FOLLOW THE THREAD INTO THE LABYRINTH

“FOLLOW THE THREAD INTO THE LABYRINTH”:
A FOND RECOLLECTION OF ANDREW LYTLE

When I first entered Andrew Lytle’s writing class in 1957 (the year he published The Velvet Horn) I was a nineteen year old girl from Brooklyn who had come to the University of Florida by way of Miami Beach. My family had moved to Florida when I was fourteen to escape the cold winters of New York; to me “the south” was mainly a place where a person could get a good suntan.
Our writing class met at night in a rickety wooden structure. Mr. Lytle would arrive, smiling, his glasses strung around his neck on a black grosgrain ribbon, and greet us all heartily. The students sat around long wooden tables, and Mr. Lytle sat in a very old, overstuffed chair. Behind him was a row of windows and, beyond them, were the lights of the library shining in at us. Beside Mr. Lytle, during each class, sat Smith Kirkpatrick, who also taught writing classes at the university and who was, even then, working on his novel The Sun’s Gold. Kirk, with his kind, intense face, usually sat smoking, listening carefully. When Mr. Lytle could not elicit from us the answers he was seeking, he would finally turn to Kirk, who always knew the flaw or excellent thing to which Mr. Lytle was hoping to draw our attention.
Before discussing the students’ stories, Mr. Lytle liked to read one of his own favorites to us. He was an inspired actor, and any story he read took on the dimension of theater. I can still see his face as he began reading Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” (“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind…”) Mr. Lytle’s eyes sparkled with the thrills he knew were coming. Now and then he could not contain himself and would burst out laughing as he read one perfect comic line after another.
On other nights he showed a more somber demeanor; when he read James Joyce’s “The Dead” in class, Mr. Lytle became very serious, indeed. I still have the notes I took on the night of April 16, l959 (I found them in the pages of our textbook, Gordon and Tate’s The House of Fiction.) Here are a few of the comments I took down that night:
“Parts 1 and 2: Gabriel is in his last and sinning state.

Part 3: Gabriel is regenerated.
“The supernatural appears only through the natural.”
“The three fates (the three muses) are the three women–virgins–completed–living in death.”
“Debauchery and asceticism are both forms of death, one by denial, one by excessive use.”
“Age is dead youth.”
“The head is the upper phallus.”
“Trappist monks don’t speak.”
“In the end we all come to earth.”
This kind of talk was heady stuff to a girl who, before college, was widely read in Seventeen Magazine and who thought she aspired to publish there.
Each night when class ended, the women students had to race back to the dorms to get in by curfew. We were aware Mr. Lytle often stayed to talk with the men after class, but the women did not have such privileges. I knew that Mr. Lytle often visited the male students in their rooms and talked with them about life and art late into the night. The men in our class boasted of this–and I was jealous.
One day I took courage and asked to have a private conference with Mr. Lytle. I’d been writing a story about a young girl who was deeply troubled and who spent a long hot summer crocheting a purple and yellow snake-like rope which she wound into an ever-expanding rug. I called the story “The Purple and Yellow Summer” and I hadn’t the slightest idea what it was about. It seemed sad enough and dense enough to be “artistic”; I thought he and I should talk about it. Mr. Lytle invited me to come to his study at his house in Gainesville. He told me he rose before dawn to work, and asked that I arrive in the early morning, about eight. I distinctly remember walking to his house in the chill woodsy morning. Fall leaves were underfoot and the sun was newly up. I carried my “work” under my arm–never before had I felt so serious; I was a serious writer, on my way to have a talk with the great master.
Mr. Lytle showed me the carved wooden chair in his study; he pointed out the ouroboros on it; it was his favorite symbol–the snake eating its own tail. I indicated my story, which Mr. Lytle had already read, and asked him to help me with the characters and “the plot.”
“What should I have them do?” I asked.
He thought for a moment. Then he said, “Merrill, there is only one way to write: you must follow the thread back into the labyrinth; there and only there you will find the meaning.”
While I was pondering this (in fact, I am pondering it still), a call came from the house. Mrs. Lytle needed help! The baby had broken a jar of peanut butter, and all hands were needed in the cleanup!
I became acquainted with the family, and made friends with the Lytles’ two younger daughters, Kate and Langdon. On several occasions, I babysat for them. One evening as the Lytles were getting ready to go out, Mr. Lytle’s wife, Edna, came from her bedroom to give me some instructions about the children. She looked beautiful in a stunning red dress; when I admired it she took me into her confidence. She smiled, and said (rather mischievously): “When a woman turns forty, Merrill, she either takes a lover or buys a red dress.”
One afternoon I met Mr. Lytle on campus. “I trust you have a story to read in class tonight,” he said. “I’m counting on you.”
“Oh yes, I have one,” I said.
“Good, I’m looking forward to it.” I watched him walk away, feeling extreme panic. It was 2 p.m. I had exactly five hours in which to invent and write a complete short story! I remember thinking, as I ran to my dormitory room, “He’s counting on me!” I sat down and began to type. By 6:45 p.m. I had written a twelve-page story. When Mr. Lytle read it in class that night, no one knew the ink had barely dried on the paper. He admired the story publicly. He was proud of me.
Another time, I had written a story for class about a character I called “Crazy Harry”–Mr. Lytle was much taken with this story and told me that the following week, when he was leaving for New York to meet with his editor, he intended to bring the story, himself, directly to the offices of The New Yorker. Imagine my state of mind during his absence! All week I waited for a telegram! None came. And when I saw Mr. Lytle in class after his trip, he seemed to have no special news. In fact, he gave me no signal at all. After class I tapped his arm, trembling.
“Mr. Lytle. What did The New Yorker say?”
“The New Yorker? Oh my! I forgot about that.”
It seems to me now that the students in our particular writing class (that year, that time, that place) constituted a sacred circle; we were blessed initiates in a mysterious and difficult art. Once the door to that small classroom was shut and Mr. Lytle began reading in his wonderful, expressive voice, a magical aura enclosed us.

In my first semester of graduate work, I applied for a small fellowship from the English Department to help with expenses. I asked Mr. Lytle for a reference; he said he’d be happy to write one. To my delight, I was awarded the grant. When I went to collect my check, Alton C. Morris, then the head of the English department, seemed puzzled.

He said, “Miss Gerber, on the strength of Mr. Lytle’s extremely fine recommendation we decided to give you this money, but now that I am looking at your transcript, I see that you aren’t as brilliant as he said you are. Look at this–you had grades of C in the physical sciences!” With a look of extreme annoyance on his face, he handed me the envelope. “We hope we haven’t made a mistake,” he said.

The following September, I came back to the University of Florida to begin a job as a graduate teaching assistant in the English department. A day before the semester formally began, I received a wire from Brandeis University informing me that a scholarship for which I had applied had just come through. I was beside myself with confusion. My husband-to-be was a graduate student at Brandeis; I wanted to be with him, and to study literature, myself, in their graduate program. But I had committed myself to my rented room and promised my services to the university. (Also, I remembered Dr. Morris’ comment.) I went to Andrew Lytle with my desperate dilemma; he suggested that I search my soul (that cloudy labyrinth?) and do what was necessary. When he saw the answer on my face, he led me to his green Cadillac, drove me to his bank, loaned me enough money to buy a plane ticket to Boston, rounded up some students to help me pack and drive me to the airport. He kissed me goodbye and wished me Godspeed.

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DINNER OUT AT THE LOBSTER HOUSE…OR NOT

 

The necessity to eat dinner comes up so often— and there is always a decision to be made about which action makes the greater demand on our energy: staying home and cooking (I do the cooking) or getting dressed to go out for dinner. This involves discussing what we might want to eat, where we might want to go, what night of the week it is (will it be too crowded on the weekend at our favorite places?)

 

What are our favorite places? I have to admit I don’t like pricey restaurants where the waiter reels off the night’s “specials” and then hangs out behind our chairs to ask, too often, if everything’s all right or if he can get us anything more. I don’t like places where they take your order, bring rolls and a salad, and 45 minutes later there is no sign of our food. By then, I’ve eaten enough and don’t need dinner anymore.

 

There’s a Japanese place we love: they bang a drum to welcome us as we come in, they offer us the sushi list, which we bypass to order our standard favorite: salmon teriyaki, California roll, salad with ginger dressing, and tempura. The dipping sauce is sweet and delicious, the rice is a fluffy beautiful texture, the chopsticks are a brave pleasure, and the tea is strong and full of flavor. I could come here every night.

 

A friend gave us a gift card to a lobster place. Tonight we decide to venture there. Inside the restaurant we smell a decidedly fishy stink and suddenly we are in front of the lobster cage– the water-filled tank where the creatures are handcuffed and waiting for their death. This is not a pretty sight—a bunch of lobsters are crammed in a corner, standing upon one another, hoping to hide from a pointing finger and a voice saying “I’ll take that one.”

 

There is one enormous lobster in the tank who is trying to get our attention, he’s scrabbling around and coming to the glass to look at us with his beady eyes. “Don’t take me,” he’s telling us. “Don’t you dare.” A young woman appears with a grappling hook and flings it into the case to capture this lobster, thinking he’s the one who has caught our fancy. She lifts him out and we are face to face with this creature of innumerable antennae and limbs and claws (taped together, of course) and all his sharp edges.

“How do you usually kill him?” I ask conversationally.

 

“Oh, the chef stabs him with a knife right here,” she indicates a point behind his eyes. “They feel nothing, lobsters have no brains.”

 

“You don’t boil him alive?”

 

“Oh, no. He would struggle in the pot and splash the chef with boiling water if we just dropped him in. That’s why we stab him first. Or sometimes we freeze him to make him sleepy before we boil him.”

 

Don’t tell me this lobster has no brain. Of course he would struggle in a pot of boiling water. He is looking at us with his black eyes, and he knows what this conversation is about.

 

“You know,” I say to this young woman, “I think we’ll come back another time, thanks for all the information, though,” and I pull my husband out the door.

 

We have a few other choices: there’s a burger place where, once you place your order, you are given a device that flashes when your burger is ready. I really don’t like to hold this device which dozens of others have held and then hold my burger in the same hand. Furthermore, this place features deafening music that makes us want to run outside with our hands over our ears.

 

There’s a pizza place that lets you choose from a list of fifty items to put bits of on your pizza– bacon chips, grated apple, pork rind, cow tongue, spinach, pesto sauce, ground almonds, mango chutney. This asks for too many decisions.

 

Now we really are tired and hungry, and though we don’t discuss it, we automatically know and accept the fact that whatever we eat tonight will have been killed days or weeks prior to our dinnertime. We understand the arguments made by our vegetarian friends, yet we are of a generation that grew up being fed “chopped meat” and chicken soup by our loving mothers.

 

Chicken in every dimension was our mothers’ antidote to life’s problems. My husband and I are so tired and hungry now that we both feel a desire to eat chicken tonight. A place called “Steer and Ale” is around the corner, and Monday is their fried chicken special night. Lots of retired folks go to this place, the price is right, they give you a pile of napkins, and, even before you ask, the waitress brings you take-out boxes.

 

We decide to go for it—my God, what incredible comfort food, a whole quartered chicken fried to perfection, a baked potato sloshing with butter, sour cream and chives, a slab of dripping buttery garlic bread. And, for dessert, we know what is coming are bowls of tapioca pudding topped with whipped cream.

 

We eat with a kind of rapture, with gratitude that such simple joys are still possible for us. That just for tonight we will indulge in this kind of wild orgy and be utterly satisfied and happy. We tear with pleasure at our crunchy pieces of fried chicken. We look at each other and smile. Dinner out. A great thing tonight.

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on Ice

Over the weekend I watched a series of ice skating competitions, short and long programs of individual skaters, ice dancing teams, pair skating, and finally a gala show of performance events, the rules and requirements no longer the issue, but the artistry, beauty, grace and majesty of the skaters brought into focus.
Awesome, indeed, these gyrations, death spirals, gravity-defying throws, swizzles and twizzles, throw jumps, overhead lifts, lutz jumps, layback spins and breath-taking catches in mid-air. Not rocket science? I think perhaps it is, the enormity of remembering to execute a thousand choreographed steps with perfect timing, to do this in tempo to music, to do it with cautious respect of the female body (so many lifts require the male skater to support the female by her pubic bone while she holds her hands beneath his for modesty).
How modest is this sport of ice-dancing, in which both men and women wear revealing, tight-fitting costumes, where the thighs and buttocks of the female skaters flash before us in startling perfection, where the strength of the male skaters is heroic, thrillingly manly? Is ice dancing more or less modest than ballet? But modesty falls away under the spell of the stories being told, lovers in crisis, lovers in conflict, and ultimately lovers in sweet resolution. (How often the dancing pairs end their story with a kiss!)
When my daughters were young, we used to watch the famous skaters of the times: Katerina Witt, Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, Debi Thomas. So much drama was attached to their names—personal enmity, thrilling competitive moments, Tonya was charged with an attack on Nancy, and Debi, a Stanford medical student, ultimately, years later, left the sport, left medicine, lost her bearings.
My daughters and I checked out library books trying to learn the meanings of the terms triple lutz, salchow, the quad, the double-throw axel, the inside and outside edges of the blades. But never mind, we failed to learn the lingo and simply let the announcers tell us who landed what, and how good it was!
My own long-ago favorite team skaters were Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini. They had between them some magical sexuality, unmatched, unequaled by even the most famous. (See them on You Tube skating to “Unchained Melody.”) The angle of his body canting toward hers, the delicacy with which he lifted, flung and rescued her from a death spiral, and most of all the way their eyes locked in every performance, they never looked away from each other, their passion was tangible.
Barbara Underhill’s heart was later broken when one of her twin baby daughters crawled out a door of her home and drowned in her pool. She thought she must give up skating. In time, but came back on the ice, she recovered day by day till she found some degree of peace. She later created a foundation to assure the safety of children.
http://www.keepsafefoundation.com
As I see it, Underhill and Martini have never been matched since their winning days.  This past weekend, I watched a new champion with the amazing name of Gracie Gold. She danced Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” she melted the ice with her heat and beauty.
I watched her, transfixed. She spun she jumped, she twirled, she shimmered like a diamond. She landed every leap. Her smile, as she finished in triumph, was transcendent.
I watched with an almost tearful yearning. I let myself think the dreamy impossible: Once upon a time I could have done that. In fact, I used to have thighs just like hers!