[Note: This is the last in a series of stories about autumn-winter 1979 at Lakewood Community College in White Bear Lake, Minn.]
Let’s start with the autumn leaves. Because that’s what I remember first.
Saturday, Oct. 20, 1979, a meager entry in the journal: “Camp Iduhapi, Loretto—Leadership Wkshp. This may be Loretto, Minnesota, but it could be anywhere, anytime.”
Bright leaves were falling when the Lakewood Community College student groups, campus activities board (SPB), senate and newspaper, convened for two nights and three days at the off-campus location in central Minnesota. Unlike the SPB Mankato trip, it was vastly more businesslike. That is, no Party Central.
All I recall about that weekend is kicking through the aforementioned leaves, walking and talking with Deborah Fisher.
And I was starting to like her a lot.
“Give me a story that just makes me unreasonably vigilant. Keep me up till five only because all your stars are out, and for no other reason.”
—J.D. Salinger, Seymour: An Introduction
On the same day as the Loretto entry, Fleetwood Mac released their double-LP record, Tusk. Suddenly new Fleetwood Mac songs oozed from radios, and “Angel” caught my ear: “Sometimes the most beautiful things, the most innocent things … and many of those dreams, pass us by … keep passing me by.” A brilliant lyrical trope by Stevie Nicks: Start the song with a pronouncement—a statement about the general, but instantly segue into the specific, the personal, the place where it sticks.
Almost a metaphor for what was happening that autumn.
Since at the time I wasn’t willing to spill the facts in the 1979 journal, I’ve tried to reconstruct what happened between mid-October ’79 and just before winter break.
The two weeks after the Loretto workshop lead up to fall mid-terms. My new Art Structure class buddy, Warren Dahl, and I used to smirk at instructor Ken Maeckelbergh’s lecture digressions. By Nov. 1, landlord Sam Wertheimer complained he needed to rent my other room. Soon I had a roommate, a law enforcement student from Mahnomen County named Dave LaGue. Dave had moved into the smaller bedroom by Nov. 3.
The following Monday, Dave (also, like me, carless) and I caught a ride up to the liquor store in Warren’s classic Pontiac Le Mans where, the journal reports, we “bought a hell of a lot of beer. Drank it. Warren stayed over for the night”—likely crashing on the living room sofa.
But what’s really interesting happened earlier that day.
The entry for Tuesday, Nov. 6: “Am writing. Yesterday was busy. Saw Deb and she gave me a few of her writings and a book. We may do something together this weekend.”
Oh how I wish I’d recorded that moment in more detail. But I can picture it now: likely a nervous greeting in the hallway between the school paper and SPB offices. “Oh, here’s a book I thought you might like,” she might’ve said, cupping her long brown hair behind her ear. Her cool demeanor, dark eyes and open smile. That’s all I have. And the book (pictured above right) she gave me—Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
“Sometimes the most beautiful things, the most innocent things…”
Deborah asked if I’d read The Catcher in the Rye. Of course, in high school. It was the inspiration for The Crowded Room and why, that fall, I decided to publish portions of the novella in the Lakewood Logue. But had I read his later stuff, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters? No, I hadn’t. I should, she insisted. We’d have to talk more later.
My class calendar that week indicates the first snow fell on Thursday, Nov. 8. I’d crossed out something planned for Friday and written at the bottom, “In the evening,” stretching it out through Monday’s Veterans Day holiday.
I suspect what was crossed out were the weekend plans Deborah and I had made. There’s no 1979 journal entry to support what I’m about to recall… so, well, here goes.
Yes, we’d planned to spend time together and talked on the phone about it. No recollection of whether I called her or she called me early that weekend. New roomie Dave kept popping his head into my bedroom while I tried to take the call. It was a very important call.
So, lying on the bed, I talked with Deborah. It was probably a rambling conversation—what we were currently reading, what we were interested in writing about, which authors inspired us the most and … when were we getting together?
She said she was at home. “Well, you could take a bus down to St. Paul. Stay over if you have to. There’s jazz on the radio and cool sheets on the bed.”
Never in my young life had I ever had a conversation like it. This was great! Why wouldn’t I want this? Sex, finally! And not with just a college girl—with an older, smart, gorgeous woman!
And then I choked. Totally.
“What can they say? It’s not against the law.”
—Fleetwood Mac, “Think About Me”
Those are the facts, from the journal and calendar, of what happened that fall of 1979. I don’t remember seeing Deborah after winter quarter 1980. She just disappeared.
Like a ghost through the fog.
Then, five years later, Wednesday, April 17, 1985, at around 9:30 p.m. to be exact, a “charmed hour and a haunted song” at a dorm room telephone extension at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. My roommate, Bud Morris, answered the phone and handed it over to me.
It was Deborah Fisher.
I later reported to the journal:
“…She started out by saying that she (after all these years) called to apologize for the way she treated me when we were together at Lakewood. It was an innocent relationship, I remember; I was excited about her, and I felt she was excited about me. But one time, I remember, on the phone, all those years ago, she invited me to come stay with her in St. Paul—in so many words—and I felt frightened by the opportunity it afforded—so scared that I stopped talking to her pretty much altogether. I’d, since then, forgotten the incident, and have always thought fondly of the talks Deborah and I had. Now, five years later, she calls to apologize for something she never did—something I never did, but in some ways regretted not doing.”
She insisted I forgive her, which frustrated me. We chatted about my being at a new university and attending a recent workshop with Margaret Atwood (to which she gasped approvingly); I said I still hoped to publish one day. “She said she had no doubt in my abilities, stressing ‘it was only a matter of time.’”
I asked if I could use her as a reference when I returned to the Twin Cities. Maybe I could visit her at Minnesota Public Radio? She said she “had some people that may be helpful to me, ‘back in the office, in the Rolodex.’ We ended the conversation amid thanks and well-wishes.”
Then, “Fifteen or so minutes later she called back. ‘Michael, I don’t think it’s a good idea that you call me, ever. That’s one door I’d rather not leave open…’ I flushed with confusion. What did she mean? To call me after so many years and then shake up my head like that?”
I thought to write her a letter, but abandoned the idea. “I felt so cheated,” I wrote in the journal that April day in ’85. “The last call left me angry.”
I probably stewed for a good while. But one thing occurred to me at the moment.
The only thing I’ve ever done.
“…I’ve got a lot of writing to do.”