Saturday, October 18, 2008

An hour well-spent on O. Henry's porch

When I decided to spend an hour on O. Henry's porch, I think I was hoping to acquire by osmosis some of that magical irony and those delicious twists so present in the work of the famed Austinite who earned his place in the pantheon of authors as America's most beloved literary felon.

He died, the docent at his home at 409 E. 5th Street tells me, not rich - but popular in his own time. Not such a bad epitaph, I think, hoping just a bit of that spirit will waft my way on the late October breeze, finding its way to the dilapidated wicker chair I sit on and into my writer's brain. Surely, I thought, William Sidney Porter once perched on this porch and sipped lemonade, calling on the view of old downtown Austin for inspiration for The Gift of the Magi.

And certainly he was nowhere near as ADD as me. My inner observer was at its crowy, distractable worst, noticing anything at all that made a sound or sparkled. The passing blue taxi, a succession of orange-clad UT fans hurrying to the crucial game. Dogs - an elderly golden retriever, a short-legged and cocky mutt of dubious dachshund parentage, a white shitzu leading his owner on a leash.

But it was the squirrels that held my attention best. Muscular, big for a member of the Sciuridae lineage, built like a very small quarterback. All that was missing was a tiny orange helmet with two holes for his alert ears. He stepped onto the porch, his black eyes like what Stephen King would call two oil drops, his shiny gaze fixed on mine. He stood upright on his hindquarters just eight feet away, his athletic heart pounding visibly, rapidly in his chest - but that must be normal for a squirrel, because this was one cool cucumber. It occurs to me, if only for a fleeting moment, that maybe he's preternaturally calm because he's rabid, and I look at his neatly-groomed and pointy snout for the froth of hydrophobia. It wouldn't do for my literary excursion to turn into Old Yeller.

Next yard over, at the family home of Alamo survivor Susannah Dickinson, a derelict stone chimney can be seen through a glassless window. I see what appears to be the diminutive quarterback's Mrs. She's timid, or perhaps just reserved, and she hangs back before hurtling to dig for acorns at the base of what appears to be an oak of some sort. I note the difference between Mr. and Mrs. Squirrel - while she bolts from one place to another, he seems to saunter. Not in a hurry, no place to go, rather just watch. And I think that maybe, on this treadmill of life, we're either bolters or saunterers, and that while physically I may saunter, mentally I bolt.

It occurs to me that the non-chalant way the quarterback squirrel claims his place on the gingerbread-clad porch might mean something. Mr. and Mrs. W.S. Porter reincarnate, perhaps - William and Athol, watching over their charming restored golden-hued Victorian rancher, barred from entering their old digs but planning perhaps to attend the evening's outdoor O'Henry Film Fest to see what's been made of the pieces O'Henry penned, well, in the PEN on embezzlement charges. He wrote some 14 stories in the clinker after returning from abroad to see his dying wife - and to face charges he'd denied but fled earlier.
I remind myself - not aloud, lest the furry author think I talk to myself, that I'm a Christian and believe in the opposite of reincarnation - that we get but one bite of life's apple. Not that it kept me, while scattering my dad's ashes at a fish hatchery, from saying, a bit loud and defiant like a child who's safe enough distance away to taunt a bully, "If you come back, next time be nicer to people!"
I try to look a little closer, to see if the squirrel is wearing the wire-rimmed glasses typical of turn-of-the-century authors.
No, sometimes a squirrel is just a squirrel.

My time on O. Henry's porch passes too quickly for me to read even a few pages from the collection of his short stories I bought inside (around the corner from his Original Drafting Table and Drafts of Old Austin Composed By William Sidney Porter Himself).
But I feel a sense of energy from being where one of my favorite writers wrote, and I think, "I will do this again." And a sort of resolve not to repeat his mistakes - sloppy accounting, drinking yourself into cirrhosis. And I review a mental list of his better ideas: Making good use of time in one place. Coming back as a squirrel.
And I saunter off to my class at the Writer's League of Texas, where my mind bolts once again.
There it goes now.

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