A Clown and The Greatest Show ~ View From the Keyboard of Michael Downs

A number of years ago–I refuse to fully consider how many–I met Michael Downs at a workshop we both attended in Montana. I remember reading his manuscript one evening, an intriguing piece from something that had a Saul Bellowian title, and thinking, holy sh–, this guy is great. And you know what? I was right. Not just a really, really fine writer, but Downs is one of those people who pretty much everyone likes when they get to know him. He is a generous colleague, a caring teacher, a fun friend, and just a heck of a nice guy. And talented. But don’t just take my word for it; check out the creds: A River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize for his book HOUSE OF GOOD HOPE (University of Nebraska Press,) a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Prose (these are mighty hard to get in these times), and another fellowship from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. His forthcoming collection of linked stories, THE GREATEST SHOW, is due out in Spring 2012 from Louisiana State University Press, Spring 2012.

And this is where it happens-

DOWNS: Here is my desk, moments after I sopped up a puddle of beer, which I’d spilled while talking on the phone with a clown.

My desk is in Baltimore. The clown was in Vermont. As we talked, a hurricane was bearing down on her. The same hurricane had already passed over the house that holds my desk. The clown had called because she plans to perform in a promotional video trailer for my next book. She wanted to better understand the book and her role in the video. THE GREATEST SHOW has as its catalyst the true story of the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire, which killed one-hundred-sixty-nine people and injured hundreds more. Thus, the clown.

In the video, she will say: “People suffer everywhere all the time. It’s all pain, right? How does a little clowning make anything worse?”

I don’t drink spirits when I’m writing. But when the clown telephoned on our landline I’d been outside raking up debris left by the hurricane. And I do, sometimes, drink beer as I rake. So I hurried upstairs to talk to the clown (bringing the beer), and as we were talking, I couldn’t find a pen on my desk (it’s cluttered), and I knocked over the bottle. Suds
puddled on the desktop, which is hard and heavy oak, and soaked into the bound draft of a novel I’m working on. You can see that draft in the foreground of the picture. You can’t, however, tell that it smells like Yuengling.

This, then, is my desk: Where I talk to a clown about one book while spilling beer on another; where a jumble of papers coax me toward blog posts, and a water bottle waits for me to take it along when I play basketball; and a friend’s book reminds me to write a blurb; and my niece and nephew grin earnestly out of school photos; and coffee cups get lost
for days; and imagined people fall in love, and betray each other, and forgive, and die; where I read the news of the world and watch other writers’ book trailers on YouTube.

The oak desk bears all this burden. Once, it belonged in the office of a women’s basketball coach at the University of Montana. When I moved it here to Baltimore, to my second floor office, it took four strong men to get it up the stairs. It is not a desk that wants to be moved. Though it is polished and handsome beneath the clutter of spilled beer and hurricane-lives, constancy is this desk’s great virtue.


An excerpt from the story, “The Greatest Show,” from the book of the same name

Wartime. July’s worst heat. Hundreds of women and children panting and sticky in folding chairs in the bleachers. Then the tent catches fire. No one knows why. A lot of people die. Some sixty years later, we still try for a better performance in Hartford. We don’t take the blame for history. We’re not Ringling. We’re a chicken-dinner outfit from Branson hired for county fairs and Shriner shows. We feel no responsibility for a gas-soaked rag of a tent that collapsed on a crowd decades before most of us were born. But we’re not heartless. So Hartford always gets a little extra.

“But not today, right?” said Chico, his tongue flicking through the gap in his teeth. “My people ain’t done setting up. Give history a rain check.”

“No rain checks,” said Fritz. “I’ve been on the phone. Home office wants us to cancel the whole Hartford run. Pick up again in Rutland, maybe. It’s today or not at all.”

Renato, the father in our family of aerialists, said no, absolutely not, but Schmautz the Clown wanted to. Chico insisted his crew get its regular take for a full house. “This is charity,” said Schmautz. Chico said, “Charity is when they bring the crippled kids. This is nuts.” And Ursula suggested that if we did charity, we should do it where people were suffering right now.

That got everyone quiet. Then someone said, “People suffer everywhere all the time. It’s all pain, right? How does a little clowning make anything worse?”


See, told you he could write, didn’t I? Michael Downs is a graduate of the University of Arkansas’ Programs in Creative Writing; he lives in Baltimore and teaches at Towson Univerity. Contact Michael at “mdowns at michael-downs.net.” His blog on the forthcoming book, etc: http://greatestshow.blogspot.com/. And thanks again for reading! -PMc←

On Being a Colum Alum

Today starts Columbia College Chicago’s Alumni Weekend, and I am delighted to be part of the event. Tomorrow, Saturday, September 24, artist and adjunct faculty member Philip Hartigan and I will be teaching a workshop (Story and Sketchbook) based on a class we teach in the Fiction Writing Department, Journal and Sketchbook.

But that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about my thoughts on being an alumnus of CCC. Do you know this school, Columbia College Chicago? You should. It is a vibrant arts and communication school (with a solid liberal arts foundation) in Chicago’s ever-changing south loop. I won’t give you the statistics of how many buildings we have (around twenty) or how many students we serve (somewhere near 12,000) or what programs of ours are among the biggest and best in the country (film and video, art and design, fiction writing, arts & entertainment media management.) Let me just say that we are a place that is part of the world’s vital discourse about art and culture and creative industry, and that we have Oscar winners, national book prize winners, Emmy winners, NEA awardees, etc etc etc among our alumni, faculty, and staff. Wow.

But what is most important, is the student body. I know. I count myself among them. Because even though I graduated from Columbia in 1988 (and again in 1995,) I still spend an awful lot of time at Columbia learning.

I first came to Columbia in the early eighties as one of those nontraditional students who had already gone out to work in the world, was rather successful without a college degree, but who felt a distinct and aching hole in my identity without said degree. This was fueled a little bit by the knowledge that certain careers would always be closed to me without the credential, but more so by the understanding that there was more I wanted to know, to practice, to experience. So on my way toward my thirties, I stopped in at Columbia College Chicago.

I came here as a radio major. My mother always wanted me to be Barbara Walters, but I knew I was getting older, and by the time I finally got my degree (going part-time as I needed to because of my full-time gig first as a manager of a restaurant and later as a back-office manager at a commodities firm) I thought I would be too old to be the next fresh face on television. So radio. That would do. I could write stories and talk to people and be on the air; and my mother would be proud.

But then, I had to take a writing class in order to fulfill a requirement. And one summer evening, I found myself sitting in a semi-circle of strangers, undertaking word games and telling bits of stories and writing. What a complete and total joy! I had always loved writing, but having this weekly workshop (with the emphasis on “work” not “repair” as many writing classes seem inclined to do) was like a magical thing for me. My anecdotes became stories, my rants became essays, my work became publishable. Oh, and that wonderful, unparalleled feeling of first seeing my work in print! (HairTrigger 9, I think it was…an edition of CCC’s FictionWriting Department student anthology.) I cannot tell you how exciting and edifying that was. It was in these classes that I began work on what would become my newly-released story collection, The Temple of Air.

I switched majors. The Fiction Writing Department, and its Story Workshop® approach to the teaching of writing, developed by John Schultz and fostered by Betty Shiflett, did just exactly what Columbia College Chicago’s mission promised me it would do; it helped me to “author the culture of [my] times.” In fiction writing classes—and in the other classes I took to finally finish my degree (twelve years and three schools after I started) I sat side-by-side with students from all backgrounds and skills levels. There was such a diversity of voices and stories at Columbia, that every class offered each of us new ways to understand the world simply by being part of its complex vastness. One of the things I was unhappy with at my other schools was how very much like high school they felt. And not just any high school, but high school in the suburbs of the seventies. Very white and relatively privileged (I can count myself among this demographic) with a world view that was remarkably similar to my own. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the white-kid-from-the-suburbs’ point of view, but by this time in my life I had lived in Honduras where I gave vaccinations and dental treatments; I had run a gas station in a relatively poor area in an Iowa city; I had bartended in a small town tavern near cornfields; I had sold pots and pans in trailer courts. I’d done community theater and commercials, I’d slung burgers and beers. In most of the classes I took at my other schools, my fellow students hadn’t had jobs other than at McDonalds or babysitting, and most of those were part-time; many of these students were at college because their parents said they had to be. At Columbia, I felt part of a wider world, a place where people worked to support themselves, and went to school to become what they dreamed of being. Writers. Artists. Filmmakers. Dancers.

Today Columbia’s student body has shifted somewhat. By doing what we have always done well (I say we here, because I am honored to teach at Columbia, my alma mater, and to be acting chair of the Fiction Writing Department this year,) offering students education in the creative industries and arts, we have become increasingly a college of choice for kids from the suburbs. We used to be a commuter school primarily, many of us working full-time, learning part-time, taking the CTA home late at night after class. Now we have dorms and lots of deeply engaged full-time students of traditional college age. What we have gained in numbers we have lost some in diversity, it’s true, and I am sorry for that. But what we have earned in reputation and dedication as a college is a good thing. Our students still come to Columbia to pursue those careers and educational paths that are hard to find at more traditional schools. They want to make art, many of them;they want to fill the world with music and words and images and new ways to think, to share, to be. They want to, as I do, author the culture of their times.

And I am thrilled to still be part of this. This pursuit, this education, this passion. This school: Columbia College Chicago.

Images from the internet, WBEZ and Columbia College Chicago. Thanks for reading. -PMc



View From the Keyboard ~ H. G. Wells

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” ~H. G. Wells

145 years ago today, H. G. Wells was born. Today, View From the Keyboard honors the anniversary of that date.

Thanks for reading. -PMc

The Fantastic Worlds of Scottish Writer Craig Gilbert ~ View From the Keyboard

Another writer friend I’ve made over the wide wide world of the web, Craig Gilbert hales from the gorgeous country of Scotland, a place where magic and the fantastic seem entirely possible. Perhaps this is what draws Craig to the things he likes to write about: new worlds, legends, a landscape both magnificent and menacing. His work leans toward the realm of fantasy–A Wizard’s Tears, Craig’s debut novel was started when he was just 16. More than two decades later, Craig continues to hone and practice his craft through fiction and now poetry.

Soul Shadows is Craig’s first of four books of poetry; his upcoming collection is called A Gathering of Wings. Forthcoming fiction titles include The Dark Shores and The Lemon & Other Short Stories, a semi-autobiographical collection that looks at therapists, young love, running marathons, significant birthdays, and more.

Below, a taste of Craig’s fiction and poetry:

The Dark Shores (prologue, an excerpt)

Jolner looked at Spirit’s Rock now. It stood in the centre of the sea between the two islands, a huge formation of black rock and stone, jagged and inaccessible. At its apex, the formation seemed almost man made, for there was a perfect circle that pierced it, and on the longest day of the year, the sun would shine through this circle, sending a ray of warm light skittering across the sea, glinting off the rock pools Jolner now stood upon with warm energy.

Jolner could not repress a shudder. Every time he looked upon Spirit’s Rock, he remembered the legends of that place. The people of Mykemu, himself included, believed the Rock to be haunted, and many people who had dared sail near its rough cliffs told of seeing a presence there, something that they could not define, but sense. Many came back with differing views: it was a man they saw, made of mist; it was a sea serpent, coiled around the cliffs and as large as the rock itself; it was a woman of ethereal beauty, captivating travellers with her song of mourning. All agreed their sense of fear, the way their hair stood on end, as if being watched, and the sweat that lined their faces, as if they had been through a great ordeal. Many complained of rashes and welts, and marks appeared on their skin, unbidden and without any explanation. People did not travel to the monument any more, and feared it, and cursed they were to look at it.

As Love Erupts

Transfixed, I feel time flow around me,
Essences of atoms sparkle and shimmer!
Dawn greets sunshine, then turns to pale leaves,
Autumn cascades and snow dazzles winters.
Rooted to the spot, I age and fingers curl,
As my soul, bound to this earth, hears the call,
It shudders and draws cold breath: Pearls
Drop like ivory tears into the dream’s thrall.

I feel your heart beating so close, now.
Two pumps of red river entwine and connect,
Coursing through veins and solemn vows,
A stream of souls’ harmonies, my mind collects.
Take my hand, guide me to this new Earth,
Remove me from this dark reality of storms,
I hear the clouds come, fragmenting stars aloft:
Grey and shades caress my land, greenery torn.

The clocks tick in a mutual beat,
Along with humanity’s blame,
The endless lies and deceit,
It is forever bound to be the same.
My watch cracks, splintered as I touch
The ethereal world reaching out to me,
Almost in loving envelops tickling as such:
My sight has gone from memory, but I can still see!

The dream is powerful, and it beckons me thus,
Into a place where the wild flowers bloom,
Exciting colours, fragrances and green lush,
Gentle laughter peals around the mushrooms!
Is this a sought after moment, a beckoning lure,
Devoid of the ravages of war, a place non-corrupt?
This is the place I seek, with you, so pure,
As you cradle me in your arms, as love erupts.

– from the forthcoming poetry book ‘A Gathering of Wings’

Each selection © Craig Gilbert 2011

Craig, thank you for the glimpse into your worlds–real and fantastic. -PMc←

Women and Children First, Chicago ~ Great Books, Great Places

I am trying to remember the first time I went to a reading at Women and Children First Bookstore, and who it was… A. Manette Ansay, maybe? Julia Alvarez? Carol Anshaw? Achy Obejas? It was well more than a dozen years ago. I do remember that the first book I ever bought there was Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls Fat and Thin; I think I might have bought Margaret Atwood’s collection Bluebeard’s Egg that day as well. Since then I have been back many, many times, to see readings (recently April Newman and Sheree Greer at the Sapho Salon, and Bonnie Jo Campbell with her new book Once Upon a River) and to buy and order books. When I need to find the perfect something for my little nephews or a friend’s recent arrival, this is the place I go. When I just want to browse, to find something new, I do that here as well. Women and Children First is a great place to find gifts, journals, periodicals, and cards. And, if you’ve visited my site much before you know this too–it is a truly wonderful place to launch a book.

I welcome your input about great places to buy great books. Consider sending me note about and some photos of your favorite independent bookstore. I’ll try to help you get the word out. (Guidelines here.)

As always, thanks for reading! -PMc←

Happy Birthday Anna Deavere Smith ~ View From the Keyboard

“I think it’s a fight we need to have.

And I think the American people accept those

values —

But there are some people on the right who don’t.

They look at

At society as a. . . .

In Darwinian terms.

If you succeed in life because you had advantages

God wanted you to succeed

And if you fail

It’s your own fault —

And if it’s your own fault

Why should anybody else have to help you?

And I reject that

I reject that.

It’s inconsistent with my values.

I disagree very strongly with it.”

~Taken from an interview Anna Deavere Smith conducted with Henry Waxman for an early draft of “Let Me Down Easy,” Smith’s play about the United States healthcare system (New York Times Magazine article, September 30, 2009.)

Happy Birthday to a writer and performer who does her best to keep us mindful of the world around us with all of its challenges and its joys.

→Image from Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.” Thanks for reading. -PMc←

On Need and the Single Digit Victory Sign ~ DA Kentner’s View From the Keyboard

DA (David) Kentner (aka KevaD) is one of those writers on the front lines of the battle to remind folks how important it is to keep reading. He is a regular contributor to the Freeport Journal Standard, and his column “The Readers’ Writers” is distributed nationwide. Recently, David took the time to share his view from the keyboard.

Kentner: My workspace reflects my work habits – contained calamity. This is my corner of our home, the back part of the living room, the room within a room. Here I can glance at my grandchildren or the memory of a beloved pet, ponder the hand that once carried the barn lantern, visualize the family that read by the oil lamp. The flag sat on my desk the years I was our city’s chief of police. Near it is the clock and plaque my staff presented me when I announced my retirement. The shelves are filled with reference books and novels I hope to read… someday.

Every morning I sit here to write. This is also the last place I sit before I go to bed. Sometimes day and night intertwine. That’s why there are four clocks, so no matter which way I turn I’ll know what time it is. The window just out of view helps me distinguish AM from PM.

I’m a writer. It’s what I do, what I love, what gives me life. Originally I wrote solely for my enjoyment. Then I was told I “needed” to be published. I hadn’t been aware I possessed that need, but bent to the idea. During my quest for publication a professional editor told me my skills weren’t good enough and I would never be published. Wrong answer. The gauntlet was at my feet. I picked up the challenge, and haven’t set the darn thing aside since.

Dozens of stories no one will ever see attest to the fact I still write for my sole enjoyment. But another persona sits with me in the chair now; a writer who takes pleasure in seeing his work in the hands of a reader, in the knowledge we brought a smile to a face or a tear to an eye. There will be some who won’t understand what I do. I write to write. For me, it’s not about profit in a bank account, it’s the profit of joy in my heart. It’s the kind word from a reader that he or she enjoyed one of my stories or an interview with a fellow author.

And it’s about giving that editor a single digit victory sign.

I think the best example of my character-driven style of writing is the short story “The Caretaker.” However, here’s a sneak peak at my current work in progress, “Hearts on a Paper Boat.”



Chapter One

Sometime between her first tear and the unexpected rain shower, the flags, the color guard in their white berets and gloves, the blue and brown uniforms of more law enforcement agencies than she could count grayed and blurred. Hannah Preston drew her knees to her chest and shivered in the grove of pines. It wouldn’t be long now. She closed her eyes to wall out the finality and hugged her legs as she had her teddy bear so many years ago in another life where the people she loved didn’t die.

Pop-op. Seven rifle shots masquerading as one reported across the cemetery, over the oats field, up the incline to her hiding place, and bore into her brain as if maggots after food. She gripped her elbows and compressed her body under the onslaught of agony rebounding from bone to bone inside her.

Pop-op. Seven more. She winced and shuddered.

Pop-op. The final volley of the twenty-one gun salute to a fallen brother officer drilled with dental precision through her ears, down her throat and into her belly. A fiery puddle of acid erupted and corroded what little desire remained to live another day.

Like a brass mourning dove, a solitary bugle wept Taps between the raindrops’ patter.

Hannah rested her forehead on her denim clad knees and clenched her jaw, but the chatter of her teeth drummed an erratic beat into her heart vying for a sustainable rhythm. A jolt of unchained sorrow and guilt ached down her spine and numbed every nerve, leaving only cold to ooze through her veins.


David, thank you for your View From the Keyboard. And thanks, too, for the work you do to keep readers reading and writers writing with your column, “The Readers’ Writers.” To read more, check out: dakentner.blogspot.com. And coming soon, the view from fiction and nonfiction writer Michael Downs and Scottish writer Craig Gilbert. PMc←

A Way of Remembering ~ September 11, 2001

In September 2001, I was writer-in-residence at Interlochen Arts Academy in Northern Michigan. Our first day of class was September 11. Like the rest of you, I am still haunted by that morning, still trying to make sense of things. Some years following it, I finally wrote about it, fictionalizing my quiet time in the woods while the rest of the world went on uncertainly. The result, a short story called “Regarding Alix” published in New Plains Review, Fall 2008. Today, as I sit and consider that time ten years ago and where we are now, I share with you that story.


I arrived at Brighton Academy on a frozen Saturday morning in early November, mid-semester.  It was a temporary gig, a permanent substitute they called it.  I’d be there until the beginning of winter break, a little more than a month, while the regular creative writing teacher was out on a complicated maternity leave.  It had been a decade since I’d last taught, but after the towers went down two months earlier, freelance editing gigs, my preferred work, were hard to come by.  And besides, at that time getting out of my high-rise apartment in the city where planes came in over the lake and circled overhead didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

It took six hours in the late fall snow to drive all the way up north.  By the time I got to my cabin on campus, the snow was ankle deep.  I was glad I didn’t bring much, most of my life was still in the city, so unpacking didn’t take long: two suitcases of clothes, another of books, my computer and printer, my cat TJ in his carrier.  The cabin was small and cozy, carpeted and wood-paneled and filled with plaid furniture, a real back-in-the-woods place, just like Brighton.  The academy was an expensive boarding school for smart kids, rich kids, spoiled kids.  Kids whose folks were diplomats, or were on second marriages and second families, or were high-ranking military officers on the move.  Kids who felt more at home in a dorm room with others just like them than they ever did in their sprawling houses with wide lawns and hired help.  Brighton kept a close eye on these teenagers, gave them curfews and rules, and detentions if they broke either.  The school was a dozen miles from the closest town, a few dozen from the nearest city.  A safe place, it seemed.  A place where planes didn’t fly into buildings, where buildings didn’t crash down into an enormous pile of rubble.  The closest airport was an hour away by car.

I set my computer up in front of the wide picture window that looked over the road toward a two-story cedar-sided building marked “Learning Resource Center.”  The library.  On the second floor, a girl with curly, sandy hair and big glasses stepped into the bright frame of one of the windows.  She hugged herself, pulled the collar of her olive coat—a man’s army jacket it looked like—tight around her neck, and rested her forehead against the glass.  She opened her mouth round and blew an opaque circle of fog on the pane.  She stepped back, tilted her head this way and that, considered her work, wiped it away with the sleeve of her coat, blew another circle, considered it, wiped it away, blew, considered, wiped.  For some reason I couldn’t stop watching her, and it wasn’t until a campus security guard tooted the horn of his snowmobile outside that I turned away.  He gestured for me to move my car and pointed to a parking lot a few cabins away.  I stepped outside and the snow was coming down in feathery clumps, and I looked up toward the library window again.  The girl was gone.  In her place, a white patch blurred at its edges and then faded to nothing.

In first period Monday morning, two tidy rows held six quiet, pale, sleepy-eyed students.  I’d slept badly myself: all that quiet, all that dark.  In class I wrote my name on the board, “Sandy, just call me Sandy,” I said, and they stirred behind me.  “You say ‘Ms.’ Olsen, and I’ll feel like an old maid.  You say ‘Miss’ and it’ll sound like you’re just trying to butter me up.  Sandy.  It’s okay with me.”

I turned to the group, to the boy in the first seat.  “And you are?”

“Rob.”  He had brown bangs down to his nose.

“And you?”

“Tiffany.”  She wore a skirt over her jeans, like we used to on winter mornings in the days before they let girls wear pants to school.  We’d pull off the trousers in the coatroom, tug on our skirts to get rid of the static cling, slap the white cold out of our legs.

“Gus.”  Big boy.  Broad shoulders.

“Dana.”  Blond hair cut in spikes.

A girl with too much blue on her eyelids and a thick turtleneck sweater said “Shelly” three times before I could hear her.

“Elise.”  Eyes dark as wet stones and a wide mouth.

I ran through the list in my head and matched the names to the class roster I’d pulled from my mailbox in the office.  One missing.  “And—” I started, but just then the door flew open and a blast of cold air blew in with the library girl in the army jacket.

“I’m Alix,” she said, and her voice was much bigger than she was, loud and thick and pitched low.  She pushed between two of the desks, snow fell off her shoulders onto Tiffany, onto Elise, and they scowled and swiped at it, but Alix didn’t notice.  She walked right up to where I stood in front of the class and handed me a wet sheet of paper, a note obviously, only illegible with its swirls of black ink bleeding and turning gray.  “Dropped it in the snow,” she said, too loud still, and she sniffed and pushed at her steamed-up glasses and I saw that her gloves had holes cut in the fingertips.  Her nails were bitten raw and painted purple.  “It’s from my mom.  Sorry I’m late.  Snow.”

“Your mom,” I said, and then I remembered that some of the students were day schoolers, children of the faculty mostly, or sometimes of the employees—the security guards, lunch ladies, women in the office.  They got a break on tuition, and scholarships if their academic records were particularly promising.

“Sandy,” Alix said, reading the board.  “Well.”  And she put her book bag on the floor next to her desk, pulled out a notebook and a purple pen, wiped her glasses with the sleeve of her army coat and blinked up at me.  She tilted her head and blinked again, poised her pen over a clean page of notebook paper.  Ready and waiting.

“It’s the drugs,” Dunk, the English Comp teacher said over watery coffee in the pine-paneled teachers’ lounge.  Jack Duncan, Dunk, the kids—everyone—called him.  For his love of doughnuts and his ability at basketball, he told me.  “She’s always been sort of goofy, you know, Dungeons and Dragons, Hobbit sort of goofy.  But now she’s a bit dopey.  Doped up.”  He poured another cup and waggled the pot in my direction.  I shook my head.  The snow kept falling outside, three days of it now, and the windows over the counter were webbed with frost.  The radio was on and quiet voices talked about terror, about revenge, about democracy.

“ADD or OCD or maybe it’s—what do they call it now?—bipolar.  That’s what she takes the drugs for.  That and on account of her brother.”

Dunk was my assigned mentor, a fellow teacher who would show me around, answer my questions, fill me in on procedures.  He was white-haired, tall and thin, more legs than body, and a good twenty years older than me.  Near retirement, he made sure to remind me, whether the subject came up or didn’t.  He complained good naturedly about nearly everything: the state of education in the no-child-left-behind age, his wife spending too much money on decorating and redecorating their cottage near the small lake just off campus, the neighbors’ barking dogs, kids today.  We met my first day on campus, and he’s the one who told me about Alix’s brother’s death.  A one-car accident two days after the planes crashed, just after the semester started, at the beginning of his senior year.  I’d asked Dunk about Alix today because twice in the last week she’d fallen asleep in my class, come to foggy-eyed and mute when I shook her shoulder, looked around the class like she was lost.  She kept up with the assignments, though, turned in pages and pages of highly contrived stories about other worlds and sorcerers and underlings who needed saving and who became saviors themselves.  The writing was competent enough, even sort of clever with its complicated plot twists.  Still, when we read the stories out loud in class, Gus and Rob doodled elaborate and engrossing chains of calligraphic characters and geometric shapes in the margins of their notebooks, and Tiffany and Dana and Elise rolled their eyes over and over, so much so they looked like those plastic-headed dolls with the wobbling eyeballs that moved in circles when you shook them.  Only Shelly listened, tilting slightly toward Alix in the next chair, nodding almost imperceptibly at every turn in the story, tensing her shoulders with any conflict on the page, sighing quietly and satisfied at the story’s end.

Twice a week students could volunteer for one-on-one tutorials with me to go over their work or to talk about their academic plans.  Most of my students came once a week at most, answered my questions the way they thought I wanted them answered: “Rising action?”  “Through dialogue?”  “Description?”  Questions in response to questions.  I wondered if they wanted to talk about something else.  About the crazy world around us, about their folks stationed overseas, maybe about their childhood pets.  But most of them, Alix excluded, wanted to stay on topic.  “How am I doing?” they’d ask.  “My parents want to know if I’m doing okay.”  “Fine,” I’d say.  “Tell them you’re doing fine.”  Only how was I to know how these kids were doing, how they were really doing?  We spent seventy-five minutes together four mornings a week.  I hardly knew them.  Their work was okay—if not all that interesting—but did that really add up to how they were doing?  “I’m not certain,” I said once to Shelly when she asked me the standard question.  “How are you doing?” I asked.  And she stared at me from under all of that blue on her eyelids, and she looked, well, panicked.  “’Scuse me?”  She said in her quietest of voices.  She tucked her chin deeper into the collar of her ever-present turtleneck.  “Fine,” I said, and I knew better than to laugh, even though I think I wanted to.  “You’re doing fine.”  Relief spread over her features.  “We’re all just fine,” I muttered and shuffled the pages in her folder.  After she left my office I locked my door and turned off the light and sat in the dark, my throat closing in on itself.

Alix wasn’t interested in the writing once she turned it in, and she’d come twice weekly to tutorials carrying half a dozen books, eager to read various passages to me.  “This reminds me of you; it’s Nietzche,” she said one day.  “‘Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his students—even himself.’”  And she smiled and blinked at me through the smudges on her glasses.  “Thank you,” I said, not sure what to make of it.  Alix beamed.

In the teachers’ lounge I listened to Dunk’s explanation and then carried my mug over to the sink and rinsed it out.

I gathered up my papers.  “What’s the name of that vet again?” I asked as I packed my shoulder bag.  TJ wasn’t himself.  He’d taken to hiding under the bed sometimes, making low, eerie noises, coming out just to sniff at his food.

“Conroy,” Dunk said, “over on the highway.  Here, I got his number.”  Dunk fished the wallet out from his back pocket and pulled out a card.

I made the call from the lounge phone and got an appointment right away.  I picked up my things and trudged through the snow back to my cabin.

On my way off campus with TJ wrapped in a towel in the passenger seat next to me, I passed Alix and Shelly at the edge of campus, sitting at a snow-covered picnic table pushed way back in the trees.  Their heads were low and close together and Alix held a notebook in her lap.  Shelly moved a pen over its pages.  Alix looked up into the trees and laughed.

At our next tutorial, I was determined to speak with Alix about the sleeping-in-class situation.  I couldn’t mention the drugs; privacy issues were supposed to keep me from knowing this.  But before I had the chance to say anything, Alix stood up from her chair next to my desk and walked the three steps it took to cross my office and looked at the pictures on my bulletin board.  There was the one of my mother and me from the eighties.  It was a favorite of mine, both of us in sunglasses and with big hair—hers strawberry blond, mine dark brown—tossing streamers and confetti over the railing on a cruise ship.  Another of my ex-husband and me a couple years ago, right before the breakup; I kept it because I liked the way the city skyline made shadows over our faces, over the water behind us.  Pictures of friends who were still close but busy, married with children.  Black and white shots of my parents from the fifties.

“Your cat?”  Alix asked, pointing to one of the photographs.

I nodded.  “TJ,” I said.  “For Tom Joad.”

Grapes of Wrath,” Alix said.  “‘In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.’  I like Of Mice and Men better, though.  All that Lenny and George stuff.  It really gets to you, you know?  And my brother’s name was Leonard.”  She kept looking at the picture.  She hummed a few notes of something I didn’t recognize then said, “You got brothers and sisters, Sandy?”

I shook my head.  “I’m an only child.  An orphan now really; both my folks are gone.”

“Jeez,” Alix said and turned toward me.

I waved it away.  “No, it’s fine, really,” I said, as though she’d told me she was sorry.  “It’s been a long time now.  My dad when I was about your age, my mom died from cancer a few years ago.  I’m used to it.”

“Are you currently involved with anyone?  A significant other?”  She looked at the photo of my ex and me.  This was just like Alix.  She’d be carrying on a conversation full of shorthand and slang like the other students, and then she’d turn serious.  Words she’d read somewhere or heard in a movie would come out of her.

“No, I’m alone.  By choice at the moment,” I said.

“The world is a lonely place.”

“It can be.  Lonely isn’t always bad, though,” I said.  I was thinking of the way it felt in my cabin in the cool, gentle light of morning.  How sometimes on my afternoon walks alone through the woods my heart would seem to expand beneath all the layers of fleece and down, and I’d start to cry for no reason.  I thought of the splendid quiet.

“At least you got TJ,” Alix said, and she ran a purple-inked finger over the picture.

“I’ve got TJ,” I agreed.

Alix plopped back down in her seat.  “Sometimes I think I’m crazy.  You know, bona-fide, straightjacket-y loony.”  Her eyes locked on mine.  “But they say it’s just a chemical thing.  Runs in the family.  That’s why I’m on the meds.”  She pulled one of her long curls out from behind her ear and chewed on its end.  “And they make me sleepy.  Sorry about the dozing off.  I’ll work on it.”

“Anything you’d like to talk about?”  I asked.  There were whisperings in the teachers’ lounge about Alix’s brother, about his accident, about how the road was clear when he veered off it and into a tree.

“Nope,” she said, and sat quietly, blinking.

Reluctantly, I pulled her folder from the pile of them and slid it between us.  If Alix didn’t want to talk, we could discuss her work.  Just like I did with the other students.  I flipped through the pages and looked at the dates scribbled under her name in the purple headings.  I chose her latest fantasy world story, although it could have been any of them; they were all more or less the same.  “Well, about this piece…”

“You know, I’m not gonna do that stuff anymore.  It’s so not me anymore.  I’d like to try something a little closer to home.  You know, write what you know and all that.”

“Great,” I said too quickly, and she looked at me, a shadow of something in her eyes.  “I mean, these are some competent—finely tuned, really—stories.”  I reached my hand toward hers, felt the rhythm of her fingers drumming on my desk.  Her eyes cleared again.  “But I think you’re ready to branch out.”

Shelly’s tutorial followed immediately after Alix’s.  I watched out my window as the two passed one another on the sidewalk outside the building, watched as Alix slowed down and as Shelly dipped her head and sped up.  Alix’s shoulders lifted and lowered, but she continued on toward the parking lot and Shelly came inside, shaking the snow from her hair.

Dr. Conroy found nothing wrong with TJ, but said that it might have something to do with being in the country.

“Lots of smells out here, things prowling around.  It might be a hunting thing, or a territory thing.  You let him out?”

“Is that okay?”  I asked, a little embarrassed to let him know that TJ had always been an indoors-only cat, a city slicker like me.  Dr. Conroy looked at me.  He was an old man with white hair, pale gray eyes, and skin thin as paper.  But he was tall and broad, so he looked strong.  Trustworthy.

“He’s got his claws.  No reason not to.”  Dr. Conroy patted TJ’s head with his big, thick hand.

Back at the cabin, TJ sat in the window and chittered at the squirrels digging in the snow beneath the trees.

“It’s cold out there, buddy; you’re better off inside,” I told him.

Hours later my dreams were full of colors and sound, and I woke up in the dark trying to piece them back together.  As my eyes adjusted, the dreams slipped away, but the sound was still there.  I made out TJ at the front door in the next room, growling, his tail switching.  I let him out.

The next morning when I made my way to the kitchen to start the coffee, TJ bounded up onto the outside kitchen windowsill and rubbed against the glass.  I opened it wide enough for him to come back in.

Alix’s next assignment was just as she said, closer to home.  An intelligent, poor, socially awkward girl in a snobby middle school is teased incessantly by her classmates, but she makes a friend, one friend, a new shy kid who won’t speak to her in class or the hallways so as not to be targeted by the cool kids.  And this hurts Andrea (“Call me Andy,” Alix’s protagonist tells the new girl), but she lives with it, grateful to have someone to speak with on the phone, to have sleepovers with, to talk about homework and teachers and the other kids.  Only one day the cool girls, Treasure, Dara, and Elena, catch Andy and Sally talking to one another in the girls’ room, and the next day Sally finds nasty notes in her locker, “Loser” scribbled across the cover of her textbooks.  And when Andy calls her that evening, Sally won’t speak to her, won’t even come to the phone.  And it is this that breaks Andy.  “I couldn’t care less what they thought of me,” Andy tells her reader, “but Sally, she was something different.  In her I could see my future.  A future that held others like her, like me, once we got out of this lame school.  A future of smart, quiet kids who read books and talked about real things, I don’t know, important things.  A future of friendships and understanding, away from these overdressed, under-intelligent sheep who, for now at least, made all the rules.”  In the story, Andy exacts her revenge, humiliates the cool kids with balloons filled with paint, and when she’s caught, the evidence discovered in her locker, she shakes off the grip of the security guard and marches down the hall toward the principal’s office, her combat boots pounding hard on the linoleum.  And she sees Sally there, among the faces in the crowd, and Andy winks at her, gives her a tiny tilt of the head.  But Sally turns away.  “And then I knew,” Andy says to the reader, “I was right.  Sally was—as much as it kills me to say this—absolutely, totally, completely my future.  My horrible, horrible future.”

“I am sooo tired of middle school stories,” Elise said when we finished reading the piece.  She swept her hard gaze around the room at the others.

Tiffany bobbed her head in agreement.  “Oooh, poor little put upon loser girl.”

Alix stiffened behind her desk.  Her eyes were wide-wide open, watery blue behind her glasses.  She chomped on the end of a curl.

“Wa-ah, wa-ah, they’re picking on me,” Dana said and rolled her eyes at the boys.  Gus and Rob snorted.

“That’s enough!” I said.  And I felt a hot fury rise in me.  “How dare you…” I started, but shook my head, turned my back.  My eyes stung.  How dare they see Alix exposed on the page but refuse to recognize themselves?  It was more than that, though.  The story, the writing, was good.  And I was unwilling to let the personalities of the class run over that.

“This,” I said, turning to face them again, shaking the manuscript in my hand, “is the most sophisticated story I’ve seen in all the time I’ve been here.  It’s not a mall story.  Not a broken-hearted teenager story.  Not a ridiculous shoot-em-up story.”  I deliberately looked at each of them, Tiffany and Dana, the mall story girls, Elise, the broken-hearted, Gus and Rob who wrote about capers and cops.  The group fell silent.  Alix leaned forward in her seat and stared at me.

Shelly was absent.

I turned toward the blackboard, trembling.  “Metaphor,” I wrote on the board.  “Character,” I wrote underneath.  “Scene.  Story arc.”  I made a list of all the things I could think of that had to do with writing a successful short story, wrote until my hand was covered with the fine yellow powder of chalk, until the board was full, until my anger was little more than a hot glow in my chest.  The bell rang.  I waved the kids away without turning around, listened to their chairs scraping over the tiles, their feet shuffling towards the door.  When finally I did turn, Alix was still in her seat.

“It’s good, you think?”  She asked.  I nodded.  Smiled.  She smiled back.  “Andy’s me, you know.  Only with a locker and combat boots.”  And she gathered up her books and walked to the door.  “See ya,” she said.

Over the next couple of weeks, Shelly didn’t return to class and the other kids tiptoed around me, slid silently into their seats, waited to be called on, slunk quietly out when the bell rang.  All but Alix.  It was as though she was trying to fill in the empty, quiet space around her classmates.  She interrupted them.  She interrupted me.  Her voice got louder and shriller with every point she made.  She came to class carrying dozens of books in her arms, dictionaries, notebooks, textbooks, novels, it didn’t matter if we were using them or not.  She’d dump them all on her desk and they’d skitter out from the pile and bang to the floor, bookmarks and papers and torn pages with purple drawings—daggers and crying eyes—spilling from them.  Alix would leave the books wherever they landed, and her feet in their rubber boots would stir through them all during class, melted snow turning the pages gray.

One morning, TJ didn’t come home.  I opened the front door and called for him, rattled the box of his dry food.  That didn’t work, so I left a bowl of it for him on the front step and went to class.  He wasn’t there when I returned that afternoon, but the food was half-gone, so I ignored my growing concern until the sun went down and the temperature with it.  I bundled up and took my flashlight and walked the paths and roads around the cabin, calling his name, making kissing noises into the cold, cold air.  After an hour, I went back to the cabin, lay down on the couch and tried to sleep.  I left the porch light on, and all of them in the living room as well.

In the morning, there was still no sign of him.  I canceled all my tutorials over the next week in order to continue the search.  Alix would leave one or two word notes taped on my doorknob: “Um, well” it might say in purple.  Or sometimes, just “Urgent!”  Once after class, I stooped near her desk to help retrieve her things.  Her wrist was white and stick thin as it extended out from the sleeve of her army jacket.  And then I saw she’d drawn a long, jagged, purple line on the underside of her wrist.  I stood up.

“You okay?”  I asked.  Alix pushed the mass of her hair back; and I could see she’d marked either side of the line with dots.  It looked like a scar.  She slung her bookbag over her shoulder and shrugged.

“Thanks,” she said, and stepped around me.

That afternoon I left a message for the girls’ counselor.

“It’s regarding Alix,” I said into the phone.

“What have you done to these guys?”  Dunk asked me in the teachers’ lounge.  His tie was speckled with powdered sugar.  “You should see their essays.  Tiffany’s writing about battling an eating disorder.  With Gus, it’s growing up in a broken home.  Rob’s writing about running away to Canada just in case there’s a draft.  Real stuff.  No more crap about peer pressure and the effect of commercialism on Christmas; all that stuff they think they’re supposed to write but don’t really care about.”

I shrugged and warmed my hands on my coffee mug.  Outside the sun was high and bright.  Icicles bled from the gutters.  I had hopes that the warm weather would bring TJ back, but things were looking more than grim.  I wasn’t sleeping well, listening out into the night for any sound that might be him.  I hadn’t given a writing assignment in days.  We were reading and discussing The Grapes of Wrath.  Alix had an opinion on everything and argued with anything her classmates had to say.  The girls’ counselor, in response to my message, left one of her own:  “We are monitoring the…situation.”

“Shelly’s not coming back, did you hear?”  Dunk said.  “Her folks have been shipped back from their post in the Middle East.  Shelly’s left for Virginia.  She’s being home-schooled.  They want her to be safe, I heard.”  He shook his head and reached to turn up the radio to hear a report on the progress of the invasion overseas.  He brushed the sugar off his tie.  “Like it’s not safe here,” he said.

Tutorials with Alix became painful half-hours of non sequiturs and questions she didn’t give me time or space to answer, her voice rising and filling my tiny office.

“My brother told me that girls might have to fight this time around.  Do you think Steinbeck meant for the Reverend John Casey to be a Christ figure?  You know, J.C.?  Sometimes my mom stays in bed all day long.”

I began to dread our time together, and when one evening I saw her in the middle of the road outside my cabin, watching me, I pulled my blinds quickly and stood silently behind them until I heard the crunch of snow that told me she was walking away.  Two nights later, Alix trudged up my walk but I pretended not to see her and flicked off my porch light before she got to my stoop.

On a bright, frigid Monday morning after another hard sleepless night and before class, I drove the half-mile to the grocery store to pick up some coffee.  On the way back, I turned on the radio and listened to the news of the world and my eyes burned and filled.  In the sharp morning light the car slipped and slid over the icy road, and I considered for a moment what it would be like to skid into the oncoming traffic or off the road into the trees.

In class, I had the students read silently at their desks while I pretended to go over the quiz from the previous week.  My eyes still smarted, and my throat did, too, and the teenaged curlicue script on the papers blurred into shapes and swirls.  Alix was quiet for once, but every time I looked up, I caught her staring at me, her mouth a thin, tight line, her forehead creased.  The bell rang and she stayed in her seat, hands folded over the open book on her desk.  I walked over to her and put my hand on her shoulder.

“I lost my cat,” I told her for some reason.  And she dropped her head to the desk and sobbed.

Now here’s the bad part.  The term ended and with it, my job.  Immediately after my last class was over at noon on Friday, I packed my car and drove the two hundred miles home.  The city was busy and loud, the sidewalks were icy, and the gutters were filled with gray slush.  Dunk had planned a goodbye party for me, or his wife did, really, and by the time I pulled into the garage of my apartment building, I knew that the kids and a few of the teachers would be gathering in the Duncans’ living room.  It was dark, a cold, early winter evening, and I hauled my suitcase and books and the empty cat carrier on the freight elevator up to my apartment.  Inside I sat in the dark and looked out at the glowing windows of all the other buildings.  I watched the blinking lights of the airplanes that flew low over the great lake a few blocks away.

I should have called someone to say I had to leave early.  A cold, I could have said, or a deadline on an editing project.  I hate driving in the snow, I could have told Dunk; the storm had followed me most of the way home.  But I didn’t.  I decided I’d send out notes and e-mails the next day, saying thanks, giving students my address.  But Saturday my head felt packed full of hot, scratchy rags, and my throat was raw.  I slept most of the day.  Sunday, too.  On Monday I took on the tasks of someone gone too long: called project managers in search of work, balanced my checkbook, dusted and vacuumed.  A week passed, and then another.

When I got the news about Alix, it wasn’t entirely a surprise.  Duncan called, and at first I didn’t recognize his voice; two months and two hundred miles made it sound thinner and higher than I remembered.

“Her father found her,” he said.  “On rounds.”  She was out in the woods, not too far from where I’d seen her and Shelly on the picnic bench, but off the path.  Alix’s dad was doing what security guards did there, sweeping the woods for kids smoking, making out, skipping class.  “Her parents thought she’d been staying with a friend on campus.  She’d been gone a couple of days.”  I heard him take in a long, wet breath.  “Looks like she froze,” Dunk said.  And I said, “Thank you.  I mean I’m sorry.  I’m—thank you.”  And we listened to the nothingness on the phone lines between us for a minute, maybe two.

And then I said, “Look.  Dunk.  I am sorry.  You know.”

And he said, “Yeah, I know.”

And I said, “Look,” again for some reason, “I have something…I have to go.  I’m sorry.  I’ll call you back.”

“Sure,” he said.  Not like “Yeah, sure, sure you will,” but like “Sure you’re sorry, and sure I forgive you, and sure you don’t really have to call me back at all.”  Then he said, “I knew you’d want to know, okay?”

“Okay,” I said.

And I hung up.

From my desk I could see the city glowing beneath me, but from here, high above it all, I couldn’t tell if it was winter or spring.  I thought about the night before I drove home at the end of the semester.  I woke up in the dark, sure I’d heard someone outside my window, but when I looked, no one was there.  In the morning, though, I could see footprints all around my cabin, small ones, girl-sized ones.  And then Alix missed our last class, but I saw her outside the building, under a tree near the parking lot, and she looked in on Tiffany and Elise and Dana and Gus and Rob.  She looked in on me.  When I stepped to the window, she turned her back.  And later, when I returned to my cabin, the footprints had been wiped away, like someone took a broom to them, swept them off the snowy earth.  That’s when I knew I had to go.

From my apartment I could see the planes over the lake, normal flight patterns and all, and one made a wide, gentle turn and flew overhead.  I thought about the passengers on those other planes that September morning, back when the fall semester at Brighton Academy had just begun, back before I got there, back before any of us knew anything so bad could happen.  Those people on those planes—they had to know what was coming as the towers loomed closer, didn’t they?  Maybe they could have done something, probably they couldn’t have.  How many said, “Don’t,” or “Wait,” or “Stop.”  How many closed their eyes?  How many watched?

And yet, none of this matters.  It still happened.


The Pointer Sisters and Me ~ I’m So Excited!

Today is the day! Tonight I will read from THE TEMPLE OF AIR in front of friends and family and perhaps–if I am lucky–some new acquaintances who enjoy listening to writers read their own work. I am very, very excited about this event to be held in this lovely place, Women and Children First Bookstore in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, and I feel as though I should write something here today that is deep and profound. But my body is full of butterflies, the back of my head is buzzing, and my toes are curling; there is no quiet space in me to find the deep and profound words this occasion might warrant.

I keep hearing the Pointer Sisters singing:

(sorry about the commercial; the song is really there!)

See you tonight!

The Temple of Air, book launch at Women and Children First (image above from Google), 5233 N. Clark St., Chicago. 7:30 PM, Friday, September 9, 2011.←

On the Shelf with THE HELP


It would be hard to express how very exciting it is to see my book, THE TEMPLE OF AIR, in the window of Women and Children First in Chicago– a bookstore I have admired and supported for many, many years. And look, it is right next to the New York Times Best Seller THE HELP. What is it the realtors say? Location, location, location.

Hope to see you at the launch on Friday, September 9, 2011, 7:30 PM. Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark Street, Chicago. TimeOut Chicago dubbed the reading a “Critics’ Pick” event!