MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I was riding my mountain bike up Greenleaf Street toward where it ends at the woods. In Vermont a spring Saturday morning means yard sales. I must have passed five of them. I kept right on going. I had no money in my pocket, and I was on my way to the bike trails.
There were cars parked on both sides of the street, and people getting out to check out the stuff: old cameras, beater bikes, half-wrecked chairs. I wove through them. But just where the street levels off a bit and you can take a breath, I stopped.
There was this little brick house on the left with a yard sale sign in front, and that's where I saw it, kind of tilted on the ground beside some army clothes, and a pile of sweaters someone had already mussed up. An old typewriter. It didn't holler at me, but it almost felt like it did, or maybe it typed "victor" with six quick noisy strokes on its own keyboard.
It was a big antique manual, all shiny black and made of heavy steel; you could tell that without picking it up. There was gold printing (ROYAL) above the keys. Down on both sides there were two little plate-glass windows where you could look into the works.
I saw all this at a glance. I leaned my bike against a tree and squatted down and looked in one of the windows. There were all these levers, and hinges, and bars with little brass screws. It was a Writing Machine. No circuitry. No white plastic. Did they even have plastic back then? I bent down and heaved it up. It felt like it weighed more than my sister, Claire. She's ten.
This guy walked over to me. I had seen him once or twice before when I rode by, working around his house and yard. He had white hair and was wearing a checked flannel shirt. His eyes were kind of puddly and there were spots on his hands, but he had this nice smile, like your uncle holding two tickets to a Red Sox game behind his back.
"You like old typewriters?" he said, after I put it back down.
"Yeah, kind of. I mean, I like this one," I said. "They don't make them like this anymore." (Shoot, I thought, that really sounded stupid.)
"Do you want it?" he asked.
"No, I don't think so—" I started, meaning to explain that I didn't have any money.
He was way ahead of me. "You can have it, for free." Was it my imagination, or was he like some high priest up on a mountaintop with "I have been expecting you, My Son; here is Your Typewriter."
"I couldn't do that," I said. "It's for sale."
"Nobody wants it. Had it out last week, too. People don't use 'em anymore. My wife used to do typing at home, she learned on this one, then she got an electric. And then the computer. She's been dead five years."
"Oh," I said. I didn't know what else to say.
He went on. "I sold the electric a long time ago, but I kept this one around. Works perfect. Take a look; it's all cleaned up."
I put my face right down past the keys, there was this big opening like a half-pipe, where all the letters were lying side by side at the ends of their skinny metal arms and looking up at me upside down and backward. You could see it was all shiny where he'd scrubbed the letters—with a toothbrush, he told me—and there was an inky black ribbon, brand-new and hanging ready and straight where it went through a big silver clip. I pulled my head out and there were the keys, white enamel letters on round black buttons, each with a metal ring around it, and a long space bar with a low, worn spot where his dead wife's right thumb had hit it about five million times.
"Wow," I said. "It's beautiful."
I meant it.
He looked down, still smiling. He made a loose fist with his right hand and play-punched my shoulder. "Somebody else appreciates it. That's good. Go on; you take it home and go write a book. It's got a book in it."
"That's why I kept it around," he said. "Got a big story stuck in there, but I can't get it out. I'm too old."
"Okay," I said. "Thanks a lot." Now why did I say that? I was just passing by on my bike. I didn't need a typewriter. Another thing I didn't need was my mouth saying something before I've even thought about it. Usually I'm careful about what I say, and do. I like to think things out first.
The guy moved off to talk with another customer and left me sitting there beside that old writing machine. I was trying to catch up with what just happened. You know, you make what you think is a quick, harmless decision, and then the rest of your life gets immediately complicated in ways you can't even imagine. It was like some mysterious hand waved to me from a train, and I jumped on, without thinking, even though I didn't know where the train was going or who the hand belonged to.
And now I had a problem. Getting the typewriter home. Not only was it big and heavy but it was embarrassing, too. Who even bothers anymore with stuff that old and clunky? And I didn't want to call my mom or dad and say hey, could you come pick us up? Yeah, us. Me and my typewriter. I already wanted this old ROYAL to be hidden, as if keeping it secret was the first step to, I don't know, getting the story out. Yeah, I knew the guy meant it as a joke, but still—
I looked up at the blue sky. I needed to think.
I like logic problems, like the one with the guy and the river and the little rowboat and the dog and the chicken and the bucket of grain. You know, where you have to figure out how to ferry everyone across two at a time without them eating each other? I also like it when real problems—the kind you have to solve step by step—drop out of nowhere—well, somewhere—into my lap.
I'm sixteen. Just. I don't drive. In Vermont you can get your permit when you're fifteen, but I don't have mine yet. And even if I had it, you can't drive alone with a permit. My brother Will teases me about this, but I'm not in a hurry. I remember the scene in the kitchen after Will cracked up Mom's car, and I'm not anxious to replay that anytime soon. Anyway I like the anonymity of a bike. I'll do almost anything not to be noticed.
It's funny, cause I'm named for somebody who really wanted to be noticed. The Victor my folks had in mind when they named me was this singer-songwriter in South America who always fought for the poor and downtrodden. People who didn't have voices. His picture's hanging on our living room wall.
He was a national hero in Chile. He was so famous that when the army bombed their own White House, shot their president, and took over, Victor was the next person they went looking for. He could have run away and saved himself, but he stayed. They herded him and about two thousand other people into a soccer stadium, then brought him out in front of all those people and pounded his hands to a bloody pulp with their rifle butts. He was on his knees. They screamed, Sing, you son of a whore, so he did. But he didn't do it alone. As soon as he started, everyone in the whole stadium stood up and sang with him. They were all crying. Then the soldiers tortured him and dumped his dead body out on the street. His music has been playing in my house since before I was born.
I live with my mom and dad, and Claire. My brother Will goes to college. He picked a school really far away—I think on purpose—and we can't afford to have him come home often. He hasn't quite moved out of his room yet, but I'm next in line for it. I snoop around in there when I'm home alone. I guess I know just about every secret thing he's got hidden there.
Sometimes I sit in his big easy chair—another yard sale special—and read his college books. Textbooks in college cost a lot of money, way more than they're worth. It's some kind of scam, I think. So Will sells most of his to other students when he's done, but he holds on to all the books about how native people live or used to live. He's led me to Ishi and Lame Deer and Black Elk Speaks and Tristes Tropiques. That last one? It has a French title, but it's in English. It's worth it just to read the last chapter. I mean, if you want to read about inertia, entropy, and the end of the human mind, it's all there in one paragraph.
When I sit in Will's chair and read, it's like I've joined this special club. He said once, "Victor, if you read this stuff, you can save people in the past from drowning. It's like time is a river, and it's nighttime, and you can hear people calling, Help, we're disappearing! So you stop and listen. That's how you save them."
He tells me stuff like that, but he doesn't like to explain. I have to figure out what he means for myself. Maybe that's why I got off my bike. Maybe that old ROYAL did call me. Maybe you can save things, too.
Copyright © 2008 by Peter Gould