Between the Objects of the World

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Photo by Vincent Tolentino.

Mid-September. The Litchfield Turnpike is taking me north, past the last overpasses and traffic lights of the suburban world. North, to Bethany. Up here, there are no sidewalks, no curbs. Without its concrete frills, “the road” is just a slab of asphalt in the woods, a sludgy, petrified thing, so unlike the forest floor beneath it. I try not to think about this because everything else is Arcadian goodness — hills and farms and pastures, ponds. The forest is edged with fern. Moss sticks to the trees, whose trunks are colossal. I remember that the bronze for the Colossus came from the weapons of Rhodes’ would-be conquerors. The people of Rhodes, so pleased with their victory, so rich with bronze, had a wild vision: a statue of Helios that would pierce the heavens. The road, I guess, is fine. It’s brought me here and shown me this. The wonders of the ancient world were man-made, after all.

But here are these trees, these living colossi. I know that no one’s responsible, but I wonder if some nameless hand decided, centuries ago, that war machines were fine material — Rhodes can keep its melted spears — but the organic stuff of soil and air is more triumphant still, and stronger? An earthquake shook the Colossus down. Its material has disintegrated. Not so with the woods of Bethany.

Somewhere amid this artful wildness, a house belonged to Manson H. Whitlock, typewriter genius. These were his trees. This was his daily drive. Down into the world to work, then back up to his mountain.

I left my typewriter with Whitlock months ago. Now, it’ll never be fixed. Whitlock has died.

***

I pull up to the house on Sperry Road at 4:30. The man I’m meeting — Whitlock’s son — is standing outside with his wife. They must be in their early sixties. He wears a gray henley tucked into his pants, she a navy blue “NHFD” t-shirt. In dark jeans and a jacket, I feel citified, alien.

An old golden retriever trots down to meet me. “She doesn’t bite!” the woman calls, following. I see the man step into the house. I bend to greet the dog because this seems like the polite thing to do. She weaves between my pant legs, leaving white hairs behind.

What’s her name, I ask. Paris, the woman says, and did I have trouble finding them? No, no trouble at all, I say.

The pleasantries sound subdued in our voices. It occurs to me that silence is a better solace to the grieving. We say no more. She turns and walks back toward the house. Paris and I follow.

The man emerges holding a black typewriter case.

“You’re Vincent?” he says.

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Just want to be sure I’m giving you the right one.”

He hands me the case, and I realize this is the end of our transaction. I offer to shake his hand. He hesitates. I look at his lean face, his kind gray eyes, and I see the resemblance. I see that he’s neat and sturdily built, so much like his father. But he also looks worn out. He looks somehow vulnerable. Powerless to prevent what he knows is coming:

“I’m sorry for your loss.” I hear myself say it.

He and his wife nod. “Thank you,” they say. And as though there were a chill, or the sun had dipped below a ridge, they turn to take their dog inside, and let me drive away.

***

I open the trunk but change my mind. I lay the typewriter in the passenger seat, which seems more correct.

The last time I saw this typewriter case was a frigid morning my junior year. I was walking up York Street with one hand in a coat pocket and the other around its leather handle. That must’ve been a common sight once: an undergrad on York Street with a typewriter in hand. But in the year 2012, I felt ridiculous, even mischievous. I’d been calling the shop for weeks, and finally the man was in — in until noon, he said. I told him I’d hurry.

I marched up the office building steps next to Ashley’s Ice Cream and turned. The sign by the door read WHITLOCK TYPEWRITER SHOP. I knocked and entered. The hermetic seal broke. I found a narrow room lined with shelves of tagged typewriters and cases like mine. I know there wasn’t smoke, but in my recollection the air seems hazy and intricate. Everywhere there were stacks of little cardboard boxes whose package design was decades old, the reds and blues faded. Type-balls, type-slugs, bars, rollers, ribbons, platens. On one shelf, there was a bust of Mark Twain. And at the far end of the room, in the glow of a single halogen lamp, the old man — Mr. Whitlock himself — was standing at a desk.

I strode forward and said I had a typewriter I’d just purchased — “a Remington Rand Series One, I think.” I’d looked it up. “Model One, the noiseless Remington…” the man said, quietly, to himself. The 1930s “noiseless,” he was right. I’d read that when it was released, customers would hit the keys too hard because they were unused to the silence of the mechanism.

Whitlock looked at the case in my hand and said nothing more, so I laid it on the table and threw the metal latches open. The machine’s black enameled surfaces stared up at me. A sleek, beautiful Remington portable. I’d bought it at an antique shop for $60, its exact retail price in 1938. All the keys worked, but the carriage wouldn’t advance. I turned it around for the man to see.

“I wonder if it’s worth repairing. They told me all the parts were here.”

I stood back and awaited a diagnosis. He adjusted his glasses, which were large, with rounded frames. They seemed to magnify his gray eyes. He was mostly bald, and the skin about his cheeks was crinkled and sunken. But for 95 … This was what 95 looked like? I thought to myself. This man could have been 70. It was a marvel that he worked in a tweed suit, sweater, and tie, a wonder that he worked standing.

“Did you toy with this?” he said, holding up a quarter-sized metal reel.

“No, sir, I didn’t.” The truth was that I hadn’t. My roommate had. He peered at me through those orb-like frames. They say you shouldn’t lie to doctors.

He said it wouldn’t be easy. It was missing half the machinery. He would take it and see what he could do. I wrote my name and phone number in his ledger.

“Tolentino?” he said. I nodded.

“I’ll ring you.”

***

I was midway through typing this sentence:

Mercury with his winged feet, light and airborne, astute, agile, adaptable, free and easy, established the relationships of the gods among themselves and those between the gods and men, between universal laws and individual destinies, between the forces of nature and the forms of culture, —

when the phone rang. The sentence was from Italo Calvino. The caller was from Manhattan, Kansas. “Manhattan, Kansas?” I said to Rachel. I was ready to let it ring out, but she said, calmly, “Pick it up” — inarguable logic.
“I’m calling for Vincent Tolentino?” The voice on the other line was a young woman’s.

I said yes, and asked who it was.

“This is Melanie Whitlock, Manson Whitlock’s granddaughter.” She paused. “I’m calling to inform you that he’s passed away.”

I said, “I’m sorry to hear that.” Rachel looked up from her book.

“He had some typewriters that were left in his shop,” she said. “We’ve been calling the owners to see if they wanted them back.” She explained that they’d moved the typewriters to Whitlock’s home in Bethany, and that her uncle — Bill Whitlock — was there if I’d like to pick mine up. I said I would. She left me his telephone number and the address.

“It says here in his notes that he wasn’t able to fix yours,” she said, her voice tapering.

“Yes, that’s right,” I assured her. “He called me a while ago to tell me, I just haven’t been able to come in.”

“All right. I didn’t want you to be disappointed.”

I thanked her for the call and apologized, again.

 

It was ages since Whitlock had called. His message was brief: I’m sorry, I’m unable to repair your typewriter. Please come by at your convenience to retrieve it.

That was two or three weeks after I’d dropped it off. I tried to reach him for months. I would call Friday mornings, the only time he worked, but I was always too late. Nobody answered. I tracked down a supposed cell number, and no one answered that either. The one time I got him, he said there was a storm in the forecast and he wouldn’t risk the drive. Snow began to fall, the blizzard eventually came, and I gave up.

In the spring, I purchased a new, working typewriter — a black 1940s Smith-Corona Sterling. For months, it sat dormant in my room, my excitement for it lost amid midterms and papers. Summer came and I ordered a new ribbon. Autumn neared and I learned how to change it. By the middle of September, I was clacking away, revising an essay, typing Calvino’s sentence, when the call came from Kansas. I rang Bill Whitlock the next morning and arranged to meet him in Bethany that afternoon.

Eventually, I finished typing the sentence:

— between the objects of the world and all thinking subjects.

***

And so I’m sitting here now with two typewriters: one whose clacks and zhoops and dings are the music carrying me through this sentence, and one whose silence is unambiguous, permanent. Maybe the Remington’s silence, even its physical absence, was the necessary prelude to the Smith-Corona, which I now love. In a way, the broken typewriter has become a sad and beautiful memento. A master failed here. Or, to be precise: The world no longer had the parts he needed.

It’s eerie that Calvino’s sentence about Mercury, the herald, should have been at hand when Melanie Whitlock called. It’s eerie that I should have been sitting at a typewriter at all. But the more I pay attention to these things — the year-long rhythms, the sympathies and likenesses — the less accidental it seems. We tend toward co-incidence. So Mercury would have me believe. His so-called syntony — his participation in the world, his interconnection — is the stuff of good art.

Calvino also offers Vulcan, “a god who does not roam the heavens but lurks at the bottom of craters, shut up in his smithy” — a god whose intense, prolonged concentration Calvino calls focalization. What should flash to mind but Whitlock’s planetary spectacles? Whitlock worked for eight decades in the glow of his halogen lamp. His work predates the Empire State Building (that Colossus of steel and glass). If Vulcan has “the rhythmic beat of his hammer,” Whitlock has the countless rhythmic taps on his hundred thousand platens.

There are the practical reasons I’ve wanted a typewriter: it slows the writing process, it encourages retyping, it eliminates the distractions of the Internet, and so on. All fine, and all true. But the simpler reality is that my hands miss having an instrument. They miss the vibrations of the Grieg piano concerto, the Bach partitas, the music they used to love playing. The instrument is the practice room, and the instrument is the concert hall. The typewriter is much the same. We toil at the keys, but we dream of a beautiful lightness.

I use a typewriter because I miss the physical demands of keeping a music alive. This must be why I mourn Whitlock. With no manuscript to his name, with no statue to commemorate him, who will remember him but the users of his instruments? His death is the luthier’s death. His death is the death of a skill.

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