The Greatest Writers’ Group in the History of Iowa
Misfits, Misanthropes, and Maybe a Genius or Two
One Thursday night in 1980—that interminable presidential election year now melted into the slippery coin of Reagan’s Shangri-La moment—a Clinton, Iowa, public school teacher drove 41 miles south to the larger river city of Davenport to attend a meeting of Writers’ Studio, the local club for aspiring (and expiring) literary practitioners. He knew nobody seated at the folding table that spanned the jump-ball circle in the rented gym of a defunct Catholic school. Technically he was not late: we regular attendees were criminally early. I, spinsterish 16-year-old male in a Hawaiian shirt, quivered along with my peer group of genuine elders. The stranger wore a V-neck sweater, slacks and loafers, a meditative gaze and thin laconic grin. It always startled us to be found.
Most first-timers suffered under the weight of an aesthetic. Either they had been evicted from another group—Wordsmith’s, Pen Women—or swept out of the bungalow of a fed-up aunt. To us these exiles lugged their trilogy concepts, claims to inborn talent, their influences. Rimbaud! Fletcher Knebel! They careened toward a too-little place at the pad-strewn table, exchanging glances with the uncurling tentacles of our trepidation.
Not this one. This writer specimen paused a respectful distance from our tight circle. Upright, no apparent literary leanings, he stated: “I’m Beenk.”
“Blink!?” yelped cigarette-flicking Blanche Redman, hard of hearing. “Gene B-E-E-N-K. I saw the meeting notice in the paper.”
It was nothing to see: a scattering of info-grains on the ORGANIZATIONS AND CLUBS calendar in the Sunday Quad-City Times. But in awful 1978 I had also been able to discern the details when I had nowhere else to turn. Fifteen and emaciated, creeping into the club’s previous “digs”—as Blanche called the rented tenement room across the river in downtown Rock Island, Illinois—I was immediately recognized as a force this wrinkled literary band (mostly retirees) lacked and might utilize. The bolt of innocence out of the shadows! If innocence frayed on the edges and sporting a torn literary tone. The pen cap biter.
Wire-rims resided on Beenk’s clean pink nose like a silver praying mantis. His sweater was fire engine red. (Was it that legendary stuff, Pendleton cashmere? I had only heard about cashmere from ecstatic thrift store rack shufflers who at first touch felt they had found it but, moan, second touch, had not.) White hair groomed into a cotton candy plume made Beenk appear not old but conversely youthful.
“I came to find out what you are up to. What are you up to?”
A fair and simple question complicated by the fact that Beenk wanted an answer—really seemed to care about the answer. By gum, what were we up to?
Howard Koenig (born on the same day as Edgar Allen Poe) looked at long-haired Jack (Vietnam vet with the stalled war novel) who looked at Norm Ross (railroad vignettes) who looked at Karen Sternberg (phantasmagoric novel) who looked at John Morgan (haiku) who looked at Gordon (novel-with-no-plot) who looked at Evelyn Sternberg (Karen’s cousin) who looked at Lucille Eye (Blanche’s friend) who looked at Roy Weigant (viral tales desiring to be virile) who looked at Cozie Dias (rhyming cat ditties) who looked at Blanche (18th-century sonnets) who glared at me, her favorite fly to swat. The thing to do when Blanche glared was nothing. Nothing but nod.
Tick-tock went the caged ceiling clock. We… we… tick-tock, tick-tock… were up to the business of writing, and, one might say, no business at all. I strummed the spiral of a notebook tucked under The Waste Land and Other Poems: black letters on storm gray. The book’s thinness was not reassuring either. The HBJ edition had the ambiance of an abridged manual for the complex and dangerous machine of existence. (Reading “Prufrock” daily was likely why I no longer wrote much poetry. Yet I could not stop reading “Prufrock.”) Finally a voice—the eensy soprano of Miss Eye, the one non-writer who attended solely to cheer on Blanche—invited “Mr. Brink” to sit at the wobbly, nicked table used throughout the month by many groups, including AA, Al-Anon, and Alderman Sodawasser’s ad hoc committee addressing garbage pickup problems.
Beenk sat. He waited for the terrific to occur. He positively gleamed with expectation. He explained: “I’m a teacher seeking new outlets for my energies.” Complete quiet answered, and questioned, that statement. I could almost hear Gordon thinking: Looking for an outlet? Where is your cord?
Then the meeting started the way meetings started when Writers’ Studio president and guiding light David R. Collins (author of many published YA biographies of famous Americans) was absent due to an event at Wilson Junior High in Moline where he taught English. Poet and club vice president Howard Koenig (also daytime administrator for the Armament Readiness Command Headquarters at the Rock Island Arsenal military base and munitions-making facility) cleared his throat: “Welcome, everyone. Meeting dues are…” The White Owl cigar box flapped from hand to hand: lid up, lid down, lid up. Karen deposited a dollar for me as usual. “Nice to be here,” our generous guest said, dropping in bills.
To Beenk’s left sat Norm, who often gave me a lift home to the east side, no headlights on. Absent-minded Norm, goggle-like bifocals and biscuit of bald head, emitted one of his frequent sinus snorts. To Beenk’s right sat obese Turner Hall bartender Roy and his slipping dentures and cement-mixer biceps and froggish eyes and double-knit short-sleeved shirt (the stretched blue on his rack of fat almost blue-less). Roy’s thighs, split wide, allowed the tumble of his belly to extend almost to the pumpkins of his knees as he rocked, and in the middle of the muddle of Roy’s muchness dwelled a leather vest—O wild desire to impress!—and no self-assurance.
Roy had the careless air of someone who cares far too much, and I related to him on that count. In all weather he rode his roaring Harley over the windy sky-high i-74 Bridge to attend these innocuous Thursday night meetings. He did not do it for us, though. He was very directed. He wanted help getting published in Playboy.
Tick-tock, tock-tick. Next to our VP Howard sat treasurer John, who always read first, after counting and rubber-banding dues. He must be asked to read first, however. The formality that petrified him also kept him going. “How about starting, John?”
John—in the squared-off wool Oxford tie, Adam’s apple bobbing above knot—read his haiku in an elegy voice. “Fallen… leaves… are mixed… with…” He wrote only haiku, and eyelids counted the beat—5-7-5—as he battled his nerves. Eyelids raced ahead of words, far ahead! He produced a handkerchief, snuffled, started over.
John lived with his mother, the heart surgeon. What was left of John’s father was that tie—the hue of dried blood. “… leaves mixed with… more leaves… wet… some gold…” The haikus depicted his intense encounters with nature as he paced the family driveway for daily exercise. “…pebble… my shoe… kicks…” The 17-syllable performance never got any easier in the five years I regularly attended meetings. Once he had tried something different, been hit by a Tanka, and stayed in bed for a month.
Up next, Karen, dear payer of my dues. (She was also trying to wrangle a better meeting place through a nun she knew at nearby Marycrest College.) Karen’s voice slurred into the upper register without warning as she fought her way through another chapter of a novel set in a mansion owned by a mysterious Eldon who served visitors pills on trays. Teaching third graders had shattered Karen’s nerves. Some sentences she released bounced right back at her, flattened painted lips against teeth, silenced her. A furious pause as opposed to John’s paralytic pause. The red lipstick, the dark pants suit, and all of this—and every mortal filament of her hennaed hair—hovered in a deep space around her that her words had dared awaken, and charge. “Eldon… Eldon…”
Then came chain-smoking Blanche’s nasal self-critical quacks at end of each line of her latest destined-for-the-trashbin sonnet. “Ach!… Ach!… Ach!”
Cozie followed, “sharing” a poem about a stray cat like her others, but not to be dismissed because honest charity was undismissable. Here I had learned to respect ordeals inherent when hearts went “out.” Iambic miles driven on a flat tire could be more memorable than perfection’s hum! She rhymed “kitty” with “pity” and, finally, “pretty.”
“Do you have any work to share with us, Mr. Beenk?” asked Howard.
Beenk smiled. He had not brought any writing. He wanted, he said, to “listen first.” This admission immediately made him the most serious writer in the gym.
We invited Beenk to join us for the ritual post-meeting snack. He accepted, and at nearby Riefe’s diner Commander Evelyn ordered our “crew” to besiege adjacent booths, brown like giant mushrooms sprung up in the dim corner of the restaurant. Waitresses carrying trays hopscotched over arthritic legs that filled the aisle. Before ordering, we gorged on cost-efficient ice water while pestering the club newcomer with questions. Where did he teach? What? Who? Which grade? Beenk did not blink. The onslaught made him wittier.
“I teach sixth-graders nothing at an elementary school in Clinton.”
Blanche dared him to repeat the contention. He did, exactly. He taught nothing, he said, because he was not allowed to teach something. He went on to identify pretty much the same flaws in the public school system that my Uncle Eubie, also a sixth-grade teacher, did during off-duty rants.
Wishy-washy committee-approved curriculum. So-called “Education” courses teachers must take to keep their minds nice and dulled. The strutting haw-haw blah-blah authoritarianism of mediocre moustachioed administrators.
Karen, she knew! Years at Eisenhower Elementary still made her shake.
I knew too! I knew the defective system from the other side of the steel desk. English teacher Mrs. Burstedda, instead of assigning reading, showed mawkish films of literary classics such as “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Oedipus Rex.
And to the scourge of hollow curriculum and Vice Principal thugs, add the problem of teachers miscast in the role—energetic people, interesting people, but people more suited to write a novel, run a record store. Few instructors were naturals like David R. Collins—inspired, patient, dignified—not co-opted by institutional slipshoddities but overcoming them.
Beenk’s earlier acknowledgement of needing a new “outlet” was an assumption of partial responsibility for the mess, and there his path parted from Uncle’s. To hear Eubie yell, you would think he was the renegade, but he (like his sister, my mother, also highly educated) could not figure out how to live as anything other than a self-pitying bar-banging captive—trapped even more by personal issues than by the system’s vast vagaries. Where was Uncle now? Most likely at Lee’s Tap, or at The Mound go-go-girl bar, venting his frustration until late-stage alcoholics and trashed college students agreed: “Damn right. Anudder one?” That “outlet”—it led right back to where he started, the same morning headache to tug like a ragged kite across the Death Valley of a school parking lot in Andalusia, Illinois.
“Come on, Guy! What do you teach?” cried uneasy Roy, his jiggle filling most of one half of a booth.
“I’ve concluded pure nothing is preferable to poison something.”
Hints of Confucius, Beckett, Chomsky, Pirsig, Swift, Thurber, Heinlein… darted amid garlands of Blanche’s smoke, and tickled the still leaves of the group’s curiosity. Was he the most hopeful of us all? Or the most cynical? Both? Could one be both?
“Don’t hand me that bologna.”
Beenk turned his hands over. The palms were empty. No bologna.
“Teaching nothing can be done. I lie down on my desk and close my eyes.”
“In the middle of class!” enjoined Evelyn.
“At the front of the class, actually.”
“How do students react?” Karen managed to ask.
“They enjoy it.”
The image made its way around the table. “Now we will study nothing.” I saw Beenk crawling onto a bare desk (no wooden apple or pencil can or leprechaun doll) in front of the blackboard’s reef of cursive. Beenk stretching out, folding arms across the sweater’s pastel V. Kids doing what kids do when the teacher sleeps. Dazed faculty members passing in the hall, if they did glance in, did not believe what they were seeing because it was too easy to believe. Another teacher nicked to death by the long fingernails of bureaucracy? Phooey! March on, Swanson, visit water fountain . . .
Beenk’s dreamy figure prone on a desk, the castaway floating not between shores but just away… What power—real power of doctrine—existed to stop him? Anyone?
I slipped my hand inside that night’s flowered shirt, worrying sags of excess skin that had not yet tightened around ribs. I was beginning to believe the epidermis might never snap into shape around the new me, writer and bicyclist, a half-self preserved.
In eighth grade, when I had gone on a hunger strike to protest living conditions in a lockless, roach-infested, cat-shit-strewn home gaping on a terrace like a spectral two-story jaw—when I had embarked on the 18-month project to reject every greasy, stale, sickening crumb of the family nightmare—when I had faced off against the larder of shadows—my increasingly skeletal (chewed-up) figure—180 pounds… 150 pounds… 120 pounds… — attended junior high classes without incident. Teachers watched: they did not see and intervene. No phone call of concern was placed to the operators of The Jaw. Beenk was right to consider public schools a dire joke in Waiting for Godot-mode. His disobedience confronted one oppressive absurdity—the buzzer-driven, spirit-canning education industry—with a severer absurdity of a necessary suicide, career suicide, in his case. Scripted social workers, slow policy shifts—what could they accomplish? A system gone crazy had scant ability to effectively address its own ills. Victims, taught by experience what was at stake, must summon the courage to take on the job. Who else?
“Have you gotten in trouble?” I asked. “I was called in by the principal.” “What did he tell you?”
“He told me to stop.”
“I decided not to.”
“He called me in again—which I expected, which was fine. I don’t mind visits to his office. He minds my visits. I said a midday nap sets a fine example for 12-year-olds who are Atari sleep-deprived. Isn’t it best to show them how to cool down rather than shouting those two words uselessly, ad infinitum?”
Norm nodded, Blanche nodded, I did, and Howard. Collins had instructed us showing not telling was better.
“I assured Mr. Manacle that any ruckus in the room while I nap, any rumpus, merely constituted a passing phase. In the end childhood is about what? Imitating the bad or good decisions of adults. Soon enough they too will be trapped behind large desks with their eyes closed, most of them. At first he was glad to hear it, then not.”
“Keep us updated,” begged Karen.
Beenk promised, then squeezed lemon into Lipton tea and sipped, listening to Blanche ach! and Cozie warble and Evelyn nitpick and Roy grouch and me preposterate metaphors—our various means of marrying the trivial and the universal. He had the long journey back but he was the one in no hurry. He had the independent presence of a cat. He sat surrounded by, yet separate from, our daft dramas of rejection and acceptance, consumption and waste. We rushed to fit words in edge-wise, any words, but he, finicky, said nothing, white eyebrows arcing as if to curl around, or cozy up to, a rebel mode of expression more successful (i.e., individual) than our clannish extrapolations.
I kept wishing Beenk were my teacher—thinking of Beenk on the desk, loafers dangling, puff of hair for a pillow, the Cheshire cloud at the end of the classroom.
Would he come back? Make another trip to greet our eerie edge of the night? Most fascinating surprise visitors, wandering in in the name of art, promptly vanished in the name of the same—worried about the contagiousness of cat poem drivel or feeling that their gifts had not been received properly. (Gone but hardly forgotten! Mr. William Blake Jr. and his Five Napkin Manifesto, Ms. Twenty-Button Military Coat and her Feminist Epithalamion.) Beenk did chance a return, though. Engagement with our crew had not threatened his artistic platelet count because he had—to a polite, sly degree—remained aloof from group antics, from the crash and smash of our voices. He left Clinton after another day of napping on his desk. He followed his nose in the quest for new possibilities. That is, he followed the drift of cereal plant emissions (banality’s very vapor) out of the city and veered along the protuberant ear of Iowa’s east coast, passing bulldozer-trenched post-agricultural fields pleading DEVELOPMENT SITE AVAILABLE and the garish glory of boxcar graffiti, corroded barges, tubercular neon: FIN D NING. Dusk reflections fuzzed side mirrors. Ahead, more of what was behind, and condo- complex-facade Bavarian beams, looping refrains of circular drives, car dealership chrome riptides, fast food chains pushing the “nuggets.”
Meanwhile, David R. Collins had returned to the helm of the table: turtleneck and pelt of black hair. We called him “Dave.” He was told about Beenk. Cozie informed him. Koenig informed him. Blanche informed him, in case he had not heard. John was summoning the energy to tell Dave also, when Beenk entered, folio under one arm.
Roy stared with spit-swishing scorn at the V-neck sweater settling into an empty chair. Beenk and Dave exchanged salutations. Beenk saw what anyone could see: Dave’s mere presence changed things—lending the cavernous forlorn meeting venue the integrity of a mission. He had founded—and more importantly, kept alive—the Mississippi Valley Writing Conference held each June on the hilltop campus of Augustana College in Rock Island. He preached “craft” and Beverly Cleary. He was forbearing, exceedingly loyal, confident not arrogant, protective—warning members against vanity presses preying on memory lane strollers and humorous anecdote compilers and authors who had no subject, only sentences endlessly spinning out of a skull’s manic loom. Dave’s plump convivial face culminated in a couple of impish eyes.
“Now that Mr. Beenk is aboard, let’s get started.”
The dues box flew faster from hand to age-spotted hand. John Morgan recited louder and Karen’s wrist did not shake so much. Dave wanted to learn something at each meeting, and did—by ignoring no one. When possible he suggested legitimate markets. “That poem might go in a church newsletter, Howard.” “Have you tried Highlights for Children, Connie?” Unshaven Jack, enduring writer’s block, was assured that engaging in one “writing related activity” daily, be it buying a notebook or refilling a fountain pen, was enough to keep the fitful Creative Process moving forward. The important thing was “sticking with it.” I had heard Dave tailor this mantra to 50 different members, it seemed. He had a genius for never making the same advice sound vague or automatic.
Within months of meeting Dave, I had begun the business of internalizing his practical approach. I slept in a bedroom cluttered with office supplies snatched off drugstore shelves to save my writing life and its prospect of mental, emotional, and spiritual synthesis, which had special appeal to one who had broken into pieces that needed to be picked up, cared for, studied. Notebooks were piled on windowsills and the floor, pens lodged in spirals like splints. Chanting to myself “stick with it, stick with it,” I had club members with me everywhere I went during that period of turmoil, and in fact still do. They are all dead; they are all alive. Walking on Brattle Street in Cambridge, I think—If you’ve got lines you’ve got hope… —and the materiality of remembrance dislodges legions of impacted Harvard bricks. I am back again in the looser place where I first reinvented my luck, back hearing the muted music of Beenk’s second meeting…
“Re-read the stanza about the lineman, Norm,” requested Dave.
The railroad lineman, in Norm’s vision, could do no wrong, like an angel, and Norm, battling sinus distress as usual, delivered on cue:
The lineman’s (snort) lantern swings ahead,
stopping not only the train (snort) but me too,
standing, looking, (snort) seeing the red
light burning like a coal (snort) in the night.
“Fine cadence, Norm.”
All ears turned to Dick Stahl, a Central High English teacher, the same one who had run up to me in the hall when I was a sophomore, wanting to know how—how I had won—won grand prize!—in the Mississippi Valley Poetry Contest, beating out many adults, including, I suspected, him. “How did you do it?” he had demanded. I could not tell him, as I did not know, and since then I had waited—in vain—for him to offer me a spot in his AP English course. Carefully Stahl read his latest attempt at a prize-winner, and—alas—we had no medals to proffer, only compliments made of lead.
Cozie’s latest cat poem was “different” to Dave, and Dave alone. He considered her intricate description of a stray tabby’s pink nostrils to be a minor breakthrough. Evelyn, up next, read the sentence at the top of the latest petition she was circulating: “We, the citizens of Davenport, ask the City Council to save the Lend-a-Hand Club…” Her tone was tart. She believed in slight improvements to the doom we were living out.
When it was my turn, I paged to the latest notebook version of my frequently rewritten surreal pastiche “The Sand Mountain,” concerning a riverside pile of sand and the thoughts of a man-child who climbs it, hoping for a better view of Time.
The previous version Dave had lauded for sentences “sharply tender, empathy-laden without being soporific.” This new version, he thought, had “…pagan undertones.”
What “pagan” meant I did not rightly know, but to have “undertones”—every writer dreamed of that, correct? Progress! Blanche differed. She demanded I justify pouring ten tons of sand on a poor page and I knew better than to try. My silence was to her the most pleasing answer because it indicated I was moving on from my usual tactic of defending the undefendable and learning to accept criticism. The almond of her head listed to the left as the table riding the sea of knees listed to the right, and the bony links of her non-smoking hand lifted, wagged, dismissing the incident for both our sakes. Meeting continued. Betty Mowery read from a mystery-in-progress, The Wailing Terror. It “really moved,” the club agreed. Then Beenk from Clinton was up, the new guy, Gene.
Like faded characters in a WPA mural—the brown and green gym tinged us brown and green—we remained frozen in the toil of listening for the duration of Gene’s monotone reading of an oblique satiric tale. I may be misremembering, but as I recall it concerned Samuel No Brainer, the government functionary with no friends but “two close associates,” a dog who considers himself more human than humans and an office plant that drinks not water but words, growing three inches whenever sprayed with the phrase: “God kills us with knowledge, and that death—it is our rebirth.”
When Gene finished, abruptly, Dave knew enough to chuckle.
The rest of us copied him.
BEENK vs. ROY
In the weeks to follow, Writers’ Studio attendees puzzled over the aeronautics of Beenk’s flights of fancy. The stories were short, sounding casual while calculated to elicit both delighted bafflement and unsettling recognitions. The Beenk mind might ask who Jill had married after she divorced adulterous Jack. A Jim, possibly? Years later, listening to the one-liners of Steven Wright—the Beckett of stand-up comedians—I was reminded of how Beenk, using the thrust of ordinary language and clichés, managed, without leaving his folding chair, to reach galaxies beyond the fluff of tabby verse and the Boy’s Life canoe code of decency and the Reader’s Digest soul-sinking concept of Christ.
I did not have the option of saving samples of Beenk’s tidy typed manuscripts—or the weekly offerings of other members. None of us handed out copies. Most, including me, worked in long-hand. So to the dust of recollections I must again add drops of imagination’s water to produce a passable simulation of the style of a club member… the Beenk Way that no account of the group could be complete without:
Beenk’s Jill says: “What goes around comes around, you know.”
Beenk’s Jim replies: “Oh, is that why I am still here?”
Beenk’s airy delivery infuriated Roy, across the table, waiting his turn. (They always sat on opposite sides after the first meeting.) Hearing Beenk, Roy almost pitched off his chair a few times. The muffin of disdain distended his mouth. Who the hell was the joke on—Beenk or us? Twinkle-toes tenor! Fancy-pants Beenk and his diddly-squat plots. Get off the schnide! Stop fiddling around! Not one He-Man grunt, swig, curse, roll in the hay! Instead, something along the lines of: Marilyn basked in the unrolling glory of fifty yards of aluminum foil. Basked? Glory? Foil? What of sweet patootie waitresses with gams? (Roy’s artistic downfall: he was writing for the Playboy of 1936, a magazine that had never existed.) The only boobs Beenk cited were the boobs hooked on TV game shows. Where had the leather foreplay gone? Sheesh! Beenk’s stuff when not too deep was too light, light as a chirpy TV commercial for Shedd’s Spread. Where be the gunplay? The bumped off hoods and rubbed out dons? No whiff of a horserace or pier or roadhouse rumble! To Beenk, Roy inevitably complained, “I don’t get it.” At Beenk, Karen—connoisseur of the grotesque—inevitably directed a gaze of admiration. This made things worse between Roy and Gene because Roy was in love with Karen.
When it was Roy’s turn to read, the circle of bifocals braced for a different kind of ride. Dave struggled to find one element in Roy’s work to encourage. Karen struggled with Roy’s habit of staring at her, and only her, as he read stories packed with bullet violence and bondage scenes. He so much wanted nastiness to be front and center that it receded with each successive detail until what you heard was just a foul feckless drone, unless you were Karen, too close to the action to be anything but profoundly disturbed.
Perhaps because he sensed the innate frailty of his approach, Roy had one other specialty: the preface and the afterword. Before reading, and after saying what we each said—united on one front—“This is what I have tonight…”— Roy generally stalled, repeating proudly the title that had been slapped on at the last minute to compensate for the debacle to follow—an error that only compounded the damage.
“The Carouse of Lady Liberty and Her Twin, Miss Lola Firecracker” is the kind of title he concocted. Reading such a title twice, slowly, set up perfectly (in Roy’s mind) a third even slower reading. “I have tonight, you heard me right, ‘The Carouse…’” Stalling on, he warned: “This, ahem, might not be to your taste. My last submission to Playboy, however, was returned with a note on nice paper…” Form note, no doubt. “This, ahem, is adult material…” Watch out, widows! Duck before it’s too late! But it was never too late. He wrote first sentences like: Jake thundered up the stairs, wondering what awaited. Last sentences like: Jake thundered down the stairs, waiting for no one.
Members wondered: What the heck’s up with Roy and his black vest? He had risked contracting pneumonia riding that bike across the i-74 Bridge—to get at what?
Squinting eyes visored with fat, the bartender strained to scare us with lurid news of Hot Springs, but he had no idea who his audience was. At bedtime, when I was ten, eleven… my mother, swaying, wearing the catsup-stained sack dress, recounted gruesome details of the famous Clutter family murders (and other true crime cases) in a whispery little girl voice—that was horror, that and the other stinking rituals her terror enacted in the living room, kitchen, side-yard, junker car, store aisles, and parks in broad daylight.
And the dowagers assembled in the obscure soup of the gym atmosphere, they were generally as tough as turnips. World War they had seen, and other things men did to themselves and each other and women. Blanche, she might weigh 78 pounds (pocketbook and cigarette lighter included), but it was her outrageous lot in life to press late at night against the cold and naked sonnet form in the Mississippi Hotel apartment shared with her sister Sadie. Blanche yawned as chair-straddling Roy whined as if he had swallowed a box fan. Smoke snakes slithered past Karen’s ajar lipstick. Threatened she felt, but shocked? She lived with her father and his bottles of Ten High. On and on Roy whirred, licking slipping dentures, twisting as if repositioning himself on a toilet seat… until finally, “The End,” and the sermon of the afterward that inevitably began: “That, ahem, might not have been to your taste, but I…”
One night Dave, losing it, did us another favor, and cut the nonsense off.
“We’ve tasted it before. Gordon, do you have anything?”
To be fair to Roy, it must be stated that each club member during this Writers’ Studio era, except one—Beenk—occasionally fell victim to the temptation to inflict the boorish preface—be it bold (Best I’ve ever written, my neighbor tells me!) or humble (Not much good, but see what you think…) or over-explanatory (This… really happened to me… when I was seven…)—and the defensive afterward was even more common (I know, my poem is 50 lines too long to be a sonnet, but still I think of it as one. Etc.)
Beenk, after murmuring, “This is what I have…” inevitably unleashed a “zinger” (Blanche called it) of a first line. Asteroids akin to “Positive thoughts deepened Edwin’s depression…” or “The owner of the aquatic tourist attraction, a beer company mogul, ordered that the aquariums be filled with lager…” or “The sign read: ‘American Dreams Insured/Pay Out Guaranteed When You Fail.’ I entered, figuring I had little to lose…” or “The off-the-cuff tailor sent customers away to buy their suits at the mall…” or “Fair-minded, he had a YES petition in one hand, NO petition in the other, and between the two petitions, half a signature…” or “Jennifer put all the credit cards in the dryer and turned it on, the clickety-clack-click-clack reminding her of Grandma working rosary beads at the nursing home…” or “Have a good weekend, he said to the wall. The wall did. The wall went shopping…” or “The charismatic coagulation of waiter vest and waiter voice, informed me the special of the day was grilled Byronic faun…” or “He knew what purchases to avoid—which companies sold generations their garbage—but still he bought those things for the sense of belonging they granted.”
It seemed to me that our newest member had a genius for depicting the inane tension between what urban Iowans found around them, and what they needed to find—often different things entirely. That chasm only the span of reverie could bridge—dreams of freedom from debt, disease, and speed limits. Beenk’s humor—like the best humor—exposed the foibles of individuals to reveal the errors any of us could make, whether we were conformists or renegades, militarists or doves, bureaucrats or thinkers, subdivision planners or plan-less compliant adults seeking our next manipulator: politician, ad agency, channel 18 exercise guru. Beenk had the parodist’s feel for a confused human race—some wishing to be blissfully ignorant of their neighbor’s plight, some trying to perceive informative shapes in the evening news murk, often guessing wrong. Beenk, like my despairing relatives, concentrated on exposing the deadly vicissitudes of society, but Uncle and my mother stopped with the dissection, blood on their hands, whereas Beenk went further, puzzling pieces back together to create a fabric of comment addressing the tragic mistakes Americans and their institutions seemed bent on making.
My favorite Beenk story was “Happy Undeen’s,” his send-up of the wholesome “retro” franchise Happy Joe’s—a combination pizza joint/ice cream parlor. Happy Joe’s franchises had spread over eastern Iowa after the first one opened in 1972, blocks from my house in east Davenport. The chain’s founder, Arab-American “Happy” Joe Whitty, appeared on bright billboards stretched out along Iowa’s Mississippi River shore, from Davenport to Dubuque. Each of his suit and tie outfits included a straw (or was it Styrofoam?) hat with a striped band. His round open face advertised FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY and kindly, tacitly, implied that those from busted families could join in too. The wholesome decor of patriotic kitsch and stenciled mirrors had reflected my obese worried crumb-flecked preteen visage then my fierce post–hunger-strike Prufrock profile of edges. “Happy” Joe claimed he invented taco pizza, and Hawaiian pizza, and no one dared disagree. At the first restaurant there had been a step-up to a large window looking in on the immaculate kitchen where sauces bubbled—real cooking being done! And who was doing it? High school drop- outs: pimples in aprons! They kneaded yeasty balls of dough. They flattened and tossed into the air circles of flour that hovered for a sacred second before plunging, like a resumé heaven had rejected, onto ten rigid fingers. At Happy Joe’s, cheerleaders shook their table shakers of hot pepper flakes. Softball teams barged in after games to make a mess of things. Birthdays were a darn big event. The birthday horn’s curling brass tusks culminated in twin bulbs. Staff formed a circle around the flicker of a free, sparkler-impaled sundae as if to protect the valuable chocolate fudge. They sang to the grinning child and his grimacing parents, and customers at other tables, they turned and clapped and sang off-key in the dark.
Beenk shared my fascination with Joe Whitty’s success at inciting the usually unadventuresome Midwest dining masses to order pineapple chunks on their pies and sauerkraut topped with Canadian bacon. The company returned profits in a time of Recession. Mr. Whitty, the former manager of Davenport Shakey’s pizza restaurant, was born in North Dakota. His concept soothed a downtrodden city—the cathartic bombast of harmless and affordable anniversary rituals—the concerted wallops of ahistorical nostalgia for a “good old summertime” that had never been. It was impossible to sweat a drop in this air-conditioned establishment serving idyllic July 4 fare year-round. No mosquitoes! No heat waves! The waitresses wore candy-striped skirts and garters on bare arms. Feeding festivities inflicted a chill fever on customers. Indeed, everyone became the same age for the spell of the meal and its choreographed rush, which fulfilled every nine-year-old’s fantasy and resurrected an adult’s youthful chimeras, misting crow’s-feet-framed eyes with indefinable, thus nearly enjoyable, sadness. It was a dining experience that pushed lived experience (and the hard questions it posed) aside. For forty-five minutes what was most actual was the illusion that the best community formed when no one asked any questions—and just ate a lot. How wonderful. How easy! In over-stocked America!
But certain thinkers, like Beenk, must query, criticize. Why did bad taste often taste so good? Was theme dining our nation at its worst, romancing you while shredding conflicts that—if disconcerting—were the only stuff authentic identities could arise from? To be American, was it all fun or more than a little trouble? Was it anxiety or confidence? An act of sitting or standing or running? The gold badge to wear? Abyss to curl up in? Was it to walk around with the American Dream myth lodged in you like a bullet—a bullet too dangerous to remove, your only way to live being with it in there? Was junk emotion as unhealthy as junk food? Might identity be bagged, boxed? Could a restaurant specializing in the production of embarrassing moments ever be humiliated enough to evolve and serve good wine? Is further fictionalizing a fiction of success a strategy of meaning? Beenk ransacked these questions in “Happy Undeen’s.”
Happy Undeen’s, as I recall, featured Pursuit of Happiness Pie painted with colors of flavor, served bone dry, an indigestible foodstuff expanding in the mouth like a sponge, too much to swallow. Every patron left wearing an enormous grin of duress, gagged by carbohydrates, breathing through their noses and quite unable to warn guileless neighbors from entering and making the same fatal Americana menu mistake. “A line stretched around the block. Promo coupons and Federalist flags were distributed by the owner Undeen in the Uncle Sam hat. Robotic waiters guided sated diners out the back door, where they fell face-first onto alley pavement.” Language rustled nicely in Beenk’s throat then stung: narrator as charming repository of toxic knowledge. “Arriving paramedics helped business, smiles on gurneys still smiles, best advertising around!”
Asthmatic historical novelist Vi (former WWII member of the Women’s Army Corps in the unbuttoned blue polyester sheriff’s vest, yet looking like she could have punished the Axis powers) loved it, and when wheezing Vi loved a piece she slapped the table with her strong Norwegian hands. And when she slapped the table, the table jumped, and when the table jumped, most club members jumped with it, and, knowing she would slap the table again if her opinion was not affirmed, the group affirmed it with chortled exhortations—“Wow, Gene!” “Great, Gene!”—while Roy produced a clipper and chipped silently away at the gray moons of his nails.
Soon Vi and other club members, including Dave and Howard, were encouraging Beenk to enter a manuscript in the Iowa Short Fiction prize given annually by the University of Iowa Press. This contest drew entries from around the country; past winners included nationally known writers—such as H. E. Francis—who regularly published in “the glossies.” To us this award amounted to the heartland Nobel Prize. Given the cultural disconnection between Davenport and Iowa City, the famous literary workshop felt as far away as Oslo. None of the famous writers in residence traveled the 50 miles to reach us, or if they did, they came disguised as river driftwood. When Beenk won, however, Writers’ Studio would visit Iowa City! We would carry Beenk there on our shoulders, and… find an old table to sit around—what else?
Into the contest Beenk entered a manuscript entitled Federated Follies. About six months later he brought a Thank you, but… slip to the new meeting place at Marycrest College that Karen had finally secured for us through Sister Annette.
Dave could not believe it. Nor I. Nor Betty. Beenk was the best we had!
Vi was not present to slap the table, good thing.
The unconsoling colorlessness of the space (every surface vanilla), its seminar-room smallness and bright surgical light, were punishment enough for proud Beenk. His eyebrows wilted like heels stepped on from behind. The man’s otherworldly stoicism had limits, then. He dearly wanted to publish too! This rebel did not care what most people thought of him, but the Iowa Short Fiction contest judge was a notable exception. When his ambition was foiled he proved capable of ordinary reactions! Beenk’s frown made a debut club appearance. Moist lips curved downward in the middle alone, corners staying straight. Thus the Clintonian became even more interesting to me.
Blanche, well into her seventh decade of not putting the cart before the mule (but secretly wishing to), raged in Beenk’s name. Like a tattered Lautrec poster, her sharp features peeled back in “ach”-ing spasms of commiseration, revealing how remarkably near to the surface dwelled her own ancient drama of American Mercury rejections.
The bad news thrilled only Roy. He wiggled like ebullient custard.
Resilient Beenk regularly attended meetings after the contest setback. His new stories (“Cheever’s Cheddar,” “Glass Half Empty Next to Glass Half Full”) were as fine as the old. The frown did not reappear. Beenk ignored Roy’s frequent references to his own developing “Iowa Short Fiction Contest entry” (never to be entered, of course). The poise of Beenk came in second only to the poise of Dave, and in each instance it seemed to be a product of viewing life as more than the discipline and challenges of writing. That was pretty much what I had, after the hunger strike proved mainly how powerless I was to change anything but a sentence construction. A few of the loneliest widows in the circle also were tunnels of vision with little left to clutch but their pens.
Unmarried Dave, he sat on civic boards. He had a party bar in the basement of his A-frame house in Moline. He belonged to fraternal organizations. He had his current students, his former students, morning Mass to attend, a bridge-playing mother to check on, and he was close to a married brother with children.
Conversing with Beenk at Riefe’s I had learned of his fascination with Buddhism, herbal medicine, astronomy, classic cars, rice that was not white, the Beatles. I discovered it was not that Beenk had no outlets for his “energies” before joining Writers’ Studio. He possessed an amazing amount of energy that required ever more new outlets.
Early the next January, as a meeting concluded, without a word of warning he distributed red invitations to a YEAR OF THE RAT party at his Cereal Heights home.
“I hope you all can make it. Can you?”
We fingered Chinese New Year information flowing around yin yang signs.
Ethnic food was promised, traditional games, and the chance to meet Mrs. Beenk.
“A wing-ding!” yodeled Cozie, and the anachronism swooping out of her mouth trailed echoes of sparrows cats liked to eat and of bombers governments liked to build. For in addition to composing feline odes, this benevolent resident of the Harrison Street Apartments labored as a technical writer at the Arsenal.
“It’s called a shin-dig!” scolded smoke-turbaned Blanche.
The room fluttered with the wing of it, and the ding of it, the shin of it, and the dig of it—a rare bird with a bell attached, carrying a shovel and standing on one leg.
Roy immediately announced he had to bartend on “the evening in question.” Norm, half deaf, half blind, but sinuses fully aroused by a whiff of something different, blinked at me in the Maui island print, who turned and blinked at Karen, sealed in another gloomy pant suit, who turned and blinked at cousin Evelyn, swathed in teal velour warm-ups, who fired a series of glances at Betty, bookish wife of the garage mechanic Roy, looking down at a notebook draft.
YEAR OF THE RAT? The provocative ooze of imagery was perfectly fit to Iowa cities squatting alongside the polluted Mississippi.
“Think about it,” said Beenk, and left it there, closing his folio in harsh meeting-room light that made white hair look whiter and blue hair look whiter too. It would never get old, that new room, no matter how long you sat in it— an eternity to de-inspire poets.
That night, instead of joining some of us for the post-club snack, Beenk sped back to Clinton on frosty Highway 61. Roy too skipped grease and caffeine and this latest chance to flirt with, and petrify, Karen. In the Marycrest parking lot he mounted his beastly machine and squeezed its antlers. The engine farted in two octaves. He wore no coat. Other men needed coats in winter, not him, not Roy! His leather vest rode up the wall of his back like a snapped window shade as he raced off toward the Moline apartment he shared with Playboy magazines and Kleenex. What would Beenk think of next? Beenk might think of anything. It exhausted a rival.
Invitations to writing events were frequently issued by members, and the group fell on them like swords. We knew our duty then: transportation arrangements. We made them far in advance. We car-pooled, bus-hopped, or, in my case, walked or biked. Our funny circle materialized almost intact at mall bookstores and public libraries, at Vi’s annual New Year’s Eve chili party, at Dave’s bash at the end of June’s Mississippi Valley Writers’ Conference and his “Meet the [Imported from Afar] Author” affair the last week in December. But none of that involved leaving the metro area and feting rodents.
Flags of feelings were unfurled—or left furled—in the back of Riefe’s. For Norm and Blanche, it was the first upriver party invitation in decades. For John Morgan, the first ever. Completely overwhelmed, he had neglected to remove his London Fog coat and droop it on the rack beside the front door, across from Rick Riefe’s cash register. John joined us in the back for an agonizing minute—pupils darting—before excusing himself in the haiku voice. “Think I’m coming… down with… something,” he explained.
Our gazes followed John through the dense diner universe of browns—nicotine-stained paneling, booth mushrooms and freestanding varnished brown tables with the wood chairs and their mocha cushions, spread dark brown menus, heaps of well-done onion rings and French fries, crisp crumbly light brown breading of pork tenderloin patties tucked between toasted buns served on earth-tone plates, the mugs that matched the plates, brunette waitresses in brown skirts carrying taupe trays and pouring bubbly brown coffee from golden brown carafes, tan napkins, chocolate malts, gravy crowning the scoops of mashed potatoes, cinnamon-dusted buttered slabs of soft Bishop’s bread—the star of the overflowing bread basket, baked daily at Riefe’s… John where are you?
John was gone.
Lucille winced, copying Blanche. Questions! Was Gene’s wife Chinese? Would Gene’s school colleagues attend? Would there be candles burning at both ends? Naptime? What to wear? Your ugliest suit, rattiest dress? For weeks speculation persisted.
I did not attend Beenk’s wing-dig. I was devoted to the club members but not quite as loyal as a Yukon dog wearing two barrels of ink. My courage failed mightily at moments. I feared being the sole male of draft age in a spinster-packed Pontiac weaving toward Clinton, responsible for shoveling any snow drifts encountered and for pushing the car to Beenk’s if the engine failed. Thatta way, Buster! Go get ’em! I had as many handy unmanly excuses to stay home as John. I suffered anxiety attacks. I had no job so no pocket money for trips. Remarkably, we each had a strange mother (with an advanced degree) to mollify with our words, actions, or non-actions. John’s father was dead. Mine? He lived scared in a newsprint tent in the living room jungle, and rarely emerged.
Evelyn went to Beenk’s shin-ding. Howard went. Cozie went. Karen went. Blanche and Lucille went. Norm. They made it back too. At the first meeting after the party tales were told. Beenk was not present. Earlier he had announced this would be the case, otherwise the most nervous club members would have guessed he had been eaten during the clean-up by an angry crepe dragon decoration not ready to be taken down.
Evelyn did most of the party reporting, as, I assumed, she did most of the talking at the party, the outgoing activist tugging on her warm-up jacket as if it were a parachute refusing to open.
Beenk’s “abode,” said Evelyn, was as nice on the outside as it was on the inside. Some guests were those people who inhale audibly before asking a question, and some were not. Gene welcomed everyone at the door. He wore a clever satiny shirt trying to be a robe. And slippers! Gene’s wife was (near slip) the nicest Chinese lady, her pretty hair stashed high on her poised head. She wore an exotic kimono (as opposed to unexotic) and corralled coats. She did something for a living, do you remember what, Karen? Karen could not. Some “to-do,” Norm muttered. “It’s a shin-dig!” reiterated Blanche. There were red lanterns and red streamers and Year of the Rat party favors: accordion fans with rats on them and drink umbrellas with rats on them and rubber rats. “Cozie screamed, didn’t you, Cozie?” “I wished I’d had my six cats with me,” lamented Cozie. Teachers from Gene’s school came. School’s name was… what, Howard? Jerimand Public? Howard couldn’t recall. Peking—or Pekinged?—duck, “good fortune” dumplings, fried wontons, pickled buttons or something that started with B, and pigs-in-blankets ferried through the Clinton night by a guest who had gotten the party theme wrong. Dixie cups of plum wine. Green tea from a mountain. Zither on the stereo. Or what sounded like one. Was that a zither, Karen? Howard got a little free with the rat twizzle sticks, didn’t you, Howie? Howard shuffled poem drafts, ignoring the question: he was wearing a yellow Gatsby leisure suit. Evelyn, though, never noticed being ignored. Gene kept it clean and wholesome, didn’t he, Howie? Blanche, tell everyone your take on the sorry—on the soiree. “Ah!” Blanche yipped. “Why didn’t you go, Benjamin?” I bowed my head in shame. Evelyn went on. Well, one of the hanging decorations might have been risqué—an eel with a mane—but interpretations varied. New guests kept ringing the bell: cars parked down and up the block. That Mr. Miff! Miss Lee and Miss Li without an e. Everyone behaved, right, Norm? Norm— in the shiny tri-color geometrically patterned polyester shirt—snorted. Cozie, wringing hands, sighed: Mrs. Beenk had not allowed her to wash a single punch bowl! Roy fumed at one end of the glossy table, the parenthesis of his biker vest heaving, various tufts twitching. Had there been fantastic hanky panky between Gene and Karen in a Playboy laundry room setting?
If only I’d been there! Eight high-strung writers chancing travel in a two-car caravan of bald tires to celebrate the Year of the Rat in an arctic season. That they must do it, and that they did do it, spoke not only of Beenk’s magnetism, his queer power to make the esoteric sound vital, but also of their latent talent for adventure.
BEENK’S ENJOYABLE CAR ACCIDENT
One night Beenk arrived very late at the new meeting place that had everything but what it needed most: the character of coffee rings and cigarette burns. Betty was in the midst of reading the latest Wailing Terror chapter—hinges of her prose creeeaking—while Beenk lingered politely outside the seminar room door that would refuse to complain no matter how many demons hoofed through it. When Betty finished, Gene slinked into his customary chair far from Roy. He nodded apologetically. Answering nods dominoed.It never took us long to decide that Betty had done another “bang-up” job. She put in the writing time, always went to the trouble to revise. At my initial club meeting in 1978 I had heard Betty read from a draft of her YA biography of Philiss Wheatley, the first African American to publish a poetry book: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Subsequently Betty had completed a volume of autobiographical verse: There Were No Lights on My Street. I appreciated the title’s message—a message apparent to me, anyway— that what one lacks is as formative as what one possesses, and, by extension, that which does not happen can count as much as that which does.
“What do you have for us, Gene?” asked Dave in the black turtleneck.
No satire regarding, say, “The office at the end of the gangplank.”
Beenk admitted: “I’ve had an enjoyable car accident.”
Blanche, forever eager to believe males had misspoken, demanded “the rascal” repeat himself. Beenk re-murmured the contention. On his face was the usual way-out but warm expression that reminded me of sunlight playing on a wall. Shirt collar erect. Not a mohair out of place. Mantis eyeframes unbent. An enjoyable accident? He elaborated.
US 67 between Davenport and Clinton was occasionally four lanes but mostly two lanes. Tonight, on a narrow stretch, he was sideswiped by a pickup. Heard the crush and rustle of weeds brushing doors as the chassis bumped off the gravel shoulder. Ditch dark was blacker than road dark, mused Beenk, it was velvety and friendlier.
“A friendly ditch!?”
“I felt embraced by the ditch.”
“I suppose you heard pan pipes too!” snarled Blanche.
Beenk’s voice remained mild—insistent without being impatient. “No pan pipes, but possibly a lute, Miss. Redman.”
Ferns he described, ferns darted through headlight beams like furtive lovers surprised in “the act.” Dave shuffled papers, Keep it clean, Beenk. Beenk could not. He described an altered perception of time, seconds stretching like “nylons” encompassing “an hour’s thigh.” Wheels churned gentle into night’s hush, powered no longer by the bellicosity of fossil fuel combustion but the lullaby of gravity—universe—serenity.
He lost Norm, Dave, Blanche, Cozie.
Haunted Karen got it, sort of. I thought I did too. There seemed to be something to get, or at least I wanted there to be something to get. I wanted—really wanted—to believe in such a thing as The Good Ditch after frequently hearing about the Illinois ditch my mother had rolled into after escaping a moving car when she had been abducted as a girl—the criminal never named, the extent of her injuries never detailed. Sometimes she said she was “tossed” out of the car, sometimes she said she “leaped” out, sometimes she spoke of the event as I sat stuck in the passenger seat of the ticking sedan in the alley garage, returned from a late Kmart excursion and too exhausted to move, sometimes—the worst times—she spoke in spooky outbursts on the crummy living room couch that had become her bed of choice after the birth of her last (and sixth) child. She squeezed my palm then, her grip tight like a man’s, her skin damp, hot, calloused; the room deepened, a hole we were in, and she said: “Promise you’ll never hurt a girl…” and I promised, then she went over the list of things I was to do if a stranger tried to rape me—spit, piss, vomit… But how to fend off the assault of her help? How could I be so ungrateful?
Roy harumphed; my mind rejoined the meeting. Roy’s false teeth did pushups. Bunk! Hooey! How much more of this sanctimonious Beenk do I gotta swallow?
Plenty more! Beenk told how he kept his foot off the brake, how he cut the lights after the car finally stopped moving and sat there cradled by a bucket seat, feeling altogether rescued from “delusions of momentum” and “liberated from schedules.”
Coleridge inhaled opium to meet “Kubla Khan,” and Beenk, he “went with” being sideswiped to attain, and drink from, the cosmic trough of transcendence. The account was something out of one of his stories but it was better than fiction, being real.
This was the meeting at which Beenk, while retaining his irreverent spacy tone, accomplished a thing the earnest group had helped him to achieve. In a fashion, he spoke awkwardly, straight from the heart—“sharing”!—like Norm or Cozie or me.
Later, at Riefe’s, tea-sipping Beenk stayed on the case. The accident affirmed to him that danger was “not always what it seemed.” Danger could be nurturing; safety a threat to well-being. Roy was forced to agree with Beenk. He must! He wore no helmet while riding the Harley. And, continued Beenk, Professor of Gravity, it was important to remember that life’s most incredible journeys may not involve roads or destinations. The most incredible journeys may involve releasing the concept of endpoints—merging with the enormity of being “where you are.” Roy differed, pocket change and keys jingling, clearing out. Low-rider flatulence shook the curlicues of the window’s brown R.
And what’s more, ensconced in the crashed car (planetary marbles for tires?), Beenk knew life did not consist of sets of teeth and eyes possessed then lost to old age, as Shakespeare sang—no, existence was not your body, existence was ageless, existing before you did and after—the steady unsteadiness of a unique eon-coasting aura…
Gothic Karen waved her hands as if to stop the New Age monorail from running her over. Enough was enough. Laughter. Beenk joined in.
“But how did you get out of the ditch?” concerned Cozie asked.
The arcade of Beenk’s brows offered entrance to the pale gaze that opened wide after winking at Cozie. He mentioned no tow truck. He dared us to imagine a car floating out of the mud, fueled by unleaded wisdom—a car flying the rest of the way to the meeting, over blinking Byzantine signage, and we did see that, and we did not either.
It was a hot buggy night on the Marycrest campus, leaves dangling like legions of tumid flyswatters, vegetal ether creeping along curving quad paths, when Gene Beenk dropped his final bombshell on a circle of wigs, bald spots, pant suits, and my latest Prufrock-wear: red, white, and blue bowling shoes found at the Salvation Army on River Drive.
“I’m quitting teaching and studying to be a hypnotist. This is my last meeting.”
Norm, having a bad hearing night, nodded then shook his head, covering bases. Uninitiated Lucille looked to Blanche, wanting to know what exactly a hypnotist was, and Blanche mouthed the word mesmerer then the name Strand.
It was not the club’s first encounter with a hypnotist! A seedy magician from Bettendorf, Iowa, Dean Strand, had wooed and married a member, Faith, the hymn composer, in the late 1970s. That was a tale! Strand was middle-aged. The bride, a septuagenarian. Was he a “gold-digger” after Faith’s home and Social Security check? “Mah Fee-antsy [fiancé]!” Faith used to brag. We never saw her anymore.
Cozie reached for rosary beads. Karen, a hard candy. Her trembling fingers picked at yellow cellophane. John wrestled forth a monogrammed hankie, imagining more stuff that scared him. Was the heart surgeon’s only child reminding himself to “never ever tell Mommy” that he had been in “close quarters” with a hypnotist?
But a memo of admiration crossed Howard’s face. He could appreciate any line ending “hypnotist.” He might steal that one for a poem.
Dave looked at me and I looked at Dave. We both shrugged. Beenk’s surprise topped the recent visit of the feathered hat lady who referred to herself as an “auditor.”
AWOL Jack would hear about this whenever he returned to the ranks.
Had the club driven Beenk bonkers? We and our obsessions with stray cats, railroads, mothers, rhyme schemes, sand mountains…? We and our prayers for skies of inspiration to drizzle better-than-average drivel on blank notebooks?
In any case, the hypnotism thing amounted to another provocative Beenkism that made sense when examined. This charismatic man had exhibited an honest affinity for distressed people by driving many miles in all weather to attend club meetings over the past two years. We writers were nothing if not his first rapt clients! Forebears of the needy customers to come: pill-addicted truckers desiring rehabilitation, nail-biting meter maids, overweight Hickory Farms clerks. On Thursday nights Blanche, Karen, I, and the others crept out of isolation—exited our respective obscure Edward Hopper rooms—causing the distance between us and the world to shrink, and when it did the electric charge of change briefly jolted our intractable artistic and/or personal struggles.
How would Beenk pull off the grand stunt of a cure?
Peering into the rapids of a troubled Joe. Softening further his calm club tone: Repeat after me. I will not smoke Marlboros. Not pop amphetamines. I will slow down at the moment I feel like speeding up. I will pitch my tent in an Arabia of Acceptance, and there breathe fragrant winds of light . . . Beenk, a deflector of pain, no bloody sponge like me. He would direct failure away from the failed, making room for success. I imagined the flak of strong blue light shooting out strip mall windows, faint, fainter… until indistinguishable from windshield glints.
“Congrats…” Dave got out.
Assorted others chirped: “You don’t say… been nice knowing… how interesting.”
“You’ll come back to visit, won’t you?” Dave never liked to let a writer get away.
Beenk nodded, he could, he might.
“Are you mixed up with the Fairfield gang?” Gordon snapped.
Maharishi International University, in Fairfield, Iowa, served as a training center for the practice of TM or Transcendental Meditation. Vegas illusionist Doug Henning was famously involved with the institution. The campus featured a mysterious arena for meditating (off-limits to reporters). It was rumored that TMers levitated inside.
“Hypnotism is a different field.”
“You’ll help people quit smoking?” Gordon asked. His wife liked cigars. “Quitting is one of the most positive words in the English language. When I open my office I plan to produce quitters by the dozen.” A classic quip but nobody laughed. Already we missed the author of “Happy Undeen’s.” The news was sinking in fast—too fast.
I pinched the inch-long cuff of excess skin on my left wrist and pulled, let go, pulled. Gene Beenk’s departure meant one less wild card in the room, one less stylist capable of being right about things in unpredictable ways.
Beenk was right about there being different darks. Probably as many nuances of night as gradations of light! The rushing highway night of Beenk’s Thursday drives and the medicinal night of his next workspace and the violent night that a vital part of me had been off-loaded into via starvation, whittlings of a child finally out of reach of parental paws, but gone to me as well. That stark loss whistling in my wake—its slough of insane frustration, anger.
Beenk leaving meant one less dollar in the box a week. One less careful eye examining the convoluted Riefe’s check. One less attendee at book signings and one less candidate for the Writer of the Year award given annually in the red-carpeted basement banquet room at the Italian Village restaurant. The name of almost everyone at the table was already engraved on the plaque’s vertebrae of brass plates. Beenk’s vanishing meant no more Beenk comic riddles to ponder, and wonder about, and muse over again.
Dave, who always knew what to say next after what had been said last, said: “Congrats again, Gene. We wish you all the luck in the world.”
Everybody assented but Roy. Roy had been glaring nonstop since Beenk’s announcement. “But!” he griped, chair rolling forward, belly ramming table.
Table did not budge. The half of Roy that did not fit in the chair vibrated around the other half, stuck in place.
“But… but… results, that’s what counts! Reeee-sults. And I’ve gone to three of them carpetbaggers, and none helped a whit.” As anyone could see. “I’d as soon as visit an ex-ori-cyst as–” The bedeviled gag of his smirk did not let him finish. It tightened: he gasped. How Roy wished he had thought of being a hypnotist first!
“Now, about the quarterly newsletter . . .” suggested Dave.
But before that familiar—and for being familiar, comforting—struggle began, Evelyn erupted: “Come on, crew! Let’s celebrate Gene’s last meeting at Riefe’s!”
Amidst volleys of agreement, I once more, silently, took issue with the word “crew.” I saw us as more of a “band,” rustic literary pilgrims, Canterbury pals.
At Riefe’s Beenk received the only send-off we could give him—the sort we ourselves would have liked. Wiry heaps of onion rings and elephant-ear-sized Pork Ts and hunks of buttered Bishop’s bread. Lakes of carafe coffee drained into brown mugs raised repeatedly in loud toasts to Gene’s successful “stint” with the club, his bright future swinging a pendant in a dark office on Kimberly Road, near the Northpark Mall.