"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Growing as a writer

I thought I'd do something a little different today and print a little piece I wrote several years ago. I've done a little polishing to it, but not a lot. I think it's interesting because the style seems so different from my style today. It's more descriptive, more passive. I remember writing it (and remember feeling like it was good), but I hardly recognize it as mine. Perhaps I'll re-write it and post that, too, just to show you the evolution of a writer.

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The Hitchhiker

First of all, I'd just like to say for the record that the guy was too far out in the road…

It was mid-November in Decatur, Illinois. November is mostly a gloomy, depressing month in the Midwest. The sky is grey and the temperature is cold, but not grey and cold enough to snow. Just grey and cold enough to dig out your winter coat and gloves and convince yourself that it's not quite cold enough to try to find your boots and wool pants, even though walking from your car to the front door causes you to brace against the icy gusts wrapping around your legs and up your skirt.

I was nineteen years old and driving down 22nd Street in my navy blue '67 Mustang. This street branched off of Pershing Road, where all of the new car dealerships were located and then curved softly south. There was a drive-in and a bowling alley on the west side of the street, and the Firestone, Caterpillar and General Electric factories on the east side. It dipped underneath a train trestle, then rose again to some small businesses, a gas station and a used car lot, before ascending over the middle of the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company. Staley's was a corn and soybean processing company. It was a large concrete lot covered in tall buildings, drying vats and smoke stacks. The smoke stacks hacked up brownish grey clouds of industrial gunk pretty much constantly. On a good day, it smelled like French fries. On a bad day, it smelled like old socks.

The speed limit over most of 22nd Street was 45 mph. I'm not certain how fast I was going on that particular November day, but I'll guess that it was at least 45 mph, since I never went under the speed limit. As I was coming out of the curve onto the straight stretch in front of the G.E. plant, I saw a hitchhiker standing on my side of the road. He was a young guy of medium height, medium weight, medium everything. He looked like every other young guy in Decatur, from his pale Germanic features to his uniform of jeans, tee-shirt and lined flannel shirt. I remember thinking he looked pretty cold out there on the side of the road, with no hat or gloves.

As I got closer to him, I also remember thinking there's really no shoulder on this road. The side of the pavement dropped off in a kind of cliff, and I always worried that my tires would fall off the edge and I would spin helplessly out of control until I hit something solid and wrecked the car. Of course, I never worried enough to slow down; I just continued to drive at the speed limit and let the fear and risk run through me like an electrical current. That day was no different. I maintained my speed and stayed on the road, whipping by the hitchhiking boy.

The first thing I heard when I drove past was a strange, THWACKING noise. Looking over at my radio antenna, it was vibrating quite out of time with the forward motion of the car, and making a little "wubba-wubba-wubba" sound. Puzzled, I did what you're supposed to do every ten seconds; I looked in my rear-view mirror. The hitchhiking boy was behind me at the side of the road, holding his hand and jumping up and down. I had hit the hitchhiker with my antenna.

The guilt was immediate and severe. A little white-robed teenager sat on my shoulder and scolded me for my physical attack on this poor stranger. "You should have been going slower," she told me. "You know there's no shoulder there. I'll bet you were exceeding the speed limit!" Then her evil twin showed up, in a red suede mini-dress that was much too short for her. "He's not lying in the street. There's no blood. He'll be fine. It serves him right for being too far out in the road!"

I drove another block, then turned on a side street and circled back around to the dancing young man. Guilty or innocent, I felt the least I could do now was offer him a ride.

Okay, before everyone howls about how dangerous that was, may I remind you that I was a nineteen year old Pollyanna who let teen angels and demons duke it out on her shoulder?

So I pulled over and asked where he was going. It turned out that he was trying to get to the intersection of Route 36 and Nelson Park, which was about halfway to my house, so I told him I'd give him a lift and he got in. It was mostly a quiet, slightly awkward ride. Every once in awhile, somebody said something about how cold it was, or made a remark about the scenery. I noticed that the guy kept rubbing his hand, and I couldn't decide whether to open my mouth and confess… or not.

Suddenly, he said, "Man, before you picked me up, some black car drove past and hit my thumb with the antenna."

Black car? My car was blue, not black. He didn't recognize me. This was where I could tell him. I could confess and make my peace and remain a good girl.

"That's too bad. Were you hurt?"

He shook his head. "No, no. It just stings a little."

"Oh, that's good." I believe I heard the slightest thump as my Teen Angel fell over in shock.

I pulled up at the stoplight, and he said, "I'll just get out here. Thanks a lot for the ride."

"No problem." I sped off, down Route 36. I may have been a Pollyanna, but I wasn't stupid.

You'll be relieved to know that I've never picked up another hitchhiker since that gloomy November day. Of course, I haven't hit any, either.


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So... recognize me? How about your own writing? Ever go back to things you've written a while ago and wonder whose mind created that?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh, this resonated with me. I've looked back on things I've written and felt total shock that it came out of me. I still feel that way, now, when I'm writing things.

I think that it's important to keep growing and evolving. Sure, we've all got things we tend toward (for instance, sarcasm pops up in most everything I write) -- but it's amazing to see how we change.

Great post, Gayle.

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