LES STANDIFORD is founding director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University in Miami. He is the author of 23 books and novels, including the John Deal thriller series and the recent Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, & the Rise of Los Angeles. He will be teaching a master class and lecturing at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, Aug. 4-6.
I was giving a talk the other day when a man raised his hand. “How do you do your research?” He wanted to know.
I thought it was a much better question than, “Where do you get your ideas,” so I asked him a question back. “Do you have time for a story?”
“Sure,” he said. I gave it to him.
I got to the History Junkyard early. It’s a little out of the way, but sometimes there’s a crowd. it’s always best to get there before the heat builds up. There’s a kind of musty smell that hovers over the place, same as in an old bookstore or a wet library they’ve been meaning to tear down.
A fat guy in a t-shirt with a university seal stamped on the chest came out of the guard shack. The shirt was faded and had so many holes you couldn’t tell where it was from. He was wearing one of those tasseled velveteen tams like the European academics do.
“You here to pick?” he said, jerking his thumb at the sign nailed to the shack: HISTORY U-PICK, $2.75.
I gave him three ones and he came up with a quarter. “I gotta tell you, pal, there’s not much left. I hope you’re not looking for anything on race relations or sexual politics.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “But I appreciate the tip.”
Once you’re past the gates you can see how much stuff is actually in there. Mounds and mounds of it, rusting and creaking, big trunks, old chassis, mounds of glass, most of it broken, who knows what all, piled up higher than a man might reach, as the poets like to say.
You find the aisle you want and just walk right in, like going down some winding lane in a medieval city. French is right up front. Italian’s further down. Thousand Island is at the end.
I went down American, like I always do. There were a couple of guys already in there—a Brit and a Yank—tugging on either end of a broken oar from a Titanic lifeboat, arguing over the proper provenance of the thing. I had to step around them, but they never noticed I was there.
Further down, there were two guys in long black robes—one trimmed in green, the other in gold—swinging lug wrenches at each other. One guy had what he said was a page from Hemingway’s lost manuscript. The other guy said he saw it first. He clipped the first guy behind the ear with his wrench, snatched the sheet and ran. Even from a distance I could see it was just a page from the menu at Sloppy Joe’s, the phony one on Duval.
I finally got to the place I’d come for and I kept going back, almost every day, for a long time. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that goes on in the Yard, the things people say to each other, what happens when somebody drops the soap. I just kept my head down and minded my own business, because that is what you should do there, just like in the joint.
I ran across that page from the Hemingway, incidentally, but it wasn’t the reason I had come, so I put it back where I found it. It wasn’t very good. Makes sense. If he’d wanted anyone to see it he’d have left it out in plain sight.
Two years went by, maybe more, then I came out past the guard shack at the end of a day, at the wheel of a ’30 Dusenberg J model. The engine purred, and the nickel work glinted in the dying sun. You’ll never guess who it once belonged to, how he got the car, or how he lost it.
The fat guy was standing by the guard shack and gave a low whistle. “Damn,” he said. “I didn’t know that was back there.”
“It wasn’t,” I said. “I had to find the parts, then put it together. It took a while.”
“Right,” he said. “But look what you got.”
There was a rail-thin woman dressed in black standing beside him. Her mascara was smeared, and I could tell she’d been crying. “My academic department’s been combined with Entrepreneurial Relations,” she said to the fat guy. “Do you have anything on Donald Trump?”
He put his arm around her and began to talk in a comforting voice. I felt for her, but I knew it was therapy going nowhere.
I put my foot back on the accelerator and pressed. There were people waiting for the car.
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