Friday, February 3, 2023

Voices in the Dark and Other Misreadings


I have just reread Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House, which came out last year.  The first time I read it I was much dazzled.  But the first time it’s really hard for the reader to precisely connect the characters in the individual chapters to characters in another chapter.  This does not detract at all from the reading experience: you hold the individual chapters together as you read but you can’t quite make all their tendrils connect.  But you have confidence that they do connect.  When you read through the second time, more of the connections do connect and the reading experience is even richer.


I was convinced that Egan had incorporated into The Candy House one of Edouard Levé’s ideas from Works:

 

“11. The friend of an artist selects descriptions of artworks from press reviews of exhibitions.  The accompanying photograph is cut out and the text sent to the artist to draw the work based on its description.  The final work is a triptych composed of the drawing, the description of the work, and the photograph accompanying the article. There are four authors, direct or indirect, voluntary of involuntary: the artist who created the referenced work, the writer of the article, the friend who chose it, and the artist who drew it.”



 

I knew that the Levé instructions had a similarity to Robin Kelsey’s exercise in The Photographer’s Playbook (Aperture):

"Captions

1.     One student makes four photographs of different subjects.

2.     A second student, knowing nothing of the four photographs, makes four captions.

3.     A third student matches each of the four captions to each of the four photographs.

4.     A fourth student designates one photograph/caption pair a successful work of art and one pair a failure.

5.     The students meet and discuss."

 

I was convinced that Egan had written something similar, but apparently I was wrong.  I couldn’t find it.



 

Possibly I had been thinking about a passage early in Egan’s book in which a character has written a book Van Gogh, Painter of Sound, “which found correlations between Van Gogh’s types of brushstrokes and the proximity of noisemaking creatures like cicadas, bees, crickets, and woodpeckers, whose microscopic traces had been detected in the paint itself.”

 

This may have resonated with an article I had read about how Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” sheds light on the concept of turbulent flow in fluid dynamics.  Basically, scientists figured out how the concept of luminance gives the impression of motion, the swirling effect of Van Gogh’s stars, for example. The scientists digitized, in other words quantified, the painting to undertake the examination. 

 

This is very much one of Egan’s big thoughts in The Candy House: the quantification of all natural phenomena, particularly human beings.

 

Read about Van Gogh in Maria Popov’s article here:

 

https://www.themarginalian.org/2014/11/13/van-gogh-starry-night-fluid-dynamics-animation/

 

Another thing I discovered about The Candy House was that I stole a couple of its sentences.

 

My wife has a habit of remedying her insomnia by having her telephone tell her a story, such as a TED talk, a fiction from the New Yorker, or a book on audible.com.  Usually I am not awakened by this practice as the volume is very low and comes to me as a quiet indecipherable murmuring.

 

One night I woke to a couple of haunting sentences speaking to me out of the void and I wrote them down, in the dark, in my already illegible handwriting.

 

Days later I would discover the sentences, but could not locate their source, knew only that I had written them down in the night when mostly asleep.

 

The sentences resonated with me because of an enigmatic (even to me) character I was writing in a story and I wrote them into her dialogue.

 

This is one of them (in my words): “My work is to be forgotten, but still present.”[1]

 

Later still I was reading The Candy House and I realized that these sentences were from one of the strangest chapters in the book, “Lulu the Spy, 2032.”  This chapter is written in brief aphoristic statements and is unlike any other chapters.

 

I would have mentioned this indebtedness in the Acknowledgements of my book, had I known who to acknowledge. I’m mentioning it now.

 

My favorite chapter in The Candy House is called “The Perimeter: After” and it is narrated by Molly, as a child, and it serves as the introduction of Lulu and their very sweet afternoon with Chris Salazar, an important character, and his friend Colin (who dies young).  The voice is amazing and sweet. This is very much a polyvocal (is that even a word?) work with lots of different speakers.

 

I add (only because I noted it) that Egan uses the word judder (or a form of it) three times.  That seemed like a lot to me, in a 342 page book.  Note to self: use the word judder.

 

Note to you: read The Candy House.

 



[1]  The story is “High Heaven: A Kind of Love Story,” in the book Points of Astonishment: Alpine Stories.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Random : My Untitled Documents

 



I have a folder on my desktop labeled “Random” in which none of the documents were given titles and instead were automatically “titled” by Microsoft with the first line of document.  Here are the “titles”:

 

• We saw a farmhouse burning down  5/4/21

 

• Hiking into Eklutna Canyon we were passed on the trail by a couple  2/28/21

 

• So many of us come to Glacier Bay to be overwhelmed by mountains  1/22/21[1]

 

• Last September I had a single day at the Chicago Art Museum and chanced into a small theater showing Les Goddesses  8/25/20

 

• I came in from out of state with a brief window in which to find  3/11/20

 

• I believe that cornices are dangerous  2/18/20

 

• Kanchenjungma in the Himalaya is widely known as a sacred peak to the Nepalese  8/3/19

 

•  Twelve years later I saw Julio Cortazar in from of a crowd in a park in Managua  2/12/19[2]

 

• The temperature was eerily warm for late January  1/28/19

 

• In 1500 the world population is approaching 400 million  11/24/19

 

• On Sunday walking Powerline Pass I see a couloir on the north side of Peak 2 that looks really skiable 5/12/17

 

• At the end of 2016 the photographer Mitch Epstein visited the work spaces of artists who passed the previous year  5/12/17

 

• One wants to tell a story like Scheherazade in order not to die  7/8/16[3]

 

•  A Reader’s Guide to Warnings Against Myself as a book about Macklin  4/1/16

 

• I was driving the two-lane  9/29/15

 

• What does this look like? 9/25 15

 

• Transcription of a hand-written letter from Jeff Long accompanying a copy of  5/14/15

 

• First sentence of Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin and the Dairy Queen 8/14/14

 

• I am late to fly fishing and rushing to set up my line 7/30/14

 

• For the most part we are not where we are  7/10/14[4]

 

• When Jamie thought back to the neighborhood picnic he couldn’t remember if it had been a yearly event or a one 7/2/14

 

• The first night I dreamt of orcas  4/8/14

 

• This was my first trip back to Michigan since my father died 2/15/14

 

• Last week I saw the Werner Herzog film, Happy People, a Year in the Taiga  4/20/13

 

• From the train window I could see my father walking up a stairway expose to the wind and snow 1/24/13

 

•  Could my earliest memory be right?  7/20/10

 

• I’m in the backcountry above Turnagain Arm skiing with my sons 3/4/10

 

 



[1] Sherry Simpson

[2] Gabriel Garcia-Marquez

[3] ibid

[4] Thoreau

Thursday, September 8, 2022

In Praise of Long Sentences





I’ve heard it said that typing out a whole, admired, book is a good exercise for writers.  I’ve never done it.  But I have typed out a few long and admired sentences. Sentences, as Blake had it, that “see the world in a grain of sand.”  Although, these are pretty large grains. 

 

If you read them out loud, don’t forget to breathe.

 

Enjoy.

 


Around the great stadium the tenement barrens stretch, miles of delirium, men sitting in tipped-back chairs against the walls of hollow buildings, sofas burning in the lots, and there is as sense these chanting thousands have, wincing in the sun, that the future is pressing in, collapsing toward them, that they are everywhere surrounded by signs of the fated landscape and human struggle of Last Days, and here in the middle of their columned body, lank-haired and up close, stands Karen Janney, holding  a cluster of  starry jasmine and thinking of the blood-storm to come.

                                                                    ––Don DeLillo, Mao II

 

 

Did he go back to the river behind our house, one late May day earlier that year, in which we bolted from the school bus and rushed into the house, changing into our thrift store swim trunks and beatdown, fire-sale shoes, running across the land our broke parents could just afford to rent, across the beaver dams that created bridges over the swamps, and through the towering cattails, diving headlong into those green waters, surging underwater, the bottom lit by a blazing sun, and up the shore on the other side, scrambling in the mud and loose stones, up under the bridge, where the big rocks were, and climbing up together, he and I, laughing, and jumping right back in, into the deep, and both swimming down side by side, holding the biggest rocks we could find to stay at the bottom, trying to outdo each other, our legs caught up in the current, flailing loosely behind us, not unlike, I imagine, his legs currently flailing after catapulting off of that Lincoln, and did he land there in that memory, a nice place to be for anyone, looking at me underwater, me looking at him, two brothers together, almost one person, him somehow knowing in this memory as he is flying through the air above and then impacting face down in a silty dry ditch, facing the same breathing issue under that bridge in that water in this death memory as he was now, roadside, hidden in that ditch by sage and crunchy tall grass, and back there in the river with me, inside his bruised and dying brain, as the electrical signals fired more and more details so that he could forget his body was ravaged and busted and dying and pushed down into that dust exactly like the victim he was, that of an automobile massacre, and there, in his memory, does he look over and say goodbye to me, as I never will get to say to him, me, still dreaming about him all these 25 years later, getting so angry with him because he’s not here to see how beautiful and terrible this world is, but mainly it’s that I’d like to tell him in this maybe-memory that he’s having as he dies in this ditch that it’s not the big stuff that I want to show him, it’s having a beer and talking about nothing, fucking nothing, on any day of the year, just to see his face again, and maybe hear him laugh, a laugh, which 25 years later I have completely forgotten, and that’s okay too, that’s what happens, right, you forget things, change things, but I can’t change that he has died, will die, will always be dead in that ditch and even though I know it’s impossible because we burned his body up like fucking cordwood and buried him in the backyard, I hope that his synapses are still firing somewhere out there and he’s under that water, reaching over to poke me in the ribs to try to get me to let go, and I’m poking him back, and he’s glorious, like the glow of halos in stained glass from European churches and that he’s never dead, not dead, never could be dead, no not this kid, this fucking beam of pure light.  

 

                                                ––Nicholas Dighiera, “The Tree,” forthcoming soon in Riverteeth

 

 

Needless to say, the link to my father was never so voluptuously tangible as the colossal bond to my mother’s flesh, whose metamorphosed incarnation was a sleek black sealskin coat into which I, the younger, the privileged, the pampered papoose, blissfully wormed myself whenever my father chauffeured us home to New Jersey on a winter Sunday from our semi-annual excursion to Radio City  Music Hall and Manhattan’s Chinatown: the unnamable animal-me bearing her dead father’s name, the protoplasm-me, boy-baby, and body-burrower-in-training, joined by every nerve ending to her smile and sealskin coat, while his resolute dutifulness, his relentless industriousness, his unreasoning obstinacy and hard resentments, his illusions, his innocence, his allegiances, his fears were to constitute the original mold for the American, Jew, citizen, man, even the writer.

 

                                                            ––Philip Roth, The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Taking Care of Monkeys: My Last Director's Welcome



You will all remember that my method here is to steal words from people much smarter than myself.


Mary Ruefle remembers “a reading WS Merwin gave in a tiny chapel, with the audience sitting in the pews, and how after a while we were all lost in a suspension of time—I know I was—and after the reading there was a Q & A and someone asked a bizarre question, she asked what time it was., and Merwin looked at the clock (there was a clock on the wall) and every one of us could see that it had stopped, it had stopped in the middle of his  reading, literal proof of what was already felt to be true, this spectacular thing, the dream of all poetry, to cut a hole in time.” 


 According to Jim Harrison the difference between a poet and a non-poet is that a poet, Shakespeare, describes aging like this: “Devouring Time, blunt thou thy lion’s paws.” Whereas I look in the mirror and think, "I look crappier every day."


In this Youtube video my wife, Aisha, and I like, a parent is asking a small child what she wants to do when she grows up.  The child is eating and not particularly engaged in the conversation, much more focused on eating.  

“What do you mean?” she asks her mom.

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” the mom asks again.  

“Take care of monkeys,” the kid answers with a dismissive tone, as in, isn’t it obvious?

 

“The aim of literature is the creation of a strange object covered with fur that breaks your heart,” so said Donald Barthelme. 

 

Aisha sometimes listens to TED talks in the middle of the night to ward off insomnia. Random phrases embed themselves in my dreams: “Escalation of commitment to a losing course of action.”  Can apply to mountaineering or the writing life, as you please.

 

Kerouac advised: “To be dark solitary eye-nerve watcher/Of the world’s whirling diamond.

 

“There’s something really interesting about this notion that there is a below the surface part of the mind participating in the writing of the story, and that what we call “process” is about getting out of the way of that part of the mind,” according to George Saunders.

 

“How chapped would his lips have to be to take a smudge of it from her mouthy tube?”

I read this somewhere and loved it, noted it, but forgot to write down the source.

 

“So much of what is lost in the shipwreck . What remains are fragments, and if you don’t hold on to them, the sea will take them, too.” ~ Rachel Cusk.

 

•Any one who has seen me do battle with technology knows that we, tech and I, have a fraught relationship. Alexa, for example, often does not respond to my requests.

After three attempts, I’m like, “Alexa turn the fucking radio off.” My wife says I’m mean to her, that’s why she doesn’t pay any attention to me. Aisha thanks Alexa.  Alexa responds, “You’re very welcome, Aisha.  Want to hear a joke?”  When Aisha says yes, she wants to hear a joke, Alexa says, “Okey dokey artichokey,” and then proceeds with the joke. I try to be as cool as Alexa when I text my wife, but instead of “Okey dokey artichokey” I am auto corrected to “Okay. Donkey Artichoke.”

 

On facebook there is photograph of a couple and their two teen aged children standing on the shore wearing wetsuits and standing next to surfboards.  The accompanying text:

 

“This fall has been the worst.  Our marriage exploded and our family is broken and we don’t quite yet know what it will look like in the future.

I intended to post this picture and say if you’re struggling and wonder why everyone’s life looks like a postcard while yours is full of challenges, it’s because Facebook lies.

But this weekend I was in Banff reading from This One Wild Life and I thought everything in that book is true too. It’s us at our best to be sure, but it’s true.

In This One Wild Life I say something to the effect that any attempt at narrative involves fabricating, and really life is a series of standalone events (the attempt to stitch them together in a coherent and meaningful way relies on fiction). This post card standalone moment below is just as true as the miserable standalone moment we find ourselves in right now.  I have infinite gratitude to all family and friends who have been supporting all four of us and our sad sad hearts.”

 

In the middle of the night my wife is listening to New Yorker podcasts and I hear the words “How chapped would his lips have to be to take a smudge of it from her mouthy tube?” Which is how I know it was written by Sarah Braunstein in a story called “Superstition.”

 

To end on a hopeful note: In 1500 the population of humpback whales was 125,000.

By 1966 it had shrunk to 10,000. A worldwide ban on whaling was imposed.In 2019 the humpback population is 135,000 and 9 of the 14 populations have been taken of the endangered species list.


Between the pandemic and the program ending, more hope:


To be hopeful in bad times is based on the fact that human history is not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”–Howard Zinn


I don’t really follow tennis very closely, but somehow every year I find myself tuned into the French Open, where I heard the announcer Pam Shriver say this: “If you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.”

 

Thanks for taking the risk, with us.

 

And take care of those monkeys~

 

 

            ∞∞∞∞∞

 

 As spoken to The UAA MFA program on July 10, 2022.

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Mus[eum]ings


 

I was born in Detroit and return to visit family once or twice a year.  Each visit I make the short pilgrimage to the Detroit Institute of Arts.  There were times I spent my whole visit to the museum in the pavilion that houses Diego Rivera’s great mural: “Detroit Industry.”  

 

I spent time in Mexico and I also worked in the Rouge Plant, at one time the largest factory in the world, also known as the Dearborn Stamping Plant, at least the part I worked in was called that. The Rouge Plant is the subject of Rivera’s mural. Rivera painted it in 1933, forty years before I worked there.  In 1973 the plant looked almost exactly as Rivera painted it.  It’s been much sanitized and brightened since.  

 

From my mother’s house in East Dearborn you can hear the foghorns (are they really foghorns?) of the ore freighters coming in off the Detroit River to deliver iron to the steel mill at the Rouge.


I'm not including a photograph of the Rouge here because none can contain it, in my opinion.  But here are some numbers: 93 buildings, 16 million square feet of factory floor space, 100 miles of interior train tracks.  At its height 100,000 people worked there and a car rolled off the assembly line every 49 seconds.


I remember walking out of my shift as a marvelous escape, as if from a huge underground cavern. Some nights, I worked the  afternoon shift, I ran to my car as if behind me some powerful invisible force might pull me back into the place.

 

Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s much younger and now much more famous wife, hated Detroit. She resented that Edsel Ford, who had commissioned the murals, gifted them a Model T and not a Lincoln Continental. She also suffered a miscarriage during this time, at Henry Ford Hospital.  My father went there for the chemo treatments that may have bought him a couple years, but couldn’t save his life.

 



The painting “Henry Ford Hospital, 1932” is also called “The Flying Bed.”  It lives at the Dolores Olmeda Museum in Mexico City.  Kahlo never conceived after this and suffered lifelong anguish over not being able to provide Diego with a little Dieguito. 

 

After I worked as a spot welder on the assembly line I took the money and spent the winter in Mexico City. I was twenty years old.

 

About thirty years after that I finished a novel about a young American scholar from Detroit who goes to Mexico to research the relationship of labor and art in the work of Diego Rivera.

 

Something about that novel that haunts me is that the protagonist’s father dies in a hospital bed in the living room of his house.  Five years after I wrote the book my father died in a hospital bed set up in the living room of his house.

 

Curiously, I didn’t really know about the murals until after I had spent time in Mexico.  

 

You should go see Detroit Industry.  The paintings line all four walls a large pavilion.  The feeling you have is that you are living inside Rivera’s universe.

 

Once I wrote these lines in an essay: “In Paris my wife and I saw an old lady get struck in the head by a soccer ball.  Later that day in a small cathedral an ancient nun approached us unbidden and asked if we wished to see the Delacroix cloistered in the sacristy.  Later still: why had she asked us?”

 

That event happened in 2003.  It’s easy to remember the year because my wife and I were there celebrating our fiftieth birthdays. 

 

The week before we visited Detroit I converted that real memory of the Delacroix into a fictional scene.  The main character in this story is drawn to a church in an alpine village in France.  The priest invites him into the sacristy to see a Caravaggio on the wall.  I made up the painting and called it “Mary Magdalene Washing the Feet of Jesus.”  The scene in this fictional story is actually longer than the memory recounted above.

 

In this recent visit to the museum, after I had spent time with “Detroit Industry,” I remembered  writing the Caravaggio scene and asked if the museum held a Caravaggio.  It does.  The painting is called “Martha and Mary Magdalene.”  



 

Though I kept the Caravaggio in my story a fiction of my own device, I did some revision on the scene after experiencing the real Caravaggio.

 

It was Mother’s Day and we were with our son, the first time we had seen him in a year. We had lunch in the Kresge Courtyard in the museum, an elegant space.  Ahead of us in the line for food, a small girl, eight years old (?) took some cash out of her purse and paid for her mother’s lunch.

 



Before we left the museum my son and I checked out a special exhibit “Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020.”   We were drawn to the Chrysler 300E, 1959.  It was the kind of car David Wilcox had in mind when he wrote the lines “I’m a tail-finned road locomotive from the days of cheap gasoline.”  My son looked at that car and said, “Well, I guess it’s all been pretty much downhill since then.” Detroit, 1959.

 

So, the Delacroix to which my wife and I were mysteriously granted a private audience?  I couldn’t tell you what the subject of that painting was.  It was dark.  I can only say that I’ll never forget the experience of seeing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, April 11, 2022

Richard Howard, Graduate School, Lost Friends




In the late 1980s when I was graduate student at the University of Utah, Richard Howard visited for a whole semester.  As a fiction writer I didn’t have much access to him, certainly not as much as my fellow poetry students, many of whom Howard championed in their writing careers.

 

Mark Strand and Larry Levis were the poetry faculty at the time and between them they personally knew many luminaries of the poetry world. Octavio Paz and Joseph Brodsky visited. Charles Simic and Helen Vendler. Probably more who I lost track of. Around this time, Strand received a MacArthur Foundation grant, a genius award. It was said he spent it on a house on the coast of Ireland and some Italian suits.  Richard Howard, I researched, never received a MacArthur, a criminal oversight in my opinion, a reminder, as if it were needed, of the arbitrary folly of such awards.

 

The semester he was at Utah, Howard offered a course, a weekly lecture that was open to the public. We attended with the fervor of religious novitiates.  I don’t recall if there was a formal subject. Literature? Books? Henry James?  These were the topics. Howard sat in an easy chair, as I recall, and spoke to the audience as if we were guests in his drawing room. Richard Howard could make me like Henry James in a way that Henry James himself could not.

 

The tone of his conversation, a monologue really, was that he was talking with friends whom he had personally invited, and for that space and time we were all intellectual equals (which, most obviously, we were not).  I remember leaving the talks feeling giddy, inspired by his erudition and charm. 

 

Once I met him walking his dog on campus and somehow engaged him in conversation.  I may have had my dog with me at the time, enabling conversation.  My dog was a sled dog, a runner, who not once obeyed a voice command, and was one time arrested on campus for running through a flower garden. Richard carried his dog, a French Bulldog, which he treated as a human child. But what I remember most, was that his manner was natural, and he spoke as if   we had conversed many times, old friends. We talked about David Hwang and Madame Butterfly.  I can’t imagine that I had one iota of insight to contribute to the conversation.  He flashed a smile that I have not forgotten, the same smile of approval Gatsby once and forever flashed at Nick.  

 

I mentioned he was kind to some of my poet friends in their young careers.  He was particularly kind to my friend G., who would take his student loans the day they arrived, jump on his motorcycle and fly across the salt flats to Wendover, and gamble all his money away at the casino.  He married quickly and divorced disastrously even faster.  Richard Howard helped him publish poems in national venues.  G was a rock star. He suffered from terrible health problems and I never heard if he finished his degree, which wasn’t uncommon; some of the best writers didn’t. I never heard another word about him, until . . .

 

Fast forward to around the turn of the century and I run into G. at a Joy Williams reading hosted by Prairie Lights in Iowa City.  I had forgotten he had midwestern roots. He had just barely survived his health problems, had some kind of psychotic break, and was living in his mother’s basement in one of those prairie towns that the modern world has left behind.  I was living in just such a place myself.  G said he would never write another poem.  Language made no sense to him.

 

Somewhere he had run into Richard Howard again, which was hard to imagine as G.  was essentially underground, as hidden from the world as a federally protected witness. Howard had been his champion. And now, Howard was mad.  He felt like G.’s failure to continue writing was a kind of personal betrayal. “Like you let him down?” I asked.

 

“Letting Richard down was the least of my problems,” G said. 

 

That night Joy Williams was cranky behind her sunglasses, and after I said goodnight to G. I never saw him again, nor heard from him nor of him. 

 

This wonderful remembrance of Howard by Craig Morgan Teicher appeared in the Paris Review online: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2022/04/01/remembering-richard-howard/

 

I was deeply saddened to learn that at the end Howard had suffered from dementia. So profoundly unfair for a mind as capacious (Teicher’s word, the right one) as his. Teicher describes Howard saying of someone, dismissively, “They don’t read.”  But for anyone who did read there was hope, almost as Goethe said, “He who strives unceasingly upward, him we can save.”  If you read, you could be saved.

 

 I was not surprised to learn that Howard’s spouse had declared the “book in, book out” rule for their house wildly overfilled with books.  That rule has been declared here, too, and I have already dispersed hundreds of them, and gone so far as to acquire electronic copies of new books (which mostly backfires because if I love an electronic book, I am then compelled to acquire a hard copy, paying for it twice).

 

We were all shocked when Larry Levis died, not quite 50 from a heart attack, less surprised when Mark Strand died.  He was 80 and known to have been ill. Richard Howard was 93. They’re in a salon now, I like to think. W.S. Merwin and Susan Sontag are there, also many French Bulldogs.

 

If we’re finding Whitman under our boot soles, I am looking for Richard Howard between the lines of Barthes’ Camera Lucida, one of dozens of his masterful translations from the French.  Surely he is close at hand, beaming his generous beatific smile at whoever has found him there.

 

 





Sunday, February 13, 2022

"I Put a Spell on You," Southern California 1985


 In “Annunciation,” (The New Yorker, Feb 14 & 21, 2022) a new story by Lauren Groff, the main 

character, young, impoverished, and recently arrived on the west coast, finds lodging in exchange for 

chores in an abandoned poolhouse on a large estate ruled by a larger-than-life character, Griselda.


            In the mid-1980s my wife and I were in an uncannily similar scenario.  We lived for fifteen months in the “party house,” a large single room attached to the garage of a much larger southern California estate.  In exchange for rent our main duties were to water the extensive rose gardens and care for Duke, the estate’s much neglected pit bull.  The owners, a couple in their 80s, travelled a lot.


            I refer to Duke as “the estate’s” because I don’t believe he had ever been inside a human home or felt any human affection from anyone, ever. He was wary of us at first, but soon became friendly with Yida, our shepherd-husky and us. Soon he was sleeping inside with us and hanging out as if we were his owners. One of my favorite photographs of that era is of my wife and the two dogs napping in parallel on the coolest (literally) place on the estate, the concrete floor of our house.


            To find how the character Griselda is larger than life I refer you enthusiastically to Groff’s story. Our own employer/landlady Bea, had three names, her first, followed by her first husband’s surname and then Paul’s, her current late-in-life husband’s surname. We always referred to her by all three names, as if it were a title. I think she was widowed for many years before Paul signed on. Once when I was driving Bea to LAX she remarked, as if from a reverie, “I remember riding down this road in the parade after the war in the tank that my husband designed to drive Rommel out of Africa.” 


            Paul was a reserved southern gentleman who had earned his living as a golf pro, including a couple PGA championships. He was a local retired country club pro and still gave lessons.  I remember one day he was heading out to give lessons to a very wealthy man, the owner of the largest manufacturer of kimonos in Japan.  Somehow I teased the fee out of him, he certainly wouldn’t have offered it otherwise: $10,000 per day.  So although the estate belonged to Bea, it’s not as if Paul were not, of his own accord, a man of means.


            One of Paul’s clients was Bob Hope, who often called us to find out when Paul would be in town. Whenever I answered the phone, he asked to speak to my wife, and I could hear her laughing at whatever he was saying in their brief conversations. I love the idea of Bob Hope working on his golf game well into his eighties, not to mention charmingly flirting with my wife.


            Bea and Paul were a bit aloof; we were, after all, of the servant class.  But that Christmas we flew to Michigan to visit my family.  “But they have winter there!” Bea fretted, “What will you wear?” It wasn’t an issue that concerned us, but Bea insisted we take their fur coats, each one of which was of about equal worth as our car. We arrived in Michigan dressed like Joe Namath and the starlet of the day.


            The “party house” had a patio that was shaded by a large fragrant wisteria that would soon crush the trellis that supported it.  We often took our meals there. That summer Los Angeles was terrorized by “the Night Stalker,” a serial killer who broke into homes, often through windows. Thus we kept the windows locked and the little house was stiflingly hot. Sometimes to escape the heat we went to the Rialto Theater in South Pasadena, a grand venue, “an odd mash-up of Spanish Baroque and Egyptian kitsch.”  Its air-conditioning was a form of resuscitation.  We arrived early and before the feature started they only ever played one artist on the sound system: Sade. I think we saw Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise there two or three times.  One of the characters loves  Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.”   And, it almost goes without saying that we were under some kind of spell during this time.  The Rialto has been closed close to twenty years.


Eventually the Night Stalker was chased down by enraged citizens in East Los Angeles after an attempted car-jacking. He was known to have killed fourteen people.  We opened the windows in relief.


            I remember that time as mostly idyllic, but it was never meant to be permanent.  When we were loading up the vehicles, Duke, the newly domesticated pit bull, crawled into the car and curled around the gas pedal and brakes under the steering wheel.  He knew he wasn’t going with us, but wanted to make sure we know he wanted to come.  We asked Bea if we could take him, but she would not hear of it. To this day both my wife and I regret not having dognapped him.


            A few months later we heard that Duke had to be put down. We didn’t believe it and our hearts were broken.  Yida would hold on four more years. Bea and Paul are long gone now, of course.  And Bob Hope.  The Night Stalker, in death row in San Quentin for twenty-three years, of cancer.  As of this writing, my wife and I remain here, among the living, still under a spell and thinking about getting new dog, aware of the possibility that she may outlive us.