It wasn’t my head or even my hat I forgot but my
gloves. This habit of getting words in lines on scraps of paper with
pens or pencils or at a keyboard (where I now tap) has my hands so used
to the task they turn transparent. I hardly see them. So gloves don’t
register on the drive to Elgin – four on gravel, fifteen on blacktop
– until I’m almost there and glance at the seat.
A checkbook where my gloves should be, surfaces edged
with a crystalline light that shimmers everywhere from the snow-layered
landscape like fire on foil. Just as when you drive up a glaciated
mountain above clouds, struggling with the effort to see, so, too, here,
you struggle and blink. There is no pollution and the sky is so purged
of clouds on winter days that a silver-blue line grips the white
horizon, welding the light in place: North Dakota.
In its brilliance a car is a greenhouse.
My mind is off on a race for the right arrangement to
a set of paragraphs for a commissioned piece I have in my head. After
thirty years of this I’m at the stage where I have to run to the bank
once a week to hurry in a sum or shift another small one to keep an
account above zero – a nuisance, not a deterrent, and the pressure of
that sends an afterthought rolling in: writer’s hands extension of
mind, so good at unpacking the purl prose forms they’re feelers for
words, burning to invisibility, sun on snow.
I’m trying to write a memoir that gets beneath the
self-consciousness of self. And as so often happens when I have work on
the planks, I hear, at the border of sleep, the first sentence for it.
The rest will follow like a curtain of snow threading its way over
plowed fields toward me. Or that’s the optimistic trend my thought
tends to take and sometimes passages do fall in place in a cascade of
inner recognition but more often the work is like shoving a plow
single-handed through three-foot drifts.
I’ve spent most of my life listening, and if I have
an enduring trait, that’s it. But the hour always arrives when the
listening has to be translated into words.
In the German-Russian village where I grew up my name
was normal. Woiwode. I liked its look and sound, those vowels and wings
and its trick of pronunciation – Y-woodie. The village was
Sykeston, North Dakota, after Richard Sykes, from Cheshire, England.
“In 1883 he established the town of Sykeston,
erecting a store building and large elevator,” a history from 1900
states. “Mr. Sykes retains large land interests in Foster, Wells,
Stutsman, and LaMoure counties. . . . He has done much toward the
settlement of those counties and has much land still to sell at three to
ten dollars per acre. Mr. Sykes has made, at a cost of four thousand
dollars, a beautiful lake within the town site of Sykeston, which is
named Hiawatha Lake, and is eighteen feet deep in places and two miles
long and about a fourth of a mile wide. The lake will be stocked with
fish and boats will be supplied and the place become a summer resort.”
It never became that, though people fish on it from
boats and the temperature can be 100 in the shade
on the 4th of July. When I was growing up the
influence of Sykes was evident in an attentiveness to the English
language, an influence that also came out of the British culture at
Winnipeg. But by the forties Sykeston was largely German immigrants,
some of them first-generation German-Russians – Germans the Czarist
government persuaded to settle in southern Russia and then (mostly
through the Bolshevik revolution) misused or purged. They spoke a
yiddishie low German, interlaced with Russian, so that “no,” for
instance, came out not nein or nyet but net.
So Woiwode went well with them but elsewhere caused a
clamor. I got a glimpse of the generational effect of this when our
daughter, Newlyn (Welsh for “new spring”) was three and people would
ask her name. “Woiwode,” she would say, pronouncing it Y-woodie,
as the family has for generations, and then she would spell out each
letter, as she heard us do, as if each were essential, too, to its
An impediment to the simplest meeting.
Wood, the name I use for restaurant reservations,
would be simpler, and for a while I considered a change to that. But for
the sake of my father and grandfathers and the vowels and distinction I
first saw in it, I suspect, I never did. The name is Slavic, maybe
Romanian, according to a scholar who worked on Romania’s national
“Dracula is the Voivoda of Valachia!” he said,
happy to hit me with that. I had an inkling the name was Slavic, to
bequeath such Tartar cheekbones, but the ancestors I heard about were
German, or German-speaking.
Then the one who set me straight showed up. It was the
spring of my junior year at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and I
was studying the metaphysical poets, trying to place Marvell in the
viewfinder of his mower poems, as in
When Juliana comes, and she,
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me,
– scything apart the poet’s state as a scythe
scythes down grass. As I meditated on that I almost bumped into a tall
woman beside a twiggy hedge, her arms in an X over
the books at her chest, smiling at me in amusement. She invited me to
the noisy basement cafeteria of the campus YMCA,
called the K-Room, for a cup of coffee – I was
headed there anyway, just down from the hedge – and once we sat in a
beige and orange booth, with mugs on the table between us, she said,
“More embarrassing than asking you for coffee, Larry, is how it shames
me to say this: Will you screw me?”
Her fingers were white around her mug but she smiled,
baring lipstick-flecked teeth in her mannish lower jaw – the fiery
German actress I had watched in scenery-eating roles in campus
productions. “I asked my divine director of late who to ask, after he
said no – he’s too gay to get involved, he told me – and he said,
‘Woiwode.’ So sorry about your awful name, love.”
My lungs went flat, I did, at her accent that
had a tinge of Brit onstage but was the accent of the women of Sykeston.
My response is a blank. Later she came to the room I rented at the front
of a private house, carrying a shopping bag, and sat on my only
furniture besides a bed and desk – a Victorian couch with a coronet of
maple trim across its back. She was an East German refugee who made it
to England, then found an Illinois businessman willing to pay her
passage to America and, with his wife, adopt her. Then he started having
her at his office when she was fifteen.
She pulled a banana from her shopping bag and peeled
it halfway down, in strips, her blond hair drawn from her domed forehead
in a pompadour, a Nordic Doris Day of a basketball height. She had an
entire bunch of bananas in the bag, it turned out, and after the first
she removed her coat; the next, her jacket; blouse, though this didn’t
seem planned, judging from her nervousness and the grapes – also in
the bag – which she ripped apart and held to me in a trembling hand.
She leaned back on the couch, near the end of the bed
where I sat, its heavy upholstery raying around her hips in emerald
wrinkles, and then stood in heels and paced past my knees as if she were
onstage, one hand over a hip as she turned away, then pivoted back, her
face streaked white with the emotion that was her forte and cried,
I put a finger to my lips to remind her of the quiet I
must maintain, since the elderly folk I rented from sat in rockers on
the other side of my wall, adopting a patient rock, it seemed, for my
first university infraction.
Her face was so close I saw a glaze like greasepaint
over the subtle pimples on her forehead, and she whispered in the accent
of Sykeston, “Larry, poor fellow, Vyvoodie is Polish! It is no name a
Cherman would want – a lousy name! It was a Voivoda that led the
bastard Huns into Chermany, their chief! You do not know the ugly
affront it is to a Cherman woman who hears Vyvoodie – they are now
frigging little petty officials over there! – or anybody who knows
their history! How truly evil were these Vojvodas! Evil, evil Huns, not
Chermans! Read Sienkiewicz, love.”
At anything untoward I went silent, listening as if my
life depended on it, and for me it was an affront merely to hear her say
“love.” Then she turned grave and teary and told me about the
businessman in detail.
I was twenty and I mention this not to mesmerize you
into the goggle-eyed mindlessness pornographers like to incite, nor to
warn away anyone who meets a Woiwode, but as a cautionary tale for my
children. Hear! The Woiwodes and their interrelated clans, over the
generations I’ve known them (now three, with a glance in opposite
directions into a fourth at both ends) have been susceptible to sexual
mishap, sexual misadventure, sexual excess, sexual sin – however you
see it, no matter their age. So children, wherever you are when you read
this or remember it, heed me.
And this: it wasn’t until two years later that the
conclusion to her visit came, in New York, when the wisest and most
clairvoyant of modern storytellers, William Maxwell, said, “If you sit
or stand still in one place long enough, even on a street corner in New
York, your story will walk up to you.”
My story is partly about the “Old Country” of
every immigrant agrarian family, plus the otherworld of Europe, and how
I was spared the seduction into its centuries-old maze when a Woiwode
sailed to the New World in 1867. Then a century
later I encounter a young woman from the Old Country who has been
seduced and worse by the New and so seems set on another round of
seduction – prey to our ancient names. Those layers are at the heart
of the story I know.
Woiwodes are susceptible to such, I said, as others
are susceptible, not synonymous with. They also tend to be
thoughtful, if not intelligent, and slow to rouse to anger, though once
angry they burn red hot, often at injustice. They have served as
teachers, federal officers, finish carpenters and plasterers, farmers;
in medicine, in the church, the military, and nature conservancy.
Younger generations are in banking, vet medicine, nursing, real estate,
federal inspection; they oversee commercial building projects, are
managers, accountants, in law enforcement, or guarding you against
computer scams. Linked to them is the Thiel family of my Grandma Woiwode,
known for its scholars and priests. Only one of all of them has stuck to
As for the inheritance from my mother’s line, the
Johnstons, from the Norwegians on her mother’s side, the Hyerdahl
branch, is the adventurer Thor, of the Kon Tiki voyage and book
of that title, and on the Halvorson—
Well! a great-aunt exclaimed, scandalized to read in a
genealogy she received from a relative in Norway that a male ancestor
“drowned in a vat of beer.”
What was so scandalous to her was how this was written
right on the genealogy for anybody to see!
From what I know about a tendency on that side, I
doubt his death was accidental. He was drinking up the vat and tripped.
And next the Scots-Irish-Welsh of the Johnston half who tended, like
many from the edges of the UK, toward
garrulousness and religious extremism. One great-uncle could barely walk
by the age of forty from spending so much time on his knees in prayer
– for most of the rest of his family, as it turns out. So from my
mother’s side that, and the related weakness of a diabetic strain; and
from both branches an excellent or else a shaky sense of handling money,
along with the compulsive way a Woiwode – most every one a teetotaler
– will empty a glass of water in great quick gulps, as if a
beleaguered ancestor died of thirst.
Voivode (Voi voud). Forms:
6 voy-, voiuoda, voivoda,
voyvode, voivode, -wode, woywode [ad. Bulg. and Serb. vojvoda,
Czech. vojevoda, Pol. wojewoda, Russ. voevoda,
whence also Roum. voevoda, -vod, mod. L. voivoda, mod. Gr.
boeboda (e)] = Vaivode
1570 in Hakluyt Voy. (1599) I. 401 When we should
have deliuered him with the rest of his fellowes vnto the Voiuodaes officers.
Ibid., Kneze Yoriue your Majesties Voiuoda at Plasco. 1599
Ibid. II.i.198 Voyuoda of Bogdania and Valachia.
1614 Selden Titles Honor 249 That of Vaiuod or Uoiuod, vsd
in other parts of the Eastern Europe, being, I think, a Slauonig or
Windish word. 1686 W.Hedges Diary [Halk. Soc.] I. 232 I
went to visit and present ye Voyvode and Musellim of Diarbekeer. 1833
R.Pinkerton Russia 111 Now but an insignificant-looking place,
though formerly the residence of a Voivod. 1869 Tozer Highl.Turkey
I.141 The protectorate ..passed into the hands of the Hospodars or
Voyvodes of Wallachia and Moldavia. 1884 W.Carr Montenegro
22 By repeated efforts the voivode maintains with difficulty a position
on the coast.
S.Austin Ranke’s Hist. Ref. III. 31 He encouraged Francis I. to
keep alive the agitation in Germany,..and to support the Woiwode of
Translyvania. 1847 Mrs. A. Kerr tr. Ranke’s Hist. Servia
xvi. 303 Amongst those executed before Belgrade were venerable
Senators..and aged and renowned Woiwodes. 1868 Daily Tel.
I Sept., To be a prince of its park, lord of its lake, ruler of its
river, and woiwode of its woods.
attrib. 1888 E.Gerald Land Beyond Forest xxxiii.
II. 84 Only such Tziganes are supposed to be eligible as are descended
from a Woywod family.
Or so the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY says, while
next to it WEBSTER’S THIRD states:
or voi vode \‘voi-\ n -s [vaivode
fr. NL & It vaivoda, fr. obs. Hung vajvoda, fr.
Serb & Slovene, vojvoda, fr. OBulg vojevoda,
lit., chieftain, fr. voinu warrior, soldier (akin to Lith vyti
to pursue, hunt) + voditi to lead; voivode fr. Russ
voevoda fr. OBulg--more at VIM]:a military
commander or governor of a town or province in various Slavic countries.
While back of all that I hear the voice of an
officious recorder at Ellis Island saying to his table-side mate near
the “In” door, “It would be the same, I suspect, as the way these
people pronounce wegtable soup.”
The beginnings of memory are eidetic, pictorial,
images of the essence of a day. No language attached. Then a long
mid-phase of learning. Then age, with new avenues the mind lays down.
These accumulate fast. With the growing errands the mind must run the
avenues that go the deepest, become the most important. Gloves and
scarves disappear. Or the weather of the inner world draws me in so far
it’s hard to keep the outer in sight, keep a toehold, a grip on it.
As it has been this winter, merely keeping abreast.
Snow to the eaves of buildings, which is bad enough, but the worst is
the wind and the way it magnifies every aspect of the cold. It wears at
my wife, pouring in streaming weight over the north of the house, the
wall where our six-foot headboard stands, with a force I feel will bear
us off in the night. Then strikes in wallops that jerk shrieks from
nails as the bedsprings tremble under us in our suspended sleeplessness.
So no gloves. The castigation I condemn myself with
pours through me in neon: You should have known better.
“Yes,” I say, thinking of the morning we drove early to the polling
place, a bulky brick cube trimmed with rows of vertical windows that
gave it the appearance of gaining an extra story in mock surprise –
the county courthouse, set on a hill in town. We watched a county
employee, a woman, use a snowblower to clear the walk to its double
doors, a spangled fountain of snow arching from the candy-red machine
across a blue spruce that reached to the second story – a patriotic
vision of sorts (we were on our way to vote, after all; November 7,
1996) but one I should have taken as a warning: that much snow on
the ground before December.
And now this winter stupor in the greenhouse of a car,
in the new year of ‘97. Twenty below for a week
so when the sun appears and cooks the snow to a dazzle you enter a daze
similar to the one from a dream that has held you under too long, the
dangerous state that undoes polar explorers.
When I wake, the teller with my check and deposit slip
says, “Do you think we’re going to get that terrible storm?”
I’m almost offended – so absorbed I didn’t
listen to the car radio, and now this affable woman I enjoy talking with
asking about a storm, after what we’ve been through?
In a voice so tremulous and phlegm-rattly it feels I
haven’t used it all day, “No” comes out like a strangled moo – Nooo.
“No,” I say, normal. “No, I don’t think so.”
I’m wearing a light jacket and flimsy cap and
realize her question may be her way of warning me, since natives (and of
this village especially) can be that politely oblique. With her
knowledge of the details of the financial state of everybody county-wide
and her ability to face them every day, she’s an artful expert at the
mode. Her square shoulders shift in an interrogatory way, as if to ask
if she’s gone too far, then she pauses in her count of cash and
studies me from eyes magnified by her glasses, head on.
My look lets her know nothing has changed between us.
Outside, exhaust from cars and pickups plumes both
sides of the street, all the vehicles running, doors unlocked, not a
person at the wheel of any. I run to the store and buy food, sensing a
hurry there, as if others know something I don’t, and on my way to the
car streamers of snow start plastering every surface facing west, as my
face is, and I think, Twenty miles! And her with no wood.
I decide to see the seasonal worker who helps supply
our wood. I’ll encourage him to deliver a load in the best way –
drive to the abandoned farm where his house-trailer sits and hand him
cash. We’ve cut every dead tree on our farm and moved on, with an
absentee owner’s permission, to a stand of cottonwoods two miles down
our snow-clogged road.
What we call our farm or ranch, neighbors refer to as a
garden plot – 160 acres. It is small in
comparison to the spreads that extend for miles over the roll of our all
but treeless landscape, with a sky that booms pure blue to the horizon
on all sides, so that even a traveler like Peter Matthiessen, when he
got in his genteel elegance from a car in our lane, turned in a slow
circle, to take it all in.
He was working on what would be IN THE
SPIRIT OF CRAZY HORSE – later pulled from bookstores by a
lawsuit brought by the Governor of South Dakota – and I had driven him
from the Bismarck airport a hundred miles south and west to our farm,
below the Cannonball River Custer followed on his way to the Little Big
Matthiessen paused and stared at our garden with a
pool of water at its far corner from the spring melt (after the only
other winter with as much snow as this), and said in the mildly Oxonian
accent he and George Plimpton picked up at the boarding school they
attended together, “You’ve got shorebirds there.” He pointed to
the glare of water, the shallow garden pool. “I do believe that one is
a godwit. I’ll be. Do you have a pair of binocs?”
The gentle man who keeps us in wood, a three-hundred-pound biker with a full curling blond beard and a blond pony tail, lives
north of the next town, New Leipzig – one of those Dakota settlements
on the other side of the railroad tracks running parallel to the
highway, so small that from your car you can see down three blocks of a
main street to the fields at its far end.
But before I’m there a wind hits and streaks of snow
revolve to the horizontal and double in volume, a white-out. I touch the
brakes, blinded, our aging Lincoln seeping cold. I reach for my gloves
and the bare spot, added to the storm’s onslaught, confuses me so much
I swing off too soon, onto the wrong road. But I keep going, a trait my
wife translates as bullheadedness, but that registers in me as
dislocation. I usually have my directions right and always imagine that
if I drive farther, I’ll reach the stability of the right place and the
panic pressing me on will stop, an awful circle. My father did this, as
he aged, and I hated it. Most men do. I can turn west in a mile, I
figure. Land here is laid out in mile squares or “sections,” and the
boundaries of each, by law, should be roads but lately are so seldom
traveled it seems stagecoaches left the last ruts.
Memory isn’t a pilot but a backseat driver who wants
control. Story is the pilot, and we follow its course through the
present, hearing memory’s nagging knowledge of the weathers and the
roadblocks of the past. Memory’s aim is to be there, leap the
present, persuade us the past is identical to the future, prophetic, our
one seat of reference – those blank spaces we slip from to find
we’ve been suspended in the past. That suspension is memory’s power;
memory is imagination. It holds a lifetime store of every angle
and declination of experience and sensation and fact we know, besides
its coloring of all of those. What people call a memoir is an attempt to
tame its outrageous takeovers into paths we tiptoe down toward truth.
The temptation is to deny the demands of the past and
switch on the autopilot of the rational. In men that rational preserve,
the miniature speck of it, assumes a superiority that recoils from the
depths that women intuitively inhabit, so men are often “lost,”
unable to set aside rationality for common sense: stop and ask that guy
how to get there. A woman’s plaint.
In the film 2001 you
enter a primitive gruffness, man’s zone, and are suddenly lifted into
a sense, before the moonshot or shuttle, of the infinitude of space and
travel through it. Then after the computer’s takeover, that scene of a
pilot aging down through time in a translucent room like a projection of
his rationality, able only to rise from bed to check his face in a
mirror for the effects of age – suspended in space inside a
consciousness continuing forever, as it felt, so that I was turned
inside out and seemed to be the fetus heading off in a diminishing dot,
my span as brief as a breath on that mirror – though I didn’t at
first recognize this riptide of subliminal effect.
I saw it in Manhattan with my wife and a friend I once
rented a house with in college; he was in the city (after studying at an
Orthodox yeshiva in Brooklyn and dropping out) to finish an advanced
degree in Math, and it was the crystalline architecture of his mind I
partly viewed the film through that impressed it on me as it was, I
think. Afterward we stopped in a bar for drinks and then went out to the
car my father-in-law had given my wife when she left home, a Volkswagen
Beetle. The street where it was parked was deserted, as if an
extraterrestrial holocaust had occurred; the only other person was a
young man walking with the bent-ahead haste of carrying out a grudge,
and I gunned the car toward him and kept it on course until I hit the
curb a few feet back, causing him to fling up his arms in the headlights
in a parody of horror – as if the film’s sense of the insignificance
of life permitted this.
In those subterranean reaches women are attuned to –
a molecular intuition they seem to pick up from the air – my wife was
crying “No, No!” the second I hit the gas. And it isn’t until now,
over thirty years in rebound from the curb, that the right response
occurs. Forgive me.
Now in this storm, snow sailing in from the west is
forming finger drifts across the road, or so I see when I can see, and
once I rumble over a few of these I realize I have to turn back. But no
place. Earlier snows brim both ditches, bulked up by plows, all joining
the falling snow in swirls, and then through the blue-gray blur I see a
stab of light and to my right a mailbox goes by too quick for me to
stop. I’m in a turn I must negotiate with every sense alert, a banked
ascent, and in a stunning white-out I see it’s a butte, a steep one,
and I’m climbing it.
Easy to turn on a grade, once at its top, I think. Use
the downhill slope. I hit a pillow drift with a wallop, then another,
and the car, far from the top, slows and starts going sidewise, tires
giving off the rubbery warble of a spin, and I hear the rhythms of a
Roethke poem – of his driving alone down a long peninsula, the road
lined with snow-covered growth, a dry snow ticking the windshield, the
road going from blacktop to rubble and ending in a rut where the car
stalls, churning in a snowdrift until its headlights go out. Which is
where I am, at a dead stop, though the engine and headlights and heater
work – so far, anyway.
Then it comes as before, the blankness of black
velour, a midnight sky without a star. A point of light appears. It
travels across the void, leaving a trail fine as frayed filament. It
joins similar trails, millions of them, but the whole host do not
lighten the dark an iota. The trails travel through ages, down through
who knows how many millennia, until stars appear, the sun and moon, the
earth in its aqua symmetry and froth of clouds, and then liquid splashes
over a floor as everything rushes forward to a burning marvel I know is
Voices are raised, shouts. An icy grip surrounds my
forehead and my mother screams.
Push! comes the shout. “Push! The hardest part
is over!” My ears gain airy freedom and in the replaying of this I
feel a tug of sympathy for my mother; she bore me and will bear me
through time, though not long – nine years and three months, to be
exact. But the flash takes too long to catch. The simple fact is I was
born in Carrington, North Dakota, into the dark hour of 6:00
AM, on October 30, 1941.
My name is Larry, not Lawrence (for those who try to
improve on her), an irritating diminutive common at the time, perhaps
because of Olivier, a Lawrence called Larry by admirers. So I used L
when I began to publish, but Larry was congenial to the mid-part of
life, as she probably knew, though tough to fix on a fellow in his late
fifties. So I often want to return to where I began as a writer, L.
An undeniable fact about the cast present at my birth
is this: I’m the only one of them living, able to slip into the salty
smell of blood on her naked heat. As all newborns do at birth, as ours
did, my wife’s hand across a stained and miniature back where ribs
fine as wishbones expanded and fell with the panting breaths of all of
The least trustworthy of the better attributes of any
mind is memory.
As I sort the first images from my past that feel
authentic I’m at an upstairs window of a house on my Grandma and
Grandpa Johnston’s farm, not quite four, because my grandparents move
before I’m that age. Out the window I see our family car. It is
squeezed between the house and a granary, as if wedged there, and
perhaps I do the wedging, because my parents are inside, trying to
leave. An internal picture of them in its front seat as the motor starts
causes me to yell, “No! I shanged my mind!”
I’m supposed to stay with my grandparents for a
spell of days, as my parents travel, but now I feel I can’t. Somebody
calls or runs to the car and my mother’s younger sisters, Yvonne and
Elaine, enact for their family audience “I shanged my mind!”
“He shanged his mind, is that what he said!” “Yes, shanged
Like all my mother’s family, they are flawless
mimics, and every time one or the other sees me, I hear “Have you shanged
your mind?” – a question that plagues me when it rises in their
voices as I work through yet another revision of a story I told my wife
was finished. But then I found that The New Yorker had a phrase
to handle this – when a piece was not only done and taken, but the
fixing and editing was done, too; then it was “Done and done.”
The only time Yvonne didn’t mention my change of
mind was the last time I saw her, in 1992, when
she was gray-haired and drinking “gray panthers” – vodka with
grapefruit juice – in her brother’s apartment in St. Paul, there
from L. A. with her husband to visit. She was
carrying the cancer she would die from in a year, though none of us knew
it, not even her. But I sensed a reserve in her (and not only for
neglecting to say “shange,” out of charity, as I took it, because
she seemed the one changed), and then I saw in her face, not in her eyes
or mouth but the bones of her face, the face of my mother, dead for
Before I get out of the car to check where I am on the
slope, as I would with gloves and warm clothes, I start backing toward
what appears to be a place to turn. But when I revolve the wheel to
enter it, the car slides. I touch the brakes, it slides worse, and I
remember how, in the letup in the weather early in the week, first a
thaw came and then a rain. The wind has scoured this area of the slope
to ice, I see as I get out, then go into the tottering running in place
that’s so funny to others the second before you fall on ice. But I
The nose of the car rakes northwest, its rear tires at
the edge of the drifted ditch. From the trunk I get a grain scoop I put
there for an emergency. But the snow is so hard I have to stomp on the
shoulder of the shovel to get it to bite in. During the terrible cold,
as winds shifted from one quarter to another, my son pointed out how the
snow got worn to grains, like polished sandy quartz, and it has the
weighty heft of sand – its corrugated waves a solid as sculpture, the
sastrugi Byrd encountered in Antarctica.
Meanwhile freshly falling snow, clumpy and damp from
the day’s warmth, plasters the side of the car and clings in a film to
my flimsy jacket, while the wind whistles the temperature down a degree
a minute. My hands are numb, fingers like wood, the last of the blood in
them, as it feels, about to squirt out my nails. I jam the scoop in the
snow and jump in the car – still running.
You should have known better. The clunky, useless
scoop, no gloves, staying on the wrong road, then starting up this hill.
I should have brought the pickup; should have backed straight down, even
if I couldn’t stop, till I was on a flat; should have been more
charitable when my wife called the other week to say she was backing out
a drive and slid on ice into a ditch and, once she was home, I should
have foregone my lecture on how to manage on ice, all before I went out
to look – she’d hooked the steel post of a highway sign on the way
down and scraped one whole side of the new finish we had a body shop
apply a month before – and then I went back in and said, “We might
as well drive the damn thing over a cliff.”
“Dad!” our son said. “That’s no way to
I’m not about to panic but I know now why people
gamble their lives in storms like this – simply to walk out of the
situation, probably in a mindless daze from car heat, as I am. Then they
flounder in the featureless landscape and get lost. Farmers once tied
ropes to their waists to go out for chores and then sometimes didn’t
make it back.
I get out and dig and my mind fills
with Ruth, in this helpless tumble of our children I experience every
hour – Newlyn, Joseph, Ruth, Laurel, that order. Ruth always busy at a
task; Newlyn, too, but with her, the oldest, a sense of how her tasks
were duties to hold the family together, when I wasn’t – Ruth so
geared up she’s a power we can’t identify, though she likes to help
with what she likes.
As when I was digging holes for a hitching post for Newlyn (nine years
older than Joseph, eleven over Ruth) and Ruth, four, pulled piles of
dirt back with her hands, helping, and when I was down three feet with
the post-hole digger she asked me to put her in the hole, so I lowered
her until only her eyes and a crown of white-blond hair showed, and she
giggled and whooped and had me call her mother to see.
I dig till my ears feel they’re going up in flame,
then hear a deep-throated sound like a tractor in the distance. An
effect of the freeze? Snow is driving from the north now and might have
caused a hallucination with its sudden shift that’s subsumed the last
light. I’ve lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights, Chicago, St. Paul, a
manor on the Hudson, in suburban and rural places from New York State to
Michigan and Illinois, and now, in this corner of North Dakota, I stand
on what could as well be the last hill at the end of the world. I can
see nothing but white with white over it and more white pouring in.
My great-grandfather Charles was smuggled out of Upper
Silesia in 1867 by his father, John, because he
was at the legal age for military conscription in Germany, ten. John
wrapped him in a feather bed and carried him over his shoulder onto a
ship bound for America, and Charles said he was sat on and shoved around
during the journey, but had to keep silent – a trait he passed on.
And, oh, how he wore away inner layers, bright and
varied as a jawbreaker’s, as I imagine, to the proximity of exposure,
not knowing which “I” was I, when under one color was another of
encasement, invention, projection, stillness.
Charles managed for his father on this side, filing a
homestead claim in Dakota Territory, in 1881,
before North and South Dakota were states. That came in 1889.
The homestead was in the Red River Valley, three-hundred miles from our
present farm, which is not a family place, as some think. My wife and I
are children of the sixties, or anyway we were under thirty at its peak
– armchair dreamers of an ecological Eden. We would find a place in
the country and by our crops and animals and a system for generating
electricity would become self-sufficient, returning organic balance to
the land, for its sake and the sake of the life on it, especially
wildlife, my wife’s love.
I never thought I’d return. My wife is from Oregon
and we visited the Pacific Northwest first; we spent a summer in Nyack
and then tended west: Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, a summer in St.
Paul. After two years in Chicago we took a tour of the west – Montana,
Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, and found aspects of each state we
liked but never the right place. Along the way we stopped to see the
only relative I knew in North Dakota, near its western border, my
mother’s sister Elaine, and Ralph, her husband, and with him we
attended a rodeo at Sentinel Butte. Back in Chicago, it was western
North Dakota that in retrospect seemed to have an untainted sense of
that Eldorado Americans have always pursued: the frontier.
We had joined a Presbyterian denomination and found it
had one church in North Dakota, in its southwest corner, in Carson. With
a compass I drew a circle with a radius of fifty miles from Carson, the
focus to our hope, our faith, and we contacted a realtor in the area and
told him what we wanted. Months later, when the realtor called with what
seemed a possibility, I was too ill to travel. My wife went to see the
place with her father.
Both her Peterson grandparents are from Norway and met
in the U. S., so she is third-generation Norwegian
on her father’s side. The pastor of the church that was the point of
my compass was a Peterson, a coincidence my father-in-law never got
over, and perhaps it was that or the lilting talk of residents (sixty
percent are Scandinavian) that was the clinching influence. According to
my wife it came for her at the midpoint of their drive from Bismarck in
a rental car, before she saw the farm, as she swung around a curve on a
hill above Flasher, where the Missouri breaks give way, and saw the
countryside below, fields interleaved with pastures and misty buttes
bunched in blue mounds in the sparkling distance, and her ancestry
sprang to the surface.
She was at the wheel, her father beside her, and they
saw what their ancestors – mariners and farmers above fjords where the
sea exploded in cataracts of foam – saw when they crossed the ocean
and came into this country – spread out from their feet like a sea
with the fjords of buttes above.
My wife felt it through her body in a way that marked
this as the place, she said. She sometimes still says, as we round the
curve and look out on the land lying below to the horizon, “That’s
the west” or “It was right here.” If I should happen to say, as I
have, “Here’s your west,” she’ll merely go “Mmm,” letting me
know in her gently sensible way I have no right to appropriate her
Two things happen at once. The snow parts and I hear
and glimpse what appears to be a tractor to the west, judging from the
round bale gripped in a loader – now enveloped – and then a pair of
lights trundle to a bright glow behind. They pause, as if trying to make
me out through the streaking fuzz of pouring flakes, then swing off,
past a mailbox they light up, the one I passed.
I get back in the car, flinging dripping snow, and
feel hope: two vehicles, lights. Frostbite has my fingers feeling I’ve
held them over a fire long enough to reach rare. I decide to head for
where the lights went and as quick as that the storm lifts. I see the
shape of a man inside the cab of what I thought was a tractor to the
west but is a loader, busy on a run from a stack to a corral with a
round bale in its bucket, trying to beat the storm.
Headlights reappear from close behind and it turns out
to be a farmer in a pickup who lives off the road, his face the color of
cowhide, so finely seamed it looks lined with leather tools. He went
back for a towrope, he says, but why in hell am I on this road? Am I
from out of state? No. Why, any fool knows this road is never plowed
past his place once it gets bad. Where am I from? I tell him and he
shakes his head as if it’s the worst possible place.
He hooks a tow rope, of thickly braided yellow nylon,
to the bumper hitch at the back of my car and to his pickup hitch and
tells me to get in. I drop it in reverse and give it the gas, as he
does, but sit like dead weight while his pickup slides to one edge of
the road, then the other, back and forth, as if it has straight left and
right down pat, and no more. I see him back up, giving slack to the rope
so he can try a freeing jolt, and hop out and warn him how a friend
broke a two rope trying that on our heavy Lincoln.
“Get in,” he says.
I do, he applies his jolt, the rope sails off like a
slinky snake with jet assist, and I touch my pocket, glad for the cash.
But only a pin holding a hook at the end of the rope has pulled loose.
He sits on a running board on the driver’s side, in the lee of the
wind, to repair the hook. Over his pickup box, across the road where the
loader works, I see another vehicle, a bulk gas truck come barreling in
our direction from buildings now visible in the thinning snow – all
this last-minute activity a blizzard brings on – then suddenly cant to
one side and grind to a halt. A man climbs down from its cab and looks
around, as if in shame, then trots back toward the buildings.
Down on the running board, the man whose fingers
I’ve worried about since he pulled off his gloves to grip the
ice-crusted hook, says, “It sounds like Ray has his Payloader going.
I’ll go see.”
He’s been following the activity by its sound, as
farmers familiar with an area do. He drives down to the canted bulk
truck, pausing as if to assess the loss, then drives toward the
buildings and is gone like that behind heaped snow. All farmyards are
like this, a contractor has said; he uses a crane to clean out corrals
and feedlots so swamped there’s no other way. We have damaged our
tractor snowblower on the hard-sculpted snow; you have to ram it to
break it up to blow, then the blower piles it in drifts that get other
drifts going. From inside the car I meditate on the way darkness tints
the overabundance of white pure blue.
This outpouring of nature, its excess not to be
copied, and the energy we expend on it; the time it takes, first, to
admit its presence, in whatever form in yourself, and then sift it from
a poem or book or, better, your life. In the seventies I put together a
book of poems called MATCH HEADS, to denote their
brief blaze, all trimmed to a few lines. My publisher bought it but
didn’t want to bring it out until after my next novel – which I
presumed was nearly done. It took three more years, that excess. By then
I had poems of a different sort and saw in them the beginning of a story
of the relationship of eleven years with my wife. I added poems and
found that many of the brief match heads also fit.
A new book came of that, named EVEN
TIDE, for the way the two in a marriage are evenly tied, or not,
and the time of day when healing happened in Jesus’ life. My editor
and I persuaded each other we didn’t like the previous title, MATCH
HEADS, also a pun, but another problem was manifest. EVEN
TIDE ran to a hundred poems. I removed at least a dozen and used
brief match heads as prefaces or conclusions to others and a
rearrangement of the order of the poems in the story started to surface,
and I remembered William Maxwell saying about a collection of tales, in
his whispery voice, “When I was working on the final version, with all
the arranging and rearranging it put me through, I reached a stage where
I wanted to throw myself out a window.”
I wasn’t quite there but knew what he meant. I
called my editor, Michael di Capua, who was working with a number of
poets and he suggested I get in touch with James Wright. “So how do I
put together a cover letter to a book he probably doesn’t have time to
read and maybe doesn’t want to see?” So I said.
“Just call him. Jim loves your book.” He meant the
“next one,” BEYOND THE BEDROOM WALL, which was
listed so many seasons in the FS&G catalogue
it became a source of in-house jokes, along with Harold Brodkey’s
“first novel,” the advance on which had been out for so long without
delivery that, as one wag put it, “the interest just on that would pay
off the national debt.”
I liked Wright’s poetry and we had talked at New
York soirees – once when he was nominated for an award he didn’t
receive, and afterward said to me in the booth of a bar in the form of
advice, “When something like this happens, what you have to do is make
the next one so damn good it blasts the bastards out of the
bleachers!” Which is what he did, or anyway he received the prize the
next time around, after he quit drinking, as we had heard.
“When I finished my first book I showed it to Wystan
Auden,” he said over the phone in a soft voice. “He was kind about
the poems, I think, but what I remember most was him saying, ‘Only 43.
You need to cut them down to 43, James. You
can’t have more than 43 poems in a first
book.’ I don’t know where he got the number, probably from his own
first book, but I think he was right and I think I got mine close to
that. I’m a little afraid to look.”
I’m afraid to look myself, but finally I get out of
my chair and go to a box hidden behind a recliner I seldom use and dig
through the books in it until I find a copy of EVEN TIDE.
I open it, afraid the number will be in the 60s,
and I’m somewhat relieved: forty-nine.
Still I feel the heat of shame climb my face.
A blur like headlights grows into spots at my back and
swings past the mailbox; the pickup. I get out. A bulky yellow Payloader
(what I mistook for a tractor) shows above the snow near the buildings
and starts up the lane, then pauses and swivels sideways, as if training
its robot eyes on the bulk truck, then swings again and rumbles past it,
uphill to me. A driver climbs down a ladder from its cab in a hooded
jacket, his face hidden, and hooks a chain to the Payloader scoop, then
to my bumper.
“You’re a ways from home. You’re Woiwode,
©Larry Woiwode, 2000. WHAT
I THINK I DID, due out in April 2000, from Basic
An excerpt from
with permission of the publisher.