Wednesday, June 26, 2013
It was the middle of an Economic Downturn Summer. Lydia and I sat across from each other in the cafe at Barnes and Noble, under the furrowed brows of a pantheon of Dead White Writers and Virginia Woolf, not drinking or eating, each armed with a stack of at least eight books we desperately wanted but on which we would not allow ourselves to spend any money.
I think she was reading a volume of Sandman and I was immersed in the Tenth Anniversary of American Gods when she looked up at me and said:
“This summer, let's find Neil Gaiman.”
We locked eyes and somewhere, at right angles to everything, was the sound of an explosion.
Perhaps useful to understand: Lydia and I are the sort of friends who had a nearly-instant and intense attraction to one another, not of the romantic sort, but of the sort that prompted us to pledge within weeks of meeting each other never to date or anything like that, because, honestly, it was probably two people like us getting into a relationship that led the gods to sink Atlantis, not out of anger, but for its own good. I can't explain us better than that.
One thing that united us was our love of certain artists, Gaiman probably the Zeus (or more appropriately the Odin) of our shared pantheon. We both had this inveterate desire to go sit at his feet and soak up everything he felt like saying, ever. Thus had evolved naturally a desire to find his actual feet. At whatever pitch the connotations of that sentence might ring, we are not stalkers. Obsession kills romance, and our plan was a supremely romantic one. And, like all supremely romantic plans, it was vague on the details. I think in our shared consciousness the scenario went like this: we would take a road trip to whatever area Neil Gaiman inhabited; we would find the neatest (in the rather specific sense of “most historical”) pub in the area; Neil Gaiman would walk in when we were each nearing the end of a second Johnny Jump-Up; Neil Gaiman would hear me making a reference to an obscure fantasy author or catch a glint of the cuteness radiating from Lydia's cheeks; the rest would be booze-soaked history.
So yes, hero-worship. But something more. Another thing Lydia and I (and a large amount, actually, of my friends and romantic entanglements) share is what the Germans call fernweh, literally “an ache for the distance.” Sometimes “the distance” means merely a wooded glen, a few blocks from a suburban house, which one has not visited but in which the fern fronds seem to transmute the sound of the invisible road into the trumpets and distant wings of Faerie. Sometimes “the distance” would not be reached if one got into the car and drove and drove and drove. In short, if Lydia and I knew Neil Gaiman's exact location at a given moment, we would probably plan our road trip so as to cover the entire state of Wisconsin (depending on the mood, the entire United States or the entire Earth) before ending up at his feet.
That night, arriving back at my parents' place (where Lydia was staying for the weekend), on a whim I Googled “Neil Gaiman's house,” and Google Maps came up with an exact location. In order to mitigate the creepiness factor of my prior knowledge, I would like to mention that in an interview included in the very 10th Anniversary novel I had been reading earlier in the evening, Neil Gaiman makes a fairly vague reference to where his Wisconsin home is; thus it was fairly innocent of me to immediately think that what Google was telling me did not add up with slightly more reliable facts. I assumed the work of tricksters, or idiots, or idiot tricksters. Nevertheless, I showed Lydia. The two of us showed my brother Zeke, a fellow sufferer from fernweh and, that evening in particular, a concomitant sufferer of a rather more dire condition, to describe which I will coin the term Assholes One Encounters In The Food Service Industry, Possibly Including Managers, Co-Workers, or Customers... Itis. When combined with symptoms of fenweh, it makes one extremely susceptible to half-assed plans that involve destinations chosen based upon uncorroborated claims that are, really, too neat and unassuming to be true.
In short, we set out early the next morning.
The location Gmaps gave us—which still existed the last time I checked—was in the northern part of southwestern Wisconsin, well south of La Crosse, well west of Madison, well north of the Illinois and Iowa border. It was the sort of area one's eye glosses over on maps incarnated even on the regional and state level; as far as the world was concerned, it was a place that didn't exist.
I have always had a love for such places: the savior of the world was born in a manger in a backwater town of a backwater country of the world's most powerful empire; the empire which has most affected our age for good and ill started out as a little island even more backwater than Judea; the island which saved the civilization England nurtured was long considered a backwater province itself; my favorite author of all time—who some have argued is the only truly great American author—said that humanity is a procession of cowards of whom he was not only a member, but holding a banner at the head of it. In such places, everybody waves.
Everybody: the big tattooed muscular guy closing a cow gate at the side of the road, the old lady out hunched over her ferns and forsythias, the Amish farmer in his wide-brimmed straw hat herding cows on a hill well above our line of sight—I want to emphasize this, because it would not be rational to assume, from his position, that we could see him. But he waved anyway, because it was better to be sure that friendliness was displayed than to risk someone not being greeted.
When we were nearing the point at which Gmaps claimed was our destination, I dug out a copy of the book Jurgen, a book Neil Gaiman had mentioned in an Acknowledgments section published for all the world to see as a big influence on him, and began to read.
“Maybe it will conjure him,” Lydia said.
Jurgen is a wonderful story, about a man who meets a monk cursing the devil, informs the monk that without the devil the monk would be out of a job, is met by a mysterious stranger and given one wish, wishes that his worst trial would disappear, comes home to find his wife gone, and realizes that he must do the manly thing and go find her. It's a book about fernweh extended across time and space and worlds and dimensions. It's a book with perhaps the most elaborate “that's what she said” jokes in all of literature.
When we got to the precise point at which the Gmaps arrow pointed, a space in the middle of a county highway with no houses even particularly nearby, a narrow disappointment overcame the car. Lydia slowed the car; at the precise point at which the arrow would have pointed, had Gmaps arrows not been a computer communication convention but rather a natural two-dimensional phenomenon, lay what I can only call a critter. It was so odd we got out of the car to examine it. It could have been a badger but the snout was too long. It could have been a raccoon, but the feet were too extensive; it could have been a possum, but it had fur.
Back in the car, and perhaps further explanation is in order: Lydia and I were various shades of artsy-fartsy; we were qualified to arrange stage lighting so it looked pretty, or to evaluate the artistry of a sentence's structure, or to deconstruct the rhetorical devices or the semiotical nuances of any specific type of communication. Zeke, meanwhile, belonged to the major that had somehow made people-watching into a science. What I'm saying is, none of us were trained biologists of any kind.
So maybe there was a perfectly rational explanation for what we saw. The answer we came up with is this: Neil Gaiman does have a dwelling in that location, but it's not in that location in our world. It's that location in Faerie, and there he raises Fae creatures, and that afternoon one of them got away, and was killed, and therefore crossed into our world.
On the way home we stopped and bought a particular type of wine available only during our exile in Wisconsin; we sat on the porch of my parents' house and drank it, reflecting that considering the chillness of the day, the excitement of meeting Neil Gaiman would have perhaps been incongruous. There's always next time.