Rodney Nelson



When they said Oh you want to move to the country for the summer they meant Why do you want to live out there. I could have told them I don’t move, I have nothing to move, I don’t live, I’ve got nothing to live, I stay at or visit. They would not have understood, they being an albinotic aunt speaking the family mind, and I had in fact no reason to go to the homestead but there were some good reasons not to stay where I was, Dick Tone’s vocation, a girlfriend with cerebral palsy, the crime of the Tornblom twins, the dwindling of my cash, and these added up to an urge to leave Fargo. Or had Greatgranduncle summoned me. An amusing notion now but on the May morning when I quit the small apartment and drove toward Hedmark with all I owned aboard I thought I knew next to nothing of him. I was going to the homestead because I had to get away from the arena of Dick Tone and Claire Toussaint and the Tornblom twins and the homestead would be a cheap refuge and I was willing to put up with the disadvantages of staying at it. I was pissed at the Tornbloms and annoyed with Dick. I still wanted Claire ma pucelle but the intrigue had gotten to be too much and the intrigue alone made me mad and generally North Dakota was having that effect. I would stay at or visit the homestead until October doing a little freelance work and mowing the yard and by that time the resentments would be gone I hoped and a new plan would have emerged and I’d be ready to follow it. The Tornbloms would not disturb me there, too ashamed, too tightassed, and nor would Dick who knew I had seen him betray his gift. I was a walking admonishment he would as soon have an excuse to avoid. Ma trapped young pucelle would not be able to disturb me and she was not guilty of any crime or betrayal and too bad she wouldn’t even have a chance to call or show up at the homestead, but the intrigue had gotten through to me and I had left Fargo without so much as telling her. It was a twenty-six-mile drive and halfway to the homestead I thought of one reason for not going. They who had meant Why do you want to live out there would have thought on reflection Well that’s good, Aunt Emma would have seen what I intended to do, move to the untenanted homestead, as a pious act, a bow at the family altar, and maybe she would have been onto me and was I trying again to achieve respectability and through that acceptance. I had been suspect all along, an odd youth who had committed the sin of leaving North Dakota then worsened his name by living as she would have put it in California but now I had a last chance to atone. Maybe that was why I had been so ready to listen when asked to come back. I’d had a tolerable job having gone straight from socalled hippiedom to a university press. The staff did not like my long matted hair but whoever beat the editorial test got a job and they admitted no one else had done it in ten months. You seem to have a knack. They wanted to squeeze me out though and in the beginning I did galley proofing at home and brought in the work once a week and this went on until they realized I had yet another knack and that I could talk and read German, French, Italian, Swedish and what not, not that I had studied them, no it was just a knack like a knack for mimicry, and soon they gave me a desk and part of an office and soon I was working with translation manuscripts and when I heard from Dick Tone I had been with the university press a whole decade. Associate editor. It was tolerable and I was getting along in San Francisco in an apartment on Church Street and with a couple of women friends et cetera and was not planning to give up the job or the place unless a renaissance began in say Argentina. I would have packed my bags for that but not much of literary interest was going on in Buenos Aires, London, Rabat, Chicago or anywhere else, nothing was happening in any of those towns that was of more literary interest than what was happening in another and I could have extended the list, so I imagined I’d be staying in San Francisco. Dick’s slim manuscript came to me at the university press and Dear Mr. Carlson he wrote I am sorry to bother you with the enclosed submission, a set of cameos from North Dakota. Please look at them when you have a moment. There is no rush. You may remember the conversation we had at that party. Well, I’m still trying to re-create Montparnasse in Fargo. I had met him on one of my summer trips home, a short glib young man who chewed his moustache and drank a lot of wine, and campus animal I had thought. At that party however Dick had talked about French lit with such knowing and enthusiasm that I had taken note. He must have done the same though I didn’t recall what he or I had said and here was a set of very good short stories and had North Dakota produced its own Daudet. At least he had a gift. My knack for languages and editing was just that and not a gift. In adolescence I had undergone the trauma of realizing I had no literary talent but the pain had not lasted and I’d slid with ease into my true role of being someone who knew literature but did not make it, an unenviable though unenvying lot. I had done book reviews and even gotten a collection of them published but that was only knackwork, a hobby. I was not envious of Dick and if he wanted to turn North Dakota into literature and had the gift with which to do it I would encourage him. I wrote back in praise of his writing and said I had to return the manuscript because at the university press we did not do fiction but could be he was the Alphonse Daudet of North Dakota. A touch of idealism there. Heartening the young. Expression of weakness. He wrote again and his letter arrived when I was in the midst of a job that had nothing to do with the university. There was a Robinson Jeffers boomlet in northern California and some local poet was editing a new selected and I was thought to be a simpatico seasoned book editor. I would have done the copyediting free of charge but the poet being creative did not ask, technical trivia are not at the top of one’s head when one is creative, and he was right about my admiration for the dark evangel though and I did what I could and even put him onto a few unknown verses that were in manuscript at Tor House. Love not admiration. I had to love a poet who had gone to such lengths to show the puniness of all human achievement next to the cosmos’ work. Anyway the editing poet wanted me to read Jeffers’ introduction to the 1935 selected and say if I thought it would be all right to quote in turn from that in his own introduction to the new book and There’s this one hell of a passage Gary, so when Dick Tone’s second letter came I was arriving with Jeffers at the Monterey coast mountains where he could see people living—amid magnificent unspoiled scenery—essentially as they did in the Idylls or the Sagas, or in Homer’s Ithaca. Here was life purged of its ephemeral accretions. Men were riding after cattle, or plowing the headland, hovered by white seagulls, as they have done for thousands of years, and will for thousands of years to come. Here was contemporary life that was also permanent life; and not shut from the modern world but conscious of it and related to it; capable of expressing its spirit, but unencumbered by the mass of poetically irrelevant details and complexities that make a civilization and I saw what the editing poet meant and agreed that it should be included as long as the wordage surrounding Jeffers’ description had vim but the immediate effect of the passage was to make me subject to Dick Tone’s lighter gospel, ready to listen.