Trail Growing Dark

I carry a little notebook in my back pocket now. Every time a vivid childhood memory or interesting quote comes to me, I fish out the notebook, flip it open (with one hand: my journalist imitation, works well on subways, a legend in my own mind) and jot it down. For someone writing a memoir I have a particularly bad memory and need all the help I can get. I’m on my second notebook now, neither of which would make any sense to anyone else. But they do their trick for me:

Diane’s farm (almost moved there)
kerosene lamps
salamanders
Nilla wafers
Chekhov: “the voice of wisdom is boring”
Mark (?) Duran Duran – check 7th grade yearbook; wrist, lunchroom

I’m also taking a research seminar this semester and am learning new methods and resources, including what my professor calls “the deep internet”, which includes galaxies beyond Google. I love research, could spend my whole life on it. The best part of research is that you’re never done. You can put off the actual writing until you’re done, which is never.

I keep uncovering intriguing details, such as a supposed sexual assault that occurred against a member of my family on this date, February 10th, thirty-one years ago. Through my investigative-reporter antics I tracked down a newspaper article about the supposed crime, and today exchanged information with both the hospital and police department where the crime took place in hopes that they can dig up records of the event. As I’m doing this, though, I always think of the intro to Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, where she describes her own feelings about research:

“What else is there to tell? I am bad at interviewing people. I avoid situations in which I have to talk to anyone’s press agent. (This precludes doing pieces on most actors, a bonus in itself.) I do not like to make telephone calls, and would not like to count the mornings I have sat on some Best Western motel bed somewhere and tried to force myself to put through the call to the assistant district attorney. My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. This is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”

I’m researching Catholicism. My mother was raised Catholic but fled the Church, much to her parents’ chagrin, when she married my father. So I was never raised Catholic and know practically nothing about the Church that you can’t pick up from movies, books, and television. I’m particularly interested in what it was like to grow up as a Catholic girl in post-war Midwest America, since I’m pretty sure she ran away for a reason, and not just the obvious one. So I’ve been spending a few hours lately combing through the stacks of Butler Library on campus.

Butler Library is an imposing structure of stone pillars and gleaming marble. But the stacks themselves are like another world. They sit within the center of Butler, enclosed by hallways and reading rooms that run the perimeter of the building. There are, according to a rather confusing model in a display case, fifteen floors of stacks in a nine-story building. Each stack floor is barely eight feet tall, so they’re squeezed in between the nine stories, and crammed tight with shelves that run floor-to-ceiling, each aisle of books on the windowless floor lit by a single button at the end of the row that flicks on a harsh fluorescent light for exactly fifteen minutes. During slow hours you can be the only person on a floor, squeezing down silent aisles, your trail growing dark as the lights flick off behind you. Holding a few books on Catholic girls, I suddenly remembered a book, “Nocturnes for the King of Naples,” by Edmund White, which I once read at college while in the process of coming out, the memory of which gave me a sudden ache of nostalgia. Figuring it might help trigger more memories, I hunted it down. Columbia, like many libraries, binds its paperbacks in its own nondescript hardcovers, the title and call number printed by some machine. So looking for a familiar spine on the shelves wouldn’t help. I flicked on the light at the end of the very last row of books on the tenth floor, scanning through the W’s, Wendall, Wexner, Whitaker, White, and there it was, my old favorite, the title swimming out from the gloom, striking me in a second as somehow off, and what it said was Nocturnes for the Kong of Naples.

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