Here’s a brief, sweet essay/memoir/story — an uncategorizable something, if you will — from my friend/former colleague/now Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea who has a knack for being able to extract meaning out of a glancing contact, the briefest of interactions. When he sent this to me, he was himself somewhat uncertain. Perhaps, after all, it was only an anecdote. But I read it and worried on it (like a dog with a bone — Sydney and I tend to talk about dogs when we meet) and then got excited about the way the text keeps surging. Some secret here, I thought, about the nature of good writing, how the text begins with a stranger barging, by mistake, into the wrong room, then quiets, then surges ahead with an even more unsettling invasion. The pattern keeps repeating. Now “the writer,” disturbed, can’t forget the interloper. Details emerge: a melancholy story, alcohol, waiting for a daughter. But again the text quiets; the tired writer returns home to his wife, falls asleep, dreams. And in his dream (the text surges again) he meets his daughter and finds a moment of immeasurable peace. The story works by obsession, image and transformation. The stranger is a mythic other, lost, befuddled Everyman insisting on trying to get into a room that is no longer his. At the end, in his dream, “the writer” metaphorically transforms into the stranger and finds his daughter, that image of love and bliss, and feels at peace. Something very beautiful in this sequence, reminiscent of Chekhov.
As the stranger pushed open his door at the Longhorn Motel, the writer noticed the befuddled grin. “Oh, this is the wrong…,” the man muttered, trailing off and backing out. The writer had long hours to wait before he flew back east from Denver, so, seated at the chipped formica table, he’d been trying to rough out a poem. He’d had small success, and so, as if it would help his efforts, he locked the door against further distraction, even benign as this petty mistake.
A few minutes later, though, the knob began to rattle. The writer slid the bolt. “What’s the matter?” he snapped when he saw the same man standing there. “Can’t you read numbers? One-Oh-Six. That’s me, not you.” The other man didn’t appear to hear. He leaned against the door with one shoulder, holding an ill-sorted bunch of clothes in both hands. “Get the hell out of here!” barked the writer, as now the other started leaning against him. The interloper was younger than the writer, and he wasn’t small, but smaller than the man who belonged in the room, who put both forearms under the other fellow’s chin and shoved him hard enough that he fell outside onto the lot’s asphalt, a plaid pajama top flying one way, a gravy-stained shirt the other, and a sock landing over both eyes like a flimsy beige blindfold. Even masked, his face wore that silly smile. It might have been a comical sight in other circumstances. The writer relocked his door.
His poem continued to go nowhere at all, so in spite of the time gaping before him, he decided to repack his own clothes. He couldn’t make that little chore last very long, however, and soon he stepped out to grab a styro cup of bitter-end coffee from the office vending machine. Once more he spotted the other man. He was up on his feet now, at the very spot where he’d been knocked down, his odd bundle of garments regathered, the smile still showing, though not directed at anyone or anything in particular, least of all at the one who’d shoved him.
The one who’d shoved him asked the desk clerk. “What the hell’s the story on that guy?”
“Seems like he’s lost,” the clerk answered. “I give him the key to room 124, but he keeps tellin’ me he needs to get into 106.”
“My room,” the writer mused, stressing the obvious.
“I figure he’s drunk as a skunk,” the clerk snarled, tossing his head and turning back to his affairs.
The writer left room 106 and went out for breakfast. He dawdled over his meal for more than an hour at a place called the Country Fare. When he returned to the Longhorn, he found the showroom-clean, white Ford 150 still parked in front of 106, but its owner was nowhere to be seen. He walked back to the motel office. “What became of our friend?” he asked. The clerk said he’d found him in some other room, not 106 and not 124, the room he’d rented.
Apparently, all he could say was, “I’m waiting for my daughter.”
In the end, not knowing what else to do, the clerk called the police. The cops summoned the rescue squad. The author of poems doesn’t know what happened after that because he abruptly left for his flight, much earlier than he needed to. On the way toward the airport in the rental car, seated by the gate, airborne in the plane, and all through the long drive northward to Vermont after touchdown, he couldn’t help feeling rotten about how he’d heaved that poor trespasser onto his backside. He understood how guilt might bother him, and it did; but he couldn’t quite name the other things beyond guilt that he suffered. He tried to console himself, of course. How, after all, could he have known what ailed the other man? How could he know even now?
Yet even these weeks later, he senses the same mix of guilt and whatever else may be. If anything, his troubling state of spirit has strengthened, broadened, as if it will last him lifelong. Maybe at least he can write about it. Maybe he has always written about it in some vague way. Whatever it is.
He remembers arriving home that night dog-tired in body and heart, and, right after supper with his wife, going up to bed; but there’s a more powerful memory, a dream he had some time toward dawn, in which that wife stood with him and the second of their three daughters next to a splendid bonfire. Someone had lit it at the end of their woodlot road. A quiet bliss pervaded the vision, or rather a feeling like the peace that the apostle Paul describes: the one which passeth all understanding. For a moment, still mostly asleep, he arrived at a warming conclusion: that such peace might actually remain in the world even after he left it, and that somehow it might be available to any person in sufficient need of it. Awake, he felt desolate to dismiss the notion as fantasy.
There had been times when the writer needed it for himself, and there would be other times to come. He knew that.
He didn’t think of the smiling man at the Longhorn just then, though later he saw that he might have.
SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was just published by the University of Michigan Press in September. In January, Skyhorse Publications will issue A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife, and in April 2013, his eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is due from Four Way Books. His most recent collection of poems is Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock. His 2011 collection is Young of the Year (Four Way Books).
He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.