I wrote this piece shortly after Katherine Dunn's death in May of 2016. After sending it out to a few editors who weren't up for publishing it -- the length was a problem -- I put it in a digital "desk drawer" for a few years. Katherine was a good friend to my husband John and me, and we miss her terribly. I hope this essay does a little justice to her and to our friendship.
“SO THAT’S THE NEWS FROM PUDDLETOWN”
MEMORIES OF KATHERINE DUNN
The first thing I recall is the quality of the afternoon light in my Capitol Hill apartment. The novel I was reading was extraordinary and it was somehow making the light around me extraordinary too. My feeling, even at the time, was: I am never going to forget this. And I haven’t.
The book was Katherine Dunn’s “Geek Love,” and in the review I wrote for The Seattle Times in March, 1989, I called it “one of the most extraordinary American novels of this decade, a fantasy as opulently grotesque and alive as Gunter Grass’ ‘The Tin Drum’ or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast triology.”
“Geek Love” tells the story of a traveling family circus, Binewski’s Fabulon—Aloysius Binewski, proprietor. When times get hard, he and his wife Crystal Lil decide to breed their own freak show by “experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes.”
Their reason: “What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?”
The heart of the book—and it had a very large, generous heart—lay in its portrait of filial devotion, jealousy and sacrifice. Its wisdom—and it had a goodly portion of that, too—was in its depiction of the pride and paranoia that go with being different.
“Dunn’s characters and scenes are jauntily sordid, tenderly gruesome,” I summed up. “They bloom like dark flowers in the mind. Like any great work of art (and I believe this is great), ‘Geek Love’ creates its own rules and fleshes them into an unforgettable world. There’s nothing else quite like it.”
A day or two later I got a phone call from a woman with a melodious crème brûlée voice. It was the author herself and she was thanking me profusely for my review. She loved it so much, she said, that she planned to have it tattooed on her ass.
This was a first in my experience of hearing back from writers. I was delighted by it, and we decided to meet. For some reason, I couldn’t make it to her reading at Elliott Bay Book Company (what was I thinking?), but we rendezvoused in the swank lobby of the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel in downtown Seattle. I can’t remember much detail about our get-together, except that we hit it off and agreed that I should come visit her the next time I was in Portland, Oregon, where she lived.
That fall, I had a novel of my own published, “The Flame Forest,” and was reading at Powell’s City of Books in Portland—then, as now, the most amazing bookstore I’m aware of on the planet. While I was there, I called on Katherine. This was where our real friendship began.
She had just bought a house on NW 22nd Avenue in Portland’s Northwest District. With “Geek Love,” she had come into a chunk of money—more money, I assumed, than she’d ever had in her life—and her friends had recommended that she sink at least part of it into a piece of real estate.
The place was enormous: a three-story barn of a faded mansion on a cramped lot, painted dirty white. The rooms were huge and had bare-bones furnishings. It seemed a kind of sanctuary where people, including her teenage son, Eli, and his friends, could come and go. There was space to spare, but she didn’t seem to be making much use of it. She asked if I’d like to see her office, and of course I said yes. We went up staircase after staircase until we were in the rafters of the house.
In the hallway were stacks of the “Geek Love” hardcover with its bright orange dustjacket. Her publisher, Knopf, had sidestepped a carnivalesque jacket design, surprisingly, in favor of something that made the provocative words of the title jump out at you electrically. The one overt allusion to the novel’s subject matter—and I had entirely missed this—was in the publisher’s colophon on spine of the book. Katherine, with great pleasure, pointed out what jacket designer Chip Kidd had done. There, just above the word “Knopf,” was the publisher’s trademark: a sprinting borzoi. But instead of four legs, it had five.
It clearly was an inmate of Binewski’s Fabulon.
Her office, just off the hall, was small and dark. It had a window, but its blinds were pulled down. Again the furnishings were rudimentary. The desk was crowded, but organized. There was a boxy computer on it, note pads, a cigarette lighter and an ash tray.
First things first. She had something she wanted to show me. From one of her file cabinets she pulled out a big sheaf of paperwork and waved it in my direction.
It wasn’t a new manuscript. Instead, it was a group dental coverage plan for her circle of writer and artist friends in Portland that she’d taken the time to organize. Apparently she was keeping the files on everyone’s policy.
I thought: I am really going to like this lady.
Back downstairs, the other main treasure she pointed out was a neon Oly sign from Washington’s Olympia Brewery. I was beer-illiterate so she had to explain why her character Oly Binewski had a neon sign with her name on it available for purchase. I was in awe of her, and when I’m in awe I’m slow on the uptake. But my being slow on the uptake didn’t seem to diminish her pleasure in showing me around.
She came to my Powell’s reading that night. We went out for drinks at some point. Her favorite drink back then was a “coffee nudge”: hot coffee with crème de cacao, Kahlua and brandy, topped with whipped cream. She smoked her hand-rolled cigarettes and we talked about books, movies, politics.
On another Portland visit within a year or two of our first meeting, I went out for Chinese food with her and at least a half dozen of her friends at a restaurant a block or two off Burnside Street. It was here that I was introduced to the “Dunn Maneuver,” as I came to think of it. After dinner wound down, I got out some money to put toward the bill—but the bill had already been paid. Katherine, during what I assumed was a quick trip to the restroom, had bought dinner for all of us.
The Dunn Maneuver would be repeated again and again over the next 27 years. If it was just the two us, we would usually split the bill. But if it was a foursome or more, she’d pull off the trick every time.
One thing we had in common: Neither of us knew how to drive. She walked everywhere, took a taxi or caught the Portland Streetcar from downtown back to Northwest District. (I have a vivid memory of standing in the dark on N.W. 10th Avenue with my future husband, John Hartl, watching her take a seat in the half-full streetcar, seeing her brightly lit as if in a stage-play. I looked at the other passengers and wondered if they had any notion of the marvelous wonders and terrors that had sprung from that smiling head.)
My sole driving experience had been of driving a riding lawn mower across crabgrass-filled lawns in suburban New Jersey and—one time only—backing the car out of our family’s garage at age 16. I’d never had driving lessons. My father, who was always angry when I was in my teens, expressed his rage through his driving and had crashed two or three cars in a four-year period, once when I was with him. I had no intention of making him my instructor, and no one else was offering.
Katherine had had driving lessons and she laughingly made them sound terrifying. Not to her—to her instructor. She had a story about inadvertently speeding and veering into a highway median, her foot somehow unable to come up off the accelerator. She decided then and there that the world would be a better place if she never took the wheel again.
It didn’t seem to cramp her style. Portland’s Northwest District was a walking neighborhood that had everything at hand: grocery stores, restaurants, movie theaters, bars. Powell’s was only 12 blocks or so from her house. Old Town, where her friend Gus Van Sant had shot “Mala Noche” and “Drugstore Cowboy,” was nearby, too, and it was one of her haunts.
Investigative journalist Jim Redden, her longtime boyfriend who founded the alternative weekly PDXS, did drive, and I remember him and Katherine taking John and me on a sort of magical mystery tour of one of their favorite subcultures during one of our visits. I couldn’t pretend to understand Katherine’s passion for boxing and she was aware of that, so I knew we weren’t going to a boxing match.
We crossed the Columbia River into Washington state, then headed west until we were on a road where modest suburb seemed about to turn to country town. We parked at a brick building—maybe a high school—with a huge auditorium. The parking lot was mobbed. Katherine and Jim hustled us in, led us to our seats. We still didn’t know what we were in for.
Then a soundtrack of ’80s rock started blasting the hall and the body-building show began. There were male bodybuilders; there were female bodybuilders. They flexed and turned under shining spotlights, their muscles popping out like well-oiled, rippling apparel over their bodies. The spectacle was a little boring and repetitive, but still a spectacle. We didn’t stay for the whole thing (it was scheduled to go on for hours), and while it definitely wasn’t anything John and I would ever have gone to on our own, it was fun to be yanked so far out from our usual orbit.
It was clear that Katherine admired and sided with Jim’s dirt-digging savvy. There was scandal, corruption and injustice out there to expose—even in Portland—and he was indefatigable in exposing it. It was also clear that Jim admired Katherine and took in stride the sudden fame that “Geek Love” had brought her. But I never really sensed the warmth in him that I sensed in her. The relationship puzzled me, and I wasn’t surprised when it eventually ended.
The house on NW 22nd Avenue eventually “ended” too. After she and Jim broke up and after her son had moved out of the house, she sold it and rented a fifth-floor apartment in the same neighborhood, right across the street from a Trader Joe’s. The contrast between the apartment and the house was marked. The apartment, on the west side of its building, was roomy and pleasantly furnished, almost swanky. There were bookshelves full of books, paintings by local artists on the walls, and a balcony with some plants on it where she could smoke and look out over the Portland Hills. It was impeccably tidy. I think it had two bedrooms, one of which served as her office.
When John and I went there, she was eager to show off the art and tell us what she knew about the artists. She was just as eager to get movie and book recommendations (John is a film critic). The plan was always to go out to dinner, but we would have wine and cheese and occasionally a little pot before heading out. She was funny, sharp, questioning and gracious.
I also got a sense that she was lonely. She had a huge circle of friends and colleagues devoted to her, and she had family nearby. But it did seem as though she might want a companion.
On one of my solo trips down to the Portland the question came up indirectly. We’d had a meal at a Middle Eastern restaurant in the neighborhood and were walking back to her apartment. The discussion turned to my relationship with John. She said something about how well-matched and in tune we seemed to be with each other. I had an odd “Yes, but” reaction to this, connected with a concern I had at the time. She immediately latched onto it.
“Yes, but what?” she wanted to know.
It was odd for me, I told her, to be in a situation of so little friction. I could count the number of times John and I had had an argument on one hand (and still can). Yet I knew I wasn’t necessarily easy to get along with. Part of me wondered if I’d somehow become insulated from … I didn’t quite know what. I didn’t want to go too deeply into it because I felt disloyal saying anything about it. I also felt irrational: Why would I question something so good? Why should I worry about a relationship feeling too easy?
My whole train of thought had more to do with a passing mood than any legitimate take on the way John and I effortlessly clicked together.
One thing that may have prompted it—especially in Katherine’s company—was the feeble state of my fiction “career.” From beginning to end, it had been a nonstarter. Next to no books had been sold—and after 1995 no books were published.
The manuscripts kept piling up. It was as though someone had engineered a choice for me without my having any say in the matter: Here you go, sir—you can have great personal happiness to compensate for complete writing-career frustration.
I had a sort of viable existence as a newspaper book reviewer and arts writer. I’d even made a bit of a name for myself in Seattle on the score. But it had all come about by accident, and the thing I cared most about, writing fiction and at least getting it published, hadn’t panned out. “Passive Intruder,” which came out when I was 41, had been the make-or-break book for me—and it hadn’t even gone into paperback.
I didn’t spill any of this out to Katherine. So she took the idea of my slight distrust of the tight happy connection that John and I had at face value and contemplated it with interest.
My distrust of this happiness didn’t last long. It turned to complete connection and acceptance. I even began to feel a bit guilty about it in the context of Katherine.
She didn’t say anything, but I sensed she would have liked something like it.
Katherine thought all writers should have their moment in the limelight. She’d had hers, both in the States and overseas. When the German translation of “Geek Love” came out, she made multiple author appearances there and came back pleasurably bewildered: “Those people really like their writers.”
When my last published book, “Passive Intruder,” came out in 1995, she helped me toward my own small moment—snapped a picture of me in front of Powell’s where my name was on the marquee; let me snap a picture of her. She seemed to take a genuine, generous pleasure, as she did with so many writers, in seeing someone else get a bit of attention.
Not that she was indiscriminate. Boxing was her thing, and she had some withering things to say about Joyce Carol Oates’ forays into the realm. She would also occasionally write or call me up when she was reviewing a book and wanted to touch base. Sometimes she was dismayed at finding herself having to write something about a highly-acclaimed writer she thought was falling short of his reputation.
At other times she wanted to double-check that her own enthusiasm was warranted: Was Edmund White really as marvelous as she was finding him to be? Yes, he was, I said—and pointed her post-haste to “The Farewell Symphony,” which she hadn’t read yet.
When it came to writers of her acquaintance, she was one-hundred percent your cheerleader, occasionally to an absurd degree. One time—it must have been around 1993 or so—she told me she’d been sitting in a bar with a bunch of young people and suddenly noticed they were passing Xeroxed pages around, perusing them intently, then passing them along to the next reader. The whole bar seemed to be in a Samizdat frenzy. She grabbed one of the pages in transit, asked, “What’s this? What’s this?” And someone told her it was my book, “The Flame Forest,” long out of print.
It couldn’t possibly be true. But what a preposterously generous fib to cook up for a writer fairly confident his books were disappearing down a well without even a splash to confirm they’d hit bottom.
She was generous in the more usual way, too, reading people’s manuscripts and offering helpful comments. It was wonderful to get her feedback, but I couldn’t help asking myself why should she bother with the likes of me when she had her own work to get on with? Everyone who’d read “Geek Love” was waiting for her next novel, “Cut Man.” If she had said she needed to go incommunicado while whittling her manuscript down to length (rumor had it there were thousands of pages of draft she was sorting through), that would have been completely understandable.
In the five or six years after “Geek Love” came out, she was openly excited about her progress on the new novel. In 1995, she came to Seattle to give a reading at the University of Washington’s Kane Hall. The place, with a 700-seat capacity, was packed. Katherine read a bit from “Geek Love,” but much more from “Cut Man.”
The passage from “Geek Love,” she said, was her original opening for it rather than the famous “When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets….”
Twenty years later I can’t remember which “Geek Love” passage was its original opening. But the excerpts from “Cut Man” are emblazoned on my memory, along with the delight she took in the macabre scenes she’d concocted. One was about a school outing to an aquarium. Teachers herded the kids into the shark tank—and there, instead of live sharks, was the handiwork of a deeply eccentric serial killer/sewing expert. Two hybrid bodies were floating in the tank. One had a human torso and a shark’s lower body stitched together. The other had a shark’s head, with human lower extremities dangling from it.
Another scene involved a woman tattooed from head to toe with a map of the world. When she got an itch or an irritation in a particular country, that was a sign that trouble was about to erupt in that part of the globe.
Given all the reading she’d done of my unpublished work, I was only too eager to offer to do the same for her, but she sidestepped the issue. After inquiring a few more times in the 1990s about “Cut Man,” I kept quiet. She was working on it, it was going at its own pace, and it would be ready when it was ready. End of story.
Portland had been John’s nearest “big city” when he was in his teens, so he and Katherine had that in common. They were the same age and John loved talking about the old Portland landmarks, especially the movie theaters, they’d grown up with. (Katherine had lived in Tigard, just south of the city.) When John still smoked, Katherine would hand-roll him cigarettes.
Some visits we made to the city have blurred into one pleasant experience. But one trip in late 2008 sticks in my mind because of big changes at work that affected me at the time.
At Seattle’s King Street Station, just before John and I boarded the train to Portland, I got a call from my editor at The Seattle Times, telling me that the part-time book critic position I’d held at the newspaper for ten years had been eliminated. When I got back to Seattle, I learned that, along with the book-critic position, the Seattle Times had cut its dedicated visual-arts, dance and classical-music positions. The Internet economy had eaten into ad revenue (Craigslist was the main culprit) and, with the 2008 crash, retail ads were down. The newspaper apparently was hemorrhaging money. It looked like it might go out of business any month now. After all, its rival across town, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was a Hearst newspaper and had big corporate backing, while the Times was mostly family-owned.
I thought I’d better keep earning while I could, so I went to a supervisor and said I was interested in covering any angle of the arts. Also, I was up for going fulltime. (John had retired in 2001, and I was the one bringing in our health coverage.) Fiction writing went on the back burner. So did book-review writing for other outlets. The new Times job was all-consuming and there just wasn’t enough time in the day to do anything else. Many aspects of the job were fun, but I often felt I had, in some essential ways, stopped existing by giving up on being a fiction writer. I told some people I was living “posthumously.”
The pressure of trying conscientiously to cover almost every aspect of Seattle’s arts scene involved a huge learning curve and distracted me thoroughly from the literary world. So I didn’t even know about it when an excerpt from “Cut Man” was published in Paris Review in 2010, just as I hadn’t known about it when her 2009 book of boxing writings, “One Ring Circus,” was published by a small press in Arizona that apparently hadn’t sent out any review copies. Katherine wasn’t the kind of writer who would broadcast her own news. She was much more likely to crow about other people’s triumphs.
We kept in touch and I would occasionally send things her way I thought she’d like. One great benefit to being an all-purpose arts writer was digging through the slush pile of CDs and DVDs that flooded the office. I loved seeking out unsung gems in order to give them a shout-out. Jason Webley and Amanda Palmer’s song cycle, “Evelyn Evelyn,” about conjoined twins being snared into an abusive carnival-circuit world, was one of those gems, and I immediately sent a copy Katherine’s way. She mentioned the CD in a 2011 interview with Tom Blunt in the online magazine Signature.
“I’ve been amazed to see how many incarnations and mutations Geek Love has sprouted,” she told him. “Visual artists, musicians, theater groups, costume parties, even sandwich names in cafes, have all done riffs on characters or incidents in the book. The book acts as a launch pad, or maybe a trampoline for other artists to do their own tricks. … Gives me a kind of Granny thrill to see it.”
Blunt asked her if she’d heard “Evelyn Evelyn” and her answer couldn’t have delighted me more.
“Fortunately, my friend Michael Upchurch, the novelist and critic, is tuned in to everything,” she told Blunt. “I knew nothing of this until Upchurch sent me the CD a couple of weeks ago. In his note he calls it ‘true, high-gothic headphone theater.’ That's a pretty good description. I enjoyed the CD. But I don't hold a patent on Siamese twins.”
When I wound up with extra copies of titles by John Cheever, Ford Madox Ford and Edmund White, I sent them her way, too. I didn’t want her to miss out on things she might not be able to afford. “Geek Love” had kept her going financially for years—not so much the book sales as the movie-options taken out on it—but it couldn’t last forever.
To supplement her income, she did occasional book reviews for the Oregonian and the Washington Post, boxing reportage for Playboy and essays for Vogue. (There have to have been other outlets she wrote for—but again she wasn’t the kind of writer to shout, “Hey, look—I’m in Vogue this week!”) One of our planned meetings in Portland had to be canceled because she’d gotten an out-of-town freelance assignment she couldn’t afford to turn down. At some point, too, she moved from her fifth floor apartment to something smaller in the same building that she could better afford.
No more Portland Hills view. No more smoking balcony.
She let me know about the change of apartment number without much comment. John and I never saw the new apartment, in part because we had our own wrench thrown at us about the same time. In 2013, a few months after we got married, John was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia.
In the 20-odd years we’d lived together, John had been the chauffeur in the family—and now he no longer could drive because he had trouble interpreting the road correctly. He’d had some incidents where he wasn’t sure which lane to be in. He wasn’t one-hundred percent reliable about reading stop signs and traffic lights.
At age 59, I started taking driving lessons. Six weeks before my 60th birthday, I got my license. This, of course, intrigued Katherine. But I didn’t let her know the real reason behind it until a year later. By that time, I’d quit the Times and started seeking out the newspaper book editors I used to write for. I began revising old manuscripts and cranking out new fiction. My feeling was: Life is short and if I don’t do this now I’ll never do it. It made no financial sense to quit a job with benefits, but John needed me more than before, and the never-ending turmoil at the newspaper was literally driving me crazy. I pulled out every possible stop to get back to my first love: books.
In late 2014, Katherine and I started reconnecting in a major way. She mentioned coming to Seattle not for a public event but for a private visit—with someone named Paul. This was unprecedented. I wrote back: “Absolutely! Let us know if you and Paul (someone new in your life?) are coming to town, and we’ll get together. If you’d like to stay with us, we have a guest room and you’d be more than welcome.”
The next day, I got the full scoop:
I thought I’d told you all about it, but probably got distracted by the wonderful news of you and John marrying. I got married on July 6, 2013 to a guy named Paul Pomerantz.
Paul and I were actually sweethearts in college at Reed. He’s a born and bred New Yorker and graduated a year ahead of me, which is when we split up. Forty plus years later—kids, wives, husbands, and a lot of adventures under the bridge—he looked me up again.
He likes Portland but his life and business and roots are all New York. I like New York, but Portland is ... y’know. So we’ve been splitting our time—living bi-coastally—seven months this year in New York, and now the winter and early spring here in Portland.
In Portland we live in an apt. in my same old building. In New York we have a pretty nice apartment in Manhattan on the East River at 23rd.
Paul also has a house where we spend a lot of time on Pipes Cove, way out on the Northern tip of Long Island. This is not the South Fork, which is the Hamptons, but the North Fork which is all fisherfolk, oystermen and sailors. T-shirts read “On the South Fork they call it Sushi. On the North Fork we call it bait.”
Paul raises oysters off his dock, studies marine aqua culture and volunteers at the Cornell Marine Sciences Center nearby, and races sailboats. I take sailing lessons from a pal of his, and go kayaking in the cove and the surrounding salt marsh bird sanctuaries. On weekends we go into the city and play around.
In Portland—a whole other world. We’ve been to Cuba, Florida and San Francisco and are looking toward France this spring—where Paul has friends and relatives—and maybe Ireland.
Nobody could be more surprised than I am to have all this happen at such a late stage of life. But we’re having a great time, and what the hell?
We do hope to make a road trip to Seattle and I’ve promised Paul that he will meet you two and that you will be able to point us toward the best things to see and do. He’s enrolling in classes at PSU [Portland State University] next week, and once he knows his schedule, we can make a plan. Oh, and he’s reading “Passive Intruder” and liking it a lot.
So that’s the news from Puddletown.
A bi-coastal Katherine? A Katherine with an aqua-culture connection?
This was the universe throwing a ridiculously happy curve ball at her—and also, literally, giving her a little more breathing space in Portland itself.
“When Paul came into my life,” she wrote, “we moved into a larger apt in the same building.”
She also had driving news.
“I envy you learning to drive,” she wrote in late 2014. “I've been trying, but flunked my driving test back in NY—the examiner screaming in terrified fury. May try again here. Maybe.”
“I would take my ‘driving’ with a pinch of salt,” I wrote back. “I’m quite happy tootling around town at 30 mph, but freeway driving is a whole other thing. And freeway driving at night has now been taken off the table. My sister came to visit last summer, getting into SeaTac around midnight and I thought: ‘I’ve got to try this. How busy can I-5 be at 11 p.m.?’ Ack! It was jammed, and I simply couldn’t tell from the headlights behind me which cars were in which lane, when I needed to switch lanes. I managed to get there—and then managed almost to kill us on the way back. If she hadn’t been with me to warn me, I would have moved right into a lane where a trailer-truck I somehow hadn’t managed to see was already occupying the space.”
Apparently this confession helped.
The next day she wrote, “Thank you for your tales of driving terror—believe me, I am in complete accord—except for the now happily tootling around town part. I’d love to get to that point. I actually have contracted with a driving school here in Portland but must first go take the written test for the learners permit. I ace the written tests, it’s just the actual driving part where things go awry.”
In February, 2015, she and Paul came to visit us in Seattle and we were finally able to repay all the sneaky hospitality she’d shown us. Barring a sudden intervention from her in the kitchen—and I didn’t think that was likely to happen—we could feed and entertain the two of them without her somehow finding a way to pay for it. (John reminds me she and Paul did bring some awfully fancy chocolates for dessert.)
She was beaming. She was radiant. Paul was quiet, shy and clearly devoted to her.
Their deep connection was unmistakable and the evening was filled of surprises. Paul called her “Kay”—her name from when they were in college together. We took goofy panoramic iPhone pictures of ourselves in the kitchen. We went out on our deck so she could have a smoke and look at the dark garden.
We went on a tour of the house and she commented on the book, film and music collection. (When you have a book-reviewer/arts-writer and a film reviewer living together, your house is mostly library). I said she had quite a book collection herself, from what I’d seen, and she said with a wry smile that she’d had to sell a lot of them: “I was broke.”
We talked about our first meetings: her phone-call declaring she was going to have my review of “Geek Love” tattooed on her ass (she was still planning to get around to it, she said) and my memory of her taking me up to her office in the attic of the house on N.W. 22nd Avenue to show me her dental-coverage plan for Portland writers and artists (“Oh, yeah,” she said, as if she’d half-forgotten about it).
After dinner, we watched François Ozon’s “In the House,” with Guy Maddin’s “Sissy-Boy Slap Party” as the opening short. The whole blissful evening went too quickly. Still, the little vacation she and Paul were on sounded dandy. They were doing a loop around Puget Sound, going to La Conner and Hood Canal the next day.
Later that week, she wrote me about the trip:
It was wonderful to see you there surrounded by loveliness. And I have to tell you, your sweetness with John has me, even in recollection, misting up. His brilliant, fresh and whimsical mind is a treasure. Probably because you’d told me what was going on, I thought I sensed him focusing hard and maybe struggling. Maybe. But every time he spoke it reminded me of how you two have always radiated such beauty. I’ve envied you. Held lonesome self-pity parties after seeing you. And even facing this future, you are still deeply, beautifully enviable.
Paul fell in love with you both, as I knew he would. And you drew him out with friendly warmth. Blessings on you. Thanks for the fab photos—That particularly freaky panorama shot is art, Michael. The distortion of your face on the far right is sooooooo bizarre.
When you think of it, please take a photo of the back garden from your deck for me. It’s a relief and a pleasure for me to have this visual data—having seen your house—to place you in when I think of you. Oh, and speaking of envy—your work room. Your house. Your books and music and film and the art everywhere......
Did Paul try to talk to you about “Passive Intruder?” If he didn’t you should know that it moved him strongly. Which is why we went on to La Conner [there’s a scene in the book set in the artsy tourist town an hour north of Seattle] and really enjoyed it. I’m a sucker for well done touristy crap and they do it right.
With the gorgeous weather the town was mobbed for Valentines Day. (Who knew that was really a big deal for people? Not me.) But the denizens of La Conner were thrilled to have all that action in February and everyone was chipper and helpful and practically dancing to have us outsiders there. We lucked into a room at The Planter Hotel right on the main drag. It’s simple and old, refurbished, above a street level gallery and built around a pleasant sculpture garden.
The tulip fields were naked dirt, but we were fascinated by the channel and the view of the Swinomish fishing and crab boats (terrifyingly small for ocean work) across the way. We watched them come in and unload their catch at dusk. Then at dawn I saw those same men hit the dock in their waterproofs, carrying huge bundles of nets. They fired up their engines and headed out to sea again even though it was Sunday.
We came back by way of Anacortes and took the ferry to Port Townsend, stopped for the night at Gig Harbor, where three generations of part of my family were deep sea fishermen. My grand dad’s old hand-built house was being transformed by workmen into a soigne, Japanese-influenced summer place. The crew boss let us wander around. The cellar cave where the clan made wine during prohibition, the sea wall where the trawlers tied up, the porch where my Grand dad sat in a rocker telling tall sea tales to my four and five-year old self.
It was a lovely jaunt all around, but seeing you two in your natural environment was the high point. —Oh! And the movies. The Ozon was stunning, and had that same creepy, venomous element that made the “Nightcrawler” so powerful, but it was blended richly with sweetness and a yearning that reminded me of the original “Let The Right One In.” Just a knockout. And the Guy Maddin was hilarious. As always, you educate me.
Will send some snaps separately.
And yes, we must come see you again before we decamp for the summer.
My love and gratitude to John.
They spent a few weeks on the East Coast in March, 2015, but by mid-April were in Portland again.
“We're back from NY,” she wrote, “where I had fun and caught a doozy of a cold just in time to bring it home. Make lovely pets, these respiratory viruses. A bit demanding in the Kleenex department, but so rewarding in feverish, hallucinatory dreams. And unlike tropical fish, iguanas, or songbirds, the virus is perfectly equipped to go everywhere with you. No leash required.”
She was taking more driving lessons, and in April she had an update.
My big news is that three hours ago I passed my drivers test and am now licensed to horrify traffic. Your example played a large part in this. I enrolled for driving school lessons and the instructor took me to the test in her car with the school decals on the doors and trunk. I was aided by the fact that the test examiner knew my instructor, apparently is under the illusion that anyone who takes lessons from her is probably serious, and—this I suspect but can’t prove—she had a big date waiting for her. After a mere ten minutes she announced that I was a magnificent driver and she wouldn’t waste my time going through the whole drive test. We went back to the DMV where she blithely processed me and issued a temporary license—laminated official thingy to follow by mail. She congratulated my instructor, announced that this was her last test of the day, and drove off in her hopped up Honda.
My instructor was stunned—as was I—and we laughed our asses off all the way home. What luck! But I think the next 5,000 miles I drive should be without innocent bystanders anywhere near. Maybe by then I’ll actually feel comfortable behind the wheel.
Does it get easier? Please tell me it does.
Then she and Paul were off to Long Island for the summer. She sent a photo of their dock at Pipes Cove. “The blue thing,” she explained, “is the flupsy (oyster nursery) that we're prepping to put into the water.”
They seemed to have settled into an easy-going pattern.
We’re reversing the summer ritual. We spend weekdays out here and weekends in the city. That’s when all the day trippers flock out to Long Island beaches and jam the place up. And you can get into NYC diners without a reservation or standing in line. This is the theory, and so far so good.
I like it out here—it’s pretty and ten degrees cooler than in the city. Plus there’s a lot to muck around with. I’ll be painting today—the bottom of my dinghy, Paul’s flupsy—the oyster nursery contraption. We’ve got a fleet of small boats but most of them need the flupsy to be in place as the floating dock out at the end of the fixed dock. We tie the boats up to it. The standing dock is too tall to be functional for scrambling on and off boats, loading them or working on them.
Quite ridiculous, but functional. So much of life can be described that way.
The idea of Katherine, a city creature if ever I’d met one, getting this nautical was like some delicious cosmic joke.
“I'm not that into the oysters,” she admitted, “except when an emergency extra hand is needed, or translation is required between Paul and an oyster innocent—but I really like boats, which is news to me, too. Paul sends oystery howdys.”
Katherine-as-Manhattanite, living in a high-rise with sweeping views out over Brooklyn and the East River (she sent more photos), was just as unexpected.
When I explored her neighborhood on Google Maps, I saw her building was literally perched on the water. I couldn’t figure out how residents got across FDR Drive to do things like grocery shopping or go to a movie, so I asked her about and got a vivid picture of her new set-up.
Well, you’re right. Access is limited, but the FDR Drive is actually elevated along part of that stretch, and both E. 23rd and E. 34th go through underneath. A short narrow road runs between the FDR and the East River. On the actual edge of the water there’s a miles-long park-like strip where people walk and jog and bicycle or skate. There’s also a footbridge from Waterside to E. 24th.
But some of the kids who’ve grown up in the place call it Fortress Waterside, and clearly resent its isolation.
And yeah, we’re officially on the 34th floor but actually on the 37th because there are three levels of parking below the plaza level. And the whole thing is built on huge pilings in the water. The four buildings rise out of a big concrete plaza with ornamental whats-its and play areas and picnic pavilions and covered walkways. Around the edges of the plaza are businesses—a Gristedes grocery, pharmacy, dry cleaner, day care center, etc. etc. including a private elementary school and a big, good health club with a pool. It’s a kind of town unto itself.
It’s patrolled 24-7 by private security guards who seem to spend most of their time helping old ladies with heavy packages, and putting bandaids on kids who’ve fallen off their razor scooters. It’s the sort of place where five-year-olds take their scooters or tricycles on the elevator down to the plaza alone and spend hours playing with their pals.
The four residential buildings each have a number. Our building, 30, is the main building. There's always—24/7—a so-called door man at the desk in the lobby. We know them as Mario and Sonny and Albert, etc. They are anything but servile. Kings of the place. They know every face—every grown-up, they’ve watched generations of kids grow up there and they never stop scolding and advising and phoning up to the parents if the kids get hurt or are behaving badly. (This causes some of the teens great bitterness. Paul’s 28 year-old daughter grew up there and they—especially Sonny—still interrogate her about her work, her boyfriend, her plans for the future whenever she comes to visit.) The door men see every package, every food-delivery, every ambulance call.
You need a special digital key card to get in and out of the place. Anybody without one has to go begging to the door men, who phone the resident you’re visiting and get permission to let you through the magic glass doors into the interior of the building. At first I found this all quite suffocating, but, it grows on you. The security. The ease.
And there’s a 24 hour maintenance staff on call to fix any little thing that goes wrong.
The Plaza is just a few blocks down from the U.N., and a lot of the residents work there. You hear a hundred different languages in the elevators. We’re also one good spit from a bunch of big hospitals and a lot of medicos live there, academics, lawyers. Some artists. Right next door is the United Nations International School, where the students are children of those who work at the U.N.
There are live band concerts—usually with dancing—in the Plaza every Wednesday night in the summer. On Fridays they put up a huge inflatable screen and play some family-friendly movie for a few hundred people who bring their dinners or snacks down from their apartments. The city sets a barge of 4th of July fireworks right on the water out front of the plaza, so that’s a big festival. They have monumental yard sales with hundreds of families participating.
This is FAR more than you could possibly want to know, but you got me thinking about the place, and it is odd.
I had more books to send her—T.C. Boyle’s “The Harder They Come,” Mia Alvar’s debut collection of stories “In the Country”—and from Pipes Cove she told me to use the Manhattan address: “The doormen will keep it for me til I can grab it. Out here, the squirrels or even the deer might nibble on it if it got here while we were away.”
I mentioned the hot, arid summer we were having in Seattle—even hotter in Portland, I noted—and she sounded glad to be out of it.
Yes—you’ve been having scorching weather, and we’re in the 60’s and low 70’s—much more my speed. Kinda grisly to have our beloved mossy zones go all heat-soaked on us. Drought. Cracking earth. Old Irish ladies fainting outside the Baskin & Robbins (that would be me).
I hope you two are staying cool and well.
She and Paul were so clearly happy, comfortable and content with each other—and with the two of them in road-trip mode, this felt like a whole new phase in the friendship. I was hungry for it to go on for years. I looked forward to more visits back and forth, continuing book and movie recommendations, further peeks into the mysterious world of oyster farming.
I was also getting great feedback on the short stories I’d been cranking out since leaving The Seattle Times. John said I was in my “Twilight Zone” phase, and Katherine chimed in: “But Michael, you have been in the wild zones, turning out this many stories in such a short time. Do your eyes glow in the dark?”
One story, “The Immortal Cough” – about a concert-hall devotee whose greatest accomplishment is that she can be heard hacking away on several decades’ worth of recordings on all the most prestigious classical-music labels – got a cheering but worrying reaction.
“Michael, I love this,” she wrote, “and was seized by a ferocious but completely sympathetic coughing spasm while reading it. It’s incredibly sweet and piercing. And it’s beautifully formed. Complete.”
In August, Entertainment Weekly published a literary map of the U.S. and “Geek Love” was the book of choice for Oregon. I had the treat of being the first to tell her about it.
“Congratulations on being one of the 50 states in Entertainment Weekly!” I wrote. “So nice, the way the memory of Oly & company just keeps hanging on and finding new readers … And nice, too, to see EW do some kind of major literary spread.”
Her reply: “Doh?! Hunh? I don't know about this EW thing, Michael. Is it on line? Is there a URL?”
I put her in the picture: “Well, my dear, get thee to a 7-11 and take a peek at pages 42-45 of the Sept. 4 issue of EW (the one with Lady Gaga on the cover). You’ll find a map of the U.S. with a book representing each state. ‘Geek Love’ represents Oregon. To your north, you have Sherman Alexie’s ‘Part-Time Indian.’ To your south you have Joan Didion’s ‘Play It As It Lays.’ Idaho is Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Housekeeping,’ and Nevada is Hunter Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.’”
She wrote back: “Thanks, Michael. I’ll sneak a peek into EW on my next trip to 7-11 for the newspaper. Kinda like ever-so-casually strolling up the D aisle at Powell’s to see if they have any of my books. Vanity is so embarrassing.”
In November, after returning to Portland, they made a second trip to Seattle where they insisted on taking us out to dinner this time: “We’re driving up on Tuesday to go to a big Marine Expo that features commercial fishing stuff. We may island hop on the ferry from Tacoma on our way up, so we’re not sure what time we'll get in on Tuesday. We’ll be at the Edgewater, down on the bay. … Fingers crossed that you can come out with us. Paul sends salutes.”
We met at a Mediterranean restaurant in Lower Queen Anne. I brought them a few more books, including a galley of Naomi J. Williams’ brilliant first novel, “Landfalls,” about a doomed 18th-century French maritime exploration of the Pacific, seen from every possible point-of-view: captain’s, crew member’s, a Native Alaskan teenage girl’s.
We had another great night out and then they were off. This newly mobile Katherine was a never-ending wonder.
“We did Rock-Paper-Scissors to determine who got to read ‘Landfalls’ first,” she wrote a few days later, “and I’ve just begun—grinning over the ungainly stoves being installed, tested, and then rejected. This stack of books is a treasure trove. Thank you, Michael.”
Meanwhile, her and Paul’s investigations of new developments in aqua-culture continued.
The day after we saw you, we drove down to Long Beach with oyster stops along the way. One biggish processing plant blew us away. We snuck in and watched a shucking line of maybe fifty women in green scrubs and face masks opening actual tons of oysters at an incredible pace. They did this standing at a conveyor belt that took the empty shells outside, up a steep ramp and dumped them into big open trucks. With all our modern technology oysters still have to be opened by human hands wielding sturdy knives. The oyster meat was popped into gallon jars for selling at Costco and Walmart and to restaurant supply places. Everyone there was jolly and lacked at least two visible teeth when they laughed. A kind of ‘Deliverance’ vibe, without the banjo.
In January, I had good news to share. After a year of trying, I’d managed to place a short story—something she hadn’t read—with the Seattle online magazine, Moss. It was about an ailing, diminutive dandy of an artist who paints only the interiors of motor vehicles: cars, buses, airliners. His work, in some ineffable way, transcends its seeming constraints after he meets a tubby, monosyllabic man named Wally who becomes his unlikely muse.
She wrote right back.
I LOVE “The Widower Muse.” That wry, occasionally surprised tone throughout works gorgeously. And the whole scenario is incredibly touching—funny and eerie and deeply sad. Your descriptions of the art are wonderful—and the tribute to [Oregon painter James] Lavadour is spot on. Wasn’t there a Caesar who hired a guy to hover at his ear muttering, “Thou art Mortal”? Woof!
Anyway, congratulations. Moss is a good ... we can’t call them rags when they’re online ... Etherium? Or just magazine. And with this foot in the door, you’ll be getting more positive responses. Well done, Sir.
She was on a roll. I was on a roll.
It felt as though we’d never been so deep in one another’s pockets.
John and I had made a trip to Vancouver, B.C., in August of 2015 with my sister, brother-in-law and nephew, but for John it hadn’t gone well. The weather was too hot, the car was too loud and crowded, and when we got to Vancouver, John was totally wiped out. He and I wound up staying downtown while my sister and her family took in Grouse Mountain, the miles-long footpath around Stanley Park and other sights.
I came away thinking: “Okay, that’s it—no more out-of-town trips. They’re just too much for him.”
But on April 1, we had our anniversary coming up and a favorite dance troupe of ours was performing in Portland. Because of a schedule conflict, we’d missed their performance in Seattle. What if, I suggested, we went to Portland to catch it? We could get together with John’s niece, who lived there, and have dinner with Paul and Katherine while we were at it.
I found us a hotel bargain at the Benson and booked train tickets for March 31. We had a quiet perfect trip. I brought galleys of a terrific new Charlotte Brontë biography by Claire Harman and just as riveting a history of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake by Mark Molesky to give to Katherine and Paul. We rendezvoused in the Benson’s grand lobby a few hours after we got to town, then went to a cheery restaurant a few blocks away.
Katherine walked with John. I walked with Paul, and he caught me up on their news. Kay had quit smoking, he said. She’d been diagnosed with emphysema and that had forced her hand. He joked that tobacco withdrawal hadn’t made her as cranky as either of them had expected. I took the news as it was offered. I thought, “Great—she’s tough. If she can quit the cigarettes, she can lick it.”
At Mother’s Bistro, which specialized in homey food, we chatted away. Katherine was as sly and amusing as ever, reveling in a good night out and casting frequent fond glances toward Paul. We talked books and movies, as usual. John was excited about a small film, “Take Me to the River,” we’d both just seen, in which a seemingly standard-issued gay coming-out story turned out to be something entirely unexpected. The kid, who thinks he’ll be the main event at a family reunion in Nebraska, turns out to be anything but.
Somehow Iris Murdoch came up, and Katherine said she’d tried her but hadn’t gotten along with her. She also shared news about our mutual friend Jeff Baker, an editor at The Oregonian we’d both written for. He had taken a buyout from the ever-shrinking paper and was doing well in a new job.
She had a coughing fit or two—but that had been the case for years whenever we got together. It didn’t seem any worse than usual. She did only eat a few bites of her meal, but the portions were enormous and she’d never been a big eater. The waiter worried that she’d found something wrong with her order, and she assured him brightly that that wasn’t the case.
Then she pulled the Dunn Maneuver. Toward the end of the meal, while Paul and I were talking about some complicated red tape he was going to have to deal with in connection his oyster operation on Long Island, she slipped away – to the restroom I assumed. But of course she was paying the bill.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later, when John and I got out our wallets and looked around to ask our waiter for the check, she said it was all taken care of. We protested, and Paul made a wisecrack about his “rich wife … always some new edition or translation of ‘Geek Love’ coming out.”
We gave up trying to pay.
On the sidewalk outside the restaurant we said our goodbyes. She gave Paul something to carry. He asked, “What’s this?” and she said, “Books from Michael.” There was such pleasure in the way she said it. She gave us big hugs, and then they were on their way.
This was terrific. The Vancouver trip, with five people crowded into an overheated car, had been tough for John—not something we wanted to repeat. But the trek to Portland—just the two of us—was something we could do again with no problem. And we could rendezvous with Katherine and Paul every time.
I couldn’t wait until our next visit.
A few weeks went by—a little longer than usual—without an e-mail exchange between us. Then on April 18, I had a note from her: “Am engrossed by the Charlotte Brontë bio. Looking forward to the Lisbon earthquake. Did you have something in the NYT review recently? Have I missed it.”
She also said to let John know that “Take Me to the River” had just come to a local theater.
I had reviewed Edmund White’s new novel “Our Young Man”—his 1980s-New-York spin on Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”—and I had the galley on-hand to send to her. I’d also tracked down Iris Murdoch’s “The Black Prince”—one of my favorites of hers—in a secondhand bookshop and snapped it up for Katherine. If she didn’t like it, then she didn’t like Murdoch: fair enough. If she did like it, I could point her toward other Murdoch goodies. I asked whether I should send it to the Portland or New York address.
On April 23, I got a brief note back, asking me to send the books to Portland: “Won’t be going back to NY this summer. I’ve got some health stuff that needs to be dealt with here. Hope you’re enjoying a lovely spring.”
I figured it was the emphysema and trusted she would pull through it.
Then, on May 13, came the news—in the awful way news comes these days. Nothing to brace you for the impact. No phone call from a friend saying, “You’d better sit down. I’ve got something to tell you.”
Instead it was just a posting on Facebook, with a link to The Oregonian’s obituary, there amid all the political heckling, endless birthday announcements and photos of friends’ meals and vacations. Katherine had died two days earlier. It was the second time in a month we’d heard about the death of a close friend this way.
I was under a deadline, working on a story, but the effort just fell apart. All I could do was go to John and wrap myself around him.
A little while later, as downcast as I was, he said, “I thought something might be going on—just from the way she hugged me.”
I waited a day or two before writing to our friend Jeff Baker.
“Maybe you had more overt warning about it than we did,” I said, “but we are in shock to hear of Katherine somehow being gone. We had such a wonderful night out in Portland with her and Paul just six weeks ago—an upbeat gossipy gem of an evening—and they came up to Seattle a couple of times too in the past couple of years. I was thinking this was a new phase of visits back and forth that might go on for a good long time. I can’t believe it’s over.”
He wrote back:
It’s been a rough 48 hours. I’m heartbroken. I can move through the day for a couple of hours at a time and then it hits me so hard I can barely breathe. I’m like you — I can’t believe it’s over.
I’m shocked but not surprised. I knew something bad was happening and I know some of the details of her final weeks, which I’m happy to share with you. Katherine was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer about five weeks ago, probably soon after you saw her. “Extremely virulent,” in Paul’s words. Chemotherapy held limited benefit and she chose not to undergo it. She and Paul put Death With Dignity protocols in place. I saw her for the last time about three weeks ago. We had lunch and she clearly wasn’t well: she didn’t eat and was coughing so badly that at one point she had to leave the table. I was concerned for her and said so several times but she brushed me off with comments that I now realize were full of hints and we went to an art gallery and had a nice time.
A week later I invited her and Paul over for dinner with some other friends. She politely declined and said they weren’t going to New York as planned because she was sick. I responded immediately: what’s wrong, you weren’t well at lunch, this sounds serious, how can I help, I care about you. She didn’t respond and I became very worried and followed up, telling her I know how private she is but I would do anything for her. I didn’t hear anything until Paul wrote with the terrible news.
Katherine’s last days were peaceful. She spent much of her time with Paul and Eli and was mostly comfortable. She told him a few hours before she died that she was ready to go. It breaks my heart to write this about someone I love—I’m shaking—but I am in awe of her grace and courage the way I was when she was alive.
It’s not surprising that a 70-year-old woman who smoked unfiltered, hand-rolled cigarettes for more than 50 years died of lung cancer. It’s not surprising that a private person chose to die the way she did and I honor her choices. I wish I could have been there more for her. I wish I could have done more for her the entire time I knew her and let her know how I felt about her but I think she knew. I hope so. My sons knew her their whole lives and are taking this hard.
She gave us all so much, Michael. I’m so grateful for a friendship that enriched my life and gave me so much joy. When I think of her, I think of her laughing. It helps right now.
Jeff was right. It did—that, and the fact that the sound of her voice stays so vividly in mind. The character of that voice reflected the character of her mind—somehow fanciful and irony-laced and trenchant all at once. She was quick to debunk nonsense—and just as quick to savor it if it were a choice brand on nonsense.
That appreciation of nonsense applied to herself as much as anyone else. I remember her telling me once how sad she was about her son’s breakup with his girlfriend of the time. She certainly didn’t fault him, but she had really liked the woman.
Then she laughed. When she had discarded boyfriends in her twenties, she said, it never even occurred to her that her mother might have liked them and hoped they’d stick around.
She couldn’t help being amused at having had the tables turned on her like that.
In a dream, a few weeks later, I was riding out an earthquake in downtown Seattle. The high-rose condos of Belltown had come tumbling down and it was going to be tricky trying to make my way home. I had to find a debris-free route across the river and then climb up to my old neighborhood, Capitol Hill.
In actuality, it’s the dozen-odd lanes of I-5, not a river, that divide downtown Seattle from Capitol Hill. But in a dream you just accept the facts as they’re presented—including the sight of bridges collapsing into waters that don’t exist, cutting off your options one by one.
At some point John arrived at my side and we walked past parks through the oddly London-like streets of “Seattle.” (How does the dreaming mind whip up a whole imaginary city in such detail?)
From a pub on a side street, Katherine emerged. We’d already seen her and Paul in Portland, and we knew she was making her last rounds before she had to go. We walked alongside her for a few blocks, in friendly nonverbal communication. We didn’t want to distract her from her business. She was trying to give everyone in her rich life the moment they were after, and we’d already had ours.
I woke up wondering if I’d been “visited.” Or maybe I was just trying to keep her in my grasp—as if, in a dream, that grasp could be made physical.
But she slips right through. She keeps on slipping through.
All that’s left is words, wonderful words – from Binewski’s Fabulon, from those “Cut Man” scenes she read at Kane Hall and, of course, from emails, letters and Christmas cards filled with all the news from Puddletown.