I woke at 5 a.m. to the sound of sleep sauntering away. It moved through the open bedroom door and down the hall, casting the shadow of a slowly spinning second hand as it disappeared from view.
Why bother calling it back? The act of doing so would only chase it farther from reach. And so I lay there in the dark, staring at the ceiling as if expecting it to unfurl at any moment, revealing the bitter, bland face of another starless night. When it didn’t, I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep. One of the dogs sat up and looked at me, and I knew his stubby tail was wagging before I cast my eyes in his direction and whispered the words, “Lay down. Go back to sleep.”
At six o’clock, with still no sign of the approaching sun, I reached out blindly to the bedside table and picked up my phone. Reading by flashlight was my thing once, long ago, but these days I’ll take a backlit smartphone screen. I launched the e-book reading app and picked up Mailer’s story as if begging to be entertained. Or put to sleep. At this point, both were viable.
Now that I’ve begun, I can finally admit to never having read his work. It was always there, hanging over me, a gargantuan, unplucked grape dangling from the outstretched tentacle of an invisible tree. And I’ve always ignored it. But now that life is speeding up and my joints are starting to ache, the truth’s been made quite clear to me and I know there are some things I’d better start now if I ever intend to see them through.
My wife stirred beside me and emitted a mournful moan as the light of the unlocked screen blasted the black with the intensity of a thousand pinprick suns. I cupped a hand reflexively over it, but as soon as my eyes adjusted and she stilled, I began.
It wasn’t long before I found myself falling out of the story, instead studying the handiwork of a man now ten years dead. Was it a coincidence that I made the decision to investigate his work last month? Or was it a nudge from somewhere else? I do not know the answer to that question, but I’d like to think it was the latter. I want to hobnob with the spirits of the deceased, if only long enough for them to impart their wisdom before scurrying away.
I swiped my index finger left to right, paging backwards. It’s the habit of the editor to read between the lines; to examine the formation of sentences, always looking for better ways to say what must be said (and in some cases, what should never be said). A cross to bear that, even in my sleep-deprived delirium, I could not let myself be carried away into my head by words.
Mailer. Mailer. What was that book he wrote? Yeah, I remember. It lives somewhere on the back of my brain—The Executioner’s Song—perhaps not so much for the story it revealed but for the fact the Gilmore name is shared by my father-in-law.
Did he tell me they were related? Or did he simply say so to impress me? Does it matter?
Utah is a small state, its small towns even smaller, and just when you think you run the likelihood of meeting someone new, out pops a newly uncovered connection. This person knows that one; that person knew this one; between it all, I exist like a leaf on a current that takes me in the direction for which I’ve always been intended.
Back to Gilmore. Gary. My mother read Mailer’s book, and it was probably at her unspoken suggestion that I saw the adaptation made more than thirty years ago. Always, when the subject of Utah and state prisons comes up, I envision the face of Tommy Lee Jones, smiling on the way to the firing squad like a kid being delivered to his birthday cake. A hood dropped over his head. A spray of bullets. Then a mercifully quick twitch, wrists uplifted against restraints, and the inevitable slouch of death.
What fate awaits those willing to be punished for their sins? Does the universe grant extra credit? Lenience? Is the crime forgiven before the punishment is meted? Or is it all just blackness and the snuffing out of existence? Norman Mailer probably knew. Maybe I’ll read the book and find out for myself.
At some point, sleep returned. And when I woke next, it was with an urgency to see more of the world.