Sometimes, something as small as a paperback from a friend can change your life. But, like most improbable cliches, the timing has to be right for that to happen. You have to be in a certain state of mind: optimistic, maybe. Or overtired. You also have to be in the right place geographically and mentally.
Geographically, it helps to be in a tiny, one-terminal airport, slightly dirty in the dust bunnied corners kind of way, where the security officer just gave a cursory glance at your luggage before waving you through the ancient-looking metal detector, bored-looking and lassaize faire, his attitude a possible side effect of the large firearm strapped across his back.
You have to be too tired in mind, body and spirit to even think in the right language to understand the conversation buzzing around you like gnats in the oppressive summer heat, too tired to walk the few feet to the only newsstand that sells gossip magazines about stars you've never heard of and snacks that look like they might actually be older than you are. There's a cappucino machine, of course. This is small-town Italy: even if the beer nuts are a decade old, the espresso will always be fresh. But you can't think about that, and your friend and fellow teacher has to catch a flight, so he leaves you alone and half-coherent after dragging high school kids around Europe for two months.
"Here," he says. "I've read this a hundred times, and it's the sort of thing you'd like. It'll change your life." He presses a copy of Richard Brautigan's "Trout Fishing In America, the Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and In Watermelon Sugar" into your hands. The back is orange, a color that reminds you of the chairs in your elementary school, and the cover is white with an old black and white photograph on it of men who look as bedraggled as you feel.
You have less confidence in the power of the book, which looks too thick for your addled brain anyway, but you smile, hug him for what you suspect might be the last time, and thank him anyway. You've flipped to the middle and started reading before he disappears through security, pushing up his Woody Allen glasses in your mind's eye, his memory fading even as you file it away under "keepsakes."
"What the hell," you think. It's two hours until your flight takes off, and you need something to sort out the languages in your head. "I've got some time to kill. Might as well read."
The page is dog-eared, like the friend has spent time with it before.
“Karma Repair Kit Items 1-4.
1.Get enough food to eat,
and eat it.
2.Find a place to sleep where it is quiet,
and sleep there.
3.Reduce intellectual and emotional noise
until you arrive at the silence of yourself,
and listen to it.
Puzzled, but intrigued, you flip again to another page.
“In Watermelon Sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.”
More puzzled, but getting interested now. This doesn't seem like the sort of book that needs to be read in a linear fashion. Just as well, because your brain doesn't seem to want to read that way, anyway.
“I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.”
The hours come and go as you flipped back and forth and back again. Usually an anxious flyer, you don't notice the plane's wheels retracting into the belly of the beast.
"Mine is clouds."
You hardly remember you're on a plane at all, and forget to be afraid, even when the clouds jostle the aircraft, people drift off to sleep and you're left, you and Brautigan and his beautiful, entrancing words, ensconsed in a pool of yellow light like an island of solitude among a hundred sleeping mountains.
“Thousands of graveyards were parked in rows like cars.”
By the time the flight is over, all eight hours of it, you've read the book twice. You've lived in iDeath, drank port with the winos in the park across from a statue of Benjamin Franklin, read about penises and washing machines and clocks and ice cream that looks like Kafka's hat. You've stared into a black sun, danced at the trout hatchery, watched tigers eat your parents and fell asleep in a woman's arms before taking a long, rambling walk under lamps burning watermelon sugar oil.
“Our names were made for us in another century.”
The friend was right. You've never read anything like Brautigan before, but you want more, more, more. You want to discover this world he's given you a peek into, and you want it as much and as deeply and as soon as possible.
Two years later, you sit in a ballroom at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, listening to a panel of fellow devotees read from Richard Brautigan. The walls are plastered in brocade and velvet. Crystal chandeliers hang from a gilded ceiling, drooping heavy with their own opulence, and a panel of men, half-shaven, in plaid shirts and skinny jeans, are seated at a long table with copies of Brautigan's books just as well-loved as your own.
"He changed my life," one of the panelists says, and you nod along, fingering your attendance badge. The badge with the name of your MFA program on it. "He showed me that this writing thing, the way I write, is something I can do. Is something people do."
The crowd murmurs and something in your stomach, your soul maybe, thrums agreement. You think about how your friend handed you the keys to something, that day in the airport. That he showed you that another kind of writing exists, that another class of literature exists beyond the Faulker, the Hemingway, the Dickens. That deeds can be done and done again in watermelon sugar.
And it can be fanciful and free and wonderfully beautiful because it isn't like the rest.
“If you get hung up on everybody else's hang-ups, then the whole world's going to be nothing more than one huge gallows.”
Brautigan taught me freedom. That there's more to life than chasing someone else's ideal of a dream. “Sometimes life is merely a matter of coffee and whatever intimacy a cup of coffee affords.”