I've obviously been spending more time on the NORMAL SCHOOL novel/blog/website than I have on this--my rightful and beloved blog. But I've been doing regular writings and editings--I've started a new book--and I've been crazy busy with teaching. Go check out NORMAL SCHOOL, if you have the time. And then buy some books...and then come back and see what else I'm up to....
In truth I haven't been as productive as I should have been. But some work has been done--and of course what is to come!
This has been a stupidly busy time for me--I've been doing all sorts of writerly, editorially, and academically...things. Stuff. And some of this stuff is worthwhile! And the semester is starting and there will be more stuff to come....
So I glued together a bunch of the Writings and Editings photos I've been posting, and made a video. It makes my life look a bit more dynamic than it might really be, but I can live with that. But--here is some of what I've been doing (and you can do this, too).
It's summer and--as usual--I'm working on about ten projects at once, and thinking about five or six others. But--I'm getting things done!
Here I am reading the first Episode from Normal School. Chapters 1, 2, and 3. Listen and be amazed! Then go over to Normal School and read the whole thing!
Readings and Ridiculosities Five: Normal School Episode One
And then go to Amazon and buy some books....
Busy closing out the semester and working on classes and grading and Normal School and Burnt House and about a jillion other important crucial worthwhile projects...and my students drew pictures of American Eagles....
I've been making a few final corrections on Burnt House, which is [UPDATED] NOW OUT.
It's good--you're going to want to read it! To convince you to read it, here's one of the shorter chapters....
Baby Never Grew
Vesta Talbot was my grandfather’s older sister. I knew her when I was little—knew her, loved her, my favorite aunt, a nice old lady who always dressed in green, who made a skimpy living giving piano lessons at her big gloomy house in Weston, a lady who made me fudge, who read me stories and talked about books. Vesta wasn’t all sweet, of course—she was a real person. She could be bad. I remember them talking about how she killed her neighbor’s tree, a sycamore that dropped leaves in the yard of her gloomy house, and the leaves made her mad, so she went out one night and poured vinegar and salt water all around the roots of the tree and killed it. So I knew Vesta was ornery. But still—she made me fudge! She read me stories! She always talked to me when no one else would. She took me seriously.
When she died suddenly of a stroke I cried and cried. But even though I was just a kid—a sad kid, at my first funeral—I noticed through my tears that no one else was crying. Nobody else even seemed sad. Pap and Uncle Rence, her brothers, sat stony-faced and grim in their good black clothes, and my mom sat in the back with some ladies, talking and laughing about something. Irene, my mom’s sister, my aunt, didn’t even come in for the funeral. There were only six or seven people at the funeral home—only six or seven people, and she’d lived in Lewis County all her life, eighty years or more—and not one of those six or seven was crying except me, and I cried and I cried until Grammaw Talbot grabbed me by the arm and jerked me outside and sat me down hard in the car and told me to be quiet. To stop acting up! To stop embarrassing everyone! Then she went back inside and I sat blubbering in the hot car by myself.
Years later, one summer when I was in high school I was out with Pap Talbot on the porch and Pap was talking about growing up over on Rocky Fork. The people who lived there then were all dead now, I never knew them, they were nothing but names to me, but of course I always liked hearing him talk. I was in the swing reading Catch-22, which I didn’t like too much then. Didn’t dislike it enough to stop reading, but it wasn’t as funny as the blurbs on the cover said it was supposed to be. I didn’t get it. I kept on reading with mounting irritation I didn’t understand. Old Pap kept talking about dead people—Ramseys, Sleeths, Frosts. Hennens. Renners. Fishers. All just names. He was talking to himself more than he was talking to me. Remembering. Then he said something about Aunt Vesta. How Vesta sure thought she loved that Fisher boy. How then she went and poisoned his dog.
Poisoned his dog.
I thought, What?
“Huh?” I asked.
“What?” Pap asked back.
“Somebody poisoned a dog? Vesta poisoned a dog?”
“Oh,” Pap said. He leaned forward and tapped out his pipe. “Goddamn Vesta thought she loved that Fisher boy—that Matt Fisher. He was one of those Fishers that lived up above Sand Fork. But he wouldn’t have her, so she poisoned his dog.”
I leaned up on my elbow and looked at the old man. “What?”
“Your Aunt Vesta, she always thought she was better than everybody else,” Pap said. “You know that. She was always acting so big. She was always talking about how she went to college and studied music, how she played the piano, how she wanted to go off to New York and be in an orchestra. Well, shit—me and Rence went to college, too, and you never saw us acting big like that.”
“But about the dog.” Killing a tree was one sad thing—but killing a dog.
“I guess there’s some things you don’t need to know.” Pap filled his pipe and lit it, put the red Prince Albert can back in his shirt pocket. Puffed a couple of times. I just lay there in the swing, twisted around, watching him. I didn’t need to know but I knew he was going to tell me anyway. “Vesta thought she loved that Matt Fisher, but he turned her down, so she poisoned his dog.” Puffed. Always a wet sticky sound when he puffed that pipe, I’d been hearing it all my life. “This was after she had that baby that wouldn’t grow.”
“A baby.” I stared at him but he didn’t say anything. A baby that wouldn’t grow. Vesta’s baby. I asked, “Vesta had a baby? That Matt Fisher’s baby?”
“I guess,” Pap said. “She never would say who the father was.”
“She wasn’t married.”
He said, “No.”
I thought for a minute. Tried to do some math in my head. This would have been—the 1910s? The teens, probably. Maybe the 1920s. Not later than that. Maybe earlier. Unmarried and pregnant would have been a big deal, then, in those days, a very big deal. Shameful. Shame for the whole family.
I asked, “So, what happened to the baby?”
Pap shook his head. “Well, that baby wouldn’t grow.”
“What do you mean?”
“It wouldn’t grow….”
“Well, later,” Pap said. “But the little son of a bitch never would grow. It just lay there in that crib and it wouldn’t grow.”
That didn’t make any sense. The old man made it sound like the baby didn’t want to grow.
Like it was a bad baby.
I asked, “Why didn’t it grow?”
“Hell, I don’t know,” Pap said. “It just didn’t.”
“Didn’t they take it to the doctor?”
Pap laughed. “Nobody went to the doctor in those days.”
“Didn’t they feed it?”
“Of course they fed it!” he said. “Jesus Christ!”
There was a glint there. Pap was getting pissed at me. About what? He was the one who brought poor Vesta’s dead baby up.
I asked, “But why didn’t it grow?”
“I don’t know, goddamn it,” the old man said. “I told you—it just didn’t grow and it later died.”
“But—” I said. I was—I don’t know—shocked. I had this mental picture of a tiny monster bad baby. “But—that’s terrible.”
“Now, why the hell are you a-wanting to know about that dead baby?” Pap asked. Now he was really mad.
“I don’t know!” I said. I was really mad, too. “Why’d you start talking about it?”
Pap didn’t say anything. He just sat there puffing his pipe.
I opened the book and stared at the pages.
The words made no sense.
An earlier version was published in Chagrin River Review.
Scholars: read it and note the revisions. You can thank me later.
Everyone: you can buy BURNT HOUSE and read the whole darn thing.
Mankato, Minnesota. I lived here from 1965 to 1976.
The house was painted pink when we moved in. My dad painted it gray—a different shade of gray than this, in my memory—and added the shutters. He painted the shutters red—my mom said she’d always wanted to live in a gray house with red shutters.
It’s in a good location, just a few blocks from the university (Mankato State College in 1965, Minnesota State University-Mankato now). I walked to my school, which is now closed, the building used by the university. The garage is prob a bit small for contemporary tastes. Looks like someone widened the driveway to accommodate two cars.
Those maple trees in front are nice! They were the biggest trees on the street when I moved away, in July 1976, and they’re even bigger now. Good for the trees. There were shrubs of some sort along the front of the house—one of them died sometime in the mid-70s and in the chaos of that time was not replaced. I guess the others died since then.
That’s my bedroom window on the right corner. I kept the blinds down always—I wanted it dark in there, though I would usually keep the side window open and my cat could come and go as he pleased.
This was an unhappy house—well, no, the house itself is neutral, of course. It's just a thing. But it was certainly a house filled with unhappy people—filled with anger and tears and depression. Still, I’m cheered now that whoever lives there is taking care of it. Looks good!
(photo from Google).
Spring break. I've been mostly resting and recovering from strep, but I've also been doing a few W&E things....