Read the A to Z of Michael Byers, author of The Unfixed Stars. From Amsterdam to the zoo, he covers it all in the twenty six characters he knows best.
by Michael Byers
A is for Amsterdam. I suppose now it is about time to admit I visited Amsterdam with my mother. This when I was old enough to know better, in college. She flew over from Seattle to join me on a European jaunt while I was studying in Ireland. She is a self-contained human in that she does not recognize other humans to exactly exist, or at least to exist as fully as she does. Possibly this is more than I ought to say here. Anyhow shortly after her arrival I managed to steal away from the hostel and stalk the glorious red-lit streets. What black bras!
B is for bullies. My children are in elementary school now and they must contend with a bully, we shall call him Rex, a thundering lunk of a boy. During soccer games Rex yells at his teammates, including my son, when the team is scored upon. Rex smashed a branch over my daughter's back one Fourth of July, leaving a long red mark that lasted a year. Fondly, fondly, I wish for this boy's comeuppance. Fondly, fondly, I hope for errant traffic. Who would cry for the flattened bully? Not me!
C is for Canada. When I was 11 our soccer team was invited on the Canadian Exchange. My father drove us across the border to Vancouver, where I was billeted at the home of one my opponents. After dinner, my father left for a hotel and my host, a blond, long-faced boy named Stan, watched me lay out my gear for the next morning's game. Oh I was always a planner, a schemer. Here are my shin guards, my cleats, here is my yellow plasticky uniform shirt. What a pleasure to see them this way. Later with only the hall light for illumination Stan whispered down, from the top bunk, "Want to see something?" Whereupon he rolled from his bed, dropping five feet to the carpeted floor stiff as a board. There came a great thump as the fixtures rattled and chimed. Then Stan without a word climbed back to the top bunk. The next day on the field he never looked at me. Always someone is managing to point something out to you.
D is for a dog named Seabiscuit. Our brief and only dog, owned by a boarder named Sally who lived with our family for a few months after my father left. Your classic mutt with a broken brown coat and bad breath. Hated the paperboy. You got your roller skates on and waited at the end of the block with Seabiscuit on the leash and when the paperboy appeared at the far end you held on tight as she dragged you all the way. It was the sort of fun that happened to be available. This is one of our daughter's favorite stories. "Oh, daddy," she laughs.
E is for England. "A full English breakfast," my mother pronounces, and there is a gesture that goes with this, it is a perfectly satisfied opening of the arms, purse on her lap. Fondly, fondly, I hope for the ceiling to fall on her. But we all have adopted this saying now, my brother and I, my wife. It means, I think, you get everything you expect plus a cooked tomato, which is horrible.
F is for friends vs. family. You can choose them; but on the other hand they can choose you.
G is for Grayland, Washington. My grandfather's beach cabin on the coast of the state of Washington. He'd built it as a fallout shelter in 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis convinced him he needed a place where the Pacific wind blew the radiation away from him. What worries. I hunkered down here for several months after graduating college and having taught elementary school badly for two years. I was desperately alone. My company was the radio, which picked up San Francisco stations late at night. Around me, a few empty beach houses. In front, the Pacific Ocean, through a quarter mile of dunes. Driftwood fires, my old computer, my meagre savings. Every day I scrutinized my face for signs of some change.
H is for the habitat of the gentle mountain gorilla. Our daughter's now year-long interest in the mountain gorilla shows no sign of letting up. Her Special-Interest Fair project was on the subject. "Mountain gorillas are a type of gorilla," she wrote. "I bet you don't know what they are like. I bet you think mountain gorillas are like King Kong: ferocious and mean. Actually mountain gorillas are very peaceful creatures unless they feel threatened or scared."
I is for in therapy. We are always trying to get my mother to give it a try. My uncle especially urges it on her. Because there is such sadness there. Really a terrible past dating to her own childhood, her own mother in the mental hospital, her own father leaving. "Oh I'm smarter than any of those people," she sighs, "they'd only tell me what I already know."
J is for juggling. In middle school somehow we had a circus unit in gym class. We learned to juggle and to ride the unicycle, two things I can still do. What I cannot do is both of them at the same time. Today my own unicycle hangs on the garage wall. I take it down sometimes to the mystification of the neighbourhood. In college I spent hours under the streetlight, twisting and dodging in the silent intersection outside my rental house. What people must remember of me!
K is for King, Larry. When I was ten years old I received a radio for a Christmas present, a big deal in our household. I set it by my bed and something led me to talk radio rather than any of a hundred music stations. Through middle school I listened to Larry King's five-hour nightly show broadcast from Washington D.C. On the west coast it began at 9 pm and ended at 2 am. Lying in the dark hearing voices from far away...it must have suggested something to me...the unseen eastern world at least. Every hour the chime of the Mutual Radio Network, and Fred Lowry would read the news. I have flashes now, especially lately, of a house I never knew, a raftery top story, a green army cot, a high window on the street below, the piney smell of an old attic. Some true home, located around 1947. To this day I know nothing about music.
L is for lightning. It can kill you, ridiculous, that the summer is spent with these storms sailing overhead releasing bolts of deadly electricity. My wife, who grew up in the Midwest where such storms are common, thinks I am bizarre for hiding in the bathroom with the lights off. I am getting better about this but sometimes I do drift in there if no one is really paying attention. On the other hand, earthquakes don't bother me, and they do her. But on the other hand, tornadoes.
M is for Michigan. Where I live now. Flat and fairly boring. But I do enjoy the glorious hot summers and I am the only one among my friends who enjoys humidity. It is a good day when I am sticking to my desk chair. Summer, the kids outside, the sense of a fine enclosed solitude. My office up in the maple trees. And it is only a short train ride to Chicago when things get dull.
N is for nowhere, in the middle of. When our son was three he experienced a bout of severe separation anxiety. We took him to a sweet, wrinkled old child psychologist (or child psychic as we called her) and for an hour the two of them rolled a ball back and forth across a carpet, end to end. At the conclusion of the hour she asked our son what was worrying him. "Being in the middle of nowhere," our son answered. "And what does that look like?" she asked. "Being in a forest of tall trees," he replied, "and looking up and just seeing the sky."
O is for on the other hand. I'm of an age now where my fears are actually almost causes for excitement. I would almost like, for example, to spend some time with a storm hunting crew in Tornado Alley. I mention this to our son and he is not so sure. "I like chaotic weather," he says, "but not dangerous weather." Our daughter is more categorical: "No thanks," she shudders.
P is for paternal influence. I sneeze just like my father, for one thing. And like him I am a secret ham, enjoy public speaking, prefer to be in charge of things in my own sphere of influence, exhibit a kindly but distant nature, am more or less at peace with the state of the world. This is all, every bit of it, incriminating, says my mother's side. As indeed it is.
Q is for quiet. Now, in this sun porch where I'm writing this, it's newly May, the trees have leafed out, the sky is blue, I can just hear the soft tossing of the branches in a morning breeze, the creak of my old chair, a truck backing up down the block...
R is for the ravine. The mile of winding, wooded road beginning six blocks from my childhood house, my brother and me on our bicycles. The plummy winestink of the leafy rot. Where I first kissed a girl. A secret part of the city, what I thought a city was, or could not be without. "Company!" I call to my brother, or he to me, when a car approaches from behind. Up on the bluff the big houses we will one day enter from the other side.
S is for Seattle. Where my mother was born, where she reluctantly agreed to return after my father landed a job there in 1974, where her parents still lived, though she hadn't spoken to them in years. The city as I remember it. Walking over the freeway overpass on the way to elementary school and waiting for a car to pass beneath us. Every year the city would close the main freeway through in town in order to let bicyclists onto the bridge span. Gravel alleys, weedy lots, vast clapboard houses, Japanese maples planted in 1915. The old creosote-stinking basement of the original REI. Rain, endless and pacific.
T is for thunder. See lightning.
U is for the universe. From my bedroom window once I saw a searchlight - planted somewhere downtown - that had stopped swirling - so it was only a beam of light laid across the sky. It was like a galaxy on edge there above Clint Morgan's house across the street. With the right open mind you could convince yourself you were living in the distant future on another planet like Earth...and then the searchlight began swinging again...
V is for the small victories. Taking pleasure in the world, being relatively uncrippled by anxieties, noticing what good there is and how much of it we have earned or been given access to...
W is for What we have in Michigan. A house, a fence, a car, a driveway, a yard, a garden, two cats, houseplants, a front porch, fruit trees, a hazelnut, dogwoods, bicycles, a canoe fund.
X is for X marks the spot. We also have an old treasure-hunting book (from a thrift shop, printed in the 1960s) indexing possible buried loot in the United States. "Search for this treasure along the Continental Divide on the border of McKinley and Valencia counties," the book advises. We plan a trip in which we collect all the treasure, return millions of dollars richer. The joy of sensing that the world might be secretly larger than it is otherwise obviously known to be, that just below one's feet might be undreamed of bounty. The wish to have everything.
Y is for yes, I am just like my mother. But also I am just like my father, who is my mother's opposite.
Z is for the zoo of course. Carrying my twins around, one in each arm, when they are less than two years old. I carry them to the ladderly giraffes. To the swashy hippos. Around to the sunlit songbird pen where we pass between the netting doors. The song is like humidity, it is all around and invisible. I carry them to the lion enclosure. My daughter's curly hair in my nose, we stand on a rock and look at the lions. My son and daughter are too young to remember this but I tell them about it fairly often. They like hearing these stories of the past, of their own secret hidden past which they cannot remember, which it is my responsibility to pass on. So I tell them everything, and especially all these old fondnesses, so they will have them forever.