I saw a brand-new woman's shoe lying in the middle of a quiet Honolulu intersection. It was a brown shoe that sparkled like a leather diamond. There was no apparent reason for the shoe to be lying there such as it playing a part among the leftover remnants of an automobile accident and there were no signs that a parade had passed that way, so the story behind the shoe will never be known.
Did I mention, of course I didn't, that the shoe had no partner? The shoe was alone, solitary, almost haunting. Why is it that when people see one shoe, they almost feel uncomfortable if a second is not about? They look for it. Where is the other shoe? It must be around here someplace.
With this auspicious beginning, I'll continue describing one person's journey, a sort of free fall calendar map, that starts out what seems like years ago, but has actually been just a few months in physical time.
I left Montana in late September, going down to San Francisco for two weeks, and then went back East to Buffalo, New York, to give a lecture, followed by a week in Canada. I returned to San Francisco, where I spent three weeks before being forced by dwindling finances to move across the bay to Berkeley.
I stayed in Berkeley for three weeks, and then went up to Ketchikan, Alaska, for a few days, then flew north to spend the night in Anchorage. The next morning, very early, I left the snow of Anchorage and flew to Honolulu (please bear with me while I finish this calendar map), Hawaii, where I spent a month, taking two days around the middle of my stay there to go to the island of Maui. Then I went back to Honolulu, where I finished out my visit, returning from there to Berkeley, where I'm living now, waiting to go to Chicago in the middle of February.
Now that we have some rough idea of where we're at on the calendar map, we'll go on with this journey that isn't really getting any shorter because it's already taken this long to get here, which is a place where we are almost starting over again. It's cause to wonder what's so important about a woman's lone shoe lying in a Honolulu intersection, and one man's few months wandering back and forth, up and down, over and across America with a brief touching of Canada.
Hopefully, something more exciting will happen soon.
That would be nice.
Maybe this will be a start: I don't want to know which room she hanged herself in. One day somebody who knew started to tell and I said I didn't want to know. They were nice enough not to go on with it any further. The subject was left there, unfinished at the kitchen table in the house.
We were eating dinner at the time and also I didn't want her suicide to be part of the dinner. I can't remember what we had for dinner, but there was no way that the death of an unfortunate woman would add an enhancing spice to what we were eating.
When one goes to the spice section of a market and looks among oregano, sweet basil, coriander seeds, dill, garlic powder, one does not want to come across death-by-hanging printed on the label of a spice bottle containing ingredients of horrible consequence and description guaranteed to ruin every meal.
You do not want to add death-by-hanging to any recipe you are cooking or if you are having dinner at somebody's house and they serve a dish that has a unique taste to it and you ask the host and cook what that taste is and they announce casually, "Oh, that's a new spice I'm trying out. Do you like it?"
"It's different. I can't place it. What's the name?"
I guess now that I'm telling about the woman killing herself we've more or less started this book in a way that is probably more acceptable than pondering the circumstance of a shoe lying in a Honolulu intersection, so I feel a sense and ability of freedom to wander around in the calendar map of physical goings-on described loosely in the 4th, 5th, and 6th paragraphs of this journey.
Today is my birthday.
I sort of remember parties and the presence of loved ones and friends in the past, but none of this will happen today. I am very distant, almost in exile from my own sentimentality. Besides, I couldn't do anything about it, anyway. I just know that I won't be 46 again.
Even if I were a drunk and a singing Irishman on St. Patrick's Day, wearing so much green that I could cover the entire of Australia like a billiard table, it would not favorably affect anyone.
It would not have made sense for me to have told my fellow passengers on the morning train from Berkeley to San Francisco, none of whom I had ever seen before or would probably ever see again, that it was my birthday.
If I had turned to the complete stranger sitting next to me as we traveled in the tunnel under San Francisco Bay, with fish swimming in the water above us, and said, "Today is my birthday. I'm 47," it would have made everybody feel very uncomfortable.
First, they would have pretended that I was talking to myself. It's a lot easier to imagine that people are talking to themselves, rather than talking directly to you. When people are talking directly to you, it takes an added and more uncomfortable effort to ignore them.
What if I had been more persistent and insisted that people know about this so-called personal holiday of myself, i.e., my birthday, and repeated, "Today is my birthday. I'm 47," in a manner to show unmistakably that I was not talking to myself but was addressing my fellow strangers?
It would have made things worse and filled people with an ominous dread.
What was I going to do next?
I had already said, "Today is my birthday. I'm 47," and then repeated it to everybody's uncomfortable and growing dissatisfaction. They all knew now that I was capable of anything.
Would I reveal 20 sticks of dynamite strapped to my body and hijack the train, demanding that we all be taken to my birthday planet Uranus, legendary sanctuary and powerhouse of Aquarius?
Some of the passengers would be riding on the edge of panic. They could see themselves as a newspaper headline: TRAIN HELD HOSTAGE BY MAN CELEBRATING BIRTHDAY.
Others would just want to get to where they were going on time. There are always the practical among us. They sort out the priorities and expect nothing more.
I of course said nothing on the train. I was a good passenger. I kept my mouth shut and got off at my appointed station. I just know that I won't be 46 again.
January 30, 1982 Continuing ...
Excerpted from AN UNFORTUNATE WOMAN by Richard Brautigan. Copyright © 2000 by Ianthe Brautigan Swensen. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.