In the Shelter of Each Other
The End of Reading: Why We Should Read Good Fiction

Dear John, Wherever You Are (A Belated Birthday Wish)

"Rita, take a letter will you?"

"Yes sir."

I love saying that.  There's only two rooms in this office suite, if you want to call it that, a ten by ten room with one window for me and another room for Rita no bigger than a walk in closet, with a musty smell hanging over the place.  But still. . . I love saying that, mashing the button on the completely unnecessary intercom and summoning her to my office.  To take a letter.  

"The usual, Mr. Richards?"

"Of course.  The usual."

Rita perched on the edge of my desk, steno pad in hand, pen ready.  

I'm old school, really.  I like to dictate because I believe words have to be spoken, said out loud, to have weight, to test them, to let them hang in the air a moment so the sound of them can stir the air and rustle the imagination, so you can visualize them and call back the malformed and inert ones, publish and polish the golden ones.

Rita takes shorthand.  You wouldn't believe how difficult it was to find someone these days that could teach her that arcane method.  The secretarial schools don't even teach it.  I found a 75 year old former secretary to Benjamin Lippin (God rest his soul), still living in a flat on the upper west side, that agreed to take her on.  That's a feat.  Rita's not the brightest bulb in the pack.  But she's serviceable. . .

"You want me to come back later when you're done pondering?"

. . . and I've known her since grade school.  Lovely Rita, we used to call her.

"I said you want me to come back?"

"No, I'm ready."

I leaned back in my chair, got ready to put my feet up on the desk, then thought better of it.  Better pace for this one, considering who it was addressed to.

"OK.  Ready."

Dear Mr. Lennon. . .  No, scratch that.  Dear John. . .  That's better.  More familiar.  He'd like that.  Just one of the blokes.

"Dear John. . ."

"Rita, you don't have to repeat what I say.  That's really disconcerting."

"OK.  I got it.  Right. . . You're writing a dead person?"

"Just take the letter, Rita.  You know I don't like commentary.  Who I write is my business."  I had to regularly remind Rita that I was the one giving the letter and she was the one taking the letter.  It may not be divine revelation, but at least I was the one superintending what revelation it was, and she was a mere scribe.

"Right."  Rita chewed the end of her pen, rolled her eyes, and set in again to write.  She had a point. How do you write a dead person?  Where to address it?  Believing as I do that souls live on in Heaven or Hell, what was I to do?  Send two letters?  Throw one off the top of the Empire State and leave one in the furnace of Death Valley?  Or just drop them in the mail and let the clerks in the Postal Service sort it out over coffee?

"You were saying?"

"Yes, yes, I'm getting to it, Rita.  Patience, please."

"Alright already.  I'm just saying, it's almost lunch and I gotta meet Jimmy, you know."

"I'm thinking."

What I really want to tell him is that I appreciate his honesty, how he told the truth --- none of that sappy stuff his counterpart wrote.  And when he said we should imagine there's no heaven, how when I did that, I couldn't live with it, how it drove me to believing.  I even forgive him for that acerbic "How Do You Sleep at Night," his poison pen letter to his counterpart.  I want to tell him I'm sorry he had to die so young, so quickly.  So tragically. That his music was the soundtrack of my high school years, my turnable playing it late into the night. "Love."  "Instant Karma." "Jealous Guy." "Crippled Inside" (you nailed it there John).

Karen Demski, that not very pretty girl in my first year law school torts class, screamed in class, broke down, and ran out the door when she found out he had been shot.  That's how bad it was.  Like a little bit of her died right then.  I won't forget that, won't forget the prayer that was really behind "all we are saying is give peace a chance."  He'd be 70 had he lived.  There's so much I could say.  So much. I even have two cats, one named Yoko and one named John.  And a dog named Mean Mr. Mustard.  And a fish named Polythene Pam (or "PP" for short).  Guinea pig named Old Flat-top died, though.  

"I'm ready, Rita."

Dear John.  

Happy birthday.  

Thank you.

Sorry this is late.