I was just sixteen, sitting in a back booth at Bartel’s Café in Chippew Falls, Wisconsin, sharing a cigarette and a coke with my best friend Joyce. We were dressed in the latest fashion; wool skirt, cardigan on backwards and buttoned, strand of pearls, and dirty saddleshoes. She’d swiped the cigarette from her father, something she did on a regular basis. I think he knew, but always pretended he didn’t. I didn’t really like smoking, always choked, but it was the thing to do when you were sixteen.
Joyce and I were talking about life. “I don’t like those ups and downs,” Joyce said. She’d just had her heart broken by a senior who didn’t even know she existed. I knew all about those ups and downs, had a crush on a different boy each week. Dating was something you did, never seriously. That was too dangerous. We went out in a bunch, boys and girls together. It was the depression and none of the boys had cars. I lived out at the lake, and so my dates’ fathers drove them to pick me up and then drove me home again. Talk about chaperons! I was well protected from sixteen year old grubby pawing.
But back to talking about life. Joyce carefully drew a straight line on a cocktail napkin. “That’s the way life should be. Safe and smooth.”
“But, Joyce,” I said. “If you don’t have the valleys, you can’t have mountains.” Now how did I know that at sixteen? But I did. That moment is etched in my memory. I remember it well, can vividly see the wooden paneling in the booth, see Joyce sitting across from me, her dark eyes so serious and sad. I was filled with feelings I could hardly explain, for I think I could foretell how some of those valleys would be. I was scared, but excited. Life was going to be some adventure, I was sure of that, and perhaps I’d better not think too much about it before hand. Just jump in and live.
I wish I’d have had the wisdom, the savvy to be able to say it the way David Mitchell has his teenage protagonist speak in his book blackswangreen (or Black Swan Green). I remind myself this was written by an adult, but he captured the voice of the boy perfectly. “The world’s a headmaster who works on your faults. I don’t mean in a mystical or a Jesus way. More how you’ll keep tripping over a hidden step, over and over, till you finally understand: Watch out for that step! Everything that’s wrong with us, is we’re too selfish or too Yessir, Nosir, Three bags full sir or anything, that’s a hidden step. Either you suffer the consequences of not noticing your fault forever, or, one day, you do notice it, and fix it. Joke is, once you get it into your brain about that hidden step and think, Hey, life isn’t such a shithouse after all again, then BUMP! Down you go, a whole new flight of hidden steps. There are always more.”
But David Mitchell hadn’t written his book when we were young. And so, just like his protagonist, we lived our lives bump after bump after bump. Joyce was true to her plan. Her life was one that was flat, predictable, smooth, safe. She died too young, an alcoholic, an unpublished writer, a bitter woman. I visited her the year before her death. She met me at the Eau Claire airport where I'd flown in to meet her. We sat in a paneled booth and talked about our lives. Mine had definitely gone up and down. She sipped her rye whiskey. “I sometimes wonder if I did it right,” she said.
“We can all wonder that,” I said. How magical is this business of being alive. And who ever truly figures it all out. I think Mitchell’s teenage protagonist is closest.