Brian Kiteley, a native of Northampton, is director of the Ph.d program in creative writing at the University of Denver. He is the author of two novels, “Still Life with Insects” and “I Know Many Songs but I Cannot Sing,” as well as a book of fiction exercises, “The 3 A.M. Epiphany.”
He grew up on South Street and, later, on Harrison Avenue in Northampton, graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota and received a master’s degree from City College of New York.. A recipient of Guggenheim, Whiting, and NEA fellowships, Kiteley also has had residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Millay, Yaddo, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. His fiction has been anthologized in “The Best American Short Stories” and “The Four-Way Reader.” He also has taught at the American University in Cairo and Ohio University.
This selection is taken from his latest work of fiction, “The River Gods,” and its focus on places and personalities specific to Northampton. The book, he says, took him “only nine years to finish.” According to the author, “the book is currently crawling from agent to agent and publisher to publisher, looking for home and shelter.”
Selections from "The River Gods"
By Brian Kiteley
William Carlos Williams, 61
I stepped off the train from New York into mote-filled early summer sunshine and instantly decided to prolong my stay in Northampton, Massachusetts, by an extra day. My publishers in Cummington would pick me up the next morning. I registered at the hotel. The desk clerk stared at my signature for a long while, as if he recognized it. Then he shrugged and apologized that mine was the last and smallest room; commencement at Smith College tomorrow. It was churlish to expect a country boy like this to know of the moderately famous poet-doctor of Rutherford, New Jersey, so I sauntered out into the approaching evening to eavesdrop on the town. It had rained heavily in the morning but cleared enough, I learned later, for the planners to okay the mounting of hundreds of Chinese lanterns around the center of the college campus. I chatted with workers, students, parents, and professors, never introducing myself but riding along on the giddy joy of the evening that was also laced with apprehension at the impending invasion of France. This was early June 1944.
Students invited me to three different college houses for dinner, and I chose Dewey House to honor that schoolmarm and intellectual lightweight John Dewey. At the meal, a Casper Milquetoast of a professor of English sat next to me and without any prodding launched into a defense of the poetry of Wallace Stevens. The lyric competence of the defense surprised and pleased me. I had waved to the Hartford home of my old friend Stevens on the train north. The professor never once asked my name or work, so I enjoyed asking questions instead of answering them. What I wanted to know was if the professor thought Stevens was a servant of the mind or master of things the mind saw. The professor’s name was Arvin, and he said there was no poet who better grasped the musical illogic of thought. I had to agree, defeated in my sly attempt to rank myself against my friendly rival.
Two tall pink-cheeked seniors in white robes later asked me to escort them down to the dance on the lawn below the library. The seniors introduced me to their parents and classmates as Doctor Williams. The girls danced with each other or with fathers, and with the odd soldier, clinging to all with the same ardor. One or two asked me, but I complained of woolsorter’s disease, which sounded harmless and comical but, if I had it, would be deadly. I sat comfortably out of the way on a worn wooden bench, stealing glances at the occasional serene beauty with the same tug I felt forty years ago. A large group eventually gathered to return to the house, and I tagged along behind, now forgotten. Up a hill, we passed a Smith College truck with several workers hanging off its tailgate, blowing out candle after candle and pulling down the paper globes, in a great hurry to beat the sunset and blackout rules. One senior called out to the workers, “Lantern snuffers!”
Brian Kiteley, age 7
The big kids—Fifth-Graders—played marbles every day after school. The South Street School was two blocks from home at Fort Hill. Geoffrey and I walked home most days hand-in-hand. Geoffrey was in Third Grade, I was in Second. Some days our mother met us at the cross-walk. Other days she did not. I wanted to play marbles with the big kids, and every day I brought my own small bag of marbles as offering. They never let me in the game. Geoffrey and I would sit or stand outside the circle and watch. One day, a big kid brought a new marble. He unveiled it carefully from his pocket, where it was making a large lump. It was the biggest marble I had ever seen, perfectly clear, with a flat spot. Someone said, “No fair. That’s for a sofa.” But the other boys allowed this giant into the ring. I watched helplessly. At one point the marble came rolling (with a limp) toward me, and I did what seemed most natural. I picked it up. I ran. When I came to the cross-walk my beautiful mother was waiting at the other side, my baby sister standing very still. My mother waved. The crossing-guard escorted me across. My mother gave me a small hug, and my sister said nothing, though she looked hard at my fist, which barely covered the marble. The three of us walked home.
Geoffrey arrived a few minutes later. He was old enough to cross, with the crossing-guard, all by himself. I lay on the bottom bunk of our bunk bed, staring at the marble, which I’d pressed into my pillow. Geoffrey entered the bedroom casually, hanging his jacket on the peg, examining a book on his little desk, writing something on a piece of pink construction paper. Finally he came over to the bed. He asked me what I would do tomorrow. I had not thought about that. I imagined going back to the school, the big kids following me down the halls just two paces behind, right up to the door of my classroom. I imagined them standing there all through class, just staring at me. Geoffrey said he would take the marble back to school right now, and there would probably be no harm. With tears in my eyes, I held the marble against my chest and let the marble roll from my hand into my brother’s hand. Geoffrey walked into the kitchen—I followed—and Geoffrey told our mother he was going back to school. Our mother said, “Hmmm,” but no more. She was making dinner—a wonderful casserole with potato chips on top. I stayed to smell the dinner, but I also watched, out the window, my brother walk maddeningly slowly past the parked cars toward South Street and the deep drain that went so far down no one knew where it came out.
Mike Nichols, 34
Who’s afraid of Michael Igor Peschkowsky
Location filming for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf started last week. I did a run-through outside the house we were going to use as George and Martha’s place. It was on the corner of the Smith College campus, a few dozen yards from the waterfall at the end of this too-beautiful Paradise Pond. I realized quickly that the waterfall noise was going to drown out the one scene we really needed in Northampton, so I asked the dean of the college, who was just hanging out around the edges of the setup for the shot (the actors weren’t even in town yet), if he could do anything. He said, “Sure. I’ll just have them turn it off.” Turn off a waterfall. It was done the next day.
I graduated from the University of Chicago, so this east coast J. D. Salinger world of debutantes and faded aristocrats made me nervous. I am thirty-four years old. I have directed a few plays on Broadway, and I had a fairly successful run as a comedian on stage and television with my dear girl Elaine May. This was a new world for me, but I have to say the prospect of directing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton did not disconcert me as much as dealing with these effete eastern snobs at Smith College. They turned out to be pussy cats—or teddy bears. None expected what they saw of Elizabeth, the night of the shoot by the swing in the tree. She wasn’t even in the scene that night, but she came, in costume, in her blowsy makeup it took five or six tries to get right, thirty pounds heavier than she’d been in her last movie. She is a darling, and I worked her hard, but she rarely lost her temper with me. Burton took most of the heat from her, and occasionally poor Sandy Dennis, god knows why. Liz was giving me a joking hard time for suspending the shoot the day before, to go down to Manhattan for a lunch with Jackie Kennedy. I remind readers that we were closing in on two years since the assassination, not that I’m admitting anything untoward was going on in New York.
Liz and Dick and I went for a walk later that night, maybe one or two in the morning—who looks at a watch in the midst of these hectic shoots? I was scouting out more locations for a similar walk they would take back from a party at the beginning of the movie. I liked the lay of the campus, the odor of a noxious gingko tree at the top of the hill above the pond, near the college president’s house. I wanted to be able to include that smell in the movie, perhaps at the very least as a throwaway line. It surprised me, at some point, surrounded by these beautiful homes and tall elms, that I was so casually out for a stroll with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a small town in western Massachusetts. Of course, we did not see a soul on the streets. Imagine their surprise if they had run into us. We passed a bottle of champagne back and forth. Liz requested two cases of the stuff, at around $800, for her dressing room. She seemed perpetually amused that these outrageous demands were met. Dick reminded her he was tenth in box office drawing power last year, and she was eleventh. They are not what I would call a real couple, but who am I to speak, running off to New York for a ridiculous rendezvous with the widow of a president.
We turned onto Massasoit Street. “That red-baiting strike-buster Coolidge lived here,” Liz said. Dick told me that his wife was much better read than him in terms of politics and world events, but she had a shameful ignorance of Shakespeare. “The dear girl had never read ‘A Winters Tale’ or ‘Measure for Measure’ when we met. Can you imagine an actress not knowing the greatest female parts in the language?” Liz cackled and threw the champagne bottle into the street, with a fair side-armed delivery, clearly hoping it would break. It skidded across the pavement, spilling expensive liquid in a long arc, but then it simply clinked against the opposite curb. “You stupid cow,” Dick said, in character, but maybe not. “Now we have to walk all the way back to the fucking hotel for another drink.” Liz turned, laughing toward me, but she gave a vicious punch at Dick’s midsection. He doubled over, laughing even more riotously than she had been laughing, but Liz steamed off down the street, as if she were going to walk back to the hotel, except she was heading the wrong way. Dick kneeled on the grass, gasping for breath and genuinely worrying me. When he had enough breath, he called out to his wife. “Wrong direction, you idiot.” Liz let out a scream we were becoming accustomed to in rehearsals, but it still put my hair on end. Dick said, “Look. You can see her thinking out her complexities even as she plays them. So touching the girl wants to learn how to act.”
Lights came on in several nearby homes. I hoped a taxi would magically appear, but we were in a town that rolled up its sidewalks at six in the evening. A silver-haired fellow appeared out of the shadows, on the walk to his house. He asked Elizabeth Taylor, in a voice loud enough for us to hear, if everything was alright. I expected her to cry rape, accusing us both with the same fury she seemed capable of at a moment’s notice. But they had a quiet chat, and Liz walked the man up to his home, where they seemed engaged in a perfectly ordinary, human communication, as if she hadn’t been the most beautiful woman on the planet as recently as six months before and now weren’t the most frightening one in this village.
Brian Kiteley, 7
My teacher was doing numbers and letters on the blackboard when the principal knocked on the classroom door. This was not normal. The principal stood outside the door, her head bent, her blond hair covering her face. She was not young, but she was not old either. She made a strange set of noises. One of the other students whispered, “She’s crying.” The teacher excused herself and walked down the hall with the principal. It took a long time for anyone to come back to the classroom. By the time someone did come back—another teacher they did not know well, a big man—the room was rowdy. This did not bother the male teacher, which surprised the class into silence. His eyes were red and at one point he wiped his sleeve across his nose. He was crying, too. He said, “School is dismissed. You can all go home. The president has been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas.” Then he left the doorway, and no one in the classroom moved.
A boy stood and said, “Well, I’m going to the playground.” He stomped out of the room. It took many other students leaving before I would go—I was still worried about the big kids who played marbles. When I did leave, I looked down the hall at a knot of teachers. They all stood very close together, as if they were hugging each other. The sound that came from them was a soft chuffing noise. Radio static scritched from somewhere, quiet radio voices interrupting the static every few seconds.
I looked for Geoffrey, but I couldn’t find him. I wanted to be home, so I ran. To my surprise, the principal was the crossing-guard at South Street. I walked over the cross-walk, careful to avoid the solid white bars, and then I ran as fast as I could to the apartment. Today was the day our cleaning lady Mrs. Kennedy came. I asked her every week if she was the President’s mother, and every week she laughed—I liked asking the same questions again and again.
Mrs. Kennedy was a big woman, with very white skin and gray hair tied up but spilling over its knot. She wore a dress that made crinkling noises. She smelled like my Play-Doh, when I left it outside one night. She lived in a long row of houses. Each house looked exactly the same as the other house. When she saw me slip into the kitchen, her first words were, “What are you doing home now, young man? Are you playing hooky?” I did not know what that word meant. I said, “The President has been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas.” Mrs. Kennedy, who was only a foot away, reached down. I thought she would hug me, but she slapped me hard on the cheek. I burst into tears, pride terribly injured, amazed at how mean Mrs. Kennedy was, but also fascinated, in the midst of my sobbing, that something I had said made her upset.
Geoffrey walked slowly into the kitchen just then. He said, “Turn on the radio, Mrs. Kennedy. It’s true. The President is dead.” Mrs. Kennedy was big enough that she could gather both of us into her arms and carry us into the living room. She did. She collapsed onto the couch. Geoffrey returned to the kitchen and a moment later brought her a glass of water with ice cubes—the ice cubes so cold I wanted to shout. I stood watching Mrs. Kennedy cry for a long time. Her crying had immediately stopped my own tears. Then I went over to the television to see what was on. I rarely got to watch television this time of day. Every channel had grown men looking gloomy and sad, talking very slowly, turning to other men in chairs next to them to ask complicated questions. There was no Swabby the Sailor Man or Leave it To Beaver or cartoons. Mrs. Kennedy made me stop changing channels when I came to Walter Cronkite. I started sniffling at something about this man’s voice. Geoffrey led me by the hand to my bed. He said, “It is very sad. But don’t worry, there is a person who will become the new president. Our teachers are sad because the President who died comes from this state. Now you get some sleep, just lay your head down. If you have any questions, call me. The next few months will be difficult but we will pull through.”
Ben Bradlee, 39
Editor at Newsweek
JFK was boasting about the White House operators. They could track anyone down anywhere in the world in half an hour. My wife Tony and I had been neighbors of the Kennedys in ’58 and ’59. Tony’s ex-brother-in-law was high up in the CIA now, and he had an odd fascination with Truman Capote, so we happened to know Capote was up in Northampton, Massachusetts, visiting an old boyfriend who taught at Smith. Tony threw out Truman’s name. I had interviewed him once for Newsweek when I was stationed in Paris. He was sharp as a tack, I’ll grant him that. JFK called the operator, and not ten minutes later she called back. Kennedy chatted for a while, cradling the phone on the crook of his shoulder as if he were talking with an old friend, leaning casually against a low secretary table. Tony and Jackie exchanged glances. Jack was impervious to the squeals of delight on the other end of the line. He told Capote a story of campaigning in western Massachusetts for his senate re-election. Larry O’Brien took him up from his house in Springfield to Northampton to an old Irish pol. The three of them had a few at Rahar’s, where the ex-mayor said Calvin Coolidge had eaten lunch every day. Capote seemed to interrupt the President’s story because Kennedy said, “What? Well, I’m wearing a gray sweater unbuttoned over a blue shirt, but no pants.” JFK held the phone away from his ear for loud remonstrations we could not make out. “That’s what I said. I am not wearing any pants. Jackie’s modeling a bustier, even if there is precious little to boost. And two secret service agents are averting their eyes.” Capote laughed long and hard, as we all did, and when the President rang off, he said, “I think I’ve got that vote sewn up.” Jack straightened his back, and for an instant, I saw a spasm of pain ruin his handsome features. Tony, quicker on the uptake than me, said, “Can we get you something?” JFK’s face resumed its mask of geniality. He said, “Naw. I’m on six medications, excluding the high ball I’m about to order.”
William Carlos Williams, 62
I wandered into the greenhouse and sat by a pool. “Closing in a few minutes,” a gruff friendly voice said invisibly from behind a stand of banana trees. I did not answer but kept my breathing even. One, two, three, one, two— “Mister Farmer,” a woman’s voice said—a musical voice. “Do you find the greenhouse a tonic environment on a howling winter day, too?” Separately, these two parts of her address (the Mister Farmer and the winter day) were mystifying. Together, I rather enjoyed their construction of an alternate reality. Before me stood an auburn-haired woman, probably forty, a few streaks of gray, a glance neither modest nor insistent. She was wearing a wrap-around sweater, as if it were cool, but, if I recollected correctly, it was still quite warm outdoors, and in here it was truly sultry, like a Burmese jungle swarming with the Japanese. And she was stunningly beautiful. “No, sit, sit,” the woman said. “I’ll join you. Henry told me I might find you down here.”
I suddenly was not sure if this woman was indeed mistaking me for someone else or pulling my leg. To test my theory, I said he felt I was becoming a nuisance around the house, the three grandchildren building a snow fort in the living room. The woman seemed briefly caught off guard by this image, but she recovered. “I feel exactly the same way. My daughter has two girlfriends from Rome staying with us. Their father—a charming man—sent them to me from Jamaica—where they’re waiting out the war—and today my daughter was staying home from school to teach them about soap opera. I try gently to compel them to combine listening to the radio with another more elevating activity—knitting, chess—but they yell at me in Italian—even my daughter!” She did not speak after this for a few moments. I stood up when sufficient time had passed, took her hand in both my doctor’s hands, and said, “Can I walk you home? I think the greenhouse is about to close.”
We walked, holding hands, around the pond, which was being drained and dredged for its valuable fertilizer. I guessed that her husband, Henry, was overseas and in some danger or missing. I did not know how to broach the subject, or even to ask the woman’s name. We walked in silence, except for the woman’s occasional comment on a passing house. We left the path and climbed to a street tented by high noisy elms. We took another back road and passed two more streets that led to the main street through town, then turned right onto Harrison Avenue. At this point, I could no longer continue the charade. But how to make a new story without alarming this good woman? I decided to do it and not say I was doing it, just ease into the new version. “I passed the house of my good friend Wallace Stevens on the train up here today,” I said. “He and I were talking on the phone the other week about how we describe our other lives to coworkers.” My companion looked up at me, about to question me, but instead she said, “You’ll come in for a drink, won’t you? The children are asleep and Henry is probably reading in the study upstairs.”
We arrived at her house, and a form constructed itself out of the layers of darkness: her husband, arms folded over his chest, eyes staring into the sea of black as a captain of a destroyer would. His wife signaled our parting without a word, with a light squeeze of my left index finger.
Joseph Hawley, 57
I sit in the mid-summer sun by the Connecticut River writing a letter to John Adams, who resides temporarily in Philadelphia guarding the tenets of this new Constitution I hold dear. I write the date, “July 26, 1780,” but I can write no more. I rise before the sun and convince my old mare to take me away from Pudding Lane. I ride out to this sand spit exposed in the dry months along the great river. I am sleeping badly. Of late, I see spirits at the foot of my bed. I do not wish to wake Mrs. Hawley, so I walk the spirits out to the tomato garden and reason with them as well as I can. My own faculties are degrading, I can plainly see, and these ghosts of Northampton’s past are winning their arguments more and more. This early morn, a spirit alarmed me as much as any has: Mr. Edwards. When I was a young man, I participated in the expulsion of Pastor Edwards. The correctness of this decision never lessened my regret that it happened (and my ambitions as a young barrister interfered with knowing accurately how correct I was). Edwards died from an experimental small pox inoculation several years after he left town—he was President of the College of New Jersey and he was always seeking ways to educate.
The vision of Jonathan Edwards I saw at four o’clock this morning was a man nearly defeated by this dread disease. His eyes were yellow and the sockets gray. His skin was sloughing off in long strips. He stooped, as if from the great pain in his bones, and I took this pain personally. “I am sorry, sir, to have been the indirect cause of this calamity to you and your family,” I said. Edwards did not speak during the encounter, but the force of his logic drove me from my bed and then from my tomatoes. “My Dear Adams,” I am able to write, at last. “I reprove my Self for not being at the Tavern when you return from your duties. The southern faction must make matters the more difficult by the day. I do not arrogate myself the role of Intermediary, as you yourself are, but I do wish I could sit with you near this other great river, the Delaware. I hoped one day to participate in a small fashion. These letters provide some satisfaction. But listen to your old friend’s madness. I do not enjoy my evident self-concern. The continent’s health is far more important than my own, but regard my insular view. I’ve taken myself to this spot along the Connecticut. It does not clean the soul. The Self I valued so long betrays me.”
A breeze kicks up and willows a dozen paces away sweep the sand. A log floats by, not unlike a canoe an Indian might have navigated downstream. I pause in my writing, consider a swim, want to soak the letter in my beloved River. But thoughts along the path of national ambitions take me back to Philadelphia.
William Carlos Williams, 62
Wallace Stevens and I walked halfway across the Coolidge Bridge over the Connecticut River, in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was a happy coincidence we were both in this handsome town, he on business, me for poetry. A white fog floated over the river. The steeples of Northampton flitted in and out of the moonlit mist. “There was a coup attempt at the company this week,” Stevens said, of his long-time place of employment, the Hartford Insurance Company. “Five of us stood behind the president, risking our jobs. We won. But today it dawned on me how close I came to losing this life, Bill, and I am shaken.”
I said, “You always liked that job more than you let on to the art crowd we knew in the teens. But I think the time is coming we may both have to rock in our rocking chairs.” “No,” Stevens said, with a catch in his throat. “I need the rhythm of office life. I prefer to break time down into six-minute segments. If I retired Mrs. Stevens would get to know me and move back to Reading within the week. I don’t think I could live a month without the smell of leather and coffee and cigarettes. The world of the office is more real than the world of Westerly Terrace. There’s a different language for each department, a whole new climate and topography. If this war ever ends, I’m keen to see how the new breed of men changes the barometric pressure in the board rooms.” I had never before heard so long a discourse on work from Wallace. I took Stevens’ hand and kissed it. He gripped my shoulder as if he needed the help, and we walked slowly back to the car.
“Drive,” Stevens told his young colleague, giving detailed directions to a place wonderfully called Dryads Green. I asked if he’d been here before. Stevens said no, that he knew of the town only from a good map and a recent biography of a writer who used to live in Northampton—George Washington Cable. On Kensington Avenue, Stevens said, “We’ll walk from here. Follow us in the car with your lights off.” The driver laughed and obeyed. Large Victorian homes stood on the right, all dark, though the moonlight revealed charming living rooms through the picture windows, this ridiculous American style of presenting a false façade of happy home life to the public. Great elms arched overhead and threw shadows everywhere, some darker than others. I had been here earlier in the evening, one block away.
“He was a New Orleans native,” Stevens said, presumably of George Washington Cable. “He was chased from the south for his frank views on intermarriage after the Civil War. He brought his family of daughters to Northampton because of Smith College. He knew town girls could attend the college free—Cable was notoriously cheap.” We turned onto Dryads Green, the car rumbling happily behind us. The one street lamp spotlighted the yard and the front of the house Stevens thought George Washington Cable had built for his secretary. “Why are we looking at the secretary’s home and not Cable’s?” I asked. Stevens said, “Notice how sturdy the house is. I worked most of my life to build a similar solidity, and this fiction-maker could also do it for his girlfriend.”
I saw a light in the first-floor study. A middle-aged man was reading in an armchair. “Let’s say hello,” I said. “Tell this fellow we were admiring the original sin written across the face of his home.” Stevens looked fearful, eyes wide open, whereas he squinted much of the time. “Okay,” he said, releasing a laugh. “Long as I’m with you, Bill, I can pretend I’m not shy, and maybe he’ll offer us a little whisky.”
But Stevens changed his mind, telling us he would contemplate the “humble little morning glories” that twined through the front fence. His driver Tex rang the doorbell. Stevens retreated to the Daimler and smoked his cigar against its hood. Tex and I were invited inside, but I kept my eye on Stevens the whole time the stranger was talking. Our host was quite happy for the intrusion, and he and Tex quickly became great chums over some very nice bourbon. I was startled to see Stevens strolling up the walk. But he turned off from knocking at the front door. Instead, he grasped a small tree outside my window and heaved himself into its lowest branch. The tree bent dangerously. Stevens’ lips were moving, and for a moment I thought my old pal was trying to talk to me, through the closed window. But Wallace was singing to himself, behavior that finally convinced me the great poet had gone around the bend. I interrupted Tex and said we needed to put our friend to bed. The host never saw Stevens in his tree, and when we were all outside, Wallace rejoined us as if he’d been part of the festivities all along, speaking clearly and knowledgeably about rhododendrons and azaleas. Stevens and I returned to the Hotel Northampton, walking comfortably, the car behind us.
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