This is the story I read at Rabbit Room Live 2017. The first part, up to the ellipsis, reproduces one of the first pieces I ever wrote for the Rabbit Room, in 2007 or 2008. I originally published it in an incomplete form. Now, nine or ten years later, I think I’m ready to complete it.
In elementary school I had a friend named Donny—a small, double-jointed fellow who smelled of peanut butter. I remember him as having a fuzz-stache for as long as I knew him, but I’m probably just extrapolating back from junior high. Surely he didn’t have a fuzz-stache in second grade, when this story takes place. In the fall of that second-grade year, Donny caught a bad case of pneumonia and was hospitalized for a few days. “Pneumonia,” one of my classmates intoned, shaking her head gravely. “Your lungs fill up. You drown from the inside out.”
“Your lungs fill up?” one of the boys asked. “With what?”
I didn’t have to ask. I knew what Donny’s lungs would fill up with: peanut butter. I pictured him in his hospital bed gasping for breath, every wheezing exhalation filling the room with the smell of sorrow and peanut butter.
In Donny’s absence, our teacher gave everybody a sheet of construction paper and assigned us the task of making Donny a get-well card. I wrote a poem on mine. I don’t remember all the details, but I was particularly proud of a couplet that went something like this:
He laid in the bed in his hospital room And looked out the window at the yellow moon.
On the front of the card I drew a picture of Donny in a hospital bed, tubes sticking out all over the place, looking dolefully at a crescent moon framed in the window (and wondering, no doubt, if he would ever stand beneath an open sky again; I could be a melodramatic boy when I had a mind to be).
Donny recovered, and there was much rejoicing when his mother brought him back to Mrs. Curry’s classroom. My rejoicing, however, turned to bewilderment when Donny’s mother grabbed both my little hands and started speaking to me with a tearful earnestness that I had only seen on television.
“Jonathan,” she said, “I can’t tell you how much your card meant to Donny and to me—that you would take the time to write such a lovely poem.”
Well, for one thing, I hadn’t taken a lot of time. I had just found some words that rhymed and strung them together into something that made grammatical sense. For another, hadn’t everybody written a poem or something? For the first time it dawned on me that my classmates had probably scrawled “Get well soon!” on their construction paper, scratched out a picture, and moved on to the next activity. Obviously I had overshot the assignment. And this woman, overwrought with worry and relief, had mistaken my poem for a gesture of particular loyalty and friendship.
“You’re a sweet boy,” she continued. “Donny is lucky to have a friend who would write him a poem to cheer him up. A poem!”
Except that I hadn’t written a poem for Donny. Yes, Donny’s illness was the occasion for the poem, but I wrote it because I liked writing poems. I drew the picture because I liked drawing pictures. I liked Donny and wished him well. I certainly didn’t want him to drown in peanut butter from the inside out. But this woman was misreading the evidence.
“Donny’s father and I wanted to give you a little something to show you how much your card meant to us.” She started digging around in her big purse.
Now, this was getting interesting. I had heard of people getting paid for writing. I even had aspirations of writing for a living one day. But I had never dreamed of going pro at seven years old! What does a get-well poem fetch, anyway? Ten bucks? A hundred?
“We looked around the store for something we thought you’d like.” Donny’s parents owned a convenience store. “And with Halloween coming up, we thought you could use this.”
In two outstretched hands, she presented me with a tube of vampire blood. Vampire blood! Who pays a poet in vampire blood?
The piece went on in that vein for another paragraph or so, but it didn’t really go anywhere, because I didn’t understand what happened between Donny’s mother and me. I didn’t understand at thirty-something any more than I did at seven. That utter mismatch between Mrs. Donny’s gratitude and my gesture of innocent artistic exuberance–I only knew how to tell that story for laughs. And it IS ridiculous.
What I didn’t understand–not at seven, not at thirty-something–was that however feeble my offering, it met Donny’s mother in a way that didn’t have a whole lot to do with me. Because coming and going, art is a kind of grace.
I wrote that piece early in my association with the artists of the Rabbit Room. But in the years since, it has been one of the great gifts of my life to see, over and over again, how the artist does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Over and over again, I’ve seen people get what they need because these artists–my friends–have stayed faithful to their calling. I have seen them pour their hearts out, sometimes in elation, sometimes in exhaustion or discouragement. I’ve seen them wade back into the fray, going back into the dark cave to write another story or song, loading up the van and hitting the road again, putting on the spaceman costume one more time.
A couple of years after I wrote the vampire blood story, I went through a writer’s block that was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I was overdue on two books–not just behind schedule, but past the due date (and the extensions) on one book and then the book that I was supposed to write after that one. And the due date for a third book was barreling down right after that. The pain of it was multiplied by the fact that I had always been so dismissive of the idea of writer’s block. “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block,” I used to say. “Lawyers don’t get lawyer’s block. If you’re a writer, sit down and write.”
If I could have scraped up the money to pay back the advances, I would have said Forget it–the world doesn’t need another biography of Flannery O’Connor or another novel about the ugliest boy in the world. The youthful exuberance of the second-grade get-well card artist was utterly fled.
In the end I managed to push through and deliver the manuscripts, in part because of the example of my friends and fellow artists here at the Rabbit Room, and in part because I remembered people like Donny’s mother, who, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, need what I can bring.
In the middle of that hard season, Andrew Peterson, quoting somebody else, told me, “Writing is easy. You just open up a vein and bleed onto the page.” Yes. Amen. I envisioned Donny’s mother, that patron of the arts, holding out that tube of blood and saying, “Here, kid. You’re going to need this.”