What I Think I Did: A Season of Survival in Two Actsby Larry Woiwode
In What I Think I Did, Larry Woiwode does two things at once: he survives the winter of 1996, the worst in North Dakota’s history, and tells the story of his beginnings as a writer, especially the early days at The New Yorker leading up to the publication of his first book, What I’m Going to Do, I Think.“Act One” revolves around/i>
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In What I Think I Did, Larry Woiwode does two things at once: he survives the winter of 1996, the worst in North Dakota’s history, and tells the story of his beginnings as a writer, especially the early days at The New Yorker leading up to the publication of his first book, What I’m Going to Do, I Think.“Act One” revolves around the purchase, installation, and feeding of a giant wood-burning furnace to heat Woiwode’s farm through that winter’s record snow and cold. These acts form a central metaphor for exploring the sources of his writer’s craft and for pulling together the threads of his boyhood and family life. “Act Two” recounts his university life and early New York days, his beginning a writing career, and his friendship with the young Robert DeNiro. The material on the late William Maxwell, of The New Yorker, is riveting. More than almost any other writer, Woiwode has the capacity to astound with his words. In this memoir, he is at the top of his form.
Larry Woiwode published his first novel, 'What I Did, I Think, 31 years ago. All his subsequent fiction has, to various extents, been autobiographical, reflecting the times, places, and memories of his life. So was his first nonfiction book, a meditation on the Book of Acts. Now, he has turned his attention to the genre of memoir, and he's called the first of three projected volumes What I Think I Did. It closes with the publication of What I Did, I Think when he was 28; the closing words are ''I'm launched.''
What I Think I Did is a book about the development of a writer, what has to happen before a launching can happen. It is also necessarily a book about the development of a person. To present this, Woiwode develops an unusual form, based at first on juxtapositions rather than on strict chronology - this form is the result of his effort to get ''beneath the self-consciousness of self.''
He opens in the middle of the worst winter in the recorded history of North Dakota, where he lives, in 1996-97. Much of the book records his trials during a particularly severe storm, when keeping a complicated wood-burning furnace going becomes a matter of life or death when there is no electricity and almost no firewood left; Woiwode is particularly wonderful on the bond between himself and his son, Joseph - and indeed on all human relationships (a neighbor and friend, he writes, ''takes my wife's hand, and I think that being a saint is not predicated on who you are but what you do before anybody asks'').
In the midst of the struggle, which occupies most of the first third of the book, elements of autobiography appear and then swirl away - childhood, student days at the University of Illinois, early years in New York, experiences with his own family. The brief central section of the book is meditative, gathering up threads and spinning new ones out. In the third section, the storm breaks up and subsides and becomes more important as metaphor than as reality, and the autobiographical elements come to predominate. There are longer passages about his college days and about his mentors, the most important of whom was the novelist William Maxwell, who was also the fiction editor of The New Yorker, where Woiwode's first stories appeared.
Members of the New Yorker crowd make their appearance, including the editor, William Shawn. Woiwode is uncomfortable, feeling badly dressed. Maxwell reassures him, ''Don't let it concern you. All he saw was your eyes.'' The formidable Janet Flanner (''Genet'') erupts into the text later, in a characteristic example of the echoes with which the book resounds: ''A gray-haired woman with the portly build of Colette in her grand dame phase came up in an imperious way right to my face and cocked her head and stared into me as Mr. Shawn once did, and said, `I had to see for myself. Thank you.''' Woiwode also gives us telling glimpses of several other literary figures - Robert Frost, Jorge Luis Borges, Eudora Welty, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Robert Lowell - and there's an endearing memoir of a close friendship with an unknown teen-age New York actor named Robert De Niro. ''It's difficult talking to him because any question moves him to another quadrant of character, if not a new character altogether.''
But most of the book is about the agony and the bliss of writing, of learning to listen and of figuring out how to use what you've heard and remembered. Often Maxwell imparts sage advice (good writing should ''blow fuses''). Woiwode also shares something of his own experience: ''A story continues to reveal itself and to grow as a child does, even after the child becomes an adult.''
There are those who feel that Woiwode has not fulfilled
his early promise. His reputation has perhaps suffered because he writes about
themes significantly absent from much serious contemporary writing - love,
family, place, all seen from a religious point of view, sub specie aeternitatis.
But he continues to be a writer who can not only dazzle (''surfaces edged with a
crystalline light that shimmers everywhere form the snow-layered landscape like
fire on foil,'' he writes in his fourth sentence) but illuminate. His value lies
in the way he has for 30 years doggedly gone on and written the difficult books
he had to write (''I can't set down a sentence if I don't know it's true,
because I'm the one responsible for it'') rather than the ones others would have
preferred him to write. There is something organic, whole, and necessary about
his work that does, in his words, ''lodge in a consciousness like a coat on a
hook''; it blows fuses. Readers grateful for the life-enhancing experience of
Woiwode's great novels Beyond the Bedroom Wall and Born Brothers
will receive What I Think I Did as another manifestation of a special grace, and will want, with Janet Flanner, to say, ''Thank you'' for what he has enabled us to see for ourselves.
The New York Times Book Review
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It wasn't my head or even my hat I forgot but my gloves. This habit of getting words in lines on scraps of paper with pens or pencils or at a keyboard (where I now tap) has my hands so set to the task they turn transparent. So gloves don't register on the drive to Elginfour miles on gravel, fifteen on blacktopuntil I'm almost to town and glance at the seat.
A checkbook where my gloves should be, surfaces edged with a crystalline light that shimmers everywhere from the snow-layered landscape like fire on foil. Just as when you drive up a glaciated mountain above clouds, struggling with the effort to see, so, too, here, you struggle and blink. There is no pollution and the sky is so purged of clouds on winter days that a silver-blue line grips the white horizon, welding the light in place: North Dakota.
In its brilliance a car is a greenhouse.
My mind is off on a race for the right arrangement to a set of paragraphs for a commissioned piece I have in my head. After thirty years of this I'm at the stage where I have to run to the bank once a week to hurry in a sum or shift another small one to keep an account above zeroa nuisance, not a deterrent, and the pressure of that sends an afterthought rolling in like a footnote: writer's hands extension of mind, so good at unpacking the purl prose forms they're feelers for words, burning to invisibility, sun on snow.
In any memoir, like the one I'm working on, I want to sidestep self-consciousness and get at me.And as often happens when I have work on the planks, I hear, at the border of sleep, the first sentence for it. The rest will follow like a curtain of snow threading its way over plowed fields. Or that's the optimistic trend my thought tends to take and sometimes passages do fall in place in a cascade of inner recognition but more often the work is like shoving a plow single-handed through three-foot drifts.
In the German-Russian village where I grew up my name was normal. Woiwode. I liked its look and sound, those vowels and wings and its trick of pronunciationY-woodie. The village was Sykeston, North Dakota, after Richard Sykes, from Cheshire, England. "In 1883 he established the town of Sykeston, erecting a store building and large elevator," a history of 1900 states. "Mr. Sykes retains large land interests in Foster, Wells, Stutsman, and LaMoure counties ... He has done much toward the settlement of those counties and has much land still to sell at three to ten dollars per acre. Mr. Sykes has made, at a cost of four thousand dollars, a beautiful lake within the town site of Sykeston, which is named Hiawatha Lake, and is eighteen feet deep in places and two miles long and about a fourth of a mile wide. The lake will be stocked with fish and boats will be supplied and the place become a summer resort."
It never did, though people fish on it from boats and the temperature can be 100 in the shade on the 4th of July. When I was growing up the influence of Sykes was evident in an attentiveness to the English language, an influence that also came out of the British culture at Winnipeg. But by the forties Sykeston was largely German immigrants, some of them first-generation German-RussiansGermans the Czarist government persuaded to settle in southern Russia and then (mostly through the Bolshevik revolution) misused or purged. They spoke a Yiddishy low German, interlaced with Russian, so that "no," for instance, came out not nein or nyet but net.
So Woiwode went well with them but elsewhere caused a clamor. I got a glimpse of the generational effect of this when our daughter Newlyn was three and people would ask her name. "Woiwode," she would say, pronouncing it Y-woodie, as the family has for generations, and then she would spell out each letter, as she heard us do, as if each were essential, too, to its pronunciation.
An impediment to the simplest meeting.
Wood, the name I use for restaurant reservations, would be simpler, and for a while I considered a change to that. But for the sake of my father and grandfather and great-grandfathers and the vowels and distinction I first saw in it, I suspect, I did not do that. The name is Slavic, maybe Romanian, according to a scholar who worked on Romania's national dictionary.
"Dracula is the Voivoda of Valachia!" he said, happy to hit me with that. I had an inkling the name was Slavic, to bequeath such Tartar cheekbones, but the ancestors I heard about were German, or German-speaking.
Then the one who set me straight showed up. It was the spring of my junior year at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and I was studying the metaphysical poets, trying to place Marvell in the viewfinder of his mower poems, as in
When Juliana comes, and she,
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me,
scything apart the poet's state as a scythe scythes down grass. As I meditated on that I almost bumped into a tall woman beside a twiggy hedge, her arms in an X over the books at her chest, smiling at me in amusement. She invited me to the noisy basement cafeteria of the campus YMCA, called the K-Room, for a cup of coffeeI was headed there anywayand once we sat in a beige and orange booth, with mugs on the table between us, she said, "More embarrassing than asking you for coffee, Larry, is how it shames me to say this: Will you screw me?"
Her fingers were white around her mug but she smiled, baring lipstick-flecked teeth in her mannish lower jawthe fiery German actress I had seen in scenery-eating roles in campus productions. "I asked my divine director of late who to ask, after he said nohe's too gay to get involved, he saidand he said, `Woiwode.' So sorry about your awful name, love."
My lungs went flat, I did, at her accent that had a tinge of Brit onstage but was the accent of the women of Sykeston. My response is blanked. Eater she came to the room I rented at the front of a private house, toting a shopping bag, and sat on my only furniture besides a bed and deska Victorian couch with a coronet of maple trim across its crown. She was an East German refugee who made it to England, then found an Illinois businessman willing to pay her passage to America and, with his wife, adopt her, she said. Then he started having her at his office when she was fifteen.
She pulled a banana from her shopping bag and peeled it halfway down, in strips, her blond hair drawn from her domed forehead in a pompadour, a Nordic Doris Day of basketball height. She had an entire bunch of bananas in the bag, it turned out, and after the first she removed her coat; the next, her jacket; blouse, though this didn't seem planned, judging from her nervousness and the grapesalso in the bagwhich she ripped apart and held to me in a trembling hand.
She leaned back on the couch, near the end of the bed where I sat, its heavy upholstery raying around her hips in emerald wrinkles, and then stood in heels and paced past my knees as if she were onstage, one hand over a hip as she turned away, then pivoted back, her face streaked white with the emotion that was her forte and cried, "Larry!"
I put a finger to my lips to remind her of the quiet I must maintain, since the elderly folk I rented from sat in rockers on the other side of my wall, adopting a patient rock, it seemed, for my first university infraction.
Her face was so close I saw a glaze like greasepaint over the subtle pimples on her forehead, and she whispered in the accent of Sykeston, "Larry, poor fellow, Vyvoodie is Polish! It is no name a Cherman would wanta lousy name! It was a Voivoda that led the bastard Huns to Chermany, their chief! You do not know the ugly affront it is to a Cherman woman who hears Vyvoodiethey are now frigging little petty officials over there!or anybody who knows their history! How truly evil were these Vojvodas! Evil, evil Huns, not Chermans! Read Sienkiewicz, love."
At anything untoward I went silent, listening as if my life depended on it, and for me it was an affront merely to hear her say "love." Then she turned grave and teary and told me about the businessman in detail.
I was twenty and mention this not to mesmerize anyone into the goggle-eyed mindlessness pornographers like to incite, nor to warn away anyone who meets a Woiwode, but as a cautionary tale for my children. Hear! The Woiwodes and their interrelated clans, over the generations I've known them (now three, with a glance in opposite directions into a fourth and fifth at both ends) have been susceptible to sexual mishap, sexual misadventure, sexual excess, sexual sinhowever you see it, no matter their age. So children, wherever you are when you read this or remember it, heed me.
And this: it wasn't until two years later that the defining conclusion to her visit came, in New York, when the wisest and most clairvoyant of modern storytellers, William Maxwell, said, "If you sit or stand still in one place long enough, even on a street corner in New York, your story will walk up to you." So will yours.
My story is partly about the "Old Country" of every immigrant family, plus the otherworld of Europe, and how I was spared the seduction into its centuries-old maze when a Woiwode sailed to the New World in 1867. Then a century later I encounter a young woman from the Old Country who has been seduced and worse by the New and so seems set on another round of seduction.
Those layers are at the heart of the story I know.
Woiwodes are susceptible to such, I said, as others are susceptible, not synonymous with. They also tend to be thoughtful, if not intelligent, and slow to rouse to anger, though once angry they burn red hot, often at injustice. They have served as teachers, federal officers, finish carpenters and plasterers, farmers; in medicine, in the church, the military, and nature conservancy. Younger generations are in banking, vet medicine, nursing, real estate, federal inspection; they oversee commercial building projects, are managers, accountants, in law enforcement, and guarding you against computer scams.
Linked to them is the Thiel family of my Grandma Woiwode, known for its scholars and priests. Only one of all of them has stuck to writing.
As for the inheritance from my mother's line, the Johnstons, from the Norwegians on her mother's side, the Hyerdahl branch, is the adventurer Thor, of the Kon Tiki voyage and book of that title, and on the Halvorson
Well! a great-aunt exclaimed, scandalized to read in a genealogy she received from a relative in Norway that a male ancestor "drowned in a vat of beer."
What was so scandalous to her was how this was written right on the genealogy for anybody to see!
From what I know about a tendency on that side, I doubt his death was accidental. He was drinking up the vat and popped. And next the Scots-Irish-Welsh of the Johnston half who tended, like many from the edges of the U.K., toward garrulousness and religious extremism. One great-uncle could barely walk by the age of forty from spending so much time on his knees in prayerfor most of the rest of his family, as it turns out. So from my mother's side that, and the related weakness of a diabetic strain; and from both branches an excellent or else a shaky sense of handling money, along with the compulsive way a Woiwodemost every one a teetotalerwill empty a glass of water in great quick gulps, as if a beleaguered ancestor died of thirst.
Vaivode (vekvÄud). Now Hist. Forms: ¶. 6-7 vayuod'e-, 7 vayvod, 7, 9 vayvode, 8 vaywode. ß 6 uai-, 7-8 vaivod (7 vavoyd), 7-9 vaivode, 8 vaiwode. [ad. Bulg. and Serb. vojvoda, Czech. vojevoda, Pol. wojewoda, Russ. voevoda, whence also Roum. voevoda, -vod, mod. L. voivoda, mod. Gr. boeboda (e)] = Vaivode
a. 1570 in Hakluyt Voy. (1599) I. 401 When we should have deliuered him with the rest of his fellowes vnto the Voiuodaes officers. Ibid., Kneze Yoriue your Majesties Voiuoda at Plasco. 1599 Ibid. II.i. 198 Voyuoda of Bogdania and Valachia.
b. 1614 Selden Titles Honor 249 That of Vaiuod or Uoiuod, vsd in other parts of the Eastern Europe, being, I think, a Slauonig or Windish word. 1686 W. Hedges Diary [Halk. Soc.] 1. 232 I went to visit and present ye Voyvode and Musellim of Diarbekeer. 1833 R. Pinkerton Russia 111 Now but an insignificant-looking place, though formerly the residence of a Voivod. 1869 Tozer Highl. Turkey I.141 The protectorate ... passed into the hands of the Hospodars or Voyvodes of Wallachia and Moldavia. 1884 W. Carr Montenegro 22 By repeated efforts the voivode maintains with difficulty a position on the coast.
g. 1847 S.Austin Ranke's Hist. Ref. III. 31 He encouraged Francis I. to keep alive the agitation in Germany, ... and to support the Woiwode of Translyvania. 1847 Mrs. A. Kerr tr. Ranke's Hist. Servia xvi. 303 Amongst those executed before Belgrade were venerable Senators ... and aged and renowned Woiwodes. 1868 Daily Tel. 1 Sept., To be a prince of its park, lord of its lake, ruler of its river, and woiwode of its woods.
Or so the Oxford English Dictionary says, while next to it Webster's Third states:
vai vode \'vai,vod\ or voi vode \'voi-\ n -s [vaivode fr. NL & It vaivoda, fr. obs. Hung vajvoda, fr. Serb & Slovene, vojvoda, fr. OBulg vojevoda, lit., chieftain, fr. voinu warrior, soldier (akin to Lith vyti to pursue, hunt) + voditi to lead; voivode fr. Russ voevoda fr. OBulgmore at VIM]: a military commander or governor of a town or province in various Slavic countries.
While back of all of this I hear the voice of an officious recorder at Ellis Island saying to his table-side mate near the "In" door, "It would be the same, I suspect, as the way these people pronounce wegtable soup."
The beginnings of memory are eidetic, pictorial, images of the essence of a day. No language attached. Then a long midphase of learning. Then age, with new avenues the mind lays down. These accumulate fast. With the growing errands the mind must run, the avenues that plumb the deepest become the most important. Gloves and scarves disappear. Or the weather of the inner world draws one in so far it's hard to keep the outer in sight, keep a toehold, a grip on it.
As it has been this winter, merely keeping abreast. Snow to the eaves of buildings, which is bad enough, but the worst is the wind and the way it magnifies the cold. It wears at my wife, pouring in streaming weight over the north of the house, the wall where our six-foot headboard stands, with a force I feel will bear us off into the night. Then strikes in wallops that jerk shrieks from nails as the bedsprings tremble under us in our suspended sleeplessness.
I remember the morning she and I drove in early to the polling place, a bulky brick cube trimmed with rows of vertical windows that give it the appearance of gaining an extra story in mock surprisethe county courthouse, set on a hill in town. We watched a county employee, a woman, use a snow-blower to clear the walk to its double doors, a spangled fountain of snow arching from the candy-red machine across a blue spruce that reached to the second storya patriotic vision of sorts (we were on our way to vote, after all: November 5, 1996) but I should have taken it as a warning: that much snow on the ground before December.
Twenty below for a week so when the Sun appears and cooks the snow to a dazzle you enter a daze similar to the one from a dream that holds you under too long, the dangerous state that undoes polar explorers.
When I wake in Elgin the teller with my check is saying, "Do you think we're going to get that terrible storm?"
I'm almost offendedso absorbed I didn't listen to the car radio, and now this affable woman I enjoy talking with is asking about a storm, after what we've been through?
In a voice so tremulous and phlegm-rattly it feels I haven't used it all day, "No" comes out like a strangled mooNooo. "No," I say, normal. "No, I don't think so."
I'm wearing a light jacket and flimsy cap and realize her question may be her way of warning me, since natives can be politely oblique. With her knowledge of the details of the financial state of everybody in the county and her ability to face them every day, she's an artful expert at the mode. Her square shoulders shift in an interrogatory way, as if to ask if she's gone too far, then she pauses in her count of cash and studies me from eyes magnified by her glasses, head on.
Outside, exhaust from cars and pickups plumes both sides of the street, all the vehicles running, doors unlocked, not a person at the wheel of any. I run to the store and buy food, sensing a hurry there, as if others know something I don't, and on my way to the car streamers of snow start plastering every surface facing west, including my face, and I think, Twenty miles! And her with no wood.
I decide to see the seasonal worker who helps supply our wood. I'll encourage him to deliver a load in the best waydrive to the abandoned farm where his house-trailer sits and hand him cash. We've cut every dead tree on our farm and moved on, with an absentee owner's permission, to a stand of cottonwoods two miles down our snow-clogged road.
What we call our farm or ranch neighbors refer to as a garden plot160 acres. It is small in comparison to the spreads that extend for miles over the roll of our all but treeless landscape, with a sky that booms pure blue to the horizon on all sides, so that even a seasoned traveler like Peter Matthiessen, when he got in his genteel elegance from a car in our lane, turned in a slow circle, to take it in.
He was working on what would be In the Spirit of Crazy Horselater pulled from bookstores by a lawsuit brought by the Governor of South Dakotaand I had driven him from the Bismarck airport a hundred miles south and west to our farm, below the Cannonball River Custer followed on his way to the Little Big Horn.
Matthiessen paused and stared at our garden with its pool of water at a far corner from the spring melt (after the only other winter with snow this heavy), and said in the mildly Oxonian accent he and George Plimpton picked up at the boarding school they attended together, "You've got shorebirds there." He pointed to a glare of water, the shallow garden pool. "I do believe that one is a godwit. I'll be. Do you have a pair of binocs?"
The gentle man who helps supply our wood, a three-hundred-pound biker with a full curling blond beard and a blond ponytail, lives north of the next town, New Leipzigone of those Dakota settlements on the other side of the railroad tracks running parallel to the highway, so small that from your car you can see down three blocks of the main street to fields at its far end.
But before I'm there a wind hits and streaks of snow revolve to the horizontal and double in volume, a whiteout. I touch the brakes, blinded, our aging Lincoln seeping cold. I reach for my gloves, and the bare spot, added to the storm's onslaught, confuses me so much I swing off too soon, onto the wrong road. But I keep going, a trait my wife translates as bullheadedness but that registers in me as dislocation. I usually have my directions right and imagine if I drive farther I'll reach the stability of the right place and the panic pressing me on will stop, an awful circle. My father did this, as he aged, and I hated it.
I can turn west in a mile, I figure. Land here is laid out in mile squares or "sections," and the boundaries of each, by law, should be roads but lately are so seldom traveled it seems stagecoaches left the last ruts.
Memory isn't a pilot but a backseat driver who wants control. Story is the pilot, and we follow its course through the present, hearing memory's nagging knowledge of the weathers and roadblocks of the past. Memory's aim is to be there, leap the present, persuade us the past is identical to the future, prophetic, our one seat of referencethose blank spaces we slip from to find we've been suspended in the past. That suspension is memory's power; memory is imagination. It holds a lifetime store of every angle and declination of experience and sensation and fact we know, besides its tinting of all of those. What we call a memoir is an attempt to tame memory's takeovers into paths we tiptoe down toward truth.
By now the snow sailing in from the west is forming finger drifts across the road, or so I see when I can see, and once I rumble over a few of these I realize I have to turn back. But no place. Earlier snows brim both ditches, bulked up by plows, all joining the falling snow in swirls, and then through the blue-gray blur I see a stab of light to my right and a mailbox goes by too quick for me to stop. I'm entering a turn I must negotiate with every sense alert, a banked ascent, and in a stunning whiteout I see it's a butte, a steep one, and I'm climbing it.
Easy to turn on a grade, once at its top, I think, using the downhill slope. I hit a pillow drift with a wallop, then another, and the car, far from the top, slows and starts going sidewise, tires in the rubbery warble of a spin, and I hear the rhythms of a Roethke poemof his driving alone down a long peninsula, the road lined with snow-covered growth, a dry snow ticking his windshield, the road going from blacktop to rubble and ending in a rut where the car stalls, churning in a snowdrift until its headlights go out. Which is where I am, at a dead stop, though the engine and headlights and heater still work.
Then it comes as before, the blankness of black velour, a midnight sky without a star. A point of light appears. It travels across the void, leaving a trail fine as frayed filament. It joins similar trails, millions of them, but the whole host do not lighten the dark an iota. The trails travel through ages, down through who knows how many millennia, until stars appear, the sun and moon, the earth in its aqua symmetry and froth of clouds, and then liquid splashes over a floor as everything rushes forward to a burning marvel I know is light.
Voices are raised, shouts. An icy grip surrounds my forehead and my mother screams.
Push! comes the shout. "Push! The hardest part is over!" My ears gain airy freedom and in the replaying of this I feel a tug of sympathy for my mother, who bore me and will bear me through time, though not longnine years and three months. But the flash takes too long to catch. The simple truth is I was born in Carrington, North Dakota, into the dark hour of 6:00 A.M., on October 30, 1941.
My name is Larry, not Lawrence (for those who want to improve on her), an irritating diminutive common at the time, perhaps because of Olivier, a Laurence called Larry by admirers. So I used L when I began to publish, but Larry was congenial to the mid-part of life, as she probably knew, although tough to fix on a fellow in his fifties. So I often want to return to where I began as a writer, L.
An undeniable fact about the assembly present at my birth is this: I'm the only one living, able to slip into the salty broth of blood on her naked heat. As all newborns do at birth, as ours did, my wife's hand across a stained and miniature back where ribs fine as wishbones expanded and fell with the panting breaths of all four.
The least trustworthy of the better attributes of any mind is memory.
As I sort the first images from my past that feel authentic I'm at an upstairs window of a house on my Grandma and Grandpa Johnston's farm, not quite four, because my grandparents move before I'm that age. Out the window I see our family car. It is squeezed between the house and a granary, as if wedged there, and perhaps I do the wedging, because my parents are inside, trying to leave. An internal picture of them in the front seat as its motor starts causes me to yell, "No! I shanged my mind!"
I'm supposed to stay with my grandparents for a spell of days, as my parents travel, but now feel I can't. Somebody calls or runs to the car and my mother's younger sisters, Yvonne and Elaine, enact for their family audience "I shanged my mind!" "He shanged his mind, is that what he said." "Yes, shanged his mind!"
Like all my mother's family, they are flawless mimics, and every time one or the other sees me I hear "Have you shanged your mind?"a question that plagues me when it rises in their voices as I work through yet another revision of a story I told my wife was finished. But then I found that The New Yorker had a phrase to cover this, toowhen a piece was not only done and taken but the fixing and editing was done also, then it was "Done and done."
The only time Yvonne didn't mention my change of mind was the last time I saw her, in 1992, when she was gray-haired and drinking "gray panthers"vodka with grapefruit juicein her brother's apartment in St. Paul, there from L.A. with her husband to visit. She was carrying the cancer she would die from in a year, though none of us knew it, not even her. But I sensed a reserve in her (and not only for neglecting to say "shange," out of charity, as I took it, because she seemed the one changed), and then I saw in her face, not in her eyes or mouth but the bones of her face, the face of my mother, dead for forty years.
Before I get out of the car to check where I am on the slope, as I would with gloves and warm clothes, I start backing toward what appears to be a place to turn. But when I revolve the wheel to enter it, the car slides. I touch the brakes, it slides worse, and I remember how, in the letup in the weather early in the week, first a thaw came and then a rain. The wind has scoured this area of the slope to ice, I see as I get out, then go into the tottering running in place that's so funny to others the second before you fall on ice. But I don't.
The nose of the car rakes northwest, its rear tires at the edge of the drifted ditch. From the trunk I get a grain scoop I put there for an emergency. But the snow is so hard I have to stomp on the shoulder of the shovel to get it to bite. During the terrible cold, as winds shifted from one quarter to another, my son pointed out how the snow was worn to grains, like polished sandy quartz, and it had the weighty heft of sandits corrugated waves as solid as sculpture, the sastrugi Byrd encountered in Antarctica.
Meanwhile freshly falling snow, clumpy and damp from the day's warmth, plasters the side of the car and clings in a film to my flimsy jacket, while the wind brings the temperature down a degree a minute. My hands are numb, fingers like wood, the last of the blood in them, as it feels, about to squirt out my nails. I jam the scoop in the snow and jump in the carstill running.
You should have known better. The clunky, useless scoop, no gloves, staying on the wrong road, then starting up this hill. I should have backed straight down, even if I couldn't stop, till I was on a flat; should have been more charitable when my wife called the other week to say she was backing out a drive and slid on ice into a ditch and, once she was home, I should have forgone my lecture on how to manage on ice, all before I went out to lookshe'd booked the steel post of a highway sign on the way down and scraped one whole side of the new finish we had a body shop apply a month beforeand then I went back in and said, "We might as well drive the damn thing over a cliff."
"Dad!" our son said. "That's no way to talk!"
I get out and dig and my mind fills with Ruth, in this helpless tumble of our children I experience with each taskNewlyn, Joseph, Ruth, Laurel, that order. Ruth always busy at a task, Newlyn, too, but with her, the oldest, a sense of how her work was a duty to hold the family together, when I wasn't, Ruth so geared up she's a power I can't identify, though she helps with what she likes. As when I was digging holes for a hitching post for Newlyn (nine years older) and Ruth, four, pulled piles of dirt back with her hands, helping, and when I was down three feet with the posthole digger she wanted to be in the hole. So I lowered her until only her eyes and a crown of white-blond hair showed, and she giggled and whooped and had me call her mother to see.
I dig till my ears feel they're going up in flame, then hear a deep-throated sound like a tractor in the distance. Snow is driving from the north now and might have caused a hallucination with its sudden shift that's dimmed the last light. I've lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights, Chicago, St. Paul, a manor on the Hudson, in suburban and rural places from New York State to Michigan and Illinois, and now, in this corner of North Dakota, I stand on what could as well be the last hill at the end of the world. I see nothing but white with white over it and more white pouring in.
My great-grandfather Charles was smuggled out of Upper Silesia in 1867 by his father, John, because he was at the legal age for military conscription in Germany, ten. John wrapped him in a feather bed and carried him over his shoulder onto a ship bound for America, where Charles said he was sat upon and shoved around during the journey, but kept silent.
And, oh, how I imagine him encased in that mattress, the layers of his mind bright and varied as a jawbreaker's, each one wearing away to the proximity of exposure, not knowing which "I" is I, sorting colors of entrapment, invention, projection, while he keeps his cunning silence, an exile now. That silence and sense of exile he passed on.
But managed for his father on this side, filing a homestead claim in Dakota Territory, in 1881, before North and South Dakota were states. That came in 1889. The homestead was in the Red River Valley, three hundred miles from our present farm, which is not a family place, as some think.
My wife and I are children of the sixties, or anyway we were under thirty at its peakarmchair dreamers of an ecological Eden. We would find a place in the country and by our crops and animals and a system for generating electricity would become self-sufficient, returning organic balance to the land, for its sake and the sake of the life on it, especially wildlife, my wife's love.
I never thought I'd return. My wife is from Oregon and we visited the Pacific Northwest first, spent a summer in Nyack, and then tended west: Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, a summer in St. Paul. After two years in Chicago we took a tour of the WestMontana, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, and found aspects of each state we liked but not the right place. Along the way we stopped to see the only relative I knew in North Dakota, near its western border, my mother's sister Elaine, and Ralph, her husband, and with him attended a rodeo at Sentinel Butte.
Back in Chicago, it was western North Dakota that seemed to retain a sense of the Eldorado Americans pursue: the frontier.
We had joined a Presbyterian denomination and found it had one church in North Dakota, in its southwest corner, in Carson. With a compass I drew a circle with a radius of fifty miles around Carson, the focus of our hope, and we contacted a realtor in the area. Months later, when the realtor called with a farm that seemed a possibility, I was too ill to travel, and my wife went to see the place with her father.
Both her Peterson grandparents are from Norway and met in the U.S., so she is third-generation Norwegian on her father's side. The pastor of the church that was the point of my compass was a Peterson, a coincidence my father-in-law never got over, and perhaps it was that or the lilting talk of residents (sixty percent are Scandinavian) that was the clincher.
According to my wife it occurred for her at the midpoint of the drive from Bismarck in a rental car, before she saw the farm, as she swung around a curve on a hill above Flasher, where the Missouri breaks give way, and saw the countryside below, fields interleaved with pastures, buttes bunched in blue mounds in the distance, and her ancestry sprang to the surface.
She was at the wheel, her father beside her, and they saw what their ancestorsmariners and farmers above fjords where the sea exploded in cataracts of foamsaw when they crossed the ocean and came into this country.
My wife felt it through her body in a way that marked this as the place, she said. She sometimes still says, as we round the curve and look out on the land lying below to the horizon, "That's the West" or "It was right here." If I should happen to say, as I have, "Here's your West," she'll merely go "Mmm," letting me know in her gently sensible way that I have no right to appropriate her vision.
Two things happen at once. The snow parts and I hear and glimpse what appears to be a tractor to the west, judging from the round bale gripped in its bucketnow envelopedand then a pair of lights trundle to a glow behind. They pause, as if trying to see me through the streaking fuzz of pouring flakes, then swing off, past a mailbox they light up, the one I passed.
I get back in the car, flinging dripping snow, but hopeful: two vehicles, lights. Frostbite has my fingers feeling I've held them over a fire long enough to reach rare. I decide to head for where the lights went and as quick as that the storm lifts. I see the shape of a man inside the cab of what I thought was a tractor but is a Payloader, busy on a run from a stack to a corral with a round bale in its bucket, trying to beat the storm.
Headlights reappear from close behind and it turns out to be a farmer in a pickup who lives off the road, his face the color of cowhide, so finely seamed it looks liked tooled leather. He went back for a towrope, he says, but why in hell am I on this road? Am I from out of state? No. Why, any fool knows this road is never plowed past his place once it gets bad. Where am I from? I tell him and he shakes his head as if it's the worst possible place anybody could imagine.
He hooks a tow rope of thickly braided yellow nylon to the bumper hitch at the back of my car and to his pickup hitch and tells me to get in. I drop it in reverse and give it the gas, as he does, but sit like deadweight while his pickup slides to one edge of the road, then the other, back and forth, as if it has straight left and right down pat, and no more. I watch him back up, giving slack to the rope so he can try a freeing jolt, and hop out and warn him how a friend broke a tow rope trying that on our heavy Lincoln.
"Get in," he says.
I do, he applies his jolt, the rope sails off like a slinky snake with jet assist, and I touch my pocket, glad for the cash. But only a pin holding a hook at the end of the rope has pulled loose. He sits on a running board on the driver's side, in the lee of the wind, to repair the hook. Over his pickup box, across the road where the loader works, I see another vehicle, a bulk gas truck come barreling in our direction from buildings now visible in the thinning snowall this last-minute activity a blizzard brings onthen suddenly cant to one side and grind to a halt. A man climbs down from its cab and looks around, as if in shame, then trots back toward the buildings.
The fellow down on the running board, whose fingers I've worried about since he pulled off his gloves to grip the ice-crusted hook, says, "It sounds like Ray has his Payloader going. I'll go see."
He's been following the activity by sound, as farmers familiar with an area do. He drives down to the canted bulk truck, pausing as if to assess the loss, then drives toward the buildings and is gone behind heaped snow. All farmyards are like this, a contractor has said; he uses a crane to clean out corrals and feedlots so swamped there's no other way. We have damaged our tractor snowblower on the hard-sculpted snow; you have to ram it to break it up to blow, then the blower piles it in drifts that get others going.
From inside the car I meditate on the way darkness tints the overabundance of white pure blue.
This outpouring of nature, its excess not to be copied, and the energy we expend on it; the time it takes, first, to admit its presence, in whatever form in yourself, and then sift it from a poem or book or, better, your life. In the seventies I put together a book of poems called Match Heads, to denote their brief blaze, all trimmed to a few lines. My publisher bought it but didn't want to bring it out until after my next novelwhich I presumed was nearly done. It took three more years. By then I had poems of a different sort and saw in them the beginning of a story of the relationship with my wife. I added poems and found that many of the match heads also fit.
A new book came of that, named Even Tide, for the way the two in a marriage are evenly tied, or not, and the time of day when healing happened in Jesus' life. My editor and I persuaded each other we didn't like the previous title, Match Heads, also a pun, but another problem was manifest. Even Tide ran to a hundred poems. I removed a couple of dozen and used brief match heads as prefaces or conclusions to others, and a rearrangement of the order of the poems in the story started to surface, and I remembered William Maxwell saying about a collection of tales, in his whispery voice, "When I was working on the final version, with all the arranging and rearranging it put me through, I reached a stage where I wanted to throw myself out a window."
I wasn't quite there but knew what he meant. I called my editor, Michael di Capua, who was working with a number of poets, and he suggested I get in touch with James Wright.
"So how do I put together a cover letter to a book he probably doesn't have time to read and maybe doesn't want to see?"
"Just call him. Jim loves your book." He meant the "next one," Beyond the Bedroom Wall, which was listed so many seasons in the Farrar, Straus and Giroux catalogue it became a source of in-house jokes, along with Harold Brodkey's "first novel," the advance on which had been out for so long without delivery that, as one wag put it, "the interest just on that would pay off the national debt."
I liked Wright's poetry and we had talked at New York soireesonce when he was nominated for an award he didn't receive, and afterward said to me in the booth of a bar in the form of advice, "When something like this happens, what you have to do is make the next one so damn good it blasts the bastards out of the bleachers!" Which is what he did, or anyway he received the prize the next time around, after he quit drinking, as we had heard.
"When I finished my first book I showed it to Wystan Auden," he said over the phone in a soft voice. "He was kind about the poems, I think, but what I remember most was him saying, `Only 43. You need to cut them down to 43, James. You can't have more than 43 poems in a first book.' I don't know where he got the number, probably from his own first book, but I think he was right and I think I got mine close to that. I'm a little afraid to look."
I'm afraid to look myself, but finally I leave off tapping on these keys and get out of my chair and go to a box hidden behind a recliner I seldom use and dig through books in it until I find a copy of Even Tide. I open it, afraid the number will be in the sixties, and I'm somewhat relieved: forty-nine.
Still I feel the heat of shame climb my face.
A blur like headlights grows into spots at my back and swings past the mailbox: the pickup. I get out. A bulky yellow Payloader shows above the snow near the buildings and starts up the lane, then pauses and swivels sideways, as if training its robot eyes on the bulk truck, then swings again and rumbles past it, uphill to me. A driver climbs down a ladder from its cab in a hooded jacket, his face hidden, and hooks a chain to the Payloader scoop, then to my bumper.
"You're a ways from home. You're Woiwode, aren't you."
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Meet the Author
Larry Wiowode is the poet laureate of North Dakota. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and many other publications. His first novel, What I’m Going To Do, I Think, received the William Faulkner Foundation Award; his second, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives in western North Dakota with his wife.
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