Something Important: An excerpt from the memoir Townie
by Andre Dubus III
THE GOLDEN Gloves were three weeks away. It was a weeknight, probably Wednesday, and all day long Jeb and Randy and I hung sheetrock in the rooms we’d built in the widow’s house overlooking the water. The ceilings came first. The day before, we’d started nailing spruce strapping into the joists sixteen inches on center and while Jeb finished that, Randy and I were hauling sheets of plasterboard off the truck and stacking them against a wall in each of the three rooms. By coffee break, all the sheetrock was unloaded and Jeb had finished the strapping. He was faster with measurements and cuts and handling the screw gun, so it fell to Randy and me to do most of the grunt work.
We’d squat and lift a full sheet, carry it under where it would go, then we’d count off, “One, two, lift,” and yank the sheet up from our sides and flat onto our heads, our finger-tips on its smooth surface to keep it from buckling and cracking. We’d each step up onto a stool or lidded joint compound bucket, and together we’d press the four-foot-wide, twelve-foot-long sheet up against the ceiling strapping and there’d be the electric whine of the screw gun as Jeb went to work sinking black screws through plasterboard into spruce till we could let go and drop our arms and step down to do it again and again.
Now the day was over, and I was in my small apartment in Lynn pulling on sweats. The only light in my room was a bulb in the ceiling, stark and too bright, and outside the windows was blackness, a cold I was planning to run through on my way to the Boys’ Club and Tony Pavone’s boxing ring. My shoulders were fatigued from all the overhead work of the day, and it would be hard to keep my fists up, hard to throw punches. But I wouldn’t allow this thought to stay in my head. Whatever good had come to me had come from my complete and utter disregard for my body’s need for comfort. If I began to capitulate now, where would it end? In no time I’d be small and soft again, a boy who liked to read books and build tree forts with his brother. A boy easily stomped.
I pulled a second sweatshirt down over the first. For a moment or two I just stood there in my empty room. No posters or photographs on the walls. No desk or chair or couch or bed. Just my yoga mat on the floorboards under my sleeping bag, the two work boots stuffed into a pillowcase I called a pillow. Beside it was the stack of books I’d been laboring through all year, a composition binder I sometimes took notes in, the glossy brochure of the University of Wisconsin at Madison waiting for me in the fall. In the corner, propped up against the dusty baseboard, was the AAU number I would soon pin to my trunks in the Golden Gloves, and it was time to move, time to get moving.
But in the kitchen I stopped at the door. I watched myself let go of the knob and turn and put a pan of water on the stove. I opened the
flames under it all the way, then watched myself take an empty cup and drop a tea bag into it. I walked back to where I slept for the notebook and a pencil, and why did I set them on the small kitchen table? Why was I sitting there waiting for the water to boil for the tea when I should be running along an icy sidewalk in the night to train?
I began to feel too warm in my layered sweats, but I didn’t move. I opened the notebook in front of me. The water began to bubble and I stood and poured it steaming into my cup, the tea bag jerking, then rising, and now I watched as I set the cup near the notebook and took my pencil and held it. What was I doing? And why? Why was I doing this?
For a short time or a long time, I stared at the page. I saw how consistently level the blue lines were from left to right, a quarter of an inch high, maybe five-sixteenths. I kept staring at them. Then a curtain lifted and I began to see a factory somewhere where these notebooks were made, men and women running big machines, cutting and printing and binding, and I saw a man like Randy working some press, his outlaw mustache, sweat in the corners of his eyes, then I was in the woods, woods I called Maine, the place Liz was from, and now a young woman who looked very much like her was half drunk on warm beer and was losing her virginity on the hood of a Pontiac. Then I was her, feeling the metal hood under my skin, the jabs into me that hurt, then didn’t but did.
The boy she’d given herself to finished quickly, and it was as if I were a mist in the trees watching them sitting now in the front seat. They smoked cigarettes and neither of them spoke. A soft rain began to fall and the boy started the engine and put his car in gear and drove down the rut- ted road away from what they’d just done together. Away from me.
I put down my pencil. In front of me were just handwritten words, quite a few crossed out and replaced with others. I raised the cup of tea to my lips and blew on it, but it had cooled to the temperature of the room. Hadn’t it just been steaming? How long had I been sitting here?
I blinked and looked around my tiny rented kitchen, saw things I’d never seen before: the stove leaning to the left, the handle of the fridge covered with dirty masking tape, the chipped paint of the window casing, a missing square of linoleum on the floor under the radiator.
I stood and closed the notebook. I picked up the pencil and set it on top like some kind of marker, a reminder to me of something important I shouldn’t lose.
Andre Dubus III is the author of a collection of short fiction, The Cage Keeper and Other Stories, and the novels Bluesman, House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days, a New York Times bestseller, and most recenlty, Townie, a memoir. His work has been included in The Best American Essays of 1994, The Best Spiritual Writing of 1999, and The Best of Hope Magazine. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, The National Magazine Award for fiction, The Pushcart Prize, and was a Finalist for the Rome Prize Fellowship from the Academy of Arts and Letters.