Sometimes I watch her in the field, her sunhat bobbing as she leans to check the early May buds or bends to pull a weed, and I think about how it could have been. And I wonder if we are better because if it.
It started innocently enough. She was busy writing, I was busy sniping and being seventeen, and she started to complain how all her hard work was getting her nowhere. And goddamn me for having the nerve to complain about my life. And so I said to her, “It’s because you suck.”
She stared at me a long moment, as if I’d slapped her. It was surprising, really, because I’d said plenty worse before. But this one particular must have hit her wrong. Maybe she’d been stuck on a tricky piece of dialogue, or opening a chapter. Or who knows, because I think you know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s timing.
She cried. Silently at first, but it grew into racking sobs, the sort you never hear outside of daycares or mental asylums. Dad and I stood speechless. Because, honestly— it’s more than a little distressing to watch your wife or mother go unhinged. And up to that point, we’d thought she was put together—you know–upstairs.
It’s just that she had no business doing it—that writing thing. And Dad, he tried to tell her, but you really can’t tell someone they suck at something. Especially when it’s something they want so badly. Except by then, even she was starting to realize. And so I said: “You suck.”
After the crying, like an hour or more of it, she lifted her head and stared across her office, to some faraway place that neither Dad nor I could see. Like a castaway imagining a ship on the horizon. I could see her left eye twitch and she said, “Ahhhh.”
With mighty purpose, she lifted her fingers to the keys of her laptop, and began.
Across the room, the printer whirred to life, spat out one page and then another. The printer shat and spat and spewed her stories, one by one. The poems, the plays, the essays. The treatments and the novels. Her collection of flash fiction, the synopses and her journals.
The stack of papers grew so tall that pages gushed onto the floor and still—she kept on printing. Soon the words all faded gray, and fainter still, with skinny lines all eaten through, until there were only ghosts of words. And finally, blank.
She watched the empty pages churn through the inkless printer, let them flutter to the floor because there was nowhere else to land.
Once the printer stopped, she started to erase. One by one, jaw clenched, she opened all the files, stabbed the keys, and killed her stories. Each pitch, each book, each query. And once she’d hunted down the last, nuked the text and jabbed delete, she slammed the lid of her laptop shut, looked up and glared at me.
“Ha,” she said. But by now I could only look away.
She pushed back from her desk, got up and staggered toward the printer. Lurching right and left, she shoveled armloads of papers into an open garbage can.
Then she charged past Dad and me and marched out the doorway, down the hall and into the backyard—all the time holding that trashcan in front of her like she was leading the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And just outside the shade of the sycamore, she dumped it.
She went back three more times, shoveling in every last page that had drifted about the office, until she had a pile outside a good two feet tall. After vanishing into the garage for a minute, she came out with lighter fluid. For a good five minutes, she stood there spraying, stopped and dropped it. Went inside and came out smirking, her laptop high above her head, like an airport chauffeur awaiting a mysterious stranger, and when she got to the pit, she slammed it down—so hard we heard her grunt, felt the thump and heard it echo about the yard.
She rattled out the last few drops of lighter fluid and looked over her shoulder at us. “Matches,” she smiled.
Dad crossed a protective arm over me and took a step back. “No.”
As if he could stop her. “Yesss,” she said. I could see the whites of her eyes all the way around.
She pushed past, ran inside, and rifled through the kitchen drawers, leaving every last one open. But there was not a lighter or a match to be found—so she charged across the yard, broke off a low-hanging branch, snapped it on one knee and proceeded to rub two sticks together.
She kept at it for forty minutes, stopping every now and then to push her hair back and wipe the sweat out of her eyes. And when she started crying again, I drove to Gas Buddy and bought her a lighter.
They say the flames shot up two stories.
When the fire steadied, she pulled up an Adirondack and a box of Barefoot and stayed there all afternoon and evening. When the flames got low, she dragged out her box of writing tomes, her chair and desk. Piece by piece, she fed them to the fire. Now and then, she’d poke the embers with an old golf club and tip her head back to watch the sparks roar up to the sky, like stars set free.
I think about that day a lot now, about how different it was back then and how seldom you seen the demarcations in your life that you can point to it and say, that is when it happened. That is when it changed.
She doesn’t talk much now, or smile often, but I think she’s happy. She spends a lot of time outdoors, and I think the vineyard suits her better than writing ever did.
There’s just too much trouble in it—the writing—and no way to know if it’s right. I think that’s what pushed her over the edge that day, realizing what it was, how imperfect. How deficient. How incomplete.
Now that it’s gone—her writing, I mean—I’ve wondered. It probably wasn’t fair, what I said about her work. It might have been true—or maybe it was only true to me. Or perhaps it was just true at the time. No one can say for sure. But I think she realized what I do now—there’s no way to measure writing, no way to prove and no way to ever know if it’s right. There is only one true thing about it:
It makes a damn fine fire.