This wasn’t the place the old man had imagined years ago, the place he had dreamed of for his future. Once, he had wished for a house with a porch, overlooking a large meadow and an ancient oak tree, the chirping of the cicadas in the bushes, carried by a light breeze. He’d have several grand-kids on his knees, or gathered in a small circle at his feet. He thought of reading them adventure stories, fantastic tales from his life that lit a spark in their eyes and helped them strive for greatness.
But there was no porch, no cicadas, no grandkids. The only thing that aligned with his vision was that he was old and moderately healthy. Instead of a mild summer eve, he found himself inside the public library, lit by neon against the gloom of the heavily falling snow outside. The kids he was reading to were only mildly interested, most of them should have been picked up a while ago; now their parents or caretakers were probably late due to traffic and weather.
He closed the book when he finished the chapter about the train engine technician and saw that only one boy was actually still listening to him, the others had taken to venture between the shelves, had fallen asleep or were standing at the window with the same wistful expression that made them seem wise beyond their small number of years.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” the old man asked the boy.
“I want to be a writer,” the boy said. His voice carried the same awe about the job that one might have heard about firefighters or other childhood superheroes. The old man chuckled, his first instinct was to ridicule the boy, tell him about the reality of the job: the uncertainty, small chances for success, a life of depression or addiction.
“That’s nice,” he said instead. “It’s a good wish.” Maybe, with the right encouragement, this young author would take the right turn and avoid the misery. Maybe...
As soon as he could read, the boy wanted to write. In the beginning, the missing words were frustrating: what were things called? What was the word for the item in the kitchen that held the pasta after cooking? A strainer. What was the word for the process that a car did when his dad turned the key? Ignition. What was the word for that specific feeling of ease and relaxation that he felt when he lay down in the grass and looked at the blue summer sky under the oak tree?
He started with writing observations, little entries in the columns of his work books.
“Susan takes 13 bites to finish an apple.”
“Mrs. Hudson writes with her left hand.”
Many kids don’t want to write beyond their school homework, but he always did. Sneakily, too: he was a normal kid in other aspects, running outdoors, returning with bruised knees, playing with the kids in his neighborhood.
A little bit later, starting middle school, he tried to describe his day in a journal, but soon found that telling the events of the day in detail would require him to write for hours every evening. Some kids made fun of him for using unusual words, because they felt intimidated and outsmarted. Some teachers talked to his parents and praised him for his wide range of vocabulary. They expected the parents to be scholars, professors of linguistics, sophisticated and rich. What they found were a man running the boiler in steam trains and a woman working as a photography lab assistant. Both were proud of their son, for sure, but gave no clue as to the boy’s interest in words.
Luckily, the boy was sheltered against the connection of creativity on one hand and business on the other. He wrote following his inner wishes and the words had little meaning to him once they were on the pages, the same as words being sung or spoken. He rarely read his own words and mostly found them being utterances from a stranger. Maybe his naivete protected him from the fulfilment of this wish later in his life, or maybe it helped him achieve what he needed.
The day after his sixteenth birthday, he woke up with the wish to write a longer story. All the thousands of books that lived in his head were contributing: some offered a plot mechanism, some a short character idea, some a specific cadence of words.
It was a Sunday, the house as quiet as the whole village. He started to write...
As the train cut through the autumn landscape, the man opened the book on the very first page, the leather binding creaking slightly. The name printed there was very intimate to him, the title below that less so. His editor had changed it last minute after long discussions, and had said it would sell better. Since they couldn’t print two editions with two different titles, there would be no way to know who was right in the end.
Still, he allowed himself some moments of pride on the finished work. At the end of the train ride, he would check into a hotel, enjoy a stroll around the city, find a small restaurant with a view. Tomorrow, he’d meet an old friend. In the afternoon, he would read from his book, first in a larger bookstore. Then, he’d be picked up to be driven to a smaller community nearby and read the same passage in a local library, pro bono. The weather would be nice enough, allowing him to ditch his expensive jacket and tie after the reading in the store. And in two day’s time, he would sit on the same train, going in the opposite direction, carrying him to his wife. She’d wait for him, hands and knees dirty from the work in the garden, slight sunburn on her arms, sun on her lips as she kissed him. He smiled at the thought. How different it was from the main character of his latest book...
Even after all the disappointment and the failure in his career that he wore like a second skin, the old man still couldn’t stop writing. He had a library of his life, bound in black, strewn all over his apartment, among real and fictional words from other authors. He didn’t quite know how many of the things that he wrote nowadays were real. Were they recollections of his days? Or how he wished the day had been? He didn’t dare to check, afraid to find that the words he wrote yesterday wouldn’t match with his memories.
Yet he found himself at the kitchen table, a notebook sticking to the plastic tablecloth, creating lines with this pen. Those lines, if traced with enough experience, could relate thoughts, project images into the reader’s mind.
The old man wrote about himself, in third person, about the stages of his life. Had he ever been a boy? Who was this distant person and when did the boy turn into the man he was now?
He gulped down some hot tea and glanced at the window sill, covered with wet snow. Did he communicate to his future self as well? Maybe he could give him some tips. It was likely that he had done so, because he recognized this thought running in a well-threaded grove. In order to discover tips from this-distant-strange-himself, he would need to read past words. Yet, somehow, he couldn’t do that.
He remembered how he had written about himself as a boy, and the boy had stayed within him for most of the time. This boy had lost something important, when he left the village for the city. He lost a story about himself...
One of the boy’s favorite books had been an unlikely gift: he had gotten it from an author in a library, even though at the time, he didn’t understand that the man was an author. He simply assumed that a friendly man, no - a gentleman - had given him a book and it was one that he now owned, and didn't need to return to the library. The stranger had been about the age of this grandpa and had been warmly welcomed by the library staff. Some months later, by chance, the boy found out that the name on the book matched those on a row of titles he also found in the library: at least an arm’s width of reading material.
The book, he found, was a wondrous account of a man’s life: the main character even shared the boy’s name. He also grew up in a village, fascinated by words and books, an avid writer for the pure sake of formulating thoughts and manifesting them in the real world. The book’s character would grow up, first traveling the world as a journalist, then starting larger works, long stories on the verge of mixing realism and fiction until it was unclear where one ended and the other began.
The boy found himself reflected in the pages, as if they plotted his life’s path. Did he really meet the gentleman in the library? Was this his biography? How much of it was invented?
When the boy moved with this family to the big house with the meadow and the old oak tree, the book was lost. He found the author’s works and read them just as he was finishing high school, but no one could find a biography by this author or any book resembling the one that the boy had been gifted and that was now lost. He tried to remember how it began...
“Maybe, with the right encouragement, this young author would take the right turn and avoid the misery. Maybe.” The man closed the book and smiled into the audience. They had held their breaths. It was so quiet that his heartbeat seemed to be the loudest sound in the room. He had thought extensively on the passage that he could read, one that would best transport the mood of his latest novel. His editor has initially suggested the part about the boy’s childhood, but the man found the other part better suited. It was less clear, yes, but also much more interesting. The audience’s reaction told him he was right, they carefully started to clap now, adding more vigor and expressing their pent-up emotions in this simple gesture.
“Can you sign this for my grandson?” the man said, pushing the boy forward. The author smiled at them both, then looked at the timid boy and asked: “What is your name?”
“Go on, tell him,” the grandfather encouraged him.
“It’s the same as yours, sir,” the boy said.