Alone in a Small, Small World
In these moments, I am the only man in the world doing the following:
- Disking my father’s farmland while singing tunes from Les Misérables.
Churning soybean stubble in the John Deere. Dad showed me how to work the hydraulic lift on the disk. With acres of land before you, and the disk kicking up moist soil smelling as rich and dark as it looks, you lose yourself thinking about everything in the world. Dad says there’s only three places in the world to do any real thinking—in church when you ought to be listening to the preacher, on the deer stand watching a chilly sunset, and on this John Deere disking land, preparing for a new year and a new crop. I’d never disked land until Dad took the job carrying mail, but he’s right about the thinking thing. That was the year I went with the marching band to New York and saw the musical at the Imperial Theater. Every time I lifted the disk to turn it around I’d start belting out, “Lovely Ladies smell ‘em through the smoke…”
- Posting fliers around town that read: “MISSING: Where’s Judy Winslow?”
Man. That was college. Me and some buddies were talking about token cartoon characters who were overshadowed by their counterparts, like Porky Pig’s girl, Petunia, or Donald Duck’s girl, Daisy. And how about the mysterious disappearances of sitcom siblings? How the regulars never acknowledge their absence. For example, from the TV show Family Matters—which could’ve been re-titled The Steve Urkel Show—one episode Judy Winslow goes upstairs to play with her dolls and never comes back down. Next season there’s a spunky new nephew, Richie, to fill the forgotten void of a regrettably un-cute, annoying little sister. When I say “that was college,” I don’t really mean that we posted the fliers back then. Well, we did, but what I mean is that this scenario, the bastard wallflower sibling in a poorly scripted sitcom—this is the metaphor for my college experience. Or life, really. One day you graduate or you move out of your apartment or you quit your job tearing tickets at the movie theater, but no one ever asks, “Hey, where the hell did Judy go?” Maybe Judy’s in college somewhere posting fliers with my picture in some parallel universe.
- Adapting Morrissey tunes for the tenor banjo.
The tenor banjo is a musical relic. A vestigial instrument from the days of Dixieland jazz that the old guy/jerk at the guitar store assured me I’d never get my hands on. Two words: “e-bay,” you big old bastard. Mr. Moustache-No-Beard says to me, “Well, pretty much you won’t never get your hands on one because everyone who plays tenor banjo is dead,” which for me conjures up some interesting images of cigar-smoking skeletons wearing derbies, sitting cross-legged on pieces of posh Victorian furniture, strumming their four-stringed banjos. Picture that. You’re probably the only person in the world who is currently doing so. Anyway, this is a roundabout way of telling you that I can play an original adaptation of “Everyday Is Like Sunday” on the tenor banjo.
- Trying to convince my classmates that I am Thomas Wolfe reincarnated.
Grad school. A professor told me that at the age of 25, it was too late for my life to be changed by Look Homeward, Angel. O lost? I beg to differ. I may never write like Tommy, but I will pay fifty cents for a tour of his one-time home in Asheville, and fantasize about sneaking out a bedroom window, crawling around to the lady boarder who waits with arms open, yearning; I will hike up any old North Carolina mountain and shout my literary delusions of grandeur to no one in particular; and I will write volumes about my life, thinly veiled as fiction, detailing the never-ending search for some universal truth about man’s ineffable longing. I will no longer suppress the urge to compose elegiac sentences such as: O lost, and by the wind grieved, Judy Winslow, come back again!
- 3 a.m. driving, listening to Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman” because it makes me emotional.
Why do we do it? Why do we find ourselves perpetually crossing county and state lines, early in the a.m., hungry, dazed, half-drunk, half-asleep, and whole-alone? It’s because we think we can somehow outrun our inherent loneliness. But if we’d stop our getaway cars long enough to admit to ourselves that we can’t actually outrun anything inherent, then we’d all pop Springsteen’s album Nebraska into our car stereos, skip to track five and hear the Boss’s “nothing feels better than blood on blood” story-song, ‘til you weep because you’ve never even had a brother—in fact, you’ve never even had a friend who would “look the other way” if push came to shove and you accidentally killed a man in a bar near the Canadian border.
Commiseration’s the name of the game. You commiserate with yourself. Part of you wants to feel like you’re not the only one in the world feeling the way you do. But then there’s another part that believes somehow if you indeed are the only one in the world singing, joking, playing, reading, weeping—writing—then you really are alone, and like the Boss says, “When you’re alone, you ain’t nothing but alone.” There’s no one else who gets you, you tell yourself. But if the world were larger, you think, there might be another. But it isn’t, and there isn’t, and secretly, you’re glad.