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The Art of the Wasted Day

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The Art of the Wasted Day

  Also by Patricia Hampl


  The Florist’s Daughter

  Blue Arabesque

  I Could Tell You Stories

  Virgin Time


  (with engravings by Steven Sorman)

  A Romantic Education


  Resort and Other Poems

  Woman before an Aquarium


  The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald

  Burning Bright: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry from Judaism, Christianity and Islam

  Tell Me True: Memoir, History, and Writing a Life

  co-edited with Elaine Tyler May


  An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

  375 Hudson Street

  New York, New York 10014


  Copyright © 2018 by Patricia Hampl

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

  Portions of this book first appeared in somewhat different form in The Sophisticated Traveler (published by The New York Times), Gulf Coast, Image, The Iowa Review, and Not Less Than Everything edited by Catherine Wolff (HarperCollins, 2013).

  “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm at Pine Island, Minnesota” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose of James Wright. © 1990 by Anne Wright. Published by Wesleyan University Press. Used by permission.

  ISBN 9780525429647 (hardcover)

  ISBN 9780698407497 (ebook)


  For Terrence


  Sometime around 1535, a good thirty years before the French Wars of Religion staked Catholic and Protestant heads on pikes around the Bordeaux countryside, in a gray stone castle deep in the wine country near Bergerac and Saint-Émilion, Pierre Montaigne, of a recently ennobled family, took the unprecedented step of hiring a lute player to awaken his child every morning. He was not an educated man, but he was an ardent father.

  He followed a theory, probably picked up during his military years in Italy, his son later wrote, that “it troubles the tender brains of children to wake them in the morning with a start, and to snatch them suddenly and violently from their sleep, in which they are plunged much more deeply than we are.” The lute followed Pierre Montaigne’s boy, Michel, around the castle—“I was never without a man to do this for me.”

  Music—lyrical, wordless—was the sound track of his childhood, the ground beat of his existence. An inducement to reverie.

  Though he reports that his nature was always “gentle and tractable,” Michel Montaigne, celebrated in our time as “the first modern man” (and in English departments as the father of the personal essay, that most amateur literary form), confesses that he was in fact “so sluggish, lax, and drowsy” that he was a poor student when lessons required serious application. No one, he says, “could tear me from my sloth, not even to make me play.”

  He was otherwise engaged—floating on the charmed notes of that childhood lute, no doubt. Lolling in the lap of leisure, adrift on fey melodies handed down from the Provençal lays of the Troubadours.

  There was fugitive genius in this indolence. “What I saw, I saw well,” he says, cannily, much later, “and beneath this inert appearance nourished bold ideas and opinions beyond my years.”

  Montaigne found his vocation early, companioned by music plucked on sheep gut as he went up and down the staircase of his father’s cold house, the same stony place where, years later, he would return from a life at court to sit alone in a room with words, to reveal his mind. Or really, to discover his mind.

  He divined early the value of being sluggish, lax, drowsy . . .

  He was not, as people now say, the first modern skeptic. He was the first modern daydreamer.

  * * *


  Also by Patricia Hampl

  Title Page





  To Go

  To Stay


  About the Author


  It begins—July afternoon—under the shade of the beechnut tree. The tree belongs to Mr. Kinney, the shade is ours. It must be 1953, because the Magnavox has just been delivered from McGowan’s TV and Appliance on Grand. It’s not just for watching Lucy, my mother says, already mistrusting it. “You’re seeing history.” She points to the first smudged image she allows us to see—the Koreans and Chinese and Americans signing their names in a big Bibley book. “Peace,” she says, settling in with her cigs, the chipped cloisonné ashtray at hand.

  An announcer drones from the glass box, murmuring names. One after another, men approach the heavy table to sign the book, each handing a fountain pen to the next. Mother taps her cig against the little Chinese ashtray, a gift, she tells me, from her uncle who was a U.S. Customs agent in San Francisco, half a world away from us in St. Paul. He got the ashtray when he broke an opium smuggling ring, she says proudly. He left the ashtray to her.

  “Did he steal it?” I ask.

  She looks startled. “Not exactly,” she says uncertainly, turning back to the television. This is going to take a long time, the men handing the pen back and forth. History, it turns out, is boring.

  So I come out here, throw myself on the ground where the feathers of the beechnut sway and tilt. The green filigree patterns the sky, light filters my face. It’s hard (the ground), yet also soft (the sponge of lawn). I shut my eyes. The Customs agent uncle, dead before I was born, is standing on a San Francisco dock. Does he have a gun? He has a badge, that I see. He lifts the blue cloisonné ashtray out of a burlap bag, and a Chinese man has his hands up in the air. He has a long pigtail I recognize from the black-and-red lacquer tray Mother brings up with soup and saltines when we’re sick in bed. There must be a gun somewhere, but where is it?

  The scene fades, and a fresh image appears, our next-door neighbor Mr. Kinney, who presents himself in the dark for no reason. There he is, filling my mind.

  Mr. Kinney is a widower. My mother says his wife has been dead “forever.” A hush of respect hovers over this fact. Because he is a widower and because he “has money,” he has a housekeeper. She doesn’t like me. She wears a flowered apron trimmed with rickrack, and her designation—housekeeper—makes her slightly sinister. Who has a housekeeper? Not normal people. Only Mr. Kinney, a widower without children but with money. He owns the coke factory near the zoo, a place of foreboding, heaps of blackened coal, acrid, smoking. “They’ll have to clean that up one day,” my father says.

  Mr. Kinney sits in his glassed-in sunporch before dinner, sipping whiskey from a lowball glass. He drinks after dinner too, slowly, meditatively. He reads, his old smooth head glowing under the floor lamp. He has decided against a television set, he informs my father who has inquired if, with the windows open in summer, the sound of the Magnavox carries. We’ve all noticed the nasty bark of the laugh track, nothing like real laughing.

  He’s decided to stick with books, Mr. Kinney tells my father. He also listens to the radio as Halsey Hall calls the ball game in a voice juicy from a chewed cigar. You can see Mr. Kinney leaning back in his slop
ing armchair, eyes closed, following the game. Another person who shuts his eyes to see. In the summer you can hear the metallic chink of ice in the lowball glass. He drinks alone, my mother says.

  When you close your eyes, you see and hear things you didn’t notice before, though they must have been there all along. It’s not that you make things up—you notice things. Maybe that’s a kind of making up? Hard to say. But it’s all more real than history blatting away in the living room where my mother stares at the gray glass, tapping her cig against the little saucer of the blue ashtray taken from the Chinese man with his hands above his head. Mother is still there, as the pen passes from a Chinese man to an American and on to the next and the next. She’s happy. She’s watching peace occur in the wide world. Peace is vital to her: We had to drop the bomb, darling. It ended the War. It saved lives.

  But now, here, under the shade of the beechnut, I float past the Customs agent and the Chinese smuggler, over the disapproving face of Mr. Kinney’s housekeeper, above mild Mr. Kinney himself, swirling his oily drink on his sunporch. Day after day, night after night during my endless girlhood I float away like this.

  My father says Mr. Kinney takes his bourbon on the rocks. Mr. Kinney is slipping down a craggy cliffside under a shower of coal dust. He teeters off his sunporch—takes his bourbon on the rocks, drinks alone.

  There’s something orchestral about all this. My father’s voice, my mother’s, the chink of ice, the echo chamber of that word—alone. A melodic moan struggles out of the sad-souled vowel at the word’s dead center—the sob at the core of alone. O! The stagey hand-on-heart intonation at the beginning of poems that Great-Aunt Aggie recites—O to be in England, O for a beaker of the warm South . . . Bourbon on the rocks. Well, it’s sad, darling—he drinks alone. O! O!

  Words are partly thoughts, but mostly they’re music, deep down. Thinking itself is, perhaps, orchestral, the mind conducting the world. Conducting it, constructing it. I sense this instinctively.

  There is no language for this, not then, not even now, this inner glide, articulation of the wordless, plotless truth of existence. Life is not made up of stories, much as I adore them—Charlotte, Heidi, Caddie Woodlawn. Really, life is—this. It’s a float, my body a cloud drifting along, effortless but aware. Drifting over the world, seeing, passing along.

  Years later, peering across from the Kinney sunporch to ours, Mr. Kinney’s housekeeper glimpses me roiling around on the couch with my first boyfriend and reports this to my grandmother, who conveys the intelligence to my mother—She had a hippie boy out there—with the vindicated face of a tattling teacher’s pet.

  At eight I don’t yet see the hippie boys or the clasping and kissing, but already I recognize the look on the housekeeper’s face. It is the aggrieved visage of the unloved, thwarted, and denied. The flaccid cheeks slip downward, the sour line of the lips tightens. That sharp eye on the prowl, passing from the back door to the trash can with her bag of refuse, frowning at me lolling under the shade of her employer’s beechnut tree. She’s a busybody.

  She recognizes me too for what I am: her natural enemy. A girl up to no good, lazing my days away, conducting music no one else hears. A time-waster. A daydreamer.

  Which poses a problem: in a few months we will make our First Confession. We have reached the age of reason. Sister says we now know the difference between Good and Evil. She has given us the buff-colored Baltimore Catechism and directed us to the “Examination of Conscience” at the back to help us prepare for our first whispered recitation in the basement of St. Luke’s. The Ten Commandments are listed, each with its complement of sins and “occasions of sin,” which are to be avoided.

  I have located Disobedience (number 4) and Lying (number 8) as my province, as well as the diffuse “Unkind Gossip,” an all-purpose sin that seems to belong to no particular commandment, but exists as an aura around all human relations. Then I reach the combined list of sins and occasions of sin for Commandments 9 and 10, where all the Coveting goes on. There, shockingly, without explanation, is the word. Daydreaming.

  Busted. An official sin, ratified by the Baltimore Catechism. I stare at it, disbelieving.

  To refuse to admit to a sin listed in the “Examination of Conscience” is a disobedience more profound—this I know—than the trivialities against my mother and father I’ve been toting up for presentation to Father Kennedy in the little curtained box in St. Luke’s basement. A bad confession is the worst sin of all. Mortal.

  But daydreaming, this effortless flight of the mind? I’m thunderstruck. Yet also oddly confirmed. A faint bell chimes within—of course the imagination is up to no good. You know that, you were born knowing that. It’s the real, the true occasion of sin. Under the beechnut tree, leaves swishing, the sound of the oily sluice—chink, chink-chink—alone on the rocks. O alone. But connected to everything, conducting the unheard harmony that is the truest music. The sweetness of it, lolling under the filtered light of heaven. You possess everything that passes through the mind. It’s divinity. That must be the sweetness.

  That must be the sin.

  I don’t just mentally reject this sin. I tra-la my way past it. A higher editorial power takes over. I unsee it, unread it. That’s part of this daydream paradise—unthinking my own thinking. I excise the word from the Baltimore Catechism, from my mind. I’m gripped by refusal. It’s a form of loyalty. I’m never letting go of this.

  The tendency to float, to depart, to rest—this power resides within me. It’s right in there, jammed into the space where I’ve been taught conscience also resides—inside. Listen to your inner voice, children. It will guide you. Right here, Sister says, not reaching up to her wimpled head, but touching a pale hand to her obscure bosom under the gloomy tarp of her habit. Right here. That’s where truth is. You always know—if you consult here. No one questions—I still have not questioned—that there is an inner voice to be heard.

  I don’t hesitate. I throw my lot with the occasion of sin. I already know (or believe—which comes to the same thing in my Catholic worldview) that daydreaming doesn’t make things up. It sees things. Claims things, twirls them around, takes a good look. Possesses them. Embraces them. Makes something of them. Makes sense. Or music. How restful it is, how full of motion. My first paradox.

  I couldn’t care less what it’s called. It’s pure pleasure. Infinite delight. For this a person goes to hell.

  Okay then.

  Though I don’t yet know it, though Sister has her hand on her breast, this is what is called the life of the mind. It’s what I want to do. It’s where I want to be. Right here.

  * * *

  Fast forward. More than forty years, and what’s become of “the life of the mind”? Hand on heart, the inner voice still murmuring? I’ve taken my place, middle seat, my husband on the aisle, a plump woman already seated by the window. I fasten my seat belt, low and tight as instructed. My husband takes my right hand, gives it a squeeze, opens his book.

  The plane taxis forward, the woman next to me is looking with pleasant curiosity out the window. Blue skies, no wind.

  We lift off, levitating at a rather sharp angle, without shimmy or rattle or bobble. A confident plane. We’re up cleanly at a sheer slant. And I’m dying.

  It is impossible to breathe in this canister hurling itself on high. The thing is not properly pressurized. No one can breathe in here. We will all die, or—another possibility occurs in the same instant—we may land safely, but we’ll be a planeful of brain-damaged droolers. Alive, but gone, gone.

  I have picked up on the truth sooner than the others. But didn’t teachers often say I was quick? In a moment these poor souls will be leaping from their places, madly clawing for air. At least I will die with dignity. My eyes fasten on a hopelessly unaware man farther forward on the aisle, sitting calmly with his newspaper open. I wait for him to leap up, hurl the paper aside, clutch his throat. He won’t be dying with dignity. B
ut I will. I sit still, frozen in my dignity.

  The woman by the window has taken my left hand. She’s stroking it. “You’re all right,” she’s saying. “I’m a labor and delivery room nurse, and you’re all right.” Does she think I’m pregnant? I’m over fifty.

  “You’re all right,” she keeps saying. Very annoying singsong. “Look at your hand.”

  I look. There it is. And her hand, stroking mine.

  “See? It isn’t blue. If you were dying your hand would be blue.” It would? I realize I’m gasping. Loudly, raggedly.

  I haven’t been dying with dignity. I have been making—am still making—weird gagging sounds, desperate, wild. My husband looks alarmed. He has taken my other hand. I feel bound, and rip my hands away from these deluded hand-holders who somehow are managing to breathe in this airless cylinder.

  The labor and delivery nurse hands me the airsickness bag from the seat pocket. “Breathe into this,” she says, commanding now, not gentle. “Put the bag to your mouth, bend your head. Breathe. In. Out. Breathe. Out. Out. Deep out.”

  This I do. “You’re having a panic attack,” she says. “You aren’t dying.”

  What does she know? Everything in me tells me I’m dying. I’m a writer. I trust my instincts, I live by my wits. But I do as she says, breathing deep into the bag. No one is leaping around. That gets through to me. Only my husband looks bug-eyed, leaning toward me, but no longer touching me because I have batted him away.

  “You’re not dying,” the nurse repeats with irritating certainty. “You’ve got too much oxygen in your system. Breathe out. Deep. Deep! Out! We’ll get that carbon dioxide level up. You’re having a panic attack,” she says again. She pats my leg briskly, not unkindly. She’s seen this before.

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