When I was accepted into Miami University, my grandfather agreed reluctantly to help with tuition, though I would need to work part-time for my board and living expenses. Miami University is a beautiful old campus. Ancient maples shade its red brick buildings, and there is a copper pendulum that swings back and forth in front of the academic hall where I took my first college English course in early American literature. That fall, I'd sit in the shade of this giant pendulum, reading Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau and Emerson. I'd always been a reader. All through my childhood, I read my mother's high school English books Jane Eyre, The Odyssey and Wuthering Heights that she kept in an empty rosewood crib down in the basement. I read the ten years of back issues of National Geographic my father kept on the shelves beside the crib. That fall, I was pleased that I could earn college credit for reading. I imagined, however, that the pendulum I sat beside was the college clock ticking, and that I must hurry up and choose a major that would lead to a useful job when I graduated, something in the medical or teaching field. I had disliked Psychology 101 the most that term, but it seemed like the only class I was taking that would lead to a job that would serve others. I declared a psychology major and told everyone back home that I was studying to become a psychologist.
Friday afternoons, I drove the rural road that led from Oxford, Ohio, back to my hometown of Cincinnati with my best friend, Mary. Her father worked as a paper engineer at the Procter and Gamble factory, and he'd gotten us both second-shift jobs in the detergent division. Every Saturday and Sunday, Mary and I went together to the sprawling factory compound east of Cincinnati, followed a labyrinth of hallways until we entered a lounge crowded with Formica tables and a vending machine filled with P&G food products. At three o'clock, we punched our time cards and pulled surgical masks over our mouths and noses, securing protective glasses over our eyes. Then we entered a smaller room where we would sit on high stools around a circular machine to assemble a new Tide product, a combination detergent and softener designed to release the detergent as the washer filled with water, the softener after the first rinse. My fingers grew sticky with the detergent crystals, and my throat became terminally raw from the dust, but I never grew weary or discouraged. I knew this dull work was temporary. After my shift ended, I went home and remained sleepless well past midnight. My thick American literature text cracked open across a pillow on my lap, I read Melville'sBartleby the Scrivener or Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis until dawn. I didn't make the connection between myself and the characters who inhabited these stories. They were works of fiction, and I was a college student who was studying to become a psychologist.
During our fifteen-minute break each night, Mary and I shared a package of Pringles and talked. She knew of a job in the deodorant division of P&G that paid eight dollars an hour if you were willing to sniff the underarms of those who were testing the new deodorants. We spent a lot of time pondering how this task was orchestrated. Did one individual stand with her arm raised while the other leaned in and sniffed? How close, exactly, did one have to get to another person's underarm to determine that the product was effective? A week before Christmas, I developed a bronchial cough from the detergent dust that made my chest feel tight and heavy. The more I coughed the worse my chest felt, and my mother feared this would lead to pneumonia, an illness she said had nearly killed me when I was an infant. It wasn't too difficult to convince her that I should quit when the fall term ended.
My mother worked as a secretary for a psychologist who counseled d.u.i. offenders, and over Christmas break she got the idea that I could work with her at the psychologist's office to see if this was the kind of job I wanted to do for the rest of my life. She even arranged an interview with her boss, Dr. English, about his field of expertise. One Monday morning, I went with her to the suburban medical complex office that Dr. English shared with his associate, a psychiatrist. In the waiting room, I observed a sad-eyed woman paging listlessly through stacks of Travel and Leisure and Good Housekeeping. An elderly couple sat in the far corner, heads bent toward each other, the woman clutching a plastic grocery bag filled with prescription bottles. Suddenly the old woman stood, her face filled with anger and mystery. Holding her bag of pills out before her, she walked slowly toward the blue water cooler near the reception desk, drinking cone after paper cone of fountain water. As her husband rushed to guide her back to her seat, my mother hurried me back to the room where she was going to type out d.u.i. reports, and I would file them.
In the back room, the bookshelves were lined with seventeen volumes of Jung's collected works. A fireman puppet was slung over the far corner of the lower shelf, nearly hiding a copy of Depression and Human Existence. Taking my seat beside the filing cabinet, I made mental notes to ask Dr. English if he'd read all those thick books, and how he used those puppets for therapy sessions. My mother sat across the room beside a window that overlooked a gravel rooftop, typing out d.u.i reports dictated into a tape recorder by Dr. English. All afternoon I filed to the sound of the psychologist murmuring, Point zero nine, the click and screech of the tape recorder as my mother turned it off, rewound the tape, listened to the tragic blood alcohol level again.
Two hours and six paper cuts later, my neck ached from hunching over the file cabinet, and I was struggling with the powerful urge to run over to the bookshelf and play with the psychologist's puppet. Though I suspected that the d.u.i. files were confidential, I began to reading a few, vaguely looking for information that would help connect this mind-numbing work with my newly chosen career in psychology. First, I read through the police report to find out the blood alcohol level of those sentenced to d.u.i. counseling. Then I read the sheet that recorded how the patients were faring during the mandatory counseling sessions. My mother typed on. Every once in a while, she turned absentmindedly toward me to ask if I needed more file stickers or folders. I'm certain she noticed that I was reading the reports, but she was working to put me through college, and at the moment she wanted me out of her hair so that she could finish her typing. Soon, I stopped filing completely and just read.
Near the end of the L files, I spotted a familiar name, the father of a boy I'd gone to high school with. The police report said this man had wrapped his Buick around a Buckeye tree just down the street from where we lived. When they got to him, he was trying to start the car back up. He kept turning the key in the ignition like he was going to drive away.
I know him, I kept thinking as I reread the file. I know his family. It was a sad revelation, but I could not make the connection between that tragic blood alcohol level and all that Zeitgeist theory from Psychology 101. For that matter, I could not make the connection between anything I'd studied during my one term in psychology and the minds and hearts of those people I'd seen in the eerie waiting room. I stopped reading and began filing until my mother announced that we were done for the evening.
I never got to interview Dr. English about the field of psychology. He forgot about our interview and went home before my mother had a chance to introduce him to me. I went back to school the next week, looking forward to the American Literature Part II course I'd enrolled in before leaving for Winter break. I took a job in the cafeteria next to my dorm so that I could stay at school on weekends, working food prep with the full-time help. Women from the farm counties surrounding the campus, they wore immaculate white uniforms, but their hands were stained black from picking tobacco in the summers. Peeling carrots and potatoes, I listened to them discuss their aching backs and feet, their dreams of acquiring comfortable desk jobs in computer data entry. As with my job at the Procter and Gamble factory, I didn't mind the work. I could finish an early morning shift, shower the sour cafeteria smell off my body and still read Faulkner's Barn Burning or Robert Frost's After Apple Picking before my nine a.m. class.
By the second semester of my sophomore year, I had taken only one psychology class but had completed half an English major, though I was still telling everyone I was majoring in psychology. I figured I had two more years to decide on a useful major, plenty of time to sign up for that introduction to creative writing course I'd always wanted to take. That spring, I took my first creative writing course with the poet James Reiss, a tall, lanky man with a New York accent. During the first class, he introduced the class to poetic line, sound and concrete imagery. He told us a poem could be about anything. To prove his point, he read the William Carlos Williams poem about the ripe plums and told us all to go home and write a poem about anything.
I went directly back to my dorm, down to the study carrels in the basement and wrote my first poem about my grandmother's bunion surgery. Shortly before she died, my grandmother's bunions had grown so large that she couldn't wear anything but house slippers with the sides cut out. The bunions didn't prevent her from walking, but my grandfather wanted her to have the surgery. He'd grown up in a coldwater flat in the river bottoms, the middle son of Sicilian immigrants, but he'd worked his way into being an accountant who could afford to pay for his American wife's unnecessary foot surgery. Her feet bound after her surgery, my grandmother sat in an armchair before a TV tray, painting tiny violets and roses on tablecloths and bed linens until the end of her life.
The next week, I turned in a free verse poem titled My Grandmother's Bunions. At the beginning of the following class, Jim Reiss lumbered in with a stack of our poems and read each one aloud, pointing out clichés, their fatal resemblance to rock song lyrics. When he reached my poem, I held my breath until he finished reading and walked over to my desk.
Bunions! he said. Now this is what I mean by concrete detail!
Looking back, it was probably a really bad poem, but the fact that Jim Reiss was able to pull some small gem of encouragement from it was absolutely thrilling. From then on, whenever I was not in my classes, I was down in the basement study carrels scribbling out poems on lined yellow note pads until late into the night. I saw poems in everything, and I began making the connection between my writing course, the literature I was reading and the life around me. I wrote about how in winter, when my brother's landscaping business was slow, he plowed snow on the rural roads north of Cincinnati, keeping a stack of my father's National Geographics on the front seat of his truck to hand out to stranded travelers so that they wouldn't get bored and wander out of their cars, die of hypothermia on the side of the road before the police could reach them. I wrote a villanelle told through the voices of the full-time workers in the dorm cafeteria. Every night, I went to my poetry as if it were my second shift job, the kind of work that would sustain me until I achieved my worthier, true occupation. Sinking deeper into the work, I thought only of end-stopped lines and enjambment, sound and rhythms. When I finished a draft of a poem, my whole body ached from hunching too long over a desk, but I felt pleasantly spent, unafraid of where this work was leading.
After the final class with Jim Reiss, I ran back to my dorm room and wept because the class had ended. I read through the course catalogue, discovering that if I took intermediate and advanced poetry workshops I wouldn't have to stop writing. I'd read Hemingway's In Our Time and learned that he made a living as a reporter, so I signed up for a journalism class and started writing for the school newspaper. This was during the Reagan era, in the middle of Ohio, and I kept my chosen occupation to myself. Most of my friends were majoring in business or education, and when I did mention that I was majoring in English they imitated a K-Mart siren and hollered, Blue light special on aisle seven! One day after a workshop, Jim Reiss observed that though he liked my poems, they were all narratives. He suggested that I try a fiction class. I took all the fiction writing classes, repeating the advanced fiction workshop twice. In the winter of my senior year, I applied and was accepted into the MFA program in fiction at Wichita State University for the following fall.
To save up for living expenses, I moved back home the summer before graduate school. I didn't have a job. Mary's father had retired from Proctor and Gamble after having a stroke our senior year, and I didn't want to bother her family about work at the factory. Dr. English had retired after his associate quit their practice and bought a bar down on the Ohio River, so my mother was in between secretarial jobs and couldn't take me to work with her. Every afternoon she and I sunbathed together on lawn chairs in the back yard, her high school novels from the old crib in the basement stacked between us. As I read Wuthering Heights and drank sun tea, my mother talked of all my friends who'd already secured their first real jobs in healthcare or education.
My college boyfriend had become a male nurse, and though he'd broken up with me to marry a girl he'd been seeing while we were still dating, my mother mused aloud that he'd chosen an unusual but solid occupation for a man, and that it was a shame things hadn't worked out between us. My mother had kept in touch with my boyfriend's mother, and she knew all about my ex-boyfriend's new fiancé. According to my mother, my ex-boyfriend's fiancé wasn't pretty, but she was the very definition of kindness. An Italian Catholic girl, she worked extra shifts at Good Samaritan hospital as an X-ray technician. Just the week before, she'd found a man lying still on her X-ray table, not breathing, and she'd resuscitated him. Unable to listen to one more word of praise about this good Catholic girl who seemed worthier of my ex-boyfriend than I was, I snapped my book shut and went inside.
The next Sunday, my mother, father and I went to my grandfather's house. He was getting too old to care for the sprawling, brick ranch perched on a sloping mile of land beside a horse farm that boarded the Clydesdale horses that pulled the Budweiser wagon in the downtown parades. While my mother cooked supper, my father and I stayed outside, my father driving a riding mower up and down my grandfather's lawn as I gathered the lopsided green apples that dropped from my grandfather's trees into a wheelbarrow, rolling it down to the barbed wire fence at the edge of my grandfather's property, dumping the fallen fruit over the fence for the wild Shetland ponies that lived in the woods to eat.
My grandfather kept a water cooler on the screened-in porch off his kitchen. On one of my trips up the hill, I went into the porch for a cup of water. My father had stopped the lawn mower to pick up a stick in his path, and in this sudden silence, I could hear my grandfather's husky voice coming from the kitchen. Standing beside the kitchen doorway, I saw my dark, straight-backed grandfather pacing behind my mother as she stirred a pot of marinara sauce, layering the lasagna noodles with ricotta and sweet Italian sausage.
She's outta control, my grandfather was saying. What's she gonna do with another degree in poetry?
She's studying fiction now, my mother said.
How much is that gonna cost?
She has a teaching assistantship. She'll be earning her tuition and living expenses by teaching.
After a long pause, my grandfather said, Maybe when she gets this out of her system and stops all her wandering she'll come home and be a teacher. He went into the dining room, opened the top drawer of the hutch where he kept his checkbook. He came back into the kitchen. It's cold in Kansas. He tore a check from the book, She'll need a warm winter coat.
Though I'd felt it all along, my grandfather's open disapproval still bothered me. I'd never thought of my choice to study writing in graduate school as rebellious. Thanks to my literature and creative writing classes, I had been a very good student. But now that I'd returned home I realized that in the eyes of my family I had finished four years of college without acquiring any useful job skills. I had not spent the last four years training to resuscitate dying men on X-ray tables or to teach school children. I knew how to write poems and short stories, and though this was hard work, it was selfish work that didn't seem to serve anyone but myself.
At my parents' house that night, I scoured the classifieds for a job. Since I'd come home, I'd begun setting my alarm clock so that I could wake early to read Raymond Carver's stories about vitamin salesmen and dog groomers, Andre Dubus's heartbreaking tales of lonely barmaids. I knew that these writers wrote about the lives they knew, if not about themselves, and I'd read an essay by Carver that said if you want to write a good story you must tell a little secret about yourself. Feeling my own sheltered life was as open as a blank page, I began looking for a second shift job that Carver or Dubus might have worked. I thought that if I brought myself to low places I would be able to write the dark and lovely stories I so admired. I wanted to tell my own dark secrets.
Still stinging from my mother's story about my ex-boyfriend's saintly new fiancé. I found a job as a recreation assistant at a home for the severely mentally retarded. An hour drive from my parents' house, the home stood like an abandoned elementary school in the middle of a field, surrounded by a warped and rusted chain-linked fence. Hired to stimulate people whose mental development stopped somewhere between the ages of three weeks and a year, I was required to find ways to speak to people who knew very few words, to provide exercise for full-grown men and women whose limbs had atrophied so severely that they weighed no more than infants.
This was a place parents took babies they wanted to forget. No one was allowed to bring a camera into the facility, but there were mirrors along the hallways and in the individual rooms. It was explained to me that these people needed to recognize themselves in mirrors, to remind themselves that they still existed. I spent the first week shadowing a young woman named Anna who worked as a nurse's aid. While feeding and bathing the individual patients, she called them each by name, identifying their personality quirks and habits for me. Bernie likes to sit in the hallway where she can watch the clock, she'd say. She introduced me to a full-grown man whose eyes were full of intelligence, though his arms and legs were curled against his body like the other patients. Bruce isn't like the others. He's got some kind of disease in his nervous system. He can't talk much anymore, but he likes it when you talk to him.
The next week, I assumed my post in the recreation room at 8 a.m. and found myself standing helplessly in the middle of the floor with a beach ball in my hands, surrounded by people in wheelchairs. Some of the patients slept while others waited, their eyes locked on me. Though their bodies were as helpless as newborns, their faces had aged and hardened, and as I looked into their eyes I knew they understood loneliness and hard use well beyond their official I Qs. I thought of the young woman who'd trained me the week before, marveling at how easily she'd spoken to them, rocking them in her arms as though they were her own children. I went into the supply closet and stood for a very long time.
Surrounded by shelves of athletic equipment and padded floor mats, I thought of Saint Catherine nursing the lepers, remembering the mystical saying taught to me in Catholic grade school, Know that you are she who is not. I knew only that I was not a saint, and that I wasn't cut out for this kind of work. But I was determined to prove to everyone that I was able to do something remotely useful and selfless. I brought out a boom box and beanbag, rolled the sleeping patients into patches of sunlight near the window and pulled the ones who remained awake into a close circle. I turned on the boom box, gave one of the patients who could hold things the bean bag, and we played an improvised version of hot potato, with me passing the potato for the ones who couldn't until it was time for my shift to end, and I could go home.
About a month after I took the job at the nursing home, my mother came into my bedroom one morning, carrying a small, blue suitcase. She'd surprised me with this suitcase when I eight, the first time I slept over at my grandparents' house. I'd loved this suitcase, and when I wasn't using it for sleepovers, I filled it with my favorite books and journals, carrying it everywhere with me. The suitcase bulged, and when I opened it all the stories and poems I'd written in high school spilled out across my lap. When I asked my mother why she'd saved them, she shrugged, You were always writing. I remember all your stories. She also gave me a manila envelope filled with clips of my college news stories I'd mailed to her and suggested that I choose a couple of my best ones to send off to a few newspapers and ask for work as a reporter. The next week, I got a call from the editor of a local weekly who said she could use a stringer to write features, that she'd pay twenty dollars a story, an extra eight if I took the photos.
Working as a reporter, I was able to write about everything around me once again as long as it happened in the farm counties above the Ohio River, on the eastside of Cincinnati. Every Monday, I went to the bureau and paged through the black binder my editor filled with press releases, looking for subjects that would make good human-interest stories. I interviewed the Buckeye United Fly Fishermen, a group of men devoted to fly-fishing. The only trout-sustaining stream in Ohio was near Upper Sandusky, about six hours away, so they spent much of their time talking about fishing and the art of fly tying, and they were eager to share this knowledge with me. I spent another afternoon with a troop of Civil War re-enactors called The Army of Ohio who drilled in a soggy cow pasture down the road from Saint Rita's School for the Deaf. I spent so much time with my sources that it took days to type up my notes, determine my angle and what material I actually needed to put in the stories. Every Friday, I met with my editor, Jean, in her office. She made suggestions for cuts, reminding me of narrow newspaper columns, the need for advertising space. Then she gave me the letters written by sources who wanted to thank me for writing their stories. At summer's end, Jean offered me a full-time job working the education beat. Though I turned it down, I was very tempted. It was the first job that had shown me how necessary my writing could be to others.
In Wichita, after my parents helped move my chest of drawers and bed into my tiny apartment, there wasn't much room for them to sleep. They booked a hotel room that night, promising to return before seven the next morning to say goodbye before driving back to Ohio, but they didn't arrive at my apartment at until 11 a.m. the next day. My mother stood on the porch with me while my father walked to the back of the van, pulled out a large, white box.
Did you guys sleep in? I asked.
You're father wanted to visit a hardware store, my mother said.
She needed a table, my father said as he carried the box into my apartment.
The box was filled with many parts of a small, oak table that required assembling. He overturned the table's top, set it on the floor of my tiny kitchen, lining the four legs beside it. Then he sliced open a plastic bag of metal corner braces, screws and dowels, brought out a brown hardware store sack filled with wood glue and a plaining tool he'd bought especially for the occasion. He didn't open the directions. The assembly, which should have taken an hour, ended at 2 p.m. when my mother told my father that he must finish up, they still had a long drive ahead of them. My father turned the table upright, set the level on its top, gave it a critical look and rocked the table with one hand to test its strength. He shook his head, turned the table upside down again, but my mother looked at her watch.
She needs a table, my father said fiercely, but he turned the table upright again. His shoulders sagged, and when I knelt beside him to help pick up the spare brackets and screws off the floor, I saw that his eyes were red. You won't be coming home again, he said softly.
It's a fine table, I said. I'm coming home for Christmas.
That night after my parents left, I placed my Smith Corona on the table my father had built and hung my new winter coat in the closet. I was finally alone, but I wasn't lonely. Soon, I began meeting teachers and students who wanted to write as badly as I did. I began learning how to teach college English so that I could support myself and, ideally, have time to practice my craft. About a month into the term, I wrote my first published short story. I'd been thinking about how to tell this story for weeks, but it came to me late one night when I wasn't actually writing, and I ran to my oak table in the kitchen to write it all down.
A good teacher once told me that the only difference between writing and any other job is that a writer is someone who writes. Though it is an art form, writing is not a lofty process. You must go to it every day, steadily and faithfully, as you would a second job--even if you've already worked an eight-hour shift, or taught four composition classes or cared for your young children all day. You are never not writing; you think constantly in terms of narrative and sentences so that after weeks, sometimes years, of waiting and working you will be able to tell a human story as well as you can. If you choose writing as your vocation, these rare, graceful moments will sustain you as well as any unexpected gift, like a warm winter coat, a sturdy table, a small, blue suitcase.
SUSAN TEKULVE's short fiction chapbook, My Mother's War Stories, was published by Winnow Press in Spring 2005. Her short story collection, Rooms People Live In, was chosen as a finalist for the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for fiction at BookMark Press in 2002 and 2003. Her nonfiction and stories have appeared in The Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Prairie Schooner, Another Chicago Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Connecticut Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Crab Orchard Review, The Literary Review, Book Magazine and Black Warrior Review. She is an associate professor of English at Converse College in South Carolina and is finishing a novel.
[copyright 2005, Susan Tekulve]