"People with messy desks," mutters Cousin Henry as he rummages through my study, "should at least leave a pencil where other people can steal it."
Must be buried under the geological strata of manuscripts, bills, letters, questionnaires, junk mail, papers, schedules, catalogues, tax forms, all my sins of omission, plus some committed.
"You took my last pencil."
"No, here it is." He extracts it from the vase of frayed thistles balanced on the dictionary. "Now get to work. Don't answer phones. Write 1,000 words. Goodbye."
"Should wash dishes first . . ." Perhaps in the process I'll think of 1,000 words.
"We'll wash dishes together later. Or break them. Now we write."
After years of trying, in vain, to please people for whom a clean sink was as blessed as a baptismal font, a tidy house the Taj Mahal, and for whom Literature might be Great but the actual writers -- interesting creatures, perhaps, but one wouldn't really want them in the house, would one? -- I find myself disconcerted by reordered priorities.
"Write. Undistracted. We'll cook dinner later." And Cousin Henry lumbers off, ducking his head under the lintel, and playing invisible arpeggios with his huge hands. Oreo, the black-and-white cat, follows him to his garret. Cousin Henry will write for six hours, undistracted, at his own messy desk. He takes my last pencil with him.
I've heard of Professional Organizers. My neighbor Ms. Coriander paid one $200 to rearrange her desk and files. It took all day. Then her closets got the business for another hundred. With everything aligned and visible, she couldn't find anything. She admits everything is in disarray again.
Mrs. Higginbottom next door is impeccable. Her pencils, sharpened lances, stand in phalanxes. No Office Organizer could organize mine. I am beyond Professional Help. More important to write than to organize desks. Mrs. Higginbottom will never set foot in my study, though once she teetered on the threshhold, with an odd look on her face.
Find 1,000 words. Yes, Cousin Henry. Somewhere.
The phone, thank goodness, is ringing. I even let it ring thrice. Poet Colette Inex taped a large two- letter sign to her receiver: "NO." My phone perches atop a mountain of borrowed books and slippery magazines which with each ring threaten avalanches. "Yes?"
A Certain Old Beau! Years I've awaited his call. At last . . . We begin to knot up the net of torn years. The receiver is hooked on my shoulder. My hands are free, and trembling. With, I think, joy. To steady them I begin to sift the pile of newspapers saved on the left-hand edge of the desk, discard. I clip the articles for which the papers were saved, some six months ago. I skim the articles quickly and add them to the tattered papers in the trash. The Beau is telling me the news of his days, weeks, years. So much to discover, rediscover.
The trash basket quickly overflows, but an abandoned brown bag easily swallows the catalogues of clothes I won't buy, cheeses I won't order, notions I won't even entertain. Shopping lists I forget to take shopping I could recycle next trip, but perhaps if I forget more I'll buy less. Compendia of chores I must not neglect, six months ago: Did I imagine that the act of writing my Tasks In Order would automatically mean they were already half-done? Someday I'll compile a list of lists I mean to write.
He is telling me about his mortgage, his divorce, who had to take the dogs and kids, and what...
I slit the unopened bills, discard envelopes, scribble checks for those overdue and hope they won't bounce too high, pile up other Debts to Pay Later, I'll Fly Now. Seldom do I balance my checkbook: The bank can subtract better than I, and does.
He is saying he'd certainly like to see me again.
I'm listening, of course, as I heap unanswered letters in order of priority, while mentally composing postcards that I promise I'll write at length ASAP. Drafts of manuscripts rise bubbling to the surface, float like skatefish on the waves of mail, while the swordfish in my mind cuts them to size.
My Beau is telling his stories so well I should write them down, if only I had a pencil. Surely in some desk drawer I'd find his old letters...
A note slips out from out-dated coupons, a scribble on the back of Cousin Henry's blank check borrowed over some restaurant table when I overheard someone say, "The bank foreclosed on her only mule." Who said that? Where? What bank? Whose mule? Who is she?
He is inviting me to the theater. Just bought tickets in the hope I...
Here under the tax blanks is another scribble I must have recorded, handwriting undeniably mine, almost illegible: "Her car got totaled by a runaway shopping cart." Whose car? Whose cart? Then what happened? I must use that line in a play I must someday write...
He is wondering if we might eat out tonight. His new bachelor kitchen has just been exterminated. I'm wondering, as I watch the parachute seeds of my thistles float over the landscape of my desk, how to fit a runaway grocery cart, a foreclosed mule and an old lover's roaches into 1,000 words.
Here's Cousin Henry's collar button I threatened to sew on last month. If only a needle would surface from this stack of papers. In the drawer with my sticking stamps is a spool of thread. The thread, however, is purple, and his shirt is white...
My Beau also has season tickets to the opera. His ex got the symphony series. Would I...
An overlooked check I forgot to cash! Some day I'll repair, someday I'll rewrite, someday I'll cash in...Time now to live.
I begin to see the top of my desk, here and there, though on either side of these flat valleys are hillocks of bills, plateaux of manuscripts. Old ones I'll be ruthless about. I'm a bulldozer now...
He is telling me that despite the years he's told he doesn't look bad, and he's sure I don't either, I sound wonderful, and I tell him he sounds wonderful too. He wonders if he might stop by tonight for a drink before we go out to supper.
Problem is, now that my desk is taking shape, the story suddenly is also, I'm not sure yet how, but the cockroaches have taken over the helm of the cart and are speeding toward the glass doors of the bank, while the championed mule grazes on meadows of crumpled bills, and though I'm not sure where they are going, I know Cousin Henry will be disappointed when he sprints in for dinner and sees -- not that the dinner isn't waiting -- but rather that a newborn story isn't.
Besides, if the Beau saw how disorderly the rest of my study . . . Couldn't we meet for supper tomorrow instead? Or better, next week?
He is giving me his phone numbers, his address, his schedule, and would I put the following dates on my calendar...
My hands are no longer trembling, but I can't find a pencil to write it all down.
(Author's note: the above was written instead of cleaning the desk.)