I got up this morning and wrote my Wall Street Journal drama column in a setting different from the office-bedroom where I normally pass my working hours.
In New York I sit at a desk placed next to a window that looks down on a quiet block of brownstones. When I glance up from my iBook, I see Fairfield Porter’s Ocean II, a Max Beerbohm caricature of Percy Grainger, a pair of etchings by Degas and Matisse, and a bookshelf containing Fowler’s English Usage, the two-volume New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, A Terry Teachout Reader, the Library of America’s one-volume Flannery O’Connor collection, and well-thumbed copies of the Viking Portables devoted to Johnson and Boswell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Joseph Conrad. Behind me is a set of wooden shelves holding three thousand compact discs.
In Smalltown I sit at a rickety, ink-stained card table that’s as old as I am, set up next to the bed in which I slept as a teenager. When I glance up from my iBook, I see a homemade bookshelf (my father built it) full of tattered paperbacks, a complete set of Reader’s Digest Best-Loved Books for Young Readers, and a short stack of dusty 45s by such artists as Ray Anthony, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Daniels, Vic Damone, Stan Kenton, the McGuire Sisters, and Jo Stafford. A chromolithograph of Abraham Lincoln hangs on the wall behind me. To my left is a telephone with a dial. The only modern things in sight are the laptop computer on which I’m writing these words and the iPod on which I listen to music, both of which I brought with me.
I filed my column at one-thirty, then took my mother to lunch at Susie’s Bake Shoppe. People eat early in Smalltown, and no one else was in the dining room when we got there. My mother ordered quiche, the special of the day. “If you’d gone to a restaurant and ordered quiche back when I was a boy,” I told her, “nobody around here would have known what you were talking about.” She laughed.
After lunch we drove to the cemetery where my father was buried eight years ago, then returned home and spent the rest of the afternoon chatting and puttering. At six o’clock we turned on the TV to watch the local news. The anchors were a white man and a black woman, and one of the reporters had a strong Indian accent. “You wouldn’t have seen that when I was a boy, either,” I said, thinking of the lynching my father witnessed in Smalltown six decades ago.
We ate supper after the news. As we were clearing away the dishes, my brother stopped by to watch the second half of Broken Trail with us. Then he went home–he lives three blocks away–and my mother picked up her cane, kissed me goodnight, and went to bed. I retired to my bedroom, booted up my iBook, dialed up Earthlink, and checked my e-mail, which consisted of messages from a blogger and a jazz musician. As I read them, I heard the low whistle of a freight train rolling through town, the same sound that called to me long ago, summoning me to the world beyond the city limits of Smalltown, U.S.A.
The time came when I obeyed that summons, and ever since then I’ve lived in big cities. Yet I keep on coming back to Smalltown two or three times a year, each time returning to the same room in the same house in the same neighborhood, a block from my elementary school and three blocks from my high school. They say that no matter how long you live or how far you travel, you can’t get very far from the place where you grew up. I wouldn’t know–I’ve never tried.
UPDATE: A friend writes:
My mom died in 1979, we emptied her house and sold it and I’ve never been back. My dad had moved, long before, to Alabama and was living with a third wife. Not a home. My dear aunt died in 1999, so the haven she had been to me was gone. There is no home for some of us to get back to…so I felt a little envious reading what you wrote, even though I know there can be a pervading gloom in those shabby old rooms.
Not here–and believe me, I know how lucky I am.