WRITING STIFF: Adventures in the Literary Underbelly, A Memoir - Chapter 1
August 22, 2012
The Horse in the Hudson
“Cut out a picture,” said our fourth grade teacher, Miss Cobb, Dorinda Cobb, a young woman, not young compared to us fourth graders but young for an adult woman, no gray in her wavy dark brown hair yet, no wrinkles in her face, such a pretty face, her skin like milk. Miss Cobb had mentioned recently that she was twenty-nine years old which did sound old actually, it was almost as old as my mother, but Miss Cobb wasn’t a mother, she wasn’t even married although she’d been wearing an engagement ring with a diamond in it for the past week from a man named Clark Denklinger who kept postponing the wedding date so I still had hope. I don’t mean hope of marrying Miss Cobb myself, she was much too old for me, she’d been born before World War II while I’d been born in the post-World War II baby boom which put me in a totally different generation from hers and you couldn’t marry someone from a different generation, at least you weren’t supposed to. No, my hope was just that Miss Cobb would stay single so she’d always be Miss Cobb not Mrs. Clark Denklinger, and she’d keep on being a teacher not a rich realtor’s housewife who had his whiskey sour ready when he got home from work and lit his Kents and brought his leather slippers and his New York Times and cooked his New York strip steaks and washed the pots and pans and dishes and when they were both in their pajamas later or maybe not even in their pajamas she kissed him goodnight. “Cut out a picture,” Miss Cobb said, “and write a story about it.”
“Like a report?” said Nancy Dengel, the fuzzy-haired girl behind me.
“No, a story. A fictional story. Use your imaginations.”
“What does fictional mean?” Nancy said.
“It means you make it up.”
“How do we start?” asked stupid, blotchy-faced Fred Lally.
“With the picture.”
That’s what Miss Cobb already said, Fred, start with the picture. I guess he had a hearing problem.
“Start with whatever is in the picture,” said Miss Cobb, “and then go on to what isn’t in the picture.”
“What do you mean, Miss Cobb?” said Faith Merriam.
“Yes, what do you mean, Miss Cobb?” said her sister, Hope Merriam. Their third sister Charity Merriam didn’t say anything. They were triplets.
Miss Cobb smiled. Her teeth were so big and white and perfectly aligned. Her lips, without lipstick, were so red. The irises of her eyes were opal-green, the pupils black as BB shot. “Write about what happened before they took the picture, and then after they took the picture.”
“How do we know what happened?” Blotchy Fred again.
“You invent what happened.”
“Then it won’t be true.”
“All the better.”
“Truth is overrated.”
“Huh?” Fred would say huh if you told him what time it was. “Huh? What does two o’clock mean? Huh?”
“Listen, don’t worry about what’s true,” Miss Cobb told us all patiently. “You’ll never know what’s true anyway. Truth, if it exists at all, is ephemeral.”
Ephemeral. Was that a real word? Or had she made it up by hacking off bits and pieces of other words and chocking them together? Ephemeral. I had goosebumps on my arms just from the sound of it.
“Imagine instead,” Miss Cobb suggested, “what might be true. Because what we imagine might be true is usually truer than what’s really true.”
Truer than true. Was that possible? That was like whiter than white, stronger than strong, deader than dead. It was like another dimension beyond our own dimension. Along with the goosebumps on my arms I was getting a tingling down my backbone.
“How long does this story have to be, ma’am?” asked Curt Judge the new kid in class with the cowboy accent whose family had just moved into town from Dallas, Texas. Curt called Miss Cobb ma’am, not Miss Cobb like we did. Curt wore cowboy boots and a cowboy buckle on his belt and a ten-gallon cowboy hat and a red calico pattern kerchief around his neck. The day he showed up with spurs on his boots Miss Cobb had to inform him that the school dress code outlawed that accessory. Curt was pleased to be called an outlaw. The school dress code also outlawed blue jeans in those days, as well as sneakers except in gym class. Somehow Curt got away with wearing flared batwing cowhide chaps around his khakis one whole week, complete with long fringes down the thighs and sterling silver studs. You’d think he was going on a cattle drive as soon as school let out. Good luck finding any cattle to drive in Weston, Connecticut, Curt, I wanted to say every morning when he showed up in his ridiculous cowpoke getup, especially the ridiculous chaps with the big gaps in the leather for easy access to your fore and aft private parts. Curt once bragged that it took his daddy eight hours to drive from one end of their old Texas ranch to the other. “Yeah,” I told Curt, “my daddy had a car like that once.”
Actually, I didn’t say that, I just thought it, because if I said it Curt would certainly whip out his twin six-shooters and drill me full of holes. And actually, I didn’t make up my snappy retort myself, it was line from a joke that my daddy – my dad, I never called him Daddy – used to tell about a curmudgeonly Vermont farmer putting down a boastful Texas cattleman. My dad was born and raised in Vermont. He wasn’t curmudgeonly however; his wit was sweet and urbane. He had a curmudgeonly uncle, though, who kept bees and didn’t trust banks and stashed the money he made from shrewd stock investments – a quarter of a million dollars it was discovered after he died – in a toolbox with his adzes and bradawls.
“Write one page, write five pages, write ten if you want,” said Miss Cobb.
“Huh?” said Fred again.
“If you can tell your story in one page that’s okay,” Miss Cobb clarified. “If it takes you several pages that’s okay, too.”
Fred didn’t say “Huh?” again but his stupid blotchy face screamed it.
At home after dinner I cut out a photograph from Life Magazine of a police horse which had fallen off a pier into the Hudson River in New York City. The horse’s head was just above the water, his neck wrenched, his eyes bugged out, his mouth agape in terror like the mouth of the Guernica horse I’d viewed on a trip with my family to the Museum of Modern Art. The police horse’s name was Meteor. He was a stallion.
In the Life photograph you could see the glint of the steel bit in Meteor’s teeth. His long red tongue was sticking out like he was gagging on the black mucky water with the oily rainbow stains and the soda cans and the candy wrappers and the cigarette butts and the clumps of horse manure floating in it. Meteor was kicking and thrashing to try to stay afloat, churning the black water into yellow-brown froth. It was a black-and-white photo but since Miss Cobb had freed us to use our imaginations I saw colors in it.
Meteor started kicking and thrashing even more wildly now as the weight of his waterlogged saddle and saddle blanket dragged him down. The policeman who was riding him had fallen in the water, too, but he’d been rescued already by stevedores unloading a freighter just in from China who threw him a rope.
This was page one of my story but I wasn’t close to finishing it yet. I went back to the reason Meteor fell into the water which was that one of the boards in the pier was rotten and broke when he stepped on it. His leg went through and snapped and he just toppled over the edge of the pier and into the drink. He couldn’t tread water very effectively with one leg broken and now his head dipped below the surface and the policemen on the pier, several dozen of them by this time due to the APBs that had been sent out, figured he’d never come back up.
Down under the water Meteor was remembering the times he’d run down bank robbers’ getaway cars and outraced fire engines. Once he’d led the St. Patrick’s Day parade wearing kelly green silks. He was the fastest, strongest, handsomest horse in the whole horse police force and he’d been given the rank of Horse Captain in a ceremony attended by Mayor Wagner. But fast, strong, and handsome as he was, Meteor was afraid. Not afraid of dying itself but of dying in a body of water and settling into the slimy riverbed instead of dying and being buried on dry land with a tombstone with an epitaph on it. What scared Meteor most was sinking without a trace.
Up on the pier now there’s a commotion. A tow truck has driven up and stopped near the place where Meteor fell in the river. Attached to the truck’s crane is a very large sling and as the sling is lowered to the water frogmen with swim masks, swim fins, and air tanks jump in after it and plunge down out of sight to find Meteor and if they find him to fit the sling around him so the tow truck can hoist him up.
It seems like an hour that the frogmen are underwater but finally they pop up and give the tow truck driver thumbs up signs and the tow truck driver starts hoisting up the sling and to the astonishment of everyone – several hundred people have gathered at the pier by this point – Meteor is in it, stomach heaving and gallons of greasy, globby water gushing out of his mouth. His broken leg is skewed at a gruesome angle and everyone knows it will have to be amputated. Meteor will never chase down bank robbers or race fire engines again but since he’s a stallion and a champion of his type, he’ll have a fine life in retirement when he’s put out to stud.
Miss Cobb had each of us read our stories aloud in front of the class. Fred Lally wrote about butter, inspired by an advertisement for Land O’ Lakes butter in the Ladies Home Journal. He didn’t really write a story about butter where butter did anything or anyone did anything to butter, he just told about how butter came in a stick and was yellow and felt greasy if you stuck your fingers into it. He didn’t even speculate on who might have invented butter, or what the brand name Land O’ Lakes could mean, or how a heap of mashed potatoes felt when it was slathered with butter. He didn’t dream up some great deed in human history that was done in the name of butter, or some war that was fought over it. That would have required imagination, for God’s sake.
Curt Judge wrote about herding cattle on the Chisholm Trail from Abilene to Wichita. Miss Cobb pointed out that the picture Carl had taken from a newspaper, of an English croquet tournament, didn’t seem to have much to do with cattle herding. “No, it don’t, ma’am,” Carl said. Cowboys don’t apologize for nothing.
The Merriam girls read their stories and we couldn’t help noticing that all three stories were the same, down to the last indefinite article. Coincidence? No, as triplets they mimicked each other in everything they did. They couldn’t help it. They were three parts of the same egg. Or so they said. Actually, they weren’t similar at all, let alone identical. Faith was a blabbering loudmouth, Hope was a whispering little mouse, and Charity played the deaf and dumb part. They didn’t even look alike. Faith had red hair, Hope had black hair, Charity had blonde hair. They dressed in the same outfits every day but Faith’s had been let out to accommodate her girth, Hope’s were cinched tight around her matchstick waistline, and Charity’s droopy dresses and billowing blouses didn’t even presume to fit. I didn’t think they were triplets at all. I guessed that each girl had a different father. I guessed that their mother had invented this whole triplet thing to cover how differently each girl looked and acted. I guessed that their mother was a prostitute. I guessed that giving her daughters the names Faith, Hope, and Charity was to distract people from any suspicion about her life of ill repute. I guessed all this because a mother having three daughters by three different men was exactly what the Merriam girls’ story was about, although it used ducks instead of human beings in all the principle roles. The picture they cut out was from the book Make Way for Ducklings in which the mother duck is leading her ducklings across a busy city street while a fat policeman whistles to halt traffic. To me, all the ducklings in the picture looked identical but the Merriam girls, to their credit, depicted each one as a distinct individual. I was impressed although I thought that three girls writing one story was a dirty trick which demonstrated simple laziness more than identical triplethood.
After I finished reading my own story aloud no one said anything for a long time. I bombed, I thought. I’m going to get an F on this assignment and then I’ll have to repeat fourth grade. I’ll have to stay back.
“Wow,” said Miss Cobb finally. She took a deep breath. “Wow,” she repeated.
“Wow,” said Faith, Hope, and Charity Merriam, all together.
“Wow,” said Fred Lally.
“Wow,” said Curt.
We wrote a new story every week and for awhile we kept cutting out pictures for inspiration. Pictures were like starter cultures, Miss Cobb said, like yeast, which gave rise to flights of creative fancy. Once she had us write three completely different stories from the same picture. She likened this exercise to a baker making three different types of bread from the same mother dough.
Mother dough. I could eat those succulent words unrisen and unbaked.
Once, as an experiment, Miss Cobb challenged us to write stories straight out of our heads, with no pictures to get us going. We flopped. No one wrote more than two paragraphs and the paragraphs that were written were smudged with erasures and blackened by cross-outs. Some students wrote nothing at all. One kid brought in a handful of composition paper which in raging frustration he’d ripped to shreds. Miss Cobb had a name for our paralysis: The Blank Page Syndrome. Modern medicine had no cure for it but a picture would always knock it out. As would other things such as overheard conversations, dreams, songs on the radio. The world was full of starter cultures and mother doughs to help us literary bakers make our bread.
Miss Cobb stopped insisting that we all read our stories aloud, and made it voluntary. I always volunteered but more and more of my classmates didn’t. Eventually I was the only one standing up and reading to the class. Miss Cobb wrote a word on the blackboard about two months into our creative writing project. The word was “style.” “Who knows what style is?” she said.
No one knew.
“Before I give you a dictionary definition,” she proceeded, “let’s look at an example.” I figured she’d say Shakespeare or Robert McCloskey who wrote Make Way for Ducklings. Instead, she said, “Peter Maeck.”
Who? I thought.
“Peter Maeck has a style. Why do I say that, do you think?”
“His stories are interesting.”
“What makes them dramatic?”
“They make you curious about what happens next.”
“You feel almost afraid of what happens next.”
“And yet ... ?”
“You’ve just got to know what happens next.”
“Why is that?”
“Because it feels like it’s happening to you. It’s like you’re in the story yourself.”
“How can that be? It’s not real, it’s fiction.”
“But the fiction’s all around you, it’s like you’re walking right into it.”
You know who made that particular remark about walking into fiction? Fred Lally. Dumbo Fred, old blotch-face himself. How could I have misjudged his intelligence so utterly? How had I missed that his saying “Huh?” all the time showed his inquiring mind, not that he was brain dead?
Miss Cobb kept the Platonic dialogue going. “What about Peter’s writing itself? His words, his sentences, how he describes things, the way he makes people talk.”
“Unique.” I wasn’t sure who said unique but I wanted to kiss that kid, even if it was Curt.
“Unique,” Miss Cobb repeated. “This is at the heart because to truly exemplify a style, a writer’s writing must be unique.”
This was a pleasant day for me to say the least and I looked forward to more such days. I did, however, worry somewhat that being cited for my special talent might arouse envy and jealousy in my classmates, if not resentment, if not hatred, if not verbal and physical attacks. No one loves a teacher’s pet.
I wasn’t attacked, though, not even resented. Rather, I was admired, by the girls especially. When long, tall Sally Broussard wrote my name inside a heart on her notebook cover Miss Cobb asked how I liked being lionized. Lionized. Where had that word been all my life? “I like it,” I answered Miss Cobb and thanked her for the opportunity to become King of the Literary Jungle.
“You’re junior royalty,” she said, “but not a king yet.”
Of course she was right. I had a gift but it was just a starting point. It was yeasty dough which now I’d have to knead and proof and let rise and punch down then knead and proof and let rise and punch down again and then bake. Glittering days these were, but strange, too. I was being honored for something I’d always had but never known I had: a unique writing style. Since I’d never consciously done anything to acquire this style I realized I’d been born with it like I’d been born with arms and legs. But arms and legs wither without exercise so I resolved to exercise my writing talent like an athlete would train his arms and legs for the Olympics. I would do this not just now in fourth grade but forever. I loved writing, I was good at it, I impressed people with it, I even touched them with it, I was being lionized for it, I had my name inside a beautiful girl’s heart, so why not make it my life’s work?