Clear as Cake

Marvin Helgarson smoked a pipe. When he listened to us, he nipped at the pipe—pah, pah, pah—the way that people who smoke pipes do, and when he told us things about our writing, he jabbed the pipe in the air for emphasis. I liked Marvin Helgarson. He was tall, not just everyday tall but tall even by Minnesota standards, though that’s not why I liked him. I’m just trying to give details, what Marvin Helgarson called “salient features.”

The class met Tuesday evenings in the Humanities Building library, sixteen of us wedged in around two long wooden tables that came together in a T with Marvin Helgarson at the head. It felt like Thanksgiving the first night, all of us too close together and filled with dread, though later, after Marvin Helgarson explained about perspective, I could see that maybe that was just my perspective.

“Liars and thieves,” said Marvin Helgarson to get things going. “That’s what you get with a room full of writers.” He rose and swept out his arms like Jesus to include us all.

He meant it as an icebreaker, and most of us chuckled, but the woman across from me said, “Oh dear. I didn’t know anything about that”—meaning, I guess, that she had a different idea about writers and writing, a different idea about what she had signed up for. Her name was Wanda, and she had large warts on her chin and cheeks, and later these warts would appear on the characters in her stories. We were always nervous about discussing them, worrying, I suppose, that we might read something into the warts that Wanda had not intended and that she would know then what it was that people saw when they looked at her.

“Wanda,” said Marvin Helgarson, “I don’t mean writers are really thieves.” He paused, picked up his pipe, and sucked on it. “It’s more like when someone lends you a pen to use, and then you just don’t give it back.” About lying, he said nothing.

“You’re going to be working together intimately,” Marvin Helgarson said, “so you need to know who you’re dealing with.” He asked for a volunteer to begin the introductions, and Fred Erickson, who was wearing a tie with a treble clef on it, jumped right in, describing his family and hobbies and years as the director of a choir in Idaho, from which he was now retired. Idaho seemed far away to me, and I wondered how he had ended up in Moorhead, Minnesota, but I didn’t ask because I was intimidated by my classmates, most of whom came to campus once a week for this class but were adults with jobs and families the rest of the time.

I took a lot of notes that semester, tips that Marvin Helgarson shared to help us with our writing, like when he told us that sometimes the things that seemed most compelling to write about should not really be written about at all. They were just anecdotes, he said, odd things that had happened to us that were interesting to discuss in a bar but were not literary, by which he meant that they could not transcend the page. He explained this the first night of class, jabbing the air with his pipe so that we understood it was important, and then he said it again several months later when we discussed the nutty lady’s story about a woman who cleaned rest stops along I-94. In the story, the woman and her cleaning partner were finishing the rest area near Fergus Falls when they discovered a body inside one of the trashcans. The story, which was just two pages long, mainly a lot of boring details about cleaning that lent veracity, ended like this: “The woman was dead and she was also naked. We were shocked and scared, and after the police came, we finished the bathrooms and went home.”

When Marvin explained to the nutty lady that it wasn’t really a short story, that it was more of an anecdote, she stood up. “Anecdote?” she said. “This really happened, you know. It happened to me, right after my ass-wipe husband left, and I had to be at that job every morning at six.” She snorted. “Anecdote.” Then, she walked out. It was late, nearly nine o’clock, and we could hear her footsteps echoing, not only because the building was empty but because she was wearing ski boots.

We didn’t see the crazy lady again, but at the beginning of the next class Marvin showed us what she had left in his mailbox: a manila envelope with our stories for the week, chopped into strips with a paper cutter. You see, she really was crazy. But also, she’d had enough of us I think, enough of us telling her stuff about her writing. Three weeks earlier, she’d submitted a story about a woman whose vagina hurt all the time, except when she was having sex. As a result, her husband, who was a farmer, got very tired of having sex all the time and told her that she needed to go to the doctor to have her vagina checked. “I’m putting my foot down” is what he said, which made me laugh, though I didn’t say so because I didn’t think the story was supposed to be funny.

The woman and her husband spoke with what seemed like Irish accents, but when they drove into town to see the doctor, they drove to Bemidji, which is in Minnesota. I raised my hand and said they sounded Irish, pointing to things like “lassie” and “thar” because Marvin had told us to back up our comments with examples from the text, but the crazy lady looked pleased when I said they sounded Irish. “Yes,” she said. “They’re from Ireland. They moved to Minnesota when they were young in order to have an adventure and be farmers and also because something tragic happened to them in Ireland and they needed a fresh start.”

“I guess I missed that,” I said and began shuffling back through the story.

“No,” she said. “It doesn’t say it. It’s just something I know. I was creating a life for my characters off the page, the way that Marvin said we should.”

“That’s a lot to have off the page,” pointed out Thomas in what I thought was a very nice voice. Thomas was also one of the older students in the class. The first salient feature about Thomas was that his parents met at a nudist colony, where they were not nudists because they worked in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and frying meat. The other salient feature about Thomas was that he was a minister. I knew these things because he sometimes wrote his sermons at Jack’s, the bar that I hung out at, and one night we drank a pitcher of beer together and talked, but when we saw each other in class the next week, we both felt awkward.

“But the story isn’t about them leaving Ireland,” said the crazy lady triumphantly. “It’s about”—she paused because I guess even a crazy lady feels strange saying “vagina” to a minister—“the pain in her female parts.”

None of us knew what to say, so we looked down at the story, at the scene in which the woman and her husband, who was tired from having sex all the time, visited the doctor. When she was in the doctor’s office, lying on the table with her feet in the stirrups, the doctor, who was an elderly man, positioned himself between her legs and called out, “Three fingers going.”

This was supposed to be a minor detail I think, but Tabatha, who was a feminist, got mad. “That’s ridiculous,” she yelled at the crazy lady. “What kind of a doctor would say, ‘Three fingers going’?”

“Doctors are just regular people,” the crazy lady yelled back. “They get tired of saying the same things over and over, day after day. This doctor is like that. He’s old, and he’s tired. I am showing that he’s a regular person who is exhausted and wants to retire. I am developing his character.”

“That’s not development,” Tabatha said. “Then the story becomes about him, about how he’s a misogynist and is going to get sued one of these days for saying things like ‘three fingers going’ to women when they’re in a vulnerable position.”

Tabatha was not someone that I wanted to be friends with, but I liked having her in class because she never disappointed me. Her first story, called “Cardboard Jesus,” was about this guy Bart who spends all day watching television, and then one day a cardboard man jumps out of the TV and starts going on and on about how Bart needs to change his life, so Bart names the little man Cardboard Jesus. Finally, Bart gets tired of Cardboard Jesus making him feel bad about his life, so he puts Cardboard Jesus in the garbage disposal. The story ends with Cardboard Jesus getting chewed up, and the last line is him calling out from inside the disposal, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

Most of us did not really care for “Cardboard Jesus.” I said that it seemed unlikely, and Marvin said, “Are we talking character believability?” and I said that I couldn’t really put my finger on it but that there wasn’t a character worth rooting for in the whole piece. Tabatha snorted and said, “It’s not a football game,” even though we weren’t supposed to talk when our story was being discussed.

“Maybe it’s the dialogue,” I said finally.

Just the week before, Marvin had explained about dialogue, how it’s supposed to sound like a normal conversation except less boring. Our dialogues, it turned out, had too much verisimilitude. “Look,” Marvin had said. “Imagine a guy goes into McDonald’s and says, ‘I’d like a Big Mac and fries,’ and then the cashier says, ‘OK, that’ll be $4.05,’ and the guy pays and walks out with his burger and fries.” He paused. “Typical conversation, right?” and we nodded. “So what’s wrong with putting that conversation in a story?” he asked.

Tabatha’s hand went up. “Why is everything always about McDonald’s?” she said. “I would never have that conversation, because I would never go to McDonald’s.” She looked around the table. “Or Burger King,” she added, pre-empting the possibility of a setting change.

Marvin Helgarson sighed. “Fine,” he said. “But my point is that this conversation is only interesting if one of them says something we don’t expect, if the cashier says, ‘No, sir, you may not have a Big Mac and fries.’ Then you have a story.” Tabatha started to speak, probably planning to point out that the cashier was doing the man a favor, but Marvin held up his hand at her. “Dialogue,” he explained, “is all about power shifting back and forth.” His pipe volleyed illustratively through the air.

“What’s wrong with my dialogue?” Tabatha asked, looking at me and making her eyes small.

“I don’t know,” I said. Her dialogue was the opposite of what Marvin had cautioned us about. It didn’t have any verisimilitude. “I guess it just feels sort of biblical.”

The crazy lady raised her hand and said that there was nothing biblical about the story. She said the story was libelous, and Marvin said, “I think you mean blasphemous,” and she said that she knew what she meant and so did God. Thomas said nothing, even though he was a minister, and then Tabatha announced that everyone had missed the point, which was that “Cardboard Jesus” was a “modern-day crucifixion story.”

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One Response to Clear as Cake

  1. Bill Burnyeat says:

    I liked this. I taught a writing class once and was bombarded with dull stories.
    So, I talked to the students, privately, trying to draw them out. Many of them had great things to say. One told me about a street car rider who sat on the front of the car. It bumped him off and his leg was amputated. This did not stop him. He continued this practice and it bumped, he fell, the other leg was lost. I said: that’s great. But, the students were all afraid to follow these things. They said people who knew the families etc. might be offended.
    I think you are a very fine writer,

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