Some Nonfiction by Paul Pekin
A FIRE OUT OF ITS TIME
Published in the Widener Review
There was a time, I remember, when people were setting themselves on fire. Something to do with Vietnam. On the news we saw the monk who soaked himself in gasoline squat down before cameras and turn our screen into hell. Ours is an unheroic age. Nothing we do seems to come out right. I have been thinking of this monk and a young woman whose name I choose not to reveal. I remember her red hair. Not long and straight as the girls wore it then. Naturally curly, unruly, thick, untamed. Her eyes. Were they green? I remember them so. A beautiful young woman who showed up in my college classroom and proved to be mad. This was not uncommon. In almost every classroom there would be one, two, three, who were mad. We blamed the war, we blamed the drugs, we blamed the times. It was a time to test the frontiers of freedom, a time of breathtaking risk and folly, a time when it really seemed the world might change.
Like any teacher, I warned my students, keep it simple, restrict your topic, focus, do not try to get too much into a few pages. And yet here I stand, on the brink. Shall I tell of the classes I taught in West Garfield Park, at the House of Correction, in a loft on Lincoln Avenue, how I came to teach college without a degree, and how it all, sadly, came to an end? Or should I really make things difficult and go back another thirty years to a dreamy boy who once got locked in the Blue Island Public Library? We all have our beginnings.
I remember years when it always was winter. I remember years when no sun shined ever. I remember the great depression and how it turned my over-proud father to janitor work--firing furnaces, cleaning offices, saying 'yes, sir' to lesser men in suits and ties. In his long coat and gray hat, he took me on his endless rounds. I remember those dark basements, those coal fired boilers, the white hot clinkers we drew from the fires with iron tongs; I remember the bitter little flat on Vermont Street where we made our home. In this endless winter that was my father's world existed the pain that comes with the death of dreams. From such a parent one learns how a man can be quietly mad and still walk among his fellows.
These mad ones--understand, madness is a term I find more exact than mental illness--persist today. I am walking south on Wabash. A tall bearded black man, headed opposite, calls to me. He's in jeans, gym shoes, the inner city look, and my mind closes around this image, rejecting all others, and there is a moment when I plunge ahead, eyes deliberately averted, for that is how you avoid these people when they fix upon you. Then he addresses me by name, my full name. "Don't you remember me?" Before I can be sure if I do, he introduces himself as an old student from those heady days when I taught college classes, a student who in fact was a friend, For several moments we block traffic with our talk. When we part he gives me his business card, this man I had momentarily rejected as mad. Racist, you say? I certainly had to wonder about myself--at least until a few weeks later at the public library when I got to feel the thing from the other side. Picture me, if you will, in my faded jeans and knit cap and much mended jacket, carrying a worn shopping bag, when she goes by, a brisk familiar woman who keeps both eyes sensibly straight ahead. I know her. Or do I? I catch up at the checkout desk. "Trudy?" She turns and I feel a rush of relief that I have not followed a strange woman. Another former student. Another student who is a friend. She looks great, almost as if she has gotten younger. She's teaching writing herself now in the city college system. Likes it. Still doing any of her own? "No, I quit," she says in her strange solemn way. "But I think I'm going to have to start again." She's been playing the flute instead. Heard a street musician on the subway platform, bought a second hand instrument from a storekeeper friend. "For two weeks I couldn't make a sound." But now, duets with her husband. The satisfaction of taking up something in middle life and finding out you can still learn. And the writing? Well, she did send out a story to a magazine named Z----. Trudy knows and publishes in magazines I never heard of. The editor returned the story with the snottiest rejection she had ever seen. Scolded her for submitting at the wrong time of the year, took offense at her cover letter. "I swore I would never send him another page. "And a month later he calls, wants the story back, wants to publish it after all. We laugh. We both know how this comes out. We're writers, aren't we? I had a couple of stories rejected the other day. Carried them into my studio, happened to notice the space heater, saw those yellow-blue tongues of flame safely shut behind glass. For some reason I thought of Gogol and his fireplace.
Maybe I could burn a manuscript. It is something else to burn one's own self.
I go back to my years at the college, my time of True Belief. Since the Workshop my colleagues and I taught cannot be explained to strangers in less than five thousand words, let us simply say it was a method For teaching writing. Methods were big in the sixties and seventies. People were looking for answers. There is comfort in finding answers, and better comfort in becoming a True Believer. Our classes were filled. We sold them brilliantly at the registration table. Our students were special. They came from a diversity of backgrounds, ethnic, social, experiential, and they were eager to take chances. But our workshop was esoteric, our methods arcane, arbitrary, there were answers only we knew. We did verbal exercises, words, images, and picked among the results like hens seeking grain. I once rejected a single word, "tintinnabulation" and those lovely syllables have haunted me ever since. We had missionary zeal, those of us who taught this workshop. We scornfully dismissed the very title "teacher." We were directors. We would provide the discipline that would set people free. Free to write, free to think, free to be a new kind of people. In our own way, some of us were quite mad too.
She was older than the other students, not by much, but anyone who has ever observed the gulf that separates college freshmen from upperclassmen will know what I mean. She had been to other schools, schools with green campuses, admission requirements and eye popping tuitions. She took her place in the semi-circle--for that is how we sat our workshop students, and she was special; nobody ever denied it.
Clear thought, precise language, those were our goals.They were not always served by the free swinging climate of the times. Many of our students honestly did want to create art but they often had something other than our comfort in mind. They wanted a new art, an art that rejected the past. "I'm not into linear thinking," they would say and they would be telling the truth. My young woman was one of these Steppenwolves. I assigned The Portrait of an Artist. She had read Finnigan's Wake. I asked for clarity. She turned in delirium. I asked for words and images. She declared them meaningless. We struggled for control of the class, and she seemed likely to win. The other students, plain, honest, decent kids--has this country ever produced a better generation?--formed ranks and gave her support. And why not? They had yet to encounter her written words.
It was our custom to read a students work aloud, but only when he or she had turned in something that fit the director's design. It might take a stretch of the standard, it might take all of a semester, but it seemed terribly important that anyone who at least made a try got read aloud. But how did you read something--and by so doing, stamp it with your approval--that had neither beginning nor end nor middle nor sense of any kind? How could you present something that only proved what its author claimed--that words and images had no meaning after all?
Near the end of the semester I chose what I thought was the best of these pages, handed them to their author, and let her read them herself. She responded in a fine musical voice and what made no possible sense sounded good enough to win a round of applause. At least I was clever enough to keep my mouth shut. Later we had the inevitable student teacher conference.
Would I be happier if my memories were complete, if I could reach back twenty years and bring back the exact words we exchanged, if I could tell you now the certain color of her eyes, describe with accuracy the cold and dingy classroom, place us in it so you could see us sitting knee to knee, turning pages? Were there clouds that day? Rain? Did sunlight fall through the windows and get into her hair? We hardly talked about her writing. She dismissed it. Making sense of words and images was the least of her worries, she wanted to make sense of life. It was not what she said that left me uneasy, it was how she said it. Something dreadful was in the wind.
I had no useful advice for this young woman. I mentioned doctors and she had been there and you can guess what she thought of them. I spoke of parents and her answer has been swallowed by time. I spoke of the future, of hope, and she saw none. Something she could not even name had filled her with so great a sorrow it could not be named. We parted friends and she completed the semester and I gave her an A and if anyone finds this wrong I direct him to the bombs that were raining down and the drugs and the lies and the unholy traffic that was made of our dreams. It was all right, you see. The other students were not fooled by what they had applauded. They knew better, and later told me so. They were wiser, far wiser, than I ever hoped they could be.
You could not escape that war. It was in everything, it was in everyone. It still follows us around. A year ago I stood on Michigan Avenue and watched, in a sea of yellow ribbon and victory flags, Chicago celebrate the war was supposed to exorcise the ghosts of Vietnam. But they were still present. There by the Art Institute, a few steps from the old Hilton, facing Grant Park and the blue empty lake, I had only to close my eyes and I was in another crowd and in another time when we filled the streets and shook our fists in the cause of peace. Could any gesture have been more futile? That war went on, and on, and on, and only died of exhaustion. We watched it on our television screens, saw the napalmed villages and screaming children, the prisoner shot point blank in the head, saw the wounded on their stretchers, saw the campuses in turmoil, saw the inaugural of Richard M. Nixon, sipped our coffee, and no ribbon ever tied will make it up.
Ours is an unheroic age. I have already said that. There is no shortage of people ready to die, no slackening of courage, no end of volunteers willing to step into the flames. Yet nothing we do ever comes out right. That sad long ago summer, or it may have been the following fall, I learned that my student and another woman had wrapped their bodies in newspapers and set themselves on fire. I don't presume to know why, nor can I honestly say that I knew this would happen. Death makes sense out of life. Maybe that is what the monk who soaked himself in gasoline thought to do. If I die someone will see me. If I die someone will see what I am. If I die at least I will know what I am. If only things worked out that way.
Memory is a tricky business. Would it really matter if mine were entirely wrong, if my young woman had not had red hair after all, had been short and dark, or thin and blonde? Does it matter that I cannot, or will not, tell you if she lived or died? Please do not tell me that it does. Not while I am wondering if I should have written this at all. The fire burns on, you see, out of its time, and you were right, my green-eyed red-haired girl who touched me so.
Words and images no longer really matter.