Black’s Gaslight Village
The following memoir was composed in its original form for the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s 50th anniversary’s commemorative booklet, Seems Like Old Times, 1986.
One Friday night in the spring of 1966, the first year I was at the Iowa Fiction Workshop, I was waitressing at the Steak-Out in the Jefferson Hotel, when Phil came in, a blonde, good-looking undergraduate who lived in one of the basement rooms below me where I lived at Black's Gaslight Village. Phil was carrying a huge coil of rope. I asked him, teasingly, what he was going to do with that rope. Oh, he said, I'm going to hang a few little things on it. We laughed – the reference was so absurdly alarming and obvious. He laid it over a table, sat down at it, and I dismissed the flash in my mind's eye. He'd laughed.
He told me his girlfriend Pam, a very cool undergrad English major, had gone out of town for the weekend. He played "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Part I and Part II" on the jukebox. Asked me what I'd like to hear. It was early: only a couple other customers were there. I didn't know him well. I served him a few beers, we joked, small-talked.
Black’s Gaslight Village was the creation of Henry Black, an eccentric dictionary salesman who covered the Midwest by car, buying antiques as a sideline. A conglomeration of dwellings whose rooms Mr. Black rented to students, mainly graduate students in the Art Department and the Writers’ Workshop, it was set on about 3/4ths of an unkempt acre on Brown Street, a walkable mile from the center of Iowa City. The next cross street, Van Buren, paralleled Blacks, as everyone called it for short, and dead-ended at the big Victorian house where, with his wife Jane and daughters, Kurt Vonnegut lived.
Surrounded by one-family homes with trim lawns, Blacks’ grew wild. The land sloped up from Brown Street. In front on the right, closest to the street, stood Mr. Black’s two-story house, where he lived with his second wife and baby son. On the left, a bit higher up, lay a classic two-story brick house we called the big house; directly behind it a one-room stone dwelling, the stone house; and about twenty feet back of that, the L-shaped building made of cheap wood with barrack-like rooms, the left wing with an upper floor, the right wing – where I lived – with a basement. At the apex of the wings lay the entrance and a small kitchen.
About thirty feet to the right across from the L-shaped house, with space for parking in between, and twenty feet behind Mr. Black’s house, the U-shaped house was situated, perhaps the fanciest. It had two spaces large enough for a couple. The rearmost dwelling opened into the yawn of the U, nice windows and foliage opened onto the back and far side, and an A-frame faced the front. The antiques Mr. Black collected were installed in some of those rooms, as well as those in the big house. Tombstones he had picked up somewhere lined the exterior.
After I got off work the night I served Phil, I met my poet friend Steve Orlen, who was bartending and got off about the same time, and we walked to Blacks together as we usually did. I stayed up that night until five A.M. with several others in someone's attic room in the big house, drinking, talking.
About ten in the morning, I stumbled, bleary-eyed, into the shared kitchen of the L-shaped building. I don't remember who told me. Maybe Mary Kat (Mary Kathleen O'Donnell). Phil had hanged himself. In his room, directly below mine. I sat down. I described the rope spread on the table, what we'd said, what I'd dismissed. I remember noticing a book of Anne Sexton's poems that Chuck Hanzlicek, who lived upstairs next to Steve, had left on our table: All My Pretty Ones.
A few minutes later Steve came downstairs. “Have you heard any more about Françoise?” he asked. Why was he talking about anyone or anything else right now? “What are you talking about?” I repeated at him angrily. He interrupted sarcastically, “Well, I woke up this morning to the news that Phil hanged himself and Françoise was killed on the highway by a truck.”
I didn't believe him. I told him so. I went outside. Three guys were standing there. One, Mike Landau, a grad student in acting, was someone I'd been seeing a bit until about two weeks earlier, when he and Françoise began to date. She was a pretty French girl, blonde, and a senior in English, like Pam and Phil. Two weeks before, I'd taken her to my parents' new farm in Arkansas for Easter week. She, my sister and I sunbathed, gossiped, hiked the farm. We were in the same short story course and usually sat next to each other. I'd been cool to her that week, though I knew it wasn't so much my jealousy about Mike himself as my ego between us. Now he was standing there in the morning sun with two other guys, when I burst out the door. “Where's Françoise? Have you seen Françoise?” I demanded. Mike looked at me, peculiarly. He glanced at the others. Then he said, “Man, she's dead.”
The cover of Anne Sexton’s book featured a quote from Macbeth: “All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam, At one fell swoop?”
It was Matt (real name Howard McMillan, Mr. Black had dubbed him Matt and it stuck), who worked for Mr. Black on the place part-time, who received the call from the police about Françoise. It was Matt who led the exterminators, who came that morning to exterminate termites, to the basement, and found Phil. Phil'd put the Beatles on, before he hanged himself. They'd been singing "Help" over and over, all night long. It was Matt who turned off the stereo.
We'd planned a pig roast, following Iowa spring tradition, for that night at Black's. We postponed it to the next Saturday night. We lingered around one another, talking quietly in each other’s rooms and the various kitchens, instead.
There were about forty students living at Black's Gaslight Village, mainly in the Workshop. Not everyone knew everyone. But it was a community. One exists there still. So there was the thing of distinguishing if someone knew or not, the thing about telling, among us, some sense that death stalked around our corners. It was an odd place, Black an odd man, larger than life and slightly sinister, always in lawsuits, two sons who'd committed suicide, his cane tapping around for the rent. And we, as a group, were fairly unsteady ourselves.
After a few days, black humor began to abound at Black's. The tombstones Mr. Black had amassed from God knows where took on an ironic appropriateness. Matt, sobered but dry-eyed, matter-of-fact, made wordplays on "exterminate." Mark Marcus confided he was mad at Phil. “I mean, he was supposed to give me a haircut this week.”
The week went by. We made plans for the pig roast, now the coming Saturday night. Steve and I would go to the farmer’s to choose the pig. Others would supply beer, corn-on-the-cob, potatoes. There was a memorial service for Françoise. Her body was shipped back to France. Harrison Golden and others took up a collection for a Japanese maple and planted it in her honor behind the big house. Her parents wrote my parents. “Yours was the last family she was with,” they said.
We found out that Phil had attempted suicide earlier, at age sixteen. Pam, his girlfriend, told us she had gone away that weekend because she didn't know how to cope with his depression. All day long he'd carried that rope, and all day long people who knew him intuited, and then dismissed, its purpose. So, we were discovering, it goes.
Early the next Saturday, Steve Orlen and I picked out a plump, reddish-brown pig, on the hoof. The farmer delivered it slaughtered, mid-morning. The guys (Carl, Joe, Harrison, others) dug a pit in the dirt between the L-shaped and big house. The pig roasted all day. In the evening everyone came to the feast. Mary Kat had her guitar. Jonathan Penner had one too. We sang, drank beer, ate. The mood was not somber, nor festive. There was some rage, defiance, as an undercurrent. Why? Why all my pretty ones? Then we'll show you. We put the pig's head on a stick and stuck it into the ground near the fire. Lord of the Flies.
The Vonneguts lived adjacent. Sometime during that week, Jane Vonnegut told me she wanted to see the assorted rooms and antiques she'd heard so much about. I invited her to the pig roast for a tour of Black's kingdom. There were no stairs down to the basement below me where Phil had lived, only a board propped from the doorway to the floor. There were no lights in the hall, either. I descended first, warning Jane that there were no stairs, only a wooden plank, but failing, it seems, to warn sufficiently of its narrowness. She stepped onto it with her right foot and into thin air with her left, hitting her knee hard on the edge of the board. The tour ended. Later, Kurt was furious at the lack of lights and stairs, basic safety requirements for tenants, even or especially for student tenants, and the consequences for Jane's knee, which were serious enough to require an operation, if I recall correctly. He initiated a lawsuit.
Two people had gone off for a motorcycle ride. Diane Oliver, a beautiful, circumspect, black, talented fiction writer from Georgia, had never been on a motorcycle, so Jack, in the undergrad fiction workshop, offered to take her for a spin on his. Diane didn't live at the Gaslight Village. But she was a close friend of Larry Bryant's and others, who did: Larry was from Georgia, as well, but he was white, a grad student in intellectual history. I’d spent the previous two academic years in Arkansas and I understood the depth of their unusual bond of friendship, of being black and white coming from the deeply racist divided 60’s South. Diane was often at Black's. One of her stories had just been accepted for publication in The Atlantic Monthly and she was getting her MFA in a couple of weeks.
Matt had gone off by foot to Kenney's, a bar in town frequented by students in the art department and workshop.
More pork, more beer, more talk. “Where are Diane and Jack?” Jack's wife Linda began to wonder. Murmurs. Ought to be back by now.
Mrs. Black came out to the parking area near our party, and without a word, got in her car. We looked at one another. One group, including Larry, got in a car and followed. Chuck Hanzlicek’s girlfriend Judith Goode and I and others got in Judith's car. We knew where they were going.
Diane died a few minutes after arriving at the hospital. Jack was all right except for a smashed toe. They were coming out of an alley. The passing VW's driver didn't see them. Diane wasn't wearing a helmet.
This was too much. It was already too much: this was beyond too much. Three people from Black's, all young, beautiful, creative, intelligent, in the space of one week. Those who had reacted woodenly or philosophically earlier, now reacted emotionally. Those who had reacted emotionally, as myself, now reacted woodenly. Those who didn't know the victims well and were therefore distant, felt the impact of pure numbers. Seemed we were under siege, without arms, in a war we didn't know we'd been in.
We'd grown up in the comfortable Fifties, when what our post-depression, post-war parents wanted and provided was stability. Now the Vietnam war was occurring. Kennedy had been assassinated two and a half years before. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing. The previous spring I'd marched in Selma. Many marches and murders were still to come. I remember Michael Lally on a soapbox for SDS in the student union. Bob Lehrman railing against the war. We Shall Overcome. Hell, no, I won't go.
All this surrounded the Workshop. The Workshop itself went on as itself – competitive, egocentric, inspiring, anxiety-producing, supportive, chauvinistic, sometimes very moving. That year, my first, 1965-66, we were in the quonset huts. They were cold, shabby, smokey, and wonderful. None of your usual classroom aesthetics or bodily comfort. We were there to write. That was the priority outside the quonset huts as well as in.
From the hospital, Larry, who was usually theoretical, above-it-all, with Georgia manners as impeccable as Diane’s dress and demeanor, walked out the doors in a daze of fury. I called the big house at Black’s, spoke to Tom Jones, to let them know as promised what'd happened, and to warn them Larry was blind with grief and to watch for him.
But it was too much to ask to watch out for someone else. I can't remember, Tom Jones or Chuck Aukema, smashed his own fists into the wall, instead.
As Judith and I returned, Mike, Françoise's friend and mine, appeared by the still-smoldering pig. He wasn't at the party earlier. He'd just got home. He felt something immediately, “like an ill wind,” he said, “an evil wind, in the place.” He left his room right away and came back to the pig roast, spooked, to find out what the evil was.
Some of us grouped together in various rooms, as we had the Saturday night before. I remember being in Larry's attic room in the big house, then later in a front room downstairs. I was outside that room, sitting on the stairs by myself, when Matt opened the front door. He'd been at Kenney's bar all this time, yakking and drinking the beer Irene Kenney served so well. He stared at me. Then he said, “Just tell me who it is.” He didn't want to know how or what happened, he said. He just wanted to know who it was this time. His voice cracked.
I told him who. “But I just had a beer with them,” he said. “They were just at Kenney's.” He sat down on the steps in front of me. His shoulders began to shake. I was dry-eyed this time: everything appeared distant, as though I were outside of the world. I put my arms around Matt. I could feel the heaving in his back, in his chest, the not-being-able-to-stand-anymore, against me, and my numbness.
I could not see clearly all the next week. I walked around and around. I was studying poetry in a literature class with Paul Carroll. Garcia Lorca. “A la cinco de la tarde. Exactamenta a la cinco de la tarde.” I will not see it! “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias.” I read that poem again and again and the quotation from Macbeth on the cover of Anne Sexton's All My Pretty Ones. I kept passing the Vonneguts’. It was an old, substantial, fanciful house. Kurt was an adult, a survivor of World War II, a father, a righteous avenger of Henry Black’s neglect. I wanted to go in. But I was too cut off, didn't know what I wanted or could be given inside, was worried and guilt-ridden about Jane's knee and my part in it. I had called my parents the week before, but my mother didn't know what to say. What could she say to my outrage? I think now it was as though I were accusing her. How could this happen, Mama? Why can’t you help me? But that was the week before. This week I didn't call. Just wandered. Couldn't concentrate.
The following weekend there was supposed to be another pig roast, the annual spring pig roast at veteran writer-teacher Vance Bourjaily's farm. This one was a political fundraiser. I called Vance at the end of the week to see if it was still going on: everyone wanted to know. They'd decided to go ahead with it, Vance said. Then Tina Bourjaily was on the phone. I don't remember exactly how the conversation began. But I knew she and Vance knew about tragedy. Their child had been killed in a car crash the previous year, we all knew, a car Vance had been driving. I must've said something to Tina like I couldn't fathom it, believe it. Kurt always said Tina was like an Indian. She managed the Bourjailys’ farm, their horses. I didn't know what Kurt meant precisely, but I understood the quality I think he meant. At that moment, Tina told me, simply, that these things happen. And, she said, when they happen, they often come in twos or threes. She did not offer a theory or an explanation. I began to weep.
Write down the truest thing you know, Hemingway advised. Another famous man said, the truth shall make ye free.
What Tina said, no more or less, was all the truth.
Over the summer, friends from Black's kept track of each other. Who knew who would or wouldn't be there the next semester?
Matt – Howard McMillan – wrote a novel based on Mr. Black and the Gaslight Village, a few years later. He set out to get it all, he told me, Mr. Black’s character, his nefarious dealings, the Gaslight Village and its inhabitants, including That Week. But all for one novel was too much. He cut that week out. As far as I know, no one else ever tried.
The next spring, a year later, my final spring in Iowa City, we Vonnegut workshoppers threw a farewell party for Kurt, on John and Jane Casey's and David Plimpton's farm. I sneaked out a 1900's yearbook from the library, everyone contributing a passport-sized snapshot, and my roommate that year, artist Susan Harris (we'd both moved from Black's) reproduced the hairdo's billowy dresses and funny suits from that era in black ink. We replaced their 1900's faces. We framed it, and gave it to Kurt at the party. John, Jane, David, Gail Godwin, John Irving, and I don't know who all, decorated the walls of the farmhouse. Plastered up everywhere were the things Kurt'd said in class over and over, like "Throw out the first two pages."
I read this memoir aloud recently, for the first time in my life. To my surprise, over the chasm of years, I found myself in the state, even physically, that I’d been in at the end of that week. A murderous outrage. My body cold. Distanced from those and the world around me.
A listener responded, it’s tragic. But so what? I mean, what did you learn, what does it mean?
What is there to learn from tragedy, from accident, disease, and suicide?
Don’t venture to a foreign country or drive on one of its highways at night, because you might be side-swiped by a semi-truck. Don’t succeed, if you’re African-American, in going north, metaphorically speaking, to a prestigious university graduate program. Don’t ride on a motorcycle because someone coming out of an alley might smash into you and even if you’re only going 25 miles an hour and they 5 mph, you might hit your head at just the right angle for it to be fatal. Don’t get suicidally depressed. People might not recognize how severe it is. Especially if you are smart, talented, and attractive. They may not be equipped to know what to do about it. You probably will be disinclined or able to get help yourself. You might not get meds, the meds may not work.
Don’t have a lot of friends or acquaintances because it will increase your chances that several of them might disappear on you all at once. Don’t grow up tragedy-free so you won’t be blindsided when as a young adult it strikes.
Don’t have accidental deaths around you, or disease either, with no one to blame.
Go to war, instead, with a built-in sanctioned-by-government enemy, who soon you can blame personally since that enemy will be trying to take the lives of your buddies just as you are trying to take theirs, and will in all probability succeed at least once, and then you will have what feels like personal reasons to kill back.
Go to a school or a bar or some public place where some deeply troubled person with a murderous, suicidal outrage who has acquired a tool for the sole purpose of making holes in human beings and is aiming it at you, your companions, then himself.
Get yourself living in a dangerous country or neighborhood where crime and drugs are rampant, or a despot rules.
Be born on the darker side of the array of human hues in a nation predominantly on the other end of the spectrum which consistently endangers you.
Try to leave a country, especially if you have children, where you and they are at risk any day of being raped, murdered, robbed, of your children being forced into joining the very gangs that threaten, get yourself shot by the authorities, or suffocated by the coyotes transporting you, or drown crossing the Rio Grande, or legally incarcerated for indefinite lengths without your children who have been wrenched from you and incarcerated themselves.
Then you will have someone, some system, some president, senators, something or someone to blame, to hold responsible. Then you have license to find those things unacceptable, for rage, for action towards change, insofar as you are capable. Then you are not required to surrender, to accept, as Tina Bourjaily’s wise and experienced voice told me, that these things happen, and they often happen in two and threes.