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Back You are here: Home Themed Collections The Collective Speaks June 2012: The Tarot Writers in Residence: Ryan Wilson May 2011 Writer in Residence - Spiral Bound Brother: Chapter 2
Monday, 16 May 2011 05:31

May 2011 Writer in Residence - Spiral Bound Brother: Chapter 2

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The Jack London Test & A Rare Seduction by way of a Half Deaf Ex Student


I stood up there every day, submerged in a windowless bunker in the southwest suburbs of St. Louis, my place of origin, performing maniacally (they say) in front the eager achieving, ruddy faces (a few brown ones mixed in), for twenty-five years. T-w-e-n-t-y-F-i-v-e. I taught a section of the slower kids too of course. We all had to take our share, “what can you do?!” we used to chortle, all the young teachers, in the spirit of post(post)Woodstockian revival camaraderie, “the fucking war!” You actually have to love some aspect of being in a trench with no way out, or the children eat your spleen.

Can anyone outside of the classroom appreciate, truly, how teaching high school whittles portions of a person away, regardless of gender, genetic make-up, experience, patience, accomplishment—irrelevant—it squelches, if not your electricity, then at least the ability to feel your own broken glass heart. And, alright, it replenishes, but only the moment before you dissolve.

My favorite book to teach though, by far, was Call of the Wild. It lights an animal element on fire in the children’s minds, as if the class is on ice skates, gliding, falling down, racing, and suddenly their whole little pond is ablaze. It brought me great joy for years, watching their faces, listening to their sobs as Buck gallops into Alaska‘s infinite expanse. You could feel the wind. The children with loving mothers and fathers, and more so the ones who courageously managed, somehow, to make it through alone, thought the ending affirming of that essential, unnamable sensation in their intestines that felt like untamed joy. London gave them answers to their questions about freedom and nature—what are they, really, freedom, nature—in a society that dragged those words behind the donkey to the point that they’d become scavenged corpses.

And there were children who drowned in it, the grinding truth of it, and so denied themselves. But London’s husky transcends even Christ in terms of answering The Summons, from a perspective the kids could fully understand. Those who bothered to read it well added something of value to themselves, something substantial to pull from in the face of a world of decay, hollow chests, and prostitution. It never got easy to stomach the shallow end’s whining though, the pleading with me—give a goddamn test and be done, can’t you see, Craft, we’re finished with you and your affected voice, the death, Craft, your perverted leers, your creepy side-part-comb-over, swooped like that, and the boys, you like boys, Craft, we know, don’t think you’re putting anything past us, we see you, Craft. We’re done with this sled dog shit, we can‘t hear it, can’t see it, don’t want to, and we’re more than done with your rat face.

Thesis-Contrary idea-Lead in-Quote-Lead out-Intensification-Provide evidence-Discovery of irony-the absurd-the transcendent-Devices-Thesis expanded-Conclusion. The kids loved it some and hated me, maybe loved me some and hated it. Then one day it was over.

The string of events that seem to be the most likely first few dominoes that knocked over the rest, thus handing me this life, are intricately connected to an old student of mine, Lila Bell. She was captain of the Earhart Hockey Cheerleaders, a notoriously bawdy group, but Lila was an earnest girl, plugged into a socket, always conscious of her words, a very solid writer at thirteen. Subtle-subtle-subtle then pow! Well, one evening not long ago, my home phone rang, a true rarity. She was back home from Prestige Small New England Liberal Arts College, just before winter break of her senior year. There were a few wealthy families at Earhart (we prided ourselves on being better than the private schools), but not one had money like the Bells. Her great great great great grandfather started the first law firm in St. Louis, which evolved into one of the largest and most respected law firms in certainly the Midwest, if not the entire country, Bell, Higley, & Williams.

Lila had aged to twenty-one when I heard her say my name again, Hi Craft. I was forty-six years old, divorced, obviously, and had just, days before, lost consciousness in the library, on the verge, I suspected, of unraveling once and for all, despite what Dr. Trisk said. Lila suggested we meet for coffee down the street from my apartment. An English major, because of me, she said, the way I didn’t fuck with the stories, she said, but gave them some overdue fucking glory, she said (somehow she managed another fuck with no context I could discern).

I’ll never forget our first discussion in class, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. Her voice, not her voice, but her method of utterance caused me to flip a few ounces of coffee onto my nipple and my already barely usable copy of Frost.

“Joan of Arc!” I shouted into scalded chest.

“Are you alright?”

“Fine, fine. Go on, go on, you were saying something marvelous about the horse, about loving that the man considers his horse’s feelings. That’s called pathos by the way.”

“Yeah, but then the woods are death suddenly! And it’s like he likes it, looking at death, and he just goes home because he made some stupid promise. And now it’s too late because you like him, so you care. And death is what he really wants. This is not a ‘nice pretty, like nice’ poem or whatever the hell Julie said. I stop listening when she starts speaking. No offense, Julie.”

“Is it possible he views death as something good?”

“Only if he hates being alive I guess. This guy is sick. He’s going to do it, probably with a shotgun.”

I scanned the class and found furrowed brows from corner to corner. They always became contemptuous when someone had something to say. But this was an assault. I went through the stop sign anyway.

“Lila, do you think it’s possible that a man, or a woman, could reach a point in life where those woods might say something reassuring about eternity, for lack of a better term?”

“I don’t know anyone like that.”

“No, I don’t either.”

If I didn’t take a hard turn, the class was going to fold in on itself, and, because I didn’t care, I pressed on.

“So are you concluding that the speaker, and that Frost by extension, are offering us a load of manure? To feel tempted by the woods is just fantasizing about death and to think that way is a capitulation of real life.”

“What does that mean?”

“To give up.”

“Yeah, pretty much. This is the saddest thing I’ve ever read, cause it’s in his head.”

“That’s precisely where it is.”

Some words she twanged, one in ten, seemingly at random. Consonants dropped, T mostly, K’s dissolving into a Yiddish CH, B and V combining to form one letter, hissed S’s, intense sibilance.   I could tell her voice was lake a scratchy brass section blasted into the collective inner ear of the class.

Thankfully, the bell rang, resetting them for biology, the day’s class forgotten, except by Lila.

At the café all these years later, she looked at me and laughed, an extended laugh that ended with her forehead in her hand, a little snorting at the end. I could see in the mirror on the wall behind her head that I didn’t have anything smeared on my face, so I knew it was, at least in part, my ridiculousness she was laughing at. This sort of spirited, intimate look at me worked well. And the corkscrew curl of hair on her forehead was long enough to submerge itself in her coffee. That she never noticed, and dunked it again and again, well, that finished me off.

“It feels good to be here, Craft. It’s not weird at all, you know?”

“Thanks for the coffee. It’s delicious.”

“You suggested this place,” she said, “so you shouldn’t be surprised.”

“Mmm. Yes.”


“Yes, Lila.”

“Okay listen. I’ve made some stupid choices with boys at school. Nothing horrible, I wasn’t raped, thank God, a friend of mine was, right outside a Bank of America.”

“That’s awful.”

“She’s strong.   But, that’s not what I want to talk about right now okay?”

“Fine by me.”

“I’m just going to say this.”

“Please do.”

I heard the chink of porcelain breaking apart, then crying behind us. A little girl, four or five, spilled her hot soy milk.

“I can’t get off unless I’m by myself. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You know what I’m saying?”

“Precisely, yes.”

“I’m not offending you? Making you uncomfortable?”

“I’m not offended. No, I can imagine it’s hard to find a boy with any real feeling in his hands.”

“Exactly! Exactly, Craft! It’s their hands, they’re either clumpy claws or spastic. Like they’re playing a video game called Fingerfuck! where the object is like, fingerfuck the girl as fast as you can.”

“Are you sure there is no such game already?”

“Oh my God! That’s the future isn‘t it!”

“Yes. I think so. Maybe we should have a glass of wine. It’s nearly a quarter after five.”

In a sort of hyper-rationalized stab at free love via edification, I gave Lila a friendly orgasm—you know, deep into our second cheap Cabernet I liked from Walgreens. I’d lived alone for years and knew the specials.

We relaxed on my rug afterward—I think I might have even put on early Leonard Cohen. She hadn’t heard him. A fucking revelation, she said. I was as hard as a mountain, even if I was proportionally the image of a more modest Renaissance sculpture. But neither of us did anything about my side of it, just didn’t seem like the spirit of the thing. No matter.

“Craft, remember ‘Ex-basketball Player’?”   She provided a lit joint, which I declined.

“Of course, I’ve taught the poem for 25 years.”

“When you read it in class, I knew I’d get naked with you someday. And I got really freaked out. It was a terrifying thought. Disgusting even.”

“Would you like some more wine?”

“Yes. Thank you. ‘The ball loved Flick/ His hands were like wild birds.’ It’s such a sad fucking poem. But the way you read it, you transformed it, like there was this animal in a cage, and he might still be burning to be free, somewhere, so there was this hope.”

“Updike really put that one together.”

“It was you, Craft. I’ve read Updike’s other stuff—it’s okay, I guess. And that’s being pretty generous.”

“Well, I don’t know, there’s The Centaur. But that’s not important.”

“The line about Flick’s hands, those are your hands.”

I went to an Earhart Hockey game the next night. Lila was there, catching up with two former cheerleaders, and visiting with her old coach, Mrs. Newton, which was how she was addressed by adults also.   Lila looked at me once, and I tried to express with my eyes that this was goodbye, but Mrs. Newton caught my gaze, so there wasn’t time for Lila to see it and understand.

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Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson’s Spiral Bound Brother, won a fellowship for novels in progress from the Vermont Studio Center. He is Stories Editor of The Black Boot (theblackboot.com). Ryan works in counseling and teaches writing at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles. He wishes to lovingly namecheck his family: Sarah, Chance, Seamus, and Tuva.   To reach Ryan-- ryanewilson5@yahoo.com

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