A Long Time Passing

by Rick Beck

Chapter 6

Chasing Shadows

It was misting again and my windshield was no less clogged by the impenetrable industrial strength globules, causing my blood pressure and stress levels to rise beyond reason. To add to my trauma, the windshield wipers made that intolerable squeaking sound as they swept back and forth across the muck, smearing further any hope I might be able to find the street.

Why couldn't it rain enough so I could use the wipers for the purpose for which they were intended? There should be a law forbidding it to rain so slightly that it only caused nagging little problems and not enough to do anyone any damn good at all.

I hated my car, Mother Nature, and especially Baltimore. I carried a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels in the car, but getting out to clean the windshield would have only solved the problem for the first minute until someone splattered the ambient sludge back onto the glass. Besides, I wasn't in the mood to do something that would solve the problem even for a moment. I liked the law idea far better, and it didn't require me to get out of my car.

I knew it wasn't simply the rain or lack there of that was bothering me. It wasn't even the fouled glass. Nothing was quite that simple in the tortured mind of a writer. It seemed important for me to go back to the place I'd avoided for most of my adult life. It wasn't so much an obvious avoidance. At first I'd just gone away from school, but I never returned, not even to see my sainted mother.

Of course I didn't realize I was avoiding it until I needed to go back downtown to do business as a successful author. Catonsville had provided me my escape from Baltimore. I went to school there, met my wife there, got my first job there, bought my first and only house there, and had my kids there.

Twenty years later I still hated it when I saw the back of the sign that was announcing your arrival in Catonsville as I left it. My innards would always become queasy then. I would push the anguish back as I pushed myself forward. Catonsville was my refuge and Baltimore was my nemesis.

The distraction with my windshield kept me from thinking about my journey down Eastern Avenue. It wasn't the shortest way into my neighborhood, but it was the easiest. I liked easy and I used time to sort through story ideas. I often forgot the thoughts I had about a particular subject but it was sure to surface again when the time was right. My mind worked in its own time and I had stopped letting it bother me.

I didn't turn into Patterson Park. I didn't go around it. I might have gone back to sit in front of my house, but I'd done that. My mind was on the boy. I passed the storefront and found it deserted. There was little sign of life that time of night. I circled the block the same number of times I'd circled the same block the night I met him. I suppose I was thinking he'd appear as he'd appeared to me before. Was he an apparition sent to me for a purpose? Or was he simply a boy that had by accident crossed my path.

There was nothing accomplished by my trip into town. I drove in larger and larger circles until I got lost trying to get back to Eastern Avenue. I ended up on Patapsco Avenue and returned to the Interstate and I drove home.

Kathy and I had the Constant Comment tea that steeped on the table each evening while she read. It was there waiting when I arrival home. She got up from the chair where she read and sat with me at the table. The slight bitterness was overcome by the nature of the liquid. By the time I had my jacked off she was pouring a cup at my place. It was up to me whether or not we talked. At first the book would rest on the arm of the chair, and then she'd move it to the table if I didn't make conversation with her.

"Still raining, dear?"

"Never did rain. It's that mist that is in the air but never gets on the ground."

"Is it cold, Thomas?"

"Chilly. Not really cold."

She didn't make any inquires about my late night activities. I suppose that's what trust gets you. I'd met Kathy in school. I was a freshman and she was a junior. If I hadn't decided I was a writer by then, she convinced me I was. I had never had more than a passing relationship with a girl before, but there was something about her that drew me to her. I suppose she was the first person to encourage me and then to believe in me. She also allowed me to be myself, like on this night.

At first we studied together and then we became companions, going to concerts, attending lectures, and clubbing on rare occasions. After a year, we went on our first date. I'd never been interested in anyone else since that time. We talked about marriage after she graduated from school.

Being a typical male, I needed to graduate and get a job before I could consider marrying her. She was sure she could support us while I finished my final two years and then tried my hand at writing, but I would have none of it. I knew the roles and letting her pay the bills seemed contrary to what I knew about life, which was practically nothing that didn't include a six pack of Budweiser on the top shelf of every refrigerator that I had occasion to look into in Baltimore.

I'm not saying Baltimore is a city of lushes, but my mother and my friend's parents all seemed to have a taste for the All-American beer. I thought nothing of it and thought everyone drank beer with dinner, adults in any event. I don't ever recall seeing any of them drunk, or perhaps, with my limited experience, I'd just never seen any of them sober, but I accepted Bud as a member of the nuclear family.

It seemed to me if there was going to be Bud in our fridge, I should pay for it. Later, she did work while I stayed home to write. It came down to me having a need to find out if I could write. The answer came back a resounding no, or to preface it, I couldn't write anything anyone wanted to read, more precisely there weren't any publishers that wanted to read it.

The phrase, "We don't accept unsolicited manuscripts", began to appear on the outside of unopened envelopes. It doesn't inspire confidence when the envelope, filled with hours and hours of my sweat and blood, didn't even rate a quick glance. Weren't they even curious? Didn't one of them ever think, this could be a best seller in this here envelope? If they did, they had to force themselves not to open it, and they put that stamp on the outside of the envelop, because they could.

I suppose publishers don't have time for sentiment. They only open envelopes with the return address of Stephen King or Tom Clancy. I think Stephen King was writing under some name like Bernie Schwartz at first, so they didn't even know he was him until he wrote Christine, and after the first couple of years, I wasn't sure I was me either.

The rejections came back in droves. At first I sent out twenty or thirty manuscripts to different publishers of a story I'd completed. That first year I marked a publisher off my list if they turned down a story. After the second year, I had to lighten up on my theory about rejection. Actually, I ran out of publishers that were publishing the kinds of stories I was writing. It was then I decided to give them all one more chance.

During this great experiment, we did struggle a little at times, not to mention we had two very impressionable kids growing up with their father sequestered in the study at the back of the house. I suppose they suspected I was a bit nuts, though I don't recall the subject ever coming up. I, myself, had occasion to suspect I might be a bit nuts, but it becomes far easier to accept once I started selling books.

But in my mind nuts can't be all bad if it gets you six figure checks as compensation for your insanity. I suppose it was better than disability and it allowed me to purge all my demons while entertaining the reading public. That was all the demons until now and suddenly there was one I couldn't write about or rid myself of. My trip into Baltimore had only stirred up my impotence. I didn't know why I remembered the meeting. Nothing came of it and we went our separate ways after no more than two minutes.

I did have a thing about rejection. I believe it had to do with my mother's rejection of me. There was no warmth that ever came from the woman and I was left feeling as though I was out in the cold. Most of my friends had mothers who showed concern for them, but mine couldn't be bothered with me. I didn't let anyone know this, but she didn't want to be bothered, and nothing I did changed her mind. Seeing that boy walking away from me, hands shoved into his pockets, the rejection in his posture, reminded me of myself. He looked exactly like I felt when I was his age. Had anyone ever noticed me?

It was the only thing that made any sense by this time. I was reacting to my having rejected him. In reality I hadn't rejected him I'd merely had a meeting to attend, or I could have talked to him about his problems. If not for that meeting which kept me from finding out what he really wanted, I wouldn't have been in town at all. So our paths only crossed because I did have a meeting. It had been cut short for the same reason.

What else could I have done? Even if I hadn't been going to a meeting, there was nothing I could do for him. He said he had a sick mother. He said he needed money. Don't we all? I didn't know I believed this, not that it mattered. What mattered was the boy. There was something he knew that I needed to know. I wasn't sure what it was, but I had to talk to him to find out. It seemed to me to be the only way to resolve my quandary.

… And there it was. I'd return to town until I met up with him.

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