|Jul/Aug 2014 Spotlight|
Image credit: Darryl Leja, NHGRI, Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov
This really happened.
The house was down the slope from where we parked the car, dark, and beyond it everything became fog. But with the engine off, you could hear the surf smacking and sizzling on the beach at the bottom of the hill. We sat with the windows rolled down and listened, looking at the place where we had come for the weekend. It belonged to an uncle of one of us, who may or may not have given us permission to stay there. Probably not.
Of the six stuffed into the car—I don't remember what kind—two are now dead: One of Alzheimer's at 62 and the other, the only girl among us, I'll have to tell you about in a minute (2b). The rest are coming up on our fiftieth high school reunion next year. There's a retired insurance agent and a yacht dealer who is still in business, I think. The fifth, who went crazy in a few years, had a cast on his arm (2a) and is the only one of the group who concerns this story directly because he had a bottle of painkillers, stubby capsules of a dull green. And me. All of us graduated from college sometime in the next decade; none went to Vietnam.
I do remember the car involved in his accident. It was a black '52 Ford convertible. They had been liquored up and chasing jack rabbits across some fields that later became a shopping mall, fashionable for a long time, but now gone to seed—99 cent store, unsanitary looking nail salon, and so on. The driver swerved too sharply in a rabbit-tight turn and rolled the car. My friend was thrown clear and survived with a broken arm, a bottle of pain pills, and latent madness. The driver's neck was snapped. What exactly would be the point of chasing jack rabbits across open fields in an automobile? I suppose to run them down and kill them. But that's impossible. You can hit a rabbit only if neither of you sees the other coming.
Something, almost, that could have become love, I suppose, happened one night not long before we graduated. We were a little drunk, making out on the couch in her living room (her parents out of town) and a connection began to form between us that had nothing to do with desire. I think it came from the way the faint light floating in from another room settled across her glistening flesh, her taut plumpness glowing with—possibility. This could be it, I thought. And was as much disturbed as intrigued because she wasn't what I was looking for physically. Hefty, but solid and shapely, brunette, not pretty, but appealing. I was obsessed with the idea of cute, perky, petite blonds and just could not make the paradigm shift. So I never followed up.
Nevertheless, whatever was there remained below the surface, a bond of some sort that was never broken. We were close for years, sliding easily into a written romance that took place on sheets of paper rather than between bed sheets. Once, after a good weekend together, I left before she woke on Sunday morning, driven away by who-knows-what compulsions, pausing to write a poem for her in pencil on her Formica kitchen table: one time only, just for her, with no way to preserve it as a "poem." (2c) Or evidence. Ours was platonic passion, intimate without intimacy. Key word: Safe. I married young. She was married later on, briefly, to a biker. While she was in the hospital—I do not remember why—he stole the jewelry she had inherited from her mother and disappeared as if he had never existed. Handmade jewelry, artistic.
My first marriage finally sputtered to an end 20 years later, and I moved into a little studio apartment in the back of a house and opted for alcohol and loneliness. A young couple lived in the front apartment and contrived to have loud sex, knowing I could hear it all. They found that stimulating. I did not. It brought back memories I have worked hard over the years to suppress. I went into the deep ugly for awhile, where she had already been for a long time. I was drinking a bit too much; she was alcoholic by then. We had many midnight slurring telephone conversations that went on too long and settled nothing.
At the time I was running a business—running it into the ground, actually—and skimming lots of cash, carrying around little clumps of hundred dollar bills that I considered rightfully mine, although the IRS would have disagreed. Once I arranged to meet her for a weekend at the Highland Inn in Carmel and throw a little money at our physical awkwardness, but it did not work. She was rigid and giggly in bed, confessing finally that she just did not think of me that way. Not many women have. She was trying to, but could not—well, make the paradigm shift. When I remarried not long after that, we broke contact. Never saw each other again.
I do not remember how I found out, just a few years ago, that she had been killed. Driving alone on I5 one night, drunk as usual, she had passed out at the wheel. No. She did not plow into an overpass or careen end over end into oblivion. It was weird. She simply rolled to a stop gradually out on the highway and a big rig went right through her...
Now, of course, I have to wonder if that ever happened. How did I find out? Maybe she is still alive somewhere, still drinking herself to sleep every night, probably retired as a spinster child therapist with an old dog that ought to be put down. Who knows. Either way, I cannot recall her face anymore and refuse to imagine her splattered across I5. All I can see is that faint, glowing fog-like purple illumination drifting over us and settling onto her skin... Just a footnote to this story.
Poetry... I would rather not get into this, but my being a poet is essential to the story, the matrix in which it takes place. My guess is that some readers will now roll their eyes and toss this little book aside (3b). Who cares about poetry with all its gloom and narcissism and unseemly self-revelation and irrelevance? Yuck. But ultimately it may be because of what happened that I became a poet—mediocre, yes, but an actual poet, not a dabbler, not someone who scribbles occasionally on a Saturday night after the wife and kids have gone to bed instead of sneaking a peak at a porn channel. It is a vice, though—or a congenital disease. I have always said that I have just enough talent to ruin my life. In other words, I never grew out of it. Poetry is who I am, not what I do. Which is a big difference. Like the difference between an ingrown nail and a toe whacked off by a lawn mower.
We tumbled out of the car and made our way down the hillside, whiskey bottles in hand and carrying sleeping bags, paper sacks of food and snacks for the weekend: beans, white bread and peanut butter, potato chips and soda. The nephew said he knew where his uncle kept the key under a certain rock, but it was not there. He found an unlocked window and crawled through. The lights came on inside. He opened the door for us, inviting us in with a sweeping gesture of his arm and a dainty, foot-pointing musketeer bow.
The little party got underway. Camaraderie—but somewhat forced. We were, in our way, more competitive than athletes, rivals at pseudo-intellectualism and knowledge of jazz. But part of it all was pretending not to care—perhaps the most essential element in our apprenticeship to cool. And like any male competition, this took excess testosterone and self-confidence, which I lacked then and still do. There was no shoulder pounding or chest bumping, but a certain amount of flashing verbal rapiers. No examples come to mind, however, and I do not feel inclined to make up something for the sake of literature. I have just got to get this told and done with. Not because it is dramatic or awful in any way. It is embarrassing, if anything, and an end to my credibility—certainly an end to any sort of coolness. When this is all over, you will file me away not with the poets, but with ghost hunters, Bermuda Triangle enthusiasts, and alien abductees.
Then, of course, there was another unspoken rivalry in the air. You have not forgotten the girl, have you? I am not going to demean her memory by suggesting that she might have picked one of us to go offstage with. She was never like that, not even a couple of years later when it was really the sixties. But the five (or all six) of us were simmering with that possibility—fantasy, really. The role she played was typical of many lonely, pre-alcoholic girls who hang out with the opposite sex: just one of the guys. As if. But things were tense. And I guess it was for that reason that the bourbon was not working for me. It was not enough.
I thought of the stubby, dull green pills myself and asked the guy with the cast if I could have a couple. (3a) No one else was that stupid—or that stressed. Maybe no one realized at the time that whiskey and pain pills were a potentially fatal combination. I honestly had no idea that the two had anything to do with each other, as if I could get drunk on the bourbon and spaced out on the pills in two unrelated if parallel highs. So I swallowed the pills and kept on drinking. And kept feeling more and more uncomfortable in the situation until I finally had to get out of there.
I staggered outside and took the path of least resistance down hill into the fog toward the sound of the surf until I found myself on the beach. The sea air hit my head like a hammer and knocked me into another state of consciousness, drunk and loaded dangerously. Alone on that beach I became irrationally convinced that I understood precisely how Columbus felt standing on the shore of a new world. Odd, but later on whenever—not often, believe me—I got really high, Columbus would show up. Once on acid, I wanted nothing, nothing in the entire universe except to stop hallucinating and sleep, but the pillow kept turning into Chris, whose bony shoulders kept me awake.
I finally came upon a scooped out area of sand, something like a bomb crater, and took shelter in it, trying to get my mind under control and my body stabilized. Not a chance. On my back looking up into the fog, I imagined myself beneath a dome of purplish glass—like the leaded glass of an old bottle. It was not solid like glass, however, but a kind of flowing, fluid light and not at all confining. Rather, it was filled with possibility precisely like the light that had settled that night not so long before on the girl's firm and plump belly when we were on the couch. A new world.
That was not so bad, overall, but the physical aspects of my high were something else. Nausea roiled through me as if not confined to my stomach but actually affecting every organ. Even my skin felt sick. My ears were woozy. My hair was gagging. I began to throw up and soon came to the end of anything I had eaten recently. Dry heaves, aching retches produced only thin drool. Then the nausea reached deeper, and I began to bring up stuff that might as well have been from the bottom of the sea: little fluorescent green and yellow squid-like creatures of phlegm. This went on and on for about as long as I had already been alive—another 18 years compressed into however long I was sick in clock time. At last I passed out. Mercifully, as they say.
I have to stop right here and make sure you understand that this story has nothing to do with drugs. It was not an hallucination, not even a dream like Dorothy's trip to Oz. No. This all took place during the summer after my first year of college. Community college. We are now around midnight on a Friday in late May. The following Monday morning at nine, I showed up for a Western Civ final, obviously with other things on my mind by then, still hungover and queasy, and got a 97 on it. You are only young once.
Book... Who said anything about a book? You see how twisted my motives are, how you can feel justified to think I am lying here—shaping and adjusting everything to fit into a myth I am making of myself, giving myself significance (and coolness) that is not really mine to claim. I keep remembering (inventing?) elements, details of what happened and already I am tempted—tempted—to make notes so I will not forget to put them in. But I refuse to do it. Refuse. I have set a limit of 20,000 words on this thing—too short for a book!—and then I am done. That is the contract I have with myself. Or someone. 20K and absolutely no notes. But I can just see some English Lit student underlining contract and noting in the margin beside it, "ironic foreshadowing."
I am compelled to write this. It has been gnawing on my ankle for years and will not leave me alone. That is honest enough, but only if I destroy the manuscript once it is finished. Shred it—no, burn it up (and that is for you too, lit student.) But I will not, will I? I will start pimping it to publishers a week later.
I do not think the whimpering woke me, but it was the first thing I was aware of once I came to my senses—not quite an accurate phrase. I determined that the sound was not coming from me, which was a relief for a moment and then became disturbing. What was it? I opened my eyes a little and found myself looking into a thick rust-red beard and yellow eyes, frightening, but inappropriately the source of that whimpering. Then I felt the tongue lapping again at my cheek and realized that was what had awakened me.
"See, Seamus, he's not dead, is he?" The voice of a young woman. I looked beyond the dog's flop ears and saw her standing behind him, leaning down over me, still something of a blur. I groaned. The dog woofed happily. "Are you OK?" she asked me. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone spoke that line in second-rate disaster movies, especially to someone who was clearly not OK. Like me. I did not try to answer, but began struggling to sit, which seemed like a better use of whatever strength I had, hoping that I would be able to stand. Someday. Maybe.
"Easy," she said. "Get back, boy," to the dog and then to me, "Let me help." She took the hand I held out to her and began to tug gently. Her hand was cold—even colder than mine, colder than the foggy sea air. I managed to get to my feet. The nausea had subsided into a mild queasiness that would persist for most of the following week, finals week, but I was worried that my shirt would be covered with vomit. It was, as I found out later. She did not seem to notice. Or if she did, she did not care.
"Of course you are. Lucky you didn't die of exposure out here. But at least you can talk, and that's a good thing. Right, Seamus?" The dog, and I could see now that he was an Irish Setter, took hold of my cuff and gave it an encouraging shake.
"No," I said. "I mean you—you're cold."
"A regular ice maiden, that's me." I tried to find her face out there in the new world that still seemed so far away, but I could not get her features to come clear, even though I could make out the dog well enough. Obviously, I was not in very good shape. "Can you walk?"
I took a step with her hand still squeezing mine and felt like a balloon lifting off, certain that I would have floated away into the fog if she had not been holding on so tightly. "Please, don't let go," I managed to say.
"I won't." I liked the sound of her contralto voice, low and clear like a marimba. And sincere. I believed her. "Where are you from?"
I waved my free hand in the general direction of nowhere in particular. The girl laughed, a little roll of soft mallets on that marimba. I looked hard but still couldn't get her in focus.
"Shall we take him home, Seamus?" The dog woofed and tugged on my cuff again. "I guess that's a yes, then. Come on... Try to walk... It's not far."
"Don't let go," I repeated stupidly and took another step, thinking that she would not be able to let go of my hand anyway because it was frozen to hers. In late May. On a beach in central California.
"Good," she said. "Keep it up. You're doing great."
I felt inexplicably proud—like a toddler. But I did walk, getting better at it with each step.
It actually was not far to the house. Only a quarter mile or so through the fog, but all uphill, so that it felt much farther at the time. But eventually I found myself standing in front of a door. It was a bit smaller than normal and down a stone step or two, roughhewn and mounted on primitive, wrought iron hinges. She pushed it open with some effort and led me into a room with a low ceiling. There was not enough light inside to make out any details in my condition, just a flickering as if from a hearth off to the left.
"You can spend the night here," she said. "We have a spare room, and the bed's really pretty comfortable. Come on."
The word bed went off like fireworks in my stunned skull, a series of glorious, exploding associations going all the way back to the crib. I had never heard anything more wonderful and followed her eagerly as she tugged me along. Bed!
Surprisingly, I did not sleep an unusually long time. It must have been about two when I fell into the bed and when I woke—feeling clear-headed and normal except for the slightly upset stomach—an old electric clock on the bedside table was showing 9:30. I was pleased to note that I could read the numbers as clearly as ever. I could also see the girl, who was sitting next to the bed.
I croaked my name. She let me look at her without any noticeable self-consciousness, probably realizing that I was disoriented and a little off my social game. Still, it did not bother her. Maybe it was because she was a rather neutral person, someone you would have to stare at to notice at all, who might be ignored in public. Her eyes were somewhere between a number of color possibilities without settling on any of them. Her hair was cut in a bob in no way fashionable at a time when beehives were getting ready to become long manes straightened on an ironing board, if necessary. It too had no definable color, not even dishwater blond. All you could honestly say about it was that it was not dark. She was not particularly tall, but as it turned out, she had an inch on me (and a year of age). Her skin too was neutral, not fair and not olive, and you could not guess whether she would tan easily or burn. There were a couple of faint acne scars. And she was thin. She would not have to wrap her chest to get that boyish silhouette if she were a throwback to the flappers that her hair style suggested. Finally, she smiled to signal that I had studied her long enough. Small teeth, but straight and white, except for a slightly longer left incisor.
Her eyes dropped lower on my body under a thin blanket—a kind of payback for my close attention to her—and I followed her gaze, noticing as she intended that I had nothing on.
"You were a complete mess," she said simply. I blushed, but she did not. "Your clothes are outside in a paper bag, if you want them. I put the bag in a tree so Seamus wouldn't get to it. You know how dogs like to roll in disgusting stuff." That laugh again. "But I think these things will fit you." There was a flannel shirt and a pair of khaki slacks on a table across the little room, socks but no underwear, and my shoes on the floor nearby, looking as if they had been cleaned up as much as possible. Wallet and watch. I must have looked puzzled. "They belong to Grandpa. They're new, too. He won't wear anything new, only his same old raggedy clothes. We keep buying him new things for birthdays, but he never even tries them on."
"You live here with your grandfather?"
"Grandpa and his assistant or secretary or whatever you call her. No—it's not like that. He's ancient. Grandpa's kind of famous. A poet. Are you interested in poetry?"
I nodded—with a touch of snobbery, no doubt.
"I mean, you know—really."
"I'm reading Wallace Stevens right now." I figured that would satisfy her, if she recognized the name at all. And it was true. In my backpack back at the party house (and would the others even wonder where I had gone?) I had the 1959 Vintage edition of Stevens' poems. I still have that book, in fact, yellowed but intact. Can you imagine that? Yes, I was reading Stevens, but not understanding him. I do not understand him to this day, although I appreciate the texture more.
Leah smiled without revealing whether or not she could pick up the name I had dropped. "Grandpa's pretty famous. Maybe you'll recognize his name. Lars Robinson?" (5a)
"I thought he was dead, died years ago."
"No. He may look dead. Withered like an old plum. His knees are practically fused solid, and he shuffles along with a cane, but he's still with us." She said all this with obvious affection. "People are always saying they thought he was dead." (5b) "But he always quotes Mark Twain to them: 'The reports of my death have been exaggerated.' He's only three quarters dead, he says." Again, all of this was light-hearted and loving, but then she turned serious. "Don't tell me you actually write poetry yourself. Don't." I did not answer, but the way I did not answer made it obvious. (5c) "I knew it! There I am walking the dog—not even my dog—on the beach for no reason at all in the middle of the night, and I come upon a boy passed out and covered with puke and, not only that, but for some reason I've been sitting here trying to figure out all morning, I bring him home with me like driftwood, like a broken piece of worthless shell." All of this with passion I had not yet seen in her. Then she put a hand over her mouth like a child who has said something inappropriate and is about to giggle. "No—you're not worthless. I'm sorry, but you know what I mean, don't you?"
I did not know exactly how to respond, so I asked who the dog belonged to. She told me he belonged to her grandfather—and his secretary. "Helen is up in San Francisco for a few days, doing business with Grandpa's agent, who has his west coast office in the city. They're trying to get him to finish the book he's working on—his last book, no doubt. He hasn't published anything for years. It's a real struggle." She must have seen something in my expression, a moment of paleness. "Oh! I'm sorry. I'm going on and on and you need something to eat. The bathroom's through that door. A nice big old tub you can soak in. When you're done, come on out to the kitchen. It's at the end of the hall."
"Is your grandfather here right now?"
"Don't worry, poetry boy. You'll get to meet him." Banter, not insult. "He always writes in the morning, out in the fishing boat."
"He writes in a boat?"
"Not on the water. The boat's out behind the house in the yard. It's his study." She got up and started to leave, turning back at the door. "I'm not surprised by this, you know. That's what I meant earlier when I got a little out of control. Nothing ever happens for no reason around Grandpa. You've been brought here by—well, who knows what. But it's not by chance. Oh no. See you later."
This name is the only invention in this story. Everything else is factual, consistent with fact, or honestly misremembered. I am afraid the unnatural aspects of everything that happened might somehow, if only in a footnote in future biographies of the old poet, taint or unnecessarily complicate or compromise his reputation and the way in which critics approach his work. As it is, most readers—readers? I told you my motives were multi-layered, if not disingenuous—will just assume the whole business is fiction. Meanwhile, I will have satisfied my purest motive, which is to unload it all from my mind.
When I was in high school in the late fifties, there was a hotel in town that brought jazz musicians in from time to time and allowed underage fans to sit in a certain area of the room. Once when someone I don't remember was performing, usually West Coast guys like Bud Shank or Shelly Manne, an older Black tenor player showed up on stage and sat in. It turned out to be Dexter Gordon, whom I did not know at the time, who was supposedly still in self-exile in Europe. All during his set, a drunk near the front kept saying over and over, "But Dexter, I thought you was dead." Judging by his playing, Gordon was definitely not dead. But people, even poets like Lars Robinson, can vanish from the scene for so long that everyone thinks they must have died.
I had already begun to write, though secretly. This was because my best friend, the one who died of Alzheimer's so young (as I now think of young), had a strong, dominant personality that kept me in its shadow, intimidated. He had sent some of his poems to e.e. cummings who responded with an encouraging postcard. So I did not have the nerve to make anything of mine public. But in fact, I had already published a couple of things in a college lit mag at UC Santa Barbara.
It had happened when I was reading Thoreau and a random phrase grabbed me. I began with it—"I saw a bat by daylight"—and added a half dozen lines, a riff taking off from those words. It seemed pretty good to me. Not long afterwards, a phrase somewhere about an owl also led to a little poem. Then another phrase from Wordsworth, I think, set me off: "And the yew tree had its ghost." Bats, owls, and ghosts. Go ahead and groan. Finally, and I have no recollection of the details, of how I knew about lit mags or how to submit to them, I sent these three poems in and two of them ended up in print. I have been hard at it ever since. And that is how lives happen to people, is it not?
I know more about Lars Robinson now than I did back then, of course, but even that is not much. As yet, no biography has been written, but he could catch on again and become a fit dissertation subject for some doctoral candidate. You never know. He emerged as a war poet in 1918, but never gained the popularity of Wilfred Owen or Isaac Rosenberg because people were responding to poetry about the horrors of trench warfare, and Robinson was a pilot who wrote about air combat. White silk scarves, French girls, drama at the aerodrome—Hell's Angels and all that. There was plenty of blood, but not enough mud to satisfy the taste of the time. After the second war, Randall Jarrell's moneymaker, "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," would be included in virtually every anthology. Robinson never made it into the anthologies I was reading in high school, Oscar Williams' for example, but I did discover him in a collection of war poetry. The single poem included caught my attention, so I went to considerable trouble to track down more of his work. I still get into certain writers like that, but in the era of the internet and Amazon, it is a lot easier. So when Leah dropped his name, perhaps exaggerating his fame, I really did know who he was. And was excited about the situation I had stumbled into.
That first poem is about a crash landing, how the pilot almost gets his plane down safely—how we all almost make it—but tips it forward in the soft earth of a plowed French field and catches a prop blade, flipping over and bursting into flame. The last line I still recall: "Everything is inverted now, and burning." The description is so specific that you really don't see that everything coming. The leap into the general catches you by surprise. It has a similar effect as when Rilke is going on about a torso of Apollo and then whacks you out of nowhere with, "You must change your life."
During the twenties, Robinson failed to turn the corner into a Lost Generation sensibility, still trying to get the war out of his head, and when the Depression hit, he wandered even further astray, since he had no gift for social grit and was repelled by leftist politics—another problem with his literary reputation. However, when World War II came, he was ready. He covered the war as a correspondent in the Pacific and was actually in another jeep a mile or so behind Ernie Pyle when he was killed on Ie Shima, the little island near Okinawa. Robinson wrote his best—and least known—poems about the landing on Tarawa, about the coral ridges of Pelelieu, about the Kamikaze. To this day, I am troubled by a short poem of his about a couple of Marines pitching pebbles like pennies into the halved skull of a Japanese soldier. The dead man is propped up against a palm, and the bowl of his skull is filled with rainwater.
After the war, there was a vogue for combat novels, for Mailer and Jones and so on, but not so much for poetry. Guys like Karl Shapiro quickly got caught up in fifties issues and became bourgeois poets. Or turned bohemian. Robinson came home to California and built his house on the Central Coast from local stone. He still had a decent contract, an aggressive agent, and put out an excellent collection of selected poems that was short-listed for major awards but went nowhere. He refused to take the academic dodge and teach for a living. He was getting older anyway and was too burned out to play the necessary faculty games. Finally, he fell silent, pitching pebbles into his own empty skull.
It seemed like years since we had arrived at the beach house just after dark on Friday evening, but it was now only midmorning on Saturday. (7a) I left the bathroom, having bathed in scalding hot water and wearing the clothing Leah had left for me, which fit like my own. (7b) I was a little under average height and weight for an 18-year-old, and Robinson was a small man. Tough and wiry in his youth, but the wires were now thoroughly rusted and snarled. The kitchen was along the hall and down a couple of steps. The floor was concrete and the walls too, up to about two feet; the ground had been dug out and concrete poured, the stone walls built above that to a normal height so that (I suppose) less stone would be needed. The ceiling felt high after the doghouse of a bedroom, and the room would have been sunny, well-lit through windows on all three sides if it were not still foggy. The table and chairs, like everything else in the house, as I would discover, were a mixture of improvised, roughhewn and homemade, and scrabbled together from secondhand stores. Functional with no attempt to achieve any sort of bohemian effect. I liked that, having just recently outgrown fishnets on the walls and wine bottles (retrieved from a trash can behind a dinner restaurant) with candles melting in them.
"I thought the clothes would fit. Coffee—or cocoa?" She grinned at me. The choice got the result she wanted, a brief but offended frown. In fact, I had just begun to drink coffee, back during the winter of my first year at the community college, known in those days as high school with ash trays. "Just kidding. Don't have anything but coffee anyway. And Grandpa likes it so strong a spoon will stand up in it."
I took the mug she offered and thanked her, drinking down half of it after an experimental sip to make sure it was not too hot. I do not think anything since has ever tasted that good or done so much good for me. I felt like I might live after all. Without saying anything else, she laid out a plate of toasted, heavy dark bread and jam. I could not have faced eggs, which she must have known. This all seemed rather odd to me—that she was treating me like someone she knew and cared about. But maybe I simply had no experience with a gracious hostess. Or maybe she was making up for that brief outburst back in the bedroom. Anyhow, she seemed to accept my presence and, more than that, almost to act as if I were already a part of the household.
She let me finish eating and then motioned for me to come over to the window where I saw the battered old fishing boat half-buried in the yard behind the house and overgrown with creepers. The bright flowers all over it made it seem simultaneously abandoned and decorated for a festive occasion. "He's out there right now," she said, "scribbling away like a man possessed."
"Working on a new book?"
"Yes. And I'm not so sure I like it. He's not all that healthy, and I'm afraid he'll kill himself for a few stupid poems."
"You don't think much of poetry, I take it."
"Self-obsessed doom and gloom. And nobody cares about it all one way or the other except other poets. Isn't that right?"
I shrugged. And I would still respond the same way. There is nothing sensible to say to that—anything that would not be a lot of hot air. In fact, that is the sort of remark my wife throws at me, especially when she is annoyed. But poetry just is. Who can justify it, and who says we should try?
What really mattered at the moment, however, was that Leah and I were standing side by side at the window, not quite touching but close enough that I could feel a kind of static electricity between us. All along her arms, little threads of her sweater were standing on end vibrating. Or so it seemed. And... she did not move away! I could now understand that all her banter and kidding insults had been intended not to keep herself at a distance, but as flirtation. More pert than sarcastic. Immediately, testosterone-laced possibilities swirled through my mind. I realized that she was cuter than I had originally thought. And as shy as I was, I was nevertheless 18 (she would turn 20 not long before I reached 19) and the sexual imperative overcame diffidence. I did not move either. And now I caught her scent, which is always fatal. Not perfume—Leah never wore it. Not even a bath soap that did not come off the super market shelf, but something I could only describe as clean. Freshness with a subtle undertone of—well, woman. Finally, we moved apart. I was certain that I had heard a faint intake of breath. I reached for my coffee cup; she took up the plates from the table. We were silent for a few minutes.
Then, "More coffee?" I nodded and instead of setting the cup down for her to refill, I held it out toward her. And instead of taking it, she placed her hand on mine to steady it and neatly poured coffee almost to the brim. That did it. "Look," she said. "Here comes Grandpa."
Lars Robinson was climbing painfully down the ladder that leaned against the side of the fishing boat, his back to us. I could see wispy, uncombed white hair. I could see that he was thin. He balanced a cane—actually an uncarved tree limb, the kind you might pick up as a walking stick out in the woods—across his arms as he gripped the ladder with both hands. It hurt just to watch him. "Arthritis," Leah said. It gave me an odd feeling to notice that he was wearing clothes almost exactly like what I had on, khakis and a plaid flannel shirt, except that mine were brand new and his threadbare and faded. At the bottom of the ladder, he turned and began shuffling toward the house, toward us. His complexion was rather dark for someone living on a coast that was not always sunny, and wrinkled. The word that comes to mind is mummified. Leah opened the door for him, and he managed to descend the steps into the kitchen. Only then did he look up at me: pale blue eyes—pale fire—of the sort that are always a bit unnerving until you get used to them. I never did get used to them.
"So this is him." A rather high-pitched growl. Leah introduced us. He grunted and then said, "Well, boy, we need to talk, don't we?" This comment took me by surprise, especially after my mind had been so unsettled by the last few minutes with Leah. "Bring us coffee in the parlor, girl."
"Oh come on, Grandpa," Leah snapped. "Don't even try it." Then to me, more gently, "He forgets sometimes that he's not a little old emperor."
"Please," he added without a hint of sarcasm and gestured toward the adjoining room.
He took the chair that was obviously his, a ratty old leather easy chair in front of the fireplace where a small fire was well-established. I sat on a sofa that half faced him. He stared into the fire. Leah appeared with two fresh cups of coffee that she set on the low table between us. Then she added a log to the fire. "Good luck, sucker," she said and left the room.
The two of us were there for a little over an hour in what I can only describe as something like an aggressive job interview—and I do not think I would have got the job. I would never have bothered to apply, for that matter. Leah must have told him that I fancied myself a poet. He began to grill me about what I knew—nothing—and what I had read—not much. Sometimes, after I had managed some lame response, he would look up at the ceiling with a 'why me' expression. Other times he shook his head hopelessly. Once in a while, he turned his hot blue eyes on me as if seeing me for the first time and nodded thoughtfully. He grunted. He growled. He smacked the floor with his cane. I was sweating.
"Browning," he said at one point. I thought I might have read something in English class. "English class? You'll never get anything there, boy! Go read yourself some Browning. I'm not saying you should do anything about him, just read him. Then he launched into, "Plague take your pedants, say I!" and went on for a solid five minutes, quoting bits and pieces of Browning at random. His voice was thin and reedy, but intense. He recited with passion, his cane upright and his hands clasped on the knob, swaying back and forth like a charmed snake. I was impressed. I still am. After a while, he ran down and was silent. Then, "And Hardy, too. Don't forget him." I expected him to recite, but he remained silent with his eyes (mercifully) closed, his lips moving. Maybe he thought I was not worthy of Thomas Hardy. But I needed the break anyway. My coffee was tepid.
"And who are you reading now. I'll bet you've got something close at hand, right?"
"Wallace Stevens," I confessed. I had no idea how he would respond, but at least he did not explode. Already I had a sense that his tastes were rather old-fashioned.
"Yes, yes. Not for me, you understand, but yes." He was quiet again for a minute. Finally he said, "He reminds me of Grace Kelly." That befuddled me—and you too, I imagine. "Self-controlled passion," he went on, as if in explanation. "But that's not fair, no it isn't. And not quite right. Funny, though." He looked up at me with a grin. Yellowish teeth, but still there and solid looking. "Actually, I've known some colonels like him. The closer they were to death, the more chaos all around them, the more fierce and focused their minds became. Stevens is a fighter." Then, unexpectedly, he was off and running again, "Complacencies of the peignoir..." And he finished "Sunday Morning" straight through and without pause began again, "Call the roller of big cigars..." But Leah stuck her head in the door and announced lunch in 15 minutes. Robinson sighed. "We've got time for a little walk. If you can call what I do walking."
Leah was busy in the kitchen as we passed through, back up the steps and out into the yard. We made our way along the path past the fishing boat and through a gap in the trees. Not far beyond, we arrived on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Surf pounded hard below. The fog was lifting. We stood there and watched until, without looking at me, he spoke, quietly. "I saw you, boy—like Jesus saw Nathaniel beneath the fig tree." I had been to church two or three times in my life (all that came much later) and didn't have a clue what he was talking about. More enigmatic babbling, I thought. Then, "There on the beach under that dome of purple glass. On the shore of a new world. I saw you. I know you..." (7c)
I wondered if my friends back at the beach house would be concerned about me. I should not have bothered. When I finally showed up about noon on Sunday, not one of them asked where I had been, nor did I offer to tell them. That would have violated the code of coolness. And deflated all the colorful balloons of mystery I brought back with me like a kid coming home from Vanity Fair. It was hard to contain myself, though, I was so excited. But the truth is that they were worried. If I had vanished, how would they ever tell my parents, the uncle whose house we had (probably) broken into, the police—since we were drinking, and I had popped some pills that, for all they knew, had killed me? So they were relieved. And angry.
Helen—the poet's secretary, who was out of town that weekend—later told me that Robinson looked more like my grandfather than Leah's. In fact, it was far more disconcerting that he was my height and build than it would have been if he were physically as large as his impact on me. If he had been the size of Thomas Wolfe, for instance, who wrote standing up on the top of a refrigerator (I think I read somewhere), it would have been natural to be intimidated. As it was, I stood eye-to-eye with the old man, as if looking into a distorting mirror of some kind in which my image had not only been terrifyingly aged, but intensified so much that it was no longer me—especially that burning blue gaze so unlike my own bland blue eyes.
For most of the almost 50 years since all of this happened, I have believed that Robinson was playing a mind game with me here, creating an impression of mystical powers of some sort, which he did not have and, in fact, would have gone against his grain ordinarily. If his poetry lay a rung or two up the rhetorical ladder, his tone and subjects were gritty and realistic when he was young and then later, solidly grounded in the natural world. So why did he do it? For control? No—he never tried to manipulate me. He was just who he was with me; I am sure of that. But under the circumstances, with the odd, unreal pressure on him during that time, as caught up as he was in inexplicable mysteries, in supernatural razzle-dazzle, he may have wanted to befuddle someone else a little. An understandable impulse.
My guess—once I got over the shock of his revelation—was that I had continued babbling all sorts of nonsense on the beach after Leah found me, although I do not remember. And Leah must have told her grandfather all about it so that he was able to create the impression of psychic powers. But—again—why? I have never been able to resolve that question, which has sometimes led me to think that his comment was actually psychic after all. And, of course, in the context of this story—in its own reality and rationale—only the irrational interpretation is consistent. Provided you are willing to take me at my word, that as I said at the outset: This really happened.
Lunch was perfunctory. Robinson only grunted, and Leah seemed to have her mind on other things. Afterwards, the poet went back to his fishing boat to work for the rest of the afternoon. Leah told me that she had errands to run in town, but did not offer to take me along. I suspected that this was my clue to announce that I would be leaving and thank you so much for your hospitality—and that certainly would have been enough, a remarkable experience. But she went on to say, without looking at me, "Dinner's at seven. I'm sure you can amuse yourself until then. Books galore around here, if nothing else." Was it her idea for me to stay on—for the weekend?—or her grandfather's? And which would be the more exciting prospect? What if both of them wanted me to stay? I felt more than a little giddy. On the way out the door, having put on a Navy surplus pea coat and picked up a shapeless satchel, apparently her purse, she finally turned and looked at me. "See you later, then." My voice stuck in my throat.
The room where Robinson had talked at me that morning was indeed filled with books on shelves along the walls wherever there was space. But I did not feel like looking at them yet, though that is still what I do in anyone's house as soon as I can slip away from the social interaction. A little of that goes a long way. My impulse, left alone in that strange, handmade, elfish dwelling, was to snoop.
There were the kitchen and parlor and the hallway with a door at the end, the bathroom, and two doors on either side. A simple floor plan. The first door on the left was the room in which I had slept—and would again tonight! I opened the second and found a bedroom much like mine, except that there was some women's clothing tossed on the bed, not the sort of things I thought Leah would wear. And too big. There was also a desk with papers and correspondence on it. Across the hall, I found another bedroom, this one like a monk's cell: battered armoire, chair, narrow bed covered with an olive drab wool blanket I recognized as World War II era surplus. There were stores filled with that sort of merchandise when I was a kid. This I took to be Robinson's room, which left one more room and the inevitability that it would be Leah's. I hesitated. And when I turned the knob and discovered that the door was locked, I was actually relieved. Then embarrassed because I realized that Leah suspected I would do just what I was doing. She would look at me and know.
I decided to take a walk and try to orient myself so that I could find my way back to the beach house. We were located in a normal residential neighborhood with random houses, most older with the look of beach retreats that had been in the same family for decades. None of them were as eccentric as Robinson's, however. There were no sidewalks, grass and shrubbery ending raggedly at the edge of a paved street. I wandered around for awhile, careful not to get lost, located the main road and ultimately, on a hillside less than a mile away, I spotted the place where my friends were staying. When I got back, nothing had changed. Robinson must have been writing, and Leah had not returned. I went to my room and lay down, a bit less keyed up than I had been all day thanks to the exercise, and fell asleep.
Noise from the kitchen woke me. I made a trip to the bathroom, washed my face, and joined Leah, who was cooking already. Seamus—I had forgot about the Irish Setter—was sitting close to her, watching with deep concentration. He glanced briefly at me and then focused on the food again. There were a few grocery bags on the counters. She saw me looking at them and said, "Had to bring in some supplies. We're not used to having guests, really. Helen's usually here, and Grandpa's agent shows up from time to time. He uses your room"—your!—"but he can go to a motel in town just as easily. He can afford it."
"It doesn't sound like you think much of him."
"Well, business is business." She stirred something in a pot on the stove that smelled good. "Do you like bouillabaisse?"
"Sure." I had no idea what it was. "Where's the dog been all day?"
"Seamus wanders far and wide, but he's always home for dinner. Grandpa's in the parlor... if you've got the nerve." She grinned without glancing at me.
Robinson was sitting in his chair sipping from a jam jar. He gestured toward a brandy bottle on the table. "Have a nip—a nip. Don't want to contribute to the delinquency of a minor." I poured some into a cracked coffee mug waiting for me near the bottle and sat on the sofa where I had been that morning. I half expected the old man to start in on me again, but he didn't. In fact, he didn't say much of anything. Leah called us when dinner was on the table.
The fish stew was delicious, and the good food along with the brandy loosened us up. There was no talk of poetry, though, maybe in deference to Leah. They asked about my family, how I was doing in school, career plans—that sort of thing. I did find out that Leah was a daughter (one child of several) of Robinson's only child, a son. No mention of the mother. The father and son didn't get along, apparently. The son was an airline pilot. Seamus was now sitting beside his master, trying to hypnotize him into tossing tidbits his way. The old man flipped him a piece of French bread now and then that the dog snatched from the air without missing every time.
The only subject on which Robinson grilled me at all was movies. Both of them were fans. He was surprisingly current on all sorts of movie star gossip, and so was Leah. I was a little shocked by this, of course, expecting him to be interested in opera or something. Instead, he gave me the rundown on the latest scandals and romances. Leah filled in details. When he asked me what movies I had seen recently, I couldn't think of any. I would not go unless there was some sort of intellectual pretension to justify it. I was only interested in—film. I knew he probably would not approve, despite his relish for the bouillabaisse, nor would Leah for certain, but I told them that some friends and I had gone to Los Angeles to see The 400 Blows. I was right. He said New Wave was nothing but foam. Couldn't tip over a hermit crab. Recently, I rented that video and I would have to agree. My response at the end, with the kid standing there looking at the sea, was—What? When I was young, the scene was inexpressibly profound. It sure does not stand the test of time. But that may not be fair because its techniques, once radical, have become commonplace. It is the same with jazz. You listen to Charlie Parker, and it is not easy to understand how that would have sounded when it was first played because so many of his amazingly original phrases have become clichés. This subject led to his only remark about poetry of the evening.
"Watch out for the French. They'll mess you up. Remember that, boy, because ten years from now you're going to be gaga over Ponge and Reverdy. Just get it done with and move on. The Spaniards aren't so bad for you. Lorca is endemic around college campuses, but don't forget Machado. Neruda is a pain in the butt." Then he started rhapsodizing about Sandra Dee. I had no idea who these poets were. The names were even less suggestive to me than bouillabaisse. But—and is this further evidence of the psychic quality of his words on the bluff that morning—he turned out to be absolutely correct. Ten years later, I was obsessed with those very poets. "Now you want a good movie? A Summer Place. There's something solid—young love. How do you feel about that, Leah? Young love!" I thought he must be teasing.
"Grandpa has a hopeless crush on Sandra Dee," Leah said to me, ignoring the subject of young love, and then to Robinson, "She's only sixteen!"
"How old was Juliet?" Then he frowned. "But no Romeo. Oh no. We've got Bobby Darin lurking around, that sneaky little street hustler. You just wait. He's going to get to her. Probably use her mother to do it."
Leah rolled her eyes. Robinson began tapping with a spoon on his water glass: tink-tink-tink, tink-tink-tink... and humming the theme song from the movie. I still hear it today occasionally on an easy listening station, and whenever I do, I have a kind of flashback to that moment. How could it not have been real?
Robinson and I complimented Leah on the meal and then left her to clean up, in the custom of the time (which she did not seem to resent, but we would not have even considered the possibility that she would) while we returned to the parlor for another nip. I poured only a spoonful, not wanting any sort of repeat of the previous evening. Robinson was more generous to himself. I was still mulling over the old poet's unexpected taste in arts other than poetry, though he was offbeat enough about that. I have come to think it was simply a release, an escape from the pressure to produce that he was under into anything else as long as it was trivial and made no demands on him. He did like Sandra Dee, though. And so did I. He seemed to be in a mellow, moony mood and had no interest in a heavy conversation. He did tell me some stories from his past, more the nostalgic sort of thing than war experiences or bloodless literary combat. And—the brandy?—he was warming up to me.
Finally, after a longish silence, he asked me what I intended to do for the summer. I had no plans, but guessed I would be trying to find a job. The previous summer, I had been a dishwasher and bus boy on the morning shift at Farmer John's Pancake House. I had been—I now know—arrogant and obnoxious, sneering at the after church breakfast crowd on Sunday mornings, the busiest time. I thought the work was beneath me, that it was crushing my sensitive soul. And the egg-stained plates almost made me physically ill, not to mention the mush of grease under the stove filled with French fries and dead cockroaches. I took unauthorized breaks to perch on flour sacks in the store room and smoke a cigarette. The boss did not fire me on the spot only because he was a friend of my dad's and had given me the job as a personal favor to him. My last day, just before school started—college at last—I sat at the counter, openly defiant, drinking iced tea. The boss threw the last paycheck in my face. He should have taken me by the scruff of the neck and thrown me out the door. I told Robinson about this, toning down my feelings a little. I was rather surprised that he did not agree with me about working at jobs like that.
"Listen," he began in a tone less gruff than usual, but serious, "too many poets are worthless bums. They resent having to earn a living like everyone else as if they were above the human condition. Most of them compromise in the end by becoming professors"—his voice dripped sarcasm—"who offer a few graduate seminars or pontificate to a room full of eager lads and the lasses who will require a little tutoring behind a closed office door. Don't fall for that, boy. You'd be better off working in an office supply store—or in a prison." (8a) "Take Dr. Williams, for example. Got to respect that man. Sees patients all day. Writes at night. And Stevens? An insurance attorney." He laughed. "Delmore Schwartz told me he went up to Hartford looking for him once and someone said, 'Wallace Stevens? He's a rotten lawyer. We just keep him around because he's a great poet.' But at least he isn't a professor." I do not know why he had become so hostile to academics and poets earning their bread in the teaching hustle. I suppose it was the hostility of the critics. He especially loathed Lionel Trilling, though the man had never said a word about him one way or the other and probably had never even heard of Lars Robinson. He fell silent again, rousing himself after a few minutes to call out for Leah. I was startled. She appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands on a dish towel. "I have a modest proposal," he said—to her, to me, to both of us. "This young reprobate needs a job for the summer so that he can go back to school in the fall with enough cash to be properly sophomoric. We need work done around here—weeds pulled, painting, and so on. Can't pay much, of course. Room and board and a pittance. Well?"
"No surprise," she said. "I've seen that coming since Seamus and I drug him in off the beach."
"Well?" This time directly to me. He tried to seem indifferent, but I could tell that he really did want me around. Now I know that he needed a distraction, on one level—a simple diversion from the long days in the boat trying to catch poems in a fished-out, dying sea—and on another, an opportunity to feel of some value himself as a mentor, to have someone to pass his wisdom on to—craft and know-how and insight that the world placed at zero value. Maybe he also needed a grandson. And Leah? Her indifference was more genuine. She could have easily lived without me, although you will excuse me for saying that she was attracted to me. Basically, I was just another of her grandfather's eccentricities, like his crush on Sandra Dee.
"Yes," I said. "Sure. Why not? I mean it would be a privilege. I..."
Leah shook her head and went back to the kitchen. Robinson turned his attention to the fire.
Sunday morning, I did not see Robinson at all. He was already at work. Leah offered me coffee and toast without comment or butter—she was out. After eating, I looked around the house and grounds to get an idea of what I might be doing that summer. The place was overgrown, but there was no lawn to mow, just shrubbery and weeds. I found some old tools in a kind of closet that had been built against one side of the house and made a mental note to bring gloves when I came back. I had always hated yard work, had frequently made excuses to get out of it or simply vanished when I sensed that my dad might tell me to mow the grass, but now I felt eager to get going, to get the place in shape to please Robinson. And Leah. A fence along one side of the property was tottering. The window frames of the stone house were peeling and needed fresh paint. The tile roof was in decent shape, which was good because I had no skills with shingles. Still do not, though I have become something of a DIY guy, preferring to save money on tradesmen when I can and taking pride in my make-do efforts—a trait that I began to develop that summer. I actually did address all of those tasks in the weeks to come and got the place looking pretty good—all for nothing, of course, as it turned out.
Leaving was awkward because I had nothing to take with me, not even a tooth brush. I had discovered the paper bag in a tree that held my ruined clothes and tossed it into a trash barrel out by the street. I was still wearing the old poet's clothes. I told Leah I was going and that I would return in a couple of weeks. She did not seem too interested, but walked with me to the front door. Her expression was neutral. Or maybe thoughtful. But as I started out the door and up those few steps I had come down sometime early Saturday morning, stumbling and supported by Leah, she suddenly stepped forward and laid her hand on my cheek. It was cool, but not as cold as I remembered from the beach. She then leaned forward and kissed me, quickly but softly. Her lips were as cool as her hand, but they lit a fire in me.
Here is another example of Robinson's prophetic utterances. In the early sixties, already into a pattern of dropping out of school, working at meaningless jobs, or attempting inappropriate careers, I completed an AA degree in forestry and went to work for the forest service. Within a couple of hours, an almost-famous fire took off, and I spent the next 25 hours on a crew fighting it. I decided I was not cut out for that and walked away. Again. An employment agency sent me to an office supply store. The boss gave me a broom and told me to sweep the sidewalk. I was still there over ten years later, no longer sweeping but purchasing. I have also had a lot of issues with ruts during my life. Now, nearing retirement and for nearly 15 years, I teach odds and ends of life skills at a—right, a prison. I am not now nor have I ever been a professor. Acknowledging the bitterness in my attitude, I now understand why Robinson was so hostile to academe: sour grapes. Me too. Neither of us were ever admitted to the club.
I returned home and completed finals for the spring semester, earning more than the grades I needed to secure my provisional admission to UC Santa Barbara for the fall—which is another story, really, or another branch of my story and of no relevance here because it concerns only me. Briefly, however, I lasted only a few weeks before I dropped out. Why? The events at Robinson's house that summer, of course, but there were also other issues. 1) Loneliness: I went to see an older girl I knew from home, just to visit, and could hear before I even knocked that she was entertaining a guest, intimately. 2) Alcohol: .... 3) Fear of failure: the better I did, the more certain I was that the next test or paper would be a disaster. German was impossible. Astronomy was beyond me. I did have a lit survey from a friend of Thom Gunn's—he assigned All My Sad Captains—in which I first read one of my lifelong favorite poems, Thomas Wyatt's "They flee from me that some time did me seek." I still recite it in my mind as a distraction in the dentist chair as the needle approaches. It's that basic to my psyche.
My parents were more pleased than I expected about my summer job. I gave them the address and a somewhat edited version of how it came to be, and they made no objection. I suspect they were happy to be rid of me, and I do not blame them. A week after finals, I loaded my backpack, slipping in a pair of work gloves, but no books. That seems unlikely to me now because one of my great fears (phobic almost) is being caught somewhere with nothing to read. But my rationale was that Robinson's house was filled with not only books but the very titles I wanted and needed—and I expected, or at least hoped that he would virtually assign reading to me. I said I was taking the Greyhound, but after Mom dropped me off at the bus station, I walked the six blocks or so to Highway 99 and began to hitchhike. Later, when I had a car, I would still park it on the edge of town and hitchhike. It was the thing to do in those days: On The Road. It took all day to cover the distance of a three hour bus ride, but I finally arrived within walking distance of Robinson's house and showed up, more nervous than I have ever been since.
I assumed Leah would open the door, and I was worried whether she would look pleased to see me or not. And if not, at least neutral rather than perturbed with an expression that said she had been hoping I would realize that it was only the brandy and nostalgia talking and that neither she nor her grandfather really wanted me there. But it was not Leah who answered my knock. This was an older woman, much older from my vantage at somewhere between 35 and forty. If Leah was an inch taller than I, this woman was at least four or five inches taller. And heavier than either of us, though not overweight—no she carried her weight well, very well with firmness and sweeping curves. Statuesque is the word. She reminded me of a movie star of that time, Anita Ekberg, who was appearing in Fellini's La Dolce Vita that year. Much older of course, and much harsher in her features, though also blond—not naturally. Her hair was up, strands coming loose around her cheeks. She wore rimless glasses. Later I would notice that those glasses made it hard to see her dark eyes because they always reflected any available light.
"Yes?" I knew at once that I was not wanted, just as I had suspected. But there I was with my backpack, stammering. "Leah? There's some sort of dumb-looking kid out here who can't talk. Kind of cute, though."
Leah appeared behind the woman, smiling warmly. Relief. "Oh Helen, give him a break." She stepped around the woman and—amazing—hugged me. "So here you are. Come on in."
Helen stepped aside to let me pass. "So this is him? The gardener-handyman—handy boy—apprentice poet... boyfriend maybe? Or whatever." She was smiling now, too, with big white teeth like you seldom saw back then, before veneers.
We had tea in the parlor (Helen was a tea drinker) and chatted. Despite the initial awkwardness, Helen was quite friendly with a flare for bantering. She clearly thought or suspected or—could it be?—knew from girl talk with Leah that there was at least potential between us. A Summer Place. I tried not to fantasize about our falling into each others' arms, into lovemaking we could not resist like Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue while she related the plot of King Kong. I was a wreck. Leah seemed to have all the poise in the world, as if oblivious to what was in the air. When Robinson came in from the fishing boat, he was gruff but also glad to see me. Helen teased him as well, but I could see that she respected him deeply. Loved him—though not romantically. He only had eyes for Sandra.
After dinner—the dishes left in the sink—Leah and I strolled out to the bluff overlooking the sea. Seamus came along. It was getting close to the solstice, and the sun had not quite gone down through a distant bank of clouds. The sky was clear. The surf churned. The swells rolling in toward us sparkled. We talked until dark—you know, our first private conversation, things we would not have said among our elders or even friends. Then we walked slowly back to the house, now lit. Holding hands. Then Leah washed the dishes.
I had hoped—foolishly if not stupidly—that by putting this in writing, I could someone erase it from my memory. Magic, I suppose. A transfer in which the past becomes words, the words are written, becoming symbols on paper (one degree further removed from reality) and then the paper is burned. Presto! But the outcome has been to revive the memory, to make it even more vivid, lifted out of the inevitable fog of time and restored from the subconscious to consciousness. Now it is as if, in my old age, I must begin all over again the slow process of forgetting, which has already failed me. I knew that, of course, which is why I began to write in the first place—because the memories had never quite faded and would not leave me in peace. But I did not realize how well forgetting had in fact succeeded. So rather than settling wisely for 66 and two-thirds percent oblivion, I have brought it all back. Or most of it, anyway. Thankfully some details are gone forever. If only I had been able to wipe out 70 percent, accept my "C" and move on. As it is, I have to retake this required class.
Helen came and went that summer. She once told me that, in her words, she had lots of irons in the fire. I got the impression that she was in the city carrying out various functions for Robinson's agent. In a way, she seemed to be in his employ rather than the poet's, a sort of liaison. She worked at the desk in her room when she was there, preparing manuscripts and paying the household bills (from whose funds?) She often held long, serious-looking conversations with Robinson. I say that because they always talked where they could not be overheard, usually out in the yard between the house and the boat. I might be weeding or scraping paint—laboring during the morning while Robinson typically wrote—and see her call for him, watch him appear over the gunwale and struggle manfully down the ladder (Why didn't she go aboard? Why did he have to come to her when summoned?) and speak with her. They were never face to face. Rather she stood at his side, whispering into his ear while he nodded, head down with a harried expression. Helen did most of the talking.
One evening at dinner, the name Bert came up, and Leah finally filled me in. Bert was the agent whose presence always loomed in the background—and not pleasantly. "Bert Satin. And be sure you place the stress on the second syllable: Sa-teen."
Robinson huffed. "Burnt Satin is more like it." The stress where it belongs. Then he fell silent, poking at his food.
"When he was a kid," Helen explained, "an Italian brat on the streets of New York with the name of Umberto Santini, full of schemes and petty thievery and what have you, he once saw Jean Harlow climbing out of a limo, showing a lot of leg and leaning forward so that her loose gown gaped. The gown was white satin. Umberto was impressed—by the whole package. He made up his mind then and there that he wouldn't be stuck in the ghetto and take over his papa's bakery. He had better things to do. And needed a name to go with his ambitions." Robinson was still moving his peas around with a fork. "He started out as a messenger for a theatrical agent and went on from there."
"Most literary agents don't handle poetry at all," I said.
"Grandpa is special. Not just your typical scribbler."
Robinson looked up. "Who says this has anything to do with poetry?"
One morning Leah invited me to go to town with her. Grocery shopping. We took off in their little British car; I think it was called a Hillman. It was a two-tone brown compact, 15 years ahead of its time in the US market, and I felt decidedly vulnerable out on Highway One among the big sedans and occasional trucks that we could almost drive under. It also had an odd four speed column gear shift. First gear was toward the driver and up, where reverse was on my parents' '53 Chevy.
Pushing the grocery cart around the store while she made her thoughtful selections was a heady experience for me, a preview of domesticity. I suspect she might have been aware of it, too, though with gender differences no doubt. For her it was being together, chatting—chirping, really—about small matters: gossip, recipes, various brands, rude clerks. Companionship, I suspect. For me, however, the domestic scenario led directly and quickly on through togetherness to the bedroom. I could hardly keep my mind on what she was saying and make some sort of proper comment. Her small hands reaching for things on the shelves drove me crazy with imaginings. Her slim hips. Her legs in peddle-pushers (as we called those knee-length slacks) and feet in sandals. The loose, sleeveless blouse. Her shoulders. When her pale lips moved, there was such a buzz in my head that I could not hear what she was saying. I was a goner.
Afterwards we parked near the huge, volcanic rock that gives the town its name and watched the surf roll in. I wondered if that was why she had not purchased anything cold that might spoil if we didn't go right home. Home. I discovered that if I kept my gaze out to sea, I could concentrate and carry on a decent conversation with her. If I was not much of a talker then, I am even worse now. It is nearly impossible for me to simply chat, even with my long-suffering wife whose patience with my reticence runs thin from time to time. I do better if someone decides on a topic in advance so I can marshal a list of suitable remarks and responses. But I did well that day—and most of the summer. Our voices softened, blending in with the distant surf, and we shared more of the secrets of who we were to ourselves, not to the world. The sort of talk only the young can have and only when they are... in love. Yes. I knew, but also knew I was far from being able to say so. Leah had not given the mysterious signal that would permit it, nor had our physical contact escalated (12a) to a level that called for commitment. We held hands again. We kissed. We kissed more than a few times, her mouth almost opening.
Thereafter we (or I mostly, in retrospect?) began to seek opportunities to embrace. This was made easier by the absence of our elders, Robinson writing and Helen at her desk or gone. The grandfather was oblivious, deeply involved in his own concerns, but Helen did give us bemused looks occasionally—bemused with an edge of something else that would have alerted me if I had not been so inexperienced. But I was even more unaware than the old poet, playing baseball for all I was worth with a worthy opponent. (12b) Leah yielded nothing and then, when I was about to call the game due to a rain of frustration, she did. But nothing more. Not now. Not yet. Maybe—probably—never. But I persisted. We kissed in front of the smoldering hearth. We even sat on the sofa—and then, but briefly because we heard Helen coming, lay down on it. We kissed 100 times in the kitchen. I embraced her from behind as she cooked or washed dishes (though it never occurred to me to offer to help), and she shrugged me away with classic busy-woman gestures. We stood on the bluff above the sea, the wind in our hair, adding a chapter to a Bronte novel. I think she liked that best since it was romantic and not just lustful.
I have spoken before of the sexual imperative of a boy that age and of my own natural shyness. So there was always a tension. Sometimes I was hand-tied as well as tongue-tied and left the poor girl alone. Other times, I nearly got out of control, as if trying to steal a base when the catcher was already ball-in-hand daring me to go for it. And if it had not been for the daily physical labor to take the edge off, I would not have been able to keep functioning.
The operative word is, in this situation, escalation. It is the slippery slope we warn our daughters against, the boyhood baseball metaphor of sequential bases reached. We all imagine we are unique ("who we were to ourselves, not to the world"), but although that is true, we are also caught in our animal urges. If no two people have the same thumbprints, let alone dna, how can we claim they are alike in the complexities of their inner lives, stereotypes? And yet, we continually behave in predictable, repetitive ways that are obvious and easy to see, especially looking back over 50 years. But at the time, young and in love, we feel incredibly special, convinced that this cannot have happened to anyone else before. Nevertheless, cynically, it is all the same-old same-old that ends in the same way: disaster or dull routine.
I was going to hold off until later to go on with this—to finish, really. But it will not wait. I have to get it on paper now, although, as I have said, I know that will probably make it worse rather than better. From here on—though nothing is far from the ordinary or unusually dramatic (just life)—my memories of all this begin to slip from young love toward something more like shame.
Unexpectedly one evening, Leah took the initiative. Which is so often the way things go. As I was entering my bedroom, she opened her door and peaked teasingly around it. (By the way, I never did see inside her room.) She asked me in haunting, husky marimba tones to meet her around midnight—in the fishing boat. Then she closed the door. The click of the latch sounded like my mind snapping. It was about ten o'clock, and for the next two hours I was nearly insane with anticipation. And terror, to tell the truth. I half suspected—or feared—that she was going to lob a soft pitch and let me hit a home run. A thousand years later, at around 11:00, I slipped down to the bathroom and got into the tub as quietly as possible to scrub the thick sweat off my skin. I put on clean clothes and felt better. If I had brought any aftershave with me (I rarely shaved), I would have doused myself.
A few minutes before 12:00 in the moonless dark, I climbed the ladder to the fishing boat—where Robinson had never invited me or anyone else (a forbidden place.) I felt my way down into the cabin, which was lit by a single candle. There was a table, probably intended for nautical charts, on which Robinson's handwritten manuscripts were scattered—sheets of paper weighted by stones, coffee mugs, odd pieces of metal from the boat's dismantled machinery. There was also a narrow berth. Leah was sitting on it. She was wearing the clothes she had on earlier in the day, which unsettled me. Was I expecting lingerie? And she was grinning rather than posing with some sort of allure. "I was hoping we could talk." My first thought was, of course: About what? Luckily I said nothing. "Sit down." She patted the thin mattress pad beside her. I sat obediently. But she did not talk. She simply turned toward me, leaned in fully against my chest and kissed me. Her tongue flicked between my lips. I flinched, immediately chagrinned, but she laughed lightly and continued, as if she had known all along that I was inexperienced. And obviously so. I did not feel like she had been through this before, however, but only that her instincts and intuition were much better than mine.
I will not go into detail. But there was no intercourse. I remained a virgin—technically. Leah easily distracted me from my few clumsy attempts at that, remaining fully self-possessed in spite of whatever desires had brought her here. Maybe that is the glory of womanhood. (And she was a glorious young woman to behold, believe me.) It certainly remains impressive to me that she could calibrate her responses like that and control me so effectively when I was so out of control. You can understand after such an encounter why rape is not about sex, but power and domination. I have been convinced since that night that the woman is naturally dominant unless violence comes into play, or bullying masculine imperatives. Sometimes for their own reasons or to facilitate their own imaginings, women will make it seem that men are in charge, but that was not the case that night. Clearly. And yet there was ecstasy as only the young can know it. Cut to shots of the surf rolling in. A storm at sea. Thunder and lightning—a chaotic outburst of electrically overloaded neurotransmitters.
I got dressed about 2:30, kissed her one more time—that unique, lingering, final, satiated goodnight kiss—and crawled weakly down the ladder. At breakfast the next morning, Leah acted as if nothing had happened. Another skill I attribute to women. I thought anybody could look at me and know we had been up to something, and maybe they could. Not the old poet, always so distracted and put upon, but certainly the smirking Helen. I was sure that even Seamus knew. Leah did avoid me the rest of that day, however, which triggered the beginnings of remorse in me when I would have expected to be basking in the glory of conquest. There were no kisses in the corners. Gradually, over the coming days, we did come together again, almost as if we had needed to let our overheated flesh cool down before we dared touch again. It was good after that—as good as it had ever been—except that it was not. The same and not the same and not better, although not worse. How can you explain it? She scrupulously avoided any reference to what had happened. It almost seemed that she had taken on some of the shyness that I had lost, as if we had come back from the boat with some of our attributes mixed or exchanged. When she finally did mention it, she said, "You understand, don't you, that it won't happen again." I suppose my face collapsed. She giggled and put a hand on my cheek as she had that morning some weeks ago when she kissed me as I was leaving. The same cool touch. It was only then that it occurred to me that during our interlude on the fishing boat, her flesh had been warm. Warm on a night as cold as any other in an unheated place. "No, no... It's not you. You were wonderful. It's me. I don't think I could control myself." Which was brilliant (and womanly, if you will permit me to say so)—the classic way to let me down and shut me off while simultaneously pumping me up.
Meanwhile, I had things to do. I had to earn my keep. Wanted to. I began with the grounds, starting at the back of the property where the path to the beach vanished into evergreens and wild vines, and worked forward toward the street, rather than doing whatever I happened to notice. I have always been systematic about tasks and, in fact, not very spontaneous about anything. The house I decided to leave for last. So every morning I set to work weeding and pruning, digging out around the trees to shape a little levee for water—just as we did at home in the sweltering central valley of California, not realizing the trees were seldom watered on the misty shoreline. I left the vines alone that grew up the sides of the fishing boat, both because they looked good, flowering at that time of the year, and because I did not want to bother Robinson or come too near the site of that heavy session with Leah.
I was feeling very ambivalent about that. Sometimes I felt light-headed with disbelief that she had ever wanted me so much, which seemed to have passed. Sometimes I was frantic with carnal recall and sometimes (I had no idea why) ashamed. A young man can be ripped down the middle like a sheet of paper with a love letter on it that he just cannot get right, no matter how many ways he tries to write it. Part of him lusts for the girl so badly he cannot stand it; the other wants to keep her pure in his heart—and in his simmering mind. None of which has anything to do with her, does it? So I weeded and fretted. I pruned and brooded. No one paid any attention to me while I worked. Robinson was always in the fishing boat, at sea in his inward, empty ocean. Leah kept busy in the house or drove off more and more often in the little brown car. Sometimes she returned with shopping bags, but usually not. It seemed that she simply wanted to get away, maybe to sit and think by the big rock where we had parked not long before. Helen, if not gone, worked at her own desk. But it turned out to be Helen who came out to visit me once. (14a) June became July. Fog canceled the local fireworks display on the Fourth. Then it was the second week of July, I had been there a month—or forever—or never—and the yard was looking quite neat and presentable. I moved on to stage two, the structures: tottering fence and blistered paint on the window frames and doors of the house.
The fence gave me a hard time. It ran along one side of the property, separating it from the next house. The other side, like the back of the lot, was overgrown with native trees and shrubs. The wooden fence was old, maybe older than the house, mossy and almost crumbling with rot, listing about ten degrees towards us. It should have been torn down and replaced, a good neighbor project. But the next house was empty most of the time, occupied only on an occasional warm weekend. Neither Robinson nor Leah nor Helen knew who lived there. I have built a few fences since then (second-rate efforts of which I am inordinately proud), but at 18 I could not have managed. My solution was to prop it up. Which is often all you can do with anything in this world. Leah and I went to a lumber yard and purchased some 2X6 redwood boards that we brought home tied to the roof of the little car with twine. I planted one end in the ground in front of each post, laid the other at the top of the fence, and then shouldered and shoved, working up and down the length of it, gaining a few inches every time. Leah actually helped, grunting and puffing and having a good time. For me, it was serious business. A challenge. She wanted to chit-chat while we worked, but I was too focused and impatient. To this day, I have that fault, snapping at my wife if she tries to help me with some physical task. I am working on it. Finally, Leah got mad and left me to do it all alone. Later, however, she seemed to have forgot about it. But the fence was upright and, once the boards were nailed to the posts, sturdy enough to stand until it rotted where it stood.
I frequently turned to admire my efforts as I began scraping and sanding the window frames, my final task as the month of July slipped away. Which was good—or not, since none of it mattered ultimately—because August was going to be given over to drama. Robinson decided on high gloss black enamel for the windows, doors, and eaves. Those were all that needed paint, since the walls were stone and the roof tile, as I mentioned earlier. And it looked good when I finished. The whole place was sharp, in fact.
I stood out in the middle of the street and admired my work—proud and preening, although my hands were stained with splotches of black enamel for the rest of the summer. The neighbor from across the street joined me and said that I had done a fine job, redeeming the neighborhood from such an eyesore. He was a retired plumber, he said. I told him I would have been in over my head if I had been called on to deal with plumbing problems, and he laughed. "More to it than folks think, that's for sure." He was overweight and soft with wisps of white hair fluttering around his ears, but his hands were large and battered and certainly looked like a workingman's hands. I still value his compliment.
I was pruning shrubs when I saw Helen coming my way—looming up—with a tea cup in each hand. She gestured toward me with one of them. "Time for a break?" I took off my gloves, accepted the cup, and said thank you. "My pleasure. Let's sit." There was a cluster of natural boulders in the yard, too large to remove without undue effort and expense, which looked good anyway and made a pleasant natural bench. We sat. I sipped, a black tea of some sort, brewed strong. And hot. "So how are your sessions with Lars going?" I was thrilled of course to have the chance to—well, sit at his feet is the most accurate way to put it. (16) But I did not want to sound too enthusiastic, too much like an eager pup, so I made some appropriate remarks, positive but restrained. Helen nodded thoughtfully and blew across the surface of the scalding tea. "And," she went on, apparently satisfied and changing the subject, "how's it going with the young lady?"
"What do you mean?"
She laughed. "It's kind of obvious, don't you think?"
It was obviously useless to dissemble. "I like Leah. I like her a lot."
"Too much is my guess."
"What do you mean?" I repeated myself stupidly.
"Summer romance. Young love, too much and too far" with a significant glance "too fast. A broken heart for someone for sure. You, in this case." I did not know how to respond. After a moment, Helen said, more gently. "She may not be ready, you know. So don't push. You know what I mean, lover boy, don't you."
I was no doubt blushing. "Sure," I muttered.
She leaned forward and gave me a friendly pat on the knee. Harmless on one level, but there was another level—or levels. I felt a slight jolt when she touched me. A tingle. And a little lift in the stomach like an elevator dropping all at once. It made me uncomfortable, but—and I have to be honest—I responded to it, immediately, chagrinned by my disloyalty to Leah and by my awareness that Helen knew how I had reacted. And liked it. That woman had gravity, and I was pulled toward her in spite of my resistance. Besides, how can an 18-year-old boy with no more identity and character than loose rubble drifting around in outer space resist the gravity of such a powerful, undiscovered planet?
Now I changed the subject. "How is it going with Mr. Robinson's new book? He doesn't say much about it, but he's writing all day long." We both looked over toward the fishing boat half-sunk in flowering vines about 50 feet away from us.
"I could tell you a lot," she said, "but I won't. I will tell you something, though. I think you deserve that." I waited. "You've heard about his agent, Bert Satin?" She put the stress strongly and sarcastically on the second syllable. I nodded and sipped my tea, which had not cooled down much, despite the chilly morning air. "Well, Lars is under contract to him for one more book, and Bert is pressuring him for it. Pressure is a mild word when it comes to Bert."
"Is it that big of a deal to break a book contract? Don't writers do it all the time?"
She shook her head. "This is not really a legal matter—or if it is, it's another kind of law. The Law of the Jungle, maybe."
"What do you mean?" I asked like a stuck record.
"I guess you could say it's some kind of man thing," sarcastic again. "Bert made it a matter of pride. Told Lars that he was shot. Written out. Didn't have another word to say. More or less dared him to write the book and prove—poor old guy—that he wasn't... impotent? That's probably as close to the right word as any."
"Nice guy, this Bert."
"You don't know the half of it."
I felt bold for a second. "And what about you? Do you work for him?" I really meant with him.
"Cheeky, aren't we?" She said in a faux British accent, stretching out the words. I thought she was going to pat me on the knee again, but this time she touched me with her eyes—and the jolt was harder. "You haven't seen Bert yet, have you?" I said no. "First of all, the man stands five two in his socks, and his one true joy in life is cutting people down to his size."
"You're still standing pretty tall."
She laughed. "With me it's more like a trophy. People see us together—and I do go places with him gussied up and on his arm—and they speculate. In a business situation, I follow him around with a notebook, and that makes him feel powerful, too. And then, there's the more personal aspect of our relationship, which he also finds very flattering."
I was a bit shocked by that kind of remark, but it seemed typical of Helen. Anyway, I speculated in spite of myself, and she gave me time to do it. Then I asked, feeling irritated by the way she was toying with me, "Does he have a hold on you, too?"
"Shrewd," she said after a pause. "Of course he does. We all have dark corners in our minds, and he specializes in them."
"Shines the light on them," I suggested.
"No. Just the opposite. He dims whatever light is in the room so that everything is safely in the dark." She tossed what was left of her tea onto the grass. "Enough of all that. I'll let you get back to work. By the way," the intimacy that had been in her voice becoming all business, "the refrigerator seems to be running hot. The vents are probably clogged with dog hair again. When you get a chance, you should pull it out and clean behind it."
I said I would. But I never did.
I must seem like I'm dawdling. Actually, I think I am stalling—avoiding. I cannot allow myself to do that. Not only have I set myself a word limit on this narrative, this reluctant but compulsive attempt to unload memory, already doomed to fail (10), but I have also placed myself under time restraints because I want to get it over with. My wife and I are leaving on vacation in a week. It is probably the most elaborate trip we have ever taken and the most expensive. A vacation out of a travel magazine. The best we usually do is get away for a rare weekend—and that most often to the very location where this story takes place. So I do not want this hanging over my head—floating around inside my head, I should say—while I should be enjoying myself and paying attention to her. I have called her long-suffering before, and a good deal of what she puts up with is my distractedness. I do not want to be with her here and now—where we ought to be, together, always—and have much if not most of my consciousness brooding over something that happened or did not happen so long ago. I think you could almost call that committing adultery with the past instead of a woman. And I am faithful. I need to get rid of this, whatever I do with the manuscript. Simply put: I need a vacation.
So I worked mornings, cleaned up for lunch, and spent the afternoons reading. Robinson did not formally assign anything to me, but he did expose me to all sorts of books that I naturally followed up on. Sometimes I browsed in them with interest, often I bogged down or had no idea what the authors were saying, and just as often could not put them down. Discovery. I am still catching up with works he introduced me to. In the evenings, the old poet and I retired to the parlor with its hearth and book-lined walls. Leah and Helen, when she was there, left us alone. On the one hand, they felt that our sessions were a valuable escape for Robinson, who needed a break, and on the other, they would have perished of boredom, anyway. Any normal person would. But the two of us were in hog heaven. The only thing I have ever experienced that was even remotely like it was when I was in grad school and my writer friends and I would waste all the time we ought have devoted to study sitting around drinking and talking poetry. This was different, however, because none of us knew anything, and Robinson was a master. Whatever happened or did not happen that summer, I value that brief time of mentoring far more than any education I have survived in the classroom.
He was surprisingly lively during those evenings, maybe releasing pent up energy after a long day battened down in the boat. He would jump up as quickly as his old bones would permit and grab a book off a shelf—usually going straight to it—open it unerringly to a passage, a line, even a word that he wanted to show me. He would spread it on the table, propped with another volume, then rush back to the shelves for some other title, laying the two or three or four side by side for comparison. Clearly, poetry was his life. And he made it mine, I think. Since then, I have come to understand that many of his judgments were wrongheaded, the result of eccentric taste or a personal grudge. But no one has ever shown me things hidden in and around words like Lars Robinson did almost 50 years ago.
"It's not about greatness," I remember him proclaiming, walking stiffly around the room, waving his arms. "Nobody is great all the time, and if we come up with a few good poems in a lifetime, that's a miracle. You look at a collected poems, and you'll find lots of dreg. Lots of scribbling just to keep the tools sharp while waiting for the real poem to come. Auden, for instance. His book looks like a dictionary. Do you think it's all up to snuff? And many of us" including himself without false modesty "who are second class come up with something unexpectedly that's better than most of the famous names."
To Robinson, it was all a "lottery. If the arc of your work, which is what it is, happens—happens—to cross the arc of the zeitgeist, boom! You're it. You're the one who'll be remembered. Meanwhile great stuff will be ignored. just as much by chance." I asked about Emily Dickinson. (16a) "Ha! Good one! Fate preserved her for a later time, true. Another miracle. Have you ever wondered, though, how many unknown, would-have-been great poets had dresser drawers full of stitched together volumes of wonderful poetry that didn't survive? Their heirs burned it all out of embarrassment. And maybe somebody out there is yet to be discovered like Emily. Or Thomas Traherne. Put him on your list, too, boy."
"But back to my original point..." I am offering this, not really quoting exactly (you know better than that) but giving the flavor of the things he said so that you can have some sense of what it was like. This is just a sample: No need to worry, I will not go on and on and on like Robinson did. Perhaps he was blessed to have me as an audience—a matter once more of intersecting arcs. "...Dickinson wrote—what, 1,000 or 1,500 poems? The best third are remarkable, but not so many of the rest. And of the best 100, 20 are amazing. Of those, a half dozen will literally stop your heart. And that is enough. More than enough."
He disliked T.S. Eliot, but respected Wasteland and knew it well. One of the oddest things he did, which I recall but cannot begin to replicate, was to lay that book side by side on the table with Alan Ginsburg's Howl and compare lines from each, not so much for style as for some sort of harmony resonating in the background. He was also familiar with people that were not widely read then or now. Melvin Tolson comes to mind. He recited from Harlem Gallery, which pretty much mystified me. (16b) I do remember one line, however: "'her lips dark and like a half-done T-bone steak.' It's that 'half-done' that makes it work," he said. "Not 'rare' you see, which is what we say about steaks, isn't it? But 'half-done.' I love that. And notice how it punches up the rhythm."
And so on. Just one more example here, however, then I will move on. He thought one of the great losses of modern poetry was music—not metrics, but music. He thought we were embarrassed by it in serious poetry, for some reason. But he took it further, insisting that there is—or should be—an oral quality to poetry that is almost sensual. He quoted Shakespeare: "'When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, and with old woe, new wail my dear time's waste.' You've got to read that out loud, boy, and pay close attention to what's going on inside your mouth. To your lips. To the tip of your tongue. Close your eyes and feel it. It's better than a deep kiss." I was not convinced, having so recently kissed Leah so deeply that nothing could compare and dreading so much that I would never kiss her again. Now though, with no disrespect to kissing, I understand what he meant.
I just remembered this odd comment, Robinson leaning toward me in the hearth glow, almost whispering: "Poetry will kill you, boy. It's already done for me. I'm a goner—a dead man walking. But until it puts you under, it will keep you alive. Look at Emily Dickinson, living in that little pressure cooker of domestic drama. What would she have been without her writing? Poetry is the only difference between her and Lizzie Borden."
Here is something else to consider. This all happened in the summer of 1961, and Harlem Gallery was not published until '65. What are the possibilities? I am not certain that Robinson was reading from a book. He had on his shelves many manuscripts as well as bound volumes—some between cardboard covers and a few even in manila envelopes that seemed to be addressed to him. Was this the case? Tolson would have completed most of his Book I by then and could have shared it with Robinson. But how could he have known, especially that well, a poet as obscure as he was himself, someone more familiar as a debate coach (which is still true) who was a professor at a Black college in Oklahoma and living in a nondescript house on a dirt road? Someone who is certainly fascinating, but almost unreadable because of his maddening, in-your-face erudition? It is also possible that I have subconsciously included Tolson, that he was not among the writers we discussed but has slipped in through the chinks in memory. A more logical explanation for such an anachronism.
Besides, what is memory anyway? You can be sure I have puzzled over that, looking into various theories and even the neuroscience. Aphasia and false memories and reminiscence bumps and recognition. None of it has been very helpful nor will I trouble you with it here. I have no clearer understanding of all this than I did at the end of '61.
Then Bert Satin showed up. I had expected a god-awful '59 Cadillac, but he was driving a Jag XKE—sleek, British racing green, an aberration of restraint and good taste. As we sat down for dinner, Satin was clearly the smallest person at the table. He could have been sitting on a pillow like a child. It was almost dark out, but he was wearing sunglasses that he took off and placed beside his plate. He was wearing a loose white shirt (satin?) open at the neck with a gold chain visible amid thick hair. He was one of those men who has to shave down to the collar line. He was tanned—a Hollywood tan, I suppose. Black hair slicked back, a little long for the time, dark eyes, a high but strong voice that made it clear in a subdued way that here was a guy you do not trifle with.
"So you're the kid who kicked me out of my bed?" I did not know quite how to take that. He laughed. He seemed to be in a good mood, in fact, as if in the after glow of a success. Maybe he was always like that. Lots of successes. He raised a hand toward me that was weighted with a heavy gold ring with a fat ruby. "No problem. Sometimes I stay here, but not always. There's an inn I like down on the Embarcadero."
"Nice car," I said.
He simply nodded in agreement as if to say: Of course you admire it. Why wouldn't you? Then he went on, still talking to me as if no one else were at the table. "It was put up or shut up, but looks like old Lars is going to pull it off. Will wonders never cease, right? This sort of thing is only a sideline for me, you know." He waved the ruby ring. "To tell you the truth, I only dabble in it to please the wife. High culture and charity and all that." It had not occurred to me that he would have a wife, certainly not a club woman. But maybe she was an ex-stripper obsessed with social climbing. "It's true that I always have an eye out for potential best-sellers, of course, but movies are really my business. Movies." He squinted at me. "Not films. I'll bet you like that French crap."
Leah and Robinson were concentrating on their dinner. Both seemed intimidated by Satin. Helen was not, however. "Put a sock in it, Bert," she said. "Your food will get cold."
He gave me a look that said: Women—what are you going to do? Then he concluded, still speaking only to me, "She's the real brains of my business, you know. Couldn't get anything done without her." But finally, he began to eat.
After that, having made whatever points he needed to run up the score in his private game, Satin backed off and settled for ordinary table talk. Leah and her grandfather relaxed and chatted normally. Helen restrained her wisecracks. It turned out that the agent was actually quite up to speed on current French cinema and was working on some import deals. He made some insightful comments about New Wave that complicated my original assessment of him as a crass philistine. He eventually took out his snakeskin wallet and showed me photos of his wife and a couple of cherubic toddlers. Everything about her said money and high-maintenance, but she was not flashy at all. Rather she looked conservative and upper crust and a little bit horsy. But it was Satin who signaled that the meal was over by picking up his sunglasses and hanging them in the gap of his shirt collar. After pouring the rest of the expensive wine he had brought, we three men took our glasses into the parlor leaving Leah and Helen to clean up. Surprise. As we sat by the dying fire—none of us seemed interested in adding a log—Robinson held onto his glass as if he were afraid someone would take it from him. It seemed like he was hoping to get a refill from a magical source if only he wished for it hard enough. The women never appeared after finishing in the kitchen. Escaped. There were some perks to being a woman in those days. Satin did the talking, which consisted of Hollywood anecdotes and name dropping for the most part. I thought how different it was from those wonderful sessions in that room with the old poet on other evenings. About 11:00, Satin announced that he was worn out from a long day and thought he would head back to the inn and get a good night's sleep. For the first time, he spoke directly to Robinson.
"So, my friend. Let's say another week. Then Helen can deliver the manuscript to the San Francisco office, and we'll see what happens. I think someone in New York will bite."
"We'll see," Robinson echoed, barely audible.
"The little lady will love me for this. Your biggest fan. Except for junior here."
The soft click of the bedroom door woke me. Maybe I had been sleeping lightly for weeks, hoping that Leah would finally cross the hall and come to me. I had my back to the door, facing the window, which was glowing with a purplish light. It was almost dawn. Foggy again. I waited to see what she would do next. She came slowly around the foot of the bed and stood between me and the window, looking out rather than at me. Almost filling the window because this was not Leah. It was Helen. From that perspective, lying there, gazing up at her, she seemed even larger than she actually was. She was wearing a long, thin nightgown, and it was obvious that she had nothing on underneath, which she emphasized by turning her profile to me, still looking away, and giving me time to get an eyeful. Which I did.
If I have been tough on myself in telling this story, you can see why now. In fact, I have not been as tough as I should have been. Unless we really ought to forgive ourselves for idiocies and cruelties in our past. What can we do to change anything anyway? How can we even be certain that we know what happened, that memory has not added or edited out essentials, or for that matter, dramatized events so that we can feel more important, more interesting—cool—can feel better about ourselves—or worse, depending on our bent. As I lay there, waiting and watching with Helen fully aware that I was, although she still had not faced me, I was going through something more like an emotional head-on collision than cognitive dissonance: desire—adolescent lust—slamming into a shattered-glass awareness of betrayal of Leah, whom I had been telling myself was my true love, the one I would never forsake. I forsook her all right.
Eventually, Helen faced me and quickly pulled the gown over her head. Whoosh! I had never seen anything quite like that. If you will permit still another literary reference, it has been said the rock star popular poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, a striking redhead, had such a marvelous figure in her prime that men had fainted dead away at the sight of her. I wish I had passed out. If only... (18a)
You can imagine my turmoil as I appeared in the kitchen a few hours later. After the hottest bath I could tolerate. Leah was at the stove with her back to me. Rigid. Forever. "Are you looking for Helen?" I knew it! She had found out. The earth fell away beneath me like a cosmic trap door, and I dropped through, plummeting into darkness waiting to reach the end of the rope around my neck. But the rope turned out to be of indeterminate length, and to this day, I have not come to the end of it, though I surely will. We all must. I say that because Leah finally turned toward me, not with tears in her eyes, rage in her twisted features, but with a mischievous grin and a cheerful plate of bacon and eggs.
"She's been giving you a bit of a hard time, hasn't she?"
I said nothing. I stared blankly at her.
She laughed. "Men never know what's going on. But don't feel too flattered. She flirts with almost everyone like that. I think it's because she's getting older" she paused so that I could reflect on her own youth for a second, which I did—and oh she was lovely! "and wants to feel like she's still attractive to men."
"Really?" I croaked.
"Yes, really, silly. Eat your breakfast before it gets cold." I obeyed. "She's harmless, though. It's all just for show. So don't worry. She won't do anything about it." Then she went on in a light voice to tell me that Bert Satin had left for LA, and that was a relief, and that Helen would be leaving the next morning (18b) and would not be back—and here she did give me a serious, reflective look—before I left.
There is no need to be explicit, not even for the sake of confessional honesty. But I do need to reveal—no, suggest a certain quality of what took place in my bed that morning. You will recall that Helen had told me out in the yard one day when we talked (14a) that Bert Satin dealt with dark corners in people. Helen must have been his disciple because that was also her specialty. Her insight was uncanny and vicious. She compelled me to acknowledge things I wanted but did not want to admit. And I have been trying ever since to put it all back where it came from. But that is not possible, is it? In the category of rebagging 50 cats is the hopeless endeavor to stuff Eros back into the subconscious.
The memory has actually linked itself with everything unpleasant in life so that, just as if I were in the dentist's chair faced with a root canal, whenever I think of Helen, I have learned to trigger Thomas Wyatt's poem. Somehow that makes it possible to shift painful personal images into the abstract. Instead of Helen "with naked foot stalking in my chamber," I see anonymous faces of ladies much longer dead who can do me no harm with all their intrigues in the court of Henry VIII.
Helen was gracious enough in her conquest to avoid me for the rest of that day and the evening. I never had to face her again.
Robinson and I met in the parlor that night as usual. But it was not as usual. He had not laid out any books on the table, nor was there evidence of the enthusiasm he had shown all summer. He seemed subdued—withdrawn, in fact. He was silent, staring into the fire, which seemed to be burning hotter with a fresh log on it. Now I could see how much he had aged just since I had known him, looking even more mummified than he had in June. His eyes were sunken and haunted. His hands were trembling a little with the palsy of an old, old man. I did not know what to say. At last he leaned forward and with a shaking finger tapped the stack of paper that lay alone on the table. "It's finished!"
I said, "You don't seem very pleased about it."
He managed a weak grin. "Pleased that it's been written finally or with the quality? I'm pleased, all right. It's been many years since I've written this well. But I think it's really killed me this time." He made a gesture that indicated that I should read the manuscript, which was about 50 pages—a typical collection of poems. I fanned through it. Most of them were short, ten to 20 lines. Robinson withdrew into himself once more as I began to read.
There are two key elements of this story that I do not remember at all. This is the first. The poems amazed me, stunned me, and I am certain they have been the deepest single influence on my own work. They dealt with the natural world, with trees and rocks, with the coastal landscape, with the inner life of creatures, with the weather as if it too had consciousness. It was not just this world, but another one within or beneath the surface of our familiarity. But beyond that sense of their tone and content, I recall not one word. At times I have dreamed of poems, not my own but simply there in the dream. They have been the most powerful and moving I have ever read. But when I woke, they vanished. Robinson's manuscript was like that. And its disappearance is one of the greatest losses of my life.
When I finished—an hour later?—I put the manuscript back on the table. Robinson did not bother to ask for my reaction, nor would I presume to comment anyway. He knew what he had accomplished. So did I. Again he leaned forward and tapped the stack of papers several times, hard. "Vanitas!" he almost shouted. That was the title. "Yes! I've done it. Now let that" a string of obscenities "Burnt Satin say anything about me. I'm even with him. Paid in full—with interest! Quits!" He fell back, his eyes closed, his whole body trembling now. "God, I need a drink."
Leah was in the kitchen as she so often was. "There's a bottle of good scotch in that cupboard." She pointed. "He's been saving it for when the book was finished." I got the bottle and two glasses and started to leave, but Leah took hold of my arm. "We need to talk," she said. Those are words no man ever wants to hear from a woman, but I had been half expecting them. So they cut into me, but not clear through me.
"OK." Here it comes, I thought, the can't-we-just-be-friends speech.
"You've got to be going soon, right? In a few days?"
"Yes," I began, "but that doesn't mean..."
She put her cold hand on my lips and shook her head. "It never works," she said. "You'll be in a new, exciting place, a new college with all sorts of new people. New girls. No—" she cut off my protest. "You won't want to forget me, but you will."
I was going to say I loved her, but I knew that would only make her respect me less. It would be preparatory to groveling. Instead I said, "Just a summer romance, after all?" I tried to sound sophisticated, but my voice cracked.
"My sweet, sweet boy," she said, and then, already walking toward her room and without looking back at me, almost inaudibly, incredibly: "I love you."
I took the bottle and glasses back to Robinson and poured us a drink. Wine I could handle, but not single malt Scotch. It was hard to take. Everything was getting hard to take. Robinson downed his drink and gestured for a refill. I obliged. If I loved Leah—and I was certain that I did, and always would—I loved this old man, too. Now I understand that I loved him much more.
I could not get to sleep. A couple of times I looked out into the hall to see if there was light coming from beneath Leah's door, but it remained dark. My blankets and sheets were in a snarl that matched my emotions. Sleep was out of the question. Finally I went outside, barefoot in the cold grass. I breathed deeply, my lungs stinging with the fresh sea air. It was going to be hard giving this up and returning to the scorching central valley. Then I noticed a faint glow coming from the fishing boat. Was Robinson still working, making last minute revisions? That was my first thought, just before I remembered another occasion when a candle had lit the boat. I wanted to turn around and go back to my useless bed, but could not of course. I knew. You know too. But I could not stay away. I crept to the ladder, up the side of the boat as quietly as I could, and peaked over the gunwale. A candle burned on the chart table, now bare—stripped of manuscripts. And there was the berth. I recognized the hairy back at once, rising and falling, and farther down, past the tan line, those pale haunches hard at work like a hairy little spider spinning. So she had lied, then. Bert Satin had been lurking around the Embarcadero and not gone to LA. Leah's face was on the near side, between the shadow of his shoulder and the candle on the table, so I could see it all too clearly. Flushed. Tendrils of hair sticking to sweaty brow. Half-open mouth emitting rhythmic grunts. Eyes tight. Loving it. Her feet waved in the air like an upended insect.
The second gap in my memory comes the next morning when I left. I am sure that Leah was hoping for a clean break without drama, and I believe I gave her that satisfaction at least. So long old chum. As for Lars Robinson, God bless him, he probably did not notice. I suspect that he was continuing to withdraw from the world, burnt out by Vanitas—and the fire to which Bert Satin had held his feet—and slipping into silence. Needless to say, my mind was overheated, too. I had to wonder if Leah had set the whole thing up, wanting me to find her with Satin in the very place I had been with her. But how could she have known I would be wandering around outside that night, unable to fall asleep? Besides, nothing had ever suggested such cruelty in her temperament. No, I could not believe that. And yet she had deceived me—precisely as I had deceived her! But if what I had done with Helen just happened without my wanting it to, maybe the same case could be made for Leah. Right? Yeah, right. An even more troubling possibility was that she and Helen were in on the whole thing together, that it had been a deliciously wicked little mind game. If it was, who would have been behind it all other than the master of such mischief, Bert Satin himself. Sa-teen.
At any rate, I hitchhiked back to the Valley and got on with my life. Sort of. I have already mentioned how I came unglued that fall at UCSB, dropped out and went home. I got a job with a bank, which lasted a few months before I could no longer tolerate it. I did this and that for a while. I spent some time in the deep ugly. Ultimately, to get my mind off of everything that was haunting me—literally: haunting—I got married. I finally took a bad job I was willing to stick with. Children were born. Years passed, including sickness and health, infidelity and divorce. Remarriage. Cue the pages flipping on the calendar like they used to do in the movies. These days I show up regularly at church. I brood over the economy, stock prices and pension plans. Retirement—but not yet. Not as long as I can still do my age in pushups. And I am still tough enough to shoulder my way into those little gaps in crowded time and write the poems Lars Robinson made possible for me.
But the story is not over, is it?
In the spring of '62, not long after I quit the bank, in between jobs and girl friends, I looked into my wine-stained soul and admitted that I could not forget Leah. I had to know if she had forgot about me. Also—and may God forgive me for it—there was a thought fluttering around in the dark corners of my mind, and the sound of its wings beating against the walls kept me awake at night: If she did it with Bert, then why not with me? By then I had a reliable car of some sort (I do not remember) and time on my hands, so I told everyone I needed a little vacation, packed my camping gear and took off. I would stop by Robinson's house and, depending on how that all worked out, stay there or head on into the Mother Lode and up into the high Sierras.
I thought at first I could not find the house because I had come and left only on foot. Being in a car made everything look different. Confused, I drove around and around the random blocks, not like the grids in my hometown. I drove up and down the same streets. Then up and down the same street. It was—it had to be, I knew—the right one. And here was Robinson's house. No doubt about it. The grounds I had worked on so hard less than a year before were completely overgrown, abandoned and gone wild. It looked like nothing had been touched for at least a decade. And the house? There was no house. Stone walls with no roof, no windows, the door ripped from its hinges and charred by fire. Beyond it, where the fishing boat had run aground, nothing remained but a mound of vines with no evidence of anything still rotting beneath it. The fence had collapsed.
I parked and stumbled out of the car, standing there in the street weak-kneed and struggling for breath. I do not know for how long. Finally a voice startled me. "Can I help you?" It was the bald ex-plumber from across the street who had admired my efforts the previous summer.
"What happened?" I stammered, pointing toward the ruins.
"Nothing." We looked at each other, neither knowing what the other was saying.
"The fire," I managed to say.
"Oh that!" He shook his head and grinned. "That happened so long ago I didn't know what you meant."
Now I was really confused. "But I was here last summer, working in the yard, painting. You and I talked."
His turn to be confused. "Son, this house burned down—when was it? Not long after the war, I think. In '49 or '50. No one has been around here since then. As a matter of fact, I watched it burn. And I've never laid eyes on you."
The plumber said, "They thought it was the refrigerator overheating, if I remember rightly."
The dog hair! So it was me! But that would have been months ago, not years. "What happened to Mr. Robinson?"
"The crazy old poet? Died in the fire. So did the woman who lived there with him. Can't recall her name."
"That sounds right. Maybe."
"And the young girl—my age?"
"No one else ever lived there. Just the old guy and the woman—and a dog. Now I remember. An Irish Setter. Beautiful animal."
"Seamus. Did he die, too?"
"No. The last I saw of him he was high-tailing it down the street."
I wandered around in a daze for another half hour, poking through the ruins, and picked up a piece of stone. Then I drove away. I took Highway One on up the coast through Big Sur to Monterey where I spent the night in a motel out in Pacific Grove, drinking a bottle of cheap wine and studying the stone. Now what? To put it mildly. My world had been turned upside down—not just my world, in fact, but the universe itself had been knocked out of whack, spilling all of its logic and reality into the void. It was a new world. (22a) For once, however, the wine seemed to clear my head (everything was backwards), and I decided what to do next before I fell asleep—or passed out.
The next morning, I drove on to San Francisco feeling fresh and a little excited rather than hungover. I looked in a phone book and, just as I had hoped—had known, somehow—there it was: Bert Satin Acquisitions. I found the address. It was early afternoon when I walked into the office. Above the receptionist's desk where an efficient looking middle-aged woman sat shuffling papers, I could see the image of the raised letters naming the firm that had been removed from the wall.
"Sorry," the woman said. "We're closed. I mean we're closing down the office." Cardboard file boxes were stacked around the room.
"Moving to Los Angeles." I told her that I was hoping to find Mr. Satin. I pronounced it as I had been taught, which seemed to impress her. Most people probably had to be corrected. This fine point, as such things so often do, gave me credibility with her so that she was more willing to talk. "Mr. Satin retired a few years ago. To Tuscany. The firm is managed by his daughter."
"His kids were toddlers the last I knew." Trying to make it seem that I really did know the man and there would be no harm in giving me information. But she seemed talkative anyway.
"It's a daughter from one of his earlier marriages. There have been several, you know. This is a sharp girl, too. A real business woman. I think the children you're talking about are in boarding school in Switzerland now."
I went on to explain that I was really looking for information about a client of his, Lars Robinson, the poet. "The daughter doesn't handle that sort of thing, but Mr. Satin used to a little, as I recall. More as a hobby than for profit."
"Do you think you have any records?"
She gestured around the room. "Packed, as you can see. Sorry." But as she turned her head in the direction she had indicated randomly, she looked directly at a file box marked in black felt pen: R-S. "Well. Let's just have a quick look." She opened the box and began to sort through the folders in it, finally pulling one out. "Your lucky day," she said. This was all long ago, well before the era of identity theft and lawsuits. Now no one would dare give out that kind of information. But in this case, the woman was pleased to be of help. She examined the papers in the folder. "Not much here, I'm afraid."
I said, "I'm especially interested in Robinson's last book. It's called Vanitas."
"No... All I see is a selected poems. Nothing published after that. Looks like it went out of print a number of years ago. But the accounting wasn't finished until the publisher remaindered the last of the stock. They probably forgot about it until the bean counters caught up with them. There was a final royalty check—for $37.50."
"Who was it paid to?"
"Says here, Leah Brannon. In Sacramento." And she gave me the address when I asked, without hesitation.
I made it to Sacramento that evening, checking into another motel. A dry night. My plan was to locate the place, not really expecting to find her there (the information was a couple of years old) and then continue on into the Sierras. And that is what I did, although I went farther and higher into the mountains than I had intended and stayed longer.
I have no quarrel with materialists. I can hardly blame them for wanting to deal exclusively with the hard copy rather than the conundrums of cyber space. Who would not? Hands on science with its repeatable experiments and irrefutable natural laws in a tangible world. But ever since this all happened—or at least in the years immediately afterwards as I tried to sort out the jumble in my head—I have not been able to deny the equal reality of the spiritual. It is quite simply and actually there. Beyond that, I offer no explanations. I may have some, but I will not try to force my beliefs on you. I am just telling the story. I am convinced, however, that materialists live in only half the world.
It was a flat-topped, inexpensive, slapdash tract house with a primered Ford 150 pick-up in the driveway. When I knocked, a dog barked inside. Leah opened the door. She looked exactly as she had the previous summer, but a little frazzled. And she was holding a chubby baby boy on her hip. I noticed a wedding band. "Yes?" She looked at me like a total stranger. Taken by surprise, she could not have faked it, even if she were the best actress in the world. Which, for all I knew, she was. Not a hint of recognition in those familiar, any-color eyes.
"Leah?" I said.
"Do I know you?" Suspicious now.
I took a step backward, playing along. I explained that I was a student doing a research paper on her grandfather.
"I was just a little girl when he died. I barely remember him." Just then the dog I had heard barking came up beside her. He had a gray snout and bleary eyes, and his joints were stiff with arthritis.
Leah said, "How do you know his name? Now you're making me nervous." Then she called out, "Chuck!" A man filled the hallway behind her. He must have been a guard on his high school football team who already had begun to go to seed a few years after graduation.
He glared at me. "Is there a problem?" I assured him everything was fine and repeated my story about doing research on Lars Robinson. The man muttered, "We don't know nothing about him, do we Leah?" She agreed.
I asked if there was a chance that they had any papers of his— letters, manuscripts, anything. Maybe a box in the garage.
"Nothing," Leah said and started to close the door. But I knelt on the threshold and scratched the old dog behind the ears.
Chuck said, "He doesn't usually take to strangers."
Then Leah went on in a friendlier voice, "I guess he's something I have from Grandpa. After he died in the fire at his place down on the central coast somewhere, we ended up with the dog. My mother and I. Poor guy. He's about on his last legs. We'll have to put him down soon."
"I'm sorry," I said. "That always breaks your heart, doesn't it?"
Just before I walked back to the car and drove away, I looked into those weak eyes that had seen so much. He peered back at me and whimpered. Then he licked my cheek, just as he did on the beach that purple night the past summer—a few months earlier for me, a long lifetime for him.