I can’t get a certain floor out of my mind. It’s tiled, worn, and – the best part, the part I can’t forget – undulating. I’d attach a picture if I had one, but the entire time I stood on this floor, marveling at it and the gold mosaics around me, an officious guard with Nordic hair and a uniform one size too small kept calling out, in a harsh, beleaguered voice, “No photo!” Many others disregarded him (as well as the prominent signs showing a camera with a slash through it), but I’ve always obeyed orders. Just as well I don’t have a photo, really.
Thirty years ago, after my freshman year in college, I spent six weeks in Alaska, working in a fishing village on a shore of the Nushagak River. I had my camera with me, and no prohibition kept me from capturing my co-workers in their flannel shirts and kitchen aprons, the silver surface of the river at dusk, the short airstrip on which I’d arrived, by two-seater plane, from Anchorage. But, one night when I went for a walk, I didn’t have my camera. In late June, in southern Alaska, the sun takes several hours to set, which means that around 11:30, as my companion and I rounded the bend back to camp, the sky still held plenty of blue as well as sunset pink. Enough color to make pop the small white one-room building with U.S. POST OFFICE painted above the only door, the American flag fluttering from the pitched roof, and beyond, a perfect creamy disk, the full moon.
We stopped, breath in our throats. I said something about my camera, back in my room. “Here,” my companion said, and stood behind me to place his forearms on my shoulder so that his hands framed my face. “Take a photo.”
The undulating floor has staying power, too – but unlike the Clark’s Point, Alaska, P.O., it has a significance I haven’t yet figured out. Actually, using the word “significance” in the context of the post office feels silly, pretentious. The image was gorgeous, but I’m not interested in extrapolating from it any kind of meaning about the last frontier or the presence of a federal government in a village reached by two-seater plane or the spontaneous nature of seduction.
But the floor of San Marco Basilica in Venice? Its tile floor rising and dipping in hillocks and valleys because of the movement of the water beneath? That, I keep mulling over. Not because of the sinking of the city, or the absurdity of building on a sandbar, or the hordes of tourists, or the gorgeous decorative loot brought back from the Fourth Crusade, or the tireless tidal persistence on stone and mosaic and pilings. I’m just plain in love with that floor, moving like something alive, a meniscus, a membrane, a scrim –
Students often ask where to get ideas for a story. Real life? A newspaper headline? A conversation overheard on the bus? A dream? Sure, any — all — of these, and more. Whatever works. My stories often start from an image – a door, elaborately carved; a girl in a party dress, running away from a swarm of bees; a cat sitting on the lawn, licking its paws; a pile of rusted car parts. A floor, rising and falling.
I have no idea where, but I want to follow it.