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I always think of Iowa as a place where strange and magical things happen. Not sleight of hand, card tricks, pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat kind of magic--nothing as literal and obvious as that. What I'm thinking of is vaguer, subtler, harder to pin down and yet more genuine. It's an ambiance, a spirit, an intimation of things unseen, a sense that there could be a little bit of slippage, just the tiniest room for negotiation, in the ordinary order of things.
Most people I know think of Iowa as anything but magical. They think of it--of the whole Midwest--as flat, dull, conventional, a place where mostly boring and mundane things happen. And maybe it is, regarded in a certain way. Maybe life is like a hologram: Hold it up to the light at one angle and it all looks ordinary; tilt it another way and everything shifts, glows, turns strange.
I have a friend who says you always fall in love with the place you fall in love in, and I'm sure she's right, I'm sure that's partly why I think of Iowa this way. And I'm sure it also has to do with who I fell in love with--with Jim Beaman, his particular way of seeing things, his demons and angels. It even, unexpectedly, has to do with what became of him--with death, that mystifying disappearing act that has its own brand of terrible magic, that in the end may be the most magical thing of all.
But even the first time I saw it, entering Iowa from Illinois, I was struck by something unusual in the Iowa countryside. I was driving a small U-Haul truck, moving here from Massachusetts. Earlier I'd passed through a massive thunderstorm. You could actually see it coming--the black clouds towering up ahead in the distance; the rain spattering on the windshield, then turning torrential; thunder rumbling then booming then crrracking, as if the very fabric of the world were splitting; flashes of lightning streaking down again and again in the fields beside the highway. Then suddenly I was beyond it; the sun was back out and the sky was once more an innocent placid blue.
Half an hour into Iowa I noticed a change in the landscape. Whereas Illinois is largely flat, full of marshes and lowlands and small industrial cities, giving it a kind of dull suburban atmosphere, Iowa has a safe, kindly, fresh-scrubbed feeling. The landscape consists of miles and miles of rolling, undulating green, a verdant patchwork of corn and soybeans, the horizon only broken every once in a while by a clump of farm buildings--a large white house, a sagging red barn, a windmill, a silo, a couple of sheds--and sometimes, out in the cornfields, by a pickup truck barreling along a narrow road in the distance, kicking up a cloud of white dust. Often on the horizon the air fades to a pale, hazy, bluish shade of pink, and above it the vault of the mild blue sky curves and rises. The view seems endlessly wide; it makes something expand inside your eyes or your mind.
Gradually, as I was entering Iowa for the first time, I began to notice a large number of monarch butterflies fluttering around in the air. They were everywhere, pottering along at the edge of the road, scissoring across the fields, sailing on updrafts above the highway, blundering into the path of the truck.
My neighbor across the street has a dog named Bob.
Bob is a short, old, black dog with an energetic disposition and an alert, foxlike face. His parts are all out of proportion to each other; he looks more like a picture of a dog a kid would draw than a real dog: large oval body, ears like sails on a small bullet head, upside-down Vs for legs.
Bob is in love with his mistress, Julie, a pottery teacher and waitress. At least that's what my friend Grant says. Grant's a graduate student at the university. I met him in the physics department, where I used to have a job at a journal. He's the source of most of what I know about Bob and Julie. Grant was Julie's roommate in the last place she lived. I've never met Julie myself, and have only observed Bob from a distance of thirty or forty feet.
Once Grant described to me a photograph of Bob and Julie, taken a long time ago, when Bob was just a puppy. It was taken in the morning, soon after they both woke up. Julie's sitting up in bed holding Bob; his face is near her face. Julie's eyes are downcast, she looks sleepy and inward and meditative. "And Bob looks like this," Grant said. He leaped suddenly off the chair in my office, leaned to the side as if straining hard against a leash, bared his teeth in a wide, goofy, manic grin. He practically made his hair stand on end.
I often watch Bob from across the street. The front door of his house will open and he will emerge, take a brief turn around the lawn, stop a few times to sniff at trees. After he sniffs, he arcs one hind leg up in the air, squirts a little pee onto the tree, looks around fiercely as if challenging an invisible enemy. After he's done this a few times, he returns to the front steps, scratches at the front door, and lets out a sharp little yip. Then he sits down to wait for Julie to let him in. If she doesn't come in a minute or two he yips again and waits more anxiously, head cocked, tail wagging. Where could she be? Sometimes he yips three or four times, each little bark getting louder and sharper. When that happens, I feel like calling Julie on the telephone, shouting into her window from across the street: "Bob is waiting for you!"
I can't stand to watch him wait.
I live in Iowa City, on Washington Street. My house is yellow and has a flat lawn with a sycamore tree, a two-car driveway, a cement front porch with black wrought-iron railings. Bob and Julie's house is large and pinkish tan with a high, peaked, cherry-red roof, a wooden porch, and squiggles of gingerbread trim. It rests on top of a small rise and has a long, green, sloping lawn. I have some history with that house--with this entire neighborhood, in fact.
When I look out my window I see, not just houses and trees and sidewalks and telephone poles--the whole elaborate tapestry of the physical world--but something like a series of overlays: the view as it has appeared to me at different times, colored by different events, over the last twelve years. And when I walk the fifteen-minute walk between my place and downtown, there are various spots along the way that are more than just bits of scenery; they're landmarks in my personal history, signposts that call up certain memories and feelings. One house in particular, a block and a half away from mine--a large, three-story white building with a wide, brick-walled verandah--always makes me do a mental double take. This is where Jim Beaman lived.
The house stands on a good-sized rise above the street; three tiers of cement steps lead from the entrance down to the sidewalk. A two-person swing hangs on chains from the porch ceiling; there used to be a second, matching one of these, but somebody took it down a couple of years ago, or maybe it got stolen. The entrance to the house is a black storm door, and at equal distances from the door are two large windows with foot-wide strips of stained glass at the top. One of these was Beaman's window; his bedroom used to lie beyond the blinds.
There was a time when I could pass this house without even noticing; it meant nothing to me; I hadn't even heard of Jim Beaman. And there was a time--not a very long time, as relationships go--when I was completely wrapped up in the life that went on inside one of its apartments. I'd walk by wondering what Jim was up to, whether he was off at some job or in his bedroom napping or making phone calls or maybe standing at the window, waiting for me to arrive. Most of the time I wouldn't go by; I'd climb the steps to the porch, push open the heavy wooden door that lay inside the storm door, go down the hall, and be let into Beaman's warm, bright apartment.
Then there was a time when the sight of that house was so painful I could hardly stand it. Still, whenever I passed I always looked over--I couldn't help it, as if driven by some kind of reflex--and just before I looked I always felt a tiny spark of hope, as if the laws that govern life and death might have changed from one moment to the next. Then I'd experience a little shock of dismay and disappointment. There was a certain sentence I'd tell myself then, addressing it to Beaman. I'd say it bitterly, sententiously, and in some obscure way it would make me feel better. "Your window is dark," I'd say, "and you, of course, are gone."
I came to Iowa in 1986 to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Two weeks before I left Cambridge, I rented a place over the phone from an Iowa City real estate agent. He told me the apartment was an attic on the third floor of a house. I liked attic apartments; I lived in one in Cambridge, and I thought the place in Iowa City would feel just like home. In my imagination, I pictured a tidy, cozy attic with an old-fashioned quilt on the bed, a white-painted glass-doored cupboard, a pleasant, orderly living room with a green and blue braided rug. As it turned out, the place smelled of bug spray and there were gaps in the bedroom ceiling; the bathroom had no door and the shower was a greasy plastic stall; the windowsills were rotten and filled with piles of dead beetles. I was afraid to sleep in the bedroom because of the likelihood of bats coming through the holes in the ceiling; I sealed that room off; I even put masking tape over the keyhole. Bats can get in through very small places.
My friend Ron followed me from Massachusetts to Iowa City in his car, helped me move into my apartment and stayed for one night, then continued west to California. We arrived at my new home just as the sun was going down. We looked wordlessly around the place, carried my boxes and bed frame up three flights of stairs, and went out to dinner. When we came back it was dark and airless in the apartment. The previous tenant had vacated it the week before and I had neglected to tell the local utilities company to turn the electricity back on. We rested my double mattress on the living-room floor below the window and lay down on it in our clothes--Ron and I are just friends and always have been. The light of a streetlight shone dimly through the window and the air outside was permeated by the sharp, high whine of cicadas; the noise seemed to fill the night with something deranged and ominous.
It was unbearably hot in the room. Ron had given me a fan as a going-away present, and eventually he got out of bed, took the fan out of its box, and started waving the box back and forth above the mattress to stir up some air. "I knew this fan would come in handy," he said.
He left the next day for California. After I watched him drive away I went out and bought a newspaper to look for another place. I brought the paper back to the apartment, opened it on the bed, and began to scan the columns of ads for apartments for rent, circling those I could afford. One notice in particular caught my eye; it was for a one-bedroom on Washington Street. I called the number listed in the ad and no one answered; I waited an hour, then called again; no one answered that time either. I kept dialing the same number all day long, and I didn't call any other places. I had an odd little feeling about the apartment on Washington Street, as if I knew it was where I belonged.
Finally at six-thirty a woman answered the phone. She told me how to get to the house--it was ten blocks up from the Civic Center, where the police station is--and I walked there in the pale, luminous evening air. The landlord showed me around the apartment--it was nothing special, just three big rooms on the first floor, with tall windows and no gaps in the ceiling where bats could get in--and I wrote him a check for my first and last months' rent.
Whatever it is that arranges and orders our lives, leads us to crucial meetings, puts us in place for key events, whatever it is--fate, luck, intuition, guardian angels, maybe--must have been operating that day, making me focus on that ad, leading me to this apartment, this street, because none of the things that happened to me would have happened if I hadn't been living on Washington Street.
Washington Street is a wide, straight, tree-lined street that runs through the middle of Iowa City. Its houses are large and old, with handsome front porches and lush green lawns, but there are baby carriages and lawnmowers and battered bicycles on the porches and here and there a pickup truck's parked along the curb among the cars, so you know it's the kind of place where students and married couples and other ordinary people live. My part of the street is flat and open, but a little farther down, after the intersection with Governor Street, the road is split by a series of oblong brick islands covered with close-cropped rugs of grass like the felt-covered bottoms of chess pieces, and the street begins a long, slow, sweeping descent into downtown Iowa City. If you stand at the top of that slope in the evening in a season when the trees are without their leaves, you can see all the way down to the little round stoplight dangling from a wire at the intersection with Gilbert Street, and beyond that and up a rise--Iowa, it turns out, is not flat after all--you can see the glowing yellow marquee of the Englert Theater; you can even see the little black letters spelling out the names of this week's movies. Beyond that and higher still are the regular, square lines of the Jefferson Building, which a long time ago was a hotel but now houses offices for the university.
I had an office in there once. While I was in the Workshop I taught rhetoric, and I was supposed to hold office hours twice a week so my students could drop by and see me. My friend Kathy, who was also in the Workshop and also taught rhetoric, shared the office with me. No students ever came to see us, and we spent the whole time sitting at our desks complaining and laughing. We complained about our students' work and the lack of men in our lives and our various other gripes. I can't remember what we laughed about, maybe the same things.
Once, as we were leaving in the evening--we must have been there to drop off or pick up something, because our office hours were early in the day--we stopped in the stairwell and looked out a window that faced the pedestrian mall behind the building. It was early spring of our last semester teaching and Kathy had been talking about moving away; I kept hoping she'd change her mind and stay. I knew I'd be staying in any case. I didn't want to return to Cambridge or western Massachusetts--I felt as if my business was somehow finished in those places--and I couldn't think of anywhere else to go. But I didn't really want to leave anyway. Iowa felt like home to me; I loved the kind, green, rolling cornfields that surrounded the town, the way everything in Iowa City was safe and clean and affordable. I thought my life would be perfect if only Kathy would stay.
Opposite where she and I were standing, on the other side of the pedestrian mall, was the wide blank face of the Holiday Inn. Most of its windows were dark, but one about halfway up was ablaze with light, and within, like a little play inside a glowing shoe box, a tiny aerobic dance class was going on. Ten or twelve little figures in bright-colored leotards moved to a rapid, silent, pulsing beat, squatting, standing, reaching, kicking, bobbing up and down in syncopated rhythm, like miniature mechanical dolls.
I met Kathy in January of my first year in Iowa City. She was studying poetry in the Workshop. We were both from rural working-class New England--Kathy grew up in small-town western Connecticut and I was from rural western Massachusetts--and we had both worked in publishing, but the main thing we had in common was that we felt different--somehow worse and better at the same time--than many of our fellow Workshop students, who were generally younger than we were and whom we perceived as coming from more normal and more privileged backgrounds than ours. Kathy and I met at a party, and after that we saw each other or talked on the telephone nearly every day. We went to readings and more parties together, sat around Kathy's attic apartment watching TV and eating popcorn, drove to Hy-Vee and KMart and Target in Kathy's blue VW bug, talked about everything in the world there was to talk about. We didn't have much money and worried hysterically about whatever we spent, but once we bought a box of four pale-green wine glasses and split it--Kathy got two and I got two--and once when they were giving away free goldfish at Drugtown we each acquired one, then went to Kmart and bought goldfish bowls, fish food, and aqua gravel for the bottom of the bowls. Our fish died. Kathy's died quickly; when she got up the next morning it was floating belly-up on the surface of the water in her fishbowl. Mine went more slowly; for a day or two it drifted around looking sluggish and bloated, then floated to the surface as well. We went back to Drugtown and got two more goldfish. This time we were careful to pick ones that looked healthy and frisky; there were thousands crammed into a two-foot aquarium. But the new ones died too. Kathy said she felt like a bad parent.
In the summer she acquired a small used telescope that you could just barely see the rings of Saturn through. One night we set it up in the high school football field and watched a lunar eclipse, taking turns staring through the eyepiece as the moon's light was gradually obliterated by the earth's shadow and the moon looked more and more like a round ball of rock hanging there in space, which is exactly what it is, of course.
The same summer we took up roller-skating by the river. Kathy bought a pair of old used skates at a garage sale and around the same time on a trip I took to Massachusetts my niece gave me a pair that didn't fit her anymore. Kathy's skates were low and black and had metal wheels; mine were tall and white with red rubber wheels. I'd never been on roller skates and Kathy hadn't skated for years, so we started off practicing in a parking lot beside the University Hospital. We went there twice--both times in the evening to avoid the heat--and I had just got so I could inch along for four or five feet when an orderly came out and told us we had to leave; the wheels on Kathy's skates made so much noise they could hear them inside the hospital. After that Kathy bought new black skates with rubber wheels and we moved to another parking lot, next to the recreation center. We went there after supper every night for three weeks and skated around and around till the pinkish twilight faded from the sky and the street lights glimmered faintly in the dusk.
Then we decided to start skating during the daytime in City Park. Nearly every day we'd walk to the student union, skates dangling from their shoelaces strung over our shoulders, change into them at the edge of a parking lot, and hide our shoes in the bushes. We'd skate along a path by the river, stop and wait for traffic whizzing by on Park Road, then skate uncertainly across the street and step up onto the sidewalk. We'd make our way over the bridge and up a rise to the entrance of the park on our right. There we would stop; the path through the park begins with a sharp descent. Kathy would stand at the top of the walk and coast all the way down the hill, flapping her arms like wings, her upper body shifting back and forth. I'd watch to see if she made it, then clump down the hill in the grass with my skates sideways, Kathy waiting for me at the bottom. From there on, the path through the park was more or less clear sailing, though parts were bumpy and narrow and there was only one long stretch--a flat wide curvy section after the path veered away from the river--where you could really pick up speed. In my mind I see Kathy flying along ahead of me there, hair streaming behind her, body swinging from side to side, arms pumping with determination, as small and fierce as an eight-year-old boy.
From the Hardcover edition.