By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Overcrowded, junky, it is not really much of a place for a vacation, and our decision some fifteen years ago to stop there was an act of desperation. Having decided just to head south from Pittsburgh until we hit warm weather, my family had traveled at an easy pace for five days, and finally had found the climate we were looking for: crawling through a single lane of traffic, the five of us sat baking in our cluttered station wagon, staring out at sign after sign that buzzed, blinked, No Vacancy. On a tip from an owner who was already full, we found a motel that would take us, a little one-story place, dirty green, called The Fargo. As chance will sometimes have it in such a case, we were treated right, liked the owner, made some friends, and ended up not only staying the rest of our vacation, but returning again year after year to the same motel, the same two little end rooms.
Now all these years later I have seen the place again. I know I should say it has changed, spoiling forever my childhood memories, but the fact is that The Fargo as I drove by seemed much the same, and the places around it too, the Bucaneer with its sultry female pirate winking an invitation, the Thunderbird’s sharp-eyed eagle for a sign. Probably that row of motels was simply too crowded to have altered much, and the drugstore across the street, with the row of cheap shops flanking it, seemed also just about the same (admittedly I didn’t look too closely). That beach front, to anyone’s eyes, is a marvel: wonderfully soft and fine white sand, the gulf blue-green and glinting silver under a brilliant sun, but the motels cluttering its edge have probably ruined it to many an eye, along with the tourist traps, high rise condominiums on the horizon, motorboats speeding boorishly close and stirring up a wake. The day I visited, a speedboat was towing bathers high in the sky, attached to a red, white and blue (no doubt Bicentennial) parachute, for a mere ten bucks. It is hardly an idyllic seaside resort.
Why is it, then, that as I drove away a couple of days later, along a freeway lined with car lots and food stands, I felt an ache in my throat, a longing at my breast? Why do I imagine even now that, given the chance, I would gladly return forever to that junky little stretch of beach?
True, I was returning to a job I no longer had much fondness for, to the responsibilities that filled me with dread, tightened my gut like a bowstring. But my grief lay deeper too, and further back, as if I were being banished from a home that was rightfully my own.
Adam enacts our most basic human truth: he rejects the laws of the world that is given him. We all, daily, enact that myth. But in his story lies latent also another truth (many truths, but I focus on one): that with the discovery of death, we are exiled from paradise, never to return. An angel stands at the door to bar our way. That discovery is not intellectual, but of the spirit — we are aware of death from an early age, but once in our lives we first meet it face to face — and somehow, as the myth of Eden plainly relates, that discovery involves guilt, at our rejection of the world God has made. One thinks of his own death, and feels inadequate, guilty. If only we could live at peace with the laws of the world, death would have no sting — perhaps (another reading) it would not exist — but we cannot; we squander foolishly the paradise we have been given, allow life to slip through our fingers, and, at the same time, are filled with dread at the thought of its end. We would not fear death if we knew how to live, if at any moment we were really living. But we are not.
For myself, I remember no early trauma, sudden realization, concerning death. I was not even much shaken by the death of a grandfather early in my childhood. I can remember no moment when I did not grasp intellectually the concept of death. But in the year I was sixteen, on the first day of that new year, my father died, and since that time I have longed hopelessly for a paradise that will never return.
I am drawn obsessively to scenes of that paradise. I am not speaking of a time when I was happy — mere happiness has nothing to do with paradise — but of a time before that central fact of my life. Its scenes are various and ordinary. The shops on a few blocks of the neighborhood where my father lived as a child — newstands, bookstores, a bowling alley, and farther down, delicatessens, bakeries, small groceries — and where I spent many hours, alone and wandering, in my youth. The university neighborhood, crowded with students but also with older vagrants, city types, where my father had his office. A downtown bar, smoky, sawdust on the floor, where we often ate dinner on Friday nights, the air thick with scents of liquor and seafood, a huge silver-blue marlin mounted above the bar. Ornate high-ceilinged downtown movie theaters. The crazy mix of stores, five-and-tens, pawn shops, novelty stores, odd eating places, that lined the downtown city streets (my father, though a prominent doctor, was never afraid nor embarrassed around the seedy and peculiar). The green rolling hills and red brick buildings of the campus where I attended school. And those roads through the south, double-laned, dark gray, monotonous, that we used to take on our way to Florida, stagnant drainage ditches on each side, weathered shacks off in the distance, the car ripping along, swaying, at terrific speeds, my father driving easily, his arm resting out the window.
It is to such scenes that I return constantly in my writing. The action itself is not often autobiographical, but the settings are, as if I don’t care what happens in the story, as long as I can inhabit for a time that paradise of my youth. I have oftened wondered how much other fiction is written from a similar impulse. It has been said that any novelist will have sufficient material for a lifetime once he has reached his sixteenth year. I’m not sure he will really know enough at that point about probable action, or character development, but I can imagine that he will have his settings at hand.
But questions remain, about my life. Might I really be happy to occupy indefinitely that Florida beach? Should I return perhaps to live among those scenes of my early life? If not in fact, can I somehow through imagination inhabit that paradise, rejecting a more difficult reality? No. The facts remain. We squander our lives wherever we live them. Death exists. We have relinquished paradise voluntarily, and now an angel stands to bar our way.
Yet he does not stand to refuse us paradise — we have refused it to ourselves — but to indicate a new direction. Sin, death, the facts of the world we have made, are given. My father is dead, as his father died, as I will die, but in the time before I do it is given to me to make a new world out of the old — the fallen world can be redeemed — for myself, and for another. That new world must include the facts of the old, or it cannot exist at all, but it can overcome them. I think of that often, as I pass time with my little boy, throwing a ball, playing in the park, walking the streets of our neighborhood. I might be detached, off in that imaginary world of the past, but he is alive, in the moment we are living, and for him, though he does not yet know it, the paths we are treading are a part of his paradise.