THE COOL GREEN HILLS OF EARTH ARE NOT ENOUGH
“I ANNOY MYSELF so much it is painful.”
Is what Simon thought as he pressed and held the delete key and watched the cursor zip backwards until all the words he had just written disappeared. This story was going nowhere. It was about a depressed person who has decided to give up once and for all and so he drives his barely-running station wagon to the gun store only to find out he has to wait three days before he can buy a gun.
But the story had many problems. One was, he had determined long ago only to write about the things he knew, and the truth was that he knew nothing about guns—how much they cost, how much they weigh, what it feels like when you pull the hammer back. Even the phrase, ‘when you pull the hammer back’ rang false, because he had never done it, not even once.
The other problem was that chapter eight was a lovely story about a botched suicide, and the thought of repeating himself was more disagreeable than the act itself. The subject had been covered in its explicit form and now the author must move on. Everyone has problems. Get over it.
The truth was that he wasn’t about to kill himself with a gun or a jump from a tall building or anything else. For one, he knew the feeling of abject despair would pass—it had come and gone many times before and so there was every reason to believe it would go again. For two, he still liked a few things. He liked the taste of a pale beer from the bottle, he liked the sensation of touching that girl’s skin—the coolness of it, the cleanliness. Her words when she spoke to him, the sound of her voice, the strange mystery of her. He liked the feeling of playing music, the sound of an open G chord with the D on the B string fretted. He liked making things up with his mind. There were too many pleasures. They were not lost. They would come again.
Simon thought this through, watching the cursor blink on the screen of the laptop. Then he stood up from the bench in the forested park where he had been writing his bad story and set the computer down beside him. He took a deep breath. He ran his right hand through his dirty hair. He listened and looked and was still. There were birds around but he couldn’t see them. It was all sounds. The light was there though, the yellow-green light distilled through the late summer leaves into a color so pure it was like the beginning of time. If he wasn’t wearing clothes it could have been ten thousand years ago.
But he was wearing clothes, blue jeans that cost a fortune and were made by Asian children or something. Some kind of shirt he bought at a designer store years ago. And of course those exquisite shoes. Who could think about suicide wearing shoes like that? He was a free man in the prime of life. He could breathe. He could do push-ups. It was amazing.
Still there was the problem of the story. A deadline loomed. Did it matter it was a manufactured deadline? No. That no one was actually waiting for this story was of small import. Simon lived in a generation of entrepreneurs. He was his own boss, and the truth was that his boss was an absolute asshole when he missed his deadline. To the point of following him home and keeping him awake at night until it got done. He should have been fired years ago, but unfortunately for the boss, no one else could do the job. They were stuck with each other.
So there was Simon in the park, standing beside the bench, with the ancient yellow light and his hand now sticky from the fingers poking through his sweaty hair.
As was usually the case, he was looking for something only he didn’t know what.
Suddenly there came through the trees and into his head a half-remembered line from another story, someone else’s. What was it? Simon closed his eyes. Hemingway. Something about courage. How life breaks everyone and the people it can’t break it kills. It was something he read ten years ago in another life in another part of the world and now he was seized with an intense desire to find it, the book, and read the passage so he could know if it really said what he thought it said.
He folded up the computer and began to walk across the park, following the patches of shade as he made his way toward the car.
It is hard to know why people do what they do. What makes them go and seek out unknown dangers, submitting their precious lives to causes the worth of which they only barely understand? What are they hoping to find? Not everyone is like this but some of them are. Most of us draw our pleasure from the fruits of our labor: the goal is in the repose, in the cool drink sipped in the dying light of the well-worked day. But there are an accursed few, the prophet and the misfit, who find no real pleasure in the repose. The cool green hills of earth are not enough. The very comfort of these hills is unpleasant in its pleasantness. For these unhappy men and women, the struggle is the reward. Restless in their pursuits, restless in their sleep, they search out the very thing they know they cannot find, yet hoping against hope they will find it. Pity the poor creatures! It is a terrible affliction which besets the unhappy prophet, in itself and in the mindset it fosters: the prophet rejects the fellowship of his friends and family, sleeping alone in the dust beyond the gates of the city, telling himself he is a hero when he is not. He turns from the wine which God gave him for his pleasure and instead lies on his belly, sucking mud from the puddle, hoping to find some comfort from the grime in his teeth.
Simon pulled his barely-running station wagon into the parking lot of the used book store, found a space at the far end of the lot, cut the power. The car rocked slightly from left to right as the engine wound down. Simon unrolled the driver’s side window, reached out and opened the door from the outside. He got out of the car, walked slowly across the parking lot, pulled open the glass door and went inside.
The air was cool. He stood for a moment at the front door and looked around, orienting himself. A girl stamping books at the front counter looked over her glasses at him and asked if he needed help.
Simon asked where Hemingway was. The girl said he was buried in Sun Valley Idaho. A pause. I’m joking, she said. Far aisle, over there, pointing.
Simon said thanks. He turned the corner where the girl said to go and followed the line of books down from the A’s. Atwood, Beckett, Cather, Golding, ah, Hemingway.
Simon took a bent paperback copy of A Farewell to Arms down from the shelf and looked at the front cover. There was a picture, an engraving, of a woman looking to her right and in the background a man in a soldier’s outfit, about to walk out of frame. Simon turned the book over. The back said something about how the author did more to change the style of English prose than anyone else in the 20th century. Very good Sir, said Simon aloud. It is good to achieve things. He turned the book again. On the side opposite the binding, in red marker, someone had written ‘Megan Chambers’ with a big heart after her name. Simon wondered if Megan Chambers had written that or if it was the work of Megan Chambers’ admirer. He opened the book.
It took a long time to find what he was looking for. He didn’t know where it was. A lot of times Hemingway wrote descriptions about action, and only once in a while would he write about what went on inside himself or make declarations about how the world was. That made it easy to do a lot of light skimming. He saw where the bomb went off, where he escaped the Italian soldiers who were executing officers for desertion. He got to the part where he and Catherine row across the lake in the storm in the night, trying to make it to Switzerland. Then Catherine had the baby and Simon slowed down and started reading every sentence. It was a hateful tragedy. The injustice of it. The indifference of fate. The main character prayed that his love Catherine would not die from giving birth to the baby but die she did, and took his prayers with her. It was terrible, but it was a comfort too. You are not alone, said the words. See how this ends, it is terrible, but see also how these people loved one another, what they meant to each other, that is true too. There is much to live for, much that is precious. There is so much that is rare and beautiful and we should be grateful for the mystery and the wonder of it and look at it and feel it and make it our own as much as we are able.
Simon closed the book. He leaned back against the bookshelf. He thought. In some ways he was a lost person, sucking mud through his teeth, looking for God. But only in some ways. In other ways he was maybe okay. There was hope for the old boy yet. He opened the book once more. It only took a second to find. Somehow he turned right to it.
If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
Simon went out to the car and got his computer. He walked back into the bookstore and sat down in the aisle by the Hemingways. He felt like he had something to say. He typed for awhile on his computer. A teenager with a black t-shirt and jeans and black shoes walked by and Simon asked the teenager to take his picture. The teenager asked why. Simon said he needed to illustrate a story he was writing. The teenager said no and moved on. Simon typed for awhile and then an older lady with dangling earrings walked by and Simon asked her. She said okay. Simon handed her his phone which was also a camera and the woman crouched down to get a good angle.
Simon wrote the whole story out, sitting with his legs crossed in the aisle of the bookstore. He was checking it for typos when someone came by and said that the store was closing. Simon folded his computer and stood up and walked out the door he came through. The night was warm.