Pushcart 2012: Paul Zimmer, “Brief Lives” from The Gettysburg Review, Autumn 2010

The Gettysburg Review, Autumn 2010

The Gettysburg Review, Autumn 2010

When I’m discouraged, I think about throwing the whole thing over. Have I wasted my life, stuffing my brain with this horde of minibiographies? It was the one thing I could do well, and when you get as old as I am, you want just a little appreciation for what you’ve done.
Sometimes, I swear if I could locate the place in my brain where I’ve collected all these brief lives, I’d tilt my head and drain them all out through my ear hole into a bucket. Then late one night I’d sneak out of the care home and funnel the whole mess into the book drop lot of the Squires Grove Library and start my life over.

There’s a guy in my town – you’ll run into him eventually if you ride the city busses – who will, given any opportunity, start talking about Amtrak. He’ll tell you the entire New York timetable, as well as every service change Amtrack has made, since it began in 1971. Then he’ll tell you about the schedule of the bus you’re on in Portland. I’m not sure about Amtrak, but his knowledge of the local bus schedule is extensive and, from what I’ve seen, completely accurate. People tend to move away from him. Or stare. He’s said he’s been diagnosed with everything from manic depression to Asperger’s, and he’s been kicked out of just about every elderly housing facility in Portland (though eventually he works through them all and someone has to take him back) as he can get a bit argumentative. Those trains, those timetables, are his connections.

He reminds me a little of the old man in this story: Cyril’s an old man in assisted living. He doesn’t do trains, he does lives.

See, when he was a kid with two drunk parents, he found salvation in a set of encyclopedias, reading about the lives of great people listed therein. As a teen he spent his money from odd jobs to buy another set of encyclopedias, and became a fixture at the drug store where he’d read all the magazines for information about movie stars, sports figures, and people in the news:

I was ravenous for lives – politicians, scientists, actors, musicians, scholars, soldiers, writers, artists, clergy, entertainers, architects, thinkers, athletes, and other famous people. I wanted to know how they got into and out of this world while doing something important enough to be remembered. It is my vicarious pleasure to collect this information, and I always try to pass on some of these lives to others.

He never married or had children, never travelled, just worked nondescript jobs in town and spent his “spare time collecting lives.” His experience with life is pretty much second-hand. It’s as if, as a kid, he gave up the idea of having a life of his own, and settled instead for knitting together the second-hand lives of others.

He’s alternately proud of and cursed by this talent. It’s not an easy way to live. People in the care home get tired of listening. So once in a while, as on the night in this story, he sneaks out to the tavern across the street for a few beers; he’s just got to share his lives with someone. Sometimes people, say, a guy just having a drink in a bar who finds himself bombarded first by the life story of Vivaldi and then obscure ballplayer Cookie Lavagetto and then offered up a menu of dozens of people to choose from, might get a little nervous and move away.

I’m the keeper of the lives! But I’m like a guy who mucks out stables for a living. People stand clear of me.

Sometimes, he gets into a little pickle, if someone else suggests a life. Instead of him rifling through his storehouse and coming up with someone appropriate, someone, say, Nobleson, another resident at the care home who also sneaks across the street for a beer, might decide, no, I don’t look like Arthur Godfrey, I’ve always been told I look like Van Johnson. Because, after all, who wouldn’t rather look like Van Johnson than Arthur Godfrey. And then Cyril, who is after all eighty-three and has had a few beers, might struggle with some mental archaeology:

I have to admit here, though, I’m in a bit of a panic, scuffling with my gray cells, trying to come up with the goods on Johnson. I’m getting just a little rusty as I get older. I haven’t thought about Van Johnson in year, and the four Peinies have addled me – but there’s some Johnson stuff in there. I know it, and I can feel it beginning to shake loose – the filamentous branching of my neurons is extending. Then – aha! Bingo.

And as happens on the night in this story, sometimes his penchant for lives gets him into bigger trouble. I won’t go into detail (the story is available online) other than to say his lives also get him out of trouble. They provide companionship for him – more dependable than drunken parents, potentially unfaithful lovers, inconstant friends. Perhaps in remembering others, he is putting a down payment on his own immortality. Maybe this is how he creates his own importance, his own right to be here.

The story opens with an epigram from John Aubrey, a seventeenth-century Keeper of Lives:

So that the retriving of these forgotten Things from Oblivion in some sort resembles the Art
of a Conjuror, who makes those walke and appeare that have layen in their graves many
hundreds of yeares: and to represent as it were to the eie, the places, Customes and Fashions,
that were of old Times.
—John Aubrey, Brief Lives

Aubrey’s Brief Lives contains anecdotes about his contemporaries. Rather than list Robert Boyle as a chemist and discoverer of Boyle’s Law, for example, he notes such things as: “He was nursed by an Irish nurse, after the Irish manner, where they put the child in a pendulous satchel instead of a cradle, with a slit for the child’s head to peep out.” Aubrey, too, mixed fact and fiction. In fact, I can almost see him cornering some hapless guy at a pub with, “Hey, you remind me of Thomas Hobbes…”

It’s a nice story; it must be, since it took me so many places. But it doesn’t quite grip me. It lost me towards the end, with the final encounter – a man in a balaclava, a gun, a truck – that seemed forcedly dramatic. Someone workshopping one of my stories once tried to get me to throw a life-or-death scene into what had been a relationship piece. Helicopters! Forest fires! Drowning! Something at Stake! He was probably right about upping the drama level (the climax of my story was the discarding of a coffee cup into a trash bin – yeah, he was definitely right). But I didn’t want to write about helicopters and fires, I wanted to write about two misfits. Here, I felt like the story got lost when it got into danger and guns. I’m sure it’s an integral part of the piece and I’m missing something crucial – who am I to second guess the Gettysburg Review and the Pushcart editors – but that’s where I checked out, emotionally. That’s where I went from being Cyril’s friend, looking over his shoulder and feeling for him, his need to not be forgotten, to be important, as he shared his lives, to reading a story about a guy who remembered a lot of biographies.

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