Notes from the Beyond Underground

18 May

Because everyone is telling me that there is now an egregious abundance of time, and I must do something productive with this waterfall of good fortune (learn a new language! take out that instrument from the case collecting dust mites in the attic you’ve been meaning to get to since 11th grade and mold yourself into the 21st century Charlie Parker!), I was recently cleaning out my files of old car insurance policies (Geico, 1988, VW Fox, 2-door wagon, $44.49/month + 1.75 processing fee for monthly installment plan), credit card statements (1987, Visa, $15.75, Penguin Feather Records purchase of Donald Fagen “Nightfly” LP/The Clash “London Calling” LP), Tax records (1985, $128.74 refund for “Projectionist, AMC Movie Theatres, New Carrollton, MD”), and other assorted, outdated paperwork that usually (nay, always) details the mundane historical avenues and arteries of our summative lives. Paperwork that is somehow, for some reason, always kept beyond its expiration date.

Two years previous to this “spring pandemic cleaning” I had started a notebook of trivial events one readily calls a “diary” into which went the usual dull details of a life more or less analogous to 7 billion others. I had read somewhere that the more banal the detail in a “diary” the more valuable its intellectual capital. And so in this “diary” I began recording the usual events that would make one hang oneself after a few pages, peppered with more weird ruminations such as: “the smell of the color red is corrugated iron.” Not sure why something like that actually needed (or mattered) to be documented by a person who is not visually impaired. Perhaps I thought it might lend credence to my skills as a writer. (It doesn’t.) Or maybe I was bored with the tedious details of my life and thought some oblique thought like that might juice things up. Later, when I was to come across this particular entry.

For whatever reason (Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Betlehem), at a very late point in this “diary’s” life (last week), I decided to stop noting down minutia and just throw in whatever it was that seemed like a lead. A lead to a story or a novel or a joke even. A lead to a side street that maybe threw me out onto a boulevard (of broken dreams? Good tune, bad title.). An axon connecting two working cells worthy of something greater than regurgitating daily pandemic infection vs. death numbers. Or what I had for breakfast.

I am still currently noting down the tally of this savage pandemic that has all of us trembling in our respective holes in our respective backyards, no end or a resolution in sight. Only the numbers now are listed at the end of each entry, relegated to statistical trivialities, not the lede. I know it reads harshly, that, but in the end that’s all these sort of numbers are. Tragic to the myriads affected but historically trivial in the celestial schematic nevertheless. If you’re reading this “diary” of mine and are interested in the ever-rising stats of an accelerating once-in-a-lifetime pandemic clipping off humanity at an alarming rate, skip to the end of each entry. You can even plot out your own curve if it’s more visually pleasing.

But back to the spring cleaning of my files. Tucked into a raggedy brown folder whose tab had been written on, crossed out, and then re-written in unstable calligraphy (̶S̶t̶a̶t̶e̶ ̶F̶a̶r̶m̶ ̶I̶n̶s̶u̶r̶a̶n̶c̶e̶ “Maintenance Receipts”) was a piece of creased paper, folded in thirds, with machine typeface embedded into the page. I could tell it was machine typeface from the bleed through of ribbon ink coming through from within the folds of the paper. It was a personal letter. Not dated. But signed, after the complimentary close, Nec Spe, Nec Metu (“Without Hope Without Fear), by a supremely talented poet, a guarded friend at one time some years ago, who eventually, tragically, took his own life five years ago next month.

If you are curious, the contents of the mere three-quarter-page-long letter have to do with the minutia that I mentioned above in my own document of boring trivialities of the day. Only his particular recounting was written in supreme language with metaphors and allusions worthy of being a great poet. Which is what he truly was. To read in his letter about the “proper lubrication of The Machine” first thing in the morning, which would eventually yield the words to the poems he would write later in the afternoon and publish even later in the year, is to spend four minutes ingesting small talk from a stranger that would otherwise impale you with its boredom. But in reality, this particular content leaves you satisfied that you have been intellectually stimulated perhaps for the rest of the week. You see, it’s the way that the insignificant details are narrated and delivered with such vivid color and sensibility and doomed sense of humor. Unlike anything you’ll find in my “diary.”

This troubled poet and I had a relationship based only upon letters. We had never met in person (and were never destined to), he living in the Pacific Northwest, me on the southern East Coast. We had only spoken on the phone twice—both times he was so inebriated that I had much trouble understanding his disconnected logic and sudden rants. Both times I fielded his calls I was in the process of driving somewhere or other. One of those times I remember transporting my young daughter in the back seat and being much more attuned to her immediate needs than the drunk poet screaming about . . . some local injustice. After that second nonsensical phone call, I decided to let the subsequent others go to voicemail. They eventually stopped.

I wrote him electronic mails, he responded with real paper written on his Underwood. Or Olivetti. The relationship flowed better this way. After all, we were both writers, not on-the-phone-salesmen. After he died tragically, in some weird fit of defiant rejection, I threw away all of his correspondence. Of course, later I was very sorry to have done so.

But this particular piece, the one I found in the “Maintenance Receipts” file, stood out for me as a kind of communique from the Beyond. What I have not yet mentioned about it is that around the middle of the letter my friend foreshadows not only his self-demise, but the exact way in which he was to eventually do it. At the time I dismissed it as drunken hyperbolic self-pity. After all, how many times in my own life had I written short stories or “poems” in the “woe-is-me” literary genre.

But there it is, now and forever inscribed for the record. The Record. They are tragic words living there on the page. This page that somehow found its hiding place in an old file of mundane receipts having to do with dull improvements or repairs.

I have kept this letter and, along with a copy of my very first publishing contract for my very first published novel, it serves as a bookmark in my newly retooled “diary” aforementioned at the beginning of this post. I still try to stay away from documenting monotonous details that often don’t necessarily mean anything even to me, but my friend’s letter serves as a reminder that even the unrelieved and tedious have their own kind of special significance. If not to their owner, then to someone else who may come upon them while in a fit of cleaning up old files, trying to kill quarantine time allotted by a catastrophic, raging, uncontrollable pandemic.

(In memory of Sundin Richards, 1973-2015. Nec Spe, Nec Metu)

Sundin Richards, Salt Lake City, UT
Photo: Clint Wardlow

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