March 24, 1977
Jonah was dead for a brief time before the paramedics brought him back to life. He never talks about it, but it's on his mind sometimes, and he finds himself thinking that maybe it's the central fact of the rest of his life, maybe it's what set his future into motion. He thinks of the fat cuckoo clock in his grandfather's living room, the hollow thump of weights and the dissonant guitar thrum of springs as the little door opened and the bird popped out; he thinks of his own heart, which was stopped when they got to him and then suddenly lurched forward, no one knew why, it just started again right around the time they were preparing to pronounce him deceased.
This was in late March 1977, in South Dakota, a few days after his sixth birthday.
If his memory were a movie, the camera would begin high in the air. In a movie, he thinks, you would see his grandfather's little house from above, you would see the yellow school bus coming to a stop at the edge of the long gravel road. Jonah had been to school that day. He had learned something, perhaps several things, and he rode home in a school bus. There were papers in his canvas knapsack, handwriting and addition and subtraction tables that the teacher had graded neatly with red ink, and a picture of an Easter egg that he'd colored for his mother. He sat on a green vinyl seat near the front of the bus and didn't even notice that the bus had stopped because he was deeply interested in a hole that someone had cut in the seat with a pocketknife; he was peering into it, into the guts of the seat, which were made of metal springs and stiff white hay.
Outside it was fairly sunny, and the snow had mostly melted. The exhaust from the bus's muffler drifted through the flashing warning lights, and the silent bus driver lady caused the doors to fold open for him. He didn't like the other children on the bus, and he felt that they didn't like him either. He could sense their faces, staring, as he went down the bus steps and stood on the soft, muddy berm.
But in the movie you wouldn't see that. In the movie you would only see him emerging from the bus, a boy running with his backpack dragging through the wet gravel, a red stocking cap, a worn blue ski jacket, stones grinding together beneath his boots, a pleasantly rhythmic noise he was making. And you would be up above everything like a bird, the long gravel road that led from the mailbox to the house, the weeds along the ditches, the telephone poles, barbed-wire fences, railroad tracks. The horizon, the wide plain of dust and wind.
Jonah's grandfather's house was a few miles outside of the small town of Little Bow, where Jonah went to school. It was a narrow, mustard-colored farmhouse with a cottonwood beside it and a spindly chokecherry bush in front. These were the only trees in view, and his grandfather's place was the only house. From time to time a train would pass by on the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the house. Then the windows would hum like the tuning fork their teacher had shown them in school. This is how sound feels, their teacher said, and let them hold their fingers near the vibrating tines.
Sometimes it seemed to Jonah that everything was very small. In the center of his grandfather's bare backyard, an empty pint of cream would be the house and a line of matchbook cars, Scotch-taped end to end, would be the train. He didn't know why he liked the game so much, but he remembered playing it over and over, imagining himself and his mother and his grandfather and his grandfather's dog, Elizabeth, all of them inside the little pint container, and himself (another part of himself) leaning over them like a giant or a thundercloud, pushing his makeshift train slowly past.
He didn't call to his grandfather when he came into the house that day. The door banged shut, the furniture sat silently. He could hear the television talking in his grandfather's room, so he knew his grandfather was there, dozing in the little windowless room, an addition to the house, just space enough for his grandfather's bed and a dresser, a small TV and a lamp with curlicues of cigarette smoke around them. His grandfather was propped up against some pillows, drinking beer; an old blanket, pilled cotton, silk edges unraveling, was thrown across his grandfather's middle, an ashtray balanced on it. Tired. His grandfather worked as a janitor, he went to work early in the morning, while it was still dark. Sometimes when Jonah came home from school, his grandfather would come out of his room and tell Jonah stories or jokes, or he would complain about things, about being tired, about Jonah's motherWhat's the problem with her now? Did you do something to get her mad? I didn't do anything to her!and he would swear about people that he didn't like, people who had cheated him, or maybe he would smile and call Elizabeth to him, Babygirl, babygirl, what are you doing there, does a babygirl want a piece of lunch meat does she? and Elizabeth would come clicking her nails across the floor, her bobbed tail almost vibrating as she wagged it, her eyes full of love as Jonah's grandfather crooned to her.
Excerpted from You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon Copyright© 2004 by Dan Chaon. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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