By: Charles Varani
Kenneth had invited me along for a picnic, along with Miko, his wife then, at the reservoir outside of town. I’d met Kenneth in college and we had been friends since. At the reservoir, Kenneth wanted to go for a swim. He asked me to go along, but on the drive there as sunlight strobed through the trees, I felt a wave of nausea as a migraine had come on and all I could now do was sit in the shade and keep my sunglasses on. When I declined to swim, Kenneth stormed off to the bank of the water and dove in without looking back. It wouldn’t be the first time he thought less of me.
With Miko, slender framed and soft spoken, we watched him swim off toward the far bank of the reservoir. He kept swimming until he was nearly out of sight. She joked nervously, asking how long we should wait before calling the Sheriff’s office. About two swim strokes past our laughter, when my own mood turned to fear, we saw him again, climbing barefoot up the far shore bank, then climbing up to the dam, before working his way barefoot over the barbed wire-topped fence, where he walked back along the top of the dam. He must have had quite the view. From where we sat, Kenneth looked like nothing but a slight wisp of pale flesh wavering in the dry heat. Overhead, a single horsetail cloud floated like a ghost beneath the blue sky. .
Just before he headed south to visit his family in LA, Kenneth invited me over to his apartment. It was a beautiful early autumn day, with a haze in the air from burning farm fields. We talked about writing and about life as graduate students. He was friendly, if evasive, in his answers to my questions. For me questions were as much about warding off the odd mood that our silence created. I asked questions to be friendly, but not because I expected any answers. He said he would be back in town in a few weeks.
I was surprised to learn later from a mutual friend that Kenneth and Miko had divorced a few days before.
Kenneth and I were to have lunch together. He had moved back to town from Prague and was living near campus. When I arrived at the end of a littered alley, I found the place he’d rented, a canary-yellow cottage, wedged behind a high-rise apartment used by students at the university. His call had put me in a good mood and seeing the yellow cottage intensified the mood. Kenneth had tacked a note on the door inviting me in and telling me he’d be back about twenty minutes into my future. He also wanted to know what I thought of his latest novel, the draft of which he’d loaned me. I wasn’t sure how to tell him that his novel seemed pretentious and contrived. According to his note, he went to buy coffee beans at the nearby café. I knew the café. It was located a few blocks away, past the picture frame shop, near the drug recovery halfway house and across from a brewpub.
When Kenneth had first returned to town, we met up and walked together to the brewpub for lunch. I don’t remember what either of us ate. What I remembered was sitting at a picnic table in the rear courtyard. Sunlight filtered down through giant maple leaves, and the air smelled of smoke from grass fields burning north of town. Now we had a plan to get together again.
An ancient myrtlewood tree hung shade over an empty slot of gravel next to his cottage. It seemed odd that his art car was not parked there as the café was within walking distance. On this late summer day, there was no field smoke, only the sweet smell of the Douglas fir trees and the feel of the tarnished unlocked brass as I took the doorknob in my hand and went inside..
If I had been a thief, I could have cleaned him out in no time. If I had been a thief, what would I take? He had a shiny mountain bike, suspended from the ceiling like a child’s mobile. He also had a cluttered desk wedged in among the boxes. On top of the desk was the laptop he wrote on. On top of one of the boxes sat a printer. Other than the bike, the laptop and the printer, I would be a happy thief.
I was getting hungry so I opened Kenneth’s refrigerator, an old Philco model shaped like an albino tortoise, and found the following things: one half-empty jar of artichoke hearts, two bottles of Full Sail ale, one carton of eggs, one bag of shiitake mushrooms, an opened package of bacon and one stack of news clippings.
I wasn’t interested in the food or the beer.
I took out the news clippings and kicked closed the door to the Philco refrigerator.
Each clipping was on a single subject: a book thief specializing in rare books. The stories were in chronological order, with the most recent story on top. The first story went back a few months to just after Kenneth’s return from Prague. Why did Kenneth have stories about a rare book thief, and why did he keep them in his Philco refrigerator? Was he using them for a story? I had many questions, but the refrigerator was not offering any answers, so I returned the clippings and closed the door. I waited for more than an hour and he never showed. I wouldn’t see him again for several months.
Kenneth and I roomed together for a time, when we were both graduate students teaching composition classes. I returned home early one day, before Kenneth and, after setting my backpack down on the kitchen chair, thought about reading something. I had a hunger for words at that time in my life and ate as many words as possible. It was the one diet in my life that never added a pound.
The door to Kenneth’s room was always open, and whenever I went past it on the way to the bathroom, I noticed a bookcase along the wall. I stepped into his room to see what Kenneth had on his shelves. The bookshelf was one of those leaning bookshelves that his friend, Mark, had built for him. Like most would-be writers entering a room, I find my way to the books. Even before looking for someone to talk to in a room full of people, I head for bookshelves and scan the spines. The titles on the book spines would tell me who I was dealing with.
Kenneth’s books told me I was dealing with a reader of the science fiction of Orson Scott Card and the psychology of Wilhelm Reich. There was also one dog-eared book by Edgar Pangborn, the post-apocalyptic novel, Davy. I pulled Davy from the shelf. I fingered through its yellowed pages. I recognized Kenneth’s handwriting in the heavily annotated margins of the book. The time he loaned it to me, I took it as light reading, a coming of age story about a boy in a theocratic future.
The book spoke to Kenneth in ways it never did to me. When we were university students, Kenneth frequently mentioned Davy as the inspiration for his own novels. At the time, I had no literary inspirations. I had so little understanding of being a writer then that I didn’t know I needed sources of inspiration.
I carried Davy into the kitchen. There in the dimly lit kitchen–for I had gotten so absorbed in the book that I’d forgotten to turn on the lights–I flipped through the book, trying to remember the plot of it.
It was then that Kenneth came through the apartment door, calling out my name a moment later. As I said, I was absorbed inDavy, in the darkness of the kitchen, and only answered him when I pulled myself from the trance I’d lulled myself into. He came around the corner, looking pale, and found me in the dark with the opened book in my hands. He asked me what I was doing and I said I was reading. I held up Davy as evidence. I felt awkward, he seemed surprised, or maybe betrayed. The only thing I can compare it to is a break up.
From that day on, whenever I returned from classes, the door to his room was closed.
Kenneth and I were teaching at a small, regional, public college. Before moving to the town, I stayed two nights a week at his apartment, then commuted home the rest of the time. When I returned from teaching one day, it was past three and Kenneth hadn’t returned. The air in the apartment smelled of fried tortilla. After I had been home a few minutes, the doorbell rang. I looked out the apartment picture window and saw an attractive young woman in jeans and a tight-fitting, Beaver Believer t-shirt. I answered the door. The sun had vanished behind a bank of clouds that had piled up above the hills west of town. A cold breeze had carved a path down the alley and up the stairs.
“Hello,” I said like the place was all mine.
“Is Kenneth here?” She asked.
He hasn’t gotten back from classes yet,” I said.
Before I could invite her, she came in. In the cool shade of the cottage, I noticed that the woman appeared younger than she had outside. She looked about twenty. She offered me her hand.
“I’m Claire,” she said. I took her hand and she squeezed mine. Her hand was cold and she wasn’t in any hurry to let go. “Are you Bjorn?”
I told her I was. Apparently, Kenneth had mentioned me to her and my shadow-self had made an impression. “Can I get you something?”
Letting go, she said, “I’m looking for him. We had an appointment and he didn’t show.”
Claire moved past me toward his closed bedroom door. She opened the closed door, then stopped and turned to me. “We are engaged, did you know that? We were going to be married down at the courthouse.”
I was unsure if I’d heard her right. “You say you’re engaged?”
Instead of answering, she headed into his bedroom and I followed. On the floor was his futon rolled out on two pallets. Claire moved slowly through the bedroom, stooping to retrieve a Hustler magazine from the floor. She stood and held up the centerfold in front of my face. Wet and yawning wide, a pink chasm beckoned to me. I noticed a dried stain on one corner of the centerfold.
His bedroom was full of packed boxes. Only the porn magazines stacked on the floor next to the futon gave Kenneth’s room any personality.
“Can you believe this?” Claire rattled the magazine once in my face and then tossed it onto the futon. Claire was an attractive woman, even when angry. Then Claire turned to me and asked, “Did Kenneth tell you about me?”
He had not.
“I am one of his Sophomore Lit students,” she said and hesitated. “I’m pregnant.”
Looking into the twin blue wells of her watering eyes, I found myself falling into them.
Claire went to a six-panel wooden closet door and opened it. Inside were nothing but a few, stray, empty hangers. Her backside was attractive as well. Better than the magazine centerfold. Add Kenneth to the list of reasons why our faculty conduct policies now prohibit instructors from nailing students.
After Claire finished rummaging in his closet, looking for clues to his disappearance, she turned to me and asked again, “You haven’t seen him? You don’t know anything?”
“The only thing I know was when I got home the smell of a fried tortilla hung in the air.”
She turned to leave. I sniffed the air. The tortilla smell was already evaporating and Kenneth was gone without a trace.
At The Book Bin, a used bookstore in Corvallis, Oregon, I saw Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and felt a cold chill of recognition, but not because Achebe had died that day, a fact I would not learn until later, on the drive home. Instead, the cold chill was for the ghost passing by. Seeing the novel caused me to remember a conversation I had with Kenneth. He and I had stopped to talk one last time, after a class we had been co-teaching had finished. We were on Monmouth Avenue, on the front walk leading to the red-bricked Bellamy Hall. The early June day was the kind of warm spring day that can be rare and magical when it materializes. Young women walked in skirts, skateboarders glided by, an art class gathered in shade on the green lawn outside Campbell Hall. That kind of day.
We stood there, two friends trying to close the gap that had grown, quite perceptibly, between our lives over the past decade. Out of the blue that matched that Willamette Valley sky, he asked me if I had read Things Fall Apart. To the best of my recollection, I had been assigned it in college, but doubted I had finished it. My priorities in college then were not higher education. Not wanting to disappoint him, I answered yes. I regret that I didn’t follow up on his question, but my own life at the time was full of appointments, with a neurologist, with a physical therapist, with an allergist and finally sinus surgeon. I was filled to the brim with things, like keeping my own loosening grip on sanity and on making a living. We never talked again.
That summer I read Things Fall Apart, satisfying what I thought Kenneth’s expectation would have been. Later that year, at a Christmas party, I learned from another friend that Kenneth had committed suicide in October, in a Las Vegas hotel room. I was as stunned as anyone. I did not see it coming then, but I see it clearly now. On learning of his death, my thoughts were first on what had driven him to self-destruction, next on wondering what method he had chosen and, finally, on the realization that all of his prior sudden disappearances had been rehearsals for this final one.