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Naked Dancing, with Knives Or (Not) Writing a First Novel by Robert Pope | music: White Thanksgiving by Jude Thomas

n the fall of 1967 I started a novel about a girl I knew who married her boyfriend before he went to Vietnam.  I was twenty-one, a student at The University of California at Berkeley; my female character, Julie, was my age, half a foot shorter.  She had rich brown eyes, long dark hair—a real beauty, which was one reason the guy wanted to marry her before he left.  Her sister Ellen said he  married her to keep a connection to the life he had to leave and convince himself Julie would not be back home having sex with men who had not been drafted, whom he envied and despised.  

I expected to be drafted when I graduated, spring quarter, 1968.  My girlfriend and I had been living together since summer.  I could imagine his worry as he got ready to go to Vietnam.  I had known the Jodie calls since I was a kid, growing up in a military family: Ain’t no use in going home/ Jodie’s got your gal and gone.  

Cadence calls became reality for soldiers snatched out of American lives into something they could barely imagine, a bloody war in a jungle halfway around the world where they would be called on to kill people they had no reason to kill, if necessary to die.  I put myself in his shoes to tell the story.  I liked the way it was going enough to submit two chapters to get into a fiction writing class Herbert Gold would teach the next quarter.  Gold would select students from the manuscripts so I worked on my chapters until the last minute.  

I had to race to his office on campus with two boys I watched between the time they got out of school and their mother got off work, Julie’s nephews.  Ellen, their single mother, said she wanted her boys to have a male influence.  She paid me something, so it went well for all of us, even my girlfriend—extra money helped.  Both of us worked in a hospital kitchen a couple of blocks across Shattuck where Country Joe and the Fish had their headquarters.  

I mention Country Joe and the Fish because I heard them sing the Vietnam anthem on the street.  The anthem encouraged American mothers to be the first on their block to have their son come home in a box.  This was supposed to be funny; the boxes were not.  We saw them in the newspapers, stacked with geometric precision at airports, each loaded with a dead boy.  We had a free press and were allowed to see such things, as we could not during the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, when we were told this was out of respect for guys stacked like cordwood.

I didn’t mind hanging out with Ellen’s boys and a friend, a girl from nearby.  I presided over two younger brothers most of my life, a third when he came along fourteen years after me.  I did things with Ellen’s sons I had done with brothers.  So when I had to turn in the manuscript about their Aunt Julie and Uncle Timothy to get in a writing class at the last minute, I ran all the way with the kids.  I wore a t-shirt, jeans, and sandals with rubber soles that smacked my bare feet when I ran.  

When we got to Gold’s office in Wheeler Hall, the four of us were laughing and panting.  I thought I would drop the manuscript in a mail slot but Gold was there behind a stack of papers on his desk.  He seemed to enjoy the chaos I brought with me.  

We wandered home through campus, passing tables where political, philosophical groups offered arguments to passersby on the paved walk past the fountain, between the student union and administration building, where we had gathered for the Stop the Draft demonstrations before marching to the Oakland Induction Center, where drafted soldiers boarded buses that took them to boot camp and from there to Vietnam.  

Snipers armed with rifles with high-powered sights lined the parking structure across from the Induction Center.  Police formed a cordon between the demonstrators and the building to keep us from the buses.  We called to draftees to join us.  Come on over, come on over!

Since I was six feet tall, I had been shoved in the front line, my chest against police riot sticks.  In spite of the reputation of Oakland police, I felt no fear—passionate enough not to care what happened.  It wasn’t that I was against the draft.  I had watched guys burn draft cards, knowing that a piece of paper would not affect their fate one way or the other.  The Army had records of its own.  It certainly wasn’t like burning the flag, for which I would never stand by calmly.  I have strong feelings about the care to be taken with the flag.  During Desert Storm, I saw American flags draped everywhere, some dragging on the dirt in the first rain, snapping to tatters in wind and rain on rooftops of cars.  More than once I tacked up a flag, knowing in my heart our flag was never meant to be dragged through the mud.

I believed in the draft for the reason my father the Colonel did: if the United States ended the draft no one would care what the military did, and that would be bad for the country and the world.  I had one more reason: I believed young Americans should give a couple of years to the well-being of the country and the world once they graduated from college.  Maybe Kennedy was responsible for that, with the promise of the Peace Corps, but he was dead.  

I didn’t think I could change anyone’s attitude about the draft, but I did not want to be drafted and sent to Vietnam, forced to kill for no reason but that the president told me to.  As I saw it, the Nuremberg Trials had laid that responsibility on my shoulders—no one could escape culpability by saying they did what they were told.  But Timothy had been drafted and sent to Vietnam, and we all knew what that meant: he would be subjected to ugliness inconceivable to those at home.  He would be shot at and shoot at others for reasons beyond his understanding.  

We had seen fractured soldiers returning: psychological wrecks unable to function in society, physical wrecks missing limbs, pieces of their skulls.  We heard from anti-war veterans, never soldiers who retained a conviction with which they left.  We saw the flaming jungles, the terrified children on television—real journalism of a kind we have lost.  Reporters felt a duty to get stories, images of war.  We knew the best and worst.  Timothy knew what he was leaving—to the tune of The Beatles and The Doors—and what he was going to.  He married Julie before anything destroyed his American dreams.  That’s where I was going in those chapters.  I didn’t know where it would end or whether I would get in the writing class.  

I did like going over to Ellen’s house, watching the boys and spending time with her and Julie.  The two boys and I would build things, play games from childhood, both inside and out of doors.  On the day we walked through Sproul Plaza after dropping off my manuscript, I spotted the Objectivist table, two young men in white shirts and an older woman wearing dollar signs, ready to defend their Saint Ayn Rand.

The two boys, their girlfriend and I conspired.  I told them to play the part of scholars as well as they could as they approached the table.  I taught Butch, with his lovely almond eyes, to repeat the line, “While I appreciate your point about great men that shape our society, don’t you think our present economic system and the war in which we are embroiled make yours a rather childish position?”  I coached them to blink often, turn and walk away.

Butch was up to this; that’s what worried Mom.  He was smart, too articulate at an early age, unlike Billy or the Snyder girl.  I stood watching at a distance through the passing students.  The Objectivists never said a word.  They stared and blinked themselves, exchanging looks that must have passed between the men in the temple when the boy Christ answered their questions.  We met again further along, laughing at their success.  

We watched Herbert, a skinny, gap-toothed, red haired preacher, gesticulating outside the gate, blessing the black Socialist heart of anyone who would listen to his rant while he smacked a bible and waved it in the air.   

     

Back home, we sat in Ellen’s kitchen, often with her younger sister Julie, and her circling cats, tails high, meowing loudly.  We had coffee, she’d run me down Shattuck to Dwight, and I’d walk to the apartment I shared with my girlfriend from there.  About my girlfriend I will only say we could talk into the night; she was there, in the apartment, with all her honey hair and brains.

The last day I worked for Ellen was a Friday.  I called on the weekend to say I would not return.  I told her my hospital job, my primary source of income, required I arrive earlier; also, I had a major project for school.  I have since wondered if she knew the real reason.  

That last Friday, when Ellen pulled in the drive, Julie was with her.  Ellen explained she had to run the boys to granny and couldn’t take me to Dwight.  Could I catch a bus?  That left me with Julie looking in my eyes, asking if I would listen to a new record with her: Richie Havens’ Mixed Bag.  I had heard him sing once on campus, by the fountain, with his amazing guitar and his warm, throaty voice, the romance of Civil Rights.  Civil Rights and The War and Rock and Roll and Sex got mixed together.  She said the record player in her sister’s room had better sound, so I followed her.  

Music was so much part of our lives in those days it shouldn’t have seemed unusual, but the pulse in my temples, heat spreading through my loins, the shaking in my arms, told me what I knew without thinking.  When she set the record on the turntable, the needle in the groove, and turned to me with her eyes closed, I felt heat radiating from her body.  Ellen’s wide bed had not been made.  We wouldn’t have to pull back covers, just fall off that cliff into a pile of feathers.

She stood before me, eyes closed—within seconds decision would be out of my control.  I could still entertain a degree of uncertainty about what she intended, eyes closed, listening to the visceral excitement of “High Flyin’ Bird”, but when she opened her eyes and closed the gap between us, I burned in flames I could not see.  It was then, in the briefest of moments, that the thought of two people flickered through my mind.  

I cannot say which came first: my girlfriend at home or Timothy in Vietnam.  In one gesture, I could violate the trust of the one I lived with and the one I knew only through stories and pictures shown me early on, before Ellen had turned against him as letters made their way into her hands.  They shocked, offended her, and I knew they hardened her against him.  

That is why I wondered how much she had been involved in the scenario, if she had conspired to set me up with her sister to eliminate her troubled husband from her life.  With my girlfriend’s face in mind, I woke to the world again.  If I stayed, I would be late getting home, miss work at the hospital.  There would be a break-up; I couldn’t keep this from my girlfriend.  I would be Jodie incarnate, sleeping with the wife of a soldier in Vietnam.  But I liked my life and my girlfriend.  I loved studying literature, writing in our apartment.  I looked in Julie’s eyes and wanted to die—at least a little—but cried out I had to go.  

I backed out the bedroom door, rushed outside and ran, eyes wide and watering, all the way to Shattuck, trembling.  I didn’t trust myself to wait for a bus, so I stuck out my thumb.  One of the seven dwarves roared to the curb on his Harley, Yosemite Sam mustache flying behind.  I held on for dear life, my hair flying, whipping at my eyes.  When he dropped me at Dwight I felt such gratitude I could barely stand.  I ran to my apartment.  When I saw my dog at the door and my girlfriend smoking on the couch, I felt such happiness I thanked God for restoring me.    

“You look like you’ve been having a merry old time,” she said.  

I told her about hitching home, riding with a Hell’s Angel on the back of his hog; she got in the spirit, laughed with me—over in a beat of my heart that I remember to this day, when my hair is white.  But that is not the end of the story about my first attempt at a novel.  I have gotten lost in the details of life.  Life carries me off under her arm.  

At the same time I’ve been talking about, I worked on the university literary magazine, The Occident.  That name held a certain irony as I rode in an elevator to our third-floor office in Eshleman Hall filled with non-westerners—international students’ organizations were housed on the fourth floor.  One afternoon I rode up to work on The Occident with a group of silent Asians who avoided eye contact, half a foot shorter than me, and later came down with six hauntingly silent African men, half a foot taller, whose gaze I avoided. 

I sat at a gray metal desk in our cubicle, lifting poems, stories from the In basket, reading them, writing a note on an appended sheet, setting them in the Out basket.  I found myself a bit feckless reading poetry, more confounded reading short stories—one story after another with no effect, passing my eyes over the manuscript, frowning or grimacing or groaning. All of a sudden, a particular story would flow from the page into my eyes.  All my senses would open to such a story; it would take place inside of me as surely as on a printed page.  I wrote YES in large block letters on the attached sheet.

I had read one dull story after another before I came on one like this.  As I took the elevator down, I knew I wanted to write short stories, had always wanted to write short stories, and only those that gave off light in the eyes of a receptive reader.  Who could care for scores of others that produced no light?  Wrinkle a dull page, fling it in the trash!  Books I now carried were short story collections I heard about and bought for a buck at Moe’s, Malamud’s The Magic Barrel, or never heard about and fished from the free box Moe set at the door, Albert Cossery’s Men God Forgot.  Yet, what I had on my hands was a couple chapters of a first novel on which I was still working though it threatened to become a short story.

Still, I had submitted those chapters to Gold’s fiction writing workshop, so at the start of next quarter, I showed up for class with fifty others.  One by one, he called the names of those eliminated, who filed past like the damned, receiving rejected manuscripts, leaving by the door that snapped shut after each departure.  

When it was over, fourteen remained.  I don’t remember all, but there was an African whose work was funny and surprising, a former Hell’s Angel writing about his years in the gang, a fellow my age and size who liked my story—that stood out to me—and a woman in jeans and flannel who brought two Husky dogs to class.  I got closest to Bill Jacks; he sat beside me during eliminations making gagging noises after each reject.  He was a thin paraplegic with limited use of his arms and this large, bony head in a WW I leather flying ace helmet poised on a stalk of a neck.  The bumper sticker on the side of his motorized chair said Wolfman Jack—to which he added an S.

Bill and I always left together, me pushing because his motor was slow. I would push him to the library, up a hill his chair could barely climb.  Once I noticed him looking up at me, his head on the chair back.  It looked a bit odd, but I thought he wanted to see me while we talked, until he said in his croaky voice, “Say, could you set my head up?  You pushed a little hard at the start of that hill.”  He spoke precisely to get the words out or be understood.  

I rested the chair against a hip and set his head up with both hands.  

“Thank you,” he croaked.

Through the years that moment comes to me as visceral memory, his head in my hands as I set it up.  Sometimes we ate at a stand at the university gate, where Telegraph Avenue ended.  Vendors with carts sold hot dogs, burritos, macrobiotic lunches; we sat on a bench or the wall and watched activity going on out there.  Once we watched a tall black woman with an afro steal a purse from a shop on the corner.  The owner, a man ten years older than me, followed her, one hand on the strap over her shoulder, shouting that she had to pay, she was stealing.  

He took quite a beating.  She slapped him until blood came from his nose.  One fellow ran into the street but didn’t know what to do so he stood watching, his arms out, as she yanked the purse from the shop-keeper’s hands and got in a Volkswagen van that stopped to pick her up and sped down the street.  

Once the fiery, gap-toothed preacher moved down Telegraph, to a spot in front of Moe’s, a younger, thicker man in a blue suit took over the gate, waving a fat bible as he preached to the empty air.  He looked around as if speaking to a congregation but only stared in one vacant space after another, avoiding students coming from class.  Bill rolled up in front of him, waiting until he looked down.  “Hello, Mr. Christian,” he croaked.

“Hello,” said the preacher.  They stared at each other for a while.  

“Are you a Christian?” asked the preacher.

“No, I am not,” said Bill.

“What are you?”

“I’m a Druid.”

The preacher stared a while before asking, “What do Druids believe?”

“We believe in naked dancing, with knives.”

Another thoughtful pause, then, “Isn’t that just what you do?”

 “We believe in seasons and rituals, the sun and moon, Stonehenge.”

“That place with rocks?”

“That’s the one.”

“I thought that was a clock.”

“It is, among other things.”

“What other things?”

“Things like naked dancing, knives, bloody rituals.”

Next time we ate at the gate, the shy preacher called, “Hi, Mr. Druid!” Bill croaked, “Hi, Mr. Christian.”  Once in class, Gold had spoken of rituals that grow up between family members, parents and children.  Bill said when he was growing up, his father would come into his bedroom every morning and say, “Have I told you yet son?  Have I told you today?”  

He grinned and jabbed his middle finger and shouted, “Fuck you, son, fuck you!”  As Jacks laughed, the rest of us stared at him, trying to comprehend how to take what he had just said, whether it was true or false, loving or malicious.

Jacks sped through his novel while the rest of us plodded by chapters.  By the time we took another writing class from Jackson Burgess next quarter, I had abandoned mine, and he finished his.  It started with a few sentences close to this: The first thing you need to know about me is I’m a paraplegic, which means I have no use of my body below the waist; that’s not what’s bothering me now.  What’s bothering me right now is the canker sore inside my lower lip. 

He told a story of being tossed in a swimming pool by so-called friends, pursuing a girl he loved, fleeing an apartment when he discovered his roommate sold LSD—a novel of growing up when no growing up was possible, when all growing up he could accomplish had been thrust on him or taken away completely.

I asked Burgess what he thought of Bill’s novel, and he said, “The most important thing about a first novel is that it’s there.”  It was a good thing to say.  It made sense, even though I did not agree.  I liked Bill’s novel as well as anything I read, better than what I had been writing and quit.  I abandoned that, went on working at something more natural to my rhythms: short fiction.  That’s what I love and have pursued ever since, leaving novels to people like Bill Jacks.  I like to think he’s alive somewhere writing another novel, but I know he is not.  He had to write the good novel early, because his life was a short story.  

I wish I still had a copy, because I loved that crazy son-of-a-bitch.  


pope

Robert Pope has published a novel (Jack’s Universe) and a collection of stories (Private Acts), as well as many short stories and personal essays in magazines, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, and The Conium Review. He teaches at The University of Akron.

 

 


jude

Jude Thomas is a composer and performer in the New York City area. He has composed several works for the stage, including a full-length Musical, MOZU, and the one-act opera, The Scent of Jasmine on Parker Street. Jude is an active barbershop singer and competes in both quartets and choruses, winning a championship with the Masters of Harmony in 2011. Jude is also interested in the music of American experimental composers; he recently performed Harry Partch’s Barstow at the Harry Partch Institute at Montclair State University and performed selections from John Cage’s Songbook as part of the Cage Centennial at San Diego State University. Jude received both his bachelor’s and master’s degree in music composition from San Diego State University and currently sings in the Hell’s Kitchen barbershop chorus, Voices of Gotham. (http://composerjude.com)

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