By Garrett Rowlan
“I heard he lived in Manhattan Beach,” I said.
I had only stopped long enough at the used bookstore to qualify myself as a “customer,” and thus obtain access to the restroom. However, when the man said he had known Thomas Pynchon, I took an interest. Maybe sixty, seventy, with skin as yellow as the free paperbacks on the rack I’d seen outside the door, this clerk seemed to have been seated behind the counter for years. “He used to come in here,” he said. “In fact, he wrote Gravity’s Rainbow someplace just up the street.”
“What did he look like?”
“Never really got a clear look.” He shifted his glasses and gestured toward the high shelves of books that trimmed the room’s available light into slanting blocks of yellow, illumination that seemed, like the pulsation of stars, to come from another time. He gave me a probing look, the kind that might flash across green felt from under an eye shade. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
“Pynchon sightings,” I said, not wanting to insult, “are notoriously apocryphal.”
The squint persisted. “He even gave me a copy of Tropic of Cancer, because I mentioned how in ‘Lowlands’ a character reads Tropic of Cancer on the train in Europe.”
“Actually, I think that’s from ‘Entropy,’” I said. “And it’s not necessarily Tropic of Cancer, the character just purchases a novel by Henry Miller.”
He frowned annoyance and then resumed. “The thing is, I’ve hardly ever looked at it. Truth be told, I was never that fond of Henry Miller, too over-liberated for me.”
“Do you have the book?”
The question stirred his memory. He dug under the long counter. Paper shuffled and dust stirred, and eventually he pulled out a cardboard box. From its bottom he extracted a copy of Tropic. He blew grit from the cover.
“Can I have a look?”
“Sure.” The rotary phone rang. Before he answered, the clerk gestured across the room toward a swayback couch under a sun-struck window. “The light’s better over there.”
It was. I opened up the tattered Grove Press edition. I’d leafed through it with diminishing interest and was just about to close it when a piece of paper popped out from its lodging on the book’s penultimate page. On it was written in the small and crabbed handwriting said to be characteristic of Pynchon, “Might Jack had kept it from falling, violated gravity somehow.”
That was Slothrop’s line from Gravity’s Rainbow, one of the novel’s more enigmatic sentences. It was the scene where he loses his harmonica down the toilet. Chasing his harp, he floats seaward through a Freudian duct of black water, resonate with buried agonies. I always thought those words had a double meaning, not only the fall of a wind instrument, but something greater. If Kennedy’s death hadn’t happened, American history wouldn’t have had its own peculiar plunge into Vietnam, Watergate... Would Jack had kept it from falling? I thought of the Twin Towers, collapsing, and Bobby at the Ambassador hotel, 1968, his head lifted off the floor, as if he were rising, a bleeding angel.
I turned the paper toward the light. Below was written in the same small script, How would we know? Where would we look?
And on the other side: Look low, not high.
I read the words again. They seemed to have been written directly to me, a mysterious memo, breadcrumbs turning a corner into darkness.
At last, I returned the book though I kept the slip of paper. I was heading toward the door when I remembered the reason why I’d come in here. The clerk indicated a door on the room’s other side. It led to a small space anchored around a toilet that, flushed, produced an interesting acoustic, a sound with a deep resonance, a measureless rumbling. Kneeling, I tapped the bowl as if I were rapping a wall for hollow spaces. I heard a deeper echo and came closer to the water, smelled the cleanser, and stared at the toilet’s curling neck. It promised things. Other realities lurked beyond the bend. I sensed a place whose very existence was a counterweight of truth, no, not lies, but an opposing domain filled with failure and pain and revelation and things hidden, old agonies shown to me the way Slothrop had seen them, bouncing under Boston.
Just as I had flushed a second time, the slip of paper fell out of my shirt pocket and whirled around the activated surface. Look low, not high, I read. I reached, touched the paper, and lost it. I lurched and felt my shoulders and, after a deep breath, my head, take the plunge. I’d shed weight recently, Atkins Diet, and with a wiggle I felt myself slip through the curve. I swirled down, the slip of paper floated before me as if attached to a fishing hook. It twirled seaward in the salty water whose very molecules generated an internal light, a luminous illumination that lit my passage past the depth charges of other toilets flushing. How would we know? Where would we look? The words dangled in front of me, just beyond reach, and veered toward a dim tunnel: This way to what might have been.
(Entry by Garrett Rowlan)