Life rhymes. A case in point, from my journey home yesterday after leading a fabulously creative writing retreat ("Writing as a State of Conscious Dreaming") in the foothills of the Cascades:
My inflight reading is the new Charles de Lint novel, The Mystery of Grace. I have followed de Lint's writing over many years. He is a master of urban fantasy, whisking characters - and readers -from the world of bricks and asphalt into the dreamworld through "thin places" that open quite effortlessly. I remember being enchanted when, in one of his early novels, you step through the door of a house in The Glebe - a proper and pleasant neighborhood in Ottawa - into a magical forest. He melds Old World colors of faerie with Native American lore and slippery Coyote sorcery. Through the entertainment, there's a strong current of care for the soul. His typical protagonist is a waif-like young woman who has been badly bruised by life, gone through soul loss, and come back with gifts of magic and artistic vision.
The Mystery of Grace is de Lint's first novel set in the Southwest, and the Grace of the title is a young Hispanic woman whose passions include tattoos, customizing classic cars, and rock music - especially the retro types called rockabilly and surf guitar. She specializes in old Ford cars and one of her favorites ins the 1932 coupe. She gets a lot of respect at the auto shop where she works as one tough chica because of her body ink, which started with a tattoo of a saint on her shoulder, and winds down through a long FoMoCo (Ford Motor Company) logo scrolling down her leg. We meet her in the midst of a one-night stand on Halloween with a guy she picked up at a music hall. We grasp that much more than ordinary sex is going on; there's love and obsession in the air, and even the sense that this is a life or death matter. Then, during an intermission, Grace vanishes from the bathroom in her date's apartment as if she has never been there. Chapter by chapter, shifting from Grace's first-person perspective to an account of her one-night boyfriend's efforts to track her, we now enter deeper into the mystery of how a girl who was killed in a convenience store hold-up two weeks before Halloween could have physical sex with a stranger.
I can't tell you how the story plays out, not only because that would be a spoiler, but because I didn't get to finish the novel during my plane trip. My first flight, from Seattle to Chicago, was delayed for two hours while mechanics worked on an unspecified problem. When I got to O'Hare, I ran from the C concourse to the B gates to make my connection, arriving just minutes before the doors were closed. A man in a T-shirt that read "Bouncing Souls" boarded just after me. As he took the seat next to me, I noticed that his arms were covered in tattoos.
"That's an interesting coincidence," I struck up conversation. "I'm reading a novel with a character who sports a lot of tattoos. She's a gearhead, into hot-rodding and customizing old cars. Is that one of your interests too?"
"Kinda goes with the territory. I've got a collection of old cars, including a 1932 Ford coupe. The first tattoo I got - it's on my back - is the old Ford V-8 symbol."
"Are you also into rock?"
"Oh, yeah. I used to play guitar in a band."
"What's Bouncing Souls?"
"It's a friend's band. Plays punk rock."
Mark proves to be a very interesting man. He's a stunt driver, making good money helping to stage those edge-of-your-seat car chase scenes in some popular recent thrillers. The union, as in the Screen Actors Guild, makes sure you get good bonuses when you do "bumps". He says he's only been injured once, when he hit his elbow. I look at the elbow nearest me. It's adorned with a very realistic image of a roulette wheel. A good choice for a guy who takes risks at the wheel.
I'm struck by the parallels between Mark's life and ink and the Charles de Lint character. The Mystery of Grace, as I said, is de Lint's first novel set in the Southwest. Mark started his recent travels in LA and would like to live in the Southwest. I feel almost as if something in the novel stood up and walked out of the pages, not a terribly unusual phenomemon in the imaginal world of Charles de Lint. He could have titled his fictional account of interplay between the living and the dead "Bouncing Souls", like the band and the T-shirt.
As the plane lands, neither the tattooed guy nor I are overly optimistic that our bags will have kept up with us, given the mad scramble to make our connections. But as we rise from our seats, I am cheered by the sight of a friendly black dog - a service dog with the most beautiful harness - standing in the row ahead of us. He had been invisible throughout the whole flight.
"I have this thing about black dogs," I inform my rowmate. "A friendly black dog, especially in an unlikely place, is a sign for me that things will go well. It's one of my personal omens."
When we got down to baggage claim, our suitcases came rolling out on the carousel with the others, no problem, of course. I'm reminded that in Tibetan, the word lu means both "bag" and the body you leave behind when you die. I guess that, bags in hand, we are still in the realm of the living. If you are traveling with Charles de Lint's characters - who carry places they know with them to the other side - it can take a while to be sure.