On my walk this morning I was thinking about a writing project. Here’s an illustration of how it would work. The indented italicized bit is the first half of the first paragraph of the first novel in the series that I’m coming close to finishing. The non-indented, non-italicized commentary is the imagined writing project.
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The dining room looks inviting, but today it’s the bar that calls to you. Maybe it’s because you don’t want to hear the hostess pose the inevitable question – “Just one?” – in that reflexive tone of pity and scorn. There is no television perched up in the corner replaying football highlights, no stereo system blasting rock oldies on tinny speakers – only the classic silent aesthetic of bottles and glasses and polished granite. A long mirror stretches across the back wall; there’s even a bowlful of clementines on the bar. When the young woman in the black velvet jacket asks what you’d like you don’t have to think twice: a bottle of Bass, please.
I’ve never spent much time in bars. On summer breaks during my college years I played on a softball team sponsored by Boomer’s Tap, a neighborhood bar frequented mostly by middle-aged working class men from the neighborhood. Once I reached official drinking age I would join my teammates at Boomer’s to drown our sorrows after yet another defeat. I was the team’s pitcher, but I didn’t take my responsibilities very seriously. I wore a 60 on the back of my jersey, the number corresponding to the percent effort I typically put out during the games, as evaluated by my teammates. I thought of myself as an outfielder, the position I’d played since Little League. But this was 16-inch slow-pitch, the game of choice for beer-swilling middle-aged working class men in Chicago. For some reason I had a hell of a time judging flies, even though the ball was so much bigger and moving so much more slowly than a real 9-inch-in-circumference baseball, the flight of which I could track with great accuracy. Because I was a good hitter I was deemed an offensive asset to the softball team, so to minimize my defensive liabilities I became the pitcher.
In 16-inch softball, as in hardball, pitching is a glamor position. It’s understandable in hardball, where speed and spin and location dramatically affect the batter’s ability to make solid contact. But this was a big old softball arcing slowly toward home plate: there’s not much a pitcher can do to fool the batter. Sure, you could try to aim inside or outside, high in the strike zone or low, propelling the ball on a big looping trajectory or a relatively flat one. But with that big fat ball floating up there the batter has plenty of time to adjust, shift stance, step backward or forward in the batter’s box, take a big swing. Backspin, trying to induce a popup rather than a line drive or a deep fly ball? Against the rules. The pitcher is, however, allowed to pretend to pitch: wind up, begin the underhanded throwing delivery, then suddenly stop and hold onto the ball for a moment or two before starting again. Two feints are allowed before actually delivering the ball to the batter. A lot of the beer-belly pitchers in the Chicago softball leagues loved the showmanship, the theatrics of pretending. Between the feints and the pitch they would drag their back leg forward or to the side, glare intently at the base runners, pull their waistbands up over their bellies, and so on. As a batter I would just wait, bat on shoulder, for these guys to finish their contortions, not shifting the bat into actual hitting position until the ball was finally on its way toward the plate. As pitcher for the Boomer’s Tap team I just couldn’t take my job seriously. No feints: just throw it up there and let the hitter take his best shot. That’s why my teammates gave me a 60% score for effort.
I can with complete honesty and some shame report that I never, not once, picked up a girl at a bar etc. etc. I do like dining alone at a café table though etc. etc.
The mirror, the bowlful of clementines, the barista’s black velvet jacket, the bottle of Bass Ale — reference the painting by Manet:
We bought a print of this painting after seeing the original at the Courtauld in London. For years it hung on one wall or another of one house or another that we lived in. Our daughter’s violin teacher loved this print, so when we got rid of most of our belongings in preparation for moving to France we gave it to her. Etc. etc. about trying to arrange for violin lessons in France, about the violin being lost in transit on our move back to the US, about never having actually visited the Folies Bergère on any of our trips to Paris.
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After this little experiment I realize that, if I were going to pursue this project, I’d stick to the more precise ways in which the fictional corresponds to the nonfictional. So I’d skip the softball vignette but include the Manet and maybe also the violin lessons. Then the text is framed not so much as an autobiography but as an illustration of how seemingly random elements in a fiction have parallel manifestations in the writer’s life. It’s not as though every line of fiction I’ve written would have a direct correspondence in my memoirs, but with enough fragments a reader might be able to triangulate on who I am. All the more reason not to do it.