Sometimes I went to the Automatic Writers’ Group Monthly Meeting, which was held about every two months in our little town, or in the valleys beyond it.
It was run by Pastor Eisenthal, who worked that title despite having been thrown out of his church because of some vague offense nobody really knew about. He looked unnaturally tall though he wasn’t, like he had his own trick of perspective. He had some things in common with my father: he couldn’t focus on ideas other than his own, and had penetrating eyes that reminded older people of Rasputin the mad Russian monk. Before you’d even finished talking he was either muttering to himself or had eyes twitching in search of some peripheral conversation.
My father attended the group when I was little, but he had stopped by the time I was going. I think he did things that got him out of the house when my sister and I were kids just so he didn’t have to stay home and partake of childcare. I didn’t blame him, because children are just awful, and my sister and I were more awful than most. That said, he was dismissing automatic writing by the time I was going, saying it was work fostered by charlatans whose motives could only be suspect.
The meetings took place in bar rooms sometimes, but proprietors didn’t like this, because nobody in the group drank very much. They claimed to have the steelworkers’ choir in practising their scales, or a Mexican dance band working on its steps, or a Chinese lantern theatre performance, or a dog fight going. Group members used to check up, and find out that none of these things were happening. The proprietors, led by a fellow name of Sunnyside Irving, supposedly a scattered son of a son of a son of Washington Irving, eventually stated without much rancor that if the pastor or any of his oddball friends put their noses into their places they’d shoot them off, see?
For the last year or so of its existence, the group met over Brody’s barbershop, except once on a summer evening when we used the chess tables in the park. That wasn’t a success, because the tables were fixed far apart, and we had to shout, attracting dogs, children and curious mothers, all of whom, except the dogs, asked the obvious questions of us. Who could blame them, really? Brody couldn’t cut hair to save his life, nor anybody’s life, or general dignity, so he needed the money. He should have started up a sideline selling hats. “Need a trim,” he said, to greet us. “I can do you a trim, a nice one that’ll make you proud.” He even said it to Andy Caruso Edwards the park keeper, when Andy’s hair was falling out from the stuff they were pumping into him for his cancer.
We’d be polite and say, “You think so, Brody? Well I’ll come by, sometime.”
“You do that, huh,” he’d say, in a way that was so earnest, with your eyes caught in his just a second too long, that you swore what he really wanted was to cut your throat for you.
Brody’s upstairs room was big, and cold. With no window, the draughts came in the same way as the mice we saw scuttle across the floor. With candles lit for atmosphere, it felt like a fire trap. The group was mortified one night when my kind of schoolfriend, and almost-girlfriend, one time, Cristyn Churchyard, was suddenly there, looking for her brother Davy. Cristyn, it was fair to say, had a problem with not causing things to catch fire. She’d been punished for it many times – then treated, I thought, with electrodes. The sight of her in an enclosed space was enough to get grown men running for the door. Somebody begged her, “Now Cristyn, you just keep still and don’t do nothing.” Peter or Pavel, one of the Smirnov twins, sporty types at school but now gone to pseudo-intellectualism and fat, grabbed Cristyn before she could even get a word free, and threw her out the door and down the stairs.
“Who conjured her up?” the pastor said, his arms spread. “Who brought the fire witch among us?” It was a good performance, for a second.
“Said she was looking for Dave,” people muttered, but the pastor kept on about Cristyn having been called up just to hex us. Dave Churchyard had attended the group just once, but had spent the evening writing his math summer project, with my help. It was unlikely that Cristyn would have found him there. Perhaps he made up excuses at home for being out, somewhere that had a lower chance of catching fire.
The Smirnovs couldn’t write their names properly, let alone channel automatic writing. I could never make out what brought them to the group, though I knew one of them was sweet on occasional member Mrs Mitzi Augustine, who had come to the valleys, was married, and, promptly, widowed, when Augustine decided to clean a shotgun while under the influence of home-made liquor, and was then stranded in Augustine’s legacy, a crooked house that nobody in their right mind was ever going to take off her hands. One night one of the Smironvs read out a load of stuff claiming it had come to him automatically as he tended the family’s motorbike shop. Everybody clapped and cheered, stunned. Mitzi Augustine gasped, and shook her head, struck dumb with admiration.
I stood up and said, “That was William Blake.” Not one word had been changed.
“Does he come to the group?” I was asked.
After the meeting Pavel, or Peter, the slightly bigger one, anyway, punched me on the nose. That act was destined to lead to an unfortunate incident resulting in a spill of motorbikes into a canyon as they passed a crucial bend at the exact top speed they’d perfected, they always claimed. The truck they’d loaded them onto for transportation was deemed to have been incorrectly weighted, though. It also might have actually had something to do with the truckbed planks being partly sawn-through, however, and the links in the retaining chains being weakened with precision engineering pliers. Apparently.
The widow Augustine, who worked for the town’s pest control department, had a way with words, but I never for one second believed it came to her automatically. It was too polished; she was that poet-who-was-letting-on-she-didn’t-know-it.
Andy Caruso Edwards had all these dreams from hospital that he wrote down, and they were scary, sometimes. You could tell by the grammar, syntax and spelling that he did indeed write them as soon as they entered his head, and not change them.
The pastor capped meetings with a performance in which he recited words that sounded like Latin but weren’t, and got it down on tape. It was supposed to be different when you played the tape back, supposed to make words and messages in English. That was foolish whatever way you looked at it. I could never tell any different, not even when the whole group was nodding away, going, “Oh, yeah, I heard that wisdom, all right.”
I went to the group partly because I was curious, or, as some of my friends agreed, partly just because I was odd, I guess. “You’re not spiritual enough,” my father said. “You’re an engineer.”
It was true that for all my time at high school I was interested in little but math, engineering and mechanics, and disdained history, geography, music and languages, even my own. I still didn’t believe an engineer couldn’t make a spiritual connection, though, not if he tried hard. I did my Bible, my Thomas Aquinas, my Dante, my Blake, of my own free will and in my own free time and, often, in our outhouse.
My father never asked why I kept going to the group. He also never asked to see my treatise on the court etiquette of the Hapsburgs, my tentative reconciliation of time with general relativity, my three-act play about Byzantine empress Zoë – a woman I’d never heard of – nor my aid to learning Armenian, nor the numerous other works I’d produced out of the deepest parts of my mind, the front window of which was crowded with sport and girls, technical drawings and revenge on the people of our town who had wronged me and my sister and my friends in various ways.
I said to my father, “You’re an engineer, too.”
He grabbed me by the shoulder and made me look into his frightening eyes. “I build things.” He tapped his temple. “In my head. I don’t need to mess with writing anymore.” He tapped his head again, said, “There are cities in here, whole cities you can’t imagine,” and let go of my shoulder.
“Cities, huh?” I called as he turned, his say all said, the way discussions with him always ended. “Why cities? Why can’t you build something good?”