I used to be an innkeeper.
I used to be a daughter with a living father.
I am neither of these things now.
Yet both reside within me. Both come into my present life at unexpected times. They did today, a moist, misty day, one in which I felt slightly out-of-sorts.
Perhaps this very out-of-sortness is what brought to the surface these past lives (daughter, innkeeper). Yet, one more time, they yielded some truth to me. One more time, as I weeded the garden in the late afternoon in Vermont today, and then began to write about it here.
One more time, this all led me to understand that feeling out-of-sorts is in a larger sense always very much in sorts, for a writer.
Which is what I was, and am still.
As was my late father, the Hollywood biographer Maurice Zolotow. (There he is below, in this 1972 photograph with John Wayne and Ann-Margret. Wayne was the subject of one of my father's biographies, Shooting Star. Photo, David Sutton.)
Thinking about Maurice isn't unusual for me. He's there almost always when I think about writing, which I do daily.
More surprising was thinking so deeply, and in such detail, about the innkeeping period of my life. Despite the fact that I spent eighteen years of my life at it, it's not that often in my thoughts.
Possibly part of the reason for its coming to mind today is because I recently have finished putting together the next Fearless Writing workshop. This is less a workshop than "the whole enchilada" (as I've actually called it on the event's website, as well as captioned photo album). It's going to be held up here in Vermont, in part at my home (left), over Labor Day weekend, and has involved organizing lodging, glorious meals and activities, as well as the core program, Fearless.
All this has called on more of innkeeping's organizational skills — being fiendishly, compulsively detail-oriented about "stuff" while being wholly easygoing and go-with-the-flow about people — than I've used in years.
So. There you have the ingredients of this post. My father, innkeeping, writing, gardening. Feeling a little off. Recognizing this, finally, one more time, as an unavoidable part of the ultimate on.
Though the vigor of my weeding equaled the vigor with which I was, seemingly, putting off writing, it turns out — ever-new discovery! ever-powerful, and humbling, marvel! — that nothing is wasted on the writer.
I never stop learning this.
(Last year's garden, on a misty day in June, by David Koff).
recalling the hyphenated life
In retrospect my innkeeper phase, those eighteen years when I was not "just" a writer, but a writer-hyphen-innkeeper (and for six of those years, writer-hyphen-innkeeper-hyphen-chef), seem to me now to border on insane in terms of overwork. The inn, co-founded with my late husband, Ned, was Dairy Hollow House (here we are, high-fiving in front of the inn's sign);
the town, hard in the Ozark Mountains, was Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
Though insane, those years were not without moments of joy. And they were formative. And they gave me much I couldn't have learned elsewhere.
And it was a period when I was fond of saying "I don't have writer's block… I don't have time for writer's block."
At least in memory this was more or less my schedule, for years: I'd wake up anywhere between 6:30 and 9:00 am, and, after breakfast with Ned (if he got up at the same time), I'd go to work, writing, fueled by copious cups of hot, very caffeinated tea. 9:30 am to noon, daily or almost, I was at it, solitary,improbably hermit-like given what the later part of my day would be.
Around noon, I'd eat lunch, occasionally with Ned, but more often on my own.Then I'd nap, wake up, and work out, starting still too sleepy to talk myself out of it: clicking a tough video (the early Firm series was my favorite, but I also liked Step Reebok) into the VCR, and dragging out my array of exercise equipment from the corner and the front porch. There were dumbbells, ascending pairs, 2 pounds (wrist curls) up by increments to 20 (for lat rows and pec flyes only). There was a sturdy plastic Step, and its risers, too, just like you see at gyms. (I still have, and use, this equipment. But the work-out DVDs I use — VHS? What's VHS? — these days are not nearly so hardcore. At 56, I use one riser, or none, on the Step, where I used to use two. It's hard for me not to feel like a wuss, but it's work out at lower intensity or don't work out, and the latter would make me feel like even more of a wuss, and so…)
Back in the inn days, after a post-work-out shower, if there was time, I'd walk to the inn, a few minutes away. If there wasn't time, or if I suspected it would be a late night, I'd drive: returning on foot, in the dark, through the woods, after a long night's work, would not, I knew, have much appeal at 1:00 am. But whether I'd walked from my little writing studio, or just from my car in Harmon Park, as I approached the inn's door, I'd feel my other, non-writer life, as an innkeeper, kick in.
By then, it would be about 4:00. I'd greet Becky or Paula at the front desk, check to see how many reservations we had that evening, and walk to the back. I'd usually be alone in the kitchen then. I'd start cooking, often with Miles Davis's Kind of Blue as a soundtrack: its slow, mellow start and crescendo-ing glide into high gear were perfect for slipping calmly into hard, soon-to-be frenetic work. I'd check the task-list I'd left for the morning cook, and I'd start preparing dinner.
We did one seating most nights, at seven, so those three hours between arrival and dinner service were carefully choreographed. I knew exactly when to put the game hens in to roast, when to glaze them with whatever fresh fruit was in season — plums, peaches, blueberries I'd transformed into chutney. I knew when the roasty-toasty carrots, onions and potatoes would have their turn in the oven, and when to start the cornbread, skillet after skillet of it, golden suns framed in their black cast-iron pans.(I'd later devote several years of my life to writing a book called The Cornbread Gospels). I knew when to start warming the plates, when to put the gratin of vegetables du jour in, mince the soup garnish, start the dessert (the homier fruit desserts: apple crisps, rich biscuits for strawberry shortcakes, would be baked as the main courses were being served) . By 6:00 pm, with an hour to go, I turned the music off.
The restaurant sat 40 people; I could solo up to half that; with numbers any higher, I'd call in an assistant, who'd arrive around 6:00 usually, followed by the waitstaff. Ned was due in for front desk at 5:00, relieving whoever'd been there during the day; he perennially ran late and was slightly frantic, and, for him, grouchy. I learned to ignore him at that moment, to try not to take it personally, to call myself lucky if he even managed to stick his head in the kitchen, blow me a kiss until midway through dinner service. That's when he became friendly again, but at that moment beforehand — running to catch up before show-time, he was often (uncharacteristically) downright unpleasant.
There was a the moment when, all at once, guests were arriving and dinner was beginning. The choreography of waiters, tables and food began and it all began clicking, a beautiful synchrony. Sometimes, gazing out at the well-dressed people arriving in every expectation of a lovely evening, I would have a moment of being moved to my core: what a privilege, to feed trusting strangers good food, often grown not five miles from the room they were entering, guided to their table by Ned, who himself radiated such a welcoming glow! At that moment, the kitchen was the only universe I knew, and it was a good one, as absolute in its way as writing had been.
The evening progressed, the waiters — John, Carolyn — communicating the rhythm of each particular night to me. The dining room and its service was an elaborate and connected dance, invisible to the guests, who were serenely enjoying what I was told — often — was "The best meal of my life." This couple, I would learn, was lingering, wasn't ready for salads; but that four-top, the one that had all chosen the asparagus soup, was already through it and two baskets of bread and wanted their entrees now. Could I divide an entree in half? ( See if you can divide a roast Cornish game hen neatly and attractively; doing this was what
our waiter, John Mitchell, wittily and accurately called "a splitting headache.").
I kept the music off, remaining focused in that manner recognizable to anyone who's worked in a good restaurant, where the world becomes, briefly, the particular beef tenderloin being seared, the side-plate of half a dozen vegetables being arranged, the shower of mixed minced herbs on the edge of that particular pink-rimmed plate.
After dessert went out, it was time for what Ned called "making the rounds."' I always started out resistant. It required another layer of energy, and a psychic switch: to move from the solitary focus writing or cooking, each, in their way, required. With a clean chef's jacket; always, I put on my socializing, getting-to-know-people self, removing the self-contained self. Ned was by this point usually also relaxed and happy, which made it easier. Once I actually got out to our pretty dining room, candles glowing, the twig lattice on the walls, flowers (often I'd done them myself), on each table, happy people replete with a good meal, I enjoyed this phase, too. But, consistently, I always resisted it beforehand.
As I relaxed into this phase, the waiters and Ned boogied in earnest: getting checks, making change, bringing coffee or decaf or teas, wrapping extras for people to take home. Behind the scenes, dishwasher Roy slammed trays in and out of the Ecolab, billowing clouds of steam. Very nice things were often said to me by guests, some surprising ("I have never once liked broccoli until tonight!") ; I was always so pleased to have been part of giving people a memorable evening. But I knew my work wasn't completed. As the last few guests said their goodbyes in the front desk area, it was back to the kitchen to complete the fixing of staff dinner.
All of us — the waitstaff, me, Ned, Roy, whoever was assisting on nights I had someone with me — we were all tired. And it was too late, really, to eat. But we needed to, anyway. And to decompress. Catch up on how the night had gone. Feel the shared sense of a job well done, a we-pulled-it-off-again joy. It was solid esprit de corps, time for catching up, general how-are-you check-ins, eternally fascinating Eureka Springs gossip. And somehow it was at that point that Ned and I managed to reconnect as a couple, too, instead of just tag-teaming co-workers.
Vigorously tossing tufts of grass into the weed bucket in the garden today, I found myself thinking about those staff dinners in great detail.
Audrey, then in her sixties, who assisted me some nights when we were busy enough. When we all finally sat down together at staff dinner, she invariably said, at some point, with a long sigh "My dogs are talkin' to me." Meaning her feet hurt — to which everyone who has ever worked in a restaurant can relate.
And Carolyn telling us about the Native American-style funeral of her late, estranged husband, the father of her sons, and how her young son, Shaman, participated (I believe he took part in the ritual placement of sacred objects in the coffin; tobacco was one, I think dried meat another).
And happy, goofy times. If there was a birthday, I'd have made a cake; Steve Colvin, a long time friend who used to call himself both the world's only gay red-neck, and the world's only fat AIDS patient, and who sometimes acted maitre d' on nights when Ned stepped in as a waiter, had a favorite: banana cake, with a peanut butter filling, if memory serves. (But did he prefer chocolate icing, or cream cheese? I can't remember, and it bothers me. R.I.P., Colvain, as I used to affectionately call him. It was to Colvin, when he was ill, that I dedicated Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread: "For Steve Colvin, with whom I hope to share the bread of life for a long, long time.")
I also remember that often as we were eating we'd hear the pleasant, slow, old-fashioned music of horse's hooves: the clip-clopping (there is no other accurate verb) of the horses, no doubt as weary as we were, as they turned off Spring Street and down Dairy Hollow Road, after their evening of drawing tourists around the historic loop, heading home to their stable on the other end of the Hollow.
As I picked at staff dinner (I wouldn't be actually hungry until some time after I'd arrived home, where of course there was very little food; I can see the restaurateurs among my blog-readers nodding ruefully), in and around the conversation, I'd update the detailed list I always left for prep cooks. It had to be ultra-complete and accurate: it was what would allow me, if I did it thoroughly enough, uninterrupted time the next morning so I could again become, briefly, a writer: otherwise, there were calls like "How much of the green part of the scallion do you want me to cut up?"
On a non-holiday week night, I might be able to leave by ten; weekends, festivals, would see me there till 11:00, midnight, or sometimes 1:00 (if a dishwasher didn't show, Ned and I would stay, doing the work ourselves. One Jazz Festival the dishwasher told us, at midnight, "This job is interfering with my social life," took off his apron, and walked. Ned and I did the dishes. I believe every plate, glass, cup, bowl, saucer, implement, utensil, pot and pan were dirty. When we left, it was after 4:00 am).
Once home, I'd bathe in our wonderful antique clawfoot tub, so long I could actually submerge my aching five-foot-four body in it. I scrubbed under my nails, rinsed my head: begone, garlic, roasting chicken, seared beef. Ned came to the house later, because after dinner service he "cashed out" the register . At home, bathed, I'd wait for him to to arrive, so we could have a little time together, however tired we were. It wasn't much, though.
It exhausts me now, just thinking about that life. Of course, I was between age 30 and 40 at the time: I'm just past the middle of my fifties now. Still, it's amazing how vivid those memories are to me when I turn my thoughts to them, and how much I miss and do not miss (more of the latter) about that overfull time. And there were often extras I have not mentioned. If we had any guests who were leaving too early in the morning
for our full breakfast, I needed to provide for them.
"Our bountiful breakfast in a basket," Ned used to describe our usual morning repast on our answering machine, his voice radiating satisfaction, pride and pleasure. His enthusiasm was genuine: he loved breakfast in general and he loved our breakfasts. And
they were good, truly, and bountiful, fuller than full — "delivered to your
door at nine each morning!"as he also said.
But for those leaving early, I'd fix, towards the end of those long restaurant nights, a "Go-Basket." Sometimes those Go-Baskets would frankly send me over the edge, though I kept it to myself. These were smaller
baskets, some components of which the guests would stash in their in-room fridges: typically, homemade granola and "Would you prefer yogurt or milk?" assorted fresh fruit,
our own in-house blend of freshly squeezed citrus juices and various organic bottled juices. There'd also be slices of a sweet bread, and a ramekin full of a homemade spread of butter, cream cheese, and honey, flavored and colored with a few pureed strawberries pr blueberries, maybe with a touch of grated orange or lemon rind. The rooms each had their
own coffee machines and electric tea-kettles with of course
terrifically good assortments of teas and New Orleans Community
Coffee… whatever else we did, we truly took good care of our guests. I still hear from many of them, all these years later. (Left: breakfast, on the front porch of the farmhouse, the smaller and more isolated of the two homes that made up Dairy Hollow House).
procrastination & its creative discontents
Just as when I set out to write about one event / insight concerning love and loss and found myself, instead, writing about my beloved cat Beanblossom, a few posts ago, I have wandered afield from my original intent. "Start out knowing what you want to write about, " I tell my students, as I've mentioned here before. "But expect, and allow, that to change. The story has a life of its own. "
Here was my original intent in this post: to write about the uncomfortable, loose-end-y feeling that one has, almost invariably, in the middle of a longer piece of writing. A feeling I in which I spent most of today. Where it's happening but not quite. Or, as today, sometimes it comes when one big phase of a piece has come to completion (yesterday, I finished the introduction to the non-fiction book I'm working on, which frames the whole thing and marks the beginning of the end of writing that book) — but there are still large blocks to go. I find, and evidently I am so not alone, that one needs to go into neutral for a bit at that point. But this is usually in conflict with one's conscious intention and heartfelt desire to press onward.
Today, instead of moving on to the next phase of the book I'm at work on as I felt I should have been, I've been sort of meeping around. Not that it hasn't been productive. It was overcast this morning. Good time for transplanting! I had three or four meep-around sessions, to the garden's benefit if to my writing's deficit.
I transplanted several dozen beautiful little Winter Density lettuces, from Seeds of Change (good lord did those seeds germinate — that picture shows one corner of three beds worth of transplanted seedlings). That was meep session one, ended only because I was driven indoors by the mosquitoes, which seemed to view both the DEET and the organic stuff as a condiment.
Later in the day I returned to the garden, this time transplanting some sweet little bulls-blood beet seedlings. The next meep session, it was the Chantennay carrots. Somewhere in there I napped (part of the time, I am happy to report, with David). There was another meep-session in there somewhere, too.
And then the last, late-afternoon meep-session, which, after I'd checked on how all the seedlings were doing (fine), was devoted to weeding.
Which, I could not but help be aware, meant I was into major, serious, writing-postponement.
"papa-ganda": Maurice & me
Out in the garden, particularly in the weeding phase, I found myself thinking of my late father, Maurice. (Here's another picture of him, interviewing the director Billy Wilder for the book below).
It is common (and, I think, rarely true) for adult children who had or have a good relationship with their parents to say, "He" (or she) "is" (or was) "my best friend." Maurice and I adored each other and almost unfailingly, once I grew up and he sobered up (I turned 16 the year he joined AA). But we were not "best friends." We were a lot of other things, though. And one of them was colleagues. Writing colleagues. I think we shared and understood what the nature of writing was for each other with a perfection I have never, and probably will never, have with another soul. And this went both ways. We never read or critiqued each other's work pre-publication. To both of us, I think, that would have felt over-intimate, intrusive, and disrespectful of the writing process.
It's a process, we both knew, that has moments of pure consummation, and those moments are not in publication and the questionable glory that sometimes come with it, but in the writing itself. "Sometimes I get deeply depressed, " Maurice says, rather matter-of-factly, even cheerfully, in a videotape of a talk he gave at Mills College in the late 80's. In a tone of wonder he adds, "And just putting my fingers on the keyboard is enough to bring me out of it!"
At those moments of consummation, we both knew, the writer is not even there; the writing is just taking place. Come out of an hour or two of that — of what I once heard Maurice describe, in one of his AA talks, "that transcendent vocation" and you long above all else to return to that state. It's unparalleled freedom. It's being released from your own petty life, body-surfing th
e perfect wave of story with no effort.
The effort comes in the meepy times, in just getting through them. Times when you feel restless, discontented, a little uneasy. When. It's. Just. Not. Happening. No matter how often you've been through this out-of-phase phase, no matter that you may recognize it as part of that process, and know it as the coin through which, mysteriously, you are able to purchase the transcendent aspect, it is still uncomfortable.
This uncomfortableness brought me, first in thought and now here on screen and keyboard, to recalling the inn days. Partly because to some extent I outsmarted the uncomfortable aspect by leaving myself so very, very little protected time for writing that my unconscious just leapt into what was available, knowing how limited it was (at least, this is my best guess).
The uncomfortableness also led me to thinking about Maurice, dear colleague as well as father, as well as brilliant, insane sui generis goofball, and one man museum of contradictions.
Maurice was a compulsive reader of poetry (he especially loved T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, and was able to, and frequently did, recite both) and fiction (he so loved James Joyce that he named his son, my brother Stephen — now, improbably, a poker champion, pictured left) — after Stephen Dedalus, a character in Ulysses). Maurice read Latin; he was fluent in French, yet his personal patois include slang from the beatnik and hippie era: he could travel from "Let us go then, you and I/while the evening is spread out against the sky" to "Groovy, baby!" in five seconds.). He was in love with popular culture.
He was obsessed with magic; one of his two published novels, The Great Balsamo, was based on Harry Houdini (who he'd seen perform on Coney Island as a boy); he was friends with with Ricky Jay. He adored jazz, and gave Duke Ellington his first national review, in Billboard, in the early '40's. He is the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question: "Who is Marilyn Monroe's first biographer?" (His eponymous biography of her would be published in six languages, and reissued with a new introduction some 25 years after her death. Right, the cover of the British edition; left, the paperback French edition).
Though Maurice imagined, early on, that first he would be a foreign correspondent, like Ernest Hemingway, and then go on to life as a novelist (probably living on the Left Bank), for most of his professional writing career was as
a show-business biographer (at the time of his death, in 1991, he was
working on a memoir to be titled "Famous People Who Have Known Me").
During the hyphenated years, I had a phone number that was unlisted, for emergencies only. No one, and I mean, NO one, was supposed to call me on it for anything short of a major inn or personal disaster during writing hours; that is; until 1:30 or 2:00 in the afternoon. The front desk had the number, but they knew never to give it out, and they knew, as well, how to deflect the typical writing-work interrupting calls ("Yes, she does give talks / do keynotes / donate books to charitable auctions / do school visits. If you'll mail your request in writing with all the details, she'll get back to you…")
And they knew never to give the number to my parents, whom I was trying to break of the all-access-all-the-time-habit (my mother, particularly, was not at all respectful of boundaries in those days). I would have preferred to not have a telephone at that point, but even I couldn't go that far. Besides, I sometimes needed to call out, and I did also include conversations with my agent and editors as acceptable, sometimes, during writing hours.
Well, one day — I don't know who did it, none of our front desk staff would ever confess — and I don't know how, Maurice wheedled the secret number out of someone. This was before caller ID, and I think even before digital phones; the phone was still connected to its base by that curly pig-tail of plastic-covered cord.
I was mid-writing, and the phone rang. I answered, in my snappy, serious, no-nonsense, this-better-be-important, businesslike (as I then thought of it) manner, "Dragonwagon."
There was a pause. Then Maurice's unmistakable voice: "Yes, ah, is this the, ah, the writer's suicide prevention hotline?"
I gazed out into the treetops from my desk. Maurice knew very well he wasn't supposed to call, that he wasn't supposed to even have that number, and that (though he would have denied it) he was irresistible.
"Maurice!" I said, "What is it?"
He said, "I've been working on this goddamn piece for five days now. I can't get anywhere with it, Cres. It's 60 pages, it needs to be twelve. It's shapeless. It's flabby. I've transcribed the interviews — there are 37 pages of them — but it won't cohere. It won't take shape, I'm completely disgusted, I…"
I interrupted him. "Maurice! " I said. Did a little quick addition in my head. "Maurice, in approximately … 48 years of professional freelance writing —" I started laughing " —has this ever happened to you before?"
Another pause. Then Maurice said, "Yes. Yes! Thank you, Cres! I get it, I get it! Thank you! Thank you, Cres! Goodbye!" And he hung up — bang. I don't know that he ever replaced a receiver gently in its cradle. It was always – bang! Decisive. Maurice was there, with you; then, he wasn't.
I shook my head, as I am remembering this — I'm smiling, too, as I did then. I looked out at the trees, and went back to work.
Quotations from Chairman Moe; fierce boilings
This kind of advice-giving and cheerleading was never one way, as I have said. Maurice went by the name Broadway Moe for a few years (during his go-to-the-racetrack-with-Walter-Matthau phase, which resulted in the book shown left, one of his few non-show-business books… and no, that is not him on the cover). He would often take the role I played the particular day of the Writer's Suicide Prevention Hotline call.
And his advice was always solid. There were some Quotations from Chairman Moe, as I came to call them, that he returned to over and over again.
"A writer writes."
"Write your way out of it." (Said when I was confused or depressed.)
"Laborare est orare." (Latin for "to work is to pray.")
"The editors come and go, but the writer remains!" (Said whenever there was fuckwittage with an editor, with the last phrase exultant.)
Maurice was a dedicated sender of clippings in those pre-Internet days. Sometimes they'd be from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, Nation, New Republic, American Spectator. Sometimes, they were political (Maurice had been a communist in his youth, a "middle of the road anarchist" for much of his life, and a free-market Republican late in life — and was obsessed with politics for all of his years… as if magic, the classics, and pop culture were not enough). More often, though, they were profiles of writers, pieces about writing, or simply essays that he thought particularly well-written. He scrawled a quick message across the top of all of them, usually just a single word, in red Flair pen — "Papa-ganda" — then a dash. a line of xxoo's, and his initials or first name.
He gave me a used copy of "The Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky to his Family and Friends", inscribed thus:
pages, darling, a
spirit, kindred to your
own, beyond the differences
of time and culture and politics —
with the deepest love
your father Maurice
Nov. 17, 1971.
Astonishing though it may be to consider a father who thought his daughter a kindred spirit to Dostoevsky, it's more astonishing when you know that this gift was given in the same year I had sold, to Cosmopolitan, a profile of a rock groupie named Sweet Connie (immortalized in the Grand Funk Railroad song"We're an American Band" in the following lines: "On the road for forty days / last night in Little Rock left me in a haze. / Sweet, sweet Connie was doing her act. / She had the whole show, and that's a natural fact.")
Maurice read the story — in the magazine, of course, as I've said we never read each other's stuff pre-publication. As I've said, profiles were his beat; this was the first of mine he'd read.
He said to me, collegially, "So how many interviews did it take for you to get this, Cres?" (Only, and I mean only, Maurice could get away with calling me Cres.) "One," I said.
He gave me a long, long look. Maurice's face was incapable of dissembling. I watched a parade of emotions cross it; the first, to my surprise, was jealousy. I watched jealousy duke it out with curiosity, apprai
sal, admiration, thoughtfulness, and finally the winner: fatherly pride.
"You know what, Cres?" he said. "Give up the children's books. Stop messing around with cookbooks. Write profiles."
And yet, somehow, though I had just written a profile of a rock groupie, I was Dostoeyevskyian to him.
When I was about 26, my book The Year It Rained was published. It's an autobiographical novel in which the father character does not come across particularly well (the book dealt with the years when he was still a practicing alcoholic, and he and my mother were getting a truly riproaring divorce, one higlight of which was his getting shock-treatments, from which I was supposed to, and did, pick him up afterwards). Desoite this, when he read it, he loved it.
And he said, "You know what, Cres? Give up the children's books and cookbooks. Don't mess around with magazine work. You were born to be a novelist. "
Given how dedicated he was to the belief that I should focus on just one genre of writing (I have worked, almost since the first, actively in children's books, cookbooks, magazine articles, poetry, and fiction) you can just imagine how opposed he was to my hypenated life.
"Innkeeping! " he'd snort. "Innkeeping! For God's sake, Cres, you're a writer, why are you wasting your time with innkeeping?"
But he eventually he made his peace with it… helped along, no doubt, by the fact that he could come to visit in Arkansas, and stay at the inn for a week or two twice a year (The Iris Room, right, was his favorite. He liked the shades of blue, and the fact that it was quiet, looked into the garden, and was directly across the way from Ned's and my little house).
He also loved eating at our restaurant (gratis, of course). He adored the food. I remember once, him looking up from a plate of chocolate bread pudding with raspberry sauce. He said to me, "Wow." He was then speechless — a rarity, as you may have gathered — for a few moments. Then he took another bite and shook his head. "Cres," he said, gazing up at me with his large blue eyes (he was seated at a table in the inn's dining room, I was standing, I'm sure in a chef's jacket.) "On a scale of one to ten, I give this five thousand."
After he died, we renamed that dessert "Chocolate Bread Pudding Maurice." I wrote his initials, M.Z. , in script, using raspberry sauce in a squeeze bottle, hundreds of times, covering about 2/3 of a dinner plate, before spooning the bread pudding in one corner, dolloping it with whipped cream, adding a fresh raspberry or strawberry, and a mint leaf. It pleased me, though in some moods it occasionally made me cry, when John or Carolyn, the waitpersons, would buzz from the dining room on a busy night, land at the station in the kitchen, and call out, "Three Maurices!" or "Are my two Maurices ready?" But we all knew — the inn staff, too, for they had all met Maurice and come under his incorrigible, irascible spell, that there was really only one Maurice.
Besides learning to enjoy the benefits of the inn, there was another way Maurice made peace with his hyphenated daughter. "Look, I was wrong. You should do the inn! You should! Probably you must! You're one of those writers where for some reason something else feeds your writing! I couldn't do it, but you can. Clearly! Lots of writers are like you — they have to do something else. Chekov — he was a doctor! And William Carlos Williams! Wallace Stevens, one of our great poets — he was an insurance executive, lived in Hartford, Connecticut!"
(Ned, me, Maurice, photograph by George West, circa 1985. This is on
the porch of the innkeeper's house. The windows you can barely make
out, in the little house across the way, look into Maurice's favorite
Iris Room.) I think he would be surprised and pleased that I ended up living in Vermont, on the farm (which he knew, because, though it belonged to my Aunt Dot, we spent part of each summer here when I was a kid). But I think he'd be horrified by the very idea of my spending a snowy, icy Vermont winter here.
But who knows what he would have thought or felt?
For it is a strange rebellion, and a delusional one, when we say with such authority, "He would have…"
These are only our guesses, our suppositions. Questions sent out to a universe that does not and cannot answer, any more than the vanished one can.
We fill in the side of those who are no longer able to keep up their end of conversations, otherwise the dialogues that were once so important to us are, unbearably, monologues. We do it, in part, by saying, "He would have…"
In the poem "Chickpea to Cook" by Rumi, a poet to my knowledge Maurice never read, the chickpea protests its torturous simmering. The wise cook reminds the chickpea that he, too, has simmered. "I was once like you, fresh from the ground. Then I boiled in time, and in the body, two fierce boilings."
No one escapes such boiling.
Today, at the well-known to me but still uncomfortable place of sixes-and-sevens with writing, as I pulled up the cinquefoil and wild sorrel vigorously, I thought about that time Maurice called me on my secret number.
I thought about that conversation with Maurice, and many others which preceded and followed it.
I was in just the kind of mood, and it was just the kind of day, when I would have called Maurice, were he still among the living.
Instead, I heard the Maurice who now, despite all boiling, resides in me.
So I came inside, and, instead, wrote my way out of it.