Blog of literary hijinks and the dudnering whirl of expatriotic vitriole.

3.21.2006

My grandmother met Thomas Pynchon. I don’t mean figuratively, like they saw reflections of each other in the obtuse themes of their respectively shattered narrations; his written, hers verbal. I mean, she met him one late Spring morning while she was out tending to the terraced garden in her front yard.

When she first told me, I was incredulous, not sure what to do with the information. “You’re sure it was him?” I wasn’t about to go knock on his door, he might have a gun. I briefly contemplated waiting for hours in a parked car with a camera in my lap. I pictured myself rubbing my eye sockets from insomnia until they looked like bruised figs. Instead, I settled to pry as many details as I could from her perplexing veil of secrecy. She’d never heard of him before, he was some kind of writer, “besides, he’s long gone you know...”. He had asked her a question about the mailman, she’d said. He was new to the neighborhood, renting down the street. He asked her about the history.

You don’t want to get my grandmother going on the history. That was her goddamm speciality. She knew all about the goddamm town, going back before the Revolutionary War. She was also one of those Civil War freaks, taking it as far as dressing in the hand sown garb of an anti-abolitionist Quaker, such were the depths of her contradictions, for a reenactment of a certain battle, don’t know which, probably in northern Virginia or West Virginia for that matter. There are photos of her and a few abundantly medaled, hatted and sworded, middle to late aged men, a bewildered pack of lone-wolfs like herself, in front of a statue of Gen. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, both on horses that are rearing back on two legs, poised to charge into battle and face their doom. Her face is weakly smiling, attempting to be gracious to the photographer. She looks a little hemmed in by the situation; there is a stony resistance in her eyes, a stiffness in her shoulders.

Over the course of subsequent conversations, edged on by the realization that I would never get to actually meet Pynchon, I inevitably requested a recounting of the incident. She would affect this look, “Oh,” she would say, as if she were slightly wounded that I hadn’t wanted to talk about something else. She replied coyly without emotion, the laconic, grey-toned timbre of a lawyer or a White House spokesman, relinquishing the minimum of information so as to confuse rather than clarify. She had, in a way, joined in on a conspiracy that is fairly famous in the world of living authors, and, despite the fact that she pleaded ignorance, there was still the twinkle in her eye that made me wonder; she wasn’t about to go and spoil the soup.

In truth, my grandmother was not all that impressed by the encounter. “If he’s so great, how come I’ve never heard of him?” Her literary tastes were eclectic, to say the least, and she read rapaciously, though not in well known circles of popular fiction. Because she developed macular degeneration toward the end of her life, suffering to rock back and forth when she walked through her roomy house alone, to steady herself with an outstretched arm on whatever was available; a chair, the wooden banister of the creaky stairway, the kitchen counter without any food except a cracked sugar jar and tin coffee pot; she carried this bulbous magnifying lens around her neck at all times on a metal chain, as if it were a master key to a precious safe. She read Poe and Donne, subversive narratives by 19th century French authors about the abuse of power by the state, Milton Friedman, histories of the cycles of the silver spot market over the twentieth century, the settlement of Scotch, Irish and Welsh immigrants in the U.S. colonies. There was usually a tinge of the hyper-political to everything she enjoyed discussing with me. She was what you might classify as a Libertarian, though she claimed to have disavowed the party years ago. For fun, she would attend drug trafficking trials and hiss at the prosecutors. She was overtly racist and sexist and though I had stated my position with equal force, we’d found it easier not to discuss such matters, recognizing our generational dissonance. Nevertheless, nasty undertones resurfaced from time to time. Heated arguments between us were common but passed like summer thunder showers, leaving our relationship strangely clean and rejuvenated. Perhaps they gave us the opportunity to clarify our positions, to say things we weren’t sure we really meant, outrageous things, knowing we would be forgiven by the next afternoon. Of course, we had our silences and taboos. My grandfather being the most immediate.

I can only imagine what they talked about. She was weeding her garden and he was probably taking his morning walk up the hill that runs in front of her house. The air was cool and bright and filled with the fresh aromas of wet grass and morning glory. A breeze rustled the full, new leaves in the trees, dampening the busy chatter of the morning birds. He lived on Windsor Road and the one adjacent, Buckingham Road formed the V that encircled the little neighborhood called “The Dingle.” All very anglophile; the neat brick and stone houses with their careful yards and walkways and ivy draped shudders. He was most likely beckoned by a powerful beam of refracted light flashing from the giant crystal ball that dangled from her neck as she was bending over, facing the earth and she noticed him hesitating there for a moment in the middle of the road.

“Can I help you?”
“Your necklace.”
“Necklace? That’s my reading glass.”
“Ah. So it is.”
Her eyes began to tear from the clump of wild onions she’d just deracinated from the moist ground.
“Pardon me. Is everything…is everything all right?” He took a few quick, hesitant steps closer.
“Sure! Onions.” She held them high above her head, as if that would make them easier to inspect.
“Oh.”
“You moved into 852?”
“No, well, I’m…I’m renting.”
She volunteered the fact, which was probably obvious, that she’d lived here, in this house, all her life, except for those couple of years away at nursing school in Baltimore, University of Maryland, and the short respite to southern California in the 60s. “Been holed up here ever since”; pointing to the house that her grandfather had designed and built and her great-grandfather, the one next to it, where her son lived.
“So you must know a lot of the history?” He jerked nervously.
“Yep.”
“Fascinating.”
“You take a look at the bridge on Braddock Road?” She pointed to the north, behind the house.
“Uh huh.”
She took a deep breath and began in her mocking, scholastic tone. “General Braddock, on orders to take Fort Duquesne from the French and to stabilize forts northward, extended a stone road to 12 feet, the first National Highway there, already used by Washington, straight through the mountain so he could ride more smoothly in his glorious coach. The general was killed shortly after they arrived in Pittsburg, had to bury him under the road itself, to hide his body from the Shawnee. Unhh…Can you imagine such a thing?” She laughed briefly and smiled knowingly. “After they put him right there in the middle of the road, they realized the Indians would see the grave bulging and naturally want to plunder it. So they had all the horses and soldiers walk over it to pat it down and hide it.”
He probed the hill, deciding whether or not to resume his walk.
“But, the bridge is still there. Made it out of these enormous stone. Just incredible. The work,” shaking her head in disbelief,” “The work it must have taken.”
Again there was a silent pause between them. My grandmother shook some of the dirt loose that was still attached to the roots of her wild onions.
“So what’s your line?”
“My line? Writer, uh, I’m a writer.”
“History.”
“You could say that.”
“What would you say?”
“I wouldn’t. I’d just say…writer, if someone asked.”
“My name is Sally Will.”
“Tom Pynchon.”
He tensed in expectation. Nothing. My grandmother blinked. She did not know his name but was intrigued nonetheless. She was not one to pry into personal details, but couldn’t help herself. After all, it was not every day you got to talk with a real-life writer.
“You from Pennsylvania?”
“All over really.”
“Because your accent…”
He smiled impatiently and she took the hint. He was closer now, having ascended a few of the irregular stone steps in order to better hear her straining voice. He was tall and lean and appeared, at unpredictable turns, to be lost deeply in thought or highly animated and involved in the moment.
“So, Allegheny history.”
“Fort Allegheny, Allegheny meaning “Fairest River.” Let’s see, you have the C and O canal, National Highway, the Fort, of course, the Narrows, Lover’s Leap…”
“Lover’s Leap?”
“There’s always been a Lover’ Leap. Even Sapho herself leapt from a cliff.”
“Oh the frustrated paramours of rival tribes forbidding marriage.”
“You got it.”
“Do you know which division of the Shawnee?”
“Shawnee. Hell, you want to know what we’re like, where we come from? These woods are filled with the impoverished ancestors of the goddamn Scotch. Lushes every one, poorest of the poor, never worked a day in their life, lived out in the forest drinkin their whiskey and playin their music. Gamblin. And the Irish.…Unhh.” She rolled her eyes. She was getting all worked when she suddenly caught hold of herself, paused and laughed again in that bemusing way, a laugh without need of commiseration, a laugh more like a cackle.
“I got some books, if you ever want to read the real history.”

Allegedly, there was only the one conversation with Mr. Pynchon. Grandmother said she saw him a few more times around the neighborhood, but that they never spoke again. She claimed that once, she spied him talking to her cats in the middle of the road. She smiled at me in that conspiratorial way of hers, slapping me on the shoulder. “Artists,” she said, rolling her eyes.

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