The Third Rail

a chapter from Americaa

Heyward Studio
My first piece in English was a novella about my childhood town. I wrote it in 1990, seven years after I had hit America. It got me invited to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, for a writer residency.
Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town at MacDowell. I was now walking the streets of Grover’s Corners of the play. I first saw Our Town on Commie TV as a teen and never again, but I was easily replaying now from the memory the chirping of the kids in the play, the concerned voices of the parents, the politeness of the neighbors, the eerie life-longings of the denouement. After watching it just once at the early stage in life, this wholesome-as-much-as-life-affords-wholesome world had gotten imprinted in me like a prayer. A variation of a call to go.
At the Colony in the Heyward Studio I was expanding the novella into a book, sticking in also the newest, American experiences. When I got back to New York and wrote some more, I called Kelly, a fellow New Yorker I had met at the Colony. She was a prose editor at one of the teen mags. I told her that I had half a book now and should I start looking for a publisher, or wait till finished. She said I could do either, but did I have an agent? I said no, I don’t have an agent. She said oh, you have to have an agent (those New Yorkers). Then she said that she’d call Melissa, tell her about me, meanwhile I should mail Melissa the draft.
Melissa, I knew from the New York Mag and the NYT Book Review, and even the Post and the Daily, wasn’t an agent, she was a superagent, as they strived to be pegged in the City. A big shot.

“I’ll do as you say," I said to Kelly. "But how ‘bout you see the stuff first?”

“You’ll give me a signed book and I want a niiiice inscription, yeeeknaaaw,” she said.

So I sent Melissa the draft, waited, waited more, then called Kelly to check if I should call Melissa, or still wait.
“Call me in a few,” she said, “I’ll talk to her.
People. What a tragedy I stepped into on that humid Manhattan afternoon, when I called Kelly again. What a turmoil under the cover of feigned nonchalance greeted me at the doorstep of her telephone voice. She didn’t know “what was going on.” And she did not “care.” Because she had “all those other things to do.” “Besides,” her cat Felicity had gotten gingivitis. And she had to pack up “anyway,” because her girlfriend back in Missouri “is getting wed."
As it happened, she left a message on Melissa’s home answering machineno response. She talked to her secretary at the office, and left a voicemailno call back either. She knows Melissa is in town. And she doesn’t know what is going on. Besides, she does not care.
In fact, Kelly, the talented up-and-coming girl from Springfield, Missouri, did care. And she knew. She knew in her gut that she was being shunned. An intelligent ascending woman in New York was being spurned, warned, and possibly groomed, if she hoped to go places again.
I just checked on Google and good news, Kelly’s doing fine today.
But back then in New York, what Kelly was picking up instinctively, I knew consciously. I wasn’t a newbie to the kind of social manhandling she was being subjected to. I drew from an Orwellian upbringing, a Commie-choked homeland. I knew that the issues involving that kind of emotional response were much larger than a particular incident. That’s why my publishing intermediary was so shaken. The more so that she wasn’t fully grasping the extent of the powers involved. It’s just her inner scout yanked hard at the survival gear: you’re in the woods, gal, and the wolves are approaching!
After that incident there came several other divinations of the sort, and the day subsequently arrived that I naturally accepted that there was nothing left for me to do in New York. One bright Manhattan morning I hit the Lincoln Tunnel, turned right onto the 9W, and rolled on into the land.
Eight years later I’d be driving into Seattle with Americaa in my head and 600 bucks. Funny, it’s the amount they were saying back in the 1890s you needed to get started on the Klondike rush.

Tadeusz Korzeniewski has lived in Poland and then in America half a life in each. He won the Koscielski Prize for writing in Polish, and a NationalEndowment for the Arts fellowship for writing in English. He lives in Seattle.