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A Garage is No Place to Write a Book
“Walter…” his grandmother Mary tried to gently nudge him from his trance. He was staring intensely into a digital camera at the end of a black PVC tube. At the other end was one of her garage’s fluorescent lighting fixtures. “Walter—”
“Shhh…” He waved up his index figure. “One sec Grandma . . . Ah, got it! I did it!” He jumped up and down looking at the digital camera screen.
“You did what?”
“I built a spectrograph out of one of your leftover PVC tubes. Come check out how it works.” He waved her over to the instrument. “A rubber cap with a thin slit in it on the far end of the tube focuses the light coming in from the fixture, then a holographic film inside the tube diffracts the light, and this camera captures the result. See those green and blue lines?” He pointed to the camera screen.
“Those are mercury electron footprints! They come from the mercury vapor inside the florescent bulb. Electrons can only occupy certain orbital paths within an atom, so in order to jump up to a higher orbital path, they get energy by absorbing light, but only specific colors of light. Then when they jump back down, they emit what they absorbed, and that’s what you see here, a partial mercury emission spectrum. Every element has a unique one and it’s how we identify what something is made of, even faraway planets and stars. It’s like these little electrons are saying...” he continued in a high-pitched voice, “Hey, I might be small, but I still play a big role in your world.”
“That’s great,” Mary said unimpressed, “but I asked you to fix this light fixture two days ago, not turn it into a science project. How much weed have you been smoking?”
“None Grandma. I promise.”
“Well, when’s the last time you showered or went outside in the daylight? I know I said I wouldn’t intrude, but you sure you’re okay? You’ve hardly left this garage the last two weeks.”
“Yes, just trying to avoid the paparazzi, that’s all.”
“They haven’t been around for a while now. I think they moved on since you stopped wearing dresses.”
“Well, still, I’ve been making some progress on the novel finally, and I just want to stay focused on that.”
“So this science project has something to do with the novel?”
“Yeah, research. The main character is kind of a science enthusiast, and I was thinking about using it for a scene.”
“Really… Have you figured out what the book is going to be about then?”
“I’m getting there.”
“I see . . . So what about the trip? It leaves tomorrow in case you forgot.”
“I know, and after a lot of thought, I’ve decided not going is best. I’m just starting to get a grip on my mental health again and the stress of a trip might make me lose it for good, and I sure don’t want that to happen in a foreign continent I’ve never been. Also, although I do want to go to Europe someday, on a bus tour is not the way I want to see it, nor did Amber in her heart. So for myself—because I really do need to start caring about myself better, and in respect to Amber, I’m staying here until the novel is done. This garage will become to me what Thoreau’s cabin was to him. I need to isolate myself from the world and journey within, not be vacationing in Europe on someone else’s dime on a trip that was never truly mine.”
“Well, no offense, but you don’t seem to be making much progress ‘journeying’ within from all the noise coming out of this garage. Sounds more like learning the drums and building science projects to me.”
“Like I said, I’m just starting to make progress with the novel. Then during breaks, yes, I’ve been taking advantage of Mom’s old drum set. I’ve also been sharpening my French too.”
“For the trip?”
“No, so I can finally read that copy of Candide in French I’ve had on my bookshelf forever. I’m also giving Swann’s Way a shot. Amber always wanted me to read it, but it’s proven even more difficult to do in French.”
“Hm,” Mary said eyeing him skeptically.
She then began walking around the garage, a virtual maze of open boxes and crates crowded around the drum set and Walter’s injured camping cot he’d set up for napping. His grandfather’s old woodworking station had also been cleared off for science experiments and aspirations of a novel one day arising from his sporadic and sloppily-written journal entries, what he was counting as “progress”.
“You found your mother’s old records,” Mary said looking into one of the open boxes. “Where were they?”
“Up in the rafters where I found grandpa’s hat.”
“I still don’t understand your fascination with that ugly thing. You look like a construction worker you know.”
Walter and the absurdly bright orange fedora from his dorky dad costume had become almost as inseparable as his bellbottoms. Like his bellbottoms, the hat, which was in antithesis to everything rock star, had taken on a denotative meaning being that it demarcated the death of Quinn Quark and the beginning of the search for himself. But also like his bellbottoms, the hat concealed a part of him he didn’t want the public seeing: his face. However, in regards to passing cars on his evening walks, he was more visible that ever, the most important tip he’d taken away from recently reading Stephen King’s On Writing.
“Oh my, look at this,” Mary said pulling a framed photo out of another box. “My little boy scout.”
“I wouldn’t call him little,” Walter said looking at the picture of his younger self. “Looks like he ate another boy scout.”
“Oh, that was just baby fat. You were just a late bloomer, that’s all. This must’ve been taken a few months after you moved here. Look at those pudgy cheeks and your always perfect uniform you ironed yourself. You’ll always be this chubby little boy scout to me. I think he’s who you should get back in touch with. Remember how happy you were?”
“Because I’d just been wrenched from the clutches of hell.”
“And here you are again, yet now you’re refusing to be saved.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do I really have to spell it out? Walter, you may be brilliant, but sometimes that brilliance blinds you of what’s most obvious. If you’re trying to escape Quinn Quark, why stay in America where you’ll always be chained to him when you have an opportunity to go somewhere you’ll be free of him? Isn’t that what you’ve been saying you want all along? And I know you don’t believe in God anymore, but I’ve been praying for you, and I think if you’d open your mind to it, you’d see this trip is his hand reaching out for you. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s intervened to save your life.”
“Grandma, you realize people mostly go on these tours to party, drink, and fornicate, right? I’m not sure God would approve.”
“We don’t know God’s will. The world is full of temptation, yet the world and its temptations are still God’s creation, and they are here for a purpose, and that purpose is not to hide away from them. Enemies are better beaten with understanding than ignorance, and my shielded upbringing was helpless once temptation entered your mother’s life, temptations I never understood, and perhaps judged too harshly, which only drove her further into them and farther away from me.”
Mary came out of the maze and stood in front of Walter with a record in her hand. “Your mother’s favorite,” she said handing it to him. “I couldn’t remember it until I saw the little man lady on the cover.”
“Purple Rain was her favorite record?” Walter said.
“At the time she was pregnant with you, yes. She used to play this almost every day, and every time this one filthy song came on, she’d sing it at the top of her lungs just to spite me because I had thrown away the record so many times. After the fourth or fifth time she rebought it though, I gave up, so I made her listen to it in her bedroom only. But every time that song came on, the door would fling open and out came your mother dancing like a stripper, sometimes in nothing but her underwear with her tatas and big belly hanging out, just screaming that song as loud as she could.”
“Oh my God, no way,” Walter said laughing. “No wonder I am the way am.” He placed the record on a player and dropped the needle on the last song of the first side. “Was it this song?” he asked.
“Oh yes, that’s it,” she said as soon as it started to play. “It’s scarred in my memory for life.” Mary brought her hand to her face and sighed as if she was going to cry, but didn’t. Walter had never seen his grandmother cry. “Funny,” she said, “I don’t seem to mind it as much now.”
“I guess there’s a lot I still don’t know about my mother,” Walter said. “Never in a million years would’ve I have guessed Purple Rain was her favorite record. I would’ve thought Tapestry or something like that from the few songs of hers I’ve heard.”
“Yes, I much preferred her music. It was so sweet in contrast to her behavior sometimes, but I think I was somewhat to blame for that. Deep down though, she was more like her music, and by George was she smart and had a heart of gold. She was always trying to help someone or save something. From the time she could walk she was always bringing home stray cats and injured animals to adopt, or rallying for this cause or protesting that one, none of which I ever really understood. Again, I wish I just would’ve been a little more open-minded, then maybe she would’ve opened up to me more.”
With tears in his eyes because he was bought to them so easily now, Walter went to his grandmother and hugged her like a firm handshake. This was how his grandmother always hugged. Coming from a family of awarded Marines and athletes, she was not a small or fragile woman, and her resolve and stamina to the service of others was unlike any person he knew. Even at the age of seventy-five, she still worked nearly forty hours a week as a rehab nurse at Torrance Memorial, a post she’d been serving in longer than he had been alive, despite being able to easily retire two decades earlier.
“Walter...” his Grandmother said into his ear after kissing his cheek, “I love you, but you’re wrong. A garage is no place to write a book. Also, wasn’t that the real reason for this trip anyway, so Amber could find inspiration to write a book? So if you’re really trying to escape Quinn Quark, write a book, and pay respect to her, I don’t see how you have any other option than going, unless I’m missing something?”
“No,” Walter replied into her ear, “you always seem to catch everything. I love you too, more than anyone. If God exists, you’re his strongest proof, and I don’t want you to ever think you did anything other than perfect in raising me. You obviously learned something from having to deal with my mother. And although I’m not perfect, that’s no one’s fault but my own.”
“Well, you might not be perfect, but I would say you’re a pretty extraordinary grandson, and I’m so privileged to call you mine. But you mind turning off the music now?”
“Yes of course,” Walter said and lifted the needle.
“So did I convince you?” Mary asked.
“Yes, I think that’s very obvious now. It’s all strangely obvious now, and I don’t know why it took you for me to see it.”
“Maybe because I keep my ears open to God, and maybe you should too every once and awhile like that chubby little boy scout used to. While it’s never good to be ignorant, sometimes faith is the only way through fear. But also, if I had to endure another two weeks of your tinkering and drumming, I think my mental health would’ve been at stake.”