Notes in the Margin (Part III)


Notes in the Margin (Part III)

Peter Orner
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McPherson I

You get to the point where elegies feel fraudulent. A self-involved, too-late gasp of appreciation. James Alan McPherson—he’s been dead now how long? Three, four years? I can check the exact number, but once someone’s gone, the years they’ve been absent weigh on you differently, depending on how often you do or don’t think about them. We, the living, are irresponsible, haphazard in our remembering.

He wasn’t so much a teacher as a soft-spoken, reluctant oracle. One day during class, he played an old cassette tape of an interview he’d once conducted with Richard Pryor. Mostly it consisted of Pryor laughing. Imagine a man who could make Richard Pryor belly laugh. There were a few pauses when you could clearly hear Pryor snorting coke. Then he’d go back to laughing at something that McPherson had muttered under his breath. Why did he play us this tape? It wasn’t to boast that he’d hung out with a celebrity. It was about something a lot more fundamental: two people, two human beings, connecting, talking, laughing, all guards down, open-souled. That’s what he’d wanted us to hear, not the substance of the interview, of which there wasn’t much, anyway.

McPherson sniffed out posers, and if graduate students were anything, we were posers. Full of ourselves, our youth, our worth, our talent; we were waylaid in this corn-fed town only for a couple of years before we conquered the coast of our choosing. But McPherson didn’t knock us down for being such dipshits. He knew a certain amount of dipshitery went along with being a human being, and above all he was interested in what makes people human. He encouraged us not to follow anybody’s script, including our own, and loved to collect examples of human beings refusing to be typecast. A neo-Nazi is hit by a rock at a rally outside Chicago. The Nazi, a pimpled kid, falls in the street, bleeding. A protester who happens also to be a black woman rushes over to him, kneels, holds his bleeding head, protects him from more rocks. A McPherson moment: when a generous instinct overcomes a societal/cultural/clan-imposed identity. It was not a photo op he was after; he would have preferred that the gesture not be identified as anything other than an ordinary human thing to do. A kid’s hurt: comfort him, shield him.

Another time, he taught a class—I forget what it was called, but the syllabus was superimposed over a picture of Richard Jewell. Remember Richard Jewell? The security guard accused of planting a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics? He’d been among the first to rush in to try and save people. But the theory was that he was such a poor, dumb sap who lived with his mother that naturally he’d plant a bomb, so he could, for the first time in his life, be a hero. This was false: Jewell was completely exonerated. Turned out Richard Jewell was, simply, a hero. The FBI figured this out only after they ruined his life. Another McPherson sort of story. Whatever that class was about, Richard Jewell’s spirit hovered over it. And I think of him today, that maligned, forgotten security guard, but only because Jim McPherson took the time, twenty years ago now, to give the man his due credit. 



Some stories just are. Just talking about them seems like it might break them. Like those expensive wineglasses, the kind that are so thin you can feel with your tongue how much they cost. When I’m at a dinner party (rarely), I invariably fumble and drop such glasses on the floor. “Phiff, where the hell’d it go?” It might sound absurd to suggest that a tough William Kittredge story could be so fragile.

And his people don’t drink wine. But “Thirty-Four Seasons of Winter” is a delicate work of fiction. It’s set in Kittredge Country, which, as Raymond Carver puts it in the foreword to We Are Not in This Together, could be anywhere from Red Bluff, in north-central California, to eastern Oregon, to Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming. The story follows two stepbrothers, Ben and Art, who are thrown together when they’re both thirteen. Ben’s dad moves in with Art’s mother. First thing they do is fight. Art beats the shit out of Ben.

When Art is seventeen, he has a brief career as a boxer. He fights in Yakima, Washington; and Klamath Falls and Salem, Oregon. After one of his fights, he brings home Clara. Ben is busy stacking hay.

The lemon colored convertible came across the stubble, bouncing and wheeling hard, just ahead of its own dust, and stopped twenty or thirty yards from the stack. Art jumped out holding a can of beer over his head. The girl stood beside the convertible in the dusty alfalfa stubble and squinted into the glaring light, moist and sleepy looking. She was maybe twenty, and her sleeveless dress was wrinkled from sleeping in the car and sweat-gray beneath the arms.

“Just ahead of its own dust.” You could say that everybody in this story is living just ahead of their own dust. Ben leaves the moment he sees Clara. He ends up falling for her too. But Ben doesn’t get the girl. Art marries Clara. Decades pass, until one day, when they are thirty-one, Art and Ben meet at a tavern. Art calls Ben’s fiancée, Marie, a pig, and Ben smashes a broken glass into the back of his brother’s neck. And when Art, just a few pages later, is murdered by one of his many girlfriends, Ben takes out his grief on Marie, who’s now pregnant, by accusing her of once having an affair with Art, which may or may not be true. Then he seeks out Clara at the bar where she now works. The two of them drink and dance. You think something’s going to come out of this darkness—if not a little love, maybe a little affection. Instead, Clara, who’s as grief-stricken as Ben is over Art, lets Ben have it.

She pushed him away after a few songs. “If you ain’t one hell of a dancer,” she said. “Art was a pretty dancer.” She sat down in the booth and put an arm on the table and then lay her head alongside it, facing the wall.

More happens in the story, but I want to pause here with Ben and Clara at the bar. No love, and no, not even much affection. Kittredge’s characters have a way of making exactly the wrong move at exactly the wrong time. Did Ben really think the afternoon of Art’s funeral was going to be the day he’d win over Clara? This is what I mean when I talk about the delicate architecture of this story: if you poke at it, as I’m doing now, you risk undermining its impact. Because this moment between Ben and Clara, it’s been in the cards for years. And as devastating as it is for Ben, Clara’s rejection seems to change something in him. Not right then—Ben’s too drunk—but later. And even then, the change is so subtle as to be nearly imperceptible. William Kittredge, one of the great living interrogators of the myth of the American West, isn’t one to foist easy redemption onto a character. And yet “Thirty-Four Seasons of Winter” ends with a gesture that’s as gentle as the rest of the story is violent. This sounds too perfect. Somehow it isn’t. But you see what I’ve been getting at? Too much talk wrecks this one.


McPherson II

All of McPherson’s obituaries lead with the fact that he was the first African American man to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his second story collection, Elbow Room. All well and good. But I want to talk about his first collection, Hue and Cry. In the late ’90s, I stole a first edition from Iowa’s Coralville Public Library. I did so for three reasons: (1) because the book hadn’t been checked out in years, I felt that the people of Coralville had lost the right to it;  (2) because Hue and Cry at that time, as a result of some obscure publishing feud, was incredibly hard to find; and (3) because the book contained the story “Gold Coast,” arguably the greatest and most enduring embodiment of McPherson’s infinitely open heart. Although McPherson never would have approved of my stealing a library book—and, if I’d ever told him, would have urged me to return it—I think he would have appreciated the human contradiction of my simultaneously celebrating a book’s benevolence while hoarding it and refusing to let anybody else on earth touch it.

If I had any talent for memorizing, which I don’t, I’d like to memorize “Gold Coast,” so I could recite it to myself in lost, bookless moments, like a prayer. Set in the late ’60s, it’s the story of a friendship between an old Irish janitor and a young writer, and it opens with these lines:

That spring when I had a great deal of potential and no money at all, I took a job as a janitor. That was when I was still very young and spent money very freely, and when, almost every night, I drifted off to sleep lulled by sweet anticipation of that time when my potential would suddenly be realized and there would be capsule biographies of my life on dust jackets of many books, all proclaiming: “…He knew life on many levels. From shoeshine boy, free-lance waiter, 3rd cook, janitor, he rose to…” I had never been a janitor before, and I did not really have to be one, and that is why I did it.

The job comes with an apartment in Harvard Square, in a building that has seen better days. Sullivan, the janitor, teaches Rob, the writer and apprentice janitor, who’s who in the building. He tells him which apartments have Jews. He tells him which old ladies will try, against house rules, to leave cat litter out for the janitor. Sullivan doesn’t really hate Jews or spinsters, Rob explains; “He was just bitter toward anyone better off than himself.” Sullivan’s wife has been going insane for years. She can’t walk as far as the front steps of the building where she sits each day, wearing a blue hat and muttering to herself incoherently. Sullivan’s wife loves only her dog. Sullivan’s stone lonely. He just needs someone to talk to. He calls Rob at all hours of the night.

“Rob? Jimmy Sullivan here. What are you doing?”

There was nothing suitable to say.

“Come on down to the basement for a drink.”

“I have to be at work at 8:30,” I would protest.

“Can’t you have just one drink?”  he would say pathetically.

Rob’s in love. He’s got a girl who happens to be white, just as he happens to be black. Though other people remind them of their respective races constantly, the two of them are happy together. Rob’s writing is going well. He’s got better things to do than listen to the old janitor jabber on. Still, he meets Sullivan in the boiler room, listens to him talk about Medicare, beatniks, civil rights. Who’s got time for this? Rob’s got love to make, books to write. All his potential to be realized. And still Jimmy Sullivan talks. He tells Rob how he once sat at a bar next to James Michael Curley himself, the biggest crook ever to grace the mayorship of Boston. Memories of a lifetime, but Rob’s not interested and Sullivan won’t let him get away.

Then I would start to edge toward the door, and he would see that he could hold me no longer, not even by declaring that he wanted to be an honorary Negro because he loved the race so much.

You know this moment? When your need to talk is so overwhelming that you’ll say anything to hold your audience? Maybe the stories that ache the most come out of this impulse. We’re desperate to tell them before it’s too late, even if it is only into the ear of somebody who’s hardly listening. Maybe something, somehow, will stick and be remembered. Rob eventually shakes Sullivan, but this doesn’t mean he’s ever able to leave the man behind.



As far as I know, it’s her only book. I bought a copy at Upstair Used Books, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the sort of bookstore you think couldn’t possibly exist anymore. Even the name of it sounds like a typo. A bookstore out of a dream. A crammed, creaky-floored, dusty place above—if I remember—a laundromat. You see, I’m always—and no offense to the bookstores that are my bread and butter—a little disappointed by stores that sell new books, even trendy independent ones. I’m never surprised by the inventory. While a new bookstore is reliably predictable, a good used-book store is a chaotic cosmos, its possibilities infinite. I hope Upstair Used Books still exists. I haven’t had the heart to check. Say a prayer for the place.

The book, a story collection, cost me $4.50, plus tax. A simple hardcover, no image on the front. Only these words, laid out like this:




Beneath the title, in smaller letters: “Stories by Ellen Wilbur.” The book was published by Stuart Wright Publishers, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1984.

Unlike her stories, which have been speaking to me for years, Ellen Wilbur herself, for whatever reason, has gone silent. I’ve never thought it my business to ask why a writer stops writing for publication. With this in mind, I haven’t done any serious digging around into Ellen Wilbur’s life to try and discover any clues, but I do believe she is very much alive. (A 2008 story about her in The Harvard Advocate said she was working as the director of an after-school program.) There’s this goofy American exhortation that insists writers must write, and that to stop is to admit to failure. Writers are routinely asked: “So, what are you working on now?” By asking, the questioner is implying that, naturally, you couldn’t possibly be satisfied with the work you’ve done thus far. I’ve also noticed that the people who ask, “So, what are you working on now?” tend not to be all that interested in your answer. As if what they truly want is not a specific answer (“I’m writing a novel about blah-blah-blah, set in blah-blah”) but the reassurance that you, too, are dissatisfied. Sometimes writers stop. The demands of the day job, the children, the bills, the debts. Aging parents. Physical trouble, mental trouble. Or maybe they’ve just said what they had to say. Who knows? I seem to be having an argument with myself (common), but where is it written that a writer must say any more than what they’ve already said?

Wind and Birds and Human Voices is one of those books written out of no obligation to anything aside from the integrity of the stories themselves. I hesitate to try and describe these stories, because I’ll inevitably fall into the trap of suggesting they are “quiet,” and I want to avoid that word. There’s tenderness, yes, sometimes, but this kind of intimacy can get uncomfortable. Wilbur’s sentences do not call much attention to themselves, and yet they have this way of exploding like a land mine. Here’s one from a story called “Ned”:

One night, two years ago, when I made love to Mary, I could see that she enjoyed it and wasn’t doing it to please me the way she usually does.

You see what I mean? How beautifully fucked-up? And how ordinary? 

Subtle yet direct disclosure of secrets drives these stories. “Perfection” depicts two people who barely know each other, and an affair that doesn’t happen, which makes it all the more intense. Wilbur suggests that we are lying when we tell ourselves that infatuation isn’t, at its root, about sex. Ultimately, “Perfection” is about learning to live without perfection, even if it may well exist out there in the world. You’ve seen it. You desire it. And that desire almost comes to a boil—and then “Perfection,” which is only six pages long, is over, leaving you in a kind of free fall.

Wilbur is all about peeling back the facades that protect us. Here’s a small, irrelevant disclosure of my own. There’s another reason I hold this book sacred, and it has nothing to do with the stories. Wilbur’s picture on the jacket reminds me of someone I used to know. Say she’s an old friend I can’t call anymore. An old friend who’s also very much alive. There are some days, it is true, I make the call in my head.



When I tell people I was disinherited, they always look at me like somebody died. I mean, somebody did die, my father died, but I always say I’m over it—the money part, anyway. I’m lying when I tell people I wouldn’t have accepted a dime even if he had left me a little of what was left at the end, which wasn’t much. And yet this is how I’d felt pretty much up till the day I read the part in his will where he wrote my brother and me out of it. I didn’t have to look very far. It was in the first paragraph. At that point, I lost my great resolve to refuse any inheritance. And so it goes, right?

It was a line in an Amy Clampitt poem that brought this back last week. Not that it takes much. The words inheritance, bequest, estate, death tax, a father’s love, Don Jr. are all triggers. But, like I say, I’m over it. In Clampitt’s poem “The Prairie,” she refers to a Jew in a Chekhov story who, “out of demented principal,” stuffs the six thousand rubles he inherited from his father into the stove. (Now, there’s a man.) In 1870, six thousand rubles was roughly the equivalent of $4,600, which, adjusted for inflation, would now be roughly $8,317.23. Roughly? This is according to Dimo_23 on Reddit.

Clampitt writes:


However jaded you may think you are, now there’s

a scandal for you. Six thousand rubles,

and he burns them: shows no respect, fears

no one, is a man possessed, the evil sprite

out of a nightmare: thus Chekhov, scandal-


In the Chekhov story “The Steppe,” the money burner is named Solomon. His brother Moishe, an innkeeper, laments that Solomon could have just given him the money if he didn’t want it. It would have helped me so much… In the way of things, Moishe is forced to give his destitute brother a job at the inn. And Clampitt’s right, isn’t she? It is a scandal to destroy cash. No matter how much I talk a big game about not copping to money, about how I’d be all for going back to a bartering society, I’m completely full of shit. I loathe the stuff; I crave the stuff. Isn’t this the genius of money?

Clampitt’s “The Prairie” is epic, runs eleven glorious pages, and casts a wide generational and geographical net. She roams from her own life in Manhattan, to her grandfather’s life in the Dakotas, to California, Iowa, and back again to New York. I must have read it at least a dozen times recently. Clampitt shows how weirdly linked the details of our lives are. She quotes Joseph Brodsky as saying that “everything in this life is, in a sense, but a pattern in a carpet. Trodden underfoot.” Clampitt makes the seemingly mundane connection that her grandfather was born the same year as Anton Chekhov: 1860; her grandfather in the Midwest, Chekhov in the Russian port city of Taganrog. And yet this coincidence takes on broader significance when she considers Solomon’s repudiation in “The Steppe”:

                                  …Money and profits:

the mainspring for all of us, except that brother

of a tavernkeeping Jew, who mocks us,

boasting he put his money in the stove.

Cash, of course, is the great fuel of life, the mainspring. Rare are those who truly believe they can get by without it. Rarer still are those who actually do. Even Solomon, for all his heroic contempt, needs to eat. And yet Clampitt’s poem is, for me, ultimately about the stories we carry across the generations, not the money that does, or doesn’t, get passed on. She recalls her grandfather’s brief relocation to the promised land of California. He lasted only two years. California gave him headaches. It wasn’t who he was.

         What was he good for but what

he’d been brought up as, a dirt farmer?

Amy Clampitt, who didn’t publish her first book until she was sixty-three, knew what it was like to bump around, and she certainly knew what it was like to worry about money. But she also knew how rich she was in stories. And in spite of being broke and forever in debt (thanks, Dad), I, too, take this gospel personally: our stories are our inheritance. It’s about the only thing I’ll truly put my faith in. Burn the money in the stove; write me out of the will. I’ve still got the details, and the details are the stories. Every day for fifty-five years my father took the Chicago and North Western train to work, the 8:13. In winter he wore a furry Russianish hat. My brother used to say he looked like Leonid Brezhnev’s brother.



Memoirs have always seemed to me a failure of imagination. I say this as someone who’s written one. The whole time I pretended I wasn’t. This didn’t mitigate the failure of my imagination. Paula Fox’s book was just another in the thirty, forty, or fifty boxes of books I lug from move to move but never intend to read. Fox’s novels: Desperate Characters—yes; The Widow’s Children—god, yes. But a Paula Fox memoir? Who needs to read a genius with one hand tied behind her back?

I heard a radio program the other day that made a pretty good case for free will not existing. In other words, anything you think you’ve ever decided was foreordained when your parents got together and exchanged fluids. Under this lack-of-free-will theory, it was predetermined that on November 28, 2018, I would go into the garage with the vague intention of culling a few books from my boxes and giving them away. A few minutes into the culling, I stopped, and again, for no reason I can discern aside from the fact that it was written into my genetic code, read the last five pages of Borrowed Finery. A lot happens in these pages. One thing is that Paula Fox visits her ninety-one-year-old mother, a woman she hasn’t seen in thirty-eight years. Why? Who knows? I had no idea. I hadn’t read the book. But there was a line that shot my head off my neck:

I put the magazine down. My mother was standing a few feet away, swaying slightly. She reminded me of an old conquistador, thin, tall, white hair like a helmet.

This book had been in a box how many years? So that day, yes, I read Borrowed Finery. Fox’s reunion with her mother is not a happy one. Her mother, Elsie, always lacked maternal instincts, to put it charitably. Her father was no great shakes, either. And yet their detestability is what makes them so wildly entertaining. Fox’s parents gave her up at birth, and she spent her early life being shuttled from relative to relative to concerned non-relative, from New York to California to Cuba to New Hampshire to Florida.

The one bright spot is the few years she spent under the care of a compassionate minister she calls Uncle Elwood. They aren’t biologically related, but Fox describes her eventual separation from Uncle Elwood as an amputation. Because this is the thing: her parents didn’t quite give her up entirely. They seemed to want to have a kid around once in a while. “I learned,” Fox writes, “that if I were to see my parents, I had to live away from them.”

Borrowed Finery is essentially the story of Fox’s brief encounters with her father, a mostly unsuccessful screenwriter and novelist, who could be funny, charming, and also insanely cruel, and with Elsie, who was mostly just insanely cruel. It’s unclear what Elsie did all day, aside from exuding a combination of indifference and rage. She was the black hole in Paula Fox’s life, and the void at the center of the book. There are few details about Elsie, and yet she’s not a cartoon villain. When she does appear, she’s as distinct and strange as any great cameo in fiction:

After reading a news story about farmers shooting coyotes, she said, “Why not arm the coyotes?”

Fox does not dwell on how she got out from under the shadow of her parents. This is not one of those triumph-over-adversity memoirs. Fox wouldn’t be caught dead inspiring anybody, thank god. But it is as though she believes that recounting the details alone provides, if not healing, at least a reckoning of sorts. And Paula Fox’s eye here, as in her fiction, is unparalleled. A woman whose face was always damp, as though she leaked tears through her skin. An ironing board that looks like a grasshopper. A visit from her father when she’s in the hospital, when Fox laughed so hard—maybe because he was impersonating a father visiting his daughter in the hospital—that a nurse had to crawl under the bed and push up the mattress to help her stop. And so on. And yet every word of Borrowed Finery feels as if it was a struggle. Sentences, wonderful as they often are, don’t flow easy. At times this book sputters. But its sputtering is its power. The silences, the gaps: all that’s left out is far more crucial than what Fox does manage to say.


Vargas Llosa/Cervantes

I’m at the Verizon. Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind” is playing. Is it me, or do some people actually like going to the Verizon and talking, into eternity itself, about their fucking phones?

Now, the Freedom Select Plus Plan comes with unlimited texts but not unlimited data.

But will ten gigs be enough?

That all depends on your usage, but with the Freedom Plus Your Ass Plan, you get—

At the same time, I’m reading—highbrow that I affect to be—a Mario Vargas Llosa essay. I try my best, when I’m out in public, to create a bulwark between myself and this universe I must dwell in. It’s not hard. All I have to do is read a book in the Verizon and suddenly, in my own inglorious mind, I’m in a better place.

The Vargas Llosa essay has to do with the history of the novel in South America. He writes that the novel was forbidden in the Spanish colonies by the Inquisition. The nasty folks who ran that particular operation realized that fiction—its truths, its provocations—could be quite subversive, even revolutionary. As a result, the very first copies of Don Quixote arrived hidden in a barrel of wine. Those reading this forbidden book for the first time knew they could be tortured and jailed for cracking its spine. It didn’t matter. People read Don Quixote anyway. The inquisitors, Vargas Llosa says, failed because they simply couldn’t imagine how strong the human appetite was for “escaping objective reality through illusions.”

Kansas has given way to Sheryl Crowe. It’s the song where the good people of the world are washing their cars, a song I can’t help but like. And still: this place. Why does the light in here make me feel both murderous and lethargic? Out of this fluorescent fog a memory emerges: a scene, from somewhere deep in Don Quixote, when the Don talks to Sancho about teeth. Don Quixote says there’s nothing more valuable on the face of the earth than a molar. A tooth, Don Quixote says, is the sublime physical manifestation of God’s glory on earth. Or something along those lines. The Don uses that sort of absurd, highfalutin nonsense when he discourses to Sancho. And I remember thinking of this very moment from the book as my father lay dying. At one point, my father’s dentures popped out of his mouth and rolled down his chest. My father, who’d taken such good care of his teeth, who flossed after every meal. What the hell happened, I wondered, to my father’s teeth? And I thought, at that moment, of the Don’s lecture on the worth of one tooth. I didn’t cry when my father passed away, but I did when Don Quixote died, a guy in a book. I remember that I just sort of crumpled out of my chair and onto the floor, weeping.

How strong the human appetite is for escaping objective reality through illusions.

At the end of the novel, of course, Don Quixote disavows the romance of chivalry and turns his back on illusions. His friends the barber, the bachelor, and the curate try to talk him out of it, urge him to embrace his fantasies once again. But the Don is adamant. His return to his senses is final. He says his name is Alonso Quijano. He calls for a priest to confess; he calls for a notary to make out his will. He forgives Sancho all outstanding debt and leaves him what’s left in their jointly held account for traveling expenses. Sancho tells him that he shouldn’t die, that it’s lazy to die without somebody killing you.

If only the Don—the real Don, not Alonso Quijano—was here. He’d protect us all. Only that illustrious man could spot the assistant manager of the Verizon for who he is, Satan’s representative on earth, assistant chieftain of screwing us monthly. But I don’t see the valiant Don Quixote de La Mancha, undoer of wrongs. Maybe he’s over at Bed Bath & Beyond. There will be no justice today, it seems, fantastical or otherwise. Verizon will sell and I will buy, will buy, will buy. 



Dear Mrs. Engerman,

Forgive me; you did what you could with me; I just didn’t get it. Other sophomores did. Melanie Goldberg for sure did. She said Hester Prynne represents the nascent rise of American individual womanhood. I was just confused. I thought about Hester in ways you wouldn’t want to know, Mrs. Engerman. Others have made this joke, and that’s because it’s not a joke, not really: Hester elicits serious lust, literarily, literally. I now know there’s other stuff in the book. It’s just that then I was an overhormoned dimwit and found the whole deal, aside from certain suggestive elements, prudish and, yeah, for the most part, a snore.

I live in New England now, and to honor the new year I thought I’d celebrate my light-deprived depression by re-reading The Scarlet Letter. Maybe I’d missed something. But I have to say, at least initially, that my read of the book was pretty consistent with how it was back when you gave me a C. In my post–high school experience, sin has always been worth it. Hawthorne really knows how to rain on the parade. He doesn’t, for instance, give us much sense of Hester and Arthur’s copulation. It’s like Pearl was conceived by immaculate transgression. He hints at the deed, sure, and this does still, forgive me, stimulate certain images in my mind, but for Hawthorne, it’s all aftermath. The moment of depravity is so fleeting, it’s hardly happening when it’s happening. Is this the cruelty of existence itself? Everything post-birth is aftermath? I’ve become solemn, Mrs. Engerman. Solemn but still shallow.

You spent a lot of time during fifth period talking about symbols. I remember, in particular, that you zeroed in on “The Minister’s Vigil” chapter, when Dimmesdale, that overdramatic coward, walks out into the night and finds himself on the scaffold where once, years earlier, Hester Prynne stood in such ignominy. It’s a scene I know must have played into my horny little sophomore hands. Because who turns up that very night? Hester and little Pearl.
Please, Mrs. Engerman, don’t think I’m trying to turn in my three-part essay (introduction, body, conclusion) twenty-seven years too late. You wouldn’t accept papers five minutes late, which is why I never turned in this assignment in the first place. Not that this version would have passed, either. It’s only that I noticed something in “The “Minister’s Vigil” this time, nothing earth-shattering, but a passage of such marvelous and unexpected beauty that I couldn’t help but think of you, Winifred. May I call you Winifred? I thought you might like to know I’ve made a little progress. As nobody would know better than you, Hester and Pearl aren’t there. Arthur Dimmesdale is hallucinating. And yet they are there, right? Because that’s how it is with hallucinations. What isn’t there is there. But this moment, wonderful as it is, isn’t what really got to me. It’s what happens just after: there’s a sudden, convenient meteor shower. Unlike Dimmesdale’s hallucination, this I believe actually takes place in the real time of the story. A sudden and miraculous illumination.

The great vault brightened, like the dome of an immense lamp. It showed the familiar scene of the street, with the distinctness of midday, but also with the awfulness that is always imparted to familiar objects by an unaccustomed light.

People say you’ve died, Winifred. I refuse to believe this. Is it weird to say I felt your physical presence while I was re-reading The Scarlet Letter?

Another thing, if you can believe it: I’m a professor now. No PhD; let’s not get carried away. I have a fake degree known as an MFA. It was fun, kind of like art camp. But what I first learned about literature, I learned from you. You taught us it was all right to love it. And so I know you’ll forgive me for not being able to explain, even to myself, why I’m so moved by this idea of seeing the familiar in an unfamiliar light. Notice that Hawthorne isn’t using a tired metaphor about seeing something in a new light. The light itself is actually different. Arthur Dimmesdale, like most of us, will never be a hero. Yet the meteor shower does—for a moment, anyway—change everything:

They stood in the noon of that strange and solemn splendor as if it were the light that is to reveal all secrets, and the daybreak that shall unite all who belong to one another.

My god, Winifred, what a glorious use of the word noon. To turn time itself into light. It’s the sort of line that, if I remember, used to make you pop your forehead with an open palm and sigh.



I was once told by the editor of a magazine—it was a magazine called Story, and it’s out of business now, so why not name names?—that she was rejecting my story because “enough with the relationship stories, OK?” The story wasn’t any good. Maybe the editor was looking for a way to turn it down without hurting my feelings. I don’t know. But I thought of this the other day when I finished, for the second time in the last six months, Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter. I imagined this same editor saying, Poignant stuff, Zambreno, but look, enough already with the dead mother stories. Been there, done that, all right?

Kate Zambreno’s mother used to get up at 5 a.m. to start the housework. She wanted to set the world right before the whole place woke up and started to unravel again, to straighten and dust and wash the clothes before the sun came up. Also, Zambreno writes, her mother must have wanted a little time alone while her family was sleeping.

Mutter. A good, humble word. Webster’s: “to utter sounds or words indistinctly.” Old high German: mutilon, “to mutter, to drizzle.” I like that: to drizzle. We do a lot of drizzling, don’t we? We mutter the things we can hardly say. And, in general, everybody has so much to say. I tire of what people have to say. I especially tire of what I have to say. How about honoring what we can’t articulate distinctly? The things we say under our breath, only to ourselves.

I tried to nurse my mother. If I had known then what I know now—that she would die in mere months—I would have nursed her more. I would have abandoned myself to her. I would have given up my life, thrown myself on top of her, tried to crawl inside of her. I was there, but sometimes I wasn’t.

There are certain books that find you unprepared. This was one for me. I was unprepared in the way you are for a book you haven’t known you needed.

After her mother’s death, Zambreno searches the house, collecting traces of her mother. Zambreno knows there are things we have no business trying to say. In a sense, trying to explain one’s grief is to translate it, and in translation, invariably, so much is not only lost but false. Zambreno worked on the book for a decade. No doubt it might have taken her longer, and I wonder, as I go on reading it without reading it, if she keeps writing it without writing it. Certain books are like that. They can’t stop being written, because the writing is so bound to the remembering. And for Zambreno, remembering is writing. But even memory is no match for the simple truth of one mother’s, any mother’s, biological breakdown. Zambreno:

I tried to make her comfortable. I got her little things to eat. Her body was so strange now. Curiously heavy.

Because even bodies ravaged by cancer can’t help but have weight. Absence, too, of course, is weight. The ultimate weight? Maybe this is why we always return to the things, even the smallest things, that outlast our people. In the hospital, Zambreno goes through her mother’s purse and takes another inventory: a used tissue. Hand lotion. A lipstick that’s never been used. A wallet without money. Crumbling brown tobacco lining the bottom.



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