With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I didn’t need another typewriter when Jeffrey gave me the Underwood about ten years ago. I still had my old portable, which had served me dutifully since college, a sleek and sturdy Olympia on which I’d typed my way through graduate school, my first newspaper job, Europe, and two marriages. But I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have another typewriter around the office, though I suspected I’d be the only one who would ever use it. My preference for old-fashioned manuals was looked on, even back then, as embarrassingly romantic and impractical, and as further evidence, if any was needed, that I wasn’t happy unless I was struggling, typing and retyping the same sentences; pounding the words into place; needing no help from electricity, thank you — the persistent hum of an electric unnerving me, as if the typewriter itself were waiting impatiently for the next word.
As it turned out, Jeffrey’s timing was uncanny. For later that spring, on a brilliant afternoon — the doors and windows open to the fragrant breeze and the birds and the low rumble of traffic from Rosemary Street, one of those perfect days, seductive and captivating, when you thank God you’re alive — I stood by the open door, watching my old Olympia sail past me. It hit the grassy strip near the parking lot, the carriage extended like a climber’s broken leg after a fall. A few more feet, and it would have smashed on the asphalt, which was, no doubt, my enraged lover’s intention when she hurled it out the door.
Why were we fighting? It’s odd that I don’t remember. If I could remember — if, remembering the honeyed sunlight that day, and the blossoms dotting the branches outside, I could also remember the passion and skill we brought to our arguing; if I could remember how, when we made love, we clutched at each other as later we would clutch at straws — why, then I might understand what comes between two people and tears them apart, the way ice with a long moan breaks from the river, the way love’s broken vows break the heart.
But memory, like love, fails. I remember the thud; the carriage bell ringing once, with the impact; then ringing again, as if in disbelief. The Olympia worked after that, but not well, the way a car that’s been in a wreck is never the same — and who knows why? Our machines may be more a part of us than we imagine, as intimate a reflection of our longings and losses as our own face in the glass.
Thus, the Underwood replaced the Olympia on my desk and, before long, in my heart. I didn’t care much for its looks — it was big and boxy, a lustreless battleship gray — but it worked flawlessly. It was, after all, built not to please the eye but to last, to endure changes in fashion and technology, to last not for years but for decades, to stand up to a lifetime of use, to outlast whoever had bought it — which it probably had.
I knew that Jeffrey hadn’t owned it for long. I wondered who had brought it home, spanking new, some fifty years ago, and set it proudly on the table, and called the family in for a look. I wondered how many other people had owned it over the years. On how many nights had someone switched on a small lamp and rolled a sheet of paper into the carriage and waited — a cup of coffee nearby, cigarette smoke drifting to the ceiling — waited in suspended time for the right words to come, waited under that pale yellow light for the image that rises from within, that joins what is seen with what is hidden, that makes the world anew. How patiently he waited — no wires, no batteries, no blinking cursors urging him on. For every second our modern conveniences “save” us, they remind us as well of the time we’ve lost. “Time is always running out for machines,” Wendell Berry observed. “They shorten our work by simplifying it and speeding it up, but our work perishes quickly in them, too, as they wear out and are discarded. For the living Creation, on the other hand, time is always coming.”
Berry was reflecting on agriculture, not writing. But writing is a physical act as well. What I write with affects what I write. The difference may be subtle, but no more subtle than the choice of words, the rhythm, the silence between the noisy pounding of the keys. Do I exaggerate? One well-known writer, accustomed to composing poems on yellow, lined, legal pads, ran out of his favorite kind of paper at a writer’s conference; he couldn’t write another word.
Using the Underwood every day became a habit, like the way I wash the dishes or answer the phone, shaping me, defining me, making my life more mine. Just as the details of a painting make its subject unique and recognizable, so do our habits — good habits and bad and everything in between — give our lives their weight, their texture, their light and dark. No one “sits down and writes.” You sit down somewhere, in a certain chair. You write with a pencil — always a pencil — or a cheap Bic, or an expensive fountain pen. If you’re me, you write on a typewriter that, no matter how demanding I am, never protests, anymore than Gibraltar protests the swirling waters; a typewriter that endures, patiently and silently, the endless rewriting, that receives me like the perfect friend who listens without judgement, letting me lie, letting me change my story, letting me reveal myself.
Am I describing a love affair with something inanimate — with gears and levers, with cold gray steel? Or am I extolling me, the qualities in me the Underwood symbolizes: patience, durability, strength? It’s hard to separate us. Why try? My piano is inanimate, too — but when I touch it, it touches me. Do I distinguish the longing which music awakens in me from the music itself? What’s inanimate, anyway, except that which lives just beyond our touch? How alive this dead world is when we love it!
On the gray keys flecked with white-out, I see my errors and confusions covered over, forgiven, pure now as snow. In the stolid, forgettable design, I see a mystery — steel bent to the service of language, “lifeless” atoms waiting on human thought. In its sturdiness, its seeming indestructibility, I see the pact I make with the future, hoping that I too — with my words, my deeds — have built something to last.
The future moves toward us, sometimes seeming to take forever, sometimes so fast we don’t have time to say goodbye.
One day last month, I was absorbed in my writing, the Underwood familiar and unnoticed beneath my hands. How dreamlike, how transparent the world becomes — the desk, the chair, the room, all unnoticed — as I look for that other, inner world, searching the darkness like the moon sliding across the sky.
Word by word, I raised up sentences; word by word, I brought them down. I wrote and rewrote, typed and retyped — the familiar, unnoticed keys dancing beneath me — until I heard an unfamiliar sound. I hit the next key, but nothing happened. Something had broken. My Underwood, my heart.
The typewriter had been in the shop before, for minor repairs. This time, I was told, it couldn’t be fixed. The part that was needed wasn’t available; no one stocked it; no one in America even made manual typewriters anymore.
Isn’t there anything you can do? I implored. Like a doctor accustomed to dealing with the desperately ill, the repairman smiled kindly. Not really, he said. Nothing? I persisted. He shrugged. Well, he said, if we could find another Underwood as old as yours, we might salvage the part from it. He gestured toward another typewriter whose owner was praying for a similar miracle. How long had he been waiting? I asked. He smiled again. About two years.
I brought my typewriter back to the office. I couldn’t bear to throw it away but I was unwilling to search high and low for its twin. I believed in miracles; I also believed in my endless capacity for fooling myself, for denying my losses. This wasn’t the world of words, I reminded myself, where anything can be fixed; time has the last word here.
I bought another typewriter, one of those fancy electronic ones, and used it a few days. It was a great machine; the typing was effortless, as effortless as I’d like my writing to be — my feelings flowing like a swift river, my thoughts dancing like sunlight on the page. But I couldn’t write on it because I don’t write that way. I can stare at the typewriter for hours, trying to dredge up a solitary truth from the swamps of me, just trying to see into those dark and murky depths. Writing, rewriting, I’m satisfied after a morning’s work with one paragraph that doesn’t lie; I don’t need electronics for that.
I’m writing this on another typewriter, an aging, neglected portable we had at the office. Though it doesn’t hum or blink at me, it’s not my Underwood, and, with the pounding I’m giving it, it probably won’t last.
Meanwhile, the Underwood sits where it always sat, on the old, maple typing table beside my desk. I know I need to haul it to the dumpster, toss it in. I don’t know what I’m waiting for. Maybe I’m waiting for the soul to pass, before letting the body rest in peace. Or maybe I’m just waiting, because it’s hard to say goodbye — to the rows of silent keys, sentinel of my solitude, voice of my sorrows and dreams.