I packed up my car, I call him Harvey the Honda, and headed to Austin after graduation.
On the outer banks of North Carolina I learned that wild horses weren’t just song lyrics. In New Orleans the crickets played jazz; my bread pudding was as pleasant as today’s sunshine when yesterday was cloudy and cold. The bats came out to welcome me in Austin but the grass, which waved to me along my entire journey, was still and said, please, I’m so thirsty.
The sky is bigger in Texas, too big and that’s why it hadn’t rained. You need to squeeze the clouds tighter to get the juice out of them.
With a few hundred dollars to spare, I flew to Montana for three days to see what it looked like. I camped at a lake beneath snowcapped mountains and read by the full moon’s light.
My dog died that weekend. I knew he was sick when I left New York, and on our last walk I told him, “Willy, you need to be here when I get back.”
He made it as long as he could, as long as I ever should have asked him to make it. I felt guilty about mourning him because kids with dead fathers looked me in the eye at work.
You should have seen their faces. There was no sadness in them. No hurt or wrinkles. They wrote about it. The paper was right there in front of us, and I could see no moisture in their eyes, nor twitch on their lips. It was not callousness that kept the pain off of those kids’ faces when they held the memory of their fathers between their fingers – it was strength. Strength that I will never find in a gym, and will never pursue the cultivation of. That sort of strength is found only in tragedy. There is no sort of practice that can give it to you.
My boss asked me to rewrite essays for students, so I quit.
In middle school, I fell in love with stand-up comedy; in Austin I decided to try it. After five performances it was going well- a woman from the radio gave me her card.
Last summer, I took four weeks and drove to Eugene and back – my own Oregon trail. I waded in rivers between thousand-foot high canyon walls, stopped for a mother bear ushering her cubs across the road, stared up at the world’s biggest tree, and sallied down into the dark depths of our hemisphere’s largest cavern. Harvey and I dodged hailstorms and thunderbolts while blinded by a wildfire’s smoke, and saw the sun rise at the Grand Canyon.
I followed my friend to London when his Olympic dream came true. We had lunch in the Olympic village with people whose names and faces I knew prior to introductions. We shared a disappointed hug in the shadow of the Olympic torch.
One night near the Tower Bridge, we were distracted from the celebrations of Jamaican track fans by a concerned exclamation from someone nearby. I turned around to see tiny white splashes beneath the bridge. And then I didn’t see white splashes.
We ran closer, found two bobbies on their radios, and told them what we saw. If you’ve never heard a countdown to death, consider yourself blessed by whichever deity you subscribe.
“He’s been underwater five minutes now… six…. seven… twelve…”
They said he wore a weighted rumpsack; that he shouted his intentions before he leapt.
I had all these adventures in one year. I saw beauty and comedy and tragedy, and in between I tutored physics, but really I spent most of my time right here, at a desk, with my eyes strained toward a blank screen. I maintained a diary my first year in Austin- I wrote one page for each night I spent here. I published weekly articles to my website. I started and restarted and retold stories, told and retold jokes. I tried poetry, and found it exciting but straining. I prefer prose.
I spent my time working to get by, and writing to get better. I tried to understand what it was I needed to write about, and why.