We’re back from our break and excited to bring you our first Hinge Essay!
In conjunction with At Length magazine, we’re happy to present Ben Miller and his essay “Ghosts of the Mississippi,” a selection from his new collection River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa from our friends at Lookout Books.
Ben will be checking in here at The Hinge throughout the week to respond to your questions and comments and we’re looking forward to the discussion. We hope you’ll join us!
Ben will also be appearing at The Regulator at 7 pm on Monday, April 15. We’ll see you there!
Ghosts of the Mississippi
In Davenport, Iowa, where I grew up, there was an elderly woman who had encountered Flannery O’Connor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 1940s. I heard Blanche’s side of the story many times but never tired of it, partially because she did not take any relish in the telling, always pushing her water glass aside, as though the liquid might become infected by the dirty details. Blanche lived in the Mississippi Hotel with her twin sister, Sadie. Their rooms offered a quizzical view of what downtown Davenport offered: infantry of parking meters, granite hulls of department stores weathering poor sales, levee mélange, and the tugboat-pushed barges riding one of those bends in the Mississippi River that lend eastern Iowa the silhouette of ruptured fruit. Jazz genius and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, the city’s most famous native, had once described it all by raising his horn and walking out the notes of his winsome composition “Davenport Blues.” Blanche and Sadie must have heard the tune, though Blanche was sure to have dismissed it. In winter, when sidewalks were icy, these tiny sisters clung to the building bricks, creeping like paisley-scarfed mountain climbers with a disdain for the vertical. Neither had married. Both smoked like factory chimneys and sported fine coats of facial down that appeared blond or brown, depending on whether the shades were drawn. From a distance of twenty feet, one might have thought they were identical twins. But to get up close was to note only differences. Sadie’s blue eyes, Blanche’s green ones. Sadie’s wide smile, Blanche’s thin frown. Sadie’s lilting voice, Blanche’s academic drone. Once I had occasion to fetch Blanche from the hotel, whose lobby was scary with couch cushions squashed into the shapes of those no longer on the planet. The elevator shivered, clanked, arrived on the right floor, the edgy hall. I knocked on the metal apartment door. Sadie answered, wearing a robe, and as I was asking her to tell Blanche that her ride was waiting downstairs, Blanche popped out from behind the robe. It was like seeing an atom split. After graduating from the University of Iowa with an MA in English literature, Blanche had immediately enrolled in business school and, a few years later, received an accounting degree—smart move, given her attachment to formal verse, a kind of writing she never gave up, continually testing herself against the sonnet, the sestina, the villanelle, and reading the results at meetings of various writing groups. One of these, Writers’ Studio, is where we met in the autumn of 1978, when I was fourteen.
I joined the club during my recovery from the starvation diet that had halved my weight, from a high of more than two hundred pounds, and granted me a first ghost, the fat boy whispering in my ear: “Did I deserve that? I ate only what you told me to.” I had found the meeting time and place listed in the Quad-City Times and asked my mother to drop me off there, in front of a tenement on a side street in deserted downtown Rock Island, Illinois, across the river from Davenport. It was night: she was glad to do things like that at night. It made things exciting. For some of her children it worked out better than for others. She sped away. A newer car pulled up, parked, and out climbed a man in a tan belted overcoat. He wore a cap, carried a briefcase, smoked a sweet-smelling pipe: awesome. “Here to attend the meeting?” he asked. I said I was. He looked surprised, but extended his pink hand. “I’m Howard Koenig. What’s yours?” I forced it out, loud. Howard nodded and produced an old key that opened the door to the rest of my life. It was dark inside, and still pretty dark even after he’d flicked a switch. Together we climbed a narrow creaking staircase to another door off a hall with all the charisma of an Alcatraz tunnel. Howard, enveloped in maroon pipe haze, unlocked that door, too. We entered the musty room rented by the club. More lights, brighter lights, were flicked on, and I saw that steam heat had cooked the colors out of the walls. The meeting table was crooked. But such sad details, one after another, failed to temper my jubilation. I had shaken the hand of one Howard Koenig. He had taken off the coat to reveal a green chiffon suit and tie that went with. He was relating things I should know. He worked in a civilian capacity for the Army Armament Materiel Readiness Command at the Rock Island Arsenal (the military compound situated on an actual island, as the city of Rock Island was not). His favorite author was Edgar Allan Poe, with whom he shared a birthday. His first wife had died in a car accident out East and after that he had moved to the Midwest. He had remarried. Her name was Rita. They had children.
I was decades younger than any other club member. This did not seem strange to me. I had long been the outgoing misfit who found acceptance only in unconventional social circles, befriending school janitors, parking lot guards, neighborhood shut-ins—those ruminating fragile retirees. But I was a novelty to Writers’ Studio. Members stared happily as they settled onto the folding chairs. Bifocals abounded, and every pair welcomed my long stringy hair and the scar-like facial niches that dieting had cut. No one said a thing about the yellow scampish T-shirt bearing the white iron-on letters I had requested at the mall kiosk where a man would put any words on any rag you handed him. I had picked the Bob Dylan song title: DESOLATION ROW. I returned the smiles of my welcomers. Howard, club president, waived the dollar attendance fee in my case. The lady who introduced herself as Blanche lit a cigarette in approval of the move, before qualifying her enthusiasm, snapping: “We shall see.” We shall, I thought. Some strangers were mysteries inviolate and other strangers were mysteries you felt like you knew, despite knowing nothing. I saw ballpoint pens astride notepads, spiral and bound—it was one of the oldest sights in my life, the blank page to fill with colors and then, soon enough, embroider with letters and words, with a will to seek answers if not necessarily to find, and accept, them. “What have you brought to read us?” Howard asked me right off, and when I said I had come to listen—this time—there were appreciative murmurs. It meant, they thought, that I was polite. I let it mean that, too. Their affection, any love—good or bad—had me. I was the fool for love. I fell all the way, with no strings attached to their warmth to keep me from falling. They had spotted a fellow traveler. At the end of the first meeting of rhymes I was admonished to come back the following Thursday for more grins that were genuine (even if the teeth might not have been). How could I refuse? Iowa City had its aloof workshop, open only to geniuses imported and later exported, like a secret trade in diamonds, but in the most bizarre and comical way Writers’ Studio was more exclusive. Who, seeing our figures spill out of the building, could have imagined what we had been doing up there? Previously I had had but two allies I could totally trust: stroke-stricken Granny Stanley and our neighbor the widower Mr. Hickey, clad in a clip-on bow tie, polka-dotted or striped. Sitting beside Granny’s four-poster bed, and in Mr. Hickey’s immaculate kitchen, had taught me the rhythm and substance of genial patter with the aged, training that had come in handy on this night. I liked acting as if I hailed from an era when I wasn’t born yet. It was the most reliable way of briefly lightening the load that had come of being born to a certain couple on November 5, 1963, a few weeks before JFK’s assassination. “See you later, alligator,” I chirped at worried club members after convincing each, individually, that it was permissible to drive off to a post-meeting snack and leave me in the dark at a pay phone across from the extinguished glow of the Walgreens drugstore cursive. “My mother’ll come . . . ” “Aren’t you hungry?” No, I lied. “She’ll come . . . soon.” “You could call her from the place.” But I didn’t have money for a snack, nor did I feel I’d earned the right to dine with writers who had published in Highlights and Guideposts. I was in awe of their old-school grammar, marketing tips, typescripts. “See you later, alligator!”
Our friend Duncan Murrell, Writer-in-Residence at the Center for Documentary Studies, has an interview with Ben Miller here.
And don’t forget to add your questions and comments to our discussion with Ben below.
Ben Miller’s debut memoir, River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa, is forthcoming from Lookout Books in March 2013. He has published in AGNI, the Antioch Review, Ecotone, the Kenyon Review, and One Story, among other journals, and his essays have been reprinted or noted six times in Best American. He lives in New York City with his wife, the poet Anne Pierson Wiese.