From Sine Cosine Tangent, Don DeLillo in this week’s New Yorker.
“My mother had a roller that picked up lint. I don’t know why this fascinated me. I used to watch her guide the device over the back of her cloth coat. I tried to define the word “roller” without sneaking a look in the dictionary. I sat and thought, forgot to keep thinking, then started over, scribbling words on a pad, feeling dumber, on and off, into the night and the following day.
A rotating cylindrical device that collects bits of fibre sticking to the surface of a garment.
There was something satisfying and hard-won about this, even if I made it a point not to check the dictionary definition. The roller itself seemed like an eighteenth-century tool, something to wash horses with. I’d been doing this for a while, attempting to define a word for an object or even a concept. Define “loyalty,” define “truth.” I had to stop before it killed me.
The ecology of unemployment, Ross said on TV, in French, with subtitles. I tried to think about this. But I was afraid of the conclusion I might draw, that the expression was not pretentious jargon, that the expression made sense, opening out into a cogent argument concerning important issues.
When I found an apartment in Manhattan, and got a job, and then looked for another job, I spent whole weekends walking, sometimes with a girlfriend. There was one so tall and thin she was foldable. She lived on First Avenue and First Street, and I didn’t know whether her name was spelled Gale or Gail and I decided to wait a while before asking, thinking of her as one spelling one day, the other spelling the next day, and trying to determine whether it made a difference in the way I thought of her, looked at her, talked to her, and touched her.
It was the most interesting idea of my life up to then, Gale or Gail, even if it yielded nothing in the way of insight into the spelling of a woman’s name and its effect on the glide of a man’s hand over her body.