“Dear Professor,” she had written,
“It’s been a difficult six months or so, as you might have guessed — since, well, here I am writing. Am I not having some crisis whenever you get a letter?”
She was seated at an antique schoolhouse desk in her turn of the century, slightly dilapidated rental house on Main Street. They’d put the desk in the kitchen as a place for all the spices to congregate, but Mimi had taken a shine to slipping into it, tipping her head down, and writing letters.
It was a drab day, par for fall off-season. Wind was up, temperature was in the dank 40’s somewhere, and the only places in town to hang were the bakeries (down to one) and the bars (seven). She preferred being home in the kitchen and indulging all the feelings the wind seemed to kick up inside her. She thought longingly about her roommate’s box of Malomars, as yet unopened — and about a bath in the old claw foot. She thought of trying to be a more relaxed version of herself, someone perfectly content to have a sweet, nothing-filled day. Instead, she was doing some kind of inky version of squirming on paper.
“Anyway,” her coffee was so strong, half the mug was filled with milk, “I’m getting older, but I don’t think smarter, not even smart enough to know I shouldn’t expect to get smarter. I kind of expected to hit a Blossom Year somewhere around now, where everything would become clearer and my path illuminated by neon arrows. It’s romantic, I know. EXCLAMATION POINT spelled out, because I know you hate the look of them on paper.
“Okay, so what, I’m a waitress, and I was one way before I met any of the venerated Tom Robbins characters. [Who is Tom Robbins, are you kidding me?] The money is good, the hours short, the pace quick, and the people, if not likable, are at least interesting in a fly-on-the-wall sort of way. I put expensive food and drink before them and they have their choice of treating me either like a servant, a savior, or an invisible presence. All three have their lessons.
“How about a fourth Crown Royal, I’d like to hear myself say one day, so that the high altitude hangover you’re going to have tomorrow makes it a day you’ll never forget and most likely deserve? Sadly, many of my best fantasies involve playing practical jokes on the meanies I wait on. Serve someone frozen peas. Hide their coats. Just. Amuse myself. Sigh. What has happened to me?
“I can’t imagine you in your thirties doing jobs like this. Didn’t you become a tenured professor in third grade? No, seriously. I would like to know if you’ve ever, ever, EVER done any kind of work that begs the questions of self-worth, self-direction, the role of the ego, the view of Earth from earthworm level. Have you ever typed for someone else, been at their disposal (even though you knew that by the force of some cosmic prank — or spank — you had been placed in the service of someone with half your wits.)
“Have you ever done anything that didn’t have to do with literature? Have you ever felt like one of the little people, the plebes, the prols, the workers of the world?” Mimi could feel herself ranting but couldn’t stop. She hoped she would bust into alliteration or some other dead giveaway that she and her pen had gone to a bad place, one without real feeling. It was too late.
“Don’t make me feel bad for your good fortune of knowing what you were good at. For one thing, let’s not forget that the subject here is me. And, as you probably suspected, I do have one very specific gripe right now.
“Call it old number 23, coming in slow and explosive, like a dirigible: What should I be doing with my life? It would seem such a vague and all-inclusive problem, but really it’s rather specific. I mean, should I learn how to fix shoes and fill that gaping hole in this tiny town? Should I become a bookkeeper? Should I take one of those real estate seminars and join ’em instead of berating them? Should I do videos on how to wait tables? I can see myself as many things — bricklayer, bartender, dancing girl. (Did you note the curious lack of white-collar jobs? A group of people whose ambitions elude me, whose habits stifle me, but whose educations are quite similar to my own.)
“Now I’ll tell you what I’ve learned in the last six months, or which cliché has begun ringing its chime in my ear non-stop. It’s all relative. Genius! Let me explain.
“When I was a kid, dad wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer or a military cadet. (I wanted to be Judd for the Defense, an early prototype of a species of television lawyers, actually.) The most mysterious form of person was — the realtor. I hardly knew what these people did, and confused the words reality and realty until the whole thing was just a big blur, with the purchase of houses somehow being the ultimate form of having touched down in Reality. What were Reality signs doing on people’s lawns? What did their gold jackets mean?
“One thing I already knew was I did not aspire to be one of them, reality or not: in fact, even salesman was a concept far removed from my family. (Yes, it’s a ridiculous view, but it’s the one I grew up with. I also grew up so biased against waitresses, the word wasn’t even in my vocabulary. We didn’t go out much, for one thing. We did buy much from salesmen, come to think of it. Imagine how far I’ve come on the roller skates of irony. And how many times I’ve fallen on my butt.)
“But now, the flip side of the coin is shining ever so brightly in my eyes, I’m beginning to think, “Hey. Maybe it’s all relative.” Here in this town, realtors own $45,000 cars and eat the four course meals I am asked to serve them. Here, realtors are living the high life, hint, hint. Here, for god’s sake, the ex-hippies are the realtors.
“I see a circle here, a very disturbing circle. These people are pre-e-e-e-tty well educated, some quite so (some burnt out and beyond education) who have become — in their weirdly earnest striving for more — the very people they threw rocks at during a generation they called the sixties. It’s all so relative!
“And just when you think you have pegged someone for a lowlife, a creep — well, a sneaky little thought comes back to haunt you: someone a couple rungs higher on the ladder of excellence is probably thinking the same about you. Time to bite your lip and stop thinking what you thought was right, right? Here’s the thing, though: it’s never that straightforward. The cad is still a cad. And in certain ways, you might be better than him. Hahaha. Haha. Ha.”
Mimi’s dog Nero was whining to go out into the miserable weather. In a sense, he was right: it was just weather. The air was still the air, the goodness of rain was still goodness. Why were people so picky about something they couldn’t change? Didn’t people all over Scotland and England just put on raincoats and walk and walk and walk and get smarter and smarter… just like she’d read in all that prose and poetry of the very people the professor had taught her to worship?
“A few minutes, babydog,” she said softly. “We can walk to the bakery and I’ll get a cruller and you’ll get the milk bone from my pocket. I can be just as good as a Scot, right?” Nero sat. Waited. In that stoic way he did when he knew there were good things ahead. It was a unique gift of his in the world of nervous and excitable labrador retrievers, his ability to hit pause. Mimi adored it. She was able to finish her letter this way.
“The final question? The final question is, Should you aspire to broader all-is-relative type knowledge and watch your ego flounder, or should you invest in personality with a capital P, go for the style, be yourself and try to create a life that will, if nothing else, have amused and entertained the cosmic cocktail party in the sky? Or at least to have been cause for a raised eyebrows. I cannot but wonder what your answer would be to this question. You yourself have some measure of smarts and some visible humility in the face of true wisdom or genius. And yet you cling to your persona as if it alone is keeping you grounded in a world gone center-less.
“I really really want to believe that I am capable of meeting my own true genius. Ha! Maybe we all are.
“I know you won’t respond well to this particular view of my current self; and even though I wish you would, I understand why you can’t; it’s because you can’t bear to hear yourself sound patronizing and that’s would you would be. But you always sound patronizing, in some relative way: so: Go for it. There you go: two colons side-by-side in a single equation-like sentence.
“I liked your last bit of advice: try reading some Emerson and some Thoreau. I liked the advice because I like Emerson and Thoreau, not because of the way you said it. Don’t think I’m not aware of the self-consciousness of the father/mentor hyphen child/student type relationship. It makes me gag. Why don’t you try reading some Thoreau? Surprise someone and have a glitch that needs to be ironed out. Stumble a little. Trip on the zen rock of ridiculosity. Not a word! Written to disturb, to rap the professor on the head. Imagine me, presuming so much.
“I know that one cannot chit-chat in letters that are exchanged four times a year, but they’re all such big questions, the other ones. What is after waitressing? What is after 35? Can I slink out of my genes and become a different and better model of what I am? Will I leave the valley of the shadow of reality? Or the shadow of realty itself, for that matter. Will I meet the man of my daydreams? Is it all relative or is this too somehow just a study in comparison? And. When will the next cliché come sliding in to home plate?
“Don’t you ever have big questions anymore? Isn’t it hip to search your soul? Or at some age, do you simply start getting it? Please be specific in your next letter.”
She re-read her letter and took the last swig of coffee. She thought about building a fire after her cruller and the brave walk amid the elements. And though in much finer spirits now and less inclined to go on about her problems, she felt it would not be lying to send the missive. To it, she added:
“This weekend I drove out Dove Creek way again out, there into the deserts of the Colorado Plateau, just because it’s drawing me to it in visceral and mysterious ways I don’t want to fight. I get in the truck and I can’t wait to get to this landscape which imprints itself on the back of my brain and makes me feel as though I am one with it. There, I feel I am directing an epic movie where the landscape is the movie, and all I have to do is be still and let my hair lash against my lips from the wind. There I feel things are still free, including myself, and that living things are roused from their sleep by the regularity of the sun and limitlessness of time. It is all wind and grasses and rock, the deep-ness of the sky, the light and heat-treated colors of amber and grey-blue and dust, if dust could be called a color.
“This time I had an extraordinary experience there, of the supernatural variety (and here’s where you may come in). I saw my life sort of flash before my eyes, and felt it was my destiny to buy the old La Sal Junction Café, to restore it, and to serve beans there (which are grown in the immediate vicinity). I will be needing some investors: are you interested? I’m being perfectly serious.
With the silent final stroke of the i and two dots, Nero started wagging his tail. How did he know these things??? Mimi folded the six page letter, written on yellow lined paper, and weighed it in her hand. It was embarrassingly voluminous. Embarrassingly private. Embarrassingly too much for the receiver. With her mouth set in a frown, she nevertheless creased it over and over on the kitchen counter, to further flatten it, found a used envelope in her pile of used envelopes, and shoved it in.
“Almost there,” she said to her dog. “I’m doing that thing I do.” She taped up the top with one long strip of tape, and then reached into the junk drawer for her stash of bits of blank paper. On a receipt from the hardware store, she wrote his name and address in red magic marker and taped it to the envelope. She wrote her name big, no address, over the last return address, which said Bank of Telluride. She took out her rubber stamp of Daffy Duck and the ink pad and stamped the front of the envelope once very hard. Baboom.
“Good to go,” she said to her dog who had begun to jump up and down near the coat rack. “It’s a three stamper; but do I look like I care?”