Cormac McCarthy in Old Town
The closest I ever got to the person who inspired me to write was in a mysterious antique shop in Old Town, Albuquerque.
It was still early when I walked into the square, and few shops were open. The calm before the tourists. A woman in the welcome center gave me stacks of maps, brochures, and magazines to guide me on my way. When I went outside, two Native American men were playing a pan flute cover of "The Sounds of Silence" under a tent in the center of the square.
I don't recall where exactly I went or what led me there. The storefronts all contained the same painted pottery, silver, turquoise, kuchina dolls. I walked up a flight of steps until I came to a gated doorway with a sign that read "By appointment only or by chance."
As I peered inside the curious shop, a voice behind me said, "Right here, miss." The owner was walking up the stairs holding the key. He let me in and turned on the lights. Artifacts and goods from every Central American country and all over the Southwest filled the tables, the walls. Ceremonial masks, painted crosses, wool tapestries of howling coyotes. The kind of place where real treasures exist, dredged up from another land and curated by a knowing eye.
I had come to New Mexico on a writing residency. Looking back, this journey likely would never had occurred if not for the profound inspiration I found in the works of Cormac McCarthy years ago in high school. After reading All the Pretty Horses, my views on art, writing, and life were deeply affected. This was the first true voice I had heard ringing out from an otherwise muddled darkness.
"She rode with her hat pulled down in the front and fastened under her chin with a drawtie and as she rode her black hair twisted and blew about her shoulders and the lightning fell silently through the black clouds behind her and she rode all seeming unaware down through the low hills while the first spits of rain blew on the wind and onto the upper pasturelands and past the pale and reedy lakes riding erect and stately until the rain caught her up and shrouded her figure away in that wild summer landscape: real horse, real rider, real land and sky and yet a dream withal." - All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy
His stories followed me through the years, marking my trajectory as a writer. My journey coincidentally mirrored the geographical paths of his novels; from the deep South through Texas and New Mexico to California, my life had taken much the same course. I would think back to how he was taken care of in the utter poverty of being a writer. My favorite anecdote: living in a shack without electricity in the Tennessee hills, having run out of toothpaste and no money to buy more, he finds a free sample of toothpaste in his mailbox.
Before I left for New Mexico, Cormac McCarthy had published his first writing in years, a rare work of nonfiction on the subject of language and the unconscious mind. What became a hugely controversial article went on to guide my thoughts on writing and narrative for the remainder of the year.
"So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing. Yes. Of course that’s what we are saying. Except that he didnt say it because there was no language for him to say it in." - The Kekulé Problem, Cormac McCarthy
I was reading Cormac's The Orchard Keeper during my residency in Truth or Consequences. I would sit on the bed in my small blue room, doors open, letting in the desert heat, gently watched over by a color photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe. Through these words, visions of the South where I grew up would hit me with full force in all their hilarity and absurdity.
"He came up through the field to the crest of the hill and there was Warn holding the other end of the string while the buzzard soared with lazy unconcern above his head.
Howdy, Warn said.
Howdy. He was looking up at the buzzard. What you doin?
Ah, jest flyin the buzzard some. He cain't get up lessn they's some wind. So when we get a little wind I gen'y fly him some.
Where'd you get him, he asked. The back of his neck was already beginning to ache from staring up at the wheeling bird.
Caught him in a steel trap. Want to see him?" - The Orchard Keeper, Cormac McCarthy
On this solitary journey to New Mexico, my mind was wandering with no certain place to go. I saw train cars in pastel colors passing through pale yellow landscapes and crows on fence posts looking towards dark mountains as if they were their keep. After a storm outside Socorro (succor, help, relief) I saw a rainbow lying across the ground.
In the nameless antique shop in Old Town, I stood chatting with the owner, a middle-aged man of no defining outward characteristics. He had been an English teacher, and asked me about teachers in my life. I listed some teachers that I knew, then mentioned Cormac McCarthy was also a great inspiration, a teacher of spirit.
"Cormac McCarthy came in here once. He stood right where you were standing. I think he bought some plates."
I felt chills all over.
"I keep all my receipts. I might have a receipt for him, but he probably paid in cash. When he said he was a writer, I asked if he had written anything I would've heard of. This was when No Country for Old Men had just come out. He said All the Pretty Horses."
I had to sit by myself for a while outside the square to process this experience, the pan flute covers moving on to "Con Te Partiro." I half expected Cormac to walk by. When I came home weeks later, I looked hard for that antique shop online, on maps, and in the brochures I gathered. I cannot find a single trace of it anywhere.
"The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative. We have to do that." - The Kekulé Problem, Cormac McCarthy