Friday, November 30, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain!



Dear Mr. Clemens,

I love you.  I've loved you since I was eight years old and reading an abridged copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  One year in college, I took a semester-long class all about you.  Have I read all of your work?  No, but I'm going to.  I feel so sure on this point.  I hope to read all of the Brontes; I hope to read all of Eliot.  I know I'm going to read you.  There's a calmness in my bones when I think of it.

I love your little tourist trap of a hometown.  There was something so satisfying about driving around town and seeing the TVs in the houses all tuned to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game and before that, standing on the landing at sundown, just staring at the Mississippi River rolling by.  No wonder you had to be out on it.  Who could resist?  It was, without exaggeration and in modern parlance, in your face.




Traveling to Hannibal was like making a pilgrimage, and I secretly wanted to do something to solemnize the occasion.   The next day, getting ready to tour your boyhood home, I got my wish.  In a state of extreme excitement, I jumped out of the car and started walking briskly towards the house.  My sandal caught in a slightly raised cobblestone, and I hit the ground face-first in an inadvertent kiss.  Blood flowed.  My face was afire with scrapes and embarrassment, but I kept going.  I saw your house, I saw that part of town, but I felt so dizzy from the blow and the heat (which was 104 degrees that afternoon) that I can hardly remember anything.  My face had its own private drumbeat.




Oh, Mr. Clemens.  This is the part in which you would be able to make fun of me for at least an hour.

 Despite my injuries, I was supremely happy.  I began to formulate a theory that we were entwined forever.  I reckoned, after a look in the bathroom mirror at the museum further down the street, that I had left skin and blood on that cobblestone walk.  I also reckoned that you ran barefoot on those same cobblestones many a day.  Even under the best of circumstances I was a little shaky in science, but the thought occurred to me that our DNA might be mingled.  "I'm happy I fell.  I'm really happy,"  I kept saying, probably with a crazy look in my eye.  When we pulled out of town a little while later, I had a sense of going in the wrong direction.

I hope to go back and experience Hannibal again, minus the cobblestone smack.  I want to see it all again and sit on a bench at the landing and read Life on the Mississippi, looking up ever so often as the real thing rushes by all muddy and wild and alive.  Want to?  I need to.  Mr. Clemens, did you ever feel like life was chipping away at you in all kinds of mean and squinchy ways, but chipping nonetheless, and you needed to be restored?  And you knew what could restore you, but it was just so damn far away?  It seems like such a simple thing, but small, specific wishes often seem destined to meet with condescension or derision -- more chipping.  Will there be anything left of me before I see Hannibal again?




Happy Birthday, Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain.  Be reading you.

Lots of Literary Love,
Bybee

5 comments:

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Just lovely. There's something so powerful (and in your case painful!) about visiting the hometowns of favorite authors. Hannibal has been high on my list for so long, I think I need to make it a priority soon.

Phaedosia said...

I love this. That's how I felt when I visited Hannibal, too. I was so sad when my dopey little souvenir pewter Mark Twain key chain broke because my keys were too heavy. As long as I had it, I felt that connection. It will be a long time before this California girl gets back there.

softdrink said...

Ouch! I hope he appreciates the blood and sweat (but hopefully no tears) you shed for him.

ettible said...

Yes! My parents took us to Hannibal on a family vacation when I was maybe 10. My mom was an English teacher and my dad was a . . . flood enthusiast? I don't know. Anyway, I have the best memories of that place. But oh, the HEAT.

Tami said...

What a wonderful post - full of passion and pain and, sorry, some giggles. I love your devotion to Mr. Twain and his writings. I hope you get the chance to return often.