“I am a phoenix who runs after arsonists.” Saul Bellow (1915-2005)
“I am a phoenix who runs after arsonists.”―
In 1996 I screwed up the courage to try my hand at writing after 30 years preaching in four urban churches. The question was, where would we live? The only place we owned was the 1830 farmhouse in rural Vermont we bought when we lived near Boston and for which we had paid less than many people in Southern California pay for their cars. We loved going there to get away, but live there?
We swallowed the reality and prepared for a new existence. I worried about how much hard work and skills that I lacked would be required to care for the place. My wife Lacey was enthusiastic about finally being able to grow our vegetables and flowers, but she wondered about finding friends.
A few months before we moved, a
profile on Saul Bellow, a writer I admire, described pulling over by a pond near Bellow’s house to capture the interview while fresh. The writer mentioned a sign tacked to a tree: Mayor: Lil’ Becky Beaver.
I was ecstatic. “Lacey, Saul Bellow is our neighbor in Vermont! “
“You hear me?”
She had: “So what? You think you’re going to hang out with Saul Bellow?”
In La Jolla it has become routine to run into Nobel laureates since UC San Diego moved into town and began hiring them the way George Steinbrenner used to hire all-star pitchers. Whatever luminaries there may be in rural Vermont live in cherished anonymity down long dirt roads.
We have made wonderful friends in Vermont in the ensuing 16 years. Though we did run into Saul Bellow a few times, we never did hang out with him. When the local bookstore was doing a signing for my first novel, Lacey egged me into stopping by the Bellows’ to drop off a flyer. His young (30-something, Bellow is in his 80s) wife met us at the door. She effused over the flyer. “Saul is napping but he will be so eager to talk with you. I’ll be sure to tell him about your book signing.”
Turns out he had something else that day, but we saw him at a handful of literary events before he died. Though out of energy, he was still much sought after by people like me. His wife had become his minder, running interference, whisking him away before fatigue caused him to vent the impatience and anger for which he was well known.
In 2000, the state of Vermont repaired the WPA-built bridge that crosses the pond just above the dam below our house.
Several school buses go over it each day and it had become tenuous. That summer we had the hundred-year flood which washed out the temporary Cofferdam twice during construction. The job took twice as long as planned and I became friends with the guys on the job.
One day when you had to cross the bridge on foot to get to the store, I was down chatting with the workers. A Lincoln Town Car pulled up in front of our house. From the driver’s side stepped a young man who opened the rear doors for a young woman, an infant and an old man.
“Know who that is?” I asked.
“No, who is it?”
“That’s Saul Bellow.”
“Oh yeah? Who’s Saul Bellow?”
“Probably the most famous living American fiction writer. Won the Nobel Prize.”
“Oh yeah? What’s the Nobel Prize?”
“The highest award there is for writing.”
“Huh. Who’s that young guy driving?”
“Huh. Who’s the young woman?”
“That’s his wife.”
“That young thing? His wife? Whose baby is that?”
“That’s his baby.”
Long silence as we watched the four of them approach the bridge at a pace that accommodated the little girl just beginning to walk, and the old man, cautious, unsteady on his feet. As they passed, the wife greeted us warmly. The great man’s focus was entirely on the effort to navigate the hill.
When they were out of earshot, the men prepared to resume work. Finally one man, before starting up the deafening jackhammer, broke the silence:
“They didn’t give him that prize for writing.”