* Note: this was written a few years ago, but I never submitted it to magazines. ~ M
My enormous, perfumed, fedora-wearing friend, Walter Kaminski, sits across the table from me outside a Starbucks in San Diego and tells me there is no god. I look at him like he’s crazy and he smiles as if nothing could be more predictable. In a way, he is probably right. We are both predictable. He sits there, heavily cologned, with his absurd hat and about 20 more pounds since the last time I saw him, looking as contemptuous and amused as ever. And then there’s me: unemployed, disenrolled, and back home with my folks at age 31. Somewhere, it is probably written that things should be this way. Walter smiles and sips his coffee. He is happy. Happy and content in the fact that he has a job and there is no god. He reminds me of Maitreya Buddha, the laughing Buddha, found on Chinese restaurant counters everywhere as a fancy donation box that one feeds a quarter for luck and wisdom.
“I can prove that shit,” he says.
I nod. I believe he can.
This happens on a weekday in the summer of 2005. A month earlier, I’d arrived back at the house in which I’d spent the first 18 years of my life, back home from Hummell College, Missouri, with no PhD, no means of gainful employment, and my few worldly possessions packed into a small-sized U-Haul that lost its brakes in New Mexico and blew its front left tire in Arizona. And so I could care less about Walter’s atheist hypotheticals. What I need is a job. A job from good Walter, who, in our undergraduate creative writing workshops at SDSU used to furtively raise his hand when the instructor asked how many poets there were in the room.
I think of this while I look at him. He used to have long hair. Now he wears a fedora. Instead of transferring to UC Irvine and then going to graduate school like me, Walter has built a fine career for himself in information technology management with the Target Corporation. I must ask him for a job because I now have less than $100 left in my account and no direction—because, as I walked my bike out the front door this morning, like I did when I was in high school, my mom pushed a folded $20 into my shirt pocket. “In case you want a cup of coffee or something,” she said. I took the money, but I couldn’t look at her. And pure shame fueled my pedaling for the hour it took me to bike across San Diego to the Starbucks near Walter’s office.
“It’s like this.” He sets his grande latte down, smiling at it and turning it carefully on the table as if we’re in some kind of variant tea ceremony involving humiliation and loss of faith. “If everyone can make their own reality, if it’s all just subjective and relative, you could go jump out in front of a bus and believe there’s no bus, and there would be no bus.”
“When did you become a philosopher?”
He drops his smile and I ask myself how arguing with him is helping my job search.
“Of course, I can see where you might have a point,” I add.
“It’s the spiritual dimension. This world is the bus. God is believing there’s no bus. But you still get hit by the bus.” Walter looks at me, wanting a reaction, his eyes narrower than they were a moment ago.
So I nod.
We were friends in grade school, then in high school, then as freshmen at San Diego State University. But he never forgave me for transferring to a better school and then going after a masters degree in fiction writing. I never forgave him for not at least trying to be a grownup poet.
“How’s work?” I ask.
“Work’s work,” he says, pushing back his fedora in the way of an old movie detective. “50k a year ain’t much, but it pays the rent.”
You fucking fool, I want to tell him, and you don’t believe in god.
Actually, I don’t believe in god, either. I believe in Carl Sagan, which is to say, I believe that if one wants to make an apple pie, one must first create the universe. In fact, I have been trained to create universe after universe. My MFA in fiction writing didn’t give me permission to do that, but it did show me how others have done it, over and over in various literary traditions, while I wrote bad fiction that slowly got better.
The degree was time to think, to write, to worry a little less about the practical exigencies of life. Such was my training—not unlike the spiritual instruction a good friend of mine underwent in India. After giving away everything she owned and moving to Hyderabad, she found a guru, who told her to carry handfuls of dirt from one empty room to another all day long for a month. A few days into the program, she went to him in great frustration and said, “I’m miserable and I can’t help but feel that I was a lot happier in my old life back in the States.” “First lesson learned,” said the guru. Getting a MFA in creative writing was very much like that, only the “handfuls of dirt” are the misconceptions one has about being a writer. And the “life back in the States” is the love of writing one had before entering graduate school and being saturated by style and craft—a love to which I believe one must return in order to be a real artist.
The story Walter really wants to hear is what happened after the MFA, when I went on for a PhD, when the universe I’d created began to collapse. Sitting across from him outside Starbucks in the middle of San Diego, I feel that he is, in fact, as full of shit as ever. I would like to tell him that a bus may be a bus, but it may exist, just the same, in a world I create along with apple pies and fedora hats. And then a bus may be whatever I want it to be. I would like to say that I believe in unseen forces like inspiration and heightened states of consciousness and lust and honor and art and even love, and that I believe all these things might just approximate god, bus notwithstanding. And listening to the half-baked philosophy of my former friend, who I must now entreat for a lousy data entry position, I am clearly, painfully aware that I also believe in disgrace. And this is my profession of faith.
On some level, Walter knows all this. And that might be the saddest thing of all: he knows about his position and mine. He knows about art and writing. And I know that deep in an inner un-fedoraed hole of his being, Walter still believes that something exists beyond all his neat, flaming little shit—beyond data network and Starbucks and being comfortable with not trying. But here we sit: him enjoying every moment of our very American ritual of thirtysomething comeuppance while I suffer. Soon, we both know I’ll get around to the big question: are you going hook me up with a job or not, fucker,
for old times’ sake
for five creative writing workshops
for two attempts at dating my girlfriend when I wasn’t looking
and for an abundance of resentment, a multitude of beers—all of it being nevertheless okay up to the point at which I got serious about being a writer and left town. And even after that because we might, we just might, want to let these petty resentments go. So I ask, directly, with as much dignity as I can, and Walter shrugs.
“I think we can work something out for you in one of our stores,” he says. “I don’t know about data entry, though. Retail’s what I’m thinking. Weren’t you trying to get a masters or something?”
“I got that. Then I went on for my PhD.”
“Oh, right. Are you, like, Doctor Davis now? Is the doctor in?”
I understand that there might be a time and a place where this could be funny or, at least, cute. But I’m still hearing the word, retail.
“No,” I say and look straight at him. “I dropped out.”
“How come?” He wants to know mostly because he’s envisioned this scenario for a long, long time and he wants to enjoy it as much as possible. I should get on my ancient Schwinn and pedal away, but the kindness in my mother’s face comes back to me, and I don’t move. Instead, I begin to tell Walter the story of my return.
In May of 2003, I had created the universe, and my apple pie was baking nicely. Or so I thought in the deep pie days of an almost-finished MFA at the University of Montana. Missoula was glorious. I liked the snow. I liked the crazy cowboys fighting in the bars and the bikers and that lesbian separatists would come into town to pick fights with men after bar time. There was violence in Montana, but also great kindness in the way that violence and kindness often come together and feed off of each other. The university was only one small part of the experience, which included mountains right behind the campus, deer in the streets, and a sense of enough time to work and do the things one wanted to do while crazy things were taking place one block over.
Of course, there was also enormous talent in the writing program. I geared up for workshops as if I were about to be put to the question. In those fiction classes, the graduate students mixed equal parts of brilliance and hostility in an unheated narrow room beneath a picture of Richard Hugo holding a beer. It was the traditional Zen-Inquisition method of the Iowa Writers Workshop with an extra gladiatorial aesthetic. A friend of mine would read the Hagakure on days he was critiqued. I would listen to Nixon’s “Cambodian Incursion Address”—as a joke at first but eventually paying attention to his voice, how he kept it steady. If one man could face down an entire country, I could handle a room of 12 people. It was never boring and the workshops made me capable of shrugging off the worst and best things said about my work. I wrote a lot of lousy stories, a few good ones, and I published some of both. I edited the literary journal. I drank and had more varied and interesting friends than I ever would again. I looked at the universe I’d created and saw that it was good.
Then we gave our final readings and submitted our theses. And things began to change. Those with trust funds went on one last ski trip together in Vail. The rest of us went to AWP, the world’s foremost book fair and trade convention for publishers and writers, which seemed then (and continues to seem) more like a human spawning pool. AWP was the first real sense I’d get that this flawless bubble world I’d created for myself might someday vanish, that art was not the great equalizer in which the privileged and the determined, the wealthy and the impoverished could come together in some kind of sincere community, and that after the end of the current academic term, I was just about fucked.
That year, AWP was held in Chicago. One must travel 1574.11 miles to get there from Missoula. Five of us covered the distance in one day of continuous driving in a brown 1962 Thunderbird Roadster with bald tires and ruined alignment. The car slid most of the way. Gas cost us about $160, which I remember because an hour into the trip, Jim, the owner of the car, told us he thought there might be a hole in the fuel line and so it would probably cost us “a little bit more” to get out to Illinois. The fact that we made the roundtrip just fine with each of us only having to pay for one tank of gas still amazes me.
We were all cautiously friendly with each other on the way out, but, as soon as we arrived at the hotel, it was over. A certain suspiciousness descended, casting all the feverish glad-handing and deal-cutting of the place in the worst possible light. Us became me, and me was just shorthand for what I’m not getting (employment, a break), for time to reevaluate my life choices (military? vocational training?), for what have I done? And the five of us failed the way one can only fail at AWP.
Mei, who often introduced herself by noting that she left med school to get a MFA, went to every possible event and lecture with a voice recorder and a spiral notebook. Esther, a sweet middle-aged mother of two, who’d beaten cancer and decided that a decade working for Wells Fargo was quite enough, spent her time in the hotel bar, striking up conversations with drunk writers. Bob, who already had three books of poems and said he planned to join the Peace Corps because art was dead, got depressed by the scene and left to explore the city. Jim introduced himself to every publisher present and handed out business cards until he was so exhausted that he had to take a nap in a folding chair.
I tried to do a little bit of everything but, mostly, I drifted through the crowd of writers and publishing industry people, looking at their faces. My people, I told myself, though I couldn’t believe it. Feverish. Desperate. Anxious. Aggressive. Aggressively cheerful. Starving. Put several hundred writers in two big rooms—over half of whom are out of work and in survival mode—and the energy generated can warp the space-time continuum. One begins to hallucinate. One begins to smell others—the fear, the wild estrus of migratory poets outside their natural habitat. One begins to ask hideous, existential, bridge-jumping questions: Why did I do this? What have I really accomplished? What does that magazine publication actually mean and do more than 10 people actually read it?
After my own exhaustion set in and to save money, I bought a cheap bottle of vodka a block from the hotel and went back to the room, intending to spend my first evening drinking and watching Chicago television. But Mei had beaten me to it. She was sitting in the middle of the bed, hugging a pillow. The Weather Channel was on T.V. She’d taken off her black-rimmed glasses and put on her faded CAL sweatshirt. I didn’t know Mei that well, but I had a feeling that exchanging glasses for faded undergraduate sweatshirt and pillow was a personal meteorology that foretold precipitation. The bottle of booze and a forced smile were my own: Creative Writing Industry Conference Job Search Rictus of Disillusionment, Mark I.
“I saw David Foster Wallace,” she said to footage of a twister going through Kansas.
“Yeah? How’d he look?”
I took a swig from the bottle and handed it to her.
She drank. “I don’t know if it was him.”
Silence. The twister had flattened two towns. People were getting treated in an emergency tent.
“Who else did you see?”
“I don’t know anybody.”
She drank again and handed it back.
The weather news reporter said five surrounding communities had pooled their resources. People had left work to drive vans and trailers of supplies. Whole families had already received canned goods and able-bodied volunteers were working nonstop with the fire department to remove rubble.
“We’ve got two more days.” I made my rictus as cheerful as possible.
“Give me the bottle,” Mei said.
I got very drunk that night, passed out on the floor, and didn’t fully recover for the rest of our time there. After three days, no one had any interviews or made any meaningful connections. Jim, who mostly wrote creative non-fiction, was the only one of us who’d thought to make business cards. On the long drive back to Missoula, he admitted that he’d brought 150 of them, handed out 50, and 40 of those were handed right back or thrown out while he was still speaking. I will never forget the silence that ensued after he said that. It was night and we were somewhere just past Rapid City, South Dakota. The five of us stared at tiny pinpoint lights far off in the dark reaches of the Mount Rushmore State.
“Well, you’ve got ten of them out there working for you,” Esther said. At that moment, Esther was probably the best human being within three counties. I don’t know what happened to her after we went our separate ways, but I hope she’s happy.
Ten business cards, I thought. Ten miniature, cardboard apostles doing Jim’s good work out in the writing world. They were very simple: Jim’s full name, then Writer and his cell and email in a nice tasteful burgundy-on-cream script. I still have one of them, even though I haven’t heard from Jim in six years. The last time we spoke, he was driving to an Indian reservation to work as a librarian, English teacher, and carpenter. I can recall wishing him well and making plans to get together sometime. Jim had been a carpenter before graduate school, and I imagine it was the deciding factor in him getting the job.
“But you wrote a book or something out there, right?” Walter’s eyes track a middle-aged woman coming out of the Whole Foods next to Starbucks. She sits at the table beside ours, her plastic grocery bags on the ground in two lines as if the caravan has now parked at the oasis. Her small dog barks and shivers in her lap. The slice of watermelon she’s trying to scoop with a green Starbucks spoon is the same size as the dog.
“Oh, I accomplished things, Walter.”
“So it wasn’t a total loss then.”
“I never said it was a loss.”
Walter plays with his now-empty coffee cup and stares past it to the place where the goddess of information technology dispenses all palliatives and anodynes. Somewhere, in a more systematic, calmer reality—perhaps in the antiseptic stasis of Target Corporation’s IT hive mind—men do not flirt with chaos and return. There are clear boundaries between the known and the unknown, and the artists, priests, and lunatics who inch over the line are expelled from the society of the right-minded. But here we are, sitting on the prow of our very own Nellie with me implying that this also has been one of the dark places of the earth—not Conrad’s image of the Thames, not the story of where I went, where Walter could have gone but chose not to go—but the story of my return in itself.
This, the return that brings knowledge of dark places on the map, beyond the whited sepulchers of good sense and steady income, is what the first century Greeks called mysterion, divine mystery, that which can only be expressed at the intersection of metaphor and silence, through art or trance. Conrad writes that “One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. . . . for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny.” And thus the divine mystery of the writing life appears to me through Walter’s eyes: by getting a MFA, by pausing at the crossroads of metaphor and silence, I might just have returned, steeped in mysterion, from my personal kryptos—that which is hidden, dark, not easily understood. And, all of a sudden, I don’t feel quite so ashamed, and I don’t envy Walter so much.
He has been neglecting his mistress. And his reality has now forked suddenly away from questions of loss and gain, cost and benefit. Something in my story, something about Mei or Jim or the experience of AWP, hooks into what he remembers about being an undergraduate writing student and having to argue with the binaries that writers must confront when they take their work seriously: success-failure, fiction-nonfiction, poetry-prose, truth-representation. The truth in writing and the truth in not writing. The lie of not writing when you’re a writer. And the absolute, objective verifiable truth that there are no absolute, objective verifiable truths—or even true standards—in creative writing as an industry or a vocation.
There is only mysterion. Or runa, the Norse rune-word for it. I wear that rune on a leather cord under my shirt, the scrimshaw of it done by a Flathead Indian woman one afternoon at the Black Creek Lodge outside Missoula. She told me the piece of bone was cut from the horn of an Iberian bull killed in the Coliseum de La Coruña, but I suspect it was from a local ranch or wasn’t even from a bull, which nevertheless fits into the runa. As Walter fiddles with his coffee cup, trying to think of something to say, I feel the bone pendant through my shirt and think about the old Starbucks goddess that the company simplified and de-paganized into a more abstract, inoffensive logo when the Christian Coalition got offended by her breasts. Such Victorian Will to Blandness is what set Conrad’s characters fleeing onto ships, the undeniable resonance of the mysterion, of the kryptos, in the sound of the sea. I tell myself that I would have left the Starbucks logo nipples-out. As my ego reinflates, I keep deciding what my story means—that it does mean something—moment-by-moment, justifying it as much to myself as to Walter, who’s growing more uncomfortable by the minute.
“Arête,” I say. “All things brought to the highest level of excellence. That’s what it all meant.” And I just manage to keep a straight face while I say it, even though I know that part of me really believes in things like ancient Greek mystery words, runic mysticism, and the possibility of excellence in graduate school. I suppose I would have gone for the MFA even if my bright future in retail had been assured. I tell myself that it was not necessarily assured.
“Okay. Arête. So the PhD was all different and miserable then? That’s why you’re back?”
Nice, Walter. Recalibrate. Try to resurrect the shame.
“Yeah. There was no arête in Missouri.”
The dog in the woman’s lap wiggles loose and manages a bite of watermelon before she shrieks and swats him off. He travels about two feet to the side and then the collar yanks him back.
“Not your pooch?” asks Walter.
“Not your business,” says the woman.
“Oh. Wow. Okay.” He looks at me and raises his eyebrows, adjusts the fedora, spins his coffee cup on the table.
The dog breathes heavily and, when the woman stands, she puts her arm underneath his body in a puppy come-along. With great suffering difficulty, she hooks her five bags of groceries on one finger and makes her way into the parking lot.
“I’d offer to help,” I say, “but I don’t think she wants any.”
“Dog should piss on her. That’s what I’d do. Dog arête.”
I nod. “Dogête. Like karate. Way of the Dog Hand.” This is something we can both smile at, something outward, beyond both of our egos. For a moment, it feels like old times—back when we’d both had a sense of humor that didn’t default to meanness. Then the moment goes.
“So what’s your thesis about? Montana?”
I watch the woman put the groceries in her trunk with one hand, the dog locked to her chest with the other.
“A lot of things. It’s got a Montana story in it.”
“Yeah? Where can I buy a copy, or will you be giving me one?”
There’s a Barnes & Noble just past Whole Foods. My thesis is not in it because my thesis is not published.
“Soon,” I say. “Maybe this year. I’ve gotten some very encouraging responses from publishers.” Actually, rejections. Actually, form rejections. Form rejections on little pieces of Xeroxed paper with fuck off and please don’t send us your lousy writing ever again phrased in the most artful yet unambiguous publishing euphemisms. This is not what we’re looking for right now. Thank you for your submission to Lost Loaf, but we are currently experiencing a backlog of manuscripts. Dear author, please excuse us for passing on this one. Dear _______, Lagniappe Press wishes you the best of luck in placing your work elsewhere. We have recycled your manuscript.
“Oh,” says Walter.
“But I’ve published in numerous small magazines.”
“What about you? Writing at all?” My voice sounds high-pitched. I clear my throat. Walter smiles: my shame resurrected. Suddenly, I am pathetic once again, a pitiable ground rodent shaking my angry little claws at the heavens.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he says.
We sit in silence again, and I’m about to depart and go nurse my weasel ego as I imagine that little dog is nursing his—lick my fur, yowl plaintively at the cold, unforgiving hardness of life—when Water decides he really wants to know.
“So what happened in Missouri? What? Did you bang some professor’s wife?”
“Yes. That’s a given, Walter. That’s what happens in graduate school. Wife banging. And the odd sex party with your students. You’ve heard of freshman composition?”
He doesn’t get the humor. Alright, maybe I don’t get the humor, either. Because my time in Missouri was no joke. And there wasn’t much sex taking place in the English department at Hummell College—that is, normal sex, sex between mature adults that doesn’t result in emotional fallout with a half-life of years, that doesn’t ruin careers or potential careers. Beneficial sex might have been the solution. Moreover, I wish whoever is there right now, suffering through that misery, great golden fornications—and not as the receiving end of Hummell College’s graduate program in English, which had its nasty way with 15 of us in the Fall of 2004.
When I arrived, I’d been lifting a lot of weights. I may have been in the best shape of my life thus far. Very little body fat. I did about 300 sit-ups a day, practiced yoga, and performed the Soo Bahk Do hyung I’d studied since age ten—a very hard Korean martial art designed primarily for breaking joints and killing people as efficiently as possible. My tolerance for alcohol was also extremely high in spite of my constant training. And it is safe to say that I’d developed a drinking problem in Montana—a thrice-weekly habit of blackout drunks, alone in my apartment, on cheap Canadian whiskey and the occasional 40oz of malt liquor.
I missed Missoula. I’d become irritable without friends or future, having applied to PhD programs right out of my MFA because, as much as I loved living in Montana, I didn’t have many other options. Steady jobs don’t often come to MFAs, at least not the steady jobs MFAs grow to want. So, when I moved into a two-story duplex on a grassy hill just outside Laughton, MO, I put a weight bench in the living room, unfolded my futon, and hooked up some speakers. I owned about 10 books, which included The Riverside Shakespeare, The Complete Stories of Isaac Babel, The Complete Stories of Anton Chekhov, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, books I found solace in when depressed, which was often. When I wasn’t in class or teaching composition (something I deeply and openly enjoyed—a sentiment the other grad students and even a few of the English professors viewed with abject suspicion), I was working out or wrestling with the whiskey.
On more nights than I can count (or remember), I found myself sitting at the card table in my kitchen, listening to talk radio and drinking towards oblivion. Other than on booze, I spent very little money. My food budget was less than $10 a day and gas ran me about $20 every two months because I only ever drove two miles to campus, store, and home. And, in a very short time, everything in my life changed. I found that interpersonally, emotionally, I was becoming a different person. My social life was different. The amount of people with whom I had contact on a daily basis rapidly decreased to classroom, grocery check-out line, and graduate students. I found myself looking forward to brief exchanges in the market above all else—unencumbered moments that didn’t involve mentoring freshmen or an emotional exchange with upset graduate students that would stick with me for days afterward. When all else is dystopia, the grocery store will be the bolt hole of sanity.
The Laughton nightlife, of course, was different. In Missoula, before the bartender (who probably knew you in some other way outside the bar) asked you how your week had been, he’d pour out two shots for you and two for himself. These shots would be free and you’d immediately order more of the same because that would be exactly what you liked to drink. Missoula was comfortable. Every drinking establishment had a card table or three and even the worst places had old timers who’d come in around noon to sit at the bar and bullshit over a Pabst. Not in Laughton. My first few outings were dismal, reminding me more of the southern California beach bars I’d snuck into as a kid: a lot of similarly dressed people who’d arrived together and who’d leave together. In the meantime, they didn’t want to talk to you. Surrounded by them, you could be standing in a packed room yet feel utterly desolate. So I stopped trying to recreate Missoula and spent more nights at home.
I eventually quit drinking and it was agony. Night sweats. Insomnia. Overwhelming anxiety and a lust for sugar so powerful that I quickly gained 10 pounds. I fought back by becoming even more irritable, more obsessive about working out and drinking gallons of water. My writing stopped because I couldn’t focus. But, slowly, I was taking charge of the parts of my life that I understood, trading enjoyment for control. It wasn’t pleasant in any way, and I asked myself more than once what had possessed me to undertake a Puritan upgrade.
My Montana friends would call sometimes, often from a bar. They’d say Hey man, say hello to Bill. You remember Bill? The guy with the white hat? He’s a funny motherfucker! as if I’d been away for years. What are you doing? they’d ask. Nothing, I’d say. And then there would be silence. Or rather, there would be the roar of music, bottles clinking, people laughing and ordering drinks. Then we would say good-bye and I’d pace around my apartment for an hour, depressed.
The only time I felt something akin to normal was when I was teaching my two classes: beginning fiction writing and freshman composition. The undergraduates at Hummell College were bright, healthy, and optimistic. Nearly all of them sincerely worked hard, and I found myself preparing more thoroughly to teach them than for the classes I was taking. Some of those students have since become professional writers. And I do not flatter myself that they continued on because of my efforts. Though, if what we discussed somehow contributed to their progress as artists and thinkers, then I will be satisfied that my time in Missouri wasn’t a total loss.
Teaching aside, it sure felt like a total loss to me. I was beginning to appreciate many of the subtle facets of life-encompassing misery, the great variety of which could be experienced in graduate school while one is drying out in isolation. A brief overview will include a body of morose grad students sustained by psychotropics and alcohol; a faculty at war with itself in hallway screaming fights and decade-spanning feuds; a degree of marital infidelity that would make Lucrezia Borgia blush; and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, whose matrix of requirements kept students in for five years, eight years, and in the case of my cubicle-mate, Orrin, eleven years.
(Eleven years! Orrin, where are you now? You’d put in 11 years when I arrived and you should be writing this, but you disappeared that Fall and never came back. I like to think it was a positive change—a good life, a secret wife, maybe some nice AA meetings beyond the sunset—but I remember you and I worry. You once told me nothing good could come out of the graduate program apart from the good of getting away from it. And that escaping, in itself, was a feat. Did you accomplish this? Anguish and massive self-change did it for me—a commitment to my own well-being above all else and a healthy appreciation for mystery, for the beauty of the writing life that has nothing to do with institutional narcissism and everything to do with individuation. I wish something like that for you.)
In fact, we were not encouraged to look forward to graduation, reminded at all times in myriad ways that the job prospects in the humanities were more dreadful than the lives we were currently living. There were meetings. I liked to call them “Convocations of the Politburo,” but people didn’t laugh at that for long. Roll was taken, and we were given one academic credit for attending once a week. On paper, these meetings were meant to “facilitate communication between graduate students and faculty.” But, in reality, Josef Stalin would have felt right at home.
It was always the same. A random assortment of English professors would sit in folding chairs on the stage of a lecture hall, looking extremely uncomfortable, while trying not to make eye-contact with each other or with the grad student audience. And the grad students would stare forward with the thin-lipped intensity of adults about to be chastised like infants. Some wise souls learned how to sleep with their eyes open or how to seem like they were paying attention while surreptitiously grading student papers. I felt there was deep wisdom in there that I had missed. They were the bodhisattvas of the program. Like all enlightened beings, they were few and reclusive. No one taught the art of mental detachment or covert paper grading. It had to come intuitively from the heavens. I was not one of them. I couldn’t look away.
Graduate Director Robinson—who appeared and sounded very much like Christopher Lee’s Saruman in the Lord of the Rings movies—would stand at the podium and open each meeting with, “Questions?” There were never any questions. For a brief moment, his eyes would sweep over us. And then he’d nod, satisfied. There shouldn’t be questions. A guest speaker—someone who had been in the program or managed to graduate from the program—would come up and foretell the future. Then the guest speaker would ask if there were any questions. There would be none. Only silence.
Sometimes the speakers would have very cathartic experiences while presenting. I can recall one of them breaking down in tears when telling us about the life she’d had to lead after graduate school. She’d received a PhD in British Restoration literature. Now she was a hospice nurse. And she still couldn’t fully reconcile the years she’d spent (“sacrificed” was her term) with what she was doing now. But she said she was coping better these days. “These are the best years of your life,” she told us. Then there would be announcements, like at the end of church. In all the meetings I attended, the professors on stage never spoke once. And they gave off the distinct impression that they, too, were under some kind of edict, some kind of post-tenure sorcery that compelled their bodies, like stiff marionettes, onto the stage and into the chairs.
Off stage, some of them were well-meaning, very brilliant people, bewildered as much as anyone by the reversals and exigencies of the academic life. But, in my experience and that of the graduate students I knew, most of the faculty came in somewhere between Saruman and an angry raptor—spiteful and depressed, yet dependent on certain encompassing illusions about themselves and the world. And as the evolutionary midpoint between undergraduate and professor, the graduate students were drawn into such dream worlds, wrapped up in Machiavellian power games, competition, long-standing resentments, departmental politics.
Fortunately, I was careful. Others were less so. If Professor A’s cheating wife was getting together with Professor B, and you were studying with Professor B, you’d better know to avoid A or become A’s punching bag. This happened to Pete, a lit. student who’d been a middle manager for a multi-national beverage company. He was married and had two kids when he decided to go get the PhD he’d always wanted. This displeased his wife. After months of late nights and angst, they had their second divorce talk and she moved into the local Holiday Inn, where she remained with the kids, for the rest of the academic term. She was perhaps the most bitter and, unfortunately, the most clear-headed and honest human I encountered while in Missouri. When she took it upon herself to complain to Professor A for quadrupling her husband’s work load, A’s response was that if Pete didn’t like it, he could go study with Professor B, who seemed to have a lot of extra time on his hands.
For 15 weeks, Pete did not sleep. I would see him in the basement cubicle farm that served as the graduate student offices. He’d usually be standing, his desk covered with books, papers, Styrofoam coffee empties. Pete once explained to me that he automatically went to sleep whenever he sat down, no matter the conditions or the amount of caffeine. Though his wife was still at the Holiday Inn, she’d started driving him to school in the mornings. Such was life. I felt bad for Pete and for others like him, who’d blundered onto battlefields they didn’t understand. But I kept my head and did my best to avoid A and B, to teach my classes, to be a nondescript entity; though there were still problems, even for someone living as monosyllabic an existence as I was.
Winter came with sleet and ice. My apartment heater was broken and the management company kept saying they’d send someone out but never did. I bought a space heater that looked like an enormous toaster oven. It very effectively heated up the 6-foot block of air directly in front of it and nothing else. After melting the bottom of my polyester futon, I decided I couldn’t risk using the space heater while sleeping. Once, I left home with the kitchen window cracked open and found that ice had formed on the ceiling. So I slept in jeans, two sweatshirts, and a coat. At a local sporting goods store, I bought a green ski mask, which I also wore to bed in order to feel my face in the morning. I was a sight. But nobody had to know.
Directly behind my duplex, the electric company had a fenced lot of transformers and switches that gave off a high-pitched whine at all times, rain, sleet, or snow; though I hadn’t noticed it when I’d first visited the place. That Fall, I would lie in my clothes every night, looking as if I’d just gotten home from a bank heist, and listen to the sound of the electrical field. Some nights, I thought about the people I left behind in California, in Montana, in the other places I’ve lived. Most nights, I’d look at the bars of light on the ceiling, listen, and wonder what was going to become of me.
Getting an advanced degree has never been, nor should it be, a throw-away experience. It should push those who are already competent to become more of who they already are. It should open new areas of inquiry and recontextualize what has been taken for granted. And we can joke about arête, mysterion, and exploring the kryptos in our lives, but I believe it really is possible to experience such things through a course of graduate study—personally, transpersonally, transdiscursively. I’ve seen it in myself, in my MFA experience, in the PhD program (far away from Hummell College) to which I ultimately made my way. And, even when I was in Missouri, I saw it hidden in the individual bubble-worlds professors would create.
Dr. N taught an excellent Harlem Renaissance seminar in which he announced at the beginning that we would have to make a commitment to 50 pages of critical writing. On the second class meeting, only five of us remained. 4 of us lasted to the end. We produced the pages.
Dr. H, the rhet-comp expert, wanted us to understand the rhetoric of institutions, governments, universities—the hegemonic bureaucracies into which college graduates are knowingly and sometimes unknowingly interpolated. We analyzed the rhetoric of power relationships inherent in prisons, hospitals, corporations, the military, and even Hummell College, stopping just short of a direct critique of the English department itself. We read poststructuralists alongside the ancient Sophists. And I came to think of Dr. H as perhaps the reincarnation of Quintilian when she sat at the end of the conference table, eyebrows raised, fingertips pressed together.
There were others, people like night-blooming flowers—beautiful but only for limited intervals that went mostly hidden in a general darkness. In November, Professor L refused to teach her graduate poetry workshop, fed up with her students arriving unprepared. Pissed off beyond all restraint, she told them they were worthless, that if they wanted to learn they could teach themselves, and she went home. This was related to me as I walked across campus with Alma, a woman who’d been in the shop and who seemed overjoyed at the recent developments.
“Was she right?” I asked. “You guys sound pretty worthless to me.”
“Don’t be stupid. Nobody ever does reading ahead of time.”
Ah, I thought. This is why there is screaming. This is why there is unrest. People who are reading do not have time to despise each other. Or, at least, they have less time. I considered the possibility that the entire department had stopped reading.
“She called us a bunch of no-talent assholes.”
“Maybe you’re a bunch of no-talent assholes,” I said.
Alma rolled her eyes. “Let’s get a sandwich.”
And so it went: with Professor L being forced to teach poetry writing to her beloved graduate students under pain of immediate suspension. This was not considered overly scandalous, as the wife-drama between Professors A and B had recently escalated to a parking lot fistfight. Faculty meetings were now being held via email.
As the term listed slowly into November, one of the grad students got diagnosed with a severe lung infection. Tests arranged by her attorney revealed that the mold in her lungs had come from the basement of the English department where the graduate cubicle farm was located. Water damage beneath the ancient mustard green carpet had gone long unaddressed. A suit was pending. Worried about the possibility of a multiple-plaintiff action (clusterfuck was the term I first heard), Hummell lawyers recommended that we all be issued paper air-filters, the common type that people wear in emergency rooms, when installing drywall, and in Shanghai to stave off black lung. Whenever we were officially holding office hours, we were instructed to wear the masks. We were also advised to wear them whenever we were down there and began to feel “queasy, dizzy, or overly anxious with burning in the lungs or other difficulty breathing”—symptoms which might have described the graduate experience at any point on any given day. There were two cardboard boxes of about 500 masks each at the bottom of the basement stairs. A few people wrote things or drew cat whiskers on theirs. I wore mine constantly.
“Could you take that off?” asked one of my students, who’d refused when I’d offered her one.
“There are spores in the air.”
“You’ve got a problem,” she said, looking around at the masked graduate students going about their breath-filtered business. “What’s wrong with you people?”
“Health comes first,” I said.
Spores were everywhere. That week, the no-talent assholes assembled the Comintern for a new guest speaker, a woman named Carol, who had received a MFA in fiction writing and had then gone directly to veterinary school. She brought her St. Bernard, Ramón, who sat happily on stage, radiating canine goodness at the feet of the uncomfortable-looking professors, while Dr. Carol spoke about the writing opportunities available in animal medicine.
I was the only no-talent asshole who’d worn my breath mask. I drew many amused stares and the twin death beams of Graduate Director Robinson, who seemed to be growing more Sarumanish by the day. He’d taken a sabbatical to Morocco the year before, and that day he was wearing the white kaftans he’d bought there. With the kaftans, his white beard, long white hair, peaked black eyebrows, and uncommon height (about 6’7”) he looked more like the Lord of Isengard than anyone, I imagine, in greater metropolitan Laughton.
After Dr. Carol’s presentation, there were no questions. But people did go up to pet the dog. I went with them, partly because I cannot pass up an opportunity to pet a dog and partly because Dr. Carol was 28 with long brown hair, green eyes, and a beautiful voice. To someone surrounded by graduate student DNA most of the time, Dr. Carol looked like a divine being. I took off the mask.
“Hello, Ramón,” I said. The dog raised his enormous head and smiled at me. Petting him was like touching a plush bowling ball.
“He likes you,” said Dr. Carol. “But why the mask? Allergic?”
“The whole department is. They issued us these.”
She nodded. “Sounds like a good policy. Especially in that basement.”
Dr. Carol understood. Of course she knew about the basement. She was beautiful and she had survived Hummell, which meant she had incredible hidden powers. Moreover, her dog liked me.
“Remember when you asked if there were questions, and there weren’t any questions? I might have some questions. About what you said. If you feel like getting a cup of coffee sometime.” I was proud of those sentences. In my estimation, I sounded no more awkward and ridiculous than I usually did when talking to anyone about anything.
She took my hand in both of hers and smiled. “What’s your name?”
“Michael,” she said, “I’m a lesbian.” She kept smiling when she let go of my hand. Ramón kept smiling, too.
“Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”
When I turned, I noticed that Graduate Director Robinson had materialized directly behind me, frowning, his eyebeams focused. I looked up at him and put my mask back on. Then I walked deliberately, evenly out of the lecture hall.
That night, I watched The Legend of Dolemite and drank for the first time in 3 months. I smoked a pack of cigarettes, too. And the sudden repollution of my otherwise purified and filtered body cause a certain amount of vomiting. It was probably a necessary experience—a catharsis, a purgation of the bad mojo I’d internalized thus far. But I came out of it weakened, shaken in willpower and confidence. The next day, when someone mentioned that Orrin hadn’t been seen for three-and-a-half weeks, I felt a great deal of dread, a sensation that can only be described as an immediate upheaval, a moment in which I began to sincerely question my reasons for being at Hummell College.
More ubiquitous even than the allergens and spores was the incredible sense of loss that permeated every gathering there—loss of youth, loss of employability, loss of comprehension (Graduate Director Robinson’s half-joking advice to us at the beginning of the semester: don’t get romantically involved with undergraduates. They’ll never understand you.), and loss of everything true, good, and beautiful in life. There was a pervasive feeling that even though those things still existed in the outside world, we’d forfeited them by seeking a higher academic status. And I began to see that the negative side to following the mysterion was not that one might find something hiding in the darkness, waiting to pounce. Rather, it was the constant fear that there might be nothing, absolutely nothing, in our dark spaces but an endless void into which we might suddenly fall with regret as our only companion: the terror of a sailor who knows he can’t swim and still follows the sound of the sea.
The Vikings, when they crossed the North Atlantic, carved runa on their longboats as a ward and a guide because it’s one thing to see yourself dead on the battlefield (one can accept: these are my entrails; this is my enemy; that is his spear) but getting sucked into the bottomless depths entails a different and much more profound level of horror. Take my steaming entrails if you must, but leave me my soul. And there are still dark places on the map we would like to explore: the psyche, for example, and the all invisible presences that drive and condition our lives—family hatreds and loves and feats of great beauty and perhaps greater stupidity.
We would gladly venture out onto these oceans, just like the Vikings, as long as we felt securely tethered to the mundane world such that we could safely return and, over a cup of coffee, speak with confidence about what Conrad called “all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.” But we are, without a doubt, children staring down the hallway in the middle of the night at the half-open closet, daring ourselves to walk over and put one foot in.
It may not be surprising that “the mysterious life of the wilderness” had little to do with the mysterious life of being at Hummell College. After yet another aborted fiction workshop in which our professor burned most of 45 minutes asking the submitting writers to read their work aloud (to cover the fact that he hadn’t looked at the material, but, then again, neither had we, the dry rot of apathy having assimilated our workshop), our entire class drifted back to the basement cubicle farm. Everyone put on their masks.
I sat at the desk I shared with Orrin, listening to myself breathe and staring at the one item of his that he’d left in the cubicle: a large pearl-and-gold framed photo of him holding his cat in one arm and his girlfriend in the other. He’d mentioned to me that she’d died years before from brain cancer. And it was a younger Orrin in the photo—without the pepper-gray beard, sunken eyes, and deep creases in his face. There was a light in his expression as if he liked whoever was holding the camera. Though, his girlfriend was not the sort you’d expect a poet to have. In the picture, she was brassy blonde, curvaceous, and slightly older than him with an air of appraising intelligence—the sort of woman who owns her own business and doesn’t suffer fools. But she’d suffered Orrin. And she’s suffered herself, dying that horrible death, which I imagine is a lot more like the void than the battlefield.
To this day, I hope that if Orrin’s disappearance meant he was going out to find her in the depths, he kept runa before him and his tether secure. But I fear that was not the case, as he’d seemed increasingly solemn and withdrawn in the times I’d seen him around the cubicle. I’d have given him my bone pendant had I known he was going. I liked Orrin. Maybe I liked him more than any of the other graduate students because he had an sense of pained honesty about him and they did not. Orrin gave me the feeling that he’d say exactly what he thought about anything no matter how awkward that might prove to be.
That afternoon, the cubicle farm looked more like ER receiving with all the intense eyes over white paper masks and the unhappy sounds emanating from beneath them. I heard angry talk of circulating a complaint petition about our professor and fearful questions about what good that would do. I heard the same old talk of ailments and molds, the crappiness of the student health insurance, and of people missing their Paxil. As usual, I also heard Prozac mentioned the way one refers to Arpanet, card catalogs, and the rhythm method: we’ve come so far since then. Yes, I thought, packing up my books. Soon we will succeed in completely erasing ourselves and all the anxiety will then subside. I walked up the stairs and out of the building into the iron light of a Missouri winter.
A block away from campus, I stuffed my breath mask into a snow-filled trash can. I wasn’t headed anywhere particular. I was simply walking and thinking about the future, about the writing life and, though I didn’t have the language for it then, about mysterion and all the things I’d thought I was pursuing when I came to Hummell College. After about 15 blocks of snowy sidewalk, I had to admit that the things I’d been seeking were elsewhere, that I’d made another life-mistake, and that I would probably be taking a permanent hiatus from Laughton, Missouri, before long.
Somewhere on my way back to campus, I came upon one of my freshman composition students, laughing at his car engine. The hood was propped up and a thick column of oily smoke was coming out.
“Hey, Mike. Check it out. My car’s on fire,” he said. Tiny pieces of snow were stuck in his beard. We stood in front of the car, staring at the smoke as if it were some kind of oracle.
“You think it’ll blow?” I asked.
He grinned, shrugged. “Maybe.”
And I moved on, listening for the thump of the gas tank, back to my own soon-to-be-junked car, parked in the graduate lot under a pyramid of snow.
Maybe, I said to myself. Maybe it blows and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe, maybe, maybe. And all our yesterdays and yestermaybes have lighted fools. And all our tomorrows may be limned with absurdity as we inch down hallways toward dark closets. But hand out the Paxil and we’ll be okay.
Walter sort of gets it. At least, he gets the part where I decide that Missouri is nowhere.
“Well,” he says, “you’re back in paradise now. It doesn’t get much better than America’s finest city.” He stands and a wave of his cologne passes like a semi-tangible ghost—an advance image of himself that he sends forward on the wind to check for reality buses and bottomless pits.
I’ve now decided that there will be no job forthcoming from his lordship, retail or otherwise. And, strangely enough, I’m alright with that. Walter is the first person to whom I’ve spoken honestly, without reservation, about why I left Missouri. I can tell by the depressed look on his face that he doesn’t know what it all means. I don’t know what it all means, either. But, having released some of that morose energy in Walter’s direction, I’ve come closer to figuring it out.
He tells me to call him, and I watch him move slowly, almost mournfully, through the parking lot to his truck: his bulk, his fanny pack, black fedora over giant white polo shirt. In two years, Walter will die of a heart attack. But, as I watch him walk away after our difficult conversation in 2005, I’m not thinking about his weight problem or my job problem or any problematic decisions I’ve made in the past. I’m wondering whether Walter has a folder of recent poems and whether, if I offer to send him my most recent story, he’ll reciprocate. And I realize that I must have arrived—not back where I was before I heard the sound of the sea and took it as a mistress—but to where I’ve been heading all along, the path that will lead across a great ocean and back and out again.
In a few days, I will have found a job teaching English and speech at a private high school in central California. Two years after that, I’ll be back in a PhD program—the right one this time—knowing a lot more, following the mysterion to the extent that I understand it. As I write this, I am at the end of that program with a published book of stories and few regrets, reasonably confident that when I get up to write in the dark hours of the morning and say runa to the page, the page may say nothing, or the page may say kryptos, or it may say follow. And I will.