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An Uncommon Reader

 

He loved reading in the car.

As a child he loved simply being in the car, and had done some of his most serious reading--not to mention homework--in the family's old Chrysler, with its strange, fuzzy upholstery smelling of dust and cigarette smoke and White Castle burgers. His father had told him that during a thunderstorm the car was the safest place in the world to be--the tires acted as insulators, lightning couldn't harm anyone inside. That information had magically transformed the old Chrysler from just a car into a retreat from the world and its dangers. Nothing--not even lightning--could hurt him in the car. He would never again enjoy reading anywhere so much as he did in the car. Others might prefer an overstuffed chair under a reading lamp, or an Adirondack chair on the beach. But he preferred the car.

Backseat readings of My Father's Dragon and Pippi Longstocking and the Oz and the Mary Poppins books saw him through one of the most dismal winters of his grade-school life, lifting his spirits when life at home spun out of control because of all the drinking and quarreling. When he was fourteen he burrowed deep into Middlearth from the backseat cavern of the idle family car. His father and two suitcases had disappeared, and, though eventually he came home, no one ever talked about it. Much later, memories of the planet Arrakis and the house Atreides were intertwined with the changing landscape as his father drove them all down to Florida one summer. Being in the car seemed to impose order on his family, an order otherwise lacking, and it was this order that allowed him the peace of mind he needed to read his beloved books. His father behind the wheel, his mother on the passenger side--the grown-ups in front, their three children behind them--they sailed boldly to the little grocery store, to Sears, to the bank. His parents did not fight in the car, they did not drink. They barely even spoke. He felt safe and calm and protected in the back seat, insulated even against the occasional dust-up that broke out between his brother and sister.

Nowadays he'd drive into town, park the car on the square, and just sit there, reading a book, watching people stroll about. The car was a front porch he could take anywhere, his very own personal, portable, front porch. He loved wonderfully to sit with a book propped up against the steering wheel. Over the years he'd begun to buy books at rather an alarming pace, inspired in this lunacy by his bibliophilic idol, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who was rumored to have said, "When I have money, I buy books. If I have money left over, I buy food or clothes." Like Erasmus, he travelled with books, taking three or four boxes of them along for the drive to Minneapolis or North Carolina. His books, his good friends.

From the car he could see the large gazebo on the north side of the square. He stayed in his car during the summer band concerts because mosquitoes were miraculously fierce on the square at those times--the car didn't seem to attract them--but also because he liked to watch from a safe distance. Opposite the gazebo stood a memorial to soldiers from the town who'd fought in the Civil War. In the spring he parked facing the peonies near the gazebo, always arriving as the evening air began to cool and the enormous white blooms gave off their sweetest fragrance. The air had to be soft and damp, with just the slightest reminder of winter still in it. Then the sweet scent of the peonies would slowly tremble into one crescendo after another, the slightest movement of the air carrying the perfume to him in waves. Lost in the fragrance of the peonies filling the car, he wondered if the gazebo and the Civil War monument had been deliberately placed, if they were meant to balance, to complement each other, one signifying life and civilized pleasure, the other sacrifice and death.

And so to this day he sits in the car reading, looking up every now and then as if he's been startled from a dream, still lingering over his memories like beads on a rosary. He watches the people on the square--the Lutheran Petersons greeting the Methodist Sorensons, little Mrs. Pertwee in her khaki raincoat ducking quickly into the bank, cashing another check to underwrite her next junket to the riverboat casino, the Jarvises picking up a refill on their son's asthma medication, urgently needed, at the pharmacy, all of them making their transactions and then vanishing as quickly as they'd appeared. He imagines he knows them in the same way he knew his family as a child.

One evening, as dusk was falling, late in the spring with the peonies in full bloom, he glanced out the windshield as he had hundreds and hundreds of times. Several children stood around the Civil War monument and tossed a Frisbee back and forth. The last light of day sighed itself away, and in that instant he saw everything tremble, shimmer for just a split second with a strange lumination. He felt, as if it were descending out of the sky and surging up from within him at the same time, a great peace, a shattering connection to the children with the Frisbee, to the soldiers who had died long ago, to the people licking ice cream cones as they looked in the store windows.

He sat on the square a long time that night, long after the street lamps had come on, long after the stores and restaurants and the movie theatre had closed. He did not read in the light from the street lamps, but instead let his mind rest in the memory of the day's last light, until finally he started the car and drove with his books the dirt roads back to his house. Once home, he stood under the pine trees and looked up at the stars, wondering about the light.

  Darryl Boehmer

 

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