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The Letter Q Embodied
As travelers age, we carry along ever more journeys, especially when we cross through a remembered terrain where we become wayfarers in time as well as space, where physical landscapes get infused with temporal ones. We roll along a road, into a town, past a café, a hotel, and we may hear stories and rising memories. Then our past is got with feet, and it comes forth: There, I met her there. Or, That’s the place, that’s where he told me about the accident. Since each day lived gets subtracted from our allotted total, recollections may be our highest recompense: to live one moment a score of times.
For me, having now become an elder of the road, these risings of memory from a specific topography can almost lead me to believe all previous miles have gone to create some single moment, and then I can see how meaning begins in and proceeds from memory. Back-seated children able to find only boredom beyond car windows — if they’re looking out — are nevertheless laying a foundation for meaning to arise one day when they’ll need significance far more than experience.
My occasional stories to Q, which some particular landscape happens to evoke, serve to pass a stretch of slow miles as the tales also fortify my memory. I think she doesn’t mind my rambles now and then, perhaps because in a “previous Administration” (an earlier marriage) she once crossed the length of Kansas in silence — unless you deem as conversation that quondam husband’s “We gotta stop for gas.”
Q is my wife, Jo Ann, a moniker for which she’s never felt much kinship. In fact, with nomenclature she’s not been lucky, even in her church. When it came time for confirmation, her elder sister convinced six-year-old Jo Ann every female saint’s name was taken except one: Dorothy. That name, linked to the pluck of the Wizard of Oz heroine she admired, contributed to her deciding she possessed the power to fly if her belief was firm enough: she straddled a kitchen broom, her toy cat strapped to the bristles, and from the top of the basement stairs, leaped. She broke no bones, and if you consider falling in a slightly horizontal pattern to be flight, she flew. But she no longer trusted in half-reasoned faith.
But as Jo Ann grew up to become Jan (her tomboyishness would have made Joe not inaccurate), she learned to speak Spanish and visited Mexico, and found herself intrigued by a Yucatán place-name taken from a Mexican revolutionary hero, all the better that he was male: Quintana Roo. Quintana Roo — the state, not the man — is the territory of the quetzal, the plumed serpent sacred to the indigenous Maya, especially to the Quiché, and perhaps the most stunning bird in the Western Hemisphere north of the equator; to her, it’s a creature of fascination.
Not long after our meeting, she told me about her delight in things beginning with the letter Q, a revelation at a restaurant-supper one night that struck a note within me — someone who has always loved the seventeenth letter for its rarity: a mere seven pages in my desk dictionary, while neighbor P gets 120. I like to think sinuous Q (only O has a more purely geometric form) makes up for its paucity in entries by its peculiarities of meanings, by its pictographic capital-shape (a serpent curling out of its den, a tethered balloon floating away, a hatchling with one foot out of the egg), and by its unbreakable bond with its beloved U. Of greater import are those quirky words we’d not have without Q: quark, quack, quadrillion, quantum, quidnunc, quoits, quench, quisling, quilt, quipster, quince, quincunx, and that most universal nonword on the planet, QWERTY . And, should I not mention that recondite Christian holy day, Quinquagesima, Shrove Sunday?
Is there another letter with such a high percentage of words both jolly and curious, so many having to do with quests and questions and quintessences? Is it not a letter of signal q-riousness? How could a fellow of the quill not love the letter Q? How could a defender of the underdog not love a letter that’s the least used on a keyboard, the one that never takes on finger-shine?
Nonetheless Q, alphabetically superfluous, has tricks: For the tongue there’s quick and quiche; for meaning there’s queer and queen; and there’s quell (put down) and quell (well up). And to enhance its mystery, Q has a dark side, words to give you qualms: queasy, quagmire, quarantine, quarrel, quibble, quinsy, quash, quackery, quietus, quake, quicksand, quadratic equation.
It’s a letter that has suffered loss, thinning our language as we went about minding our p’s while forgetting our q’s; if Shakespeare possessed those lost words, why can’t we? Here’s a quorum of such quatches ripe for revival, ready for your quaintance: quaddle (grumble), quizzity (oddity), querken (stifle), quiddle (dawdle), querimony (complaint), queme (pleasant), quetch (go), queeve (twist in a road). And there’s the handy quisquilious: in one sense it refers to something composed — like a life, a book — of odds and ends, and in another import it means rubbish.
I can see now the letter one of you will write me:
Dear Mister Fancy Author,
I’d like to querken your quiddles on the quizzities of the letter Q because they aren’t queme and leave me quaddling and full of querimony. Stick to the queeves and get quetching on your way to your quisquilious Quoz.
So that brings us to quoz: a noun, both singular and plural, referring to anything strange, incongruous, or peculiar; at its heart is the unknown, the mysterious. It rhymes with Oz. To a traveler, it’s often the highest quaesitum. For me, everything — whether object, person, or event — when seen clearly in the depths of its existence, in its quiddity, is quoz, and every road, every alley, the hall to your parlor, the course of a creek, the track of a comet, all are a route to quoz for any traveler, any querist willing to question, to go in quest, to ask the cosmic question of medieval church drama: Quem quaeritis? Whom do you seek, O pilgrim?
Forgive me, quick-witted reader, if this quodlibet to Q has made you querimonious; I’ll leave the letter and return to Q, the woman, after I tax you with one more notion. The vocabulary of our language is an abundant — and often untapped — storehouse of concepts neatly embodied in a few squiggles of ink or in a column of air vibrated by vocal cords. To fail to embrace and thereby honor a rich vocabulary is a sacrilege advocated by those who would reduce the expanse of our lexicon to fit their own limited expression; these are often novices and drudges and certain book reviewers who ought to be confined to the exposition of instructions for installing a water heater. A genuine roadbook should open unknown realms in its words as it does in its miles. If you leave a journey exactly who you were before you departed, the trip has been much wasted, even if it’s just to the Quickee-Mart.
During that restaurant-supper, I admitted to Q — call it a quid pro quo — that since my boyhood, when my favorite number was five (I could handle it mathematically easier than, say, seven or nine), I’ve longed to be not William but five-lettered Quint. Its Roman version, Quintus, helped lead me in high school to enroll in Miss Nell Adams’s Latin I and II . How different my life might have turned out with Spanish or French, I don’t know, other than to say that somewhere among the ancient declensions of Rome and the Etruscan qu-words, I was becharmed by a girl seated in front of me, and for the next five years I discovered all that goes with infatuation. So you see, the letter Q has shaped me in ways beyond my comprehending, even now as I write these words.
While this recital of our pasts came forth, I think Q and I began to recognize a fellow traveler sitting across the table. There we were, our imagined names revealing more about us than could ever those strapped onto us by others. For me she was Quintana, only later becoming simply Q.
But I’ve become neither Quint nor Quintus. Because we met through a forgotten manuscript of William Clark — the William of the great 1804 to 1806 western expedition, he who is buried not far from where Q grew up along the Missouri River, he whom she was then writing a book about (the very undertaking that introduced us), he whom I am named after — Q has not been willing to yield up my William, and so to her, Will I am and remain.
She is a historian who left the practice of law not long after she discovered Clark’s logbook of his 1798 trip down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, a voyage — virtually unknown and totally unexamined until her research — he made six years before his ascent with Meriwether Lewis up the Missouri River and on to the Pacific. It was a journey I had made and written a book about just before I met Q. Over the course of the travels we were about to undertake, she would tell me from time to time of her surprising discoveries about William Clark descending the Mississippi into Spanish territory. So, along with my stories triggered by our passing a place I’d visited before, we began traveling miles overlaid with several dimensions of time. During these travels, Q was a quinqua-genarian, and it was sheer chance we began them in the old lands of the Quapaw, and not far from the ancient Tunica “town” Quizquiz [Kees-Kees].
Because she’s important to these roads to quoz, I’ll try to set her before you now and then, but not by physical description except to say she is slender, with straw-colored corkscrew hair that can draw from men long glances that amuse me. No husband should undertake to describe his wife in detail, especially a wife who practices law and knows something of libel, invasion of privacy, and, when pressed, can even explain the Rule Against Perpetuities. It’s unwise to monkey — in print, at least — with such professional counsel. I think she will emerge from her own words and doings which I hope will catch her quintessence and maybe even a touch of her mystery emanating from her quietness.
For now, let one incident reveal something of Q, an event in her eleventh year. Walking home from her parochial school with her friend Deborah, the pretty girls in their perky uniforms — white blouse, navy- blue pleated skirt, matching kneesocks — Q saw two lads from the public school approaching. As the children passed, one of the impious Protestant boys said, “You girls are sluts.” Never breaking slide, Q gave him a raspberry. Deborah whispered, “What’s a slut?” Young Q had no idea, but it sounded intriguing, so the girls went to the town library only a block away and opened the fat dictionary on a pedestal under the tapestry of George Washington. There, in the greatest single volume of American lexicography —Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd edition — they found the word. Narrowing the definitions meant looking up several other terms, but it was the illustrative citations from esteemed sources that shed light:
- “Sluts are good enough to make a sloven’s porridge” (old proverb).
- “Such wicked sluts cannot be too severely punished” (Fielding).
- “Our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut” (Pepys).
Q said to her friend, “I have a feeling those twerps didn’t mean this last definition.”
Her capability to listen so intently to one of my stories may cause her to ask, well after the story is finished, “Did you say somebody tried to shoot you down like a dirty dog?” This happens because, while I’m getting a tale down its road, she takes a turn bending off in a promising way but not on the route of my narrative. I’ve learned to watch her face for indications her mind is heading for Texas when the story is on its way to Tennessee.
I’ll mention now, in all of our miles over neglected and strange routes, she never once has complained of even the most twisted of intimidating roads. If she gets uneasy at one of my route decisions, she expresses it only with silence and a certain slant to her lower lip. But her nether lip can also betoken an odd idea or a different track coming on, sometimes resulting in a new route, including her idea of going to Arkansas to follow the Ouachita River.
In 1849, J. Quinn Thornton published a guide to westward emigration called Oregon and California in 1848. He said of the people setting out for the Far West that “some were activated by a mere love of change; more by a spirit of enterprise and adventure; and a few, I believe, knew not exactly why they were thus upon the road.” If you will grant the writing of books as an enterprise, then of the other reasons J. Quinn enumerates, I could be convicted on all counts. But for me it is that last reason which underlies all the others, for to go out not quite knowing why is the very reason for going out at all, and to discover the why is the most promising and potentially fulfilling of outcomes. I’m speaking about a quest for quoz, of which I’ll say more as we go along, but until then, you might want to see Quoz as a realm filled with itself as a cosmos is with all that’s there, not just suns and planets and comets but dust and gas, darkness and light, and all we don’t know, and only a fraction of what we can imagine.
I’ve spent so many years rambling alone and not knowing exactly the reason, I now believe the answer to why we “were thus upon the road” lies in both the why and the how I became a writer in the first place: to break those long silent miles, I must stop and hunt stories and only later set down my gatherings in order to release them one day to wander on their own. A few years ago, a friend traveling in Nepal was lying on a pallet in a dormitory; atop a small shelf he saw a book dust-jacket and my face watching him. He said to me later, “You’ve traveled where you’ve never been.” To write is to have a reason for hoboing through one’s life and sometimes through those of others, whether or not you’ve met them. It’s for this reason you will find me now and again addressing you, the good reader. What the deuce, I might see you someday at that bookshop in Oshkosh or maybe we’ve already met at that lunch counter in Yazoo City.
These days, when Q and I take off down some two-lane where I begin to wander into a tale about that very road in another time, my recital is not just to pass uneventful miles; even more it’s my try at recollecting and reclaiming what once occurred. After all, for each of us, at our finale — if we’re lucky — we end up with only memory. As long as it lasts, memory — upon which love is utterly dependent — is the lone, truly portable outcome of our days. It’s a snare for the transitory happenings that have been our life. Everything you will remember in your last days probably will come from encounters on your own roads to quoz. When one’s past can no longer be summoned forth (even if elided and distorted as it must be through our frailties in perfect recall), that’s the day we become a former person, a cypher with the rim rubbed out.
My first book ends with this fragment from a Navajo wind chant: “Remember what you have seen, because everything forgotten returns to the circling winds.” Through those ancient words, and the others preceding them, Q first knew me and thereby set in motion our path to that supper conversation about the seventeenth letter of the alphabet.
As best I can figure it, my job is to go out and get stories and to pass them along as far as they can carry themselves. You can see what I’m saying: A search for quoz gives me a reason to get out of bed and step into the shower and wake up and once again take up a quest. That some particular quoz I find might one day later find you is not a requisite to my travels, but it surely is nice.
So then, quizzical reader, you who are yourself an infinity of quoz bound temporarily as one, it is now you whom I seek in hopes you’re ready for the quest and ready with a second question: Quo vadis?
Copyright © 2008 by William Least Heat-Moon
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First Edition: October 2008
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This program aired on November 11, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.
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