Upon learning the news, I canceled classes, buckled up, and made the six-hour drive to my alma mater in western Illinois, where, for a time, she’d helped my classmates and me find the words. Not just find them (“Verb choice, hm?”), but arrange them, and rearrange them, filling our fresh notebooks with all the insights we could manage, until eventually, we scratched out those words. This form of self-flagellation, she taught us, was called the writing process.
I spent the winter of my junior year in her fiction workshop, steeling myself for more “writing process” while seated in a building far older than anyone alive today. Each Wednesday night, I fit my fingers into the grooves on the door handle, pulling hard against the heft of history. (“Too much?”) Our class ran from 7 p.m. until midnight, five hours of paper shuffling and brooding silences beneath the gazes of presidential portraits. Above us hung a pair of dormant chandeliers; beneath us, a carpet the color of forests. (“Try again?”)
She was perpetually perched in a chair alongside us, interrupting our silence with questions that felt too large for the room. What did we know about emotional depth? About the nature of anything? We were nineteen years old; our notebooks were still mostly blank.
Returning to campus, I pulled into the parking lot adjacent to the old building. For the first time in a decade, I fit my fingers into the grooves on the door handle to discover that I, too, was now history. (“Contrived?”)
I made the pilgrimage to her third-floor office, where I attempted a shy vigil. Taped to the door were the same New Yorker cartoons I’d failed to find the humor in half a lifetime ago. The same postcard of the students reading Ginsberg. All that had changed was the scrawl on her whiteboard, which now read “RIP.”
One midnight all those years ago—as I braced myself for the long walk home after class—she handed me a photocopy of a photograph of a man in aviator glasses, seated in a booth. Above him, a sign read “Are you going to Heaven? 2 Question Quiz Reveals Answer.”
On the back of the photocopy, she wrote: “I had this in my office & thought you should have a photo of the God Mobile.”
I didn’t know what to make of the gift. But it helped me fill two pages in my notebook.
After a little while, I left her third-floor office (“Stay here, hm?”), gathering alongside hundreds in an auditorium for a grief parade they were calling a celebration of life. Generations of students and colleagues mouthed words at the microphone, though most everything got lost somewhere between tribute and lamentation. What could anyone say? She was too young; it was too unexpected; all our hearts gave out together.
When it was over, I walked through a parking lot to spot an older man from town whom I faintly recalled from all those years before. I called to him, reintroduced myself, and searched his face for some flicker of recognition.
A century passed (“Hyperbolic, hm?”) before, at last, he said, “I’d like to recite a poem for you.” He turned toward his wife. “Is it okay if I recite a poem for him?” She nodded.
He prepared himself—eyes closed, throat cleared, rocking on the balls of his feet—and recited Donald Justice’s “Beyond the Hunting Woods.”
“Slow down, slow down,” his wife coached midway through.
He breathed, re-found his rhythm, and then allowed the words to unfurl more slowly.
When it was through, he opened his eyes and took my hand in both of his.
“Thank you,” he said, “for allowing me to recite the poem.”
I didn’t know what to make of the encounter, but I knew to make something.
I fished for a pen (“Yes”), and I turned to a fresh page in my notebook.
B. J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently Go West, Young Man: A Father and Son Rediscover America on the Oregon Trail. He is the founder and director of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild and a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. For more, visit bjhollars.com.
This essay is a Short Reads original.