from River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa (Lookout Books, March 2013)
In Davenport, Iowa, where I grew up, there was an elderly woman who had encountered Flannery O’Connor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 1940s. I heard Blanche’s side of the story many times but never tired of it, partially because she did not take any relish in the telling, always pushing her water glass aside, as though the liquid might become infected by the dirty details. Blanche lived in the Mississippi Hotel with her twin sister, Sadie. Their rooms offered a quizzical view of what downtown Davenport offered: infantry of parking meters, granite hulls of department stores weathering poor sales, levee mélange, and the tugboat-pushed barges riding one of those bends in the Mississippi River that lend eastern Iowa the silhouette of ruptured fruit. Jazz genius and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, the city’s most famous native, had once described it all by raising his horn and walking out the notes of his winsome composition “Davenport Blues.” Blanche and Sadie must have heard the tune, though Blanche was sure to have dismissed it. In winter, when sidewalks were icy, these tiny sisters clung to the building bricks, creeping like paisley-scarfed mountain climbers with a disdain for the vertical. Neither had married. Both smoked like factory chimneys and sported fine coats of facial down that appeared blond or brown, depending on whether the shades were drawn. From a distance of twenty feet, one might have thought they were identical twins. But to get up close was to note only differences. Sadie’s blue eyes, Blanche’s green ones. Sadie’s wide smile, Blanche’s thin frown. Sadie’s lilting voice, Blanche’s academic drone. Once I had occasion to fetch Blanche from the hotel, whose lobby was scary with couch cushions squashed into the shapes of those no longer on the planet. The elevator shivered, clanked, arrived on the right floor, the edgy hall. I knocked on the metal apartment door. Sadie answered, wearing a robe, and as I was asking her to tell Blanche that her ride was waiting downstairs, Blanche popped out from behind the robe. It was like seeing an atom split. After graduating from the University of Iowa with an MA in English literature, Blanche had immediately enrolled in business school and, a few years later, received an accounting degree—smart move, given her attachment to formal verse, a kind of writing she never gave up, continually testing herself against the sonnet, the sestina, the villanelle, and reading the results at meetings of various writing groups. One of these, Writers’ Studio, is where we met in the autumn of 1978, when I was fourteen.
I joined the club during my recovery from the starvation diet that had halved my weight, from a high of more than two hundred pounds, and granted me a first ghost, the fat boy whispering in my ear: “Did I deserve that? I ate only what you told me to.” I had found the meeting time and place listed in the Quad-City Times and asked my mother to drop me off there, in front of a tenement on a side street in deserted downtown Rock Island, Illinois, across the river from Davenport. It was night: she was glad to do things like that at night. It made things exciting. For some of her children it worked out better than for others. She sped away. A newer car pulled up, parked, and out climbed a man in a tan belted overcoat. He wore a cap, carried a briefcase, smoked a sweet-smelling pipe: awesome. “Here to attend the meeting?” he asked. I said I was. He looked surprised, but extended his pink hand. “I’m Howard Koenig. What’s yours?” I forced it out, loud. Howard nodded and produced an old key that opened the door to the rest of my life. It was dark inside, and still pretty dark even after he’d flicked a switch. Together we climbed a narrow creaking staircase to another door off a hall with all the charisma of an Alcatraz tunnel. Howard, enveloped in maroon pipe haze, unlocked that door, too. We entered the musty room rented by the club. More lights, brighter lights, were flicked on, and I saw that steam heat had cooked the colors out of the walls. The meeting table was crooked. But such sad details, one after another, failed to temper my jubilation. I had shaken the hand of one Howard Koenig. He had taken off the coat to reveal a green chiffon suit and tie that went with. He was relating things I should know. He worked in a civilian capacity for the Army Armament Materiel Readiness Command at the Rock Island Arsenal (the military compound situated on an actual island, as the city of Rock Island was not). His favorite author was Edgar Allan Poe, with whom he shared a birthday. His first wife had died in a car accident out East and after that he had moved to the Midwest. He had remarried. Her name was Rita. They had children.
I was decades younger than any other club member. This did not seem strange to me. I had long been the outgoing misfit who found acceptance only in unconventional social circles, befriending school janitors, parking lot guards, neighborhood shut-ins—those ruminating fragile retirees. But I was a novelty to Writers’ Studio. Members stared happily as they settled onto the folding chairs. Bifocals abounded, and every pair welcomed my long stringy hair and the scar-like facial niches that dieting had cut. No one said a thing about the yellow scampish T-shirt bearing the white iron-on letters I had requested at the mall kiosk where a man would put any words on any rag you handed him. I had picked the Bob Dylan song title: DESOLATION ROW. I returned the smiles of my welcomers. Howard, club president, waived the dollar attendance fee in my case. The lady who introduced herself as Blanche lit a cigarette in approval of the move, before qualifying her enthusiasm, snapping: “We shall see.” We shall, I thought. Some strangers were mysteries inviolate and other strangers were mysteries you felt like you knew, despite knowing nothing. I saw ballpoint pens astride notepads, spiral and bound—it was one of the oldest sights in my life, the blank page to fill with colors and then, soon enough, embroider with letters and words, with a will to seek answers if not necessarily to find, and accept, them. “What have you brought to read us?” Howard asked me right off, and when I said I had come to listen—this time—there were appreciative murmurs. It meant, they thought, that I was polite. I let it mean that, too. Their affection, any love—good or bad—had me. I was the fool for love. I fell all the way, with no strings attached to their warmth to keep me from falling. They had spotted a fellow traveler. At the end of the first meeting of rhymes I was admonished to come back the following Thursday for more grins that were genuine (even if the teeth might not have been). How could I refuse? Iowa City had its aloof workshop, open only to geniuses imported and later exported, like a secret trade in diamonds, but in the most bizarre and comical way Writers’ Studio was more exclusive. Who, seeing our figures spill out of the building, could have imagined what we had been doing up there? Previously I had had but two allies I could totally trust: stroke-stricken Granny Stanley and our neighbor the widower Mr. Hickey, clad in a clip-on bow tie, polka-dotted or striped. Sitting beside Granny’s four-poster bed, and in Mr. Hickey’s immaculate kitchen, had taught me the rhythm and substance of genial patter with the aged, training that had come in handy on this night. I liked acting as if I hailed from an era when I wasn’t born yet. It was the most reliable way of briefly lightening the load that had come of being born to a certain couple on November 5, 1963, a few weeks before JFK’s assassination. “See you later, alligator,” I chirped at worried club members after convincing each, individually, that it was permissible to drive off to a post-meeting snack and leave me in the dark at a pay phone across from the extinguished glow of the Walgreens drugstore cursive. “My mother’ll come . . . ” “Aren’t you hungry?” No, I lied. “She’ll come . . . soon.” “You could call her from the place.” But I didn’t have money for a snack, nor did I feel I’d earned the right to dine with writers who had published in Highlights and Guideposts. I was in awe of their old-school grammar, marketing tips, typescripts. “See you later, alligator!”
After a motherly voice answered my call at Granny Stanley’s house up on the hill, piping “I’ll be there right away,” I stood for another half hour in the close and cavernous night. Little lights here and there cast little flares that in the sky, over dark streets, formed an oily shimmer which blotted out all but the brightest stars. It was a map-bending fact that many Iowans in the Mississippi River Valley spent half their time in Illinois, running errands, visiting relatives. The Rock Island of spittle-laced Grandpa Stanley, uncivil civil engineer, who let family in mostly to curse their bad choices in careers and stocks; of gelid Dr. Miller, with his suede driving gloves and silver Tiffany chip bowls and London vacations at The Ritz, who sent birthday gifts down to the parking lot of his Steepmeadow luxury condo with Grandmother Rose so as not to be bothered by the children of his poorest son, David. The Rock Island of the brand-new but already eternally failed brick pedestrian mall that had erased parking spots and hurt business. Mayor Jim Davis liked it—one of the few. I missed the linear camaraderie of sidewalks. Sidewalks—whether teal-blue in rain or silvered with snow or cratered as the moon—were a reliable way forward, maybe the only way, whereas diagonal mall bricks reflected no lunar light and led shoes only to the end of the mall, a few short blocks away. Rock Island’s downtown, behind its corrugated floodwall, lacked the energy that an unobstructed river view lent to Davenport. Still, vagabonds couldn’t be choosers, and I strained to appreciate my private audience with the ill-fated project stretching between the minor cliffs of office buildings. The mall had cost taxpayers millions. It had the charm, at least, of not being a slum. The slum, below the hill where my grandfathers followed the stock market, started south of downtown, separated from it by traffic spilling off the Centennial Bridge. Across the river, Davenport’s poorest area existed atop its hill and was airier and livelier, a centrality overlooking downtown, and more of a piece with it all, sandwiched between the east side’s old money, the west side’s bungalows, and the new money to the north, where the Windsor Crest subdivision, and others like it, were loosely enclosed by the lope of Interstate 80. A castaway on the mall, a fly in Illinois aspic, I was finding myself increasingly thrilled to claim my hometown of Davenport—a big recognition—when I heard the honking.
As the passenger’s side door swung open, the spurt of light, like a camera flash, caught my mother’s flushed damp jowls and bowl-cut hair and eyes in their own world. (Granny called her Tommy Lynn.) I said hi and she belted out greetings. We were both thankful, truly thankful, I had not been mugged or stabbed or shot and dumped in the river while pursuing my writing dream. Pedal met metal. She began to detail Grandpa’s drunken antics, her voice sharp in the center and on the edges soft, regretful, insecure, a sigh. “Dad disinherited Deena again!” she said. Deena, mother’s sister, the chemist, lived in Pittsburgh and seldom returned to take guff. Mother could not conceal her joy. In most ways the ride home from my first Writers’ Studio meeting was the same ride I had been on countless times following a visit to Wayne’s Comic Book Store in Moline, or some other local trove of cultural dust that I considered nutritious. Her torpid rhetoric, my fidgeting on the soiled upholstery, the eau de exhaust and engine chortles and Mississippi River churned into it all. The car’s worn tires expertly translated the idiosyncrasies of land estranged from its soil, the piecemeal stanzas of pavement: the smooth the grooved the grated the creamy the chunky. Each jolt got us, and good. The dashboard library of poetry anthologies and true-crime accounts shifted as the chassis creaked and the car, a beater perpetually on its last legs and soon to cough its fnal cough, cantered onto a ramp leading to one of the bridges over the river. I thought I glimpsed, behind us, the orange and black ILLINOIS OIL sign painted on a warehouse facing the railroad tracks. Night thickened over the water. The car felt lighter, though just as bogged with the funk of conflicts. Dare we return home, where my father, exhaling daisy chains of smoke, and five angry younger brothers and sisters waited? Reflections fattened on the hood and vanished. I was bones and ink in the passenger’s seat, the driver a migrating fifty-cent rummage sale dress. As long as possible she would put off asking: “How did things go?” She was afraid to hear. She did not want to be jealous, but would be anyway. She could see I was smiling and less in tune with her frequent contention that life was a “lonely, lonely journey.” She had always been quick to spot serious rivals for my attention, but that tendency had been exacerbated in the wake of my recently eliminating the fat boy she’d been so close to for so long. I had starved him to death, going on what amounted to a prison-style hunger strike to get her off his back. I’d never be the fat boy again, though it seemed I’d be stuck with his vociferous echo as long as I lived. When I had finally begun eating again, after dipping below 105 pounds, my mother told herself I had given up the strike not for my own sake, but for hers! I had gained twenty pounds in what seemed like an instant, thanks to honey, peanut butter, tuna and Miracle Whip. I had put on another twenty pounds since and though still gaunt, my frame was filling out, finally alluding more to life aboveground than to graves below. Heads no longer turned when my mother and I strolled the fluorescent infernos of Kmart, Target, and Woolworths. She wished to forget the months of being trailed by the skeleton of the boy she had once played the “kidnapping game” with. (In the kitchen she would whisper, “Sneak out, meet me on Fulton Street, none of the other children help me . . . your father, he . . . I’ll be around with the car in a few minutes . . . we’ll go to Granny’s, Big Boy for a burger, the Paperback Exchange—you and I . . .” Then, skidding to the pickup spot, she would wail, “Get in the back!” I got in, got down. It was one big tease. We never escaped for long. But she liked it.) She had wanted more years of low-octane mother-son odyssey, when our loneliness granted us acres of adjacent darkness—only now our darks, if not detached, had ceased communicating well. She couldn’t forget, or forgive, what I had done to her partner in crime. Why had I hurt myself to hurt her? her eyes asked, but I thought she had a clue. She was too numb to feel any direct strike. Pain might be inflicted only by wrenching from her grip a child she thought she had brainwashed. I had never battled her before, had often edited my conversation so as not to shatter her illusions about her prospects. I had only rarely rebuffed her inappropriate touching in the dark upstairs bedroom as she talked about her marital problems and the famous murders she had read of, and described—in the most bizarre twist, while kneading the balls of my feet or applying salve to my buttocks—the various ways that a child could fend off an attack, either by being perfectly quiet and still (like the student nurse, who had hid under the dorm bunk during the Speck massacre in Chicago) or by screaming and pissing and all else. On my tummy, spread-eagled, I chose the former. I listened to the leaves rustling outside the window and to her voice inside, also rustling. She requested permission before every infraction—“Can I rub . . . can I put on . . . ?”—and I complied. She asked with such need and desperation that I sympathized with her more than with myself. Her hurting me became me helping her, being with her in her darkest moments, or trying to be there—as the voice telling me what to do were I attacked was at least a hundred miles from the hands doing the squeezing. In those mad moments she offered her oldest son the mad choice either to believe in her as a protector or to revile her as an enemy, and if I knew the best choice (I could not afford to lose a parent—not then!) and tried to make it, I also knew the truth. Actually she was enemy and protector in one slippery form—and it was a story of truth devouring truth. Anyone who peeked in and saw us, who saw what was happening in that bedroom, would have faced the same dilemma of having to fathom an implausible reality or make do with a half-truth—or a half-lie, really—but no one cared to see or hear. Mother carefully picked her spots—when I was eleven, and she had put infant Nathan down for the night; when I was twelve, and thirteen—but then, near the end of a miserable seventh-grade year, I had finally refused her advances. I went on strike. When we visited the public clinic, the frizzy-haired doctor warned me: “Your body is eating its muscle to survive.” I liked that idea for a time, the body slipping into itself as if down a drain and one day leaving behind no trace save a few mid-air cells. One clean—and permanent—exit from the family mire.
I recalled a voice, her voice, begging the rib cage on the stairs to eat. “Please, you’ve got to . . . for me . . . ” The cage would not eat. I stood on the laundry-strewn step, gazing through bars of filament-infested sunlight that streaked the living room as in the old days, when I had stayed home from school for weeks to watch The Price Is Right with her, and to cheer her recitations of Emily Dickinson: “How dreary—to be—Somebody! / How public—like a Frog.” I left her wiping her bloodshot eyes on the landing and returned to my room to resume slicing me in half. I got credit for it from other people. My disfigurement, astonishingly, made me more appealing and acceptable to tubby neighbors who had been fighting, and losing, the so-called Battle of the Bulge. “Lookin’ good!” they cried from yards and driveways. School officials, and most teachers, seeing me shrink, were relieved to be no longer confronted with a child there was no place for, the fat boy bereft of “team spirit.” I ate a Granny Smith apple for lunch in the junior high cafeteria—the variety of green apple depicted on the Beatles record labels, a fact I had learned from the Beatles quiz book that was one of the lowercase bibles I read over and over during this ordeal—and a three-hundred-calorie beef or chicken pot pie for dinner each night, plus the skin of my lips that I nibbled in bed in a trance as the plastic stylus of my suitcase player slid off a side of The White Album and hit the spindle, thu-thup, thu-thup, flip disc, thu-thup, thu-thup, flip disc. “Mother Nature’s Son” and “Dear Prudence” and “Wild Honey Pie” fed me on the hungriest nights so I did not have to eat anything else. These songs blanketed the ruined room, and its terror-wracked occupant, with melancholy serenity. No nitrates of bologna, no ice cream, no cashew bits, no margarine, no Fritos, no Pop-Ts, no frozen tacos, no Banquet TV dinners. And now? Now, though eating again out of cans and boxes and foil trays, and willingly visiting McDonald’s and Big Boy, the point I had made was sticking her. It was sticking me, too, making me write like never before, in a flea-sized script. What was wrong was our bond, whereas before it had been the one thing we considered right. It had never been right, though. The bond was her gyres of energy and strategy and purse strings, and my hapless capitulation to it all. Even with her control over my fate diminished, I yet filled the car with tacit concessions to her rule over the family and its future. I had not defeated her antic force. I had only briefly resisted its weight like never before. Now we had our truce, instituted without anything having been figured out between us—a war waiting to happen. Each second on the bridge stretched its legs like a year. Finally, she fired the brusque lawyerly questions about the how, what, and why of Writers’ Studio. I answered as she yanked the wheel about. I wanted to let her in on it. I knew her well enough to know that she wanted to want for me what she’d never be truly generous enough to want for me. I could tell she wished at once for me never to go back to Writers’ Studio and for me to become the darling of the group. One wish checkmated the other, and she was relieved of the intense responsibilities of dreaming. She despised herself, I had learned, above all. Sourly she chirped: “How wonderful you found that Writerly Studio!” Then silence. But any gap in conversation now was a turbulent inlet where truth lurked, fang-toothed like a fifteen-foot sturgeon swishing below the lock and dam parallel to this endless bridge. She had to say more! She filled car with praise for members of Writers’ Studio whom she had never met. I had told her their names, which she mispronounced, making them her own. “Heyward” for Howard. I didn’t correct her. I remained a glutton for humiliation. If eager to be clear of her currents of pain, I was equally horrified of any final rejection and detachment, which promised, at least at the start, to fling me into another state of unprecedented incoherence, the confusion wrought by bitter yellow light hitting darkest spaces never before lit. While she Heywarded about Howard, I listened to the warm whistles of cool river wind, noted the blue and purplish gleams bejeweling the levees.
The junker galloped off the end of the vibrating bridge grating and landed with a double thump. Urban Iowa hummed under our wheels. We shed the trestle shadows and veered onto River Drive. There was the modular Clayton House hotel, where a neighbor lady, Buddy’s mother, had once been arrested for turning tricks. There loomed the sooty French and Hecht factory, where Lonnie had once worked the line—Lonnie the red-haired live-at-home son of a Tennessee minister who had come north to study chiropractic science at Palmer College, wanting to combine preaching with medicine, and who, after graduating, had sold that brown house to Buddy’s mother and her husband in the raccoon coat, who, in turn, sold the place to the driver of a Frito-Lay delivery truck. There were the winks of the time & temp billboard, the bulb chorus blinking, blinking, blurting staccato notes of light. Inside me I carried that meeting-room circle of pens, humble faces, “how-to” articles—a counterbalance to the jungle of grandiose and absurd conceits holding sway at home. The family myths were shields at times, armaments at other times, cheap amusements or desperate prayers at still others, but most often ineffective salves for wounded egos. “That Writerly Studio of yours, it reminds me of Brook Farm,” swerving mother murmured, oblivious now to Al’s Wineburger restaurant on the left, the Robin Hood Flour factory silos on the right. I braced. I could see where things were going. She was glad to hand back anything of yours real nice after first stomping on it real good. Over that meeting room, my smile, my notebook, over the rungs of my bones, she spread the winding sheet of “At Brook Farm, honey, they . . .” She ignored the white lines of the road. The tires straddled them. She was expert at that—living on the edge without going over. Most of the time, when she did cross big lines, she veered back quick and became, again, merely the eccentric forging forth in an inhospitable world of conformity. In so doing, she delivered to the family the sort of heroine that misfit kids could cheer for. The heroine who spread her steam of ridiculous idealism and hapless bombast was useful to all of us, and in that hypercharismatic atmosphere we could stow, and hide, the deeply aberrant bouts of her behavior. It was vital that our forgetting keep up with our knowing. Truths too heavy to be constantly borne must be denied for the sake of one’s sanity. But that wasn’t the only reason I could sit there in the car with her, smiling. I smiled because I was determined that my life be about more than my worst hours on earth. I had snapped under the pressure of her eerie routines, but there was more to me than simply broken pieces—I believed there was more. Why? Because the dark had asked me for light. The generation of light. The scavenging of light from streets and the faces of strangers and neighbors and even from mother’s lectures on culture and reading. She was still a lot of what I had. I had no father to see me through, really. Even now I let her sit at night on the edge of my bed and caress my feet, as long as her hands stayed below the ankles, and they did. I had showed her that they must. In the gloom she sadly quoted A. E. Housman poems to let me know how much any boundary killed her. I absorbed the lines oozing from her head. The light I needed—it was there, hiding in the family dark, embedded, encoded, awaiting extraction. We were more than our worst hours, right? I, at least, had been through the worst hours, and now sought something else. It felt as if the car were suspended between industrial lots, as if we weren’t moving at all, as if instead it was the glaring night passing through us at a high speed that stilled everything. The river a blacker night flowing through thinner city dark. The river night of Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac, who had first glimpsed the Mississippi at this spot, crossing from Rock Island into Davenport in On the Road.
The ghost road to 15 Crestwood Terrace, the nowhere road to a nowhere place, often passed the only farm I knew of in urban Iowa, her reinvented “Brook Farm”—a distant, fantastical relative of the real 1840s settlement of utopian transcendental leanings, of philosophy and hay raking. Dorothy Day lived there, and Emerson, Mailer, Thoreau, Jackie O., Bertrand Russell, Margaret Mead, the Alcotts, Brendan Behan, and a motley host of other free thinkers and / or free-love advocates who could never have met except in her aching skull. The concept was so addled I had to take it seriously. Her chant of Brook Farm this, Brook Farm that, seemed shorthand for every family delusion. On the bridge I had told her I would attend the next meeting of Writers’ Studio if I had to swim to Rock Island. That was a mistake. She would try to convince me out of it. Not out of attending, but out of attending in a way that hinted at any exchange of her, of the family, for something better. There was nothing better than us—if we would only realize it. Her children, she insisted, were little Brook Farm geniuses on caffeine destined in their intellectual restlessness to hunt down enrichment wherever it existed—and find it incredibly disappointing. Her husband, though suffering from emotional stuff and apparent mental shutdown, had written unpublished novels as a young man—a feat that had made him a Brook Farm hand, too. Our address stunk of failure’s fertility: a barnyard of illusions seeking to displace our difficult, unacceptable realities. Her huckster’s voice, the hustler’s voice I knew best and despised the most, clanged like deck bells during a storm warning. But, honey, at Brook Farm they . . . sure, they raised cattle on verbs alone, and pigs on nouns, and they . . . She would do her damnedest to minimize the uniqueness of my Writers’ Studio experience and thus diffuse its threatening attraction. She was saying, yet again: Don’t think you can get away, you can’t. Was it possible she would prefer six dead interesting kids to six live boring kids who said “please” and “thank you”? She tilted over the wheel and stared into the dark where all her dreams had led. Good choices no less than bad ones had come back to haunt her. She had gone to college, and then to law school in the 1950s, when few women did, and ended up pining wildly behind this cola-yucked car wheel. She had found another eccentric to marry and it had turned ugly. When all else failed, she had given birth to six children, but those children, each one, tormented her with hungers, expectations. She could raise a family only by dividing it up, day after day, into the few with her, the majority left behind, abandoned. Crisis containment was the obsession to which all her obsessions were naturally dedicated. She would happily let me live in the attic with my books and records until I was sixty—if I asked. It was disturbing how fetching I sometimes found that horrifying notion. Yes, I, too, desired containment. But there was none. There was the spreading of trouble far and farther. The caring too much and not caring a bit—yin and yang of oversensitivity and numbness. At last she Brook Farmed herself out. She groaned, trope-less for a minute. Groggy, I sank back into the seat as the tires juggled more pavements and seemed to drop off the end of the world, but really we were just hydroplaning again on the runoff of excuses. Anyway, I had heard worse from the bully pulpit. In the house her frequent screams implied that clean sheets and towels and kitty litter and coats with buttons and mittens that matched were made for unintellectual consumers addicted to needless conveniences. Our dwelling was superior to others on the block precisely because it was neglected, the carpet clutter redeemed for being crowned with stacks of classic literature published by Signet, Knopf, and Anchor. She had yet to equate a plugged-up toilet with Walden Pond but might. To do regular chores was to live the robotic “Hallmark” lifestyle of clichés and administrative duties that squelched creativity and passion. And excuses always had believers—even if cynical or chagrined believers—as it was easier to accept the craziest alibis than to fathom the voids of humiliation and guilt that hatched them. In the car there was everything left to be said, but nothing more to say about it. When this happened, the exhausted driver often muttered a store name. The best mode of survival at our disposal, other than fairy tales or coffee refills, was a shopping trip with few if any purchases. In twenty minutes we were prospecting the Target aisles, digging for bargains on tube socks and hard candy.
No one in the family except my oldest younger sister, Elizabeth (blue bags under her eyes), could have guessed how serious I was about the Writers’ Studio business. No one in the family but she, another snakebitten striver and collector of the tragedies of strangers, could understand it was necessary to live for writing, because your life alone could not make the volume of suffering seen, and felt, worth its heavy toll. Nor could anyone but she understand that tic of mine to respond to family debacles not by patently rejecting them but by dragging them with me, out of their vile hole and into arenas, like Writers’ Studio, where the Brook Farm fantasia—that dream of mental and emotional freedom unconstricted by community—might be tempered, refined, and, instead of destroyed, lent the solidity of reality. Like me, Elizabeth dressed in carefully chosen vintage clothing from St. Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army. She also cleaved to Social Security recipients for similar reasons, I guessed. Those old hands had seen more things and, to a degree, accepted what things meant. Our shut-in neighbor Mr. Hickey, Coast Guard veteran, at the helm of a kitchen table, would study a chipped mug rim—knowing, unlike our parents, that it wasn’t the defeat that defeated you. What defeated you was not grasping, and absorbing, the small and big lessons of defeat. Thirteen-year-old Elizabeth no longer had much time for visits to Hickey’s house—she studied constantly, obsessed with good grades as her way out, her end run. Elizabeth did not have much time for anyone but teachers and Granny Stanley. She never forgot Granny over in Rock Island, trapped in the back bedroom by Grandpa’s curses, fully dressed on a high mattress, listening to a soothing recording of soft rain, awaiting our next visit. Once, though, Elizabeth and I had shared a world of Granny, Hickey, mother, writing. When Elizabeth was ten, I eleven, we had made a pact in the upstairs bedroom to be writers, pricking our fingers with a needle (teeth clenched) and signing a piece of wide-ruled Mead notebook paper in blood. We had been—and still were—severe romantics, smitten by, say, bare winter trees, whose countless stripped branches crisscrossed in gray light. We doted on the legless GI selling poppies, the detergent-scented nursing home resident, the stammering wallflowers at square dances. We loved gift store wooden nickels and front-yard wishing wells and dime store “grab bags” and wrought-iron fences—the more spears to impale the gaze, the better. We trusted that life must hurt and hurt, then hurt more. In our house we had learned that with any dream, no matter how simple, must come the puncturing needle. Days were races to keep dreaming new dreams. If you could dream one last dream and sleep before it was punctured, it was a good day, and that was the startling goal of a life of pain, right? To have one more dream than devastating punctures? We were inveterately childish in the way of the aged. Teenage spinster, teenage confirmed bachelor, coffee sippers and doily appreciators and twine fanciers and listeners to music from previous decades, the dated rock and roll. This shared outlook had not changed a whit. What had changed was logistical. The ambulances of our dire minds had taken different dire off-ramps. We were still the two oldest, still the helpers, the EMS paramedics, but we saw rescues differently—our own rescue and the rescue of family pride. There were so many ways to view, and puzzle over, deprivations rooted in the inability of our mother, a lawyer, and our father, a lawyer, to live lives of reason. Why was it so often impossible for these schooled people to keep the refrigerator fully stocked? Or even more to the point—what were Elizabeth and I to do about it? We understood that proving ourselves to a group of influential people could be vital to survival, but such different groups we picked, such different assignments. Elizabeth’s choice to be a browbeaten handmaiden of stifling teachers and sanctimonious textbooks amounted to her version of starving for her own good: get an A or I am nothing. But each triumph was fueled by stress and a fear of failure that gave her raccoon eyes and deprived her of her humor and imagination—as writing would not. I blamed myself for not having encouraged her poetry more. She thrived on it, couldn’t get enough. How I wanted Elizabeth there with me at the next Writers’ Studio meeting, where exploration counted as much as perfection, where failure was welcome! She’d never be a nothing there. She’d be a budding artist, always. Those members knew not-knowing and, I had seen, made scant effort to cover up deficiencies. Insoluble stanzas and plots were shamelessly offered up to the circle. That circle knew, and respected, the value of displaying craft’s mess. At that first meeting I sensed I could read anything to these tolerant people, be all my selves, in turn, without terror. In the weeks after that, it turned out to be true. Elizabeth would feed off such a feeling, I knew, but, collared to academic excellence, she had no time for the fluff of cinquains and haikus read in halting voices in a tenement across the river. Occasionally, for selfish reasons, I silently derided her choices. Elizabeth’s company would have made me less a target on mean detour-twisted rides to and from meetings. But there were other reasons too. Couldn’t she see that education alone hadn’t cured mother or father of their insecurities and doubts?
Elizabeth ground her teeth while sleeping in the bottom bunk beneath Marianna, my middle sister, in the room the three girls shared. Elizabeth hardly ate or went outdoors and yet had a mysterious tan, as if she were toasted from within by her fiery worries. A few times I did cajole her into attending club meetings, with predictably disastrous results. She read poems about winter trees and graveyards and felt that no one liked them enough. I revered the lines, though. I also revered her mastering of the violin and the flute, French and then Latin. She quoted Virgil faster and faster until the pale scroll of her thrift store dress seemed to illuminate, yellow flower by yellow flower. But though she seemed to believe there was no future in literature for any human born after the incineration of Caesar, she apprehended why I would be crazy serious about creation: she had been once. This unspoken empathy preserved a consoling hint of that sweet bygone notion of ours that we were a family of two within a gone family. Anyway, her homework obsession and my writing had one important thing in common: both were about a sister and a brother feeling a responsibility to help the family but not knowing enough to help. We lacked answers and were missing tools. We were driven by a livid curiosity that our neediness bred, serially suspending our disbelief as we traveled between the garish theaters of our family drama, where clues were concealed behind curtains whose eerie fluttering was the show itself. Who were we to judge? We did—at times. But we hated ourselves for it. Our parents had obviously been judged enough already by their contemporaries. As father’s ailing legal practice brought us near to poverty again and again, and mother’s ailing self-esteem made a charade of any serious project she undertook, it was natural that the explanations which Elizabeth and I found most appealing were the more clever myths handed to us, or the classic ones we found on our own and revived, or the dramatic new tales we invented out of iffy fabric. Myths could protect and expose. They were reservoirs of hope spawned by confusion. The holes in our lives were so large that only the weirdest fables could span and momentarily repair them. Beyond the myths there was one other constant. There was the unassailable given that Elizabeth and I would remain on that bloody domestic stage until the last scene of the last act, despite being qualm-riddled, plagued by overexertions and breakdowns. We were not the sort to leave anyone behind. And in our own ways, we have not. Elizabeth remains front and center in the family playhouse. I know why. I am sympathetic with her reasons. You remain in a cross fire when you have no exit, stage left. If long ago I located an exit—if I am not now soliloquizing beside her—she is with me nevertheless. I have everyone near, echo and profile. Daily I navigate the stormy presences of deep absences. Estrangement has not corrupted love, nor made it less vital, but sharpened the awareness of what is at stake when one loves, what is to be gained and lost, proving again and again how irreplaceable, and elusive, loved ones are.
Writers’ Studio members soon did not have to ask “Have you brought something to read tonight?” They could see I had. Throughout that first year I brought long poems copied out at the Davenport Public Library or up in my bedroom as the rugged vinyl spun on the wobbling turntable, creating a protective barrier of harmony between me and the dissonance of 15 Crestwood Terrace. Harvest, Neil Young. Leon Russell and the Shelter People. Time Loves a Hero, Little Feat. It all poured into what I wrote, drove my hand across the page. One political poem called “Sequel” told the story of the impoverished widow of Eddie Slovak, the only U.S. soldier to be executed for desertion during World War II. Some TV movie had inspired the idea. I recited the epic like a good composer of free verse: quick, while rocking. Blanche winced but said naught. Other members suggested I enter the monstrosity in the Mississippi Valley Poetry Contest in the high school division. I did, and the ladies checking in entries figured no youth would dare write a five-page poem, and it was added to the pile of poems submitted by adults, and won the seventy-five dollar grand prize handed out in late October at the Butterworth Center, located in a mansion. Oak-paneled library. Cosmic chandeliers. The beige and otherwise bleak program benefiting from the glitter of judge Robert Dana’s biography. Poet-in-Residence: the rare Iowa Workshop graduate who skipped the flight to New York and stayed in the state to teach. Author of Some Versions of Silence and The Power of the Visible. Hobbies: traveling, swimming. Swimming! I had only heard of poets drowning, one way or the other. At the punch-bowl reception following the to-do, feathered hats told me “congrats” and gave me “kudos.” I spilled punch on my dark blue velour jacket—the best clothing I owned. I shook hands with buoyant poet Dana. His goatee-festooned chin dipped, and a voice of grit and gravity said: “Let me know when you’re ready to go to college.” I promised and then went out and blew the prize money at Kmart and Ben Franklin, buying forgettable plastic Christmas presents for my deserving brothers and sisters and parents. Cornell, the small Iowa college where Robert Dana taught, was incidentally the very one my mother had attended before her life broke into the pieces I grew up with—sharp, sharper, sharpest.
In addition to Blanche and Howard, the other regular Writers’ Studio attenders were roly-poly accomplished Dave, who had published dozens of inspirational biographies for the juvenile audience; Betty, wife of a car mechanic, working on a biography of the eighteenth-century poet Phyllis Wheatley; Cozie, the devout Catholic—and by day technical writer for the government—who each week read a poem about cats; Norm, the retired Rock Island Lines employee who wrote only about trains; Faith, who always nearly died of a heart attack while climbing the stairs, then recovered to wail hymns she had written years ago; John, the haiku writer who lived with his mother, the heart surgeon; Karen, the red-haired fourth-grade teacher who worshipped Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen Crane; and Carole, formerly of Alabama, who had married young, divorced too late, and worked weekdays in the hosiery department of Younkers, standing still as the mannequins. The second-floor meeting room was impossibly hot in the summer. One slender window stuck in the down position. A ceiling fan that moved only when the haiku writer stood on his chair and gave it a spin. John got all the hard assignments—treasurer for a group with virtually no money. Each penny he reported in that shy, monotonous voice of his, words quavering as the rest of him dare not, could not. He was profoundly stuck, and starched. Had his mother ironed his suit with him in it? His eyes bulged to mothball size when he read his 5-7-5 haiku—the hardest of all the hard jobs he had to do. Meanwhile, the Kelvinator buzzed by the dusty window. For a quarter, members could purchase a bottle of warm cola from John. Few did. When better “digs” (as Cozie put it) were eventually located in Davenport, the beverages were left behind for the next thirsting tenant.
If the club had moved meetings to the top of Everest I would have found a way to get there. I wanted to make it in the Beauty and Truth racket. Dear Maxwell Perkins, I did. I had the bug bad, having caught it from a father who had written those unpublished constipated novels and a mother who misquoted the world’s loveliest poets (Yeats, Dickinson, Tennyson, Housman), delivered Ogden Nash drivel perfectly, and wished, I knew, to write outlandish odes of her own. Walk into any room in our home and you encountered evidence of quashed literariness: the discarded notebooks, the capless pens, the anthologies butterflied on coffee tables—the luscious pulp innards of Dylan Thomas spilling out of butchered bindings. Attending Writers’ Studio meetings helped me understand what had gone wrong. My parents had the art equation backward. They wanted to make great work only—to hell with all else. But before the creation of Beauty and Truth had to come the living out of Beauty and Truth, and if club members never got around to the genius part, they made up for the lack of masterpieces with their perfect intent to do nothing they could not do—to be who they were, without apology or any fudging of logic. Their lack of airs elevated me. I discovered I was as thrilled by the supreme modesty of John’s haiku about his long driveway and Cozie’s newest blurry cat poem as I was by the grand achievements of Emerson, O’Neill, and Whitman. The voices reading the crap were not crap, that’s why. They vibrated with humanity and conviction. They showered the plainest rented rooms with that warm, rich, otherworldly ordinariness that nourished those stray seeds of integrity I gathered in Mr. Hickey’s kitchen and Granny Stanley’s bedroom.
Picture the gym of a defunct Catholic school half-heartedly converted into a community center. It was located on top of the hill in west Davenport, right off Locust Street. With these “new digs” came the many new members: obese Roy, who rode The Harley to meetings in January wearing no coat, only a vest; Gene, the satirist and hypnotist; Stahl, the taciturn poet, who as a youth had excelled at gymnastics, using a farm fence as his pommel horse; BJ, the single mother of many genres; Jack, the Vietnam vet and softball player who would eventually offer me a joint in the parking lot; one Lucille Eye, who never read anything; and Gordon, with his novel about a white couple who adopted a Mexican woman (Maria) whose house has burned down. A folding table of banquet length stood in the middle of a floor marred with skid marks made decades earlier by the children of German immigrants. The voice of each reader echoed and when I closed my eyes to listen, the sensation was of hearing rhymed shouts at a great, muting distance. Poets somehow dominated meetings though always in the minority. Nature was the topic of choice—flowers, trees, birds. Fiction writers targeted the juvenile audience and dreamed of publishing in Boys’ Life, Reader’s Digest, and Guideposts—except Roy, who submitted his stories of abducted tied-up women to Playboy. It excited me to hear any member report the smallest sale of any kind. Many pieces were placed in church newsletters. Some members brought out books. Betty with a press called Avalon. Dave with many presses. (His goal was to publish fifty books by the time he was fifty, and he did it.) Imagine that: money for words! One Writers’ Studio member who shall remain nameless sold the same story more than a dozen times. She dared not write another sentence, for fear it would tarnish her reputation as one of the club’s most successful submitters. When it came time to read she simply reported current earnings of “Mallie and the Snail,” which over the years climbed to a total in excess of two hundred dollars. Blanche, the most serious, never considered her poems good enough, and submitted to the trash can alone. She rewrote constantly—on the way to the club in the back of Carole’s Datsun, and while sitting at the folding table, erasing and replacing words right up until the last moment. And then, quaking, with the down of her lip sweat-shimmered, she would lift the legal pad and apologize profusely for the inept result of her labor. Not one “hill of beans” did the mountain of effort amount to. And if she could do no right, well, it would naturally be difficult for others to do better. Each week she brutally took us to task for our linguistic and grammatical inadequacies, quoting The Elements of Style while waving an ember-tipped Pall Mall. As little as one hanging clause or misplaced noun could set her off, and special ire was reserved for the incorrect use of lay. Rather than be subjected to a ten-minute lecture on that subject, the rest of us kept all derivations of that word out of our stories and poems. (And even now, more than thirty years later, I’m still reluctant to have a character take a nap—much better he drink a cup of coffee.) After the meetings in the gym there was a caravan to Riefe’s, the diner famous for serving the platters of onion rings heaped like Medusa’s hair. Karen bought me an order each week, though things were getting tougher and tougher for her—she had lost her job as a teacher, and was working as a clerk at Woolworths. At Reife’s I pled with Blanche to tell me about her famous Iowa City classmate until at last the water glass was pushed aside and her features cleaved toward an invisible center point. First of all, I must know Flannery spoke with such an accent that Paul Engle, workshop director, had to read her stories to the class himself. Second, Flannery did not keep appointments, having promised to meet Blanche at a movie theater one winter afternoon and never showing up, preferring to stay home with “that typewriter and hot pot.”
In the basement father surprised me. It was the summer after I had won the Mississippi Valley poetry contest, almost two years into my time at Writers’ Studio. He asked if I would be so kind as bring one of his venerable unpublished novels to the club and read it to the other members. He did not say which manuscript: was I to choose? I had halted on the narrow stairs when I saw his hobbled hulking figure at the bottom: smoke, slippers, a fluster of newspaper sections in one hand. He was preparing to make a painful climb after taking care of his business on the toilet with the pedestal cracked where my middle brother, Howard, had struck it with a bowling ball. He also drove golf balls off the terrace and over the roofs below. Howard, despite being just twelve, was the Miller out of a movie, girlfriends and a leading-man tan; father and I were custodians in comparison. “What do you think, Benny?” he asked, wanting in on my good thing. My hand grazed the flimsy pipe railing which, like the stairs, was covered with gray peeling latex paint. The cave-like basement walls of foundation stone were frosted with old white lead paint, now in the news for being poison. The concrete floor was red, where the red had not worn off, that is. “What about it? What do you think?” I was still thinking. An interesting request, but the most intriguing aspects of parents, I had learned, were often their most troublesome or dangerous. I hated to be the next person who rejected him . . . but no Writers’ Studio member read writing not her own. If a writer was not present to receive feedback on her work there was little use in providing the feedback. “Don’t you think they’d like it?” he asked. He wore the uniform that typically accompanied him to the recliner: tan slacks boating high around the waist, short-sleeved shirt, wire-rim glasses that made fish of his eyes behind the bowls of the lenses. Around us wafted the antique reek of pigeon shit dating to Howard’s failed experiment to raise fifty or so birds in the basement. A crap-speckled coop remained below the broken window the creatures had escaped from. The fruit of father’s “novelist period,” typed pages bound in expensive leather, lined a shelf of the pea-green metal bookcase behind him, propped against the outer wall of the least-entered room in the house. It was the basement room for storing coal. There was no light fixture, and on the floor just the webbed remnants of the final coal delivery, made fifty or more years earlier. That bookcase also held my father’s growing collection of get-rich-quick stock guides. In the side yard, boxes of files from his law practice lived, molting and rotting. He had ordered the delivery man to dump them there to be rained on! But father kept his make-a-million guides and failed novels inside, warm and dry. These choices fascinated me. They said something awful about the man, and something hopeful, and the incompatible feelings he aroused in me were certainly matched by those I aroused in him. He looked up to me because I was mother’s favorite. He looked down on me because of the same. “You don’t want to present my writing?” I shrugged. He opened his mouth again, that shovel of a mouth, and was, I thought, about to dish me lines about his salad days in Iowa City, when, as an older-than-average undergraduate, he had lived over a typewriter shop and attended a John Dos Passos reading, and another by James T. Farrell of Studs Lonigan fame, and, with a group of gadflies, had drunk beer with Wright Morris. I felt all that coming but he said nothing. I recalled the Ruth Azel Agency letterhead that had fluttered out of one of his novels like a squashed moth when I opened it one night, feeling brave. The rejection was cordial and completely discouraging. For many reasons I tried not to crack the books, and usually succeeded, but sometimes not. He had once informed me that many of his works were set in the same mythical county, à la Faulkner. I had turned hundreds of pages looking for the name of father’s county and failed to find it. “The club might appreciate my writing,” he persisted. I had descended, drawn down by his gravity. He backed toward the cold furnace. “What’s the big deal about taking one chapter the next time . . . ?” Bugs traversed the dirty laundry under the chute. I bumbled through an explanation that it would be better if he read his own writing next Thursday. Then a shock. I smiled and invited him to come to a meeting with me. It amazed me that I meant it. He and I spent too much time apart: in exile from each other in our own home. Writers’ Studio might be one thing—the only?—that could unite us. “You’ll love it!” I yelped, building up the case for his coming. My voice new, shiny, resolute. Words burst out. “There’s a guy Howard . . .” I told him what I knew about Howard. I told him about Blanche. I was picturing us at the folding table together, our injured texts elbow to elbow. There would be plenty of feedback to go around. Dave Collins would say in the nicest way to father: “Show, don’t tell.” Dave would add that even if you hadn’t the time or inspiration to write on a given day it was essential to do something writing related like reading Welty or buying a new pen. Father had no friends and would leave the first meeting with ten. Their support and encouragement might lead him to write new novels better than the ones typed after he had dropped out of Columbia and Notre Dame in quick succession in the fifties and returned home to Rock Island to endure the mockery of Dr. Miller, and the almost-as-painful pity of his mother, Rose. “They’d be thrilled if you came with me. New members are”—that new big voice leaping out leaped higher—“the group’s lifeblood!” He started, staring at me like I was a lunatic. We said nothing more—he lost in his basement of emotion and me lost in mine. The shake of a shirt shrug—the swishing plummet of his eyes—telegraphed the message that I had failed him again. He clop-clop-clopped up the stairs to the recliner and the snows of bad TV reception.
For a weak man, my father had the broadest and strongest-looking back. Watching it that day, I thought, as often before, what a perfect wall. What a great barrier he might have made between me and a mother’s anger and desire. He was the ally I really needed; I was the son he had lost to her. Our grief wandered in useless and faltering circles. I turned toward the brown on brown of the book bindings in half-light. He would not, could not read his novels to the group . . . because he did not like the books enough. It could be he even feared the books by now. Dreaded their power to retain the dream they had ended. But making art meant taking responsibility for the choices involved in the making, the club had taught me that much. Without feeling the responsibility for your flubbed plots and botched iambics, you had nothing at stake, nothing to write for. Father was sapped. Little energy for responsibilities. If not really ruined, he felt ruined. I regretted saying no to the request, but was not sorry about it. I dearly wanted something to work out for him—even more than for myself sometimes—but nothing could work out for you without your doing some work, putting yourself in places that weren’t exactly comfortable and working forward from there, crawling into the new territory. This was also the year he drove the family to the outskirts of Davenport where community garden plots were for rent below a shuttered asylum on a hill. This father whose bad hip prevented him from bending had gotten a sudden notion that a garden plot was what the family needed. He was right—right not to think for an hour about the hip pain that dominated his days—and he was right that we needed fresh food rather than the flash-frozen dinners and the powdered soups, but again a surprising ploy fizzled. He had not prepared well enough. He had never before mentioned gardening to any family member. When we arrived, we saw diffident hippies digging around behind the fence that Howard and Marianna immediately began yanking and rattling, and my father himself appeared to forget why it was so important that we come “take a look.” One of the Jesus-hair diggers glared at us like a manager who senses a shoplifter. Plots were separated by vampire stakes with rags tied to them. Father puffed. He had a puzzled, heartbroken look. He wanted to grow books, grow rich and own a Lincoln, not grow tomatoes. Why had we come? his vacant eyes asked. Mother, getting off on the pathos of the plot’s proximity to the hilltop asylum, kept pointing at that crenellated building and alluding to Zelda Fitzgerald, one of her role models. A kerchiefed digger set aside his trowel and approached the fence and quoted the high price for a summer rental of five feet of soil. It was disorienting. It was all wrong. City outskirts, where the land should have opened up to reveal Grant Wood vistas of rural Iowa, felt more cramped than the city center, where there existed plenty of vacant lots to plow for free and plant with whatever vegetables thrived on broken glass and gravel. We melted back into the car and it grumbled and coughed and we fled to a fast-food joint for the succor of bubble-beaded colas and french fries bent in supplication to oil. Wind whipped the frail restaurant-lot trees and they bent double. We never went out that way again.
Blanche and John and Cozie and Howard and Karen and Gordon and Norm and Betty and Dick had no sure cures for what afflicted their art other than grammar correctives and repeating after Dave Collins: “Show, don’t tell.” They repeated this to each other, and kept telling. But however badly we failed to convey our experiences, we still had our experiences—no disaster on the page could strip away the life that had been lived, and its integrity. There was the solace of working, the next time, to get it less wrong. And for four years Writers’ Studio members heard a little extra damage in my voice. They understood that scathing criticism was not what was needed—yet. They heard I was trying hard, attempting to learn to live with the mind I had—and to mine my heart of hearts. The technical particulars of struggle could be egregious, but the vigorous effort was noble. They had gone “through it” themselves, their open eyes said. They gathered up the fragments of my shattered voice and held them close and reported what they “got out of it.” That was grace. That was faith in time’s power to smooth things out—misplaced faith, but I loved that vision of healing. For all the group could not do for me, they did a child of chaos a sweet favor by just being there, week after week, when I showed up with my broken lines—fables that were half poems, poems that were half fables: “The Sand Mountain,” “The Tiger in the Rose Garden,” “Cat Bread,” “Mya’s Wind,” “At Night the Ballerina Dances,” an elegy called “The English Teacher,” about the Sudlow High staff member who shut the door of a garage and started her car. I wrote one piece a week, at least. There we were again every Thursday, as the rest of America slumped in front of sitcoms. We showed up for the challenge of facing down oblivion. Though near to clueless and befuddled by the relentless demands of literary craft, we exchanged “tips.” Show, don’t tell, of course, if at all possible, but if not, well, telling was better than the ineptness of complete capitulation to silence. Like Mr. Hickey, the weathered ring of stymied rhymers showed me how to “stick in there,” how to be lost without becoming totally lost. It was better to show up at seven and stumble anew than not to show up for fear of stumbling. Because if you were to make anything of yourself, if anything even mildly good was ever to work out, you must—usually in isolation and under duress—find a way to take yourself seriously when few others did. The ambition alone could add fertile layers to an existence, and generate answers out of almost nothing. Shaky and on edge when I entered meetings, I left knowing the most important writing you ever did was the writing done when things seemed hopeless, as it required the investment of courage. Action thus imbued made you real to yourself. I took that with me into the parking lot after weekly good-byes and, in the end, also cradled a “going away” basket members had packed with pens, pads, a toothbrush, toothpaste, shavers, and other toiletries they figured I would need.
My neighborhood—like Writers’ Studio membership—demanded much from the heart. The hills, some seeming to stretch halfway to heaven, were the ideal place to train for the long-distance cycling trips that I eventually embarked on with another loner named Randy. If you were not pedaling or driving up one precipitous incline, you were sailing downhill (fishtailing, in winter). The frolic of elevations was partially natural and partially created. Tiers of terraced blocks rose from glacier-cut dips shaded by arcing trees whose leafy branches rowed like massive oars when lapped by winds off the Mississippi. The relatively modest dwellings on Crestwood Terrace were part of the first addition to the droves of magnificent mansions of industrialists that lined the ridges leading to the water. McClellan Heights—referred to locally as “The Heights”—was in the 1970s populated by successful doctors and lawyers, and the congressman with the appropriate last name of Leach. His riverfront palace contained a ballroom. The place had been built by Mr. French, founder of the French and Hecht metals company and brother of Alice French, who had written short stories under the pen name of Octave Thanet and consorted with William Dean Howells in the early 1900s. When I was a teenager I liked to walk past the storied compound in the summer, when shadows processed like silk gowns across the lawn. Often no Leach was home, but early one sumpy evening I made the climb up from McClellan Boulevard with my mother and we stopped in our tracks like characters in Writers’ Studio stories did. The low stone wall that encircled the hillside property was lined with homemade lanterns set out by organizers of a Leach fund-raiser—hundreds of paper bags, each sand-weighted and containing a candle. The glows stretched up and down the adjoining streets, ending at the litter-strewn River Drive sidewalk, across from the railroad tracks and the pewter river reaching to Illinois. Guests in fancy cars sped through the front gate toward the mansion. They missed this Candlemas under the plum clouds. My mysterious and pained mother swayed at my side, giggling as if to ward off the import of a solemn sign. Candles looked like your best friend. Candles were God even to the godless. You trusted candles, though they could burn down your house as sure as an acetylene torch.
On our block each house occupied a cramped plane of its own. Below us lived the driver of a Budweiser truck and his phlegmatic wife, a bartender at the nearby dive called Lindsay Park Lounge. Above, in a small but stately white house, lived Mr. Hickey, the retired Realtor and widower with a bad heart, worse vision, and a little pug. We arrived at the tail end of 1968, when I was five, and for a few years after that, Mr. Hickey—who insisted we call him “John” (and we tried, but often forgot)—continued to appear every noon on his glassed-in back porch, like a svelte apparition dressed for inclemency. Black overcoat and polka-dot bow tie. Black fedora on his bald head and, in his right hand, Mikey’s chain-link leash. After John, or Mr. Hickey, had exited the porch and hooked the leash to the backyard clothesline, the drooling snuffling dog would commence running back and forth, an activity which would not stop until John reappeared hours later, his face pearled in the late light. He was a proud, pristine man, an award-winning gardener. His rose bushes were wilder by this time but still produced large blooms. Then Mikey died, and our courtly neighbor grew too weak to go outside. The enclosed back porch became the very end of the world, but he made it there often to open the door for visitors, and remained spry of eye, ever hopeful that his demise was only a passing phase—that strength would return if he took the pills and cut down on salt and periodically squeezed the red plastic hand grip. Every Saturday John’s sister, Alice, and her husband, Eddie, a retired tugboat captain, drove down from Le Claire, Iowa, and brought John groceries: oatmeal, Lipton tea, low sodium soup—and a pan of Alice’s homemade salmon loaf. My mother replenished what perishables ran out during the week and often I was asked to run up the hill to deliver the carton of milk or eggs, the bunch of bananas, the box of Tiparillo cigars. This I did not mind. Being trusted to deliver cigars after dark seemed a task akin to smuggling contraband over the Mexican border. I’d stuff the brown bag under my arm and lumber up the hill toward the back steps, which were illuminated by a spotlight affixed under the eaves. John would be waiting on the back porch to make the pickup, cued by the phone call I’d made a few minutes earlier—no hat or jacket after dark, just the polka-dot bow tie and a red or green sweater vest hanging loosely on his thin shoulders. After the transfer of the bag came the invitation to step inside for a 7UP. I never refused. In fact, had he ever forgotten to invite me in, I would have reminded him to do so, as I was enchanted with his orderly, air-conditioned house. The door leading from the porch to the kitchen had a five-dollar bill taped to it. This was for a burglar. If John ever came back after chaining up Mikey and found the money gone, he would know it was not safe to enter—that someone had sneaked into the house during the five minutes he was off the glassed-in porch. I thought the ploy incredibly clever, as I did his use of old undershirts as rags and flattened soap boxes as coasters. He had cable TV and if it was summer, and daytime, we watched the Cubs bumble and persevere on WGN. Billy Williams could usually be counted on to get a hit. (I had sent him that compliment; he had sent me an autographed photo.) During the Chicago commercials for Canfield’s soda and Dominick’s supermarkets, Mr. Hickey reminded me to jump rope to improve my reflexes. If no game was on, we’d sit in the kitchen and make conversation as best we could in a harrowing world that took the right words right out of your mouth. He squeezed a red plastic hand grip to strengthen his arthritic fingers. He passed the grip to me and I pumped it. At least a hundred times, over the years, he offered to nominate me for the Junior Achievement program that matched children up with businessman mentors. Had any of those store owners been in the Beauty and Truth racket I’d have been gung-ho. I sensed that none were. But Mr. Hickey, yes. He was my Virgil repeating advice designed to guide me safely out of hell and into the clear. “Hit the rope, Benny,” he chanted.
Mr. Hickey told stories in the same terse and tantalizing fashion that Blanche did—leaving out everything but one or two crackling details (as opposed to my habit of spraying words). Between us on the table: his tea mug emblazoned with the crimson mandible of the Cincinnati Reds logo (gift from an ancient friend in Ohio), my green mottled bottle of 7UP, a box of Archway sugar cookies, numerous pill bottles, the red hand grip, a plastic pill counter, a five-band radio, and a pistol with a long black barrel. My eyes rarely left the last item. The grain of the handle gleamed and the trigger too was shiny, as if it had been pulled many times. John claimed Alice had badgered him into accepting her gift of the gun after the first heart attack, worried he wouldn’t have the strength to fend off an intruder. This was a fact, but I noted how comfortable John was around the weapon. He carried it from room to room like a water glass, with an impressive nonchalance that spoke of his wild life story prior to the domestication of becoming a real estate agent. In the 1940s there had been Coast Guard service in New Orleans. And before that: shoe shining and newspaper selling in the small town of Tipton, Iowa; a stint on the Midwest boxing circuit (“barnstorming,” he called it); a job running numbers for a cigar shop in the lobby of the Kahl Building, in downtown Davenport. This may sound like the makings of a robust life narrative but John did not indulge in romance. Each time I scooted to the edge of my seat to ask for the glorious details of his younger days, he’d press the plastic tip of the cigar to his lips and exhale a twig of smoke, and then another, and another, until those twigs weaved together to seclude his bald head in its own secret grove. Then I shut up and the whining became internal. Why did some people with zilch to talk about grab your shoulder and yak for what seemed like hours while Blanche and John, who had real stories to tell, say next to nothing—reduce the juiciest subject matter to a few dry drops? The torture was most extreme when John would relax a tiny bit and tell of his two encounters with celebrity. The first had occurred at a hotel in Keokuk, Iowa, far south down the river, in the 1930s. The elevator opened and out strode Primo Carnera, heavyweight champion of the world. John approached the Italian giant. They shook hands. And then? And then John reached for the cigar in the ashtray, and added another nutty-smelling smoky bough to the forest. Whatever words he and Carnera had exchanged, I would not be privy to. And neither would I get a clear picture of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, whom John had frequently glimpsed rushing through the lobby of the Kahl, toward the stairs leading up to the musicians’ union. Was Bix’s face as ivory and elegant as it appeared in the photos? Was the hair slicked back? What kind of coat, hat, shirt? Carrying a horn? If so, was the case leather or wood? On one occasion I kept questing until I drove John to the stove, where he put on a pot of water for tea and pondered the blue eyes in the enamel between the burners until the whistle blew. Black-rimmed blue eyes. Stubbornness, I thought it was. Old-timey wholesale modesty. But now I know better—why his stories failed to compound into either a satisfying, filled-out narrative or a soaring myth, both of which I needed in equal degree to dose my confusion. It wasn’t the glitter of the years John carried with him but the haunting littleness of experiences. The scrape of the calluses on Carnera’s right hand. The wan, hopeful faces of the men at the cigar store counter, putting down the family money.
At times Blanche and Mr. Hickey could not hide their disgust at what they regarded as my 1970s illusions regarding the influence of celebrity. Blanche’s lips would protrude, forming a chapped pale platter under her sniffing nose. John’s bald head would sink and dart back and forth, as if ducking punches in slow motion. In me they saw the future, and it flickered like a cheap screen. Your life wasn’t your own until someone famous led you to it. What they could not know, however, was that I did not represent my generation. Other kids coveted trivia about idols, but those boys and girls, unlike me, spent much of the day outside. They gave each other nicknames. They competed and chased and kissed, more than kissed. Their passion for Cher, Shaun Cassidy, and Reggie Jackson supplemented life, that gush of air into the lungs, the heat of sun on skin. They came to their gods out of power, as budding equals. You could see the confidence in the batter in the park focusing his eyes on the coming fastball and in the girl in a car window brushing hair that fell around her shoulders like sunshine. These American teenagers believed themselves to be blessed, unimaginably talented and beautiful. But I was different. For one thing, my heroes were outdated, always. Frequently dead. Their genius came with an expiration date. My mind was like a dissolving attic box, the past spilling into the present, and the present into the past. It was a struggle to get any date right, because only one calendar held fast: Fat Years and Thin Years. Usually I could recall being obese and desperate when a thing happened, or gaunt and haunted. When making even that broad distinction proved impossible, I was deepest in the abyss of years and feeling their impact most fully, if abstractly. My family was different in that we smashed the clock to pieces each day with our words and deeds. We did not use less truth to tell more truth, like Mr. Hickey did. We told less truth because we had no control over our complex story, and, to a large degree, lived in mortal fear of getting any handle on the truths roaring within. Get a hold on that and we would be carried far away, or drowned. Ours was the family of supposedly aspiring artists who had produced little art in two generations and were prone to think the great art that might have been was just around the next bend. There was a logic to that irrationality. What else would redeem our ugly and artless lives but art? I dreamed I wrung the dirty rag in the kitchen and out tumbled stars. Each week my father saw three or four “flicks,” as he called them, exchanging a lonely law office lacking clients for the crowded matinee at mall theaters. Mother came and went through the screen door five or six times a night before finally settling down to study poetry and the paperback accounts of the Manson massacre, the Clutter murders, the Speck case, and the Sheppard controversy. My five younger siblings escaped through drugs, sports, dating, or, in the case of Elizabeth, catatonically playing Claude Bolling’s Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio for hours on end. Starting very young, I had writing. I wrote. And wrote. No stopping, season after season, during the Fat Years and Thin Years. First I printed spacious looping letters in the Big Chief notebooks, then I filled Mead notebooks with flat-lined starvation script. Each page a freaky raft carrying me farther away from the chaos of the household and into a predicament of my own making. Any form I chose sought more and more expression until it ate its shape and left me with no story and no poem but an amoeba oozing between genres, trying to fuse them to create the larger mirror of realities that had overwhelmed a boy, flooded him, made him him. There existed in me a sense that to get one little thing right—the thing that counted: my version of the Canera handshake, say—I had to pry open my history entire and reexperience the totality of its murk to be worthy of that gift of clarity, to understand what it could and could not mean, and to know how to use it. Coming from a family of artless artists—cheaters and cheapeners—I had to doubt that authenticity could come easily or even naturally. Like a fervent paddlewheel my Bic pen churned in rooms and in cars and in parks and in stations and everywhere in between, trying to dredge up what was at bottom of it all, what I was really meant to reap from time’s vexing currents.
One of my early tales concerned Flannery O’Connor’s love affair with Bix Beiderbecke. Could never have happened. Flannery was only six when Bix died of pneumonia in Jackson Heights, Queens. But the details fell neatly into place and still adhere—for me—many decades later. A narrative with no beginning or middle. A story all happy ending, a temporary antidote to the confounding complexity of existence. Flannery’s stern kisses curing Bix of alcoholism. Bix’s tender hugs curing Flannery of lupus. The two moving to New York and renting the smallest-possible apartment so as to be constantly on top of each other. Bix getting a steady job at the Cotton Club with Duke Ellington and then quitting to start his own band at the dawn of the Swing Era. Flannery’s drawl quickly diluting as a result of long stoop conversations with a Hell’s Kitchen landlady by the name of Gigi. Flannery practicing newly learned Northern words on the manager of Alp’s Drugstore and the members of Bix’s band, including Jack Teagarden. Bix completing his first classical composition since “In a Mist.” Flannery finishing a story set at the Cotton Club. The two sitting in the Rainbow Room, sipping each other’s eyes. The two holding hands in Central Park. The two at the Polo Grounds, munching popcorn. The two exchanging corny Christmas gifts: To Flannery, my bird of paradise. To Bix, my horn of plenty. The two dining at the Park Avenue home of Flannery’s publisher and being toasted as “the couple of the century!” Count Basie kissing Flannery’s ruby wedding ring. Katherine Anne Porter hugging Bix. Flannery’s mother coming to visit and lifting the rag rugs, trying to find where Flannery’s accent has gone. Mother only too happy to get back to Georgia and Bix laughing when her plane lifts off from Idlewild. Flannery volunteering at the Bronx Zoo and bringing Bix with her one afternoon and introducing him to all the exotic fowl: “Teelie, meet someone who blows even louder than you do.” Bix warning Chet Baker about his drinking and Chet Baker listening, cleaning up for good at the age of twenty-five. Bix and Flannery hosting a party at which Louis Armstrong and Robert Penn Warren are introduced. Bix and Flannery starting a family late, after fifteen years of trepidation. The birth of a little boy named Frank, in honor of the late saxophone player Frankie Trumbauer. The birth of a little girl named Maple, in honor of the Iowa City street on which the two met. Bix with one child on each knee. Flannery singing “Froggie Went A-Courtin’.” Bix sliding in the mute and playing “Stardust” after the children have gone to bed. Flannery getting up early the next morning and writing her first love story, typing until the end of this sentence: The darkness wasn’t in him, it was around him, black wings nesting in the creases of an ill-fitting dinner jacket.
Ben Miller’s debut memoir, River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa, is forthcoming from Lookout Books in March 2013. He has published in AGNI, the Antioch Review, Ecotone, the Kenyon Review, and One Story, among other journals, and his essays have been reprinted or noted six times in Best American. He lives in New York City with his wife, the poet Anne Pierson Wiese.
Robert Campagna resides in Loveland, Colorado, with special connections to his lifelong home in Iowa. He is a freelance photographer, writer, and educator. Since 1980 he has created and taught photography workshops. His portfolio can be viewed at abbecreekgallery.com.