In “The Art of Fiction,” an essay, Henry James wrote, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” Plenty has been lost on me, no doubt, but I enjoy my life more if I pay attention.
I've had a lot to notice lately, and, in fact, the advice of a lawyer to note everything in daily diary. My son and I, driving in our little Saturn three weeks ago, were rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver in a big Suburban, so I have spent a lot of time since then comforting myself with the knowledge that every experience is useful to a writer. Even if I never write about particulars of the incident, the attendant emotions will inform what I write from now on. We were both badly whiplashed, but no injuries are visible. Although we've been advised not to write or talk publicly about the accident, one little glimpse might be allowable.
While we waited for our friend Nolan to take us to the ER, we talked with the cops who reported the incident. I asked one of them about the obvious carapace that underlay her clothing. “Kevlar,” she said. “We're never without it.” The other said, “Mine's lighter.” She opened the top button of her shirt to show me. I reached over and touched the twill tape that softened the edge of her armor. Nobody raised an objection. When they walked away, though, my son said, “Never touch a cop.” My son, of course, is six-five, two-eighty, and very fit, while I—well, I suppose I might have swung my parrot-headed cane, but I couldn't have done much damage. The policewoman might have reacted differently if my son had touched her.
Such details of our lives easily escape us, unless we keep a notebook. When I went to Paris alone, I purposely left my camera at home, preferring to experience the trip directly, rather than through a lens. Now what I remember most vividly are the things I wrote in my little pocket book: the American reporter at a sidewalk bistro whom I told, “Apres le divorce, Paris,” and who laughed and replied, “Apres le divorce, Afrique”; the driver who took out a sign with the corner of her bus, stepped onto the sidewalk to survey the damage, shrugged dramatically for the street audience, and drove away; the pert young thing in a mini-skirt who strode past another bistro, loudly appreciated by a gaggle of young men, her Yorkie on a string, and then strode back again, tossing her head, the little dog on her arm, and then strode past a third time, haughtier than ever, as the dog nuzzled her face. The boys did everything but lick their chops and say yum yum. I don't think I would have seen the nuances through a camera.
Once our neighbor across the alley, Mr. Lapole, asked us to accompany him to check on our next door neighbor, O'Malley, whose house was dark that evening. My little boy called him Mr. Old Malley. He used to yell at the kids who stepped on his grass. Lapole turned the key in the lock, while I shone a light through the tiny front-door window on the body that lay on the floor. Somebody turned on a lamp. O'Malley was obviously dead, but, for the sake of good form, I felt for a pulse in his neck. His body was stiff and cold, and his skin next to the floor, where gravity had deposited his blood, was livid. His glasses lay broken at the foot of the stairs. He hadn't been unconscious yet when his glasses broke; he had crawled to the foot of a Victorian chair, removed the upper denture from his mouth, and placed it above him on the maroon cut-velvet seat.
The two men with me stood there with their hands in their pockets.
I went into the kitchen and called the police. Under the sink, in a three-by-five-feet area that a cabinet might have covered if O'Malley hadn't been so stingy, stood forty or fifty empty Listerine bottles. A Listerine habit must be a terrible thing. Several bowls squatted on the table, some heaped with quarters, others with dimes, others with nickels, amid a pile of too many pennies to be contained in a few bowls. After a policeman had been there for an hour, a stranger showed up and identified himself as O'Malley's nephew. I had never seen him at the house in ten years. He stepped over O'Malley's legs, oblivious to his face, and surveyed the bowls of coins. “Dammit,” he said. “I still have to drive to Black Duck tonight.”
These incidents and the facts of our car accident will probably never appear in anything I write. I did notice them, though. My notebooks have all been lost, but whatever I wrote in them enables me now to remember very clearly what I felt about the two men with their hands in their pockets, the bottles on the floor, the coin-hungry nephew, and the observing self that I observed.
Now I see that these incidents have shown up in my writing, after all.