Dad warms to thoughts of his kids’ own word worlds

Guest Columnist

Brynne and I were enjoying “Chef,” one of my favorite food movies (Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara), when a strange racket sounded from the other end of the house. We sat up, as if detecting a burglar.

Photo courtesy Scott Saalman

I thought it was popcorn popping, but it sounded more like clack-clack-clack than pop-pop-pop. Clack-clack-clack was a vast understatement. Think clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack to the infinite power. The trail of clacks stretched well beyond the mere minutes needed to nuke popcorn.

Then I remembered the old Smith-Corona that Austin had placed on the kitchen table the day before when he arrived for the holidays. We hadn’t had the privilege of seeing/hearing him use it yet, but every time we walked by it, we couldn’t help but eye it suspiciously, as if the mysterious mute contraption from a bygone era was actually a ticking time bomb bordering detonation—for we are old enough to remember (and be wary of) typewriters, more so, their noisiness. Even the cats looked at it disdainfully, likely thinking, “How in the hell can we sleep on a keyboard staggered like that?”

    “He’s typing,” I said.

    “Oh, right.”

    . . .  clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack . . .

We knew this moment would arrive. Austin hadn’t returned to his childhood home for the holidays just to Christmas gift us a typewriter with which to decorate the house. People actually do this, by the way. They find mothballed typewriters at vintage shops and adapt them to their home décor, pose them on bookshelves or sit them atop cabinetry and old sea chests—Remgintons, Royals and Smith-Coronas sentenced to forced vows of merciful silence, like museum pieces. To hear the first clacks coming from his typewriter was as startling as hearing a natural history museum’s Triceratops skeleton suddenly roar with life.

    . . .  clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack . . .

That Austin was typing after midnight was not lost on us.

    . . .  clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack . . .

I wanted to tell Brynne, “I’m sorry,” but refrained, knowing it wasn’t necessary. I had married the most even-tempered woman in the world.

    . . .  clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack . . .

My son is a writer. So is my daughter—but she appreciates a laptop’s efficiency. Austin refuses to concoct fiction and poetry via anything other than a typewriter. He prefers the rapid-fire clacks of a manual typewriter over a laptop’s blessed silence when deep in his word world. It’s what makes him tick. Or clack.

    . . .  clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack . . .

We turned up the movie’s volume, loving the buddy scenes with John Leguizamo. We knew we only had to endure the typewriter for a few days. Sometimes, the kitchen went silent. Hopeful, I lowered the movie’s volume. But then there came a single clack, a pause, then another single clack, another pause, then yet another single clack and pause, the tell-tale sign of my son in mid-story thought, clack, pause, clack, pause, a train picking up steam for an elongated journey into the night.

    . . . clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack . . .

Deep down I relished the sound of my son’s typewriter in action, not for the actual sound (I’d much prefer he write with a muffler), but for what it symbolized—a young man deadly serious about writing, going at it old-school like Ernest Hemingway. He can’t envision himself any other way.

Years ago, my buddy Troy returned from Key West with a poster showing Papa hard at work. I taped it to the laundry room wall for inspiration when writing at a small folding table in there—making sure to run the dryer (often empty) to dull the sound of two children playing so I could concentrate (and yet today I dare complain about typewriter noise). I was a serious short story writer.

Over the holidays, my daughter Delaney had to drive back to New Albany. It was almost midnight. I expressed my concern about her falling asleep. “I’m on a writing high,” she said. “I just crossed the 60,000-word count on my fourth novel. I couldn’t sleep even if I tried.” I totally understood what she meant, and I felt happy for her. I recalled my own confidence in how from my letters a livelihood would come. Eventually, though, the laundry room became a place just to do laundry. Hemingway continued to hang though. Hope?

    . . .  clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack . . .

Back in 2018, I made a surprise visit to Austin’s Indy apartment. It took awhile for him to answer my knocks. When he finally opened the door, it was like he wasn’t really there—or I wasn’t. He looked at me through a door slightly ajar. It was an unannounced visit. My bad. I looked straight into my son’s in-another-world look and recognized myself from another time. Before me, a lost boy of letters. I knew better than to step inside. A two-second staring contest. Time to leave then. I felt guilty pulling him out of his writing world—where he belonged. I was like him once, my heart vibrating with excitement, like the nearby dryer, lost in the alone time, chasing down the buzz of a good day of writing. I had been a serious writer, lost in a laundry room, with something to prove, Hemingway hanging over my head.

    . . .  clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack . . .

Somehow, after “Chef” we slept. The next morning, I removed Hemingway from the laundry room wall. I placed it on the table beside Austin and his typewriter. No words were needed.

Scott’s “Column Writing Is Not Pretty” humor collection is available for $10 at Chocolate Bliss.

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