Sohrab Homi Fracis teaches literature at the University of North Florida and is a 1999-2000 Florida Individual Artist Fellowship recipient in Literature/Fiction. He is also a fiction and poetry editor at The State Review. "The Mark Twain Overlook" is part of a collection of fiction, Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America, which recently won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for 2001 and will be published by the University of Iowa Press this fall.
If a small town too, like the little man, will have its ten minutes in the sun, then Muscatine, Iowa, has already seen its ten. It had a near miss once before. Back in 1854, Mark Twain spent a summer there and is still counted by Muscatine folk, warm-hearted and lively people in a wintry climate, as the town's most famous inhabitant ever. Some of its street-names today are Samuel Clemens Road, Becky Thatcher Road, and Aunt Polly Lane. But the fact is he was a little-heard-of news writer then, reporting for his brother Orion's The Journal, and moved on down the Mississippi well before his characters charmed their way into print. His fame reflected no light whatsoever on the quiet lumber center. It was not until the end of the century, really, that fortune in the shape of a rough brown river clam finally relaxed its jaws to smile widely on Muscatine for a while.
By the time Zubin Commissariat found his way there about a decade from the end of the next century, only traces were left of Muscatine's brief heyday. There was an unlikely-sounding pearl button museum on the corner of Iowa Avenue and 2nd Street not far from his apartment house, but he walked by without really noticing it, on the opposite side of the road, going down to Riverside Park in the evenings. Winter was on the way, generating more than a nip already against his bare arms and face too used to year-round warmth in Bombay. The skies were clouded a rocky gray. Downtown buildings were variously brown-toned and the streets discouragingly barren on weekends. At Bandag, where he was on a year's contract to help convert an accounts receivable package, the regular, i.e. permanent, programmers said Muscatine had a population of 20,000 on weekdays, when people came in to their jobs, but only 3,000 on weekends, when they drove off to nearby hometowns.
At the park, the river air was clean and increasingly sharp. At peak-winter, when snow covered the grass and piled against the base of gold-lacquered statues at either end, the breath went down Zubin's airpipe like a sword. One statue was of a stag, the other of a Mascoutin Indian, both nobly posed, the heavily antlered stag looking inland, the Indian out over water. The Mississippi rounded the bend sluggishly, reflecting the sky in its gray except for a border of brown below trees along the far, Illinois shore. Zubin often had the park to himself in winter, and the border turned green before he found someone to walk with him. Her name was Christina Lopez.
The apex, of course, was the sunset together at the overlook and the epiphany afterwards. While this is a story about Zubin Commissariat, Christina Lopez, and, not least, Muscatine, it's not a story of Zubin and Christina in Muscatine, except in passing. A woman hankering to get herself and a possessive daughter out of a small town; a man moving through, unwilling to be her vehicle. Clear enough that it would end. Zubin just didn't anticipate exactly how. His reluctance, despite prompting, to utter the love word became one loose rail on the track. The marriage word then had to appear, wrapped in Christina's most seductive perfumes and dresses and home-cooked dinners (with Monique away at her grandparents), and was also side-stepped. He assumed then that the final switch, sending their cars off on separate tracks, would be thrown by the event of his contract coming to an end at Bandag. But Christina threw it instead, much ahead—she was not one to stay behind and turn nun.
She found a teaching position at a middle school in New Orleans, not very far from her Texas roots, cooked one more dinner for Zubin, then, all excited, told him of the offer and her intention to move there with Monique the next term. Would he like to join them? Finding a programming job in New Orleans should not be a problem, she would think. Now that he was no longer her train out of Muscatine (need never and may never have been seen as such, he had to concede), he was left with the option of either agreeing to go or asking her—them—to come with him, instead, to wherever his next contract took him. A section of his mind would have liked some stable center in a roving life, and he felt enough for Christina that in intimate times he'd wished he could have used the love word without misleading her. But another section was not sure quite how much, other than black hair and disgust for the Buchanan right, they had in common. And yet another section was strongly reluctant to become Monique's instant-and-unwanted daddy.
So he was glad for Christina in her good fortune but, instead of shuffling unreadably once more, straightforwardly declined to join her in Louisiana. She, in turn, didn't wait to shut things down between them (he'd hoped to delay that until she actually left). He avoided the park and D.C. Arnold's after they broke up, so time hung on his hands in the evenings and weekends after work. His new dream, born on the day of the overlook, grew in his head and he began to walk down Iowa Avenue daily to the Musser Public Library. Within its light-brown brick walls and on complicatedly lettered shelves were stacked a hundred and forty thousand worlds to explore, worlds he'd ignored since leaving college at Powai. It amazed him that it cost nothing to get his own bar-coded library card, just a show of I.D. to the woman in the front desk rectangle, and that there was no limit to the number of books (or compact discs or videos) he could check out, if he could get them read and returned in two weeks.
He met Christina at D.C. Arnold's, a bar he often strolled over to after dinner on Saturdays. It had live bands on stage, often repeat groups, playing the staple hard rock of KIIK 104, Kick One-oh-Four to the Davenport deejays. The heavy beat relaxed him, pounding out the muscles of his eyes, arms, and neck, strained from hours in front of the monitor. He was a painfully slow drinker, nursing a Bud till it was lukewarm and flat, wetting his drooping black mustache (whence his nickname Pablo, in college days at IIT, Powai), leaving his table to get a second, which usually lasted to when the band played its final set and it was time to go. Christina said she'd watched him at his routine several evenings before the one on which she'd picked a table next to his, then waited to flash him a smile.
When she did, it was ivory-white. Skin that spoke of brown and gold even in a winter-spring creaminess. Glossed lips and black hair curling in to the red. Echoes of castanets, banjos, midnight serenades. Months later in September, at the Viva Mexico Fiesta, he watched her dance to such music, cotton skirt calf-length in purple floral patterns flaring around her hips when she twirled, wrapping around them when she stopped. When they danced to slow numbers at D.C. Arnold's she was voluptuous, shifting against him in slumberous rhythms. Sitting by an enormous grounded anchor in Riverside Park, they watched boats rock within the safe-harbor to a similar lilt, and he was reminded of a song, "South of the Border," his father sang in Bombay to his mother's piano accompaniment. The song's speaker sang of a girl he'd left behind in Mexico, then returned to, only to find she'd turned nun in his absence.
South of the border,
I went back one day.
There in a veil of white
she knelt to pray.
The mission bells told me
that I mustn't stay
south of the border
down Mexico way.
He especially liked the pun on "tolled," and Christina, who hadn't noticed it, was impressed with his facility in the language. By then in his fourth American year and beyond irrational umbrage—why should an Indian's good English be occasion for surprise?—at such reactions, he told her of his Jesuit school in Bombay, from where the Indian School-leaving Certificate final papers went all the way to Cambridge in England for correction. His, so the padres had said in approval, had earned him among the highest English Literature marks ever posted by a Bombayite in the I.S.C. A certificate of scholastic achievement signed by none other than Indira Gandhi had arrived later in the mail, only to be mislaid over the years by his parents and lost. The thought of their carelessness still irked him. Only much later would he realize he was perpetuating the stereotype while protesting against it—"good English" was a relative term whose definition varied from India to Australia to Jamaica to England to Canada to America. And also across time: Chaucer would be practically unintelligible if he were to speak today.
Christina smiled at Zubin's boasting and teased him about it, but she was clearly pleased he thought her worth the effort. Unaccustomed to having American girls either approach him at a bar or stay interested once he opened his patently un-American mouth, he'd wondered at the time why she'd picked him but had put it down eventually, and cynically, to a combination of things. For one, his near-Mexican looks. For another, his apparent general disinterest in the women at the bar. Likely, though not calculated, to pique their interest. For a third, simple supply and demand: fewer "good men" either around or still available in a small town.
"So, what's a South-of-the-Border girl doing west of the Mississippi?" he asked, humming the tune.
"What's an Indian doing in America?" she retorted, though she knew of his contract at Bandag and of the Bombay computer consultancy that had stationed him there. India was a new but burgeoning power in tailor-made business applications software, and he was one of a thousand young, highly-educated consultants rented at low-ball rates by American companies to program their systems. The import of contract-programmers had reached dimensions, in fact, that sparked controversy all the way onto investigative shows such as 60 Minutes. The central assertion was not a new one: work that might otherwise have employed needy Americans had gone instead to foreigners.
"Case of supply and demand," he replied, stopping short of making the parallel to Mexican field-workers, particularly the low dollar allowances paid to consultants by their Indian head-offices, compared to what American counterparts earned. "But…"
He flipped a thumb at the Mascoutin statue. Its subject had hair down to his shoulders, eagle features, a string of bear-claws around his neck, an animal skin hanging down his back. His chest was bare over buckskin leggings, one foot raised against golden rock. Both he and the stag, thought Zubin, look almost like trophies.
"I've heard that at one time there were only Indians here," he continued, wondering if she'd be as prickly or defensive or guilt-ridden over the makings of her nation as some Americans he'd encountered on contract in Michigan and Florida. Sometimes he'd felt sorry for them. He could see what it was from their point of view: a no-win situation of the inescapable, unending variety. Whether you changed gaming laws to benefit Indians or religious-freedom laws to deny them peyote "for their own good," it all harked back to one thing. Even when you built statues to them. Or maybe especially then. And not only did that one thing have nothing to do with any of your actions, with the actions of any American of this century, but it had everything to do with what you were; it was the foundation, no less, of your identity and existence, and others denied your humanity because of it…. Zubin had learned that it was also, consequently, unwelcome subject matter, particularly if coming from a foreigner. Mainstream America was tired of such issues.
But Christina only laughed, a xylophonic affair. "We're named after you, then. That's where Muscatine got its name, from the Mascoutin Indians."
"I was wondering," he said. "Sounds almost the same."
She nodded. "Though some people say it's from a word in Mascoutin that means burning island."
"Mm, yes." She had a way of cocking her chin to the left and sending her eyes to the right when she was being mysterious. "I'll have to take you to a certain spot one of these evenings. Remind me."
He drank in fiction to some extent indiscriminately, drawn by back-cover summaries but also by writing that seemed a cut above thrillers he'd read in college. By the time, four years later on a fresh contract in Minneapolis, he began to write himself, he had a curious, uneven, eclectic mix under his belt: Vonnegut, Dinesen, Joyce, Hardy, Saroyan, Raucher, Rawlings, Kerouac, Austen, Rossner, Chekhov, Malamud, McCullers, Pirsig, Remarque, Welty, Steinbeck, Eliot, Salinger, Le Guin, all mingled there, like it or not. The exposure, somehow, had not undermined his belief that he too could write if he put his mind to it. In fact, he felt driven to it by a surfeit of books about Western, as in white, characters, felt a lessening desire and ability to constantly live (vicariously) the life of the Other, a growing need to read stories about himself and those most like him.
He had a hard time finding them—only the name Rushdie had visibility above such stories, and skimming Midnight's Children, Zubin was put off, despite its instant brilliance, by what he thought at the time was a supercilious attitude. Distinctions between narrators and authors were as yet unclear to him. So he put it away. He went through a long phase when he could not finish books, losing interest in the journeys of American or English characters so divergent from his own, unable anymore to generate the necessary curiosity about their destinations. Eventually he came to know of the Desais, Sidhwas, Singhs, Naipauls, Mistrys, Seths, Mehtas, Ganesans, Kangas, and Mukherjees, discovered Tagore, even rediscovered the gentle Narayan of his schooldays, but often only because he encountered them on the shelves at Nalanda when, every three years or so, he went back to Bombay.
In the interim he explored the lives of black American characters created by the Hurstons, Baldwins, Bambaras, Angelous, Wrights, McPhersons, Morrisons, Naylors, Walkers, Reeds, and Ellisons, finding relief mainly in the non-whiteness of their perspectives. Yet their perspectives were not quite his (something of a middle ground: brown). When Huck and Jim got separated, journeying down the Mississippi, it was more by the dense fog that surrounded them than by the invisible island that subsequently came up between them. "Nothing don't look natural nor sound natural in a fog." And black characters, while not white, were also not Indian. So when Zubin hit upon a rare anomaly, Hesse's Siddhartha, white author writing about Indians, even if idealized, "noble" ones, he was very taken with it and also with the protagonist's dogged quest for meaning. In a burst of adventurousness that had been building within him since the day of the overlook and was not uninspired by fictional exploits, he finally chucked up programming, left the writing of code to go write his own stories.
He leaned back against the anchor. Its gray-metal had baked in the Midwestern sun all afternoon, and the warmth came through his shirt. The boats and their masts or cabins swayed left and right, left and right in lazy, rhythmic regularity that put him in mind of the metronome his piano teacher in Bombay had always insisted on, except that there was a relaxed, unhurried, yet elastic nature to their movement.
"You're my guide, today," he said idly, tossing the words burning island around in his head, "showing off your hometown."
"Your guide can't stand her hometown!" she responded in a burst that took him by surprise.
His face must have shown it; she eased back on the ire. "That's probably an exaggeration. Muscatine's fine, as small towns go; I just get this way sometimes. You would too, if you'd lived all your life in a provincial little hole, with the prospect of rotting there for the remainder."
He made a sympathetic throat-sound, twisted towards her, listened closely.
"We've been here for generations. My grandparents were not even born when their families moved up from San Antonio. Not quite south of the border, to answer your question, but El Paso before San Antonio, they tell me, and Juarez before El Paso."
Why San Antonio to Muscatine, of all places, was the question left unanswered. Only in his later romance with the Musser Public Library did he learn that Texas-based Mexicans would come up to Iowa once a year to pick summer tomato crops. Some stayed on after the season rather than shuttle back and forth, until Muscatine was eventually seven to ten percent Mexican American. Tomato-picking ancestry could easily have been a detail a sixth-grade teacher chose not to supply unless she had to. Christina came close only on one other occasion, when they found mutual satisfaction and new depths of scorn shredding Pat Buchanan politics like chicken for tamale. Into America, river of many fish, had flowed two noticeably swollen tributaries, their slithery inhabitants taking too much feed from those in mainstream and giving back, allegedly, too little. One stream, old and great, wound down from the nearby Sierra Madres, sometimes spilling over manmade barriers. The other, recent, smaller, trickled in all the way from the Himalayas. When fish from the two rivulets fell into the same pond, they found they had notes to compare.
At Riverside Park by the Mississippi, Christina was not yet done with small towns.
"Mom and Dad seem happy to live out their lives here, and I guess I could manage that too, if it was just me. But I don't want that for Monique. I want her to have all the possibilities in the world, not the twenty-three or so in Muscatine. I don't know too many people still south of thirty years wouldn't get out of here if they had the chance."
Her father, earth-faced and coal-eyed in a photograph on her dresser, had helped produce corn spirits at Grain Processing Corp.; her mother, unsmiling in the same, fair-skinned and plump, was still a secretary at Heinz. Her ex-husband she rarely spoke of, except to mention he'd never trusted her with the accounts. Even after five years of marriage—could Zubin imagine? Her daughter, Monique, was fragile and silk-haired at seven, and the second time they'd met she sent a look at him, when Christina was at the refrigerator, that said I hate your guts. She'd meant him to see it.
He wasn't sure he liked where he thought the conversation was going, so he said, "I know what you're saying, but I grew up in a big city; it's no paradise. Muscatine's closer, in fact. But I want to see this burning island of yours."
"How about tonight?" She was ready to shelve the topic too. "Come get me at 6:30, and I'll show you the Mark Twain Overlook."
"The Mark Twain Overlook?"
"Uh-huh. Didn't you know he lived here?"
"Mark Twain lived in Muscatine?"
"For all of one summer," she said pertly. "Then he came to his senses."
For a long while it was no less fascinating an occupation than he'd anticipated. The activity itself, at the time, was close to God's: people and settings bloomed from his fingertips. He put lives in motion and watched them play out, unconscious of more than the intoxication of having stories to follow (and shape) that for a change contained characters he not only could relate to but were in some way him, all of them, beautiful, ugly, woman, man, child, aged, turtle, dog, Parsi, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, Taoist, Christian, black, brown, even white, the Other he'd grown so weary of from overexposure. All born of his mind and its sense of the world, after all, and molded by it. Madame Bovary c'est moi, how true, he thought. How he loved them. Later he felt that had he kept things that way, written always in a vacuum for himself, been his own and only reader, he might still have had access to the original thrill. But he also knew it would have been a head-in-the-sand kind of bliss.
When he joined creative writing workshops around Minneapolis and St. Paul,
the bubble was punctured but not quite burst. To have the private
workings of his mind aired in the hearing of others was a mixed thrill and took some squirming to get used to. This was not helped by the groups' being almost a hundred percent white American (three out of five middle-aged or older women, the rest assorted). In a curious inversion now, his Indian protagonists became the Other that his readers did not identify with. Matters of race, religion, gender, and politics that he'd learned to censor in his conversations demanded expression and a presence in his writing, as did his divided sense of self and place, and he felt down to his bones the silences into which they were read out loud by workshop leaders. Nevertheless, he experienced a sense of release at the airing of them, added to the surprising new clarity of thought that writing about them had produced. At reading's end, however, he found that his darlings drew as much criticism as praise. Mark Twain once said, if you want a writer to adore you, tell him you adore his work. Few in the workshops seemed to know that or, if they did, seemed needy of Zubin's adoration.
But hardest to handle were the terrible discrepancies that inexplicably arose between what he'd transmitted in black and white and what the listeners, his readers, seemed to have received. Twain also remarked that the difference between the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. Zubin was uninformed at the time but eventually came to know of Derrida's merry band of deconstructionists and that inescapable condition of man's existence in language: the slippage between each and every signifier and what it signifies. Whether as seemingly simple a one as "red" or as clearly complex as "love"—it didn't matter. They were all just arbitrarily assigned names that inadequately represented the actuality. He was still writing code! He worked at making his manuscripts as clear and hard and incontrovertibly defined as polished diamonds, only to discover again and again the distortion his ideas suffered in being rendered through words, as if images refracted by the diamonds became obscured in a dazzle of light. It took him a while to see in this the potential for multiple-interpretation rather than misinterpretation, that the dazzle could enrich rather than obscure the image. But in the meantime, a consciousness of his writing had descended upon him.
He demanded more and more of himself as a writer, was less and less easily satisfied or fulfilled by his efforts. But if the joy had gone out of the activity to an extent, he looked to enjoy a less easily obtained but therefore higher pleasure at the end of repeated rewrites: one he'd get from having created a product of indisputable quality. The measure was relative, of course—quality can only be gauged through comparison—and the most immediate comparisons available were comforting. Nine out of ten pieces turned in by his fellow workshoppers seemed rather simplistic to him, and he wondered a) if they really couldn't see that themselves and b) why they stayed at it.
The last was not a question he had to ask of himself. As yet. The episodes of his novel had begun, relatively, to flow again—he was surer of what he wanted of his writing and how to get there. This was not to say he found it easy going. As a programmer he'd written complex programs, the code of each sometimes filling a hundred-plus pages of printout, each pre-formatted line of which had to work logically with the ten thousand others or the whole fell to the ground. It amazed him that the task of writing them seemed a simple one now, compared with the staggering complexity of making the hundred thousand words of a novel hold together, which they had to do in a billion rational and irrational ways, some of them as subtle as a whisper, others completely intuitive and unstatable, if it was to be any good at all. Whenever, from then on, he heard the casual assertion that anybody can write a book if he wants to, he was reminded of the times he'd heard people deprecate the achievements of famous sportsmen with the words, "Well, if we had nothing to do but practice all day long…" and began to understand the enormity of his easy assumption, on a night now five years ago at Diamond Dave's, that he had what it took to write one. And he realized better the compliment implicit in Christina's faith that he could even write a good one.
Fifty years after Twain left it, Muscatine came to have its ten minutes in the sun. The town sits on a bend in the Mississippi, and over time a large number of mussels came to collect on the riverbed where the flow changes direction. A German immigrant and adventurer, John Boepple, hatched the idea of mining the shiny, color-streaked interior of the shells for material to make buttons. The pearl button industry was seeded this way, and it thrived. In 1905 alone, a billion-and-a-half pearl buttons slid, skittering, out of Muscatine factories, over a third of the world's button production. The town's infrastructure grew proportionately too: hotels and inns, parks, schools, art galleries, emporiums, and cafes with striped awnings shot up everywhere, bright young offspring of the new economy. Muscatine, vigorously alive and bustling like never before, came to be known as the pearl button capital of the world.
But capitals go down with their empires, and the pearl button empire was not meant to last. Paddleboats anchored to the surface of the Mississippi gave way to prop-planes buzzing its skies, hemlines flew higher too, and the great material of the century, plastic, largely unsung but spreading even to the shores of the Ganga and the Yangtze Kiang, made its way to Huck Finn's river as surely as Twain's road beyond Muscatine had led to literary fame. Buttons could now be molded in plastic perfection, and pearl buttons were soon merely quaint, redundant artifacts. Their twilight meant also the setting of Muscatine's ten-minute sun, hotel rooms fell empty, and the boom town became again the quiet backwater it had been before John Boepple's tidal brain wave.
At times Zubin felt a fleeting regret that Christina was gone from his life. That he'd let her go, more accurately. Maybe he'd been wrong to see an ulterior motive behind her affections, and maybe by now Monique would have grown to accept him. He'd dated sporadically since then—in Detroit and Minneapolis, not in Muscatine—but nothing had ever developed. And now he could hardly afford to date anymore, let alone think of settling down.
Every day his endeavor lengthened, his savings were running out. Programming may not have fulfilled him, but it had certainly paid the bills. He cringed a little now when anyone popped the innocent but inevitable question, "What do you do?" The reply, "I write," brought on excited queries about books the inquirers might find in the stores, and when he shook his head and admitted he was only yet working on his first one, he was deflated by the change in their eyes, though they fought noticeably to keep it out of their faces. Once at a neighbor's barbecue, an auburn-haired girl with whom he'd felt he was making progress up till then didn't spare him the logical follow-up: "Oh…So, do you do anything besides write?" He shook his head again, his face freezing up, and could only shrug his shoulders at her wry, "That must be nice…."
So eventually he found a part-time programming job, lived entirely on one-dollar TV dinners, and moved to a cheaper complex. Food, rent, and gasoline (He still had his Cavalier, paid off years before, having decided against selling it to get a bicycle.) became his only expenses. He missed the security and comforts of his earlier lifestyle but was content: the realization of his dream seemed a short drive away now, and it was worth the tradeoffs.
In the evening when Zubin went over, Monique was only a squeaky voice saying bye to her mom from an inner room. Christina looked edible in a green crepe dress over black fishnet that showed almost to her thighs. She smiled at the way he eyed her as he drove. A peach-like perfume expanded till it filled the car. She directing, they went down Mulberry past the county court house—a handsomely white-pillared and clock-towered affair—onto 2nd Street. Just off US 61, she pointed him toward the river up a short climb that leveled off and opened out into a little picnic area, replete with charcoal grills. Pulling up, he looked expectantly around, then at her.
"You'll see," she said, pointing to a plaque off in the corner. "But we have to wait till the sun goes down."
They got out of the Cavalier. A low, two-rail wooden fence looped the perimeter just where, to their left, grassy slopes fell off toward the river. The Mississippi was a bland steel-blue; it took the bend placidly. Puffs of breeze came up to them and dusted their faces. They pressed up against the waist-high top rail, their eyes tracking a long narrow bridge that reached over to Illinois in an arc so slight it paralleled the earth's curvature. A bridge between two states. If not for the truss above its cantilevered center-span, it might have been a Roman aqueduct, held up every so often by verticals. At right angles to it ran the line of the breakwater rubble, walling off the safe-harbor where the sailboats and motorboats and small yachts still rocked to Mexican rhythms. To front and right the town buildings spread, whites and browns blent to gray, a couple of rectangular hangars stretched out in the foreground.
"It's not that bad," she said almost to herself, left hip turned in to the rail, and, without knowing what it was to grow up in a small town, he knew she must be thinking of all the years she'd passed, every one of them in Muscatine. The perspective from such a height, looking over the whole, would prompt such thoughts. Leaving her still steeped in them, he visited the plaque. It spoke of a Great River Road from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, curving three thousand miles up and down the Mississippi. The plaque quoted Mark Twain on Muscatine: "I remember Muscatine for its sunsets. I have never seen any on either side of the ocean that equaled them."
Some endorsement, he thought, turning back to look for the celebrated orb. It had dipped towards the back of town, the blinding tip of a celestial welding rod, still high enough that only quick, oblique glances were possible. He skirted the Cavalier to Christina's side, padding over grass, and saw her smile come on with new reflected lights deepening to tones of red as they spoke. All of Muscatine was acquiring those tones, even as it turned steadily darker. Dreary streets and buildings colored and dissolved in soft effulgent glows. The countryside behind and around town fell into an expectant dusk; there was a hesitation in the air, something clearly on the way.
When it came, though, Zubin was stunned by its beauty. Thinking back later,
he tried to isolate each color, but failed. At the Musser Public Library, he
tracked Twain's quote to his riverboat travels account, Life on the
Mississippi, and found that the lookout's namesake had had no such problems.
The passage, more specific
than on the plaque, spoke of Muscatine's summer sunsets, adding:
They used the broad, smooth river as a canvas, and painted on it
every imaginable dream of color, from the mottled daintiness and
delicacies of the opal, all the way up, through cumulative intensities,
to blinding purple and crimson conflagrations….
They used the broad, smooth river as a canvas, and painted on it
Watching with Christina, Zubin was conscious of her hand and of a universal blush, a heated orange glow that lay upon all the darkened forestry and shot through low-flying stratus in luminous pinks. At center, the white-hot sphere had swelled to giant proportions. It was close to the horizon by now, could almost be looked at directly. A funnel of light hung shimmering beneath it in tornado-like swirls that reached deep into the river. When at last the sun touched the trees, it lit orange and yellow fires along their tops, and Zubin saw how the Indian name for Muscatine might have come about.
As things turned out, his dream came close to materializing. The pace of his writing, always less than blazing, slowed as he entered the last phase of the book—delivering satisfactory closure (or non-closure, whichever worked) seemed the hardest part yet. But he let each chapter trickle in, having learned not to force it. And when he was only a page or two away and knew how it should go, he waited the three days to St. Patricks', wanting an auspicious day on which to type The End. Apart from a little controversy raised by someone who wanted closure as of a coffin's, the final workshop reading was a minor triumph, and after some tinkering he had a novel manuscript to publish.
But he soon learned that between writing a book manuscript and publishing it stands the least enjoyable task: selling it. Excerpts he sent to magazines, literary or glossy, came back after months of silence, accompanied by impersonal form-letter rejections or an occasional comment. Nor, he was told, could an unknown writer send an un-agented novel manuscript directly to a book publisher any longer and expect it to be read by an editor; it just got thrown in something comfortingly called the slush pile. Queries to literary agents in New York sometimes got as far as an invitation to send the first fifty-to-hundred pages of his manuscript, but no one wanted to take it on.
His belief in the book was unshakable, though, so he saw breaking through as only a matter of time and kept stubbornly at it. After a year or so in which reworked excerpts began to earn pen-written notes of guarded praise and regret from magazine editors, things seemed to turn around all at once. Two acceptances arrived in quick succession, from an Indian glossy he'd located in California and a not-unknown literary magazine out of Chicago. Barely had he gotten word from the latter than an agent called with abundant praise, in a modified-Yiddish accent, of the book manuscript, offering to market it to New York publishers.
Zubin couldn't keep his voice from shaking as he accepted terms on commissions et cetera. From all he'd heard, getting an agent was the difficult part—once you had one, your book was as good as published. Now, finally, he had validation. When the dread question was popped, "What do you do?", he could point to publications, produce copies, casually drop the words, "…my agent in New York…", speak of the book, and look forward to the change in expression. Not skepticism, not the damning, barely concealed, "What a fool," but belief and respect. Not resentment, not "How come he gets to sit on his ass and pretend he's a big-shot writer, when we have to work our asses off day after day in the real world?" No—admiration, this time, and even excitement. He found himself moved by the willingness of all kinds of virtual strangers to vicariously enjoy his adventure.
Christina seemed to see paradise too at the overlook, but it's not paradise that burns. The passage out of Life on the Mississippi differed in one more way from the shortened form on the plaque and on tourism brochures at the Musser. In full it read, "And I remember Muscatine—still more pleasantly—for its summer sunsets." Still more pleasantly than what? In text leading up to the passage, Zubin found two other remembrances. "I lived there awhile, many years ago," Twain first wrote, "but the place, now [as the riverboat passed it], had a rather unfamiliar look; so I suppose it has clear outgrown the town which I used to know. In fact, I know it has; for I remember it as a small place…."
His second, most prominent memory, was vintage Twain:
But I remember it best for a lunatic who caught me out in the fields,
one Sunday, and extracted a butcher-knife from his boot and prepared
to carve me up with it, unless I acknowledged him to be the only son
of the Devil. I tried to compromise on an acknowledgment that he was
the only member of the family I had met; but that did not satisfy him;
he wouldn't have any half-measures; I must say he was the sole and
only son of the Devil—and he whetted his knife on his boot. It did not
seem worth while to make trouble about a little thing like that; so I
swung round to his view of the matter and saved my skin whole.
Shortly afterward, he went to visit his father; and as he has not
turned up since, I trust he is there yet.
Clearly, Christina was not the only native of Muscatine who'd thought her hometown less than heaven.
He called his agent at the turn of each month, resisting the urge every day
to call earlier. The list of publishing houses his novel had been circulated to
grew each time, but so did the number of those who had sent it back. No reasons
were given, usually, but he'd been trained by the magazine-submission process to
handle the silence in which rejection often came wrapped. Once again he felt it
was only a matter of time before the break
through, though clearly he needed to accept what he'd already suspected: New York was not going to think his novel so marketable as to clamor and contend for it. The real bottom line, he told himself, was that it was well worth publishing and someone would eventually want to do that.
Occasionally the agent passed on in the mail an editor's comment, and while it bothered Zubin to read, say, from one house that his narrative was too linear for the editor (what would a non-linear Siddhartha have been like, for instance, despite the book's denial of linear time?) but from another that his indirect narrative strategy (whatever that meant) was confusing, he couldn't help but be stirred by the almost surreal notion that his manuscript had been in the hands of so-and-so at Knopf (Was the K silent or pronounced?). Even as it began to register very, very slowly—so clearly could he visualize the printed book now, down to the cover-picture: two trains on a collision course along the inwardly angled tracks of a vanishing perspective, one a rough old, dust-brown and clanking Western Railway steam engine belching smoke, the other a sleek red-white-and-blue, pristinely bright and sharp-edged Amtrak streaking along effortlessly, above them the title Culture Crash—that he might fall just short of the tape, he saw too that it was against the odds he'd come within such clear sight of it. He wondered again what kept some of the workshoppers coming back Tuesday evening after Tuesday evening, toiling over new manuscripts to bring in, when all their writing before had gotten nowhere even with their empathizing peers. Was it their ability to hope or the one to fool themselves? Was it the need to create, to find a voice, to clarify one's thinking, all or any of the built-in rewards he'd recognized along the way? Would they be enough for him without the end-reward, the voice unheard? He'd begun work on his next novel, but found himself struggling for focus now.
When the agent called to say apologetically that he'd put a fresh list of rejections in the mail and, after almost a year of sending the manuscript out, was about to give up, Zubin said, "I don't blame you," and meant it. He'd run out of steam. He stopped writing altogether. When the list came, there was only one note enclosed with it. Later he'd realize it was the kindest one, but at the time it made him bitter. The editor regretted having to return the manuscript, but felt the agent's client had "the tools to write a first-rate book." Clearly, this one had struck her as less than first-rate. Zubin felt himself accused of having failed to deliver the one thing he believed he had: a "good book"!
Indignation galvanized him out of apathy and his one-bedroom into the bookstores. In what way, he wanted to know, had his book failed to measure up? Right away he was further embittered by a scan of the trash, as he perceived it, lining the shelves. Romance and horror of the most lurid variety had not been barred from publication on the grounds of being second-rate or third! Served him well for writing something serious. And for being naïve enough to think that what was not done in conversation would be acceptable matter for public printing. Or that Americans would want to read—and live—the lives of Indian characters who were not the comical store-clerk stereotypes that sent them subliminal reassurances of their own sophistication. Writing about race and color only brought a writer trouble—even the Hurstons and Twains had found that out. Huckleberry got just a lukewarm reception when it first came out in 1884, unlike other books Twain had written. Hurston had to quit writing, died a house-maid—dear God, for a Hurston to be reduced to that—and was buried in an unmarked grave long before Their Eyes Were Watching God was resurrected and took its place as an American classic.
Such thoughts were comforting—they took the onus for failure off him—so he held on to them for close to a year. To his surprise, he found himself still drawn to his Brother on occasion (His burnout on computers had stopped him from even getting his own P.C.) to work on the new book, writing about much the things he'd done before, without knowing what kept him at it. He had to return full-time to programming, however. It felt like a capitulation, though he wasn't sure to whom or what he was bowing. Certainty of any kind had gone out of his life and way of thinking, but so had ambition of any kind, and he was a relaxed, looser version of his former self.
He read too, when he found the time, and now more than ever had difficulty
finishing books he started. He was too conscious of the writing and either flaws
or excellences in it to think the story was real. Even if the style drew no
attention to itself, he knew only too well now that it was all, each sentence,
each word, coming out of the mind of some writer, someone human and imperfect,
and that at each fork in the story-line the protagonist might just as easily
have gone the other way. It was the same with movies anymore, though
documentaries almost worked. Non-fiction too, or simply journalistic reporting,
held him better. But the writing still intervened, distorted what had actually
occurred in ways that were now painfully apparent to him. Only live television
allowed him to any extent, inasmuch as he could sift the choreographed from the
spontaneous and true, to suspend disbelief. The moment-to-moment progression of
even a tennis match, developing as he watched, was far more unpredictable
and its nuances more honest and unmanipulated than any man-made plot. It struck
him, too, that each match was an episode in each round, each round a chapter in
each tournament, each tournament one book (whose ending might only be hazarded,
as in the best of detective novels) of many volumes, all populated by recurring
characters whom, over time, the spectator/reader came to know intimately. If he
wanted the complexity of more than one-on-one interaction between characters, he
could step up to
doubles, or better still to a football game within a season of games. Action on—and off—court blurred: Graf and Seles battled for Grand Slam titles even as Seles took a knife between the shoulderblades from a Graf fan, or a few volumes later Graf, who'd once laughed a shy schoolgirl's laugh when asked if she might pose for Playboy, made a pensive appearance in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue instead. Zubin could believe in it all—because it was happening in front of his eyes—and watch for developments across the years. He could even re-read a chapter between Connors and Lendl, say, watch their expressions or lack thereof, feel the uncontrolled, subtle shifts in momentum, and enjoy the true drama of it.
Over a corner table at Diamond Dave's, the night of the sunset, Christina had leaned towards Zubin with a twist of her shoulders and a quirky smile that made her brown eyes fizz.
"So your father sang and your mother played piano. What did you do?"
"Me?" he said. "I did both. Took piano lessons when I was a kid, but it bored me. So I quit."
"Mm-hm. Could you play now, if I found you a baby grand?"
"It's been a while," he said warily, and wondering where in Muscatine a grand piano might exist. Then, feeling the lameness, "I wasn't too bad at the time, though. My teacher—sweet old lady but all scales and by the book—told me once I could've won a contest."
"Oh, please," she said, dimpling. "You win contests!"
He bridled at that and fell to smoothing his mustache down, though he knew her trick of teasing to the point of insult. It was her way of upping sexual tension. She'd rock him that night like those boats in the safe-harbor. Their waitress came by, her bust looking to come through a maroon T-shirt, chatting them up, busily laying out dinner (Veal Parmigiana for him, heavy with cheese and tomato, blackened chicken salad for Christina). Her fingernails, Zubin noticed for some reason as the plates came down, matched the T-shirt perfectly.
"I had some definite artistic potential, let me tell you," he said, picking up after a minute, good humor refueled by the smells and the food. "I'd make up little pieces of my own that were pretty good for a ten-year-old, I think."
"And where did it go—that potential?"
Good question…. The only keys his fingers played anymore were on the
terminals at Bandag, re-coding old accounts-receivable programs. Not even
creative the way programming could be, designing new systems. And, unlike
several programmers he knew who weren't alive unless they were thinking tech,
he'd never been one to get excited about it, always happy to leave the job
behind at five (or nine, if he weren't so lucky). Was he meant to write code for
the rest of his life? His smile died. What kind of dreary existence was that? He
felt then that he was meant instead for the beautiful things: sunsets coloring
the world, islands burning, delicate readings of dreams—for Schumann's "Träumerei,"
of course, not CO
BOL and C and PASCAL.
"I think it's still there," he said, back on earth, surprised and a bit excited. He was seized by a Tom Sawyerish urge to stand on his hands for this beautiful tease, convince her of the possibilities he suddenly sensed in himself, and celebrate with her.
"I think it's been just sitting there," he continued, putting his knife down, "waiting for I don't know what."
She let out a small laugh, easy but not unexcited, and he could tell in her eyes that he was reaching her.
"Is it still music? Or something else?" she asked in almost sibling understanding, leaning forward, little tease to her tone anymore. When he watched her dance at the fiesta in September, all color and verve, he thought it natural she'd been so quick to grasp what was happening inside him.
"No…" he said, casting about for what it was and reeling it in. "Not music… I think I'll write a book some time! Like Mark Twain. That's why I have to wait—till I've lived enough. So I know more about things."
As they sat in contemplation of the idea, slippery as yet, still dripping birth-fluids, slowly it took on form and an encouraging solidity. Then Christina moved.
"I can see it," she said, putting her hand out to cover his on the table, her dark eyes bright by now like her father's in the picture on the dresser. She liked the idea, clearly, liked what she saw it doing to him, liked his confidence that he could make it happen. "I can see you writing a good book."
His disenchantment with fiction notwithstanding, the return to reading even fragments of books did, inevitably, cause him to encounter and acknowledge the iconoclastic, literary stuff coming out of ethnic authors, the Alexies, Erdriches, Kincaids, Hijueloses, Roys, Changs, Diazes, Lewises, Ansas, Kureishis, Tharoors, Divakarunis, Cisneroses, Kamanis, Alvarezes, Laharis, Gilbs, Chandras, Sharmas, Lees, Vergheses, Jins, and Jens. (In reading Indian authors, every once in a while he had the eerie, stomach-tightening experience of encountering some of his own material, done depressingly better than he remembered doing in his book.) They'd certainly managed to be published. Yes, it was harder to break into literary book-print than into the genres, but only because readers bought fewer literary books, whether mainstream or ethnic, than thrillers. (As for those who read the literary stuff, Zubin could now go on amazon.com and scan page after page of readers' comments posted on specific books. He was left amazed and shamed by the eagerness with which hundreds of amateur reviewers embraced ethnic literature—they so clearly belied his own stereotype of the Other.) It was simple business mechanics, supply and demand once more. But clearly if your work was good approaching brilliant (just good was no longer good enough—too much of that already floating around) you could do it, and do it writing about anything.
That excuse gone, he had to look again at his novel. And, as if disemboweled by magic, it was a different beast from the vital one he'd remembered. Naïve, affected, derivative, romanticized, sketchy, faint-hearted, even simplistic—the adjectives he'd thought applied only to the other workshoppers' manuscripts—were some of the descriptors that came to his shocked mind. His fiction resembled the rich, complex realities he'd wanted to convey (and thought he had) as a stick-figure resembles a human (that maddening slippage again). He'd been looking through a fog himself, apparently. Hoping against hope, he pulled out the two excerpts that had gotten into magazines, but reading them made him wince, and all the more because they were out now in the public domain and there was nothing he could do about their mediocrities. Finally, unavoidably, he knew that the editor at Putnam or wherever had been right. He had not managed to do what Christina and he had been so sure he could: write a good book.
When the shock wore off, he redoubled his efforts at the word-processor every evening after work. He'd make his next book a good one if it killed him. He'd make it a great one. That was the gift those tactfully silent rejections had given him: the chance to make his appearance in print something to be proud of. It was all part of a learning curve along which he'd already seen himself make strides, and he intended to stay at it for as long as it took. On the micro level, he spent hours at each point of his work considering the direction of, and crafting, only the next sentence or two, determined to be satisfied with nothing less than what, say, Chekhov or Tagore might have accepted into their own manuscripts. When he read such passages back, they felt tangibly better, and he was encouraged. On the macro level, he was impressed by John Gardner's simple but ingenious insight in The Art of Fiction that "the writer struggles to achieve one specific large effect, what can only be called the effect we are used to getting from good novels," and that "the writer unfamiliar with the highest effects possible [as achieved by the very best works of literature] is virtually doomed to search out lesser effects."
Embarking on a search for the higher effects, he found himself dizzied by the
densities of an Updike or Doctorow, the cerebrations of a Borges or Kundera, the
inventiveness of a Barthelme or Brautigan, the erudition of a Byatt or Atwood,
the unlimited imagination of a Marquez or Calvino, and felt himself drawn on,
fascinated, accumulating awe like a ferret that senses the presence of a large
form in the brush but feels impelled to investigate. One day he opened a
short-fiction anthology to Gordimer's "Siblings" and was immersed in
her virtuoso, do-it-all style, in the rich, voluptuous, deeply ambiguous life
that sprang fearlessly, full-bodied and quivering, from the page. And the simple
truth exploded in his head that he would never, graft how he might, write
even a paragraph that measured up to the
brilliance of the gifted.
Everything after that was anticlimactic. It was as if, accustomed to getting A's in undergrad coursework, he'd entered the graduate program only to find he could never do better than B's, that in truth he was, had been all along, would always remain, a B student. All his life thus far he'd believed that he could accomplish anything he was of a mind to if he put in the requisite effort for as long as it took. Ranking high in school, cracking the IIT entrance exam, graduating high enough to be drafted by Tata Consultancy Services, becoming a well-paid computer consultant at Fortune One-Hundred companies: all these had followed as if naturally and inevitably his setting of aspirations and exerting towards achieving them. So to finally acknowledge the mountain he didn't have the legs to climb, its peaks tantalizingly visible but unreachable, was a shock to his system.
He consoled himself with the recognition that even the Gordimers and Marquezes didn't, in fact couldn't, always measure up to even their own best stuff. Not all of Gordimer was a "Siblings," and he'd read a story by Updike recently that, while good, was neither a Rabbit nor "The Christian Roommates." How often, after all, could you ask of someone that she create magic? If on the near slope of the learning curve, his, there was the unattainability of the summit, perhaps on the far side was an inevitable falling off. At least they only had to handle going from A+ to A, and there was always the prospect of hitting A+ again. He left the couch and went off to Barnes and Noble in his Cavalier to look for A Soldier's Embrace, the 1980 collection by Gordimer for which she'd written "Siblings" and in which maybe she'd reached her upper limits.
But it was not on the shelf with other books by her, and, when the perky young sales-clerk pulled it up on her screen, she had to shake her head and tell him sorry, they couldn't even order it—it was out of print…. He nodded blankly and went back among the books, pulled something by Boyle about East and West off its shelf and settled into one of the cozy-chairs. But he couldn't read, just sat there looking around: all those thousands of books—an absolute flood of words—by so many brilliant writers. Only a minute fraction, really, of the total numbers increasing exponentially each decade, helped by the spread of word-processors and workshops, fighting an ever more chancy battle (supply and demand all over again) for attention and recognition. For their ten minutes of sun. And each of them, bar a handful, destined to drop out of sight.
Even the great ones, could they realistically expect to last forever? Who was to say Homer's was truly survival of the fittest? The all-recording Alexandrian library, possibly containing greater genius than Homer's, had eventually burned to the ground the way Alexander had once torched Persian writings. Look far enough down the road and who survived might all come down to chance, someone's personal e-book or CD-ROM collection dug up after millenniums. Maybe all a writer, any writer, could do was make his work as good as he possibly could and get it out there, enter it in the lottery. The thought was less comforting than depressing; he put Boyle back and left.
Home seemed uninviting, too closed and hushed, so he got onto 35 West and headed for one of his favorite places, Minnehaha Falls. The sun, cooled to orange and heavy, was setting over it when he left the car and walked into the park by Minnehaha Creek. It had been a wet year, and the water foamed and shimmered down to the glen fifty feet below and on into the Mississippi. Above the falls, out of the stream's grays and blues rose the bronze, gleaming statue of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, and as always it reminded him of Longfellow's "Song" on the one hand and the statue of the lone Mascoutin back in Riverside Park on the other. No small-town setting, this, however. Only a spin away rose familiar pedestrian skyways and office towers in a business world he hadn't been able to escape. A world so boundless, in fact, that it even, for all practical purposes, ran the arts. Not as clearly labeled as an island that burns, but one of his hells.
Right where he was was good enough: not on the Mississippi itself but by a creek that fed it. The river for the Mark Twains, a tributary for aspiring writers. The thought relaxed him. He lowered himself to damp grass and watched the sun go down. The question rose in his mind, would he keep on writing, and he put it immediately to rest. No question. He still wasn't sure why, exactly, but he now had a felt knowledge of what brought his workshop companions back week after week, and he had some ideas.
He'd read an article in which an author (Welty or Porter or O'Connor, he
couldn't remember who) said she wrote because, quite simply, it was what she did
best. He thought maybe, rather, it was the best thing she did. He'd also heard
of someone who'd said he couldn't not write. It seemed to Zubin that
people sometimes wrote to find their way out of personal hells, and perhaps only
after they did that could they not write. Had Christina, for instance, been a
writer, she'd have written about people who felt trapped in small towns. She'd
probably spoken of it in her dances, in fact, if he'd just had the vocabulary to
follow. It was all right, though—he might have learned more of her story but
most likely he'd have misinterpreted it. Misunderstood her as they'd
misunderstood each other a hundred other times. Slippage, more slippage, and yet
more slippage. Inescapable. Unending. Every last bit of communication through
history set in code, and each piece of code with its own built-in bug, just
waiting to blow some program up! The only story you could hope to know to any
real degree of completeness or accuracy, from the inside out—from deeper
inside than language could go—and so in all its stunning complexity and truth,
was your own. It may not have been as important to you as your daughter's, say,
but it was
the story to whose internal details you had the most (and most direct) access. Writing from the data banks of his own story had helped him approach some hazy understanding of it, and, in circular fashion, his writings had eventually become a part of his life-story. He'd even come to see things he'd written actually happen around or to him. In the final analysis, he felt he'd become the person he now was, and his story the story it was, because he wrote. One writer, he surmised, might bargain his soul away like Faust, to write, while another might find his, writing. Sometimes he wasn't sure which of the two he was. In all likelihood, both.
The sun was ready to go, and he watched it light the stream, feeling no urge, at last, to put words to the image. Some day he might yet write that good book, but until it took hold of him he'd just live things for a bit. He was moved by the thought that in Muscatine too, at this time, the sun was setting on the Mississippi, and, at the other end of the Great River Road, in New Orleans as well, a place he'd never been to but was somehow connected with because of Christina. At times he toyed with the idea of tracking her down in the Big Easy. When her day to leave Muscatine had drawn near, he'd made a call and was surprised at her quick agreement to have one last dinner. She'd heard of a great new place in Iowa City, so they drove the forty-or-so miles there, one of his three visits to the congenial university town. Its sunlit campus parks and umbrella-shaded food stalls had warmed him to it. Only years later had he learned of its famous University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. His old friend the Musser Public Library, just a stroll down Iowa Avenue in Muscatine, was all he'd needed at the time, and he went on and on to Christina about it.
The Thai restaurant off-campus was nice; they sat in the right angle of an aquarium, and the rainbow-colored fish swimming about them made the evening seem surreal. She was the thinnest he'd ever seen her, maybe too thin—beautiful still, but in a different way. (He'd grown heavier, he knew; it showed in his face when he shaved around the mustache.) He could tell from her talk that she was excited and sad. Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras up ahead (no more real winters), Watermelon Jamboree and Viva Mexico already dropping behind. And for him? Well, completion of his contract at Bandag, first of all, then on to the next one. Oh. Where? Wherever; there was talk of either Michigan or Minnesota at his head office. Winters either way. She said no to dessert, and they left. In the Cavalier, doing fifty on Route 22, they ran out of things to talk about. A loaded silence ensued, till finally she rolled her window down. Then the darkening air rushing past made it hard to hear anyway.
Back in Muscatine, pulling into her division with their headlights streaming,
he thought for a moment she might ask him in despite Monique. But, instead, she
invited him to come visit her in New Orleans. Long way off, he thought, polite
thing to say. So he responded with a nod
and a "Sure; love to" that meant nothing. It was exactly the kind of connotation to which he'd restricted his use of the love word. She hesitated still. Then fleetingly across her face a tired look had passed. At the time he couldn't figure it out but now felt it had spelled frustration of some kind. With all the slippage, maybe. At any rate, she'd just turned and gone in, hadn't even kissed him good-bye.
When finally the dampness began to seep through his jeans, he got up to leave. Minnehaha Park was all shadows by then. The creek had changed to silver.