But even though the fact of story is so very important, I wonder who, once I am dead, will read what I have written.
Have I wasted time in entertaining myself so many idle hours in so pleasing and useful thoughts? Have I wasted time in writing stories?
I am not writing here out of a midlife crisis. I am not. Though of course even saying such feels as though I doth protest too much. But it’s not that. Really.
And it’s not that I turned fifty-five last week. “Double nickels,” I kept saying and texting and emailing all day long whenever the fact of what day it was came up in conversation. Double nickels, I said, because it was a silly thing to say, goofy, old-school, dumb. Stupid. Annoying.
I am like that. I will drive something into the ground to see how far I can go before someone—generally speaking, my wife—will tell me to cut it out. She tells me to cut it out a lot.
But still, I wonder who, once I’m dead, will read what I have written.
This question was never one to have entered my mind when I was younger. I simply wanted to tell stories. I could do that, and I enjoyed it. I wanted to find out what happened to the people about whom I wrote, whether in fictive form or in nonfiction, those point blank stories about me and what I wanted to understand about that middling subject.
My wife tells me I am thinking too much of the end of things now. Of retirement, of giving up writing, of simply teaching and teaching only. Of growing old. Of dying. She tells me she loves me, and I believe her, but tells me too I have other stories to tell, other things to write.
Here is another story. A longer one but one I need to tell:
Each summer I take fifteen students from the College of Charleston to our sister city, Spoleto, Italy, to live for a month, and to write, and to read, and to travel. Spoleto is in Umbria between Rome and Florence, and while there, we all live in a fifteenth-century farmhouse turned into six modern apartments that look out on the Umbrian Valley toward Assisi, a beige smear on a hillside in the distance. Each year we also take a trip together into Florence, spend a day on a walking tour, then that evening at a private wine tasting course. All very civilized, all very Florentine: the students must dress up a bit for the evening, and carry on well-mannered.
Last year the wine tasting was led by Count Niccolo Capponi, who was to present us with three different wines from his family winery, Villa Calcinaia, in Chianti. The event was held in the second floor offices of the walking tour company in the old city center, the room actually a salon with high wide windows and a low dais at one end, where sat the Count.
He was and is what you call a character: a resident and native of Florence (as far as the family records could show, they arrived around 1200), he spoke perfect English in a broad British accent and was funny and dramatic, quite immodest and a little off-color: a blend of Terry Thomas and Thurston Howell the Third. A professor of political science to different American programs located in Florence, and with a PhD in military history from Padua University and a fellowship spent at Yale, the Count held court for an hour and a half talking about wine, about wine critics, about military history, and about writing—he had published a number of books, most recently a reseeing of Machiavelli as not the diabolically scheming fellow most hold him to be, but a bumbling political naïf who made bad choices every time.
I wasn’t sure how the students would react to him, and at first the room was a little cold, what with his dramatic pauses and whispered revelations. But gradually they warmed to him, until at the end of the evening students were lined up asking him to autograph the bottles they had purchased of his wine. Attending the evening, too, was his wife, Maria, a gracious and sweet and, one got the feeling, long-suffering woman, and their six-month-old baby boy, Vincenzo, the two of them quiet in the back of the room while the Count spoke, Vincenzo in his stroller.
But right at the end of his talk, the Count asked if we wanted to accompany him on a little walk, that he had something he wanted to show us only a couple hundred yards from the salon. Of course we agreed, though we had no idea where he meant to take us—later, when we all compared notes, most of us expected he would walk us to some place we’d already been shown by the tour guide earlier that day, and that we’d all have to act surprised at where he’d brought us.
We left the salon and followed him—once outside he put on his tweed jacket and lit his burled wood pipe—really—and walked down one alley and another, then crossed the Ponte Vecchio itself, a lot farther than a couple hundred yards. Once across the Arno, we turned left and followed him up the street that paralleled the river, and onto another that broke obliquely away from the water.
Maybe a hundred yards up that street, along a granite block wall, we stopped. There beside us stood a huge wooden double door, twelve feet high and reinforced with iron studs. We watched as the Count reached into his pocket, pulled out a set of keys, and opened the door, inviting us all in.
That was when I looked back to the granite block wall, and saw the plaque mounted there: Palazzo della Capponi.
This was his house.
He ushered us into the foyer, where yet another twelve foot door needed unlocking, and then into the inner courtyard of the house, four stories high and dark and old and Renaissance Italian, with busts on pedestals high on the walls, and frescoes—frescoes!—on the walls, too. It was all difficult to process, what exactly was going on: we were suddenly inside some other world, to put it mildly, though we’d been walking around Florence all day long. But this was suddenly the real thing, a house where there lived a Count and his wife and their baby boy Vincenzo, and now Maria and Vincenzo appeared from inside the foyer, the Count and his family allowing us into their domain, their palazzo.
We stood in awe, snapping pictures of the courtyard, thinking, This is it! This is what he wanted to show us! But that wasn’t it, there was something else he wanted to share, he said, and then we followed him to a wide set of stone stairs up to the second floor, high as the third floor in a house anywhere else, and then to the third floor, and along a dark gallery with windows on the left that looked out on the courtyard, huge ancient furniture beside us, old portraits of long dead people on the walls, and a suit of armor that seemed as natural a piece of decoration here as a lamp on an end table back home.
The Count had the keys out again, and stopped at the door at the end of the gallery, opened it, and brought us all in to yet another world: his office.
I don’t mean here to be writing in a manner too romantic, or purple, or, simply, overawed. But this was a moment when one’s hairs are on end, one’s antennae are up, one’s faculties are fully employed: this was happening.
We were now in a room maybe twenty by twenty with books everywhere, paintings stacked and leaned against the walls, old silk wallpaper water-stained and hung with more paintings, and everywhere books. A huge desk in the center overflowed with papers, an old lectern stood off to the side, a stained glass window four feet tall leaned against a wall, an ancient chandelier hanging above it all. And books and books and books.
“Here’s what we’re after,” he said, and reached up to a shelf on one wall lined floor to ceiling with white volumes thick as old library dictionaries or ancient Bibles. He pulled from the shelf a narrow flat box, opened it, and handed it to one of the students, Katie, a young woman too stunned at what was going on to say no to holding it.
“Of course it’s in Latin,” he said, “but it’s a letter from Henry the Eighth to an ancestor of mine. That’s his broad seal.”
Inside the box lay a document about eighteen inches wide, maybe six inches long, affixed to the bottom of it a rather beat up looking piece of wax the size of an oblong coaster. We could make out some shapes and words on the wax. The first words of the document itself read, “Henricus VIII.”
We passed the box among us at the Count’s urging, who said, “History was meant to be touched, it was meant to be fingered. It’s a tactile thing.”
We looked at it, awed (that perfect word again), while the Count continued to bring down from the wall more of those white volumes, opening them, pulling out vellum-wrapped piles of papers: the family archives back to the thirteenth century.
And, finally, here is the point of this all, the end of the too-long path down which this story has taken me: The vellum pages that wrapped the archives were themselves pages of illuminated manuscripts. A religious text that had, at some point in history, been scrivened out by a monk bent low to the page for too many hours to number, then, perhaps centuries later, deemed inconsequential enough to be used to wrap the Capponi family papers.
The Count stood handing off bundles to us, the illuminated letters on the wrapping pages right there, right there. But only as meaningful to some archivist one day long ago as the wrap on a chunk of butter, or paper around a mackerel.
The Count showed us more things: a blue velvet bag brought from inside a hidden cubby hole in the lectern that held a couple dozen Florins, the coin of the realm back in the thirteenth to sixteenth century, and that were passed around among us; that stained glass window, which he held up as best he could against the window looking out onto the inner courtyard, and for which, he told us, he still had the receipt from 1526; the initiation program from the Order of Saint James dating from the sixteenth century, inside it a passage from the Psalms written in Hebrew. “Who here can read Hebrew?” the Count asked and looked around at us. One of the students, Gabrielle, raised her hand, rather shyly, and when he handed it to her and said, “Read it aloud, if you please,” she tried to beg off. But finally, after we cajoled and begged her, she read it out to us, her Hebrew classes in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah finally paying off. We cheered her effort once she’d finished.
“What’s your most prized item in this room?” I asked, and immediately he reached to one of the volumes, pulled it down and unwrapped it, brought out a folder, inside of which were ancient pages written in careful calligraphy.
“When you’re doing research about a particular person,” he said, “it’s always best to research the person beside the person. The subject can oftentimes make himself out to be something other than he is. The man beside him can come closest to revealing the truth.”
He then read from the piece of paper in hand, translating into English the Italian. It was a memoir piece by an ancestor of his who had been the right hand man (“I dined at his shoulder,” the Italian read) for none other than Giulio de’ Medici, later Pope Clement VII, who would one day commission Michelangelo to paint “The Last Judgment,” the altarpiece needed to complete his Sistine Chapel. The particular passage he read to us was of a morning when Capponi came to Giulio’s to find him eating breakfast and Giulio looking up to meet his eyes “in a meaningful way.” Giulio, once Capponi had come to the table, then told him, “Job would not have the patience to last a day with Michelangelo.”
That is, first-hand evidence that Michelangelo was a royal pain, from none other than a Medici. Right there on that piece of paper, penned by the man beside the man.
Then we were finished. The Count thanked us all for coming, and led us out of the office and back into the gallery, where he suddenly decided to take the helmet off the suit of armor and place it on the head of one of our students, Chris. “Try this on, old boy,” he said—he really said “old boy”—and Chris did. More pictures were taken all around before he took it off and we headed back down those stone stairs to the ground floor and the inner courtyard. And as if to give us one more thing, one more thing, he brought out his keys yet again but this time crossed the courtyard to the opposite side we had come in, unlocked yet another huge wooden door, and opened it to reveal the Arno right there across the street, the Uffizi straight across the river. Florence, right out his front door.
We thanked him and thanked him, as if words might be enough but knowing they weren’t, and then moved across the street to take a look at where we’d been. The Count leaned in the doorway a few moments, waved at us all and wished us well, then closed the door.
When we pulled our cameras out to take pictures, we all had the same problem: the Palazzo della Capponi, a beautiful rose-hued stucco, was too big to get in the frame.
We’d come expecting a talk on wine from a Count. What we didn’t expect was the touching of Florentine history. We didn’t expect word from Henry the Eighth. We didn’t expect Florins in our hands.
Or the family-wrap a sacred text had become.
But this is what we found.
We stood there across the street from Palazzo della Capponi for a few long minutes, all of us looking out on the river, back at the palazzo, to the Ponte Vecchio to our left, the sun set now beyond it, light fading. Some of us tried to talk about what had just happened, others recognized words weren’t enough. Then we broke up, went our ways for the evening. Each of us in wonder, I am certain, at what we hadn’t expected and what we’d found.
I am writing this because I want to write it. I want to tell it. I want to share this.
But I have already written fourteen books. I have already written, I fear, too much. Eight novels, three story collections, three books of essays. A number I do not know of stories in journals, same for essays. Words are with me always.
But I must be honest. I must try as hard as I am able to be the man beside the man. To be the man beside me so as to come closest to revealing the truth.
I must be honest—of course I must be honest—and attest to how I tire of words.
I tire of the limits I have found inside my own writing, the way sentences and images will come out with the same words replicating the same gestures and impressions. I tire of the way I still do not know how to do this thing I have practiced so very many years of my life. I tire of the way a blank page, no matter how many I have filled, is still at its birth a blank page.
I tire of the way what I have written becomes something other than what I had intended when first I embarked. As, for instance, this essay, which kernel appeared by my walking through the living room toward the kitchen one evening of no particular consequence, and glancing at the bookcases there to spy not a book of my own but the spans of books there, the dozens, the hundreds of them lining the wall, and the subsequent moment of a shiver through me, small and irrelevant, when I thought, Who, if anyone, has even read everything I have already written?
It was an ordinary moment. An evening of no consequence.
There was nothing about the King’s Highway and the importance of story in that moment. Nothing of the Count and Michelangelo and Henry the Eighth, and an illuminated text used like yesterday’s paper. Nor even Montaigne. There was only a momentary pause, there in the living room, a glance at the books lining the wall, and my thinking in the selfish way a writer thinks, the mercenary way, the egotistical and heartless way a writer looks at all things around him as possible fodder for the next foray into words, One day I want to write about wondering if anyone has read what I have written.
Then came a rereading of Montaigne’s “Of Giving the Lie,” and its pondering the valor and folly of lies, the bald-faced and covert hallmarks dishonesty leaves upon the soul. The way a book one has written can end up rewriting the author in a better light than he can ever be seen. “In moulding this figure upon myself,” Montaigne continues after the quote at the beginning of this essay, “I have been so often constrained to temper and compose myself in a right posture, that the copy is truly taken, and has in some sort formed itself; painting myself for others, I represent myself in a better colouring than my own natural complexion.”
I’d intended to write about who might have read what I have written. Then perhaps about how books one has written take the place of the writer’s life, that lie written to replace the life written about.
I’d intended to write about lies. But I am trying here to write about the truth.
I am trying to be the man beside the man.
I am whining. I know.
But I have tired of the way what I intend to write is never what I write, and what I write is never what I intend.
While the man beside me tries to write, I have now turned double nickels, and wonder more than ever who, once I am dead, will read what I have written.
Another story—the last?—because my wife tells me I have other stories to tell, other things to write:
My birthday. I am late home from a charity golf tournament, though I am a golfer of no merit. I have golfed for fifteen years now, and have broken 100 only twice. I have made three birdies in my life. Still I enjoy it, being outdoors and with friends.
But I had promised to be home by four or five and to make dinner, jambalaya, a favorite. When it became apparent how slowly the tournament was being played out, I’d texted Melanie I would be late, and asked if she would go ahead and start dinner. Our two sons and their wives and our two grandchildren were coming over for the festivities, and I’d apologized, told her I would be home as soon as I could.
Near six-thirty I make it in the door from the garage to the kitchen, rushed and apologizing for being so late. Zeb, our older son, and his wife Maggie are there with the grandchildren, Mikaila, age three, and Oliver, who is three months old and asleep in the black baby carrier strapped to Maggie’s front. Sarah, our younger son Jacob’s wife, is there too, though Jacob hasn’t yet gotten off work, will be here soon. Melanie stands at the oven, peering in at the cherry crisp I’d requested for dessert, and the long casserole dish of jambalaya lies on the counter, ready and ready.
So though I am late, no one is troubled, no one concerned. I am just late.
“Happy birthday!” Melanie says, and comes to me, kisses me, and the others all wish me a happy birthday too, hugs all the way around, and I give a kiss to the top of sleeping Oliver’s head, there in the baby carrier.
Lastly, there is Mikaila, who jumps up and down, clapping. “Happy birthday, Grampa! We have presents for you!” she shouts. “We have presents for you!”
I pick her up then, the girl tall as any four year old, though she has just turned three, and settle her on my hip, her blond ringlets so much like Shirley Temple’s it’s a cliché even to point it out. But I am her grandfather, so this cliché is my right.
“It’s my birthday!” I say to her. “Double nickels!” I say, and Mikaila says, “We have presents for you!”
That is when her father, beside us here in the kitchen and wearing a crisp plaid office shirt and gray slacks—he is an adult, he has a job, he is married, he owns a home, he is a father, he is my son!—pulls his hand from his pocket and, grinning at me, slaps that hand on the granite kitchen counter.
He lifts his hand to reveal two nickels, dull gray, one heads, the other tails.
“I’ve been waiting all day to do that,” he says in near a whisper, still grinning.
I’d texted him two or three times today, like everyone else, the goofy, old-school, dumb, stupid, annoying term, driving it into the ground and driving it again. And now here was my son, his daughter in my arms, turning the joke back on me. Calling me on my dimbulb joke.
I laugh and shake my head. “That’s a good one!” I say to my son, then say again, “That’s a good one!” and in one more effort to pass down my penchant for the dimbulb joke, to drive it into the ground even further, so deep it’s handed on to the next generation in all its innocence and joy and blond ringlets and presents for you, I set Mikaila down, then take the two nickels, and press them both to my forehead, where they stick.
I bend down to Mikaila, point at my forehead, and say, “See? Double nickels! Double nickels!”
She has no idea what is going on, what this dumb thing her grandfather is doing. She only stands there, still with this smile on her face, looking up at my forehead, then me, my forehead again.
Then she twists just a little, still smiling, and looks me in the eye.
She says, “Oh Grampa, so silly!”
The man is writing this because he wants to write it. He wants to tell it. He wants to share this.
And though the man is tired of words and the way they lead him down paths he hadn’t intended, reveal to him things he hadn’t planned to say—what he hadn’t expected and what he finds—the man beside the man writes that, in this self-same moment of being tired of words, words and what they show the man are what sustain him. The wonder of finding out what the man hadn’t planned to know is what makes him write more.
While the man still wonders if he has wasted his life entertaining himself so many idle hours, and while the man still wonders who, once he’s dead, will read what he has written, the man beside the man records the truth: Oh Grampa, so silly.
The man beside the man writes that there is no posterity. There is only story. There is only a writer, and the writing of that story, and of another, of all of them, as many as he can tell, until he is dead and there will be no worry over words. Or readers.
There is no posterity. There is no one reading what he has written after he is dead. There is only living to tell the tale.
Here, the man writes. Now.