“Remember me.” Hamlet, Act I, Scene v
My composition professor in undergraduate school lived in an aging industrial city in a neighborhood made up of compacted row homes with narrow porches that were separated from the sidewalk by a thin railing and one step — architecturally, the most intimate of neighborhoods. He spoke more than once of his after-dinner pleasure – walking the blocks around his home with his wife and looking into the front windows of his neighbors. He loved the glimpses of life as revealed in these briefest of glances. He took note of how living and dining rooms were arranged, of furniture, even of the pictures that hung on the walls. He remembered the frozen tableaus of families at dinner, of husbands and wives watching TV, playing with their children, arguing, reading, sleeping in chairs. He loved how everything seemed new each time he walked and looked.
In Chapter two of The Great Gatsby Nick Carraway gets drunk at a terrible party, and while trapped by awful hosts envisions an escape: “Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering.” Again, in Chapter three
Carraway, speaking of his love of New York’s “racy, adventurous feel … at night” describes taxis in the theater district just before curtain time: “Forms leaned together in the taxis as they waited, and voices sang, and there was laughter from unheard jokes, and lighted cigarettes outlined unintelligible gestures inside.”
For both my former professor and for Carraway, the city was a stage-set, almost erotic in its pleasure, that set out so freely a temptation to step uninvited into the imagined lives of strangers.
I think we read fiction so we can become the watchers of other lives, detached but also filled with pity, gods finally, after long searching.
Thus, in Train Dreams, his wonderful 116 page novella, Denis Johnson gives us the life of Robert Granier, an insignificant man in turn-of the- 19th century America, a railroad worker, woodsman, hauler of freight, who had one wife, Gladys, and a child, who lost them in a fire, and who lived his life thereafter unattached to others except for two dogs which kept his sadness away, temporarily. No one remembers Granier, whose body lay for two seasons in his cabin before being discovered by hikers. No one missed him. But Johnson fills him up with dreams and failings and longings, and thus makes him, in the most real way, an emblem of all the lost and forgotten, the unknown billions who have come before us and whom we will join.
In one vignette Granier is loading a wagon with sacks of cornmeal with “… Hank, an enormous youth in his late teens…,” who complains of dizziness, sits down and dies. His grandmother, grief stricken, tells Granier that “his heart was his fate…. You could look right at him any time you wanted and seen this (60).” That moment stayed with me and came to mind again when I spent time with my mother on Sunday.
At the end of my visit a church service was beginning in the events room where we had been sitting. Ancient men and women were wheeled in; many carried the old names – Norma, Thelma, Orpah, two Donalds, a Ruth, an Anna…. Standing at the back of the crowded room, every single resident in a wheelchair or reclining in a gurney chair, I watched them sing … no … croak and mumble and some wail Amazing Grace. The minister, a balding white man with a goatee and a long, three-buttoned zoot suit style coat, stood before them, hands folded, singing with them. All of their sound was sincere and lifted by a song almost perfect in its ability to resurrect a sense of the spiritual in any venue. Watching them, aware of some quickening of a collective spirit alive in the room, I too became aware of all the lives of the residents, seeming to hover above them in scrolls, spirit-stories of their vigorous youth and middle age, all those stories that held their virtues and lost powers.
I think one life is not enough for us. We need many lives to fill up our lust for experience. The desire for immortality that is the stuff of wild-eyed quests is really the desire for some accounting of the vast billions of the uncounted and the lost, all of whom were once filled with burning life, like us now.
We too do not want to be relegated to invisibility. Like Dickens’ Marley (but without the chains) we too might have cause to wander the air after death, aching to be remembered.