“What line of work are you in, Speed?
“I’m back in college now. I’m trying to pick up some education hours so I can get a teaching certificate.”
“What you are then, is a 30-year-old schoolboy.”
“Well, I don’t guess you’re bothering anybody.”
“The Civil War used to be my field.”
“A big waste of time.”
“I didn’t think so. I studied for two years at Ole Miss under Dr. Buddy Casey. He’s a fine man and a fine scholar.”
“You might as well loiter for two years. You might as well play Parcheesi for two years.”
“That’s a foolish remark.”
“You think so?”
“All right, listen to me. Are you are reader? Do you read a lot of books?”
“I read quite a bit.”
“And you come from a family of readers, right?”
“No, that’s not right. That’s completely wrong. My father doesn’t own six books. He reads the paper about twice a week. He reads fishing magazines and he reads the construction bids. He works. He doesn’t have time to read.”
“But you’re a big reader yourself?”
“I have more than 400 volumes of military history in my apartment. All told, I have 66 linear feet of books.”
“All right, now listen to me. Throw that trash out the window. Every bit of it.”
He reached into his grip and brought out a little book with yellow paper covers. The cellophane that had once been bonded to the covers was cracked or peeling. He flourished the book. “Throw all that dead stuff out the window and put this on your shelf. Put it by your bed.”
What a statement! Books, heavy ones, flying out the windows of the Rhino apartment! I couldn’t take my eyes from the road for very long, but I glanced at the cover. The title was ‘With Wings as Eagles’ and the author was John Selmer Dix, M.A.
Dr. Symes turned through the pages. “Dix wrote this book 40 years ago and it’s still just as fresh as the morning dew. Well, why shouldn’t it be? The truth never dies. Now this is a first edition. That’s important. This is the one you want. Remember the yellow cover. They’ve changed up things in these later editions. Just a word here and there but it adds up. I don’t know who’s behind it. They’ll have Marvin watching television instead of listening to dance music on the radio. Stuff like that. This is the one you want. This is straight Dix. This is the book you want on your night table right beside your glass of water, ‘With Wings as Eagles’ in the yellow cover. Dix was the greatest man of our time. He was truly a master of the arts, and of some of the sciences too. He was the greatest writer who ever lived.”
“They say Shakespeare was the greatest writer who ever lived.”
“Dix puts William Shakespeare in the shithouse.”
“I’ve never heard of him. Where is he from?’
“He was from all over. He’s dead now. He’s buried in Ardmore, Oklahoma. He got his mail in Fort Worth, Texas.”
“Did he live in Fort Worth?”
“He lived all over. Do you know the old Elks Club in Shreveport?”
“Not the new one. I’m not talking about the old lodge.”
“I don’t know anything about Shreveport.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter. It’s one of my great regrets that I never got to meet Dix. He died broke in a railroad hotel in Tulsa. The last thing he saw from his window is anyone’s guess. They never found his trunk, you know. He had a big tin trunk that was all tied up with wire and ropes and belts and straps, and he took it with him everywhere. They never found it. Nobody knows what happened to it. Nobody even knows what was in the trunk.”
“Well, his clothes, don’t you think?”
“No. He didn’t have any clothes to speak of. No change of clothes. His famous slippers of course.”
“His correspondence maybe?”
He burned all letters unread. I don’t want to hear any more of your guesses. Do you think you’re going to hit on the answer right off? Smarter people than you have been studying this problem for years.”
“No, no, no. Dix never read anything but the daily papers. He wrote books, he didn’t have to read them. No, he traveled light except for the trunk. He did his clearest thinking while moving. He did all his best work on a bus. Do you know that express bus that leaves Dallas every day at noon for LA? That’s the one he liked. He rode back and forth on it for an entire year when he was working on ‘Wings.’ He saw the seasons change on that bus. He knew all the drivers. He had a board that he put on his lap so he could spread his stuff out, you see, and work right there in his seat by the window.”
“I don’t see how you could ride a bus for a year.”
“He was completely exhausted at the end of that year and he never fully recovered his health. His tin trunk had a thousand dents in it by that time and the hinges and latches were little better than a joke. That’s when he began tying it up with ropes and belts. His mouth was bleeding from scurvy, from mucosal lesions and suppurating ulcers, his gums gone all spongy. He was a broken man all right, but by God the work got done. He wrecked his health so that we might have ‘Wings as Eagles’.”
The doctor went on and on. He said that all other writing, compared to Dix’s work, was just “foul grunting.” I could understand how a man might say such things about the Bible or the Koran, some holy book, but this Dix book, from what I could see of it, was nothing more than an inspirational work for salesmen. Still, I didn’t want to judge it too quickly. There might be some useful tips in those pages, some Dix thoughts that would throw a new light on things. I was still on the alert for chance messages.
I tried to read the Dix book. I couldn’t seem to penetrate the man’s message. The pages were brittle and the type was heavy and black and hard to read. There were tips on how to turn disadvantages into advantages and how to take insults and rebuffs in stride. The good salesman must make one more call, Dix said, before stopping for the day. That might be the big one! He said you must save your money but you must not be afraid to spend it either, and at the same time you must give no thought to money. A lot of his stuff was formulated in this way. You must do this and that, two contrary things, and you must also be careful to do neither. Dynamic tension! Avoid excessive blinking and wild eye movement, Dix said, when talking to prospects. Restrain your hands. Watch for openings, for the tiniest breaches. These were good enough tips in their way, but I had been led to expect balls of fire. I became impatient with the thing. The doctor had deposited bits of gray snot on every page and these boogers were dried and crystallized.
“This car seems to be going sideways,” he said to me.
The car wasn’t going sideways and I didn’t bother to answer him.
A little later he said, “This engine seems to be sucking air.”
I let that go too. He began to talk about his youth, about his days as a medical student at Wooten Institute in New Orleans. I couldn’t follow all that stuff and I tuned him out as best I could. He ended the long account by saying that Dr. Wooten “invented clamps.”
“Medical clamps?” I idly inquired.
“No, just clamps. He invented the clamp.
“I don’t understand that. What kind of clamp are you talking about?”
“Clamps! Clamps! That you hold two things together with! Can’t you understand plain English?”
“Are you saying this man made the first clamp?”
“He got a patent on it. He invented the clamp.”
“No, he didn’t.”
“Then who did?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know. And you don’t know Smitty Wooten either, but you want to tell me he didn’t invent the clamp?”
“He may have invented some special kind of clamp but he didn’t invent the clamp. The principle of the clamp was probably known to the Samerians. You can’t go around saying this fellow from Louisiana invented the clamp.”
“He was the finest diagnostician of our time. I suppose you deny that too.”
“That’s something else.”
“No. Go ahead. Attack him all you please. He’s dead now and can’t defend himself. Call him a liar and a bum. It’s great sport for people who sit on the sidelines of life. They do the same thing with Dix. People who aren’t fit to utter his name.”