You know, most people in life miss their mark. — My friend Jonah
Sometimes, something someone says just sticks with you. It’s so with the thing my friend Jonah said to me a couple of years ago. I think about it now and again. I worry Jonah was right.
Before the new folks moved into the house across the street, Jonah lived there. Jonah had inherited the house, but it proved too much for him and he had to sell it.
Jonah was a musician. His teacher, Charles, had owned the house. Charles got sick and Jonah moved in to take care of him. When Charles died, he left the house to Jonah.
I liked Jonah. He and I used to go to see plays together and got to know each other pretty well. His mind had a philosophical bent. We had long conversations about life and career. One of his greatest pleasures, he said, was watching me and Nick play.
Sometimes, talking to Jonah, I felt as if we were characters in a Chekhov play. It was during one of our conversations that Jonah turned to me and said the words I’ve quoted above: Most people in life miss their mark.
He actually said it in a consoling way. He meant that people shouldn’t be too hard on themselves, that they screw up, being human after all. But Jonah wasn’t just talking about the little screw-ups. He was talking about the big screw up: the main chance missed.
I remember how the words dropped heavy in the still air between us. They could only have been born of long observation. It was one of those things there was no answer to, unless you’re a character in a Chekhov play.
This is how Jonah lost the house:
Jonah lived alone after Charles died. He had become dissatisfied with music, and had an idea for a screenplay, though he’d never written much. He met a charming, rumpled man named Frank, who had completed several several screenplays, none produced.
Jonah and Frank began working on Jonah’s screenplay. Frank needed a place to stay and didn’t have any money, and Jonah offered him a room in the house so they could continue to work together. Jonah never told me much about project, but he felt fortunate to have found Frank. I think Jonah was the idea man; Frank turned the ideas into dialogue.
During the four years Frank and Jonah worked together, a stream of young woman flowed through the house. These were always Frank’s women, never Jonah’s. According to Jonah, none of the relationships were sexual. Frank was a mentor and father figure to the girls.
It all blew up the year before Jonah lost the house. The screenplay was only half finished after four years, and Jonah demanded Frank complete it or move out. Frank moved out, taking the unfinished screenplay with him. Jonah got a lawyer and sued Frank.
Jonah had spent a lot of money feeding Frank and the girls. The lawsuit was costing a lot of money. Although the house had been paid for when he inherited it, Jonah had taken out a mortgage to finance his lifestyle. Now he couldn’t pay both the lawyer and the mortgage. He decided to sell the house.
“Why are you suing Frank?” I said. “He has no money.”
“It’s the principal of the thing,” he said.
After he moved out, Jonah took an apartment nearby. Nora and I invited him over several times for dinner, but he always said it was too painful to look at his old house, which you could see across the street through our dining room window.
The last time I saw him, Jonah was about to move to another apartment across town. I didn’t ask how the lawsuit was going.
THE MEMORY BOOK
America is the land of the main chance. It’s why people are here. It’s why we love stories of winners and losers, of con men and blind men, of rise and fall and rise. I don’t blame myself for being curious about these things.
In particular, I’m curious about people who miss their mark. I wonder about myself, and walls I’ve pushed ladders against and climbed over, only to figure out later they were the wrong walls. I wonder about Jonah missing his mark. And I wonder about Frank. Frank hit his mark, of course, which was Jonah.
The bravest words I’ve ever heard about hitting your mark are these: a thing succeeds when it is itself. I believe this with my whole heart, but then I forget it. I need stories help me to remember.
I have an idea for preserving stories. Every dwelling in America ought to come with a memory book. Everyone who lives in a place, from the first on down, leaves an entry. It doesn’t matter how long they stayed. If they lived in the house, they’re a part of it. The book contains, in clear longhand, an account of every soul—their names, dates, loves, hates, what they did and dreamed, how they came hence, and how left.
The story I’ve just told belongs in the memory book across the street. Such books deserve their own desk or alcove.
Their safekeeping is a high office.
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Which mark did you miss? Which did you hit? Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)
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