Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Robert Boswell.
Sleep and I have never been friends. Some nights it feels like we’re enemies. I wake each morning (or afternoon) to a haze of my own making, a personal miasma the color and texture of dryer lint, and through this gray soup, like blindfolded Odysseus, I swim.
I am a Monday-morning pilgrim casting about for an island of lucidity, but I am indeed awake and of this world, immersed in stage-one consciousness: door, I think, don’t smack self into wall, I think, forward.
Many men have a talent for fog but few can match my manufacturing genius. (Fog, foggy, foggier, fugue state: how do you like that declension, young man?)
In the kitchen, I discover Toni. My wife (Antonya Nelson; yes, that Antonya Nelson) rises not to fog but to clarity, a shiny steel-trap kind of clarity, a sunshine-on-still-water clarity, a what-are-your-socks-doing-on-the-kitchen-counter kind of clarity, and she has been up for hours, most of her work for the day long ago finito: student stories read, notes for her own fiction typed up, emails answered, several family crises resolved, dinner party planned, vegetables for same chopped, sauces simmering, personal hygiene addressed, fashion statement for the day planned, 147 galley pages of Fourth of July Creek (Smith Henderson) devoured. She seems to enjoy my chapter-five entry into her day, my high-stepping stride over the uneven stones that may or may not lie beneath the swirling chowder still inhabiting my noggin, her sly smile part invitation to the burgeoning light and part recognition that our days are like sliding doors, overlapping only in the middle.
“Hey, Babe,” she says.
“Mmmph,” I respond, a nonsense sound full of marital meaning, speaking volumes to the initiated.
Why is making coffee so absurdly complicated? Has no one in this great country of ours thought that bagels should come pre-buttered? Must utensils be hidden in drawers that are almost impossible to locate? By the time I’ve downed a cup and eaten a bite, I’ve matched the seven labors of Hercules, but Italian Roast clears several layers of the fog. (Coffee the black of it’s-three-a.m.-and-you’re-being-audited, as strong as an entire crew of Greek oarsmen).
As the day clears, I grasp my responsibilities. Toni is brilliant and also a beauty, a gift to the eyes and brain alike, a formidable repartee-ist who was once featured on the cover of a catalogue modeling clothes, and so, come on, let’s face it: she didn’t exactly marry up. From the gargantuan crowd of suitors, she chose me for my wit, and it occurs to me that I’ve offered nothing the least bit droll yet. It’s no good to be witless with a woman whose sails are already full with the day’s wind, me on the gritty shore and she halfway to Byzantium. She’s reading the New York Times online, and I rise to the occasion.
“Anything new in the world?” I ask, each syllable a model of pronunciation suitable for framing. “The wicked still running the show?”
“Your office hours start in ten minutes,” she says.
Oh, what is there to say about the asphalt duplicity we in Houston label streets? There are curling cracks like sarcastic lips at every intersection, and potholes the size of kitchen tables (which is where I left my coffee: the kitchen table). The whole city floats on an incompletely claimed bog like a bar of soap left on a sponge. We don’t do horizontal in H-Town; we undulate, oscillate, fibrillate; we humpty-dumpty. Houston: belly dancer to the gods.
My truck, a Toyota the red of holiday lingerie, broadcasts narrative from my nano as we go: Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk this week, We Need New Names last week, The Age of Innocence next week. These are books I’m teaching my graduate class. I read and listen to them over and over, looking for the handle by which I may pull myself into their structure. I write exercises the students must respond to with fiction of their own. The social milieu you wrote about in exercise one has rules and a hierarchy. Some of the rules are foolish or unfair, and yet they are followed by the faithful. Your main character, like Newland Archer, is poised to act in a manner that would cement his place, but there’s trouble… Each exercise I assign is several pages in length and the students receive them with the stunned look of trout lifted from their icy streams into the life-denying air. But they often return the next week bearing pages close to their hearts, saying, This one took off, appearing not at all like astonished freshwater chum-eaters but like the sleep-deprived workaholics I know them to be, their eyes so long without slumber that they resemble the misaligned headlights on a vehicle subjected to too many miles on Houston byways, one angling to heaven, the other studying its bumper—much like the approaching Ultimo Taco truck taking up more than its due of Alabama Ave, and I steer my Tacoma onto the muddy—I hope that’s mud—shoulder to avoid the full-contact sport of automotive misadventure.
Graffiti in the downstairs men’s room in the Roy Cullen Building, three lines by three different hands:
GOD will DESTROY HIS enemies
don’t be his enemy
Guys, this is why we can’t have nice things
One of my grad students, Nick, arrives at my office before I can take off my jacket. For our independent study, we’re this week discussing Light Years, quoting lines back and forth, literary tennis.
Nights of marriage, conjugal nights, the house still at last, the cushions indented where people had sat, the ashes warm.
The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers.
James Salter gave a reading in Houston last May, and Toni and I had dinner with him. We talked Colorado and Hemingway and writing and “Life is meals.” One of the most pleasing nights of my life, I tell Nick and then have to run.
Class begins with a discussion of NoViolet Bulawayo’s depiction of Zimbabwe, hungry children stealing guavas, not a trace of pleading or sentimentality in the narrative voice. Ten grad students, magnificent juddering minds, genuinely talented writers, and they’re eager to discuss the book. The best conversations include many voices spinning off in unexpected directions, arriving at a port none of us could have reached alone. Teaching students like these is a kind of flight, and I’m still levitating in the parking lot, where my truck, the red of raw beef, waits like a well-trained dog, right where I left it, rising up a little on it shocks when it realizes I’m approaching. Good truck. I pet the dash.
More Halftime Walk on the way home and when I enter the house, I find Toni in elegant garb the many colors of desire, the air redolent of savory stew, our colleagues Peter Turchi and Martha Serpas on the way over, one of the grad students already at the table, sizzling drink in hand. I kiss Toni, my mind afire, wit flowing like wine from a bottle, a really big one, a magnum of wit on the tip of my tongue.
“Hey Babe,” I say. “Don’t you look nice.”
“Class go well?”
Here’s the great advantage to waking each morning to a fog as dense as honey left in the fridge: every day I’m amazed all over again to be married to this woman, every day I fall in love anew.
“Great class,” I say. And: “Smells good.”
“Beef bourguignon.” She kisses my cheek. Me, she kisses me.
We eat and talk about our students, our lives, and the literature that has brought us together, that keeps us alive and afloat in the wet world.
After our guests have gone and Toni has slipped off to bed, I visit Chekhov and Cheever and Munro, listen to Solomon Burke and Kelly Willis, drink a good pale ale, and wonder at this: that I do not believe in God, and yet every day seems to me something like prayer.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- All That Is, by James Salter might top the list or Funny Once by Antonya Nelson (in manuscript); although, I also really enjoyed The Answer to the Riddle is Me by David MacLean, Father Brother Keeper by Nathan Poole (in manuscript), Little Raw Souls by Steven Schwartz, Make It, Take It by Rus Bradburd, and the books I name above that I’m teaching.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Read Chekhov, Cheever, Munro, Tolstoy, Sherwood Anderson, Eudora Welty. Read them obsessively, as if your life—or something like your life—depended on it.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I write more drafts than Zeus has thunderbolts. Writing fiction, for me, is a slow walk around the same park a hundred times, until finally I see that the family on the patterned blanket in the afternoon sunshine among the thousand other picnic victims is almost through with their meal: they’re chewing on bones! Lights in my dim attic finally blaze. (You can see the park from that attic, but me, I’ve got to stroll among the throng.)
By Robert Boswell: