Le Rouge et Le Noir

Did I tell you this already?

Margaret C. Watson and I made our parents furrow their collective brow in consternation one year when we insisted on using the economical train to go back to school after the winter break. Leaves at midnight. From a hut in Davis. This was during the slump in popularity of train travel, not only among parents, but among anyone wishing to arrive safely and on time at their destination.

Like we were in a hurry.

But you know, yes, we were but not the kind you can own up to: In a hurry to leave our parents’ homes because, while we were away, we had drunk the bottles that said drink me and eaten the cakes that said eat me and really just didn’t fit inside those homes anymore: a problem of scale. In a hurry to avoid our destination by taking Old Unreliable, eating meat that could be spoiled due to its storage near the railcar radiator that scalded all window passengers while freezing the unfortunate aisle ones, fingering the teeny envelope of blotter we shouldn’t really, not at this hour, not with this obvious containment we’re experiencing, prisoners really, unable to leave the train whenever we feel like it without falling into the pure and simple blackness that accompanied this train wherever it went: a problem of dread.

So I turned to the Bad Thing: my paperback copy of Stendahl’s Red and The Black, which I was supposed to have read before now and written a paper commenting on. Sadly, no matter where I attached my mouth to it, I–

Well–

Just. . .

Hated it. The characters were pathetic and opaque to their own role in their unhappiness. They seemed unaware of what good advice I could give them. The professor who assigned the text had his homunculi rousted and assigned to my hallucination in anticipation of my, erm, reluctance. There that fucker was: pint-sized patriarch perched on the edge of the book ready to turn a page for me at any moment, my chaperone, murmuring little things and checking my body language to see if I had freed myself from the one sentence I kept reading over and over and over and over again, was I ready? Ready to turn? Ready to finish and write the paper? I slammed the paperback shut, which is in league with throwing a potato chip, and each time I did so the imp leapt out of the way with a whisping sound I wouldn’t hear again until passing by a nephew’s bedroom door and hearing the sound effects of his nintendo 64. I went ashen and steadied myself in the hallway until this whole story I’m telling you played out at about 200 miles an hour: just me and David Lynch driving a Dodge Dart with one headlight through my memory.

Toss. Turn. Pace the rail cars and create Homeric epithets for them based on their smell. Discover the frozen strawberries my mother had packed to keep my meat from spoiling and overdose on their more than thawed super glucose. Love ma and miss her terribly in ways I can never describe to her. Pick up the book. Read one sentence 60 or 70 times. Slam (oh nice going) the book shut. Wonder if the train was damned and day would never come. Admit that suited me fine. Weep. Sleep, but only for 2 minutes with eyes wide open. Ask Margaret C. Watson again if it was actually true that we were doing what we were doing at this very moment and if we had entered into it of our own free will. Pick up the book. Pick up the book. Pick up the book, the only one in my life that had nothing whatsoever to say to me.

Twenty hours later we arrive in PDX and cannot unkink ourselves from the positions we took as a last resort to reading Stendahl. Our gear was everywhere, had fucked and multiplied since we got on the train, and we grabbed a train-issue garbage bag and stuffed it all in like it was the now breathless party-goer no one knew. Fell off the high steps into Stumptown rain. As we walked the million miles home, dragging our garbage bag behind us, I vowed to take a hot bath with Stendahl, dispatch him by morning, manifest my thesis and meet my deadline handsomely.

Around 4 that afternoon I tried to make good and did: reading sentences sequentially and, once or twice, underlining or turning a page corner down for future reference. Little by little the story of the story began to matter to me, and towards the final 100 pages I eagerly turned to see what was about to happen next, hermeneutics aside. It was here I noticed a rubbed spot on the upper right hand corner: a little scalloped portion. On the following folio it was a little larger, say, by a hair. With each folio the rubbed area grew down, first obscuring the last letter of the last word of the text, in a few pages the last word, further on a couple words of the first two lines, on and on so that I eventually could no longer imagine, through some kinda bad ass gestalt, what the hell Stendahl was trying to say to me. Unlike big bright shiny modern books that have truth sprinkled throughout them, or sometimes exclusively on the title page, this French upheaval thing was saving up the truth for the final pages, the ones that were now half debreded by, and it dawned on me:

dragging the garbage bag through Portland. The book was, of course, the first to be thrown away as we repacked on the rail car and had been the first thing to erode when the bag gave way at the points of contact with the sidewalk.

I had no idea. I was too busy vowing to read the book I was destroying with every step.

By the end of the book more than three quarters of the page was missing, eroded like a treasure map, sticking out from the spine in a shred. Cropped. Useless. I stared at it with rage. I could make out one sentence, which I read over and over and over to try and unlock the context around it. I began rereading the book to see how the first page might structurally intimate the last page. I scoured the house for additional copies, howling at the lack of resources a house of college students afforded. Rode down the hill to the locked and darkened library and collapsed in the special exhaustion reserved for people who etch their own fates.

When it came time to light something on fire and throw it as hard as I could out the window, I had my sacrifice ready and waiting.

It was a sight, for the second time in its life.

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