There are a few people to whom I owe gratitude every time I finish any piece of writing that’s longer than a sentence fragment. I always thank God for sewing words into me. For making me love the way a sentence sounds as it leaves the pages of the books I read. I thank my parents for encouraging me. And my tribe for caring, even if at times they are only pretending. And for my friends who fail at life with me or pay me to wear snorkels or try to kill me on sailboats. And for my children who mortified me in Sam’s Club by creating a manmade Lake of Pee that essentially shut down our entire checkout line during the holiday season.
So many people are behind every word I write.
But the thing is, I don’t write. I type. And while my fingers are hovering over the keyboard of my laptop, there is a conspiracy that often happens without my consent. It is as if one part of my brain is whirring and whipping up a paragraph with my typing fingers while another part of my brain simply observes the process like a captive audience. I’ve heard the expression among other nerdy writers (we are all nerds), “Did I write that story or did it write me?”
That’s at least a little truthful. And when I don’t have access to my laptop and my fingers cannot hover over that keyboard, I struggle to get the words out as quickly as they are forming in my head.
There’s at least one more person that I owe, and owe big, when I get to cranking on something. She is a person I not only never thanked, but she’s a person I pretty much treated like cat vomit.
My 10th grade typing teacher, Mrs. Bonds.
Mrs. Bonds was a commanding figure in front of a class. She was as wide as she was tall and carried with her the whoosh of panty hose when she walked the aisle of typewriters to give us instruction we did not want. She scooted down the aisles sideways, because she couldn’t make the squeeze walking forward, and bumped the backs of our heads with her hind section as she passed by. She smelled like convalescence and loved typewriters. She loved them.
At the beginning of each class, she stood in front of the room as we sat at our typewriters, and announced what the lesson would be that day. For the first few weeks, we worked on a different key every day. F-J day taught us to center our hands over the keyboard with our index fingers resting comfortably on the raised lines of those keys. Our index fingers were to always come home to the F-J headquarters. Learning to type q and p was awkward, because we had to try and harness the power from some other finger and somehow transfer it to our pinkies.
But the day and the lesson that I remember most from typing was E-D Space day. The E and the D required our middle fingers. The way Mrs. Bonds chose to teach this particular lesson brought together the elements of a perfect storm when it came to a room full of morally underdeveloped teenagers. She could have held her hands out over a phantom typewriter and shown us the proper way to type E-D. Or she could have held her hands high, palms facing the classroom, showing the movement of the middle finger as it typed the E and the D. But she didn’t do any of that. She held her fleshy hands, backs facing us, with all her other fingers tucked away nicely and the middle finger stretched high in all its glory. Then she waved those middle fingers at us rather enthusiastically as she chanted, “E-D-space, E-D-space…do it with me now. E-D-space.”
Clearly, I’m a dunderhead even 30 years later, because the memory of this still makes me laugh. The classroom arrangement placed us in rows that faced each other and were perpendicular to her. On E-D-Space Day, all I had to do was raise my eyes a degree to lock eyes with my friend, Amy, directly across from me. And once I locked eyes with her, it was over. Thirty other students found themselves in the same situation, trying to laugh quietly as a typing instructor flipped them off for a solid 45 minutes and then wondered what could possibly be so funny about E and D.
I’m sorry, Mrs. Bonds.
One afternoon in the spring of 1987, I received the bright idea to drive off campus for lunch. Alone. I was 16 and drove myself to school. Driving was legal. Leaving campus for lunch as a sophomore was not. That was a privilege reserved for the upperclassmen. But I was only going to be gone for a few minutes. I had given it a long second of hard thought and couldn’t see the harm in it. I wish I could remember where I was going for food. There were Chinese restaurants and fast food chains up and down Tennessee street. I don’t remember which one was on my mind that day, because I never made it there. As I was creeping along in lunch hour traffic, I looked over my right shoulder to change lanes. In that instant, the guy in front of me slammed on his brakes. My reflexes were a tad slower, and I braked by running my dad’s roll bar on his Jeep CJ-5 into the stopped guy’s tailgate.
I waited for his E-D-space when he climbed out of the truck, but he was nicer than that. He did bury both hands in his head full of brown accountant hair and lament what I had done to his tailgate. I had only tapped it. But roll bars don’t tap lightly.
After apologizing profusely, I ran across the street to Bullwinkle’s bar to use the pay phone. My dad arrived a few minutes later. When my Dad got out of his car and walked to the accident scene, he extended his hand to the man I had hit.
“Hey, Dave,” he said, with a pained smile on his face.
“Hi, Mike,” the man said back. I had hit my dad’s friend, and then came to find out that the man had just picked up his truck from the body shop not 10 minutes before I crunched his back end. What are the odds?
After getting a ticket and a strong talking-to by a cop, I skulked back to campus for 6th period Typing. I was hungry and class was already in session. Because I was late. I crawled into the room on my hands and knees and tried to balance my weight to keep my backpack from falling to one side or the other. Then I slid my backpack under the desk, pulled the chair out and attempted to shapeshift my way into it. My head popped up, across from my friend, who glanced at me with confusion as she continued typing.
She pulled what she had been working on out of the typewriter wheel and slid it across the table. There were a slew of double quotes and colons on the page followed by the phrase, “where were you?”
I rolled a blank sheet of paper into my typewriter and typed back, “Snuck off campus for lunch. Rear ended a guy my dad knows. Police came. Hungry.” Then I threw some colons and double quotes in for practice and slid the paper across to her.
She took my paper, shaking her head as she read it, and rolled it into her typewriter. Then she typed a few more words before passing it back across.
I couldn’t argue with that, so I rolled a new sheet of paper into my machine and began practice my punctuation. I was supposed to do everything without looking at my hands. That was the whole point of hitting the E and the D and the space over and over and over again. It was supposed to become automatic. But it didn’t for me. Because I was skipping class and laughing at the teacher and having a pretty good time with my table mate.
Three and a half years later, while being forced to answer phones and do clerical work at my dad’s real estate office, I sat down at a typewriter and rolled a fresh piece of paper into the machine. There was no one waving her hands at me and chanting. There was no one across the table making me laugh. It was just me and the typewriter and an afternoon full of nothingness.
And I began to type.
And then I began typing up fake For Sale ads, with glorious descriptions of bedrooms and amenities and fictional scenarios about people who had died in the home. Houses with rotting corpses sold cheaper. I always practiced with my eyes closed. And by the end of that summer, I had become rather proficient.
I have no idea what happened to Mrs. Bonds. I only had her for a semester and we were never close. But she taught me to type and she taught me well. And because of her, my words flow more easily. When I wake up in the dead of night with a sentence or a thought that will not go away, I try to plunk it out on my phone or jot it down somewhere, but it’s never the same as positioning my index fingers over F and J and waiting for something magic to happen.
To Mrs. Bonds, I want to say I’m sorry for being a snickering pain in your swishing pantyhose. And I want to say thank you for burning into my brain a skill that became the foundation for the words I love so much. And I want to say one final thing: All those times you stood up in front of the class waving fingers at us wildly, we laughed because we thought you didn’t know what you were doing. We laughed because we thought we knew something you didn’t. But now I think maybe you knew exactly what you were doing and somewhere you’re having the last laugh on us.
And I’m going to type The End just for the E and D of it.