Guest Post, Douglas Light: Shadows

The man ran late. He hailed a cab. The cab was packed with milk jugs of laundry detergent pre-mixed with water. There was a lot of talk between the man and cab driver. Nothing happened.

Understand, this was a short story.

Understand, this was the first short story I ever wrote, some 25 years ago. I spent a hundred-plus hours in a dim loft on Occidental Street in Seattle crafting the six page story that was—at least in my mind—pure, brilliant literature.

What it really was was awful. Pointless. Embarrassing.

If my present-self had been around then, I would have destroyed my then-self’s typewriter. “Stop,” I would have said. “Trust me, please. Just stop.”

 

***

Summit in ColoradoJuly 2016. Colorado.

Two miles in, my girlfriend Micah and I saw the summit. The guidebook claimed the Mount Belford hike, a 14,150 feet trundle to the summit, was 3.1 miles long. We were close, twenty more minutes of hiking, at most. “We can make it,” I said.

Two hours later we discovered the summit we’d struggled toward was a false summit, the real one a solid half mile farther.

But we’d committed. We were here. Now. We were going to make it.

And we did. After nearly four hours of hiking and climbing, we reached the peak.

At the base, in the dirt parking lot with toxic Port-A-Potties, the day had been brilliant. 76 degrees. A pleasant breeze.

Up top, the temperature bottomed to 43 degrees and the winds whipped so brutally that we had to crouch then crawl the final hundred yards.

Five pictures on the phone. Proof.

Rain clouds wedged their way onto the once blue skies.

We made the descent, believing we’d conquered the mountain.

The first fall left me bloody and laughing.

The third found me on my back like a broken turtle, my plastic water bottle cracked and draining and the mountain air crowded with my curses.

Rain hit, lashing and full.

I hobbled the remaining way, miserable.

In the parking lot, the rain stopped. The sky brightened.

I took my boots off. My socks were red with blood. My right knee had taken on the hue of a eggplant. “I can drive,” Micah said.

I refused, for no good reason.

Driving the once-dirt-now-mud road toward the highway, we saw three men sunning themselves on rocks, shirts off and smoking with a bottle of Dickel whiskey on the ground.

Pointing to the three, Micah said, “There’s a lesson there.”

 

***

The writing group met in Brooklyn. I was the only male. “This is a meet-and-greet, a trial to see if you’d be a good fit,” the woman hosting the session said.

I brought a bottle of wine—rather, I bought a bottle of wine. I dropped it in the subway station, staining the pages we were to review that night.

Snacks, soda, and cupcakes. The critiquing was a combative free-for-all, with arguments erupting and people being cut off mid-sentence. I managed two comments over the course of the hour, both which were dismissed.

“I’m not sure you’re a good fit,” the host said, seeing me out. “You don’t seem to understand how to make thoughtful comments.”

 

***

Micah and I sat at a small table at Sunny’s bar in Redhook, Brooklyn, drinking scotch and debating the cultural significance of the new World Trade Center with Steve Buscemi while Norah Jones played. The place was packed, though there were no more than forty.

Pausing mid-song, Norah said, “Look everyone, it’s Mick Foley,” and then invited the former pro-wrestler on stage, where he played a woodblock in time to the tune.

“Where else but New York City,” Micah said of our evening as we rode home to Harlem.

The next day, Micah got pulled over by the police and ticketed. $425 for turning right on a red.

On her bicycle.

Where else but New York City.

 

***

When my first novel came out, I organized a reading for myself and three others at Bluestockings Bookstore on the Lower East Side. I sent out invites, contacted the media. Time Out New York featured the event both in print and online, calling the three authors reading with me “literature’s new, important voices.”

My name was missing from the announcement.

I sold four books at the reading, left ten more with the bookstore on consignment. “Stop back by in a few weeks and we’ll cut you a check for tonight’s sales and whatever else we sell,” the manager said.

When I returned three weeks later, all my books were gone.

I was thrilled, positive I’d sold them all.

“What’s your name again?” the manager asked. I wasn’t in their system. My book wasn’t in the system. “I can’t pay you for what we didn’t sell,” the manager said, adding, “Are you sure you left them here?”

 

***

September leaked into October. The weather grew cold. I was squatting on a boat in the Puget Sound, Seattle, Washington, sneaking aboard at night. I’d rifled the cabinets for crackers and canned oysters, polished off the bottle of cheap port.

This was 1994. My situation was temporary, I was sure. I was going to be famous. Soon. I’d published my own chapbook of poetry, had handed it out to the people who mattered, the Seattle artists and writers who were on the path to make it big.

Through them, I’d make it.

Twenty-two years later, Wikipedia has no mention of the Seattle artists and writers I once knew. Barnes & Nobles doesn’t carry their books.

 

***

In graduate school, the Brazilian boy who wore prescription sunglasses to the nighttime writing workshop said of my story, “You cannot start a sentence with the word ‘And.’”

“But what about the piece?” the teacher said.  “Overall, what do you think?”

The boy lifted a shoulder, a half shrug. “It’s a draft,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

The next day, I mailed the story off to a magazine. It got published. It received an O. Henry Prize.

 

***

After three months of sleeping on the streets, I called my folks. Collect.

“What do you want to do?” my father said. “You need to decide on something to do and then we can help.”

I needed money, needed a place.

The pay phone was sticky and a fight between a man on the street and a woman in an apartment above had erupted. Beer bottles flew down from her window.

“I can do anything,” I said, watching the explosion of glass in the street.

“But you’re doing nothing,” my father said. “So how am I supposed to help?”

The next day, I moved into the homeless shelter.

 

***

The man ran late. He hailed a cab. The cab was packed with milk jugs of laundry detergent pre-mixed with water. There was a lot of talk between the man and cab driver. Nothing happened.

But no.

Thinking about it, I wouldn’t tell my younger-self, “Stop. Trust me, please. Just stop.”

And I wouldn’t destroy the typewriter.

I’d destroy the story.

And I’d say, “If you want to do this, then do it right.”

I’d say, “Move into the shadows. Get lost. Be scared. Find that place where the light stops being light for you. And then sit down. Just sit and wait. Trust me. It’ll happen. As long as you just wait.”