The closet in the basement was the only thing left untouched. Eric’s sister saw the institutionalization of her mother following her dad’s suicide as an opportunity and turned the house in Billings, Mont. into a 2,000-square-foot meth den. That’s not to say that Eric was stable either, but he at least hadn’t given into drugs. Just his anger and frustration and unwillingness to engage in life.
For my part, I hadn’t given into Eric’s arbitrary lash-outs. Despite myself, I tried to understand what it would be like to lose one’s father in such a heinous way, just to watch an emotionally stunted sibling take advantage of the lack of structure. Of course, I met him in college after his ordeal had left him a deeply passionate, friendly yet defeated man.
I tried to understand his perspective because, to maintain a relationship with his good qualities, I would have to forgive the bad ones. He could talk, nonstop, about art and ideas simply because he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – sleep. His special forces-trained dad had taught him how to efficiently annihilate people but finding that dad in a bathtub had taught him how to bypass his restraint. I’d never seen him throw a punch, though the way he slung words when angered, I knew he was always prepared if it came to fists. Still, we cared about each other. Or, he cared about me and I worried about him.
The weekend his mom got out of the hospital, Eric decided he needed to sell the house. His sister would just keep coming back and manipulating his mom for money, favors and a place to do drugs. The wedding dress and ring were already pawned. It was safe to assume that, because of his dad’s military history, there were firearms in the house. The only option was to get rid of everything as quickly as possible, hire a professional cleaning crew, then change the damn locks. So, we bought rubber gloves and hospital masks and drove from Missoula to Billings, Mont. to throw as many hypodermic needles and charred spoons into a trash bag as possible.
That’s when we opened that closet and his dad’s entire history poured out of it. To Ryan, the other friend who came with us, went some of the army gear: dried food, survival kits, a knife. Ryan was thinking of joining the military and Eric was sick of thinking about the military so the trade made sense. The typewriter his dad had carried around Vietnam was next. In Eric’s mind, this was perfect for me: an aspiring writer, a pontificating pseudo-intellectual. The typewriter was really a way for him to feel he had evened the scales of our relationship so that all his projected anger would be forgotten.
I am not necessarily the type of person to appreciate things just because of their retro quality. While I do agree that the ubiquity of internet-ready tablet computers in national parks is a bit lamentable, I am not convinced that curating a collection of VHS tapes is, necessarily, the appropriate response. Indeed vinyl sounds better but I can’t buy the new dub-step album on a 45 and feel good about my own contradiction. For this reason, my record collection remains slim and the only reason I own a typewriter is Eric.
All the meaning inherent in it for Eric could never make this thing mean anything more to me than the sloppy piece of machinery it is. I had no problem keeping it on an end table as a decorative paper weight because that’s what it is. It is obsolete, useless and therefore serves, if anything, a nostalgic function though my birth coincided with the birth of the personal computer.
Anyone in their twenties who pretends to use a typewriter as anything but decoration is kidding themselves. They are lumbering, laborious instruments. The keys weigh a metric ton and slam against the aluminum components with the elegance of a blacksmith forging a battle axe. If somehow you become efficient with the un-ergonomic keyboard, that bell will ring nonstop. For anyone unfamiliar with its mechanic interface, pen and paper would take less time to compose a document.
But, to say no to Eric’s gift would be like saying no to his desperate attempt to make everything OK between us. I wanted everything to be OK for him. For me. For us. I wanted him to stop thinking about his dad and his mom and his sociopathic sister. If I didn’t take the typewriter, I was leaving him with all of those things.
“And use it,” he said as he handed it over to me. “Don’t be one of those people who just displays it.”
“Ok,” I said. “I’ll write letters or something with it,” though I doubted if I knew the physical address of anyone I’d actually send a letter to.
Without hefty and expensive repairs, this typewriter was useless. Eric was essentially giving me a broken piece of equipment which, lest he be offended and hurt, I’d have to get fixed and use regularly.
Anticipating a move to Seattle to pursue freelance journalism, I knew I couldn’t afford food let alone the civil engineering required to fix this thing. But for months, it just sat on my desk and I realized what I had done: instead of putting it in my closet to await repairs, I was in fact displaying it. I didn’t work at a thrift store and I didn’t search through antique stores for rotary phones, but I did own a typewriter I did not write with.
When I arrived in Seattle, I took the type writer to a repair shop. It was only fair. Eric’s life was falling apart and he had given me the simple charge of using this machine. I told the shop all I wanted was to be able to pound out a few pages if I was feeling truly inspired: some new ink, a new strip, nothing fancy. But this place gave it the full workup anyway. If it were a man’s head in a barbershop for a trim, it would’ve gotten a neck massage, shampoo, straight razor shave and a little product.
I almost choked when Terri, the receptionist I would begin a phone relationship with, told me. But instead, I politely explained I might need a few weeks to get the money together. I pictured that typewriter sitting in an oily machine shop somewhere in an industrial part of the city. For so many reasons I couldn’t bear to think about that. I abandoned that type writer there just to avoid the feeling of phoniness. It made me angry at Eric for putting me in a position to have to pay so much for something I would never use. I didn’t want to be mad at Eric because I felt bad for Eric. Then I felt bad for his family. What would his war hero dad think about his typewriter being relegated to the status of “world’s-most-expensive paperweight”?
That typewriter was like the brave little toaster. It grew a voice. A personality. It was scared there. Before, in its closet, it was oblivious to the world, the chaos and sheer sadness that had landed it there to begin with. Now, it was born into all of those truths like a human baby pulled from its warm pocket for no other reason than circumstance.
Finally, I landed a steady job at a deli (because all aspiring writers work in food service) and managed to save up $100 – the new negotiated price Terri had agreed upon. I had to pay in cash to keep the deal from her boss and I had to come in right now while he was gone.
“He was pulling the father figure card,” she told me. “He was talking about learning how to budget and save and stuff.”
I had to work to translate my pure fury and acrimony toward this woman into biting and eloquent words. She was, after all, just the messenger.
“Did you mention to this father figure that I just graduated with a degree in journalism into the worst economy since the great depression?”
I wanted to add that I had a dad. A father who was both my father and my father figure. A father who, despite the inherent risks, supported my decision to go to journalism school. And would never leave his family the way Eric’s did so strangers could pay for his junk to be fixed.
My dad sold his typewriter long ago. He sold old furniture and junked some expired certificates he never framed. Everything he had as a boyscout is long gone. He’s bought and sold at least a dozen guitars and cars.
He has kept his record collection though. That, when the time comes, I will take proudly.