from NER 40.4 (2019)
LET US GO AND MAKE OUR VISIT
Piketty’s economic theories were being debated at Peet’s over mocha lattes, in Harvard Square students were protesting fossil fuel investments, and in my quiet brick corner of it all, the fellowship year office in Byerly Hall, I kept returning to the fact that I should be gone like my younger sister Mitzi. That I wouldn’t have made it to twenty, let alone forty, and now fifty, had I not, as an anorexic, Prufrock-reading teenager, encountered the allies she—an artist also—was unable to locate at a spot where the Mississippi River tackles two Midwest states in a fury of chemical-laden mud.
Her skin was fair, and her hair—unlike that of her sisters—was blond. She used a curling iron when she could find one. She had the plush Miller lips (thank you, father) without the wide, fuzzy Stanley eyebrows (thank you, mother). Veracious, fine features made her profile a bold one. The sufferer of bulimia and alcoholism—dead of heart failure at age forty-four—she found trouble at levee keggers. I, instead, bumbled upon the way-out world of gentle writers trying to be honest, and if failing, trying again.
I had broadly outlined the community’s influence on a troubled kid in my first book, River Bend Chronicle, but for the most part had set aside its geographical expanse and peculiar personalities to explore the preceding years of pre-adolescent drama playing out in the dark jaw of a trashed house on the edge of the wealthy McClellan Heights neighborhood. My rescue-via-art was not just the winning of an award at the right time, although that was one way, the quickest way, to think about it. No, the operation of reengineering a fate was as profuse as fate itself, a face-by-face, meeting-by-meeting, meandering momentum toward alternative outcomes: more life rather than more death, new understandings, or less confusion.
Little was sure from the start. I nursed doubts equal to any hopes, fleeing a Writers’ Studio gathering in tears not long after I joined the club.
In the Byerly Hall restroom that memory pounced. If I roosted too long, appreciating the almost plush cradle of the ergonomic seat, surfaces of the immaculate space turned gray. The environmentally sublime water-conserving faucet began—did it not?—to drip in a-kilter pentameter. The floor parted to reveal dusty floorboards. Walls slid closer to bare knees. A shallow efficient basin deepened, morphed from porcelain to iron, paint flaking, and there I was—back in the wretched crapper down the wretched narrow hall from the sweltering rented room in a wretched downtown building. Cowering there. Heaving sobs. Cracked like the toilet.
THE VOICES DYING WITH A DYING FALL
I was a new sophomore at Central High. I felt sure the poem I’d been tweaking after classes, at the modern main branch of the Davenport Public Library, would be adored. It would be loved because I had crouched so low over the page for so long, blocking out so many things. I ignored the mysterious men in old clothes sitting on the new red couches reading newspapers dangling off wood rods, as if stories had been reeled in like gray fish. I ignored the library building design of Edward Durell Stone, the Kennedy Center architect, with its tinted slit windows and white-painted interior identical to the exterior façade’s pattern of endlessly repeating little squares within squares. I tried to block out Rochelle Murray, my first librarian, still at her guardian desk in the front of the children’s section. She dressed like Amelia Earhart without the goggles and flight cap.
At seven I was sent to that desk from a running car with my arms full of overdue books, some soiled by cats and infants. In a pocket jingled the random amount of change the car’s driver, the unemployed attorney and mother of four, had dumped out of the belly of Moby Purse. “That should be enough!” she guessed.
At ten I asked Rochelle for the addresses of two great artists, Aaron Copland, composer of Billy the Kid, and Ray Bolger, Oz scarecrow. She found them. She had connections. If the start of my writing career was not using the word “then” six times in one paragraph in first grade, those letters started it. Dear . . .
The scarecrow answered.
At fifteen, that early autumn afternoon, I had exited the white library with the Harvest Books edition of The Waste Land and Other Poems in a back pocket and a notebook clutched in one damp hand. Wearing what I considered my best combination of thrift store mismatches, I walked to the Thursday night meeting and left behind the Iowa of my recent murder—or, at least, the murder of half of me, the 215-pound boy who fancied the comic Man-Thing. If that sounds melodramatic, well, by that time I weighed only 115 pounds, and “murder” was an all-too-common theme at our address strewn with true crime paperbacks (In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter). And as for leaving Iowa, the long walk did involve bridges no other citizens were walking across: the iron 1896 Government Bridge over the Mississippi River to Arsenal Island, treaded steel-plate roadway rattling like hell under truck tires, and a smaller unnamed modern silent concrete bridge over the Rock River to downtown Rock Island, Illinois.
I looked for the huge messy driftwood nests of the bald eagles who were returning to slough trees after their own near extermination. I saw none. Rather, I saw greenish foam churned up by the crimson rollers of Lock and Dam 13, and above that I saw the concrete control rooms resembling mid-river vacation spots for sociopaths. I passed the dilapidated, spider-filled, and truly historic one-room Fort Armstrong, the seed that had spawned the military base occupying the remainder of Arsenal Island. The circular orange illinois oil sign painted on bricks reminded me of what state I had just entered. I passed the weedy parking lot and rainbow mural of the Boy’s Club that boys wanted nothing to do with, and a few blocks later found I wasn’t the only early arrival at the creaking precinct of art. Carole O’Banion was also there, in the just-right outfit she had summoned from a closet in her basement apartment. We tried to chat at the flimsy table under the broken ceiling fan as others shuffled in, cradling office supplies.
“Nice day,” I heard her say.
Even the quick snappy things she said sounded full of thought or, to put it better, rumination. I juggled tones, rhythms, gestures in a constant frolic of experimentation, unless I had the sense to mimic whoever addressed me, which I did here, again.
I picked at the notebook’s mortal coil. One “piece” a week was the sturdy challenge I’d issued to the Prufrock knob of my right wrist and the five adjacent discolored fingers. Voilà! It weakly happened in tiny script only I could read.
“It’s supposed to cool down a little tonight,” suggested Carole.
“Cool!” I effused.
We left it there. She returned to her ruminations.
In front of her formal figure at every meeting’s start, as at the end, rested the valise that she never opened. She had a knotted paisley neck scarf, auburn salon hairdo, and an Alabama drawl somewhat in hiding—hiding wherever drawls hide when not fully unfurling. This divorcée clerked in Younkers Department Store at Duck Creek Plaza, across the river in Iowa, name badge pinned to a jacket she considered spiffy (her word) enough for selling Parisian perfumes to foolish descendants of pioneers. Was her ex nicknamed Rumbrandt? A bohemian painter of signs? Carole never spoke of him, but showed everyone a photo of her red-haired daughter, the U of Iowa student.
“You hoofed it?” Blanche, and BIC lighter, accused me. If I didn’t answer she wouldn’t have the opportunity to correct my grammar. She was another carless wonder but, at seventy-eight, more experienced at hitching rides.
“Hoofed it all the way here?” Flick, flick, flame.
Blanche suffered the opposite of glaucoma. Age sharpened her gaze. She beheld my bluish fingers. My coke-sniffing, public-clinic doctor, Burudin (soon to go public with his fancy addiction problem), proclaimed the condition was caused by magnesium deficiency then forgot to treat it. Blanche registered my grungy orange-red-blue-green Hawaiian shirt. My cost-efficient buzz cut that did not need shampooing. Black eye-frames ashy due to rinsings in sweat. Had I done a headstand right then, Blanche could have added to the outrages plaid Bermuda shorts and cordovan shoes from a Salvation Army near John O’Donnell Stadium—same dump where I had found the treasured 78 rpm version of “Davenport Blues” by Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra.
“You hoofed it again?” She lit the King.
I made a faint smile. My wrist quivered a little. Dehydration maybe. Most of the public drinking fountains in a ten-mile radius were broken. Turn the spigot: not a drop.
“He hoofed it!” she cried at club vice president Howard in the peach leisure suit.
Somehow her tone was as respectful as it was judgmental. I was still trying to comprehend the inclusiveness of the club. It was unconditional, a surprise to anyone from the margins. Arrive with a few pages and others accorded you instant points for trying to write, for the willingness to take that leap with its fraught consequences.
“How many miles?” Blanche asked, puffing that King.
“Maybe three. It goes fast . . . if a barge isn’t passing through the Lock and Dam.”
Two snorts: one for the “fast,” one for the “barge.”
“Ach! Three miles!”
She had gone to accounting school. Three long miles.
“Fall in? You’re soaked!”
Wind off warm poisonous rivers did not cool a body down. Hard to perfectly explain how crossing a bridge could be like falling off it so I didn’t try. Blanche only accepted perfect explanations.
Club President David R. Collins, in the plum sport shirt, arrived to fill out our rectangular circle. He taught English at Wilson Middle School in Moline. He had already published over twenty books for children and young adults. He co-founded the club, and he had pointed me to it.
The happy accident happened at a weekend art opening at the Rock Island Arts Council storefront on the pedestrian mall. Beside me swayed my mother behaving more like the sighing young daughter of her oldest son. I shrugged out of habit. She attacked free food trays. Her hunger was no act. She was the most emotionally deprived person I had ever met, next to me. I was present there, at first, simply notto eat, to show her I was done being her myopic Piggy to molest, groomed in aisles of Eagle’s Supermarket with murmured offers of “Pick a special treat, honey. What about El Paso frozen tacos? Stouffer’s . . .” But it didn’t matter. I could hear, and see, my latest grand gesture not mattering much. Around her there was just no possibility of possessing a self. The keening, pivoting bulk of her many roles precluded it. She could stuff a mob of four identities into five minutes if she liked: the barefoot little girl from red clay Kentucky, the feminist attorney denied a career by a sexist power structure, the neglected wife tethered to a chain-smoker in the recliner, the Greenwich Village New Yorker in purgatorial exile. To possess a self I’d have to—what?—also create an army of phantom selves?
It had taken many stages to reach the razor edge of rage where I stood then—shock at the bedtime invasions of her fingers smeared with the ointment she claimed could only be applied there, then sorrow for this loved one afflicted with such loneliness she sought company of an even lonelier creature, then more helplessness as she instituted a new ritual of fondling my dirty toes and grinding her fist against my arches while complaining about her cloud of a husband (the household’s other underemployed lawyer) and describing real mass murders meant to make her incursions seem harmless, then the bedwetting and the soaked sheets hung over the door to dry so they could be used again, then shame circulating under the thin skin of every moment, and now, finally, anger—but for all of those major progressions, how far along was I? The same thoughts had traveled with me, informed me, driven my choices, vexed my choices, the entire way. I can’t protect myself. I deserve to die. I can’t stop her. I deserve . . .
As she gorged on gouda and crackers, and freely offered art criticisms (each suspiciously involving the lingo of philosopher Bertrand Russell and allusions to the dancer who had accidently strangled herself with her own scarf, Isadora Duncan), I silently strained to assess bad paintings in a nicer way. The planet Earth was mundane with bitter judgments. Anyhow, big pictures hanging on small low walls, frowsy clown-like sunrises, hardly looked like they relished the exposure.
I knew what part of me I had starved and sliced away so that some of me might live to be twenty. The one who had to go. That one who had proved he was not viable at home, at school, or anywhere. I had just finished excising the best of me—the open one, the loyal and sensitive kid who remained under her hands when she did what she did, not the one who wafted to the far corner of the room to see nothing, hear nothing, but the one who at seven had cared enough to wish everyone that passed “Merry Christmas!” It happened to him, that murder, and losing his attributes I was now subject not only to the corrosive anger but also to unacceptable insensitivity and an urgency to overcome the numbness, to regain—with the EKG of cursive script—a deeper semblance of a heart.
A short heavy-set man approached the twitchy circus of my self-consciousness. He walked while plastic-forking frosting twirls and chocolate cake. He had a gusto about him. He had bright dark eyes.
“I’m Dave. What’s your name?”
“Having a good time?”
“Do you like art?”
“I’m a writer.”
“A writer! You should . . .”
I didn’t yet know that he invited every writer he met to attend Writers’ Studio. He didn’t yet know that I told everyone, janitor or classmate, I wanted to write. He did, though, know enough not to ask why I wrote. (He never would. We had to think bigger: of how.)
Soon I found the meeting time in a newspaper. I went. I kept going. Two months on, the ritual was already essential to this new life as half of me, along with frequent visits to the smelly health food store on Harrison Street run by a tall guy who had served time in prison and was cheerfully trying to repay his debt to the community in honey and yogurt while wearing a funky safari suit and Panama hat. Dude taught me about protein in wheat germ. I consisted mainly on that blond dust, Havarti cheese, dried figs, puffed wheat. I got my abuser—eager to regain my favor—to buy healthy crap for me now instead of frozen crab rangoon. I had no scruples. I was not proud. Thing was not to turn any bluer. Thing was to maintain blue status quo if possible. Survival now seemed to me to be as revolutionary as the one-apple-a-day protest regime I’d enacted to the spare guitar accompaniment of Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album spinning on a plastic turntable.
Dave called the meeting to order. This night, like all nights, with no discussion, he waived the membership fee for me.
TO WONDER, ‘DO I DARE?’ AND, ‘DO I DARE?’
Slipping trembling wrists below the table, I thought again with astonishment: They treat me like I’m one of them . . . when I couldn’t be more different from them.
“Treasurer’s report, John?”
Without looking up from the ledger Treasurer John, the bachelor who lived with his mother, flipped up the lid of the White Owl cigar box and delivered his penny report.
“Reading of the minutes, Bess?”
Secretary Bess, married to the Moline fire chief, read, then solicited approval of, the minutes of the last meeting, and Howard, an Arsenal Island government executive, offered up a solemn “Yea.”
Dave’s gaze prospected the room for a reader, and again it was proven: going first never gets any easier for anyone.
“Who has something for us tonight?”
He waited. It would happen. It was just a matter of waiting for courage to stir. Armed conflicts—as New Journalists had the flare to report—consisted mostly of soldiers waiting around, and interestingly enough, so did meetings of writers.
“Carole . . .” Dave beseeched at last.
“Not tonight,” Carole said.
Long-haired Jack was a Vietnam vet, and the only one of us in a T-shirt and jeans. He was the worst at small talk. He played on a softball team. He worked on Arsenal Island too, testing tanks in thin woods near cemeteries where Civil War soldiers were buried.
“All right. Here goes . . .”
The meeting started! Outside: the ledge of roosting pigeons, circling dumpster flies and gulls, Carter’s recession, levee denizens and mumbles: I’m me because you are you because of me. Inside the brick oven of the room: half-baked sentences that, if not fully realized expressions, were clearer than mumbles and better than apathy’s silence.
Jack read pages from the typescript of his war novel.
His voice was low and crackly from smoking. He gave me a better sense of the glorious trouble we were all in as writers. His sentences, one after the other, proved that not only should a novelist “show not tell,” a writer should also not show too much.
“The crack of the baseball bat brought back the ack-ack-ack of an AK-47 firefight with the Huey helicopter circling, and Sampson, at the ballpark to see his nephew play centerfield, in a bad moment, turned, accused another fan in the bleachers of sitting too close, and pushed him, and they tried to knock the cologne off each other . . .”
Jack slammed pages down on the table when done. He was frustrated. He did not like to fail. Howard tried to commiserate: drafts by definition were rough. Jack wasn’t having any of it. Howard used managerial words like process that were lost on Jack.
“Didn’t come around, didn’t . . .” Jack griped.
Fiction was impossible? That guess went perfectly with my guess that writing nonfiction was equally impossible since no one was objective. It was all impossible?
Dave let him gripe. It was not superfluous complaining. Jack’s ire was a solid passion for improvement. Some in the group who never complained—like Cozie—listened closely to learn better how it was done. Your face had to get in your own face. This involved the beef of the lips and the bane of acknowledging, not denying, pain.
Howard swiped at the comma of white hair left on his head. Howard’s wife had died in a car accident on the East Coast a few years before. That’s why he relocated to Bettendorf. He had a new wife now, Rita.
“What do you have for us, Bess?” asked Dave.
Bess, the writer about fishing and hunting, presented her recent Argus column re executing an elk. “Aim at the front. Use . . .” This caliber. That weapon. Bess and her loving reviews of deadly gear gave me silly nightmares as opposed to the other kind. She had killed eels with spears. She had snagged channel catfish below the Lock and Dam.
Gordon’s Scout Leader Luke proved he had “guts” when he pounced on a mountain lion that had pounced on a tent of Cedar Rapids ten-year-olds. Gordon said he was going to submit the story to Boy’s Life. Gordon gave me yawns almost as satisfying as a sneeze. Mouth open so wide I could feel it in my back.
She grinned. She wriggled. Her attention got lost in the blizzard-white sheen of the pristine expensive stock she typed her picture-book prose on. Three sentences a page at most. She gave me contact with the upper classes. Her husband nicely published her books. She seemed to be mixing up writing with Junior League involvement and fun. Bonnie read the tale of a high-IQ duck family that “perambulated” in an octagonal pattern until a mean girl in a bonnet told them she liked triangles better.
Blanche fought the sonnet and the sonnet won. (Her perfect death would be dying of pedantic arrhythmia by next spring and she was working hard on it, knowing she would fail at that too.) She stopped at line eight to tell us what was wrong with lines one through seven. Long ago in Iowa City she had met Flannery O’Connor, writer of “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and other famous short stories. I kept chanting the detail to myself. Blanche knew Flannery, now I know Blanche. Closeness to greatness.
“Ach! It’s a water glass not a chalice!”
She ended by tapping the poniard of another King out of the cellophane pack and impaling her own mouth with it, meaning she could then only silently fume, which she did as loudly as possible. I must blame me for what I have not accomplished, yes, but too must not forget to also blame my lyric ancestors—stealers of my every trick centuries before I was born! Klepto Kiplings! Shoplifter Will! The canon I stalk, it stalks me!
“John? Do you have anything for us?”
Treasurer John gave me visions. Treasurer John, in the torso-smothering corduroy jacket, looked up at the inert ceiling fan that was moustachioed with lint. I saw that he might have it in him to do something about it. I imagined him standing on a teetering chair, all of Hero John reaching—the long brown arms of the jacket and its suede elbow patches reaching—middle-aged curls of hair reaching—the mixed sartorial metaphor of the blueberry knot tucked under the bulge of Adam’s apple reaching and spinning the damn busted ceiling fan, eight magnificent room-cooling spins before he recalled how shy he was, how weak and inept and stuck, hurtling floorward like a corduroy antelope shot mid-leap. I secretly cheered John doing what he did not do, because—give a fellow misfit credit—he got as close to doing it as possible. Other members stared in less wonderment at John’s awkwardness. Some sipped malarial cola from a corner machine that had not chilled bottles since Eisenhower. Others sniffed air piquant with difficult-to-describe scents of fog, lollipops, bullets, psalms, OPEC, suspenders, disco, Damon Runyon.
“Well?” Dave prodded John for John’s own good.
John offered two lines of a haiku, hoping they would be faster to read than the usual three, but anxiety over breaking the 5-7-5pattern for the first time in years further hampered his reciting. I think . . . seaweed . . . is / growing . . . in . . . a . . . backyard . . . pot . . .(The following week he read the last startling, lovable line: Did . . . a . . . squid . . . plant . . . it?)
When the ordeal ended he smiled, teeth straight as cob kernels. It wasn’t just that the ordeal was over. It was, I thought, also that the ordeal was well worth it. Trying to make art put you in very uncomfortable situations, but they were new situations, and amounted to desire—a lively desire for connection and order—and thus were unlike stale familiar tortures that debilitated the senses, created disorder.
Semi-retired Railroad Days raconteur Norm—who called his car a “buggy” and who used the vehicle to deliver denture molds to a molar fabricator upriver—he sniffed and he sniffed and his poetic nostalgia blew the wall of credulity down—lending pile-driving John Henry’s spike the benign personality of a toothpick.
Frowning Betty did not like that. Betty had let it be known in the past that if you can’t be honest you at least had the duty to peel away some of the dishonesty to make it less untruthful. But there was a line in there—I forget what line—adored by Cozie, she who put her excited hands together under her chin when speaking, and held them there, as if praying to the God of Enthusiasm.
“I’ll file that one away! To pull out of my hat!”
But she never wore hats—not that I had seen.
“Do you have a poem, Coz?”
She had another poem about cats. She blushed while reciting its rhymes as if she were committing a sin that Father would hear about on Sunday.
Leap / Creep / Curl / Whirl . . .
“Gosh,” she muttered in conclusion, and gulped.
There was a simple bow below the gulp like on many of her humble dresses. It looked like a dress that dreamed of being much less. She read the memoirs of British veterinarian James Herriot, fending off the temptation to read the mysteries of Andrew Greeley, for there was something a little odd—no?—about a priest novelist. She worked as a technical writer on Arsenal Island. On Saturdays she volunteered at the Lend-a-Hand club on the Davenport levee next to the Dillon Memorial fountain Edna St. Vincent Millay had purportedly danced in during a rendezvous with her sugar, local poet Arthur Davison Ficke. The Lend-a-Hand club served meals to elderly people on fixed incomes. Cozie helped serve and clean up after the meals, and helped the clients digest by saying nice things to them as they rocked on the rockers on the club’s porch facing the river action of tugboats pushing barges, miniature paddle-wheelers ferrying tourists. At any writing club party Cozie had the dishes done before most others thought of helping.
“Another nice kitty ditty,” said Dave.
“Gee,” said Cozie, prayer hands flat on the table now.
Karen—the Joyce Carol Oates fan who had begun purchasing my post-meeting snack wherever we went for grease—offered another novel chapter re pharmacist Eldon, bespectacled ghoul haunting The Mansion Next to the Hill.
“When Lydia passed out on the divan Eldon flicked a lever on the wall. Leather-bound books parted, revealing laboratory paraphernalia. Shelves of powders and shelves of liquids. Mortar, pestle. The large jar marked glycerin. Eldon rose, leaned, kissed Lydia’s virgin cheek. When she woke she would be on another floor and recall nothing. The house had a population of twelve ‘maidens’ who remembered nothing, unsure even of what century they lived in, wearing velvet gloves found in closets. Lydia, like the others, had been chosen at the Rexall Drug Store, invited over for a Tupperware Party . . .”
Karen taught at an elementary school. She lived, she told me, with her father. Her hand trembled too, I noticed. Bonnie suppressed a cough. Roy—the one who gave us heartburn with his soft porn stories involving ropes—jostled a table leg with his knee. The shudder of the tabletop entered the bay windows of Karen’s eyes, and her reading.
“ . . . uh . . . Lydia, then Hyacinth, giggled. Lorraine, no. They heard Eldon in the hall and—” Karen stopped. “That’s about enough for tonight.” All I can take, she meant.
Betty, in the Western vest—Betty, the submitter, who gave the best suggestions of where to send work—Betty, a fan of the actress Julie Christie and husband of big Roy, the mechanic—Betty, leaning forward, complimented the chemistry of Karen’s characters. Karen removed a purse pod of tissues. Reading rendered her speechless.
Dave kneaded his eyes. School duties, and the tireless promotion of writing (recently he had expressed The Ultimate Goal: creating a residential Midwest Writing Center), meant his own writing happened only during the summer, when he retreated to his A-frame home in Moline, producing inspiring young adult biographies for educational publishers across America: Farmworker’s Friend: The Story of César Chávez, Mahalia Jackson: Born to Sing, Noah Webster: Master of Words . . .
Evie, Karen’s cousin in powder blue eye shadow, hoisted a clipboard. Like the best of the last living FDR Democrats, she aimed her concern at the larger world.
“The city of Davenport wants to remove a public pool in the inner city so it can sell the land to slumlords who will build brand new firetraps and charge more for them.”
She had already offered me the “opportunity” to learn how to get petition signatures at Northpark Mall. I’d help radicalize shoppers soon, I promised. But would I? I said a lot. I still said “I love you” to my father and I reviled him for hiding behind the newspaper as a home fell apart around him.
“Any of you who are Davenport residents are eligible to sign.”
She signed her own petition to show us how. Take that, Hovel Corp!
MUSIC FROM A FARTHER ROOM
“What about you, Ben? Do you have something for us?”
The question had already been posed to upwards of ten writers but I must make that not matter, I thought . . . when the thing to do, since I was trembling anew from my writing binge and meeting trek, would have been to read nothing, as at my first meeting, and reap credit for being the rare teenager who knew the value of listening.
But I hadn’t slipped out a crack in 15 Crestwood Terrace and migrated across state lines in equatorial heat to sit there and shut up. “I do!” I forced out.
Dave nodded at Howard, and he, Howard, nodded back.
They wanted to see what I would do next. I waited to see. My left hand, under the overgrowth of shirt colors, worried loose skin draping ribs. The facts of any life mattered too much, and hardly enough. Done starving to escape . . . escaped . . . now what?
“A poem,” I said.
Cozie whispered the news to Blanche: A poem, he’s got a . . . Blanche tapped a next cigarette on the jade mandible of an ashtray. She aimed her good hairy ear at me.
At the library, surrounded by a siesta of sleeping street people, I had torn the final version out of the notebook, harvested a fringe of shreds on one side, and folded the clean copy. I slid this out. The poem was not hard to unfold. Reading was hard. But I read.
Not the poem that follows. The poem I actually read on this night has been lost. What follows is the sole complete poem from this period I possess. It has the task of representing them all. I find I can’t omit the boy’s voice.
The English Teacher
Moby Dick drowned today.
Romeo and Juliet got divorced.
And Shakespeare was killed by one
Of his own characters.
Two weeks after school started,
I saw my teacher’s picture in the
And I thought,
“Oh my God,
She’s gone public with all my misspel-
I read on,
An article under the picture
Told my teacher’s life story.
Miss Lapel was dead.
That night a friend came over,
He was all excited.
He lived right next to Miss Lapel.
When the ambulance came,
“I couldn’t understand what they were
“Her house was quiet just like it al-
“Then they took her body out of the
“And the carbon monoxide billowed
out into the neighborhood.”
My friend went home early.
I went to my room and laid on my bed
What had happened to the beautiful
She said we all lived in?
Where were the bird songs
When she put the keys in the ignition
of the car?
How could I in my ignorance survive,
If she in her knowledge had not?
I had a terrible dream that night
Of sitting in a classroom with Miss
I had my hand raised the whole day,
And not once did she recognize me.
Two weeks later
I was sitting in the front row
Of my English class.
My new teacher was young and happy.
I was frightened
Almost like I knew
Something terrible would happen to
After telling us her name,
She wrote the word, “tragedy”
In big capital letters
On the board.
She tried to explain what it meant.
I knew better.
All I had to think of
Was Miss Lapel
Her voice quivering
With Emerson and Keats.
Done, I set about refolding the pages. A job preferable to returning stares under the inert fronds of fan blades.
I thought I knew what I wanted then. I wanted respect for the writing to equal upset over the writing. At least I knew not to foist dumb rhymes on a reader, right?
I finished the refolding. I fidgeted and the many-necked microscope trained on me fidgeted, and the feverish cola machine too got into the act, slots vibrating. My tries at poetry produced either a dire nonsense (verse in the voice of a feral feline T. S. Eliot had refused to let into his book of cats) or a dire sense, and either, interestingly, could provoke the same immediate response of forty-fathom silence.
A cramped room too full of what I had dumped into it. We all could only hope for the meeting to go on and we could only watch it not go on for about three more Augusts—it seemed like—because there existed a club rule as rugged as it was fair—at least one thing must be said about each presented piece. They were thinking of what.
Via adjusted bifocals, rheumy contact lenses, concerted squints behind noosed lenses of reading glasses, Carole, Dave, Howard, Karen, Cozie, Jack, Roy, Bonnie, Betty, Gordon, John, Bess, Norm dispensed their various wordless potions of fascination, pity, concern, respect (was it, Jack?), more pity, puzzlement, more concern.
Their wrinkles, hairdos, Tic Tacs, ironed trousers, and skirts. Their costume jewelry, their ticking watches. Their lapels—yellow, apricot, olive, mauve.
Gone was the fresh ivy of interest earlier lacing the severe cliff of Blanche’s face. I thought I knew what she was thinking: Villanelle, was it? Epithalamion? Ach! I have it! Free verse! Free to fail! Free to annoy! Free, as Frost said, to cheat! Play tennis without a net!
Breathing fast, I, faster. Tucking away a draft but not its icy conundrum. I changed nothing but the name of the eighth-grade teacher and it sounded like it? Sounded like I had left out both nothing and almost everything? Whatever they heard, they could not miss the fact that I was not out on a date, not out driving around with buddies. That I related most to a Miss Lapel crumpled against a steering wheel in a garage.
I couldn’t forget the last time I saw her at Sudlow Junior High. Beige muslin jacket drooping off thin frame. Pleated slacks stepping into the classroom as the rest of her tilted away from the room, into the dim hall, as if resisting the gravity of a workday. The wan face turned, looking right over my greasy bowl-cut hair for someone not there, someone taller, someone not around. She didn’t even see me. It was unusual. She was the most sensitive teacher on the second floor, where most of the fights between black students and whites occurred. She did not force the poor kids who smelled to sit together, like Mr. Riewerts, compounding problems for all of us. She did not gossip under clouds of Pall Mall smoke in the teacher’s lounge. She read the Atlantic at her desk. Then her obituary, accompanied by a blurry photo, appeared in the Quad-City Times just like the face of the Mrs. Labeau down the block who had done the same thing with the turn of a car key behind a closed garage door. They were off alleys, those garages. The doors went up, went down, at the push of a button. The latest thing: automatic garage door openers.
Treasurer John added up the night’s dues for the third time. Dave wondered . . . Karen, a teacher on the edge herself, spoke first. Her voice packed too much sound into each word without being a loud voice. She sounded like two flutes not entirely in synch.
“The title . . .” she chirped, and stopped.
“What’s the ending mean?” chided Gordon, confused by the lack of a moral.
“You read that before!” added Roy, the Turner’s Hall bartender, aiming as usual far below the brains. “Sounds like the same old thing to me! Get over it, chum.”
It was—it was the same old thing. Every elegy I wrote had its own deep tone of mourning without the deepest substance of the matter, my own story, in residence.
And in that nameless district, blocks from where Rock River ooze met Mississippi River ooze, above the grim lane where Catfish Canneries would have been if there were such a thing as Catfish Canneries, tear ducts moistened. A gust oozed up my throat. A child died to give birth to this poet, but he—he couldn’t handle it, bear the scrutiny, and so he’d have to go too. Make room for who? I could not say. I could not say.
I could say forms kept disintegrating like rotten planks under the weight of certain terrible moments and that I continued falling, falling fast.
I could say the more impossible writing became the more necessary it became, ink scattering across notepads, telephone book margins, in foreign formations.
I could say I lacked the mending forces of music and wisdom to realign fragments of imploded realties and that wanting to disappear—to cleverly slip out from under the full burden of a life—was not the same as wanting to die, only I hadn’t figured out why.
I pushed off from the table as from an old dock. I rose, the hull of my chest pitching, prow of thighs bumping forward, chased and doing the chasing too.
At a dim hall’s end loomed a wizened door stamped WC. The handle was a hole. Scabrous basin. Spigot that wouldn’t shut off or turn on, offering no more than a trickle of lukewarm water after five handle cranks. Tank crowned by a damp square of toilet paper. In a corner, Medusa tendrils of a mop head protruded from the dented bucket. Over the spigot, a mottled looking glass adorned with four corroded clamps.
I made it, wiping nose tears, spitting. Door clattered shut, a place without a present or a future—another nebulous category of continuum to be neck deep in. Bare bulb’s flickers sifted into shadows, curled up, and were no assistance. I clung to the gray bowl like it was my next sketchy friend and it was not. It was a relative. A taste of home.
How could I expect a group thriving on benign personal explorations, courteous exploitations of daily events, apolitical fixations, twirled coffee spoons, Try us again! jotted on Reader’s Digest rejections—to absorb the anarchy I had on offer? Possessing too little trust, driven by too much cavalier faith, I invaded their sedate circle, wanting . . .
It was past time to depart and never return like other self-destructive eccentrics I heard Blanche tell of: Don Dada. Bill Dali and waxen moustache. Lulu Hat Feathers. The bald beeping author of the novel QS56. Finch the Freudian, imploring “Dear Literarians! I ask we should consider Oedipus may have had pink eye before he went blind.”
I should leave—I could do it—I had abandoned clubs before! I attended but one Cub Scout meeting at eleven, dropped off late, importing into the ranch house off Middle Road the itch for a free yellow ascot and free pocket knife and standing in mismatched socks, watching equipped scouts frolic until they were gone and I, seated, knifeless, scarfless, at the breakfast bar. The den mother barking “Where’s your mom?!” betwixt explaining how she didn’t have enough meatloaf for me, the sad sack.
At thirteen I tried 4-H. The sophisticated urban Iowa version of the rural club. It involved no livestock. Which maybe had something to do with the discomfort besieging a brick home on Jersey Ridge Road when I waddled onto the scene in a rummage sale Penguin shirt, evincing two hundred unruly pounds of animal enthusiasm for “photography” though I owned no camera. “Well,” the host stalled. Then I saw a terrarium. Then I stared at the tropics of the terrarium for so long, trying to avoid the judgmental eyes of the other attendees, that the little ferns in there and little bits of bark in there and little turtle in there caused me to lose my bearings. I stumbled sideways. I hip-checked the refreshment table. The crystal punch bowl overturned and gallons of blood-red punch flowed across carpeting that a minute earlier had been new, and now, thanks to me, was not. “Ruined!” the hostess whimpered inside the woolly argyle embrace of her hale husband’s sweater.
I didn’t need any club. I needed more sidewalks!
Quad Cities USA was just a crowded PCB-befouled river valley of a quarter of a million whining taxpayers until you decided to wander. The act granted you acres of sidewalk as homesteaders were granted free farms. Open spaces more spectacular and far larger than any personal dilemmas, the linear magnetism of area pulling you forward, stretching out whatever was sour and gnarled inside, stretching it like taffy, making it more palatable. I could wander mosey saunter at any hour. I’d do it. Take off. I—
Rapping on the door, latch and hook jangling.
“Are you in there?”
TO PREPARE A FACE TO MEET THE FACES
Dave. Dave’s voice. I made a noise. He did not ask right away if I was all right. He knew the answer to the question.
“Can you open the door?”
He wasn’t commanding. Wasn’t impatient. I wasn’t sure about the door. I swiveled. No window to climb out. I cracked the door, confronted the wrinkling of Dave’s brow in despicable light.
“Long day,” I muttered, mimicking Jack’s usual short response to any question.
Thoughts altered Dave’s expression as perhaps only big questions can. He peered across me as if I were a lake. I felt he wasn’t trying to look past me but across all of me. Seeing, then, more than my disaster, something beyond it, the rest or what else might be.
Dave motioned, come back. His gaze was surprisingly devoid of disgust.
The group had consulted. Decided. Sent their leader to deliver the news best.
He was making it clear I didn’t have to ask to come back, and that I was not just welcome to come back, but that they wanted me to return.
They were doing the asking. I was more roiled by their respect than I would have been if the group had conveniently tried to forget I existed, like the disgusted 4-H leader unreeling paper towels, like the den mother hoarding her meatloaf, like the stoned public-clinic doctor beeping the toy horn on his stethoscope as I stood dying on a scale, like the aloof alley neighbors living across from our dunes of weeds and litter.
I was used to being dismissed. I had my ways to deal with it. But someone following up, following me, concerned? Making the offers?
I looked down. I nodded without knowing what that nod meant. Dave turned. I managed to watch him go. He walked like he sat. He did not waste motion. Short arms at his sides, shoulders squared, tasseled loafers stepping sure. He was followed by a shadow thinner than he, like a sword escaped from a box of a human being.
I swabbed salt-dappled lenses with short sleeves.
I swayed beside the toilet, thinking go, thinking stay. That stay and that go fed by the same fuel. It was confusing. It was daft. I sought the club for the same reason I fled it. Adult reasons, though I was no adult. I was spooked by irrevocable reversals.
I kept a magic marker diary during the worst of the anorexia. The worst of the anorexia was no bowel movements for four days, yellow streaks across my cheeks, a comet striking, ending the previous world cell-by-cell: creationism of utter destruction. Daily I recorded my weight, itemized the calories consumed, and how many Marvel comic books my imagination devoured to remain distracted enough to get a hateful job done. I wanted to complete my murder before ninth grade. One day the scale needle dipped below 105 pounds. Then it dropped to 103 pounds. I knew then I could make 99 pounds and go lower. The clinic doctor predicted “organ failure!”—honk honk—if I went below 100. I was not taken to the crowded clinic again because it wasn’t what a parent wanted to hear. In bed, itching legs irritated by the dirty bedding, I listened for sirens wanting to save what remained of me. No sirens. Best for all, maybe. By finishing dying I’d make the point that life in a lawless home was not worth living, and then two ambivalent parents would be free of one of the six children they never should have carved out of their boredom and grief. What made me complicate things terribly then? Rise off that sagging mattress, descend to an infested kitchen, change everything yet again, warm greasy tuna fish on a cracker creating an oral agony like a firecracker going off in there then like tiny needles being inserted into taste buds on a parched tongue? Every life had the refrain of a main riddle—this was mine—a human choice emerging from a dehumanizing vortex. Behind every page I wrote would be hidden that sticky pest-populated kitchen, that sick boy of sharp edges, that knife spreading Miracle Whip and fish flakes on the cracker, and stab stab stab stab stab of nutrition. Was I rescued by what I heard when I listened in vain for sirens? The wide sound of wind shaking green maple tree leaves? Otherworldly. Thus calming to a degree. Did the tidal purr of the Hymn of the Leaves pull me through? Its fullness seemed to promise a listener arrival on a distant shore of plentitude. The song was my oldest friend. I’d lose him if I went through with it. I’d hear, in dying, parents practicing to be the sympathetic center of attention at a funeral home.
The mop I turned to didn’t want to discuss that mess. The looking glass remained distracted by cloudy remnants of generations of renters and roomers that had drifted in, out, on their way somewheres else. Girdled. Shaving. Tweezering. Combing. Hacking.
I lowered the toilet lid by kicking it. Lid clacked against the foul bowl, bounced, dropped, and on the shell I sat, tugging inches of excess arm skin. There was extra skin all over me, banners of forearm skin, bolts of belly skin, the pouch under my chin. Under the skin were stiff threads of ligaments. The edges of bones. The fissure in identity did not make me more open: a raggedness acting as a fearsome seal. Losing my natural form seemed chiefly to mean I would now, always, be in need of a new form and not finding it, my real form being formlessness to one degree or another.
What did I need? More servings of sidewalk: desolate downtown Godot corners and their lying opening soon signage? Or the test of more long dizzying meetings?
I needed more clues for how to get along in the world to go with the first solid clues I had been given by my neighbor Mr. Hickey, devotee of Cronkite’s “CBS Evening News” broadcasts and the positive thinking of Dale Carnegie, insomniac polka dot bow-tie-wearing retired insurance man who, on the worst pre-teen nights, had always opened the aluminum back porch door when I rang ten times—opened it after lowering the pistol he carried to protect himself from civil unrest—and then served me 7-UP, taught me the names of state capitals, “Boise is Idaho’s,” and advised, “Save one penny every day.”
Where clues were most likely to come from I must go. Were I to walk outside, wandering would soon become a tense trudge home to the thirtieth generation of roaches, baby squirrels in walls scratching, latest twists of lonely adult voice and perverse logic. Walking me to first grade I had been asked by my escort: “If you had to lose a limb, which would you choose? Leg or arm? If you had to give up a sense, which would you pick? Taste? Smell? Touch? I’d pick touch if I were you. Things are easier that way.” This year of factory closings and gas station lines, stretched on a couch like it was a crumb-strewn raft on the River Lethe, she pled with me, her victim, to stop victimizing her: “Promise you won’t hurt a girl, Benji?” It was another punishment for retaking control of my body by refusing to eat garbage nor let her touch me above the ankles. There was an edge of fright in the sound of the words and her fright was a new sound to me. Fear ruled this woman but oddly; like many paranoid individuals, she was almost impossible to scare. It had taken me taking half of me away from her to do it. She wasn’t used to losing things unless she lost them herself. “Promise your old mother never to hurt . . .”
How better to dilute malignant rhetoric than by soaking up the purple prose of cat ditties and railroad odes? Who was better suited to comprehend how dead and alive I felt than an elderly gaggle of beginning writers, each trying to exhibit “gumption” and be “back in a jiffy” even if “tuckered out”? That is, as long as I didn’t put more strain on their vulnerable tickers and strived to be as cooperative with them as they were with me?
I just had to face facing them again. I couldn’t replace their interest in me.
I cupped fingers under the a-rhythmic tap trickle.
Tepid rusty drops accumulated. I splashed the sinews of my neck. I capped a nostril, blew the last stuck nose tear I didn’t look where. I left the WC.
Flushed, hands wrestling into skittish configurations, I seeped into the hall, one with the dimness, urging myself on, seeping further forward.
I heard Dave’s hoarse voice. “It’s got movement, Howard . . .”
The doorway steps away. I was nearer to what must be found, farther from what I knew. The group wouldn’t look at me the same after this.
I hit the room, the room hit me—the lead paint and recalcitrant fan and buzzing cola machine. For a second there was no oxygen available for anyone to breathe.
When able to move again I sat down. When I sat, it was a bit before I dared to glance across the table. When I dared . . . I met Karen’s blue eyes. Out of the cupola of her brushed hair peered a very nervous face’s very nervous relief. She who bought my after-meeting snacks had been worried she would not be out that money any longer! She executed an upper-cut: Thatta way, fighter.
A fighter, I, who wanted to “ball his brains out”—as pulpy Roy would write—cry again! right then! there! for others were following Karen’s lead.
Bess executed an uppercut. Blanche. Carole, to spite her perfume, or because of it, punched out air. Howard jabbed. John wanted to too, I could tell, but not confident enough of hitting any target, he balanced his chin on his hairy knuckles.
Either Writers’ Studio members were innately unlike other natives I had met in my constant traipsing of the bi-state area, or—probably closer to the truth—in this spare room that was lavish in one vital way, lavish in its floating apart from the rest of the day, they were freer to be unlike the errand-oppressed scuttlers they were elsewhere.
Individual identity could be a joint affair—maybe it had to be?—seeing and hearing yourself via others seeing hearing you. It required clean mirrors, amplifications, and funny escape hatches to the other side of reality. I got that much that night.
And I got that it was fine for me to write for any reasons I needed to write. I wasn’t, like many of them, aiming for any audience. I wrote to live. Writing was living.
TO HAVE SQUEEZED THE UNIVERSE INTO A BALL
Washing my hands in the Institute restroom returned me to the present’s gleam. The wind machine dried my hands. I exited then pushed open a second door—a spotless glass one—entering a broad carpeted corridor. On one side a row of doors, each marked with the name of a scholar or artist or scientist. Fine art hung on the wall facing those doors, and as I often did, I paused in front of a reddish-orange Alexander Calder tapestry. None of the art was alarmed. This work’s focal point, a suspended black spider, was the alarming thing. Its legs reminded me of veins in the face of a certain Central High administrator. I patted shaggy fabric as if it had leaped out at me, demanding tribute.
To the left of my door: the office of a Harvard Professor of Psychology and her project, Authentic Bridge Building—Families, Institutions and the Breaking of Social Status Replication. To the right of my door: the office of a Boston College Professor of History and his project: Land and Labor in Nineteenth Century Tamilnad.
I unlocked my door, thinking again of Mitzi—binger on cans of black olives when she was seven to obtain some vitamin she needed—proclaiming at eight that she’d be “an architect!” and handing me crayon drawings of new houses she had designed—at ten the violent tantrums: the fall to the carpet and the torso bucking and the blond hair thrashing and the legs flailing as if she were being jolted by electric currents or struggling against an invisible attacker with kicks and punches and spitting—at twelve fighting her oldest sister Elizabeth for the blow dryer and babbling in her tinny new high-pitched voice that did not sound real—sleeping over at other houses at thirteen to avoid the yuck of her own home—heavy drinker and chain-smoker at fourteen—high school dropout at sixteen—almost dying of toxic shock syndrome at seventeen—a failed early marriage following a fanciful honeymoon with Joe at Carmel-by-the-Sea—the second failed marriage soon after in Cincinnati—then the return home to the shabby room within earshot of those detached parents moaning and giggling as if by those sounds they were trying to prove to themselves they were still alive, and when she had enough: suicide attempts.
The summer keggers and McClellen Heights parties of her teenage years had been no escape from the toxicity of home. The brother who had sexually assaulted her in the basement would be there, making classmates laugh with his clowning. She and Howard were the middle two. When she was ten he had thrown her through a plate glass door—the door that for years after had an irregular slab of thin tan plywood over the hole that from the bottom of the terrace stairs looked like a single huge stray puzzle piece. That detail had been included in my first book because I witnessed it. The other violence I had long suspected, but it was not until after the book appeared did I learn about Mitzi’s trip to the Remuda Ranch Treatment Center for Women in Arizona and hear from her closest friend about the extent of her pre-teen abuse in the house owned by two members of the Iowa Bar. Too I heard an account of a Central High reunion gathering where an attendee eviscerated the party mood by cornering someone who had mentioned my book: “Why didn’t he put in that Howard raped Mitzi!? Why wasn’t that in there!? It should have been in there!” It should have. But I did not know for sure. Nor did Mitzi know what her mother had done to me. A central mystery of our three-bedroom dwelling containing eight desperate inhabitants was that many of the doors were ripped off the hinges (or hanging by one hinge) yet none of us knew exactly what the others were enduring. Lack of privacy created a comprehensive barrier to authentic interactions, created a jungle of competition for scarce resources and a rhythm of constant commutes through trash, across the porch and into the Quad Cities—this nomadic frenzy to be anywhere but at home losing what you thought for sure was yours, a culture of never looking behind you as you ran off after hiding your best clothing so it would not be stolen, and laughing a lot to make sure you did not cry.
The office door locked automatically upon closing behind me, locked with a preposterous treasure-trunk click, though within were just sprawling manuscripts no agents considered it worth their time to represent. But I did adore the organizational feel of the office with its shelves, bulletin board, and long, low filing cabinets. To warm up the sterile wall I had mounted a moss green swatch from the Fairibault Woolen Mill in Minnesota. Under the window with its view of Yard trees stood my portable blue plastic Crosley record player and a stack of ghost-chasing albums that were an endless comfort to listen to, all music being present tense. Next to the little record player, on the table, among other clippings, was an article that appeared in the Quad-City Times, in the Tempo section, about six weeks after the WC incident. The low-definition scan lent the print a subtle jerk of words chalked on stone.
Top Poets: boy, 15, woman, 97
A 15-year-old Davenport boy was named the first-grand-prize winner in the eighth annual Mississippi Valley Poetry Contest during the awards presentations Friday night at the Butterworth Center, Moline, and a 97-year-old woman’s poem took third place.
The lengthy poem, “Sequel,” by Benjamin Miller, 15 Crestwood Terrace, about the court-martial and execution of Pvt. Eddie Slovik, was judged the best of about 750 poems entered in the contest. He received the top prize of $75.
Mrs. Olivia Slate, 97, a resident of the Good Samaritan Home, Davenport, submitted several poems in the Senior Citizens’ division and won a $5 third place for “A Violet’s Prayer.” Blind and in a wheelchair, she was on hand to receive her award.
That news failed to alter the recognition that I could not handle the acute distillations of poetry after the exhausting peril of anorexic winnowing, but the article was the best proof yet that I was—by attending Writers’ Studio—for the first time living my own story, a tale distinct from the grotesque drama playing out in a smoke-choked TV-blue household. And though this story of mine, in the beginning, had to be a rude bundling together of negations and immersions—the compete rejecting of this, the complete dive into that, pivots, lunges, stumbles—emerging from skittish preparatory commotion was the rooted determination that if writing could not for me be a spectacular act of achieving gaunt Prufrock perfection, the full morass of the process could—despite (or because of?) its peripatetic wildness—be an indispensable element in the pursuit of a self, the enigma of a figureless figure who had slipped out of a fatal situation to breathe again, feed well again, dweller in fecund valleys and tracer of stringent horizons.
from NER 40.4 (2019)