Friday, May 12, 2006


Yesterday would have been the thirtieth anniversary of my marriage to my first wife, Lila. She was (and I trust still is) an Irish Catholic lass with freckles and a taste for mischief in her lovemaking.

We fought often. In fact we fought constantly when we weren’t in bed. She’s an artist, a perhaps that was the problem. Creative types are certainly self-absorbed, and as marriage is all about sacrifice, a writer who marries an artist is asking for trouble. Someone has to do a bulk of the giving, and neither of us were willing to compromise. Though we never grew to be close friends in the way that Ruth (my second ex) and I did, there was a definite fire--a mixture of lust and devotion--that I’ve never been able to recreate. She gave me two gorgeous daughters, my finest achievement in life being those two brief acts of pollination.

I celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the marriage to my first wife by almost calling her. I sat next to the phone in my bathrobe, hand hovering over the receiver for the better part of an hour. Finally I gave up and fired up the grill. I had two venison round steaks marinating in a ziplock of olive oil, black pepper, garlic, sea salt and Pinot Noir. I tossed them on low heat next to a foil-wrapped, organically grown baking potato. I then sautéed a couple pounds of shitakes and some greenhouse zucchini. Since this was an entirely local meal, I paired it with a friend’s homemade Chambourcin. It’s a delightful dry red wine with green pepper and grassy qualities that make it a nice fit for wild game. It’s grown in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states, as well as in New York and parts of Australia, where they make a lovely sparkling wine from this varietal. Chambourcin is one of those much-maligned French-American cultivars that is either derided or ignored by the likes of those insipid writers for Wine Spectator or that nincompoop of the first order, Robert B. Parker. It’s a tricky wine for food pairing, and it’s admittedly hard to find well-made (though aren’t all wines?). My friend’s bottle was delightful, aged two years and made without oak. I’ve come to regard the use of oak (especially by California winemakers) with the same level of contempt as someone who puts ketchup on a fine porterhouse or those who pour hazelnut flavored syrup into a cup of good coffee.

In any case, after this solitary orgy that took up most of the day and evening, I retired to my back patio with a glass of tawny port so I could work on a story by lamplight. It was a balmy evening, and I smelled the thickness of coming rain. My story is about the last black cowboy in Montana, a fellow hired by a Republican rancher to illegally eliminate the endangered grizzly bear that killed his prized bird dogs. Based on a true story. I’m slipping it to a friend who is slipping it to a friend at The New Yorker. If it’s published there I’ll let my readers know…it’s almost time I revealed my identity anyway. In any case, it’s the first short story I’ve written in ages, and I think it’s pretty fucking good, if I don’t say so myself.

Around midnight I was dozing in my lawn chair and a fine mist had begun falling, dampening the draft of the story and curling the pages. I heard a soft knock at the front door, so I stumbled through the apartment and undid the chain. It was a surprise as this complex becomes something of a ghost town after the students leave.

I found Yu standing there. She was wet and crying, her cheeks purple in the streetlight. Her hair was unbraided…the first time I’d seen her this way, and it hung about her shoulders like a main of kelp. She was gorgeous. “My husband kick me out,” she said. “He find me with another man.”

“Heavens, my dear! Come in.” She rushed into my arms.

I fixed her a roasted red pepper/tomato soup with fresh produce I had on hand. I have to admit that since I was in a hurry to serve I had to use a can of tomato paste, though ordinarily I’d allow time to thicken the stock properly. I cut parsley and fresh mint from my dooryard herb garden to garnish. Dab of fresh sour cream from a local dairy.

She ate gratefully and over a bottle of Vouvray I learned that her lover was none other than Billy Clayhouse, a student who had impregnated another of my writerlings last semester. I was angry at Billy and made a note to confront him. As a marine sniper who’d done a tour in Iraq (Falluja), Clayhouse had seen hell, though that doesn’t excuse his behavior. He was also a fatherless Kiowa whelp from Oklahoma with the (tragically) common Native American mother plagued by alcoholism. He was raised by grandparents who managed to give him some respect for the old ways. Over lunch he once told me he’d been poisoned as a fetus by his mother’s drinking and he now blamed all women for his fetal alcohol syndrome, which left him with a short attention span and made writing a horrible chore. This was, he said, why he treated women so miserably. I told him that writing was a horrible chore anyway, and that I also treated women miserably, but never on purpose. I also told him to stop his fucking whining: if he couldn’t tell that women as a gender were the only hope for this world then he had no soul and might as well quit writing and go for his MBA. He left in a huff and I haven’t spoken with him since. And to think that I once considered fixing him up with my youngest daughter, Billie Trout. The miserable fuck.

The upshot of all this was that Yu had finally learned that she loved her husband. “He a computer nerd, but also he is gentle and kind. He didn’t get mad at me but just cried and blamed his self for not paying enough attention to me. I don’t know what to do, Professor Trout. He said that maybe it be best if we divorce!”

She wept.

I held her on the couch, smelling her hair and feeling her little frame like some kind of strange and delicate bird in my arms. I was a perfect gentleman, though I’d be a miserable liar if I didn’t admit that the ermine stirred in his warren somewhere down below. I managed, however, to keep the troublesome creature at bay.

We concocted a plan. What they needed was a period of separation after which they could re-evaluate their relationship. I asked her to join the summer writing session in Tuscany. She protested saying they didn’t have much money: he was only an assistant professor and not yet tenured, and her parents in China, although wealthy, had disowned her. I offered to loan her some money from my wine fund, though in truth I don’t have much to spare. Oh well, these things generally take care of themselves.

She fell asleep in the crook of my arm. I fell asleep too, and I dreamed I was a black bear and she a fawn curled up in my claws. My bear-self watched the Yu-fawn, mouth watering.

Finally, I dreamed of my lost Lila, my first lovely bride. We were married thirty years ago, when I was as young and confused as delicate little Yu. I’m still confused, but I’m now old and have recognized that this is just how life works. All we can ask for is the company of a kind stranger who might fix us a bowl of soup and listen to our troubles, resisting his urge to ravage the young fawn curled helplessly in his ragged old claws. I am in love with Yu, and Lila. I’m in love with life. And I know that this too shall pass.

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Who we were and what we've come to

Agent: Mr. B. Trout?

BT: The same.

Agent: Lana Landreaux…from the Williams, Carlos & Williams Agency. New York…

BT: Of course. Pleasure.

Agent: It’s my pleasure Mr. Trout. Listen, I just finished your partial and I wanted to talk to you…

BT: [ ears perk, tail wags, thinks to self: delightful young lady, and smart, too ] That’s wonderful.

Agent: Is now a good time?

BT: No, of course. By all means.

Agent: It was very good. You’re an amazing writer. I don’t receive many pieces that are so polished. Well crafted language.

BT: Thank you.

Agent: Have you published before?

BT: [ hesitates ] Why yes.

Agent: I expected as much…by the quality of your work. I wasn’t sure, though, because I didn’t recognize the name.

Allow me to interject here: I’ve never claimed celebrity, though I have dined with Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Jesse Jackson, Jimmy Carter (at the Little White House in Key West). I claim a number of fine writers among my close friends. I’ve been to all of the cocktail parties. I’ve overturned tables in all the right restaurants. My exploits, more affectation, I admit, than actual expressions of my personality, have brought notoriety in literary circles, if not actual respect or fame. But when Ms. Landreaux claimed to not know my name…this young woman who makes her living in the world of editors, writers and publishers…I was taken aback. After all, at my age, who we used to be makes up a large part of what we have left. I’m beginning to learn that who I used to be has all but dried up. A ghost in the vacuum. A stack of unread books in a storage locker outside D.C.

BT: [ smiles to self ] It was some time ago…when I last published.

Agent: I see. Well, your experience shows in your work. It’s very good.

BT: Thank you.

Agent: And that’s why I wanted to call instead of send a form letter. To offer you some words of encouragement.

BT: [sits down on kitchen table]

Agent: Because you’re destined to find a publisher. Maybe not for this manuscript, but sooner or later. It’s inevitable. It’s that good.

BT: May I ask?

Agent: Of course…this novel is just not for me. I mean…I’ve got a tight list. I can only afford to take on something that I’m passionate about. Very passionate. I mean…let’s say they got me in one of those East European torture centers, and a CIA thug offers me a choice between burning the only copy of my client’s manuscript or hacking off my own arm with a Ginsu--I would actually consider hacking off my arm. That’s how strongly I have to love a client’s book.

BT: Heavens…that’s pretty passionate.

Agent: Yes. I mean…I liked the first two threads in your novel, the old woman from Veracruz and the single mother from…where was it?...Mississippi. A mixture of composure and desperation. Mirror images in many ways. And the small town lawyer character with big ambitions…intriguing guy. But the other character…Michael Tuck…didn’t groove with him. Didn’t see where that whole thread was leading. He was a little weak.

BT: Wishy-washy is probably a better adjective…sure. His story braids with the others later…you’d have to read another hundred pages or so.

Agent: Well the writing was good. I see, peripherally, how he fits in. It’s just…I only loved 2/3rds of the book, so…

BT: You wouldn’t hack off your arm. I understand.

Agent: But I liked it enough to want to tell you to keep writing. I think it’s important. The issues you take on…illegal immigration, globalization…I mean they’re big issues. Heavy stuff. Unfortunately it’s sometimes hard to find readers for that real heavy stuff.

BT [ feeling the desperation of the telemarketer loosing his mark, the all-expenses-paid bonus trip to Waikiki slipping away ] But the demonstrations…the immigrant rising, millions in the street, people talking about these issues…seems like my material might be timely...

Agent: That’s news…we’re talking fiction here. It’ll be two years before this novel comes out…something else will be in the news. Hopefully the impeachment hearings of Our Great Leader.

BT: I’m with you there. But I’ve another manuscript that I’m finishing. And then there’s my memoir…

Send me partials. I’d be happy to take a look. But I just wanted to call. I usually don’t do this after rejecting a partial--but I thought the writing was that good.

BT: Appreciated.

Agent: Good luck Mr. Trout.

BT: Same to you, my dear.

Agent: Bye.

BT: Bye.

At this point BT hangs up the phone. Sighs. He’s been through it all before, but there was a time when it came easy to him.

He’s got one lonely bottle of San Giminiano Vernacca in the cupboard. He chills it in the fridge. Fires up the charcoal grill. It’s only nine in the morning but he defrosts a farm-raised hen in a sink full of cool water. He rubs it inside and out with sea salt. Fresh ground pepper. In the dooryard he gathers two dozen sage leaves. Chops them. Makes a paste with olive oil, more pepper, some parsley leaves. Splits the chicken along the breast bone and opens it like a book. Flattens it. Smears paste. Grills fifteen minutes per side. Pollo Diavolo, they call it in Toscana. He devours the bird like a barbarian, no side dishes, just meat, bone, bottle of Vernacca, gristle, skin, sage. His beard is greasy. Thumbprints on his glasses. Wine buzz, full belly, sitting on the back porch in a splash of sunlight. He’s got a notebook open. Uncapped pen lying across the page. He thinks about writing but hesitates, just soaking in the sun, the heat still damp from an overnight rain shower.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Et tu, Yu?

I am unable to write for several reasons, the first being financial stress. I’ve always lived hand-to-mouth, but the bills from my angioplasty and my surgery came due. Any conservative will say that state employees are coddled by their lavish benefits, but show me a corporate middle manager who pays higher deductible that us State U proles. Many of my older MFA students, returning to academia to pursue their youthful dreams, have earned more over their lifetimes than I have. One fellow who fashions himself the next Chandler (God, do we really need another?) worked his whole career as a telephone lineman, getting out just in time before cell phones and the obscene corporate practices of our new Gilded Age began the new war on the middle class. He was the union rep of his shop, a relic of a happier time when a blue collar fellow could send his kids to college, buy a house, a speedboat for the weekends, a trip to Hawaii or maybe Las Vegas. In any case, he shared with me his salary upon retirement over drinks one afternoon, and I was not so shocked to learn that it was more than I’d ever earned in a one-year period, even when my books were selling. He saved his pennies while I spent mine on wine and gourmet groceries, and now he was pursuing his writing ambitions in retirement, living on his pension. Good plan. I always stress to my students that they’ll need to find a means of sustaining themselves and their obsessions with the writerly calling. I usually suggest they study oenology or viticulture, but that’s just projecting my own interests. In my case, I married capable and well-heeled women as my means of sustenance. Thrice.

Ruth, the second of my happy ex-brides, has been much on my mind lately. This has been another cause of my literary impotence. It’s hard to write when your past has you by the horns. We’ve spent hours talking on the phone since our reunion tryst in D.C. I’ve been dreaming about her. I feel like a teenager in love, though as we can never return to our youth since we all know we can never swim in the same river twice. My age and life experience has left a bitter and sick coating on my emotional equipment. My mind tells me that it won’t work. You can’t return to your past. My heart is afraid.

Finally, a third contributor to my period of unwritingness, beyond the fact that it’s finals week and I’ve stacks of projects to grade, is this phenomenon of our immigrant rising. This is a good reason. It has me exhilarated. Finally I feel like an American again. I feel that swell of pride, a whisper from those hot summer afternoons back in Wisconsin when I stood on the Main Street sidewalk for the Fourth of July parade watching the WWI vets march past, holding aloft the flag, the swagger gone from their step but replaced by a specific dignity that resonates with a young boy. I also remember standing on a street corner in my mother’s lovely Berlin in ‘89, talking to an old gentleman in a brown suit too big for his wizened, shrinking frame. He was flushed with awe and respect for my American-ness. He was reverent from the recent crumbling of the Berlin Wall and still earnestly grateful for the Berlin Airlift. Good God, how far we’ve fallen in the eyes of the world! I always wonder if my daughters will ever know such a conversation with a foreign national as I had that afternoon. I returned to my hotel room and wept with joy. I even forgave Ronald Reagan his transgressions, but only briefly. All’s it took to ruin our stature was one more stupid war, and a group of oil execs creating for our nation’s presidency a fake, illiterate cowboy to bully the leaders of the world on their behalf. Not even a real cowboy, mind you! Just some well-heeled bumpkin from New England old money who spent a year or two of high school perfecting his fake western accent before returning to Yale.

But excuse my tirade. Back to the marching…I talked to my daughter Ella, who was in Chicago on Monday for a cooking clinic. She participated in the rally in Union Park. Though she has no interest in the Foreign Service, like her sister she’s good with languages. A hobby. At the demonstration she was able to use her Greek, some Russian, German and of course Spanish. Those who see this current immigrant rising as primarily a Latino movement are missing the point entirely, and to their peril. It’s a social movement. It is more American than a billion of those “Support the Troops (by keeping them in Iraq)” bumper-sticker displaying, flag-wrapped, Dixie Chick-bashing nincompoops could possibly understand. These immigrants represent the soul of our troubled nation trying desperately to right our ship of state. When they wave the flag, it is done with a combination of defiance and love. This is not as stupid as singing “God Bless America” at a baseball game. This is true patriotism. They are the rising tide that has the potential of lifting us all, if we allow it.

I marched, too. My mother was born and raised in Germany, only gaining her citizenship in my teen years. As a half-Jew, she had no qualms giving up her German citizenship for obvious reasons, thought she still loves specifics from her native country. My father was half African American…that 25% of myself that defines me upon first glance. Anyone pointing me out nowadays wouldn’t say: “that tall German guy,” or “that portly Jew.” They’d say, “that black guy with the beard.” In any case, we’ve all got immigrants in our heritage, whether we crossed the Bering Straight forty thousand years ago, or whether we came illegally, unwillingly, or by patiently following the archaic, inadequate and confounding legal process. Our march here in Campustown USA was pathetic but heartfelt. I cancelled Monday’s grad seminar, but the only members of my class joining me at the rally were the delightfully round and pregnant Miss Puppycute, and then Yu, my best student. The other students seemed disappointed that I called off the session. We marched with a scraggly band of peaceniks, a number of the campus international students, the Turkish family that owns the World Deli, a dozen tattooed field hands and day laborers looking squinty-eyed and amused, and the entire extended family that runs the town’s best Mexican restaurant, all twenty-five of them. Each of us carried an American flag passed out by the local Progressive Democrats group.

After the march, several of us went for beers. The party dwindled to just Yu and me, and I was surprised by her ability to hold alcohol. She did get teary in the end. She confessed that she was “basically illegal,” which was why today’s march meant so much to her. She’d married her computer science professor simply to get residency in our fine country. She’d grown estranged from her family back home because she switched from engineering studies to fine arts and they felt betrayed and enraged. Being married to a professor allows her to stay in country while also receiving a discount on tuition, necessary now that her parents in China have cut off her funding. “He not so interested in me,” she said of her young husband-professor, “He just play board game with friends on weekends and write computer program all night. I keep him happy with sex, but I neverless feel like a whore.”

I studied her face with interest. Tears hung in her honey-brown eyes, though she restrained them with her will. She smiled sadly, raising freckles on her rounded cheeks. She is beautifully complex, I realized. She is conniving, sacrificing her happiness and using this poor fellow simply to be able to pursue her writing. I instantly saw a kindred spirit. We talked for a long time amid the smell of stale beer and the “bleep bleep” of the electronic dart board. She sat with her hand on my knee. “Thank you for this day, for marching with me,” she said as we left. I wanted to kiss her.

Now I’m wondering again if a fourth marriage is such a good idea. Nothing happened between Yu and me that shouldn’t happen between a professor and his student, but still I feel like I’ve betrayed Ruth already. I’ve always had issues with fidelity, often a primary cause of the collapse of my various marriages. If the notion strikes me, I might pursue a girl like Yu as desperately as I pursued Shirleen Tomasetti.

Still, despite everything, there’s gladness in my heart. The people are marching again. On Mayday, of all days. They are standing up for all of us. I finally heard that controversial Spanish version of our anthem. It’s lovely.