-Here’s the first entry of this little side project I’m doing. It’s really just an exercise that attempts to mesh my own memories with the narrative process. Question, comments, and criticisms are always welcome. Enjoy. –
I’m at a party and next thing I know the host is showing me this mimeograph machine he’s restored out in his garage. He’s a bit of a tinkerer, apparently.
“That’s interesting,” I say.
When I started elementary school, most of our tests and worksheets were printed on a similar contraption. The teachers called it a Ditto Machine. There was some kind of drum filled with ink, then you had to put a stencil over the drum and hand turn the thing by a crank. A piece of paper would feed between the drum and a roller, and the ink would squeeze through the stencil onto the paper. Sometime around 1983 our school finally bought a photocopier.
“You wanna see me run a batch?” the guy says.
“Sure,” I say.
“I’m gonna break out the good stuff,” he says in a conspiratorial tone. I nod like I know what he’s talking about.
“Nowadays the ink is all water-based,” he tells me. “Environmental regulations and all that. Which is good, but it’s just not the same as the old, oil-based formula.”
“Makes sense,” I say.
“But I’ve got a little bit of the old stuff. Oil-based.”
The guy secures the stencil to the drum, makes some adjustments, and loads the thing up with ink and paper. He turns the drum by hand, and the copies start to pile up.
“Pretty awesome, right?” he says.
“Yeah, that’s pretty interesting.”
Something happens to me that borders on the metaphysical. It’s the smell of the ink. The smell triggers a memory so intense I’m suddenly transported back to my third grade classroom. I’m nervous because I’m taking a timed math test. Fifty multiplication problems are printed across the page in that bluish/purple ink – the hallmark of the mimeograph. That curious petroleum odor wafts up from the paper – a scent that is simultaneously familiar and alien.
The teacher has brought her egg timer from home. It ticks ominously at the edge of her desk. Two and a half minutes to answer fifty multiplication problems – only three seconds per problem. It’s daunting, but after I get by the first one, I realize there’s nothing to it.
9 x 8 = 72.
3 x 7 = 21.
7 x 5 = 35.
Our teacher, Miss Sklanski, has drilled this information into our heads with a daily regimen of flashcards. The answers come to me without effort. I finish with plenty of time to spare.
A few of the kids are still working frantically as the egg timer counts off the precious seconds. Most of the girls are checking over their answers. A lot of the boys have their heads down, or are doodling on the backs of their test papers.
I’m looking at the egg timer though. For the first time I realize Miss Sklanski is a regular person. She has an egg timer, after all. She must go home and cook. She must have cupboards full of dishes and spices and canned things, just like at my house.
I look at Miss Sklanski who is sitting at her desk grading papers. I see that she is really pretty. I wonder how old she is. My first and second grade teachers were old, but not Miss Sklanski. She doesn’t have a ring, so I guess she’s not married yet. I wonder if there’s some guy who likes her. I decide he’s probably a jerk. I wish I was older. I’d marry her.
A voice booms through the walls of the classroom, “How ‘bout that quality? Huh? Check that out.”
It’s the guy. The host whose name I forgot. He’s shoving a mimeographed copy of the poem, The Road Not Taken, at me.
“It looks pretty good,” I say.
“Yeah, see how defined it is. Go ahead, keep it. It’s yours.”
“Thanks,” I say. “I was always a big Robert Frost fan.”
We go back inside to mingle. There’s some good Belgian beer, and a table full of fancy cheeses. I try to make small talk with the other guests, but my mind drifts. I find a quiet corner and read through the poem. I consciously take out all the metaphor. Now it’s just about a guy standing at a fork in the road.
I realize metaphor is necessary – not just for Robert Frost – but for the entire human narrative. Without it, I’d merely be a collection of hydrocarbons standing here awkwardly at a social function. I decide the mimeograph copy I’m holding symbolizes a simpler, more innocent time from my past. My cell phone represents the evil technology of the Information Age.
I type a few search terms into my evil technology, and find Miss Sklanski easy enough. She’s married, so her last name is different. She has kids and grand kids now, and it looks like she’s doing really well in Boca Raton.
I feel better. I’ve reconciled some things between the past and present, and for the first time in a long time, I feel hopeful about the future. I go over to the cheese table. An attractive woman suggests I try the Camembert with a slice of apple. It’s delicious. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but right now I have to think of something to say that’s both relevant and charming.