Roethke Readings – The Penile Colony (A Story)

Theadore Roethke Readings ACT and 11th Hour ProductionsThis is a story I wrote that appeared in a book hand-bound by Jennifer Borges Foster accompanying the ACT/Roethke Readings this month. The book includes work by Jonathan Crimmins, Rebecca Hoogs, John Olson, Trisha Ready, and others.

My first father worked as a mechanic on airplanes, but he couldn’t fix his own car, a 1939 Pontiac with secondhand wheels with wooden spokes. It had wheels like a Conestoga. He enforced his rules with a swift smack to my back. My second father worked in a bank and came home after six tired. He took off his jacket and lay on the couch where he snoozed until dinner. After dinner he had a glass of sweet wine that was as thick as molasses and the color of cola. That improved his mood for about half an hour so I could stand him. We played a game of chess. He always won, except for our last game. I started to study chess books and learned chess traps. We sat down to play, and within ten minutes I had him. “Checkmate,” I said. “Checkmate?” He repeated back to me. He sat looking at the board for a long time. “Well,” he finally said. “That settles that. “We didn’t play chess anymore. He never told me his rules, but I knew them.

My third father designed control panels for submarines. He talked with a slow, country drawl and always wore a felt hat. When it rained, which it always did in those days, the hat turned funny colors and all splotchy like a giraffe’s neck. He used to tickle me until the insides of my rib cage felt bruised. The muscles in my belly twitched. He hooked a finger, when I was paralyzed with laughter, under my bra, and peeled it back so that the cups squashed my boobs. He acted like he didn’t know what he was doing. When I squirmed away from him, he would walk slowly after me calling out in his country drawl. During his regime, I lived though an uneasy lawlessness.

After Mom married my fifth father, I asked her,” Why do you marry every other man you meet?” It was getting so every loony, psychopath, and social misfit got wind of her divorce and lined up. “I am in love,” she said. This was her answer for everything. When she started to get ready to kick me out, she told me she loved me. Love for her was the beginning and the end of the story. I figured by my fifth Dad that for Mom it was easier to find a man than find a job. This father came with his own set of rules he wrote on an old piece of cardboard he secretly nailed to the back of the garage door where I wouldn’t see it until I broke one.

After Thanksgiving in the early days of the 1960 Christmas shopping season, when the stores were just getting decorated, and the Salvation Army Santas had just set up buckets on the sidewalks, Mom kicked me out of the house. She said if I wouldn’t follow the rules of the house, I could figure out how they worked on the street. She might have thought after a few days I would return home contrary and eager to do as I was told. Problem was, I was always eager to do as I was told. I just had trouble figuring it out.

I took my bag and went downtown and rented a locker at the Greyhound bus station. When sleep arrived, it didn’t matter that my body wasn’t lying in perfect repose in freshly laundered sheets with soft pillows. I slept most of my life in sheets on a mattress in a room with a door and the familiar shadows of stuffed animals, my chest of drawers, the faint odor of my mother’s dinner lingering in the house. She boiled meat. On the huge wooden benches at the bus station, I approximated sitting, lolling until my head curled into the embrace of the wood worn by the scalps of countless passengers waiting for their cross-country buses. At home, sleep rolled out through the night and I would reluctantly wake in the sheets staring at the morning light streaked across the ceiling of my room.

In the bus station, I woke throughout the night to check the area around me to make sure some pervert, or drunken sailor, hadn’t sidled up to me. My neck kinked as I came to at some early morning of the hour to find a sailor in his whites sitting a respectable distance on the bench next to me. He had his hat over his privates, and the hat danced up and down. I stood suddenly, pain flaring in my back, in my sleeping legs, and I grabbed my coat. I staggered into the middle of the bus station. No one else was awake at the hour. The sailor watched me move. He wasn’t an ugly man, or even plain, but somewhat handsome. His face was flushed from whatever he had been doing to himself. He adjusted himself. He had bothered me, but at least I figured the sailor was honest about what he needed and how he would get it. He was actually looking at me, but, once I was awake, he swept himself up, leaned on the bench for support, and disappeared out the door into the cool, middle of the night. I was awake but aware of the fuzzy feeling in my neck and the back of my knees. I still needed sleep for school in a few hours. I returned to my spot and returned to my troubled slumber. I adjusted myself when the pain of sleeping in an unnatural position became too much.

I showered at the YMCA and then caught the bus to school. In the evening, I returned to Seattle. I sometimes stayed at school for as long as possible because I didn’t have anything to do. I hung out in the art room and drew pictures. The art teacher and sometimes my English teacher drank coffee together and commented on my drawings. I listened carefully in order to follow their instructions. My English teacher said his wife was an artist. At four o’clock, I bought a cup of soup at the dinner and drink a cup of coffee and did my homework, and then finally I napped on the bus.

After two weeks, I let it drop I was sleeping in the bus depot, and one of my friends offered for me to stay at her house. When I moved in, it became clear she wanted company in everything she did. She wanted me to follow her around. If she was reading a book, she wanted me to turn the pages. One night I told her I would have some coffee with some friends. She got her coat. “I’m going by myself,” I said.

“You mean without me?” she asked.

“I’ll be back,” I said.

“You mean I am not invited?”

“I just need some time alone,” I said.

“You mean away from me?”

“We can have coffee together tomorrow night,” I said. In the morning, she wouldn’t talk to me. I didn’t want to go back to her house after school. I did my routine of going to the art room and drawing and killing time. Finally, I went back to her house. It was a week until Christmas. It was raining. They had a Christmas tree. Her parents sat under quilts in the living room watching a program and drinking hot chocolate. “Hey Marge,” they said. My friend kicked me out. She had packed my bag. “It was getting old anyway,” she said.

I ended up at my English teacher’s house in a deal where I would watch their kid, so he and his wife could live an approximation of their life before they had a kid. They were beatniks. Jim had a tiny little patch of beard on his chin. Eva wore stripped t-shirts and cardigans. They both read books and listened to jazz. Their house was small but lined with shelves. I had a room in the basement next to the laundry room. The other room had a cement floor and was used as a kind of workroom and studio where Eva painted.

At first, it was a good situation, because I would look after their kid. He always fell asleep when they went out. I would have the run of the house. They didn’t own a TV, but they had a ton of books and magazines. I read and drank a glass of wine. They returned late in the evening and sat down to eat something before going to be bed. They became closer during those nights out at the jazz clubs in Seattle or the Blue Moon Tavern in Seattle where they visited some of Jim’s old college buddies and sometimes went to parties near the University of Washington campus.

It was from Jim and Eva that I learned about Roethke the greatest poet in the Pacific Northwest. Jim had taken a class from him. “Three months and he told me everything I need to know,” Jim said more than once. He referred to his teacher by his last name, not Professor Roethke or Theodore Roethke, but just Roethke.

Still drunk, even after the drive back from Seattle, Jim slurred his way through all of Roethke’s poem,” The Lost Son. “I had to watch him read it. I stood to say goodnight. Jim stopped reading and asked,” Where are you going?” I sat down. He kept on:

The shape of a rat?

It’s bigger than that.

It’s less than a leg.

And more than a nose.

Just under the water.

It usually goes.

“We were at a party with Roethke,” Jim said. “He was as drunk as everyone else. He was drunker than everyone else, except for the guy who passed out in the lawn. ”

I had applied to the University of Washington. My art teacher and Jim wrote me letters of recommendation. I suppose it would have been possible to enroll in Roethke’s class. Maybe Roethke could tell me what to do, because although everyone else seemed intent on it, but their instructions weren’t giving me a clue.

Jim talked sometimes about the artists Kenneth Callahan, Guy Anderson, and Morris Graves. Eva, in turn talked admiringly about an artist who had lived in Vancouver, Emily Carr. But for these artists, who had grown up in places like Edmonds, although they admired them they also had contempt. Jim figured they fooled people into considering them great artists. They were all right, but… Roethke however didn’t come from anywhere around here. He had ascended from elsewhere, a cloud island drifting over Ireland crowded with a hodgepodge of poets, a veritable anthology of English verse: Dylan Thomas, Keats, T.S. Elliot, and so on. Toward Roethke there wasn’t any jealously, just reverence.

Through January and February that year I thought I was the luckiest girl in school, because I had escaped from my parents’ house and I had escaped from the street, and I was living with a writer and his artist wife — this seemed like a perfect combination to me — and I looked after their peaceful one year old.

But, gradually Eva became suspicious of me. I’m not sure how it started. She began to give me more chores. At first, she liked me to be downstairs watching after the baby while she painted. Jim was upstairs grading papers, and I was downstairs drawing and painting and verifying their kid didn’t kill himself. Eventually, Eva said she needed to do her work in her peace. So I took the baby out in the stroller and visited the river. I tried very carefully to do exactly as she said.

I was accepted to the university that autumn with a scholarship and grant. That night we had a big dinner in my honor and numerous bottles of wine. Jim became very drunk and suggested that after the baby went to sleep,” Lets all get naked!” Tipsy herself, Eva just giggled. I went to lay the baby down and was wondering what he meant,” Let’s all get naked?” When I returned upstairs, Jim and Eva had gone into the bedroom. The door was ajar, and I could hear them. I couldn’t tell whether I should go in there as well, and so I sat on the couch. They finally came out. They played Mingus while I picked up the dishes and washed them, and then I sat on the floor and drank a glass of wine. Eva looked at me. “Congratulations, honey,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said. I was happy again, and I didn’t think about the weird incident again until a couple of nights later I came home and Eva and the baby where gone and it was just Jim and me in the house.

“She finally left us alone,” he said.

“Where is she?” I asked.

“She’s at her mother’s house. Her father isn’t doing well and needs help. ”

“Shouldn’t you be with them?”

“I have papers to grade.”

“Shouldn’t you be grading them?”

“I graded them already,” he said. “After three years of reading these papers, I’ve already read everything these kids are capable of writing.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Personal essays,” he said. “Individual expression is fine, but seventeen-year old kids aren’t individuals.”

“Is that how you felt about me?”

“I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about the students in class where I work.”

When he said this, I thought he was giving me a pass. I thought maybe I was no longer just one of those students in the class where he worked.

He got out of a bottle of wine, and he put on Mingus. We ate cheese and slices of ham for dinner and oranges for desert. After we finished the bottle of wine, he opened another.

I kissed him because he wanted me to kiss him. I hadn’t thought about boys one or the other the entire year — being more concerned with where I was going to sleep. We were on the couch drinking wine and kissing and pretty soon I was folded up under him, and I had to pee. I wanted him to stop, but then I didn’t want to be rude. I had never done this before, and then I started to cry when I realized what had happened and that I still had to pee. I jumped up and went to the bathroom and half expected blood or something, but there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t expect.

When I came back he was saying, even before I got there, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” We sat on the couch listening to the record. It came to the end. The needle lifted and ratcheted into its slot. “You should make sure to brush your teeth,” he said.

When I woke, Eva was back and so was the baby. I could hear the baby crying. I went upstairs, drank cold coffee still in the pot, and dressed for school. School had lost its importance. The kids there were obsessed with baseball games and now in the spring with the sequence of parties and dances leading up to graduation it all seemed quaint. I liked sitting with my old friends, and listening to them talk, but what they were talking about had nothing to do with me.

Eva suggested I move out. She found an apartment for me near the University District. She said I would have to find a job or something in order to pay the rent, but I had my own place.

“But what about the help with the baby?”

“We’ll figure it out,” Eva said. “I don’t think it works having you in the house with Jim and me. You’ve been a wonderful guest.

She took me to the apartment, and I couldn’t believe I would have my very own place. Already, Jim had moved a few pieces of furniture there, old things they didn’t need. He wasn’t there. I could tell from Eva’s careful expression I shouldn’t ask about him. Eva said to me, “Good luck,” and shook my hand, and then left me alone. I had a door I could lock.

I slept there the first night. I woke in the middle of the night imagining that a sailor was sitting in the corner. I could hear sounds outside in the street. In the morning, I dressed and walked down the block and came to a boulevard filled with used bookstores. A cat languished in one window. People played music. Kids sat on one of the walls and smoked then beyond that there was the campus where I would go after the summer.

I walked across the campus and thought maybe I would see Roethke. Maybe he would be there somewhere teaching people to write poetry? The campus was filled with wild plants, huge rhododendrons, and gigantic trees that I couldn’t even see the tops of unless I stopped and stared right up at the sky.

Nothing had happened in my life to make me what I was, and yet I was a person, even if people like Jim and Eva didn’t know what to do with me, besides doing what any drunken sailor would do, which was to make me do things for them. They didn’t want to hear what I had to say or what I had to think. They liked an audience. I wondered if I could draw or paint or write or do something that anyone would be interested in? I had this image of myself as one of those portrait artists down by the waterfront, painting people who stopped. Everyone was interested in his own portrait.

Walking through the campus with its view of Mount Rainier and the distant choppy water on Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains I wondered why the school had been built to look the way it did. It looked the way a college campus was supposed to look, and this made me suspicious. There were gothic building, lead-paned glass, a general Cambridge-Oxford-Harvard pastiche. It looked real enough, but the overall effect was chintzy and put on. I could pretend to be anywhere. The view was the one thing that wrecked the illusion that this was some real institution of higher learning.

It occurred to me I could see Roethke if he was here. I could find where he was and go to his class. I went to the library and found a map and asked where I could find the English Department. An old woman at the department said Roethke taught class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2:30 in Denny Room 213. I would skip school the next day to see him.

That night, I found a job waiting tables. I read books in my apartment and drew pictures at the Formica table. In the morning, I caught the bus to school, though. I didn’t want to return. Jim paid no attention to me during the class. I left school at noon and took the bus back to Seattle and went to stand outside Room 213.

I stood in the hallway and looked at the students arrive one by one. They came in and looked out the window. They learned on the desks. They smoked and chatted. 2:30 came and went. No one resembling a teacher came. At 2:45 a thickset man, not fat exactly, but fleshy and dripping with sweat, his tie flung over one shoulder rushed up to the door. He paused to breath in heavily, and then he blanched when he saw the students in the room. He looked at me standing in the hallway. “Do you need help?” he asked me. He kept trying to catch his breath.

“I’m going to be a student here in the autumn,” I said.

“You do need help but that is beyond my powers,” he said. “I think a handful of reputable universities are still accepting applications. You will need to make haste.”

He seemed perfectly happy standing in the hallway. He was a man with freely wandering eyes. He looked at from head to chest. That seemed to calm him down.

“Are you the teacher?” I asked.

“I’m the professor,” he said. He seemed glad that I had asked because he reached for the door. “I don’t teach.”

He threw open the door. “Class!” he hollered with a deep-throated burst, and launched into some speech as the door closed. I watched him through the glass in the door where it seemed safer, although the class appeared unmoved by his shout. He glanced back at me to confirm the effectiveness of his entrance. After he turned, I left the musty school building down the marble steps to where I could feel the wind racing over Lake Washington and through the too tall trees. What did he mean,” I don’t teach?” Wasn’t that the job of a teacher to tell students what to do? Everyone wanted me to do what he said. I realized I didn’t know what I wanted to do myself, but I would do something.

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