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By Herbert Burkholz
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1991 Herbert Burkholz
All rights reserved.
".... saucy little bird sitting over there on the windowsill with that gleam in his eye and his head cocked over, looks like he's casing the joint for worms. Beat it, bird, this seminar is for seniors only. All right, the bird stays, but one peep and he's out. So, first day together, let's get to know one another. How about a singalong? No? How about an in-depth analysis of the defensive line of the Washington Redskins? How about a meaningful rap on the meaning of life?.... we'll all wear our jammies and I'll make the cocoa. Still no? What say we trade recipes on how to cook chittlins? Anybody here know how to do it? Anybody here know how to spell it? Anybody here know what the hell I'm talking about? I know, I'm rambling, but don't despair, I'll think of something. I always do, but one thing, students, this may be a seminar in creative writing, but sure as Booth shot Lincoln we're not going to sit here for the next three hours and talk about art and literature. Yes, students, it's time to admit it, Booth definitely did shoot Lincoln. No matter what else they may have taught you here in Chadwick, North Carolina, it wasn't the Russians, it was Mister Booth all the time. Of course, we won't tell Dean Hummel about that, he still thinks that.... what's this? Smiles on your open, honest faces? Grins of derision invoked by the name of the Dean? Look here, I won't have the Dean derided in my seminar, even if he is a bit of a shmuck. Hold it, does anybody here know what a shmuck is? I didn't think so, not in Chadwick College. Look, forget that I said it, okay? If anybody asks you if I called the Dean a shmuck, you just play it dumb. You put your hands over your ears, and you say, lawsy me, I don't even know what that nasty word means, but it sure does sound disgusting.
"Got it? Good, and that goes for you, too, bird. You look as if you can keep your beak shut, so shtum's the word. You know, I think he likes me. The bird, not the Dean. That bird hasn't moved a muscle in minutes; either he's dead or he's fascinated. Very few humans stand still that way when I'm spouting off, most people tend to wander. Not you folks, you don't count because you have no choice, but that bird is a natural-born volunteer listener. My first Carolina conquest, and by sheer luck he happens to be a magnificent specimen of the male Richmondena cardinalis, or common cardinal. Mean anything to you? Right, the cardinal is the official bird of the proud state of North Carolina. Didn't think I knew that, did you? Bet you figured that all us Yankees don't know beans when it comes to matters of the southern persuasion. Well, Max Levi-Morris is not your standard-issue carpetbagger. I believe in being prepared, and you see before you a repository of perfectly useless information about the state of North Carolina. Sit still, bird, while I demonstrate.
"We've already discussed the cardinal, but did you people know that your state flower is the dogwood, and your state tree is the pine? Fascinating. Now, most states would stop right there, but not the Tar Heels, no sir. They're obsessed with labelling things. Thus, the state mammal of North Carolina is the gray squirrel, the state insect is the honeybee, the state reptile is the turtle, the state gemstone is the emerald, and the state seashell.... silence, you scoffers, I'm serious. The official state seashell of North Carolina is the Scotch Bonnet, which sounds like something I drank last night. By mistake.
"Did you know all that? Be truthful, now. No, of course you didn't, and why should you? I was born in New York City, but I've never been to the Statue of Liberty or the top of the World Trade Center. It's the same thing. Everyone says that homegrown is best, but it's the alien corn that makes grist for our mills, it's always the foreign that intrigues us, and North Carolina is as foreign to me as I can get. All of this is new to me: the south, Chadwick College, the simple act of being back in the states after twenty years of living abroad. All new, all strange, all weird to me. Until just a few weeks ago I lived in a bucolic dream on a tiny island in the Mediterranean where the loudest sounds that intruded on my day were the cackling of hens, the grunting of sheep, and way across the valley the faint voice of a farmer calling to his mule. That was only weeks ago, but Carolina called, Chadwick beckoned, and Max Levi-Morris responded. Here I am, and I have come prepared, as witness my facile identification of our little friend, the cardinal. I may be new to this part of the world, but I am determined that Chadwick will find in its new Writer-in-Residence not just another bizarre genius, not just another wise-ass Yankee, but a man who cares about his local surroundings. And I care, students, I care. I have a hunger to know about this part of the earth that I now inhabit. I want to bite off chunks of Carolina, spit out the seeds and gulp it down whole. I intend to digest you all.
"You people smile a lot, don't you? I'm quite serious. This morning I spent only twenty minutes with the Almanac and I am now able to rattle off with ease the population figures for Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Raleigh, spiced with the current production rates on tobacco, corn, peanuts, and hay. Not only that, but I am also privy to the startling fact that North Carolina is the nation's leading producer of mica and lithium. Can you imagine me dropping that stunner into my next conversation with the Dean, that shmuck?
"Have to do it casually, something like, Ah, good morning, Dean, I see by the papers that lithium production was up this month, but mica seems to be tailing off. We'll have to do something about that, Dean, got to put the fear of God into those mica people, get the state moving again.
"Students, do you think that I might get the tiniest of smiles out of him with that? Would those prissy little lips twitch even gently? Not likely, but it doesn't matter. Knowledge is all, and I have the knowledge. And why? Simply because I spent twenty minutes with the Almanac this morning. Research, students, always research. Research is invaluable to the working writer. But use it judiciously, if you know what I mean. You're all budding novelists, not journalists, and I've never seen the sense of ruining a good story just for the sake of a few solid facts."
"Yes? Which one are you?"
"Thank you. I'll have your names married to your faces shortly. Yes, Mister Sparkman?"
"Sir, I don't mean to be impertinent, but.... the bird?"
"Yes, what about it?"
"It's not a cardinal, it's a scarlet tanager."
"Surely it isn't."
"I'm afraid it is, sir."
"Are you quite certain?"
"How very odd. I would have sworn it was a cardinal."
"Tanager, is it?"
"Thank you, Mister Sparkman. We are all in your debt."
You little prick.
Max Levi-Morris slouched in his seat and glared the length of the boardroom table. He sat at the head with the students seated down the sides, three males to the left, two females to the right. The clean, white, high-ceilinged room was flooded with sunshine and with the odor of freshly clipped grass that crept in through the Gothic windows, open and arched. In one of those windows sat the offending bird, head atilt and gazing curiously. He glared at the bird, ignoring the cheerful, sunny room and the cheerful, sunny students, the heady aroma of magnolia and the visible slice of blue-green lawn bordered by low walls and elms. He ignored it all, glaring at the bird, and then transfering his glare to the five people seated at the table. Where were the raunchy college kids in cutoff jeans and tank tops? Where were the Indian beads, the mojo crystals, the garlands of hair? These kids were straight out of the fifties. The young men were all short-haired and clean-shaven, dressed in pressed denims, polished loafers, and white short-sleeved shirts open at the neck. The young women wore skirt and blouses, sandals, and an air of bread and butter. All five were white, southern, and as a guess, Protestant. It was a lousy piece of casting, irritating, and he shifted his irritation and his glare to the reedy young man with the ivory skin pulled taut on a fine-boned face.
Sparkman, what are you, Sparkman, some kind of a bird freak? So I didn't know the name of the bird, so what? Am I a novelist or an ornithologist? Shoot me, burn me, nail me to the cross, but there weren't any pictures in the God damn Almanac. Mercy, Sparkman, mercy. Oh my, that tiny curl of disapproval twisting those sculpted lips.
Max glanced down at one of the five index cards on the table before him. Richard Sparkman, twenty-one and a senior from Greensboro. English major with an honors program, history minor, Poetry Club, Lit Quarterly, no Greek, no athletics. No bird watching, either, and something else unlisted. Something in that terribly aesthetic profile, the air of calculated indifference, the aristocratic cock of the chin. Is that it, Sparkman? The aristocratic cock?
"I'm afraid that I've disappointed you, Mister Sparkman. I'm sorry about that, but I'm also sorry to have to tell you that it won't be the last time. Believe it, Sparkman, and you other people had better believe it, too. Our relationship has disappointment built into it from the start, and I'm not just talking about birds now. There's a fine green thread of failed expectations woven into the tapestry of the academic year to come, and you might as well know it right now. Your expectations of me are doomed, of necessity, to disappointment. I can't possibly deliver to you what you want of me. It's like the man with the new suit. Remember that? Probably every new and eagerly expected garment ever put on since clothes came in, fell a trifle short of the wearer's expectations. Who wrote that, please? Miss.... ah, DuPlessis?"
"Dickens? Great Expectations?"
"Quite so. Thank you."
Max looked down at the index cards again. Adrianne DuPlessis, twenty years old and an out-of-state student from Alabama. English major, music minor, Tri-Delt, pom-pom girl, oval eyes, matte skin, touch of auburn in her hair ... dear God, I must remember to take an oath or two when I get home.
"Doctor Levi-Morris ...?"
"No, Miss DuPlessis, not doctor. Mister, if you have to use a handle, but that's as high as I go."
"Oh, dear, Ah didn't know?" She made a pretty show of concern. "Ah just wanted to say, well, nobody's made you a proper welcome yet, and somebody should say it?"
"And you're just the one to run the Welcome Wagon," drawled Sparkman. To Max, he explained, "She doesn't look it, but she's very much the mothering type."
"Why, Dick Sparkman, it's just common courtesy?"
"You've got the adjective right."
She wrinkled her nose at him. "Ah just wanted Mister Levi-Morris to know that we're all thrilled to have such a famous author here at Chadwick? Absolutely thrilled?" She smiled brillantly at Max. "And Ah want you to know that Ah've read every book you've ever written? Every one, no foolin'?"
"You're very brave."
"No, not at all? Ah'm so excited, Ah just can't believe that Ah'm going to be working with you this year? Me and the famous Max Levi-Morris? Ah mean, really?"
"You'll have to put up with the rest of us," Sparkman told her. "We'll try not to get in the way."
"Why, Dick, you're never in the way? That's what I love about you, honey? You always know your place?"
"You guys play a nice game of hardball," said Max. "Miss DuPlessis, not that I don't find it charming, but why do you end every sentence as if it were a question?"
"That's just her Mobile talking," said the girl sitting next to her.
"Mobile?" Max looked up, half expecting a descending Calder.
"Mobile, Alabama. The deep south. Don't worry, she can turn it on and off. We all can when we want to, at least the females can. It comes with the franchise."
"Why, Daisy Ellen Rankin, that's a terrible thing to say? Ah always talk this way, and you know it? Ah'm not ashamed of where Ah come from?"
"Actually, there's a good reason for it," said Sparkman. He had slid down into his seat, and now he slouched there displaying an admirable languor. "Traditionally, the southern lady is supposed to be helpless and dependent. That little lilt at the end of the sentence, that hint of the interrogative, is supposed to indicate how unsure she is of what she is saying. It's a social signal. She's saying that she's ready to be corrected by the nearest available male."
"Which only goes to show," said Adrianne, "that you know exactly doodly-squat about southern ladies?"
"And I'm doing my best to keep it that way."
Daisy Ellen Rankin ignored the squabbling. She said to Max. "I think I may be in the wrong seminar. Are you going to be asking us a lot of those questions?"
"Like that quotation from Dickens. I'm no good at that sort of thing. Names and dates, facts and figures, quotations from the classics. Those things don't stay in my head."
"What sort of things do?"
She made a whirling motion with her hand. "All sort of things."
"Sunsets and dusty lanes? The taste of cold milk and hot cornbread? Your first bike? Your first bruise? The shyness of a smile, the glee of children, the sureness of youth, the wastage of age, the sadness of faraway stars? Is that what your head holds?"
She flushed, and turned her head away.
"Am I embarrassing you?"
She shook her head, not looking at him. In a small voice, she said, "No, you're patronizing me."
"Is it patronizing to be told that you have the thoughts of a young artist?"
"Now you're embarrassing me," she murmured. She turned her head in time to see his eyes flick down toward the index cards, and stopped him by saying, "Don't bother looking me up, there's nothing much to see. I just turned twenty, and I come from right here in Chadwick. I'm majoring in Romance languages with a minor in English. That's all there is to me, I'm nothing special."
Wrong, you write like an angel, thought Max, remembering the work that had accompanied her application to the seminar. He studied the lines of her face, the good high cheek bones. Her eyes were somber, but the rest of her was ready to smile, In a brisk voice designed to dispel moods, he said, "Don't worry about the quotations, that was the first and the last. This is a seminar in creative writing, not English lit, and I threw the quote to make a point, not to test your knowledge. Questions like that are for teachers, and I'm not here to teach you anything like that. Actually, in a formal sense, I can't teach you anything at all. Ah, your faces, all of them. You should see them, confusion and consternation. What did he say? He's not going to teach us anything? He can't do that, he's supposed to be a teacher."
Max lifted himself out of his chair, and stretched. Seated, he had seemed almost normal in size, but standing, his linebacker's body shrank the room. He walked around the table putting his feet down softly, as if wary of the floor. He made a circuit of the table, stretched again, and stood behind his chair, his hands resting on it.
"You see, that's just it," he said. "I'm not a teacher, I'm the Writer-in-Residence, and I can make that mean whatever I want it to mean. Remember, I warned you that you'd be disappointed, and here's where it starts, here's where I begin to fail you. You expect to be taught something, don't you? You've been accepted into a seminar on creative writing, and now you want to be taught. Well, don't you?"
"It seems like a reasonable expectation," said the young man at the far end of the table.
"Which one are you?"
The cards again. Chauncey Remminger, twenty-two, and from Ransome. The usual English major and history minor, Kappa Tau, but what's all this? What have I got here, a literate jock? Swimming team, varsity tennis, letter in lacrosse. Tall, raw-boned, suntanned with patches of peel on his nose and forehead, a bruise on his chin, and blond hair as wild as a haystack.
"Do they call you Chauncey?" he asked cautiously.
"Maybe the first time." A smile came easily. "After that they call me Chance."
"So you expect to be taught. And what is it that you expect me to teach you?"
The smile wavered. "To write, obviously."
Max slipped into his seat with a sigh. He made a steeple out of his fingers and peeked over the spires. "Remminger, you already know how to write. You have fine teachers of English here at Chadwick. They've taught you the essentials of the language and how to use your tools. You know how to write coherently, concisely, and with an active imagination. All of you can do that. If you couldn't, you wouldn't be here. I went through more than fifty applictions before I chose you five people for this course, and I picked you because you already know how to write. So what else is there for me to teach you?"
Excerpted from Writer-in-Residence by Herbert Burkholz. Copyright © 1991 Herbert Burkholz. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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