“4 Objects, 21 Lessons,” by Steven Wingate

Object A: Bedouin Head

image of chain link fencing hanging between two cement posts, over slate path

Photo by Maria Li, via freeimages.com

Freshly divorced, I drive from Miami, Florida, to Durham, New Hampshire, with my new girlfriend, who is headed for grad school there. We arrive a day early and decide to spend a night at Ogunquit Beach in southern Maine, a place I’d enjoyed greatly with my ex-wife and now want to reclaim as a single man.

A depressed man. A browbeaten man. But a single man, choked with possibility.

We arrive to find that every room in Ogunquit has been booked. And every room in all the beach towns nearby, plus every room in all the inland towns within half an hour of the water. It turns out to be the weekend that everybody from Boston and Portland flocks to the ocean one last time before their kids go back to school. We sleep in parking lots in one town or another until cops chase us off, then drive around until we find an all-night Denny’s where we can get a booth. We take turns napping with our heads on each other’s laps, and the waitstaff at this particular Denny’s either understands or doesn’t care.

When the sun comes up, we discover that the town we’re in has a Salvation Army Thrift Store, and because my new girlfriend and I both believe in the sacredness of secondhand objects, we stumble inside. I consider myself a connoisseur of Salvation Army junk, having worked as the furniture and bric-a-brac manager in their Binghamton, New York store when I was twenty, and I know how to spot a gem. Almost immediately, I find a four-inch-tall plaster Bedouin face, straight out of Lawrence of Arabia. Butterscotch skin, mustache, turban, hook nose with the end bashed off.

“I want to buy it for you,” my new girlfriend says.

But I want to buy it for myself, and I do. Three dollars, I think it costs me. Three months later I board a Greyhound back to Colorado with my plaster Bedouin in the knapsack that I use as a pillow for the long ride. The face now hangs from a nail on my writing room wall—wherever that room is, whatever town it’s in. The face makes an appearance in a novel that nobody wants to publish. He becomes my mascot, my portal to the unknowable. I’m avoiding his gaze right now as he stares down at me, nestled between a picture of my Hungarian great-grandparents and one of Pope John Paul II with his arm around Mother Teresa.

He is mine, as much as anything in the world is mine.

Lessons:

1) All the things that will ever have meaning for you already exist in the world.

2) The things you will cling to most dearly find you in your moments of greatest coherence and incoherence.

3) Everything you touch becomes part of who you are.

4) It doesn’t matter what you feel when you touch it.

5) This lesson will repeat itself over time.

6) If it doesn’t, you’re not paying attention.

 

Object B: Typewriter

This one also starts at a Salvation Army, but it ends in an alley. Every once in a while, I see a junky old typewriter in a secondhand store and buy it, imagining that it will help me bang out sentences as crisp as Hemingway’s. Inevitably it sits in my closet for months or years because I can’t stand the noise of it. The typewriter in question here, a fellow aficionado tells me, was popular with 1950s journalists. Dark, brushed silver with a beige zip-up Naugahyde case. Small, light, easy to tuck under an armpit while you hand your passport to a surly border guard or slip a bribe to an informative cop.

This particular typewriter lasts longer than most with me, because I have enough closet space to keep it and because I haven’t been moving around so much lately. It has sat in my closet in Boulder, Colorado, for fifteen months, but I don’t have room for it in the Toyota Tercel that will ferry me to my next destination: Lake Charles, Louisiana. So one day I put it out by a dumpster that I can see from my writing room window, and I hang around to see who will pick up my treasure. College kids walk by it with barely a glance, though one pokes it with his toe. A trio of Mexicans in a pickup truck unzip it, consider it, zip it back up, set it on the ground.

Then an old guy with a bushy white beard, homeless or nearly so, gets down on his knees and unzips the typewriter almost prayerfully. He turns his head to shout something, and a few seconds later two similarly attired fellows crouch by his side to inspect the booty. Their heads bob animatedly, and the man who found it beams as he tucks it under his armpit and strides off.

Did he perform that same gesture decades earlier, with the exact same model of typewriter, back in his professional prime? Has he, like me, fantasized about crossing borders and bribing guards and filing dispatches from the far reaches of the planet? Does he still dream of being the next Hemingway, even at his age, and is the lack of a suitable typewriter his one remaining obstacle in this pursuit?

Lessons:

7) If you can ensure that your discarded meaningful objects will be picked up by another with reverence, do so.

8) Whatever they touch becomes a part of who they are.

9) You are not obliged to fantasize about what role your discarded objects play in the lives of others, but—

10)—you are encouraged.

 

Object C: Briefcase

Boulder again, on the way to Lake Charles. The plaster Bedouin hangs on my writing room wall, waiting to be packed up. The typewriter is gone from my life, embarked on its next journey toward meaning and fulfillment, and I’m not in the mood to accumulate any more objects. I’m on my way back from church when I walk past a garage sale and inspect its offerings out of habit. This garage sale sucks me in because I find, lined up by the sidewalk, several pairs of men’s size 13 shoes, which means that someone my size is selling off clothes. I figure I might be able to score the perfect leather jacket at this garage sale—the one that has been evading me my whole life, ducking for cover every time I approach it—and I follow the trail of sweaters, books, etc. from the front of the house to the back.

There I find a brown leather lawyer’s briefcase, the kind with three compartments inside and a combination lock on the front. I’ve seen new ones selling for $600 in fancy luggage shops. This one is ancient, classic, as old as my freshly jettisoned typewriter. A fifty-ish woman sees me eyeballing it and launches into a description of its provenance: it once belonged to her lawyer father, dead for six years now, whose possessions she can finally pass on to others in joy rather than in grief.

I won’t remember any of the poignant things she tells me about her father because I’m too busy thinking how damn regal I’ll look carrying that briefcase into my Louisiana classroom. I’ll look like a guy with ten generations of lawyers and professors behind him. Oh yes, very upper-crust indeed.

I buy the briefcase for five dollars, take it home and vacuum it out, condition it with mink oil, and immediately put my most important papers inside it. Of course I leave room for the Bedouin head. I barely use this briefcase once I get to Louisiana, since it says Yankee louder than anything I own except my voice, but once I come back to Colorado I use it on occasion—when I need to impress my students at the beginning of a semester, or when I’m bringing someone a manuscript. When I need to feel upper-crusty, like the kind of guy whose grandfathers were lawyers and professors instead of gardeners and factory workers.

And the briefcase always works. It never lets me down.

Lessons:

11) For the rest of your life, things imbued with meaning by others will find their rightful way to you.

12) It is important to take them when the world offers them to you, because the world has a plan for you and for all the objects in it.

13) What has been touched by other people retains a part of them.

14) Your reverence for what they leave behind helps their memory ripple more beautifully through time.

15) You must not be frightened by the sentimentality that the statement immediately above invites.

 

Object D: Civil War Star

This is before my first marriage, before Florida or Louisiana or New Hampshire or Boulder. Before the Salvation Army job, even. I’m in Binghamton, a most unglamorous upstate New York burg, exploring the fringes of town with a friend I work with at a dorm cafeteria. We’re stoned and looking for something miraculous, something to shape our beings, and we find it: an old cemetery that has caved in on itself and become a steep ravine, perhaps because of an earthquake but more likely due to a construction project gone wrong. Some headstones stick out of the ground at forty-five-degree angles; others are broken in half. We look for caskets, but these have no doubt been removed for health reasons. Urns and cupids and angels lie strewn about, unconnected to their dead.

In the midst of all this, I see a star, bronze going green with age, that reads GAR 1861-1865. That means a Yankee Civil War veteran had been buried nearby, and I look around for his gravestone. The nearest reads: MARY. The next-nearest belongs to a man, but he was born in 1883.

“I shouldn’t even be picking this up, should I?” I ask my friend.

“Keep it,” he says. “Better you have it than it lays here. Somebody’s got to remember him, right?”

So I put the star in my overcoat pocket and take it home. For years, it sits balanced on my headboard, or on a picture frame over my bed, just in case the soul of that dead Civil War soldier wants to punish me for taking his star by crashing it down onto the center of my forehead. But it never falls, so I guess he isn’t mad. Or he never finds out I took it, or he has too many other things to worry about in the afterlife to even care.

Years later, when I’m married to my first wife and in grad school in Florida, I use that Civil War star in a film I’m producing. I get into a fight with the director, and he never gives me the star back—not after the shoot, not after graduation, not after several requests. It’s probably in the school’s prop shop now, where people use it in plays or movies every once in a while. Maybe somebody forgot to return it and it’s in a landfill by now, its exquisitely nubbled surface slimed over with rotten vegetables. The one remaining memento of this long-dead man, sandwiched between a crusty baby diaper and a pair of rubber gloves.

I try not to think about it too much. There are days when I feel like I let that soldier down, and days—like today—when I wonder if just mentioning him on the page is enough to let him know that somebody in the world still remembers him. I want more days like this one. More days when I can blithely let myself off the hook for my casual transgressions.

Lessons:

16) Things you find by chance that once had meaning for others will continue to have meaning for others.

17) You cannot undo this.

18) Their meaning is like matter—neither created nor destroyed.

19) Whoever touches them becomes part of what they are.

20) You are a minuscule, inevitable, invaluable element of this process, which eventually will unite all objects and people in the world.

21) This process is the sole and entire meaning of life, and it must not be delayed.

 


Steven Wingate is the author of the novels Of Fathers and Fire (2019) and The Leave-Takers (forthcoming), both part of the Flyover Fiction Series from the University of Nebraska Press. His cross-genre work includes the prose poem collection Thirty-One Octets (CW Books, 2014) and the interactive digital memoir daddylabyrinth, which premiered at the Art/Science Museum of Singapore in 2014. He has taught at the University of Colorado, the College of the Holy Cross, and South Dakota State University, where he is currently associate professor of English.

Categories: Non-Fiction

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