26 February 2010 | Vol. 9, No. 4

Erwin Sturgeon's Surprise

Two slender she's sauntered by on gilt heels. Weather: balmy. The place: an adult-ed lobby like the set of a Busby Berkeley film, but before the extras have shuffled on. How would the pair of women have handled a dissolute tumble into a pool with the best boy? They wouldn't have considered it. They would, however, consider backstroking through glistening patches of urban air in June. They shimmered like literature to Nan, a hungry reader with lush pages to turn. She didn't know which pages she should prefer.

Authors, aloof, were self-service machines. Adults floated, not really heeding, their manners fixed, like fascinating actors swiveling by synchronized, and much older than she. For instance, the two Ladies, talking together obsessively, always made sleek motions of sucking iced tea.

The Ladies were also synchronized as writers, fluttering luminously at the edge of the dais in novelist Erwin Sturgeon's fiction-writing workshop. Erwin Sturgeon was not his real name. But he persisted in using the fake name, partly because the tactic helped to set his class apart.

Nan found she couldn't write easily for him. The mornings kept getting scrawnier. Between seven and eight, all the time she had, she was supposed to pen her unpremeditated feelings, before she had time to resent or even consider them. But little details would obstruct her.

The ferret chased. A door slammed. She thought about things, when she wasn't supposed to be thinking. About characters. Was it a bad thing when they resembled, too closely, the people one knew? Should one ever use the word "one"? When? What were the rules?!

I was once a spontaneous person, but now I am a serious person, she mulled, having no means of saying so with the indirection favored by Erwin Sturgeon. Where could a story go if it began with the sentence: "I was once a spontaneous person, but now…"?

Maybe she should drink tea. Maybe she drank too much tea, that was the problem. In class on Monday nights, Erwin drank nothing. His big hands picked at his bits of sideburns and small, fuzzy, close-grown head.

The hazel eyes could be intimidating. "Are you sure you can't find more time late at night 'safe' for your writing?" he asked her, querulous. He liked her story about herding ("though cattle are not staked") but felt she could make more of it. "It's a bagatelle." "Try."

Farming was her metaphor, or medifor, as one of the magazines called it. She wrote about pigs who knew more than their keepers. She wrote about a guy who ran a mole-ridden pear orchard. She tried a story about a bee who got trapped in a bottle of honey. Then she lost interest.

Erwin: "We can't really care about the bee or the honey. They don't move us. Where's the parable? Nan, are you moved?"

"The bee and the honey bore me," she heard herself say.

He wasn't just a novelist but also quite a powerful critic. Erwin Sturgeon was so nervously alive that he would bring along "real" novelists to the class, whether to reassure himself or provoke saliva.

The novelists were like verbal baubles, lurching and crowing. Hickory-cured hair, unraveling. Nasal booming sounds. Average clothes, which translated to below-average compared with the novelists' vaunted distinction. Nan closed her eyes. Could she remember any color other than maroon? A real cheapskate hue.

Rarely did the novelists stick to perching sidesaddle on the rim of class. Rather, they were dominant participants, casting slippery shadows. Their noses jutted. They talked a lot. It was like writing but never being edited. Fun!

They talked mainly among themselves or to Erwin. Their gung-ho conversations formed a knotty mass of fabric, added to weekly like a vanguard installation. Students eyed the fabric with awe or amusement. The unmade portion of it (the woof?) appealed most—the unsaid. Jabber veiled the way to this, but parted occasionally, allowing a glimpse.

This was how writers spoke, Nan concluded: with zigzag self-interest. Gossip about great sentences. A learning experience for everyone.

But none of them would be caught dead speaking to her, for she wasn't a real writer. So their talk was unmoored, and intended to be: veering words.

During the eight-week course, she glommed on to Lenny, long-waisted champ of epigraphs who enjoyed Victoriana and annoyed Erwin. While soft-spoken and gleamingly respectful, Lenny knew what he liked and wouldn't just say yes to whatever he didn't, although Sturgeon exhorted them often enough to open their minds.

"Listen up, kids! Phone's ringing and it's Borges at the other end."

Len preferred pre-modern English gnomes and wizards to the more mainstream South American type. He preferred the ingrown literary north. He would've liked to live in an outhouse in Dorset, with yews circling it, and collect his tea leaves for compost. Idly Lenny fingered an out-of-date globe whose nations had Latin names riding on browning continents. The rivers: old Slurpees.

He was the youngest son of psychotherapists whose Central Park West apartment swelled with wood paneling and two grand pianos. Ingenuously Lenny entertained her with the tinkling waves of his own compositions. His pale hands trickled in vague-souled preludes. That lasted a couple of hours. Next, he played Schubert for her. As a lyric talent, he seemed credulous. Lenny liked the pretty sound, not realizing he hadn't invented it even when he had. (He was just an inheritor, interpreting.) Yet he achieved an old-fashioned musical authority when playing music not his. Authority came naturally to him when he least deserved it, translating him into himself.

His facility demanded muscle. This he could give. He rode his unicycle down Sixth Avenue en route to class. Technically, Lenny was entitled to prowess. Nan could neither hold that against him nor find a way to feel jealous.

She grew fond of her failures, her botched efforts to write and impress. She would rather stay in character no matter what, even if it meant picking fights with Erwin and the rest, even if it meant she heard the stage-managed tone of Velcro ripping apart anytime Erwin offered a waspishly misguided opinion of her "work."

The class took to bickering. Though at first they seemed to savor the high-minded clowning of their teacher, his bumptious prestige, the visiting novelists must have done some damage, in fits. Ominously his dear ones, the students, began talking less. Then out of nowhere there would surge from one of them a hostile comment about Paul Bowles. While Erwin was intent on demonstrating that cruelty could offer redemption in certain Bowles stories, especially to coddled American readers in their twenties, one of the twin Ladies, herself "older," raised her hand.

"You know, that is bullshit."

"Huh?" (Erwin minimalism.)

"I've never heard anything stupider unless it came out of the mouths of my students, who don't know how to read."

"Well, Bowles isn't always a hit with the girls."

"Girls, shit."

The Lady said no more, and didn't need to. A critic had spoken, and spoken with unusual negative conviction. Even Erwin, an esteemed book reviewer for national publications, avoided "no" words in his literary journalism. He tried to sound more judicious. (Or someone helped him.) He wanted to rise above petty finger-pointing and standard righteousness. He'd rather dwell on ideas, munch them, hump them, mingle. All while wearing a nice jacket and hanging on somehow to the loyalty of novelists, who needed him.

He needed them, especially if they were living. Eavesdropping, Erwin would reach out and seize a word, often someone else's word, and keep it for himself like a lucky stone. Later, it fell out of his hand. Gratuitously he let it go. Then on to the next word as he returned to revising his third novel.

And he probably couldn't help borrowing the ideas of his students, Nan reasoned. What else could they offer him? Just a circle of mostly surly white faces, commuting once a week from Astoria or Manhasset. They were at least younger; Erwin's respectability must cut him off from writing about some experiences. They could steer him on that. And there was the lingo, the way plain people talked. They could remind him!

So when a chapter of the teacher's novel ran in Harper's and included a Shandian set-piece about all the different kinds of tomato blight ("blotch," "green shoulder"), Nan thought she shouldn't feel wounded. He had taken raw info from one of her farming stories, just to make a metaphor, or medifor, from the tomatoes. To him it meant almost nothing. His antiseptic care in ferrying the info, though, did annoy her, and she was confounded by his indifference to where the medifor had come from—from herself, her agronomical context. She was writing (trying to write) about life, as embodied in tomatoes. He was making medifors—and money.

Lenny tried to keep her from brooding over Erwin's plagiarism; he introduced her to the wiry, disembodied wails of Michigan monks, recorded on CD. His face, sapped by late nights dedicated to French musical impressionism, regarded her like an albino lava-lamp, lit and tilting.

His damp hand crept out and patted hers, but Lenny was engaged to a girl from Bangkok. She pictured him packing his unicycle for international baggage check-in, then spinning in traffic on the world's other side.

Why can't all writers do it? What prevents us? If you can't do it, should you try anyway?

When not too disgruntled, the class could provide a fair audience for her questions, fair like single-minded listening protoplasm. Their prejudices interfered now and then, but no vast ulterior motive. When Len showed up, he would even dare sometimes to disagree with Erwin.

For example, take the purple mouse. In Nan's farming fiction, a work-in-progress, she had gotten sort of into field mice. She was experimenting with point-of-view. For, to a farmer, a mouse was one thing—bad news to his corn. To a rural tax accountant, though, it meant something else: a coy mess in the lunchroom. Or to a barnyard cat (lunch). To someone mixing up a plum pie in August who accidentally baked a mouse tail in with the fruit, no such thing as a mouse existed at that moment. But to that kid who received the slice, the tail would be hard to miss. He might wonder: Was it in fact a mouse tail? How had it gotten there? And where was the rest of the mouse? Swamped by sweet juices, the trim little tool had absorbed the rosy stain, though some would have called it magenta-brown. Was a purple mouse then possible?

The kid would spread the rumor that it was. Next, attacked as a fantasist or a crackpot by his friends and family, this boy would find himself in the odd position of needing to come up with a rationale for purple, a conceptual support structure for his fancy. And that would start him thinking. He would have to think alone, because no one would join him. He would need to imagine life as a purple mouse, becoming a mouse himself… One thing led to another, until the boy's memory and imagination were thrilled, then taxed. Just like a writer.

And Nan stopped there, unsure of where to take her vignette of inappropriate purpleness. When she had finished reading the story aloud, classmate Monique raised her hand and spoke with a reelingly confident French accent. (She came from Quebec City.)

"Clearly this germ of a tale offers a case, in allegory form, of post-colonial racial hegemony and subsequent class conflict. It's about a war among the mice. It's about deef-ayr-ahnss. The mouse that he is a drab brown of fur, eeeee hates the mouse who is uv cooh-luhr."

"Have you ever known a mouse well?" Lenny asked Monique. "They're quite unassuming. They race by on tiny wheels for feet. They have dark, glossy eyes, and intelligent ears, big and floating like candelabra. They aren't big readers."

"Let's forget Continental theory," Erwin decided. "Nan, have you been reading Günter Grass?"

Grass wasn't popular with Erwin and his friends, partly because of the German's political bravado and "convenient" symbolism, but also because Grass was by now too old to be in.

"No, I haven't been reading him."

"He's relevant to where you're going with the purple stuff. Very. Try Cat and Mouse."

In fact, she was a great reader; she worked in a library. Not a public library, but a desperately efficient one run for the use of a corporation with offices on 37th Street. A symptom of her growing dismay over Erwin, et al., was the uncozy fact of Nan's increasingly slipshod attention while manning her desk.

Not that she had to meet and greet very many at her job. Mostly she fielded email queries from the staff researchers, found them their sources, answered the phone, and so on. The blandness of order billowed at her wrist.

Maybe it was the fruitlessness of filing systems and dim fluorescence that led her to digress about cattle in her stories. Her brief lunch breaks often sent her grazing to the very last of the midtown mom-and-pop drugstores, where BLT's were served by an unself-conscious frump. Nan felt like a character rejected from an Edward Hopper painting, superseded by a more demanding clarity and its pomp. Hopper had chosen the frump over herself because at least the frump knew she was one.

Hot, hotter, hottest, the inchoate sizzle stank on the streets, with professionals walking around like lotus blossoms writhing up from rancid mud. Somehow, they would survive and transcend. She wouldn't unless she could keep writing.

Though decorous in her seeming determination, mentally she flopped about. She built knock-kneed word lists and leaned insistently into staggering paragraphs. She learned all the different kinds of cover crops in New York State. Nan tried fixing her attention on things, on anything, because the details she collected over time might accrete and finally create someone.

Two weeks before class ended, she scheduled a private conference with Erwin. It seemed like a good idea to be candid and yet also thin-skinned with him, to anticipate attack or chagrin by feeling bad in advance—then climb out of it. She pined to receive The Verdict from a man of letters. Lenny, five years older, patiently coached her.

"Appeal to him by tacitly admitting that you make mistakes and would like to do better. Reach out to him as someone who has also made mistakes." Then he said the whole thing over again in Hungarian.

Erwin ended up chatting with her mostly about her oddness as a New Yorker who wrote about rams, chicks, and John Deere farm implements. "Is this a fantasy for you? And should you explore it as such?" he intoned, like a pediatrician with a bottle and a spoon, testing her rancor before dosing her. The questions were too personal for him to put forward fairly; he barely knew her, and didn't plan on getting to know her. Really, he didn't want to know her. Still, she was touched, if remotely.

Since she didn't have the answers yet, it was safe to disappoint him. That was fine, since he didn't want to hear them. She wondered if she'd turn up, rewritten, later on in Harper's. Erwin surprised her by softening his usual patter to suit the mild pall of their little room. The quiet alarmed her; she couldn't spy her own guarded semi-profile. Her ankles shriveled. Her skin abruptly grew mottled, as if worrying were purely physical—a rash, treatable. She realized then that she didn't really need Erwin.

"How'd it go?" Len still wished to learn whatever, from whomever.

She didn't. Not for now.

And that was how she came to take up with the Ladies. They of the gilt heels, the prancing in lobbies, and the fearless repartee. She would be their apprentice in character, the fatal duckling.

After the final class in August, as she sent her last subtle salvo across the rickety "seminar" table to Erwin, who merely smiled as though puzzled, Nan caught or was caught by the glance of the woman who'd told off Sturgeon two weeks before. This person tapped Nan on the shoulder. "How old are you?" "Seventeen," Nan replied dryly. "Well, you are already too good. Have coffee with us," the Lady commanded.

As Nan stumbled out with them, wearing flimsy socks and her cousin Mona's leftover raincoat, she sensed grandeur on the way. Though only would-be writers, the Ladies were already out of her league and beyond Erwin in sophistication, disobedience, character, raillery—fictional and actual.

Temporarily, she would stop writing.

And think? And listen.

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About the author:

Molly McQuade has published fiction previously in TriQuarterly and elsewhere. Her story, "Whiffle Ball," was chosen for inclusion in the PEN Syndicated Fiction Project.

For further reading:

See the complete list of work by Molly McQuade at 42opus. Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 9, No. 4, where "Erwin Sturgeon's Surprise" ran on February 26, 2010. List other work with these same labels: fiction, short story.

42opus is an online magazine of the literary arts.

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