Aug 292012
 

Robert Day is the best teacher I ever encountered, also one of the most amiable of men and author of The Last  Cattle  Drive, a novel I fondly reread every now and then for its rich comedy, its distinctively clipped and forthright voice, its deft and delicate puncturing of the myth of the west, and its humane decency. Bob and I met at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1981 when I was a student and he was a visiting instructor. The first day of class he walked into the room and wrote across the whole front wall of blackboard REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM. I have written about this in my essay “The Novel as a Poem” in my book Notes Home from a Prodigal Son. I include the opening paragraphs below (and I wrote about him from memory and no doubt reimagined or even fictionalized details for which sin I hope he will forgive me).

The best writing teacher I ever had was a Kansas cowboy named Robert Day who showed up at the Iowa Writers Workshop as a last minute, one-semester replacement for a sick colleague in January, 1981. The first day of classes he strode into the room wearing Fry boots, jeans and a checked shirt. Without saying a word, he picked up a piece of chalk and wrote across the full length of the blackboard in huge looping letters: “Remember to tell them the novel is a poem.”

At the time, Day had only published one novel, a book called The Last Cattle Drive. He was a tenured English professor at Washington College in Maryland. He had been one of the founders of the Associated Writing Programs. As a young man, he had worked at G. P. Putnam in New York and could recall for us the excitement over the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Summers he went back to western Kansas where friends ran a borderline ranch. He kept a horse there, a horse which at various times had eaten loaves of bread through the kitchen window, or Day’s hat. All summer long he would hang out with his friends, their cattle and his horse.

That semester we read Queneau, Musil, Rulfo, Achebe, Nabokov, Tutuola, Abe and Marquez. Day did not tell us what he meant–“Remember to tell them the novel is a poem.” Maybe he forgot. Half-way through the semester he read the second draft of my novel Precious, three hundred typed pages of plot, dialogue and scene that stubbornly refused to come alive. I still have the notes I made during our conference, fifty-four words. It took less than fifteen minutes. But like a skilled surgeon he had opened the novel up for me and shown me its heart still beating, its bones, nerves and veins.

The bit about AWP needs expansion (and even now I am not sure I have this right). But according to Bob’s friend and colleague Walton Beacham, in 1971 the infant AWP, then being run by its co-founder R. V. Cassill (George Garrett was the other co-founder), was about to go under. Cassill was bowing out and Brown University was withdrawing its support. Bob and Walton arranged a new home and financing for the organization, and Bob made the trip to Providence to retrieve the AWP archives from Cassill. Cassill handed him a shoebox containing some notecards, the full extent of the AWP archives at the time. Bob remained director and/or sometimes president until 1982.

Bob Day and I have not been much in touch since those days in Iowa, a hiatus probably due to the diffidence that exists between a student and an important mentor. But it’s a huge pleasure now to reunite on these pages — one of the best things about publishing Numéro Cinq is the number of friendships it has revived. When he wrote to me a few weeks ago, he reminded me about the last time we were together. “The last time I saw you we were looking a new jeeps as I was to buy one for the ranch where I worked; they had gone up scale and you said:  Bob, they’re toys.  Right you were.”

Now I am deeply pleased to be able to publish a new Robert Day short story, also to applaud his new book of stories coming out in September: Where I Am Now.

The hunting photo above is by Denise Low.

dg

—–

I had not been a good enough high school student to go “East” for college.  My father had hoped for a scholarship to Yale or Harvard: an Ivy League education was to a young man from Kansas as a wealthy marriage was to a young woman. As for my mother, she had discovered that any college in Kansas had to take you if you had graduated from a state high school.

“I think he should stay in our domain,” she’d say, using in context one of the ubiquitous words she was forever trying to teach me out of her dictionary.

“He should go East,” my father would say without–I would learn later–any sense of history or irony: “Go East,” you could hear him say summer evenings in our front yard as he drank a beer in his webbed aluminum lawn chair.

“I think he should stay in our environs,” my mother said through the open kitchen window as she cleaned up. That spring I was accepted at Emporia State Teachers College.

“William Allen White’s town,” my father said.

“Teachers and government workers are never without a job,” my mother said.

The summer before I left for Emporia, I life guarded at the local pool and helped at home: I mowed the lawn, painted the basement walls, cleaned out the attic, ran errands, and hung the laundry on the backyard clothes line. Some days I fixed flats, pumped gas and changed oil at my father’s repair garage and filling station.  I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but I didn’t sit around looking into a gold fish tank.

At the swimming pool that summer, I saved a boy out of the deep end bottom but never said anything about it until my father saw it as a news item in the local paper.  I was the kind of kid who did not explain himself.  It seemed natural. The summer after my first year at Emporia I went back to work at the pool.

“Your uncle Conroy writes that he has a fellowship for you,” my mother said. I was home on lunch break from life guarding.  “It pays wages and you get college credit.  You need good grades in science.”

My mother has said this without much enthusiasm.   She was reading the letter a second and third time.

Uncle Conroy was my mother’s older brother, a pediatric researcher of international fame.   In the cultural gulf between our 1950’s linoleum-floor kitchen in Merriam, Kansas and Doctor Conroy Watkins directing a medical research lab in Berkeley, California, circa the mid-sixties, there was a pleasing pride–as if in our small house we had a first edition signed by Clarence Day.

“Let me see,” my father said.  He had closed the garage for lunch and was also home.

“At the University of California at Berkeley,” said my mother handing him the letter.

I have an hour before I have to be back at work.  After closing I am to take Muff LaRue to Winsteads for a Frosty. My plan is to drive back to the pool for a swim.

“That’s what it says,” said my father.  “A fellowship in Conroy’s research lab that could lead to medical school.  He should get there as soon as possible for training.”  My father left the kitchen with the letter in one hand, his meatloaf sandwich in the other, and headed for the front yard to sit in his aluminum lawn chair.

“I don’t know that General Science counts,” said my mother through the kitchen window.

“Two semesters of A’s,” my father said, talking straight ahead.

They were referring to my freshman grades.  I seem to be present only in the third person.

“I’m going to be a doctor,” I said to Muff LaRue as I unlocked the gates to the pool.

Muff dove in fully clothed and swam to the deep end.  When she got there she pulled herself out and said if I’d turn off the lights she’d skinny dip.  I flipped switches.

“I’ve never dated a doctor,” she said.  “What kind of doctor?”

She walked to the end of the low board, took off her summer shorts and tossed them on the deck.  Then she pulled her t-shirt over her head and threw it in the pool.

“A surgeon.  I am going to Cal-Berkeley to be a pediatric surgeon.”

I was treading water beneath her.

“I’m going to Sarah Lawrence to study Classics,” she said as she dove in.

The next day it was agreed I should accept my uncle’s invitation even though Berkeley might have “agitators” –as my father called them, not unlike Dustin Hoffman’s landlord in The Graduate.  On the other hand, my mother feared impertinence among the rich students.   She told me to find the word in the dictionary she had given me when I left for college, along with instructions to learn three words a day: aplomb, domain, environs.

§

It took me a week to quit my job as a lifeguard, say good-bye to Muff, and pack. My uncle met me at the airport.

“So you want to be a doctor?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I said.

We were driving over the Bay Bridge toward the East Bay.  You have to be a young man from a small town in Kansas to understand how astonishing it is to see the San Francisco Bay for the first time.  There is nonchalance about its grandeur.

When I said I didn’t know if I wanted to be a doctor to one of the most famous and accomplished physicians in America, a man who had no doubt made special arrangements to get me a fellowship, it sounds, even at this distance, something Californian-sixties:  Mellow.   Really, man.  Yeah. Wow. Far out.  That’s not what I meant.   Perhaps I thought–as we crossed the Bay Bridge to the East Bay– that if I couldn’t be a doctor like Uncle Conroy, I didn’t want to be a doctor.  I’d like to think that now.

“I don’t mean. . .” I said as we drove up Grove Avenue past the lab where I would be working.

“I understand,” he said. “Don’t worry about your future.  It is always there.”

“Thank you,” I said.

From Grove we drove into the Berkeley Hills behind the Claremont Hotel to my aunt and uncle’s house overlooking the Bay.

My uncle’s laboratory was the Hansen Pediatric Research Center. My first week at work, I had met Hazen:  Hazen Edmond Floren Reynald who was pleased to introduce himself by all or part of his name, just as it pleased him to pick one of his names (including his last) and use it for a week. Or this:

“My name is Hazen Edmond Floren Reynald, and you may pick the name you like and call me that from now on.  I will remember.  But sometimes I won’t.”

I picked ‘Hazen.’  My uncle and his step-father had picked ‘Edmond.’ His mother used Floren. Aunt Lillian picked ‘Howard,’ and no one had told her that was not one of her choices.

“You may change names as I do,” Hazen said.  “This week I am to myself ‘Floren’.  But you may call me ‘Edmond’.  That’s what my step father calls me.”

Hazen grew up on Russian Hill where he still lived with his mother and stepfather, Doctor Milton Reed. He was a large-nosed, black-haired, stout-chested, short guy four or five years older than I was.  He had dropped out of college after his freshman year to travel in Europe: a trust provided him with funds to “poke around the world and among the girls.”

“Hang up medicine unless it can create a Juliet,” he said when I asked him if he was going to be a doctor. “Hang up medicine unless it can create a Juliet,” he’d say as we worked medical experiments for the researchers who used my uncle’s lab.

“Do you have a girl friend back in Kansas?”  Hazen asked me one day.

“Muff LaRue,” I said.

“’Rue’ means ‘street’ in French,” Hazen said.  “My mother is French.  So was my real father.  I understand we are all coming to dinner at your aunt and uncle’s house.  Very formal.  Mother usually brings her favorite hors-d’oeuvres: pâté de canard.”

I must have looked puzzled because Hazen went on, as if to reassure me.

“Just remember, it is impolite to take the last hors-d’oeuvre, which, if you think about it, means you can’t take the second to last piece because you’re being impolite to the poor bastard who is stuck with not being able to take the last piece. And if you think about it from here to eternity, you can’t take anything off the plate.  You just starve.”

My mother’s fear of impertinence had come true.

“Doesn’t he look good, Conroy?” said my Aunt Lillian.  I was wearing a tuxedo borrowed from my uncle. I had seen myself in a mirror before coming out of my room and thought the same thing:  not bad for a rube from Kansas.

“Very good,” said my uncle who, I understood, did not put much stock in the formalities of social life but had come to a routine acceptance of it.

The reason for the dinner party was Hazen’s step father’s Nobel prize for experiments (done a number of years before) in which he had taken the amino acid  “package” off proteins, then put it back on.  At least that is how I understood it at the time.

Aunt Lillian was wearing what my mother would have called “a cocktail dress.”  Not the kind of dress you saw Harriet Nelson wearing on television in those days (and not the kind my mother owned), but the kind that Olivia de Havilland wore in the movies.  It was pale green with tiny gold flecks that seemed to have been woven into the fabric.  I had never seen anything like it. Later in the evening I would notice that her dress matched in a subtle way the dinner plates, goblets, and even a small glass dinner bell that were put out by Bella, my aunt’s maid.

“Now use your forks from the outside in,” said Aunt Lillian, taking me to the table.  “‘Outside’ being the fork all the way to the left.  And do not use the spoon or the fork above the plate until the plate has been changed, and then use the outer one first; in this case that will be the spoon for the sorbet, then the ice- cream cake fork for the ice cream cake that they make at the lovely bakery on Shaddock where they make so many fine things.  When you are finished with your courses, put your knife and fork at four o’clock on your plate.  That way Bella will know you are finished.  And hold your wine glass by the stem, although Howard’s mother takes hers by the bowl and puts her—I must say—rather large nose—into it.  And sniffs quite loudly.”

By this time my uncle had escaped to stand in the driveway to wait for his friend.

“Hazen,” I said.  “His name is Hazen.”

I had never been to a formal dinner party, much less in the presence of a Nobel Prize winner.  And I had never worn a tuxedo.   My brother rented one for the high school prom.  My sister’s boyfriend picked her up in one for the same dance.   I wore a dark suit, went without a date, and stood by the record player and watched Muff LaRue dance to Dean Martin’s Memories are Made of This.

Living with my aunt and uncle when I first got there had its pleasures.  Even after I moved to an apartment on Derby near the University in the fall, I was always welcome.   If they were away (to a medical conference or to a retreat in Mexico in which they owned an interest), I had the run of their house with its splendid view of San Francisco Bay.  I was well fed, and when necessary, could use one of their cars. For this, my uncle asked only that I drive Aunt Lillian to the store and on errands in her large green Cadillac, complete with fins and air conditioner scoops.

“Let him drive,” my uncle would say. “That way he can learn his way around Berkeley.”

When he had me aside he said:

“Lillian is many fine things, but while she can set an excellent table for a dinner party she cannot cook a breakfast egg nor drive a car.”

§

“Your uncle thinks I am a poor driver because I am alert,” my aunt said one day as we left for errands and to drop me off at the lab.

“That is why he wants you to drive.  He has told me more than once I am dangerous, but ask him how many tickets I have gotten?  None.   Or how many accidents I have had that were my fault?  None.  It is just a prejudice he has about women drivers because we are cautious.”

Aunt Lillian had stopped for a green light on Durant because–as she explained amid the honking of horns behind her–men sometimes run red lights.

“You must be defensive in your driving.  Defensive and alert.   Not alarmed.  But alert to what is coming at you from all sides:  front, back, right, left.  I am perched high and straight in my seat and I am always alert and defensive.”

She achieved her “perch” by sitting on a folded pillow so that her head was well above the steering wheel, and not all that far below the car’s headliner.  From there she could see as well as any present day SUV soccer mom.

“You must be careful of rocks rolling off the mountains,” Aunt Lillian said one day when she came to a full stop in the middle of West View Drive, not far from the end of their lane. I looked up the hill at a large rock protruding from underneath a few scrub trees.  It had probably been deposited by an ice age.

“Would you like for me to drive?” I said.

“Not at all.  You think that rock has been there a long time and will not roll down.  That is what Conroy says.  But because it has been there a long time means it is more likely to roll down.  Hills flatten into plains because rocks roll off them and grind themselves to dust.  That is what happened in Kansas.  It can happen in California.  We have earthquakes. There was a famous one years and years ago that started a fire.  They still talk about it.  You must be watchful wherever you are in a car.  On the small roads.  On the highways.  In traffic.  In the hills with rocks on them.  Just because we are very close to the house doesn’t mean an accident can’t happen.  Most car accidents happen close to home.”

“Did she stop at the top of the hill by the rock?” asked my uncle when I told him I had not been able to drive her that day.

“Yes.”

I drove Aunt Lillian very little, and I never understood why some days she was pleased to have me do so, but on most days she was insistent that she drive.  Nor could I determine why she stopped at some green lights (and ran red ones), but not at others.

“Has Lillian pulled off the road when a truck is coming?” asked my uncle on another occasion.

“No,” I said.

“She thinks some trucks are too big for the roads so she’ll drive off the shoulder to let them go by.  Once I had Triple A pull her out of a ditch, and all she would say was that it was better to be in the ditch than  ‘squished like a beetle.’”

A few days later Aunt Lillian veered the Cadillac onto a lawn because a large cement truck was heading our way, very much on its own side of the road.

“Better up on a lawn than squished like a beetle,” she said as we came to a thud of a stop in a well-tended yard. “A wreck involves the police and smashed fenders and a broken windshield and medical bills.  Just because your uncle is a doctor doesn’t mean we get hospital care free. “

Aunt Lillian looped back onto Stuart just ahead of a woman dashing across the lawn shaking a vacuum cleaner attachment like a fist.  At the next green light we made a full stop.  At the next red light we drove through.

§

“When Bella serves a new course,” my aunt continued, “it is polite to change the direction of your conversation.  You will be sitting between Doctor Reed on your left and Madame de Ferney on your right, and if you have been talking to Doctor Reed for the first course, you then talk to Madame de Ferney during the second course, then back to Doctor Reed for the next course.  Madame de Ferney may not converse this way.  She has a habit of talking to whomever she wants.”

Aunt Lillian paused for a moment and looked at the table, first at one chair, then another, slightly nodding at each, as if more than counting.

“At home we just ate,” I said.  I thought I should say something by way of thanking Aunt Lillian for telling me how to behave.

“It is all a bit fussy,” she said.  “Conroy doesn’t much like it.  He says dinner parties are “fork fetish feasts”.  I suppose he’s right, but we women have to keep up standards.  Do you see a young lady in Kansas?”

“Muff LaRue,” I said, thinking I didn’t know the meaning of “fetish”.

“When did you last see her?” said my aunt, now circling the table to make some adjustments in napkins and silverware.

“At the swimming pool where I work.”

“How nice.”

“Yes,” I said.

Aunt Lillian stepped back to look the table over at some distance. “Everything is in its place,” she said, more to herself than to me.

Then: “One more thing.  Madame de Ferney always brings the hors-d’oeuvres.  A duck pâté on toast points.  I will put them on a large plate and we will have them in the living room with some white wine before dinner.”

“I know it is not polite to take the last one,” I said.

“Yes,” said my aunt, and seemed pleased.  Then, looking past the table and around the dinning room and into the living room where Bella was putting out napkins and wine glasses on the coffee table, she said:  “Madame de Ferney has kept her curious name even though she has been married all these years to Doctor Reed, who as you know, is Howard’s father, just as Madame de Ferney is Howard’s mother, even though she doesn’t have the same last name as Doctor Reed.  Or maybe Doctor Reed is Howard’s step-father and Madame de Ferney is his mother.  I think that’s what Conroy once told me.  She came to America when he was very young and brought Howard with her.”

“Hazen,” I said.

“And for some reason I think Howard doesn’t have the same last name as either of them because Madame de Ferney named him for an uncle for whom a French village is named.  Or maybe she is named for the village.  Howard is an only child so I suppose it is easier to do that when you are an only child.  And Madame de Ferney always calls Doctor Reed, “Doctor Reed,” not by Milton as the rest of us do. So we all call her Madame de Ferney and have for so long by now I don’t remember her first name, but I think it’s Mimi.  You should ask Howard.  Very curious.”

§

“Here they are,” said my uncle from the doorway.

“There is something else,” Aunt Lillian continued, but in a lower voice. “Madame de Ferney keeps both her hands on the table, sometimes even her elbows.  She is French. They have peculiar manners. And her English after all these years is still odd.  A bit of French mixed in with English.  Very odd.”

“My mother said I should cut my food with my elbows down, not up.  And that I should bring my food to my mouth and not my mouth to my food,” I said, again trying to reassure my aunt.  But this time she seemed not to hear me and said: “I am thinking maybe I should seat you. . . but no I can’t. . . that would disturb the arrangement.”  I could hear my uncle at the door saying come in, now, come in and they all did.

§

“Is it the case,” Madame de Ferney said as Bella was clearing the table of the second course, “that in Kansas. . .how shall I put it? . . .comment dirais-je?  Je ne sais pas…”

She said something else in French to her husband.  I saw Hazen frown.  I saw Doctor Reed frown.   Doctor Reed said something in French.  Then Madame de Ferney said to me:

“Is it ‘provincial’ in Kansas?  Provincial?”

She pronounced her second  “provincial” with a certain prairie flatness, as if to make sure I understood.  Not that it mattered: It was not a word I had learned from my mother’s dictionary:  Rube. ff.

While it was true that Madame de Ferney had used her forks according to Aunt Lillian’s rules, she had not–as my aunt had predicted—abided by the formalities of conversation; also, her elbows had been on the table repeatedly, and–my mother would have been shocked—Madame de Ferney had removed her bread from the bread-and-butter-plate and put it on the tablecloth where it left crumbs.  And she not only stuck her nose into the wine glass, she swirled it around before holding it to the light and said: It is the first duty of a wine to be red.

“Don’t you agree?” said Madame de Ferney to my Aunt.

“Yes, indeed.”

“And also from what you call the environs.  Is that the right word Floren?”

“Yes,” I said.  Everybody looked at me for a moment and then Madame de Ferney asked me what kind of wine we drank in our environs.

“My mother has a glass of Mogen David as she fixes dinner,” I said.  “My father drinks Coors.  My mother is Polish.  My father Irish.”  In the small silence that followed everyone took a sip of wine.

“I ask about Kansas being provincial,” Madame de Ferney said, “because I am told they were provincial ici in San Francisco before the gros earth cake.  The gros earth cake and the fire did them a great good because the rebel lost their shanties.”

“Rabble, mother,” said Hazen.

Madame de Ferney paused only to mouth the word rabble silently with what seemed to me impatience toward the English language.

“Mother’s ‘gros’ is French for ‘large’,” Hazen said to me.  “The Great Earth Quake.”

“Thank you,” I said.  And to show I was going to learn French I repeated ‘gros’ out loud.

“You’ll need to work on your ‘r’,” Hazen said.  I had no idea what he meant.

At this point Bella came to serve another course, while Madame de Ferney continued:

“The families whose furniture came “around the Horn” began to assende and that gave the city its culture.  Some people who first arrived in San Francisco brought their furniture with them over the prairie ground in wagons.  It must have been very hard on chairs.  Not to mention desks and tables.  All of Doctor Reed’s family furniture came “around the Horn.”  Our chairs are very solid.  Tres solide.”

Madame de Ferney had been speaking to the table at large, but then she turned to me:

“They have no earth cakes in Kansas to make matters better.  C’est tres mal in that regards, don’t we all think so?    Maybe a dust storm or a prairie bison fire could do the same thing. Does your family have the particle?”

“’Quakes’, mother,” said Hazen. This time Madame de Ferney did not mouth the word.

“They have tornadoes,” said my aunt.  “Tell Madame de Reed about the tornadoes. How Dorothy went to see Mr. Oz on the Yellow Brick Road. That  might be just as good as earth quakes.”

I was about to ask “a particle of what?” thinking Madame de Ferney might have wondered if we owned a bit of farm ground when Doctor Reed coughed loudly a number of times to my left and we all looked his way.  My uncle patted him on the back and asked if he was all right?

“I was telling our nephew the other day,” Aunt Lillian said when Doctor Reed’s coughing spell stopped, “about that big rock at the top of the road, and how it might fall down if we had another earth quake like the one Madame de Ferney has mentioned.”  My aunt stopped and seemed befuddled for a moment.

“You were about to say something about the rock, Lillian,” said Doctor Reed.

“Yes!  Well, if it rolled down the hill it would squish that nice bakery on Shaddock where we got the dessert for tonight.”

“Ah oui!” said Madame de Ferney.  “It is a lovely bakery and Doctor Reed always get something from it whenever we are coming to the University.  There is rien like it even in San Francisco.”

“’Rien’ means ‘nothing,’” said Hazen.  I nodded.  “‘Rien,’” I said, this time doing no better with my “r” judging by Hazen’s look.

“’Nada’,” in Spanish, said Doctor Reed.

“’Nada’,” I said, thinking at least there wasn’t an‘r’.  Again a moment of silence while everyone took another sip of wine and Bella bustled.

“And they probably don’t have a bakery in Kansas like the one on Shaddock that we all like so much,” said Aunt Lillian. “Just like they don’t have hills down from which rocks might fall because they already have fallen down and that’s why it’s flat.   And maybe that is why Madame de Ferney has asked about it being provincial.  No quakes.  No hills.  No rocks.  No bakery.”

“Ah oui,” said Madame de Ferney, at which point Aunt Lillian rang the bell for Bella who was standing beside her.

“Maybe I should not have asked about Kansas being provincial,” said Madame de Ferney. “It is of no matter, but sometimes those of us who live la vie de chateau cannot imagine remote places in the United States as being other than provincial.  That is true in France as well.  We have peasants in many places south of Paris.  Some of them harvesting their own ‘poulet.’”

“’Chicken’, mother,” said Hazen.

“I know it is “chicken” in English,” said Madame de Ferney.  “But I prefer the French.  Who can like a word like “chicken” instead of “poulet”?  Or “duck” instead of “canard”?

“It is what we had this evening,” said Aunt Lillian.  “A recipe right from France.  Chicken Cordon Bleu.  Not that we raise chickens or ducks here in Berkeley.  I expect there is some kind of rule against it.  I know there is one about hanging your clothes out to dry, isn’t there Conroy?”

“There is indeed.  It is called a ‘covenant’,” my Uncle said to Doctor Reed who smiled.  “As if good taste were a religion. No rabbits in cages.  No chickens.  Or ducks.  No horses or goats.  It was quite a list they gave us when we moved here.  No clothes line, as Lillian says.”

“In Kansas we have a clothes line,” I said.  “I do the hanging out when I am home.” Uncle Conroy looked at me and smiled. I was about to say the Simms down the road had both chickens and ducks,  as well as pig they fed out but Madame de Ferney said:

“It is our own limitation, I suspect, and I would be pleased to learn otherwise.  How did your parents’ furniture come to Kansas?”

“Here is dessert!” Aunt Lillian said, and once again rang the bell, even though Bella had returned to the table.

The arrival of dessert and the clatter of plates and forks and the general talk about the bakery on Shaddock changed the course of the conversation and as we ate Madam de Ferney turned to Hazen and asked:

“Do you remember when you were an adultlesson and we took you to Paris?”

“‘Adolescent’, mother,” said Hazen.  “It is the same in French.”

“Yes, I suppose it is,” said Madame de Ferney.  “It is just that we were showing you where I was reared—is that the word?  You raise cows but rear children.  Do I have that right?”

“Yes,” said Doctor Reed to Madame de Ferney, and then to the table:   “Edmond was born in Paris as was Mimi, but after her husband died they moved to America and he was reared here.”

“Conroy and I have not reared any children,” said Aunt Lillian. “This is our nephew,” nodding toward me.   Aunt Lillian seemed either to have forgotten my name or was continuing my family’s tradition.

“Ah oui,” said Madame de Ferney to Aunt Lillian.

“Ah oui,” said Aunt Lillian.  “But do tell us about your rearing in Paris.”

“We lived in the Sixth, but below Saint Germain.  The Sixth goes all the way to Boulevard Montparnasse, but my father would not admit that.  For him it only went as far as Saint Germain.  So I was reared in that domain.  Is that the right word?” Madame de Ferney asked me.

“Ah oui,” I said. I saw Hazen smile. “Or you could say ‘environs’,” I said. Madame de Ferney seemed pleased at this information and this time said environs out loud with a peculiar guttural sound on the “r.”

“My father was tres formal and would not even ‘tu’ my mother.  Of course he did not ‘tu’ me or my sister.” Madame de Ferney paused for quite awhile and looked away from the table. The only sound was Bella putting out coffee cups in the living room.

For my part, I imagined Madame de Ferney was thinking of her days growing up in Paris; I imagined this because in between the rocks tumbling down and squishing the Shaddock bakery, the tornadoes that might be as good as earth cakes, covenants against chickens and clothes lines, I had been thinking in bits and pieces about home.  About my father’s webbed aluminum lawn chair and how he took my uncle’s letter and his meatloaf sandwich outside and read the letter while my mother cleaned the kitchen counter where on summer evenings we “just ate”, my mother having her glass of Mogen David wine while she cooked with no idea about the wine’s duty, my father with his beer in a bottle after dinner as he read the paper or, on Fridays, watched boxing on television.

And it wasn’t when Aunt Lillian asked me about a girl friend that I thought of Muff LaRue.  It was when Madame Ferney was talking about chicken and poulet and duck and canard.  How, after both Muff and I got dressed, not having gone “all the way”, we sat in two chairs under my life guard stand and talked into the night about our futures: me to California to become a doctor, she going East to Sarah Lawrence to major in Classics–and I thought then that studying classics at a fancy East Coast college for girls and skinny-dipping in a Kansas municipal pool with the life guard whose father had a car garage didn’t go together.  But I did not say so.  And how later I drove Muff home and we promised we’d meet again over Christmas break—at the swimming pool, cold and snow or not.

§

“Thank you,” my uncle said to Bella as she began clearing the table of dessert plates, all forks now at four o’clock.

My aunt fingered the spoon on the top of her plate.  She picked up her wine glass by the stem and studied the color.  She started to ring for Bella even though Bella had just left.

“Maintenant that you are ici in Berkeley,” said Madame de Ferney, “do you think it provincial in Kansas?”

My uncle was about to speak and so were Hazen and Doctor Reed when I said to Madame de Ferney and, with considerable aplomb, to the rest of the table:

“Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.”

“Ah oui!” said Aunt Lillian.

§

“Did you miss Kansas?” Muff said to me.  We are sitting in my father’s lawn chairs that I have taken to the pool and put beneath my old lifeguard stand.  It is snowing.  The pool has been drained, but not to the bottom.  There is a skim of ice on what water remains.  “I did not,” said Muff before I could answer.

“I did,” I said.

“Are you going back?” she said.  “To Berkeley to be a doctor?”

“Hang up medicine,” I said. “Unless it can create a Juliet. The guy I worked with at the lab used to say that over and over again.” She seemed not to hear me and said:

“I learned that Socrates took up dancing in old age.  So I’ve started dancing.  Modern dancing.”  She got out of her chair and did a small pirouette in the snow in front of me.

“I’ve never dated a dancer,” I said.

And then there was a long silence between us.  I took a sideways glace at her.  She was looking at the space just in front of us where she had done her pirouette.  The snow was falling faster now and it was filling her footprints. I never knew her well enough to guess what she might be thinking.  But I was thinking I would not see much of her ever again, and I would be right about that.

“You haven’t said if you are going back.”

“In Berkeley,” I said, “you don’t just eat, and you can’t hang your laundry on the line.”   Again she seemed not to hear me and said nothing but got up from her chair and did a second pirouette, this time putting her toes into the same place where they had been before, and in so doing her feet made their marks in the same place where the snow had almost filled in her previous pirouette. And in coming back to her chair she stepped into the same footprints she had made before, and smiled at being able to do so.

§

When I drove her home Muff asked me if it was true I had once saved a boy from the deep end.

“Yes,” I said.

And it was at the door of her house that she told me where Hazen had gotten his saying, and that was not about medicine, but about philosophy and that when Hazen said it over and over it became his mantra–a word I did not know until I came home that night and I looked it up in my mother’s dictionary.

—Robert Day

——————————

Robert Day’s novel The Last Cattle Drive was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.  His short fiction has won a number of prizes and citations, including two Seaton Prizes, a Pen Faulkner/NEA prize, and Best American Short Story and Pushcart citations. His fiction has been published by Tri-Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, Kansas Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, and New Letters among other belles-lettres magazines. He is the author of two novellas, In My Stead, and The Four wheel Drive Quartet, as well as Speaking French in Kansas, a collection of short stories.

His nonfiction has been published in the Washington Post Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes FYI,  Modern Maturity, World Literature Today, and American Scholar. As a member of the Prairie Writers Circle his essays have been reprinted in numerous newspapers and journals nationwide, and on such inter-net sites as Counterpunch. Recent book publications include We Should Have Come By Water (poems) and The Committee to Save the World (literary non-fiction).

Among his awards and fellowships are a National Endowment to the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, Yaddo and McDowell Fellowships, a Maryland Arts Council Award, and the Edgar Wolfe Award for distinguished fiction.  His teaching positions include The Iowa Writers Workshop; The University of Kansas; and the Graduate Faculty at Montaigne College, The University of Bordeaux.

He is past President of the Associated Writing Programs; the founder and former director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House; and founder and publisher of the Literary House Press at Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland where he is an Adjunct Professor of English Literature.

Where I Am Now, a collection of his short fiction, will be published in September, 2012 by BkMk Press.

  2 Responses to “Sometimes It Is, Sometimes It Isn’t: Fiction — Robert Day”

  1. I love this story…but I especially love this line…which has now become my new mantra…“Don’t worry about your future. It is always there.”

  2. Terrific story! Aunt Lillian and Madame de Ferney are delicious characters. Lovely essay on words, provinces, manners, tempora et mores… And as per Diane above, those great bon mots…

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