After Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The cattle are lowingAll this happened, more or less. The MFA parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew in the program who had been in the Army, used to get drunk and then blubber, like actually despondently cry, because his girlfriend wouldn’t have anal sex with him. Another guy I knew, a fiction writer from Milwaukee, used to practice his bondage knots on couch cushions. And so on. I've changed all the names.
The Baby awakes.
But the little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes.
I really did go back to Decatur after I lost my job at the lakeside arts resort because an old college friend on the school board got me a gig teaching a one-off creative writing workshop at my rival high school–my own high school has been converted into a middle school. Decatur looked a lot like it used to when I was growing up there in the 90s except now there are a lot more Chinese restaurants and dollar stores. There must be tons of Atrazine in the ground water.
I went back there by myself and stayed with my old high school buddy Kostaki’s mother who is a widow who sells Norwex and lives in a beautiful apartment overlooking a park on the edge of which is a Frank Lloyd Wright home. She was generous to let me stay in her guest room, which was filled with Kostaki’s childhood furniture. She introduced me to her neighbor, a young concert pianist from the old Eastern Bloc who teaches music at Millikin University. His name was Gerhard, or something. He offered us a drink and we sat on his leather couch and he told us about what life was like for him as a single man/music professor from Eastern Europe in Decatur, the SoyBean Capital of the world. He didn’t mention anything about living under Communism. He had a pleasant little apartment with a very large TV and a baby grand Steinway in the living room. So it goes.
I would hate to tell you what this lousy little essay cost me in money and anxiety and time.
After I left Decatur for good in 1998, I thought it would be easy for me to write about it since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought, too, that eventually I would write a masterpiece–I never thought I would make a lot of money, since it’s, well, a book of essays about growing up in Decatur, but in the end not many words about Decatur came from my mind, not enough of them to make a book, anyway, though I did write an essay about playing in the high school band during Gulf War I and playing a symphony inspired by the firebombing of Dresden. So it goes. More words are coming now, but I have become a middle-aged, ex-smoker, Assistant Professor with one book and two children 16 and 11.
I think of how useless the Decatur-part of my memory has been, and yet how tempting Decatur has been to write about, and I am reminded of Isaac Asimov’s famous limerick:
There was a sweet girl of DecaturAnd I'm reminded, too, of the song that goes:
Who went to sea on a freighter.
She was screwed by the master
-An utter disaster-
But the crew all made up for it later.
If you'll be my bodyguardAnd so on to infinity.
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty, when you call me, you can call me Al
Over the years, people I've met have often asked me what I'm working on, and I've usually replied that the main thing was a book about the role of the artist in American culture. I said that to Kostaki one time, and he raised his eyebrows and asked, ‘Do you want to write a screenplay?’
When I was somewhat younger, and had first started working on my infamous role of the artist in American culture book, I called up an old college buddy named Bryce. He was an attorney in Texas. I was a writer in Michigan. We had been would-be writers together in college. We had never expected to make any money–at least I hadn’t, but we were both doing ok, him better than me, since he was not only an attorney but an attorney for an oil company.
It was early summer before I had to start teaching at the unicorn farm, which is what others called my job teaching exceptional young artists–I never called it that out of self-respect. He is short and I am tall. We were Kerouac and Ginsberg in college but weren’t attracted to one another. He was up. He was reading or listening to music or drinking wine or something. 'Listen,' I said, 'I'm miserable.’ You should come down, and we could drink and talk and remember.' He was unenthusiastic, but still I believed he was serious. I told him that I think the climax of my book was when my mom died. The irony is so great. She dies, and she is the only one in my family who was an artist. 'Don't you think? Yes, he said, but he was more worried about me; I had been drinking; it was a Wednesday night.
I had outlined the book many times. The best outline I ever made was just this table of contents that I typed-up on 8.5 x 11 paper and thumbtacked to the bookcase in my office so that when people walked in they would see it. For some reason, people found this impressive. The climax of the book is when my mother, laying in a hospital bed in the Cleveland Clinic pre-op, says to me, “When you were little I always thought that someday you would be the President of the United States.” So it goes.
That was ten years ago. She lived just long enough to see my second child born. He thinks he’s grown up now, because he has his own room and an Xbox and a big gaming desk with lots of soda cans and empty chip bags everywhere, and I’m middle aged sitting with these memories, writing a book proposal, and craving a cigarette.
If you'll be my bodyguardI used to look up old girlfriends on Facebook late at night, the cat sitting across my legs, shedding white fur all over my navy corduroys. Sooner or later I would go to bed and think about my education.
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty, when you call me, you can call me Al
I went to the University of Notre Dame in the mid to late 90s. I was a student in the Department of English. At that time, they were requiring that you take American Literature, Brit Lit I and Brit Lit II, but that was it. After that you could do whatever you wanted, so I took European Film Masters, which was a course on Fellini and Bergman, taught by a guy who knew Fellini and hung out with him. He’s still alive and lives in a retirement village across the street from campus but he’s since gone blind. So it goes.
I also took a class team-taught by a bearded Birkenstock-wearing Stanley Cavell expert and a Maltese Marxist who also happened to be the head of the International Gramsci Society and the father of a precocious eleven year old named Pete, who would later become mayor of South Bend. The course was simply titled “The Avant-Garde.”
I learned that you could make music out of silence, and that you could tell stories by cutting up the pages of your manuscript, throwing them up in the air and reassembling them in random order.
Shortly before my mother died, she said to me, 'You know, you went to school and majored in writing and you never wrote me letters. You’re a writer and you never wrote your mother letters.’’ My mother also said to me, you know, there’s a difference between Theology and Faith.
I told her that I knew that; that that was one of the things I learned at Notre Dame.
While I was studying to be a teacher of writing, which is what it turns out I was studying to be majoring in English, I was also writing a humor column for the student newspaper, but the editor who hired me graduated and the new editor didn’t think I was funny, so they switched me to writing news. The first story I was assigned was to cover the Late Night Olympics, a charity event that raised money for the Special Olympics. On the night of the event, I showed up with handheld tape recorder in hand to interview participants but couldn’t get many useable quotes because everyone was drunk. I said as much in my story and filed it. The next week I was fired–don’t call us, we’ll call you.
***During the breaks, I waited tables at a place named after a mediocre cheese, like Colby’s or Pepper Jack’s. The very toughest waiters were single mothers who complained to me about their jobless baby daddys while we married ketchup bottles and polished silverware. Even then I was supposedly writing a book about Decatur. It wasn't infamous yet–the movie version of the book about the ADM price-fixing scandal starring Matt Damon hadn’t been made yet. Not many Americans knew how important Decatur was to global trade, or how much worse Dresden had been than Hiroshima, but I did because between the ages of eleven and thirteen I delivered the newspaper to the VP of Archer Daniels Midland and used to encounter secret service agents in his driveway, and in high school I had played a symphony about the firebombing of Dresden.
I happened to tell a Cambridge-educated Art History professor at a cocktail party about the book I would write. He supplemented his income during the summer by giving lectures aboard cruise ships bound for the Mediterranean.
He told me, “You know, maybe you should consider writing about all the myths about being an artist that are necessary for people to keep believing that being an artist is a noble profession?” All l could do was drink my drink and say, 'I know, I know. I know.'
The Recession had made it very tough for everybody. This was at a very small college in Virginia that was in such bad financial straits that I didn’t get so much as a cost of living raise for five years. I supplemented my income by teaching in a summer arts program for gifted high schoolers. When the recession hit and the Governor of Pennsylvania closed that down, I created another one. My department chair was one of the most gregarious, glad-handing guys I ever hope to meet. He had gone to Johns Hopkins and been a reporter in Baltimore before he became a novelist. We used to play racquetball together. Both he and his wife came from money, so confiding in him about my concerns felt like confessing to an old priest. There had never been a Black tenure track faculty member in the one-hundred year history of the college, which had once been a plantation. I once observed students performing in black face in the dining hall. A year after I left, the college temporarily closed due to financial exigency. So it goes. That must have been in 2014 or so–whatever the last year was for the Polar Vortex. Dissolve frīgus, ligna super focō/ largē repōnēns atque benignius/ dēprōme quadrīmum Sabīnā. You can call Al. There was a sweet girl of Decatur.
Before leaving Virginia, my best friend John took me and my kids up into the Blue Ridge. The kids were small and had never really been out of the foothills where we lived. It was July and it was hot, so John took us to wade in a cold mountain stream. A footbridge passed overhead and thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail looked down at us as we soaked. The kids had never seen water this clear. There were trout in there and we saw them. “Like a turd in a bowl of milk,” John said the fisherman say. Farther up, we saw a waterfall, too. There were signs posted all over warning you to stay off the rocks. Apparently, people climbed out onto the rocks all the time for pictures and slipped and fell and died. So it goes. At the top, there was a general store where thru-hikers could buy supplies and a pay pond stocked with fish. At the end of the day, back down in the valley, we had burgers and hotdogs and root beer at a roadside stand. That was one of the best days of my life.
John didn’t drink, but I had friends who did. I was a family man, but the stress of working for a college that had one foot in the proverbial grave and hadn’t given me a raise in five years drove me to drink. We often drank at my house on the sun porch, but sometimes we went to Adam’s–he was the Chaplain of the college. His wife, Angela, didn’t like it when we drank over there. She was lovely, but would disappear when we were there drinking PBR and moonshine in the kitchen. My kids were still young, so nights when we wanted to get into it late-night, he would say, “Let me check with Ange.” That was kind of him, but I always felt guilty. We told a lot of academic war stories, me and Adam and K-Honey, the philosopher from Georgia who worked on Machiavelli, and sometimes Jeff, an Education professor who had played D-lineman at Middlebury. They told me I could write a novel about all this mess, but it wasn't much to write a book about. We remembered stories about our students: Two of mine had figured out which room the guest writer we had brought to campus from Bulgaria was staying in. So it goes.
Many nights we gave up on remembering and talked about other things; things we were teaching; things we were researching; things we were writing about. Adam became curious about Machiavelli’s attitude toward Christianity and K-Honey would quote long passages from memory:
Just as the observance of divine worship is the cause of the greatness of republics, so the disregard of divine worship is the cause of their ruin, because where fear of God is lacking, that kingdom must either come to ruin or be sustained through fear of a prince who makes up for the shortcomings in its religion.One summer afternoon while playing with my daughter at the playground in Lynchburg, I met a woman named Ashley and her son who was the same age as my daughter. She was a photographer and video artist. I told her about my book and how in high school I had played a symphony about the firebombing of Dresden. She was fascinated and said she wanted to make a video about it.
Months later, she did, and it debuted in an art show in an old firehall just down the street from the playground where our children had played together. It’s made up of found video of freestyle wrestlers and military footage of smart bombs blowing up buildings in Iraq, and clips of the symphony about Dresden. You can find it online someplace. When I watch it, I think about all the terrible things that had to happen in order for it to exist in the world. So it goes.
I taught creative writing at the famous Interlochen Center for the Arts for four years after that. I taught in the afternoons. In the mornings I tried to write. I was working on my infamous book about the role of the artist in American culture. My mother had been dead three years by that point. I knew it was the climax of the book and that the book was now done, except for the writing. Somewhere along the way, some morning in deepest darkest February, during the Polar Vortex, when it was -25 degrees for six straight days, walking across a snowy field to my beautiful office in the beautiful Writing House with a gas fireplace that I personally had the pleasure of turning on before anyone else arrived, my skin stinging from exposure, I understood that there is nothing intelligent to say about your mother dying. Everybody dies. Everything is supposed to be quiet after your mother passes, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a mother dying, things like 'Poo-teeweet?'
I have since told my son that he is not under any circumstances to disrespect his mother or take part in massacres, and that the news of the massacre of enemies is not to fill him with satisfaction or glee. I tell him this while he is sitting at his gaming desk playing Call of Duty on his Xbox. He has been sniped and is screaming at his teammates to revive him. So it goes.
Recently, Ashley called me from Lynchburg because her son wants to be a filmmaker and is interested in going to the unicorn farm–I have not spoken to her in thirteen years.
‘Our children are now in high school–isn’t that wild?’ she says to me. It was very good for me, because I got to say to her something I had been wanting to say for some time, and that is that while you can get a good education at the unicorn farm the tuition is unconscionable.
It was also good for me because talking to her reminded me of the many ideas for essays that the unicorn farm has provided. One of them will be “Edibles in the Dune Lands,” and another will be “Go with the Frog,” another will be “Double IPAs like Hand Soap,” and another will be “If Only You Were Actually an Orphan,” and so on. And so on.
I got off that phone call with Ashley, and it was as though somebody was playing with the clocks. As an Earthling and a professor, I have to believe whatever clocks and calendars say: It is several days before Christmas 2021–grades are due in two days. I am sitting outside Chipotle waiting for my mobile order. I have two books with me, which I have been carrying around in my bag all semester. One was Seeds of Destruction by Thomas Merton, and this is what I found in there:
Doubtless the mercy and truth of God, the victory of Christ, are being manifested in our current history, but I am not able to see how they are being manifested by us.My other book is Henry A. Giroux’s The Violence of Organized Forgetting, which begins with an epigraph from James Baldwin:
People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence.Giroux argues that “America…has become amnesiac…” and that the only way to reverse this condition is to learn to remember again, which means “merging a critique of the way things are with a sense of realistic hope…and transforming individual memories and struggles into collective narratives and larger social movements.” Resistance is futile if we do not insist on telling stories about the people and lives that the culture of forgetting seeks to erase.
Mr. Giroux’s is a bleak book but he reminded me of Baldwin’s sardonic and profound essay “Equal in Paris,” in which he recounts being arrested for stealing a bed sheet from a Paris hotel and spending Christmas in a French jail. Specifically I remembered the scene in which a Frenchman who he befriended while in lock-up returns, as promised, to help him. The Frenchman gives him a carton of Lucky Strikes, and tells him that unfortunately there is nothing to be done to hasten his trial, but he has contacted a lawyer who will defend him on the 27th. He tells Baldwin, as consolation, that he will personally see to it that he would get a “fine Christmas dinner” when he was freed. At this, Baldwin begins to laugh:
And this, somehow, seemed very funny. I remember being astonished at the discovery that I was actually laughing. I was, too, I imagine, also rather disappointed that my hair had not turned white, that my face was clearly not going to bear any marks of tragedy, disappointed at bottom, no doubt, to realize, facing him in that room, that far worse things had happened to most people and that, indeed, to paraphrase my mother, if this was the worst thing that ever happened to me I could consider myself among the luckiest people ever to be born.
I like this because it reminds me of something my mother would say. She wasn’t Catholic, so she actually grew up reading the Bible. Because of her I always look to make sure there’s a Gideon Bible in my motel room. My mother was not a petty or vindictive person–she truly loved her neighbor as herself, but she had a fixation with Lot’s wife.
She would sometimes out of nowhere say, “You know what happened to Lot’s wife?”
So it goes.
I could never understand what the people of Sodom and Gommorrah did that was offensive to God. I mean, to me they might as well be Ann Arbor and Columbus. Can you imagine a stunningly beautiful angel of the Lord lasting thirty minutes in one of those places on a Friday night during the fall?
Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was what an essayist would do. She was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes. Maybe my mom was trying to tell me not to look back; that that is the key to happiness. I'm certainly going to keep doing it. What choice do I have?
I've basically finished my artist in American culture book now–it only took me fifteen years. The next one I write is going to be fun. It begins like this:
Twas the night before Christmas…It ends like this:
And to all a good night.
Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull). He lives in South Bend, Indiana.