On Bradbury…

2003.

Earmark year, for me. For starters, Underworld opened in theatres (September 9th, if you must know). I went to see it, well, something like fifteen times. Metallica released one of my favorite metal albums ever, St. Anger. My career in kitchen design was winding down, and I was making plans to move back to Virginia. I was in the process of publishing my debut novel, Angel’s Blood… Which thankfully is out of print, as no one in his/her right mind would ever want to read it.

Sometime during that pivotal year, I picked up a copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Cat’s Pajamas. First edition, too; I could tell because the pages were all untrimmed. This, by the way, makes them deucedly difficult to turn. Which tells you for sure that this is indeed a great book, since you must endure much irritation to savor the breathtaking tale contained wherein.

Or not. And besides, The Cat’s Pajamas isn’t just one story; it’s a collection of shorts in the tradition of The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man and my personal favorite, The October Country. (Of course, I can never forget his full-length masterpiece, Death is a Lonely Business. I have a signed copy. Leather-bound. Mint condition. Yeah, that’s right!)

But during the pell-mell rush of work, writing and drinking binges, The Cat’s Pajamas sat idly on the shelf until… well, last week. It got packed up, moved, un-packed, moved to another room, re-located to a different shelf, lost once or twice… but ever unread, always sitting there innocuously, just waiting

I don’t how I forgot it, actually. I adored Bradbury’s writings as a kid, ever since my stepfather told me about his favorite story, ‘The Man’, which prompted me to go read S is for Space. I was hooked from that point forward. The year before The Cat’s Pajamas (or was it a couple of years before?) I read his full-length novel From the Dust Returned, which tells the haunting tale of the Great Family (whose saga originally began in the shorts ‘Uncle Einar’ and ‘The April Witch’).

And yet, somehow, The Cat’s Pajamas remained shelved, forgotten.

Life has a way, I think, of withholding its most remarkable gems from us until the moment in which we need them most. It waits until we are bruised, broken, and bleeding before revealing some little tidbit of a thing, some tiny comfort that suddenly becomes so very monumental by virtue of the fact that we needed it so badly.

And thus, last week, a discombobulated, out-of-sorts man fast approaching thirty (and with it, old age and certain doom!) absently plucked his copy of The Cat’s Pajamas from the bookshelf. 

In one world, uncertainty pounds on an already-careworn heart…

Ah, but in another…!

In another, an old southern mammy waits in vain for the little boy she raised to come back and visit her. She sits at the window, imagining all the things that could have delayed the now-successful man, the once-boy whom she rocked on her knees… In another world, a callous, rapacious bigot is forced onto a tattooist’s table, where he shall soon become what he reviles most, a black man…

In another world, a hemophiliac writer gets a back massage from a jilted lover; she rubs him down tenderly, her fingers tipped with long, sharp nails…

In another world, two lonely people feud over a stray cat, creating a relationship born of mutual loneliness…

Nine.

Twenty-nine…

            Somehow, one man’s writings seemed to make those two decades – time characterized, in part, by stupidity and debauchery unending – just disappear. Poof! Just like that. And in that maelstrom of short – almost staccato – tales defined by their dream-like, ephemeral nature, I suddenly realized why I myself wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t to change the world. It wasn’t to say something wonderful, something earth-shaking. Heck, I’ll even settle for being trite, if I must. Maybe I’d even prefer that.

No, I aspired to become a writer in the hope that one day, in my own higgledy-piggledy way, I could write something that – even for one afternoon – could perhaps make someone forget just who they are, and what they dislike about life.

             The greatest writers aren’t the Ernest Hemingways, the John Steinbecks or the J. D. Salingers. History may honor such men, but the average reader usually doesn’t. No, we prefer our space ships and our monsters and our sad, strange characters that seem a little off-kilter and sort of remind us of ourselves… but not really. We care little for brilliant minds and deep, deep thoughts. Just tell us a story; lift us above whatever irritates us, and take us beyond whatever forces us to face reality when we’d rather not.

I can’t describe a blasted thing Hemingway wrote; all I know is that he bored me to tears. But when I’m much older, and my nieces and nephews are tired to death of their TV and their video games and their music… Maybe I’ll tell them a story about Uncle Einar, the crazy old bat-winged man who sleeps in the attic with the spiders. Maybe I’ll spin them the tale of Cecy the April Witch, whose soul flies from her sleeping body every night to peer vicariously through the eyes of strangers. Maybe I’ll tell them about that unnamed, doady old married couple, husband and wife each fighting off death while cheerfully trying to poison the other.

Maybe. Or not; you know how kids are these days. But for myself…

Thanks, Ray!

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