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Touchstones, Time, and Travels

On the train from Richmond, Va., to Columbia, S.C., I figured out how to pull up the seat rests and the leg rests. They made a bed, of sorts. I stretched out diagonally with my head against the window. I slept some of the 12 hours of the trip, arriving at midnight in Columbia. Al was waiting at the station.

Al is a new friend. We met nine months ago on a plane from Atlanta to Chicago, both on our way to meetings, both on our way through marital separations, and both reading books unlike others within view on the plane. His was Theodore Dreiser's ''Sister Carrie''; mine was Proust. That got the ball rolling, and we have been talking a few times a month ever since. Al came to Florida to visit last spring, after another meeting here. I went to see Al in Columbia recently, at the end of a working vacation in Cali fornia and Virginia.

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When I met Al at the station, he told me that we would go to his house, get some sleep, and take off the next day for Asheville, N.C. I don't know anything about places or distances in this part of the South; he said the area was worth seeing and it would take about two hours to get there.

When we had almost reached Asheville the next day, Al said, ''Have you noticed, Bruce, that I haven't turned on the radio this whole trip? We've been talking nonstop the whole way.'' I said that was a sign for our emerging friendship; later, I told him that our talk made me realize how Plato and his buddies must have felt, just talking for hours.

As we rolled into Asheville, I noticed we weren't alone. The streets were swarming with motorcycles, all of them Harley-Davidsons. Little signs in the cafe and shop windows said, ''We love you, Harley!'' Tents were pitched here and there, under which biker paraphernalia was for sale. I noticed the little leather jackets for kids, imagined my son getting a kick out of one, and then looked at the price tag. We bought boiled peanuts instead.

Al and I, veterans of meetings and conventions across the United States, were in the middle of a national gathering of Harley owners. I knew that the motorcycle company had almost gone broke a few years ago, but had come roaring back by creating new markets among baby boomers looking to retrieve a vestige of youth. Being of that generation myself and having done some retrieving in other ways, I could understand the urge, even if I wasn't inclined to join the pack. In search of other sights, Al and I found the childhood home of Thomas Wolfe.

The house is downtown and right across the street from the convention center. It was a rooming house, his mother's business, with many bedrooms in which a boarder rented ''space,'' half a bed. The dining room accommodated at least 20, including Wolfe's father. The elder Wolfe wouldn't move into his wife's money-making boarding house when she moved there with young Tom, who was still in curls at age 9. Instead, he came daily from their first home to be served his meals with the boarders.

I learned these things and others from the guide, a soft-spoken man about the right age to be Wolfe's son or nephew, a native of Asheville whose family had witnessed the uproar in town when ''Look Homeward, Angel'' appeared and, in thin disguise, presented some of the prominent citizens of Asheville in unflattering terms.

Al and I had arrived on the porch of the house to find the chairs filled with bikers, mostly from Missouri. I assumed they were waiting for the next tour. When the guide came and called for the next tour group, only two people came with Al and me into the house. The tour began in the hallway. The guide pointed to a bench near the door. He looked at it and told how it was described in the famous novel, and the associations Wolfe had made around this worn piece of furniture.

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I thought of a chest in my office, which to anyone else would look like an old thing in need of refinishing. For me, it is the only touchstone remaining of my great-grandparents' farm in Iowa, and the genesis there of the saga of my father's family in this century.

I began to understand what was going to happen. We went to each room and listened to the guide's words: This bed is where Wolfe's brother died, and became the scene of a similar episode in the book; this bedroom is the one in which Wolfe slept, and became the one from which the novel's young protagonist escaped through a window onto the roof to seek out a girl staying in a room on the lower floor.

The house is completely intact. Like filings gathering around a magnet, fragments from the famous novel gathered around the things in the house. At one point, I found myself filled with emotion, not about Wolfe but for the affirmation of how human consciousness works. We invest objects with stories until they become tokens of who we were, who we thought we would become, and who we have become. Such objects map out the gaps and the achievements of a life to the one who is still living it.

If we go a step further, we can look closely at a chair, chest, or bed in a stranger's home and learn what people everywhere do with the things they own or use. There is an investment of spirit, a touchstone quality for someone somewhere in almost every object in every dwelling in America. What Wolfe did with his house in a very public way as a novelist, I do privately with my chest in my office and with the mirror on the wall and the books on the shelves.

And, I have to say, I would probably do the same with my Harley if I had one. After the tour, Al and I went back to the porch of the house.

The conventioneers-in-leather were still there, lounging, laughing, and taking in the parade of arriving cohorts. The tour guide made no effort to remove them. He said, ''They must sure like to look out from here.''

Right, I thought. They were looking out that day from the home of a great novelist and moving forward in time through memories and meanings sparked by some of the sounds and sights of that city. So did Wolfe. So was I.

For who, I wondered, isn't looking through what is at hand -- a bed, a chest, a motorcycle, whatever -- to what we were, what we may have wanted at one time, and what we are now becoming?

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