As I await the publication of my third book of short stories about Maine and northern New England, A Faithful But Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed, I remember applying for a job in my twenties that I suspected (correctly, it turned out) would pay me for taking naps. The position involved running a boathouse at a tony summer community near Portland, Maine, called Prouts Neck, famous as the home of Winslow Homer. I wasn’t that intimidated by these people because I was partly raised by my grandmother and my grandfather, who were from the fringe of this world. My time spent with my mother’s family, a bunch of drug dealers, arsonists, criminals, and court-mandated inhabitants of various institutions (including one uncle locked away in Sing Sing for a decade) may have left me with some disdain for the comfortable relationship the people of Prouts Neck had with their own authority. When I was asked if I had had much experience with paddle boats, I said I’d kayaked on the Baja with NOLES and was a leader of the Outdoor Club at the college where I had never paddled but had recently been asked to consider a leave of absence for drunk and disorderly behavior—to put it mildly. Having never set foot in a kayak, I was hired, not only to rent boats, but to lead kayak trips offshore to an island bird sanctuary. This was in the dark ages, before the days of safety and certification.
The job started at eight in the morning, but fortunately no one ever showed up to kayak until ten. Between eight and ten, I slept off my daily hangover in the crawl space under the boathouse, which was right on the beach. It was nice under there, and I had arranged a row of boat cushions as a mattress. I thought maybe I had discovered my career. When I heard someone walking on the boards above me, I crawled out the side with a paddle in hand and pretended to have been washing down the equipment. If I woke before someone came, or if it was raining and no one showed at all, I worked on short stories in my notebook.
The boathouse job usually ended at noon, and I needed another job. The club head from the Carnegie family said his sister had some work for me at her house, so I showed up there one afternoon on my ten-speed. A prim woman in her late sixties, she made me tea and we sat at her kitchen table sipping, eating macaroons and looking out over the lawn between her mega, cedar-shingled “cottage” and the Atlantic Ocean.
I asked Mrs. C what work she needed done. She slowly raised her finger to point out the window in front of the driveway.
“I need a hole in the ground,” she said. “Over there.”
When I asked her what she needed the hole for, she shrugged and smiled. Fifteen dollars an hour, I said, and she agreed.
Every day after the boathouse, I rode over to Mrs. C’s house, took the shovel out of her garage, and dug for four hours. She visited me frequently with iced tea and cookies. On most days it was sunny and warm, sometimes hot for Maine. The ground was rocky. I removed a number of boulders the size of my head. I worked with my shirt off. Occasionally when young women from the Prouts Beach Club wandered down the beach, I paused and waved. Sometimes they waved back. I was terrified of them.
Several times I asked Mrs. C for direction on the dimensions of the hole. She would shuffle out in her loafers and rest her chin on her knuckles. Wider here, a corner there. I began to see the shape of a small pool, but when I asked her if that was what she wanted, she just wagged her head back and forth and rotated her hand in the air like a louver. What did that mean? I didn’t really care. The hole had grown deep enough now that the women walking down the beach would only be able to see my head and the top of the shovel rising into the air with a handful of dirt. Working without the possibility of an admiring audience is taxing on a young man’s nerves, and I began to take longer breaks, during which I stood leaning on the shovel, steeped in the odor of beer sweat, and pretended to calculate the design of my creation. At some point I started to think about how long this job would take a backhoe. Two hours at the most, I figured, but I didn’t own a backhoe. I didn’t even own a car.
When I reached a depth of four and half feet, Mrs. C said I was done. I asked her if she didn’t want me to do something about the huge pile of dirt next to the hole. She smiled and told me not to worry about it. With a vague sense of having accomplished something that was, if not brilliant or important, at least tangible, I pocketed my final payment.
It had been three weeks since my digging ended, and I thought Mrs. C might have had the concrete guys out to pour the foundation of the pool. When I turned down the dirt road to Mrs. C’s house, there was no sign of her car, so I approached the hole. It was still there, exactly as I had left it except that a recent rainstorm had washed mud into the bottom. Later in the fall when I rode my bike out to Mrs. C’s house (she had returned to her winter residence in Philadelphia), I couldn’t find the hole. The pile of dirt had been put back in the hole and smoothed level with the ground. The wide tracks of a backhoe led from the edge of my former worksite to the driveway.
And this is why I write short stories, because most of the things you try to do in life, and especially those things you do to make money, will often be undone by someone. With a short story, it is probable, but not certain, that you will be met with wan indifference, but at least there is little temptation to fraudulence. For me, writing short stories is where I try, and mostly fail, not to be a fraud.
Having watched me fail out of two schools and barely graduate from college, my father, who had noticed my fraudulent tendencies early on, only wished that someday, if I didn’t end up in jail or an institution like my mother’s people, I would have a job that lasted for more than a summer. Back then I had no real interest in any job. For a while I lived in a condemned building with no heat and went around on an antique bike sporting a maroon scarf and a leather satchel containing a notebook filled with violent bursts of inspiration.
For me short stories are about incomprehensible demoralization—ruin. The kind of pathetic, self-inflicted ruin that occurs in the middle of the night without notice. What to make of the failure that is one’s life? I don’t mean specifically the failure to publish, the failure to make money or get a certain job, the failure of a marriage—or even the failure of dreams or health—though all these are part of what I’m talking about. I mean the failures that await all of us, the failures of being human. Americans loathe (possibly above anything else) the idea of failure. We want to “win,” we want to be “great.” But art, in my mind, is not about winning. Even (or maybe I should say especially) the most joyful and deeply felt art is about throwing oneself away, about abandon and terror, about ruin with only one real reward in mind—to create something that registers in one’s own spirit and heart as a true representation of what it is to be alive.