Forever cursed, that shabby little Lincolnwood Mall on Touhy. The day before Halloween, 2012: Planted ankle-deep in a heap of scattered shoes while my daughters ransacked Payless for potential costume footwear. "Hurry up and pick, girls. No one's going to see your feet anyway." Then the robotic chirp of my cell. Fishing it abstractly from my pocket — more concerned with my kids' antics — a text from Mom: "Call me. It's bad."
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My Daddy, at 73, was in wonderful health, and yet he had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Later that day, unable to face the kids, I paced my bedroom in a wired, shivery daze, surging with futile adrenaline. Halting at the bookshelf, I crouched down to run my hands along the spines of the novels, all of which he had passed on to me. For, in addition to being an English and creative writing professor, my dad, Ted Schaefer, was an award-winning writer himself. His 39-year teaching career encompassed Barat College, College of Lake County, Lake Forest College and, in the 1960s and '70s, University of Missouri in Columbia.
He'd had two books of poetry, "After Drought" and "The Summer People," published by independent presses and had several short stories and countless poems appear in a vast range of publications — Another Chicago Magazine, Saturday Review, New Letters and the Village Voice, to name a few. He'd also worked as an editor for, among other magazines, Other Voices and Story Quarterly.
Looking back, I don't know how my prolific and artistic parents managed to juggle parental duties with their individual creative endeavors — Dad's poetry readings, Mom's singing and acting gigs. Permanently etched into my psyche were Dad's bizarre bedtime stories involving enchanted ice cream mountains and white-eyed aliens.
But what really blows my mind now is how, despite being so active in the Chicago literary scene, how totally present Dad was in our childhood, how laid-back and fun-loving — the sweet-mannered, playful soul to whom pets and children flocked.
The kind of guy who once bolted outside to stare down a pack of coyotes that had encircled a hapless dog. The kind of guy who sat on his front steps at 4 a.m., poised with hose in hand to blast the stray cat stalking the ready-to-hatch eggs in the front bushes. The kind of guy who let himself be led by children to their rooms to play Barbies or through sopping lawn sprinklers, fully clothed.
An unintentional Pied Piper: He'd take his grandkids to the park only to be adopted by other children, who'd shadow him up and down the play equipment.
Indeed, after hearing of his diagnosis, a flurry of emails poured into his inbox from my old childhood friends — a galvanized response to his illness that deeply moved him. "Your presence in my early childhood is imprinted on me like a baby bird," states one. "You were the orchestrator of fun and adventures for all of us."
For, though my sister and I grew up in the small, rather drab towns of Antioch and Grayslake, Dad always kept us — and however many friends could cram in the van — tied to the city: zooming via roller skates through Lincoln Park Zoo, swimming at Oak Street Beach, checking out some new band at the short-lived ChicagoFest at Navy Pier. My high school and college boyfriends in particular were always blown away by his hip music collection. I mean, how many dads had Jane's Addiction, Nirvana and Sonic Youth albums?
The kind of dad who took everything in stride. The dad who never got sick, never complained. Invincible. The dad I'd watched leap, open-armed and beatific, from the roof of our Antioch ranch house into a mountainous snow drift in the Blizzard of 1979.
Now, all of a sudden, he wasn't invincible. Maybe not, but he was still here.
He instantly accepted my proposal of an interview, disappearing into the attic to dig out the multitude of literary magazines featuring his work. Over the next few days, I pored through his nearly 200 published poems. Being an aspiring fiction writer myself, what most knocked me out were his two short stories "The Center" and "Donkey on a Bicycle."
"The Center" is a quirky, darkly surreal story as told by 14-year-old Peter, who lives in a shopping center — sleeping in the Sears furniture department and working for a seedy former celebrity who now operates an exotic pet store — that is suddenly besieged by savage barbarians. Vastly different in tone and theme is "Donkey on a Bicycle," a heady, realistic story set on a Greek island in the 1960s related by an unnamed American man in a slouch of "post-military euphoria and slovenliness," against the lush backdrop of "hillside homes, scattered like sugar cubes between puffs of green," olive trees and the sun-glazed Aegean. And then I discovered a poem that slammed me with a visceral punch: "The Mad Animal of Happiness" — dedicated to me. Its last line is:
My love will cut you deeper when I'm dirt.
So last year, on Thursday, Dec. 6, I traveled up to my parents' lovely old home in Lake Geneva, armed with a tape recorder. He met me at the door looking reassuringly well. I hugged him, drinking in all his comfortingly familiar physical aspects: his gentle brown eyes, satiny silver hair, spruce beard, fresh zesty scent. Then Mom left us to it, so we settled beside one another on the living room sofa to chat. Here is an edited transcript.
Q: So when did you start writing poetry?
A: Poetry came after journalism and fiction, actually. I wrote short stories in college and majored in journalism. But then I was finding myself writing short stories as poems — compressing what could have been a 10-page story down into a few lines. So most of my poems do have plots — kind of surreal plots — but actual stories with characters.
Q: Did you actually study poetry writing? Take classes in it?
A: I actually never took a formal class, but a poet friend of mine, Thomas McAfee — a professor at University of Missouri — and I used to hang out in bars, and he'd provide big, strong, severe critiques of my poems and help me knock them into shape.
Q: What was University of Missouri like at the time? Revolutionary?
A: Well, it didn't really turn into the hippie stuff until I returned after the army, which would have been 1967. Although my friends and I weren't really hippies; we were a little too old for that. I suppose we were Beat if we were anything, a bunch of people who'd hang out in bars and talk about literature and books and movies.
Q: I remember when I was kid, you always being on the screen porch pounding away on the typewriter with rock music blasting, unbothered by rowdy kids. Have you always preferred to write amid chaos or did you ever try writing in solitude, such as at a writer's retreat?
A: No, I never did that. Writing under chaos is kind of a nicer feel because there's less pressure. I like some energy and noise going on.
Q: Could you talk a little about your involvement in the Chicago literary scene in the 1970s and '80s?
A: My introduction to it was a poet called Lisel Mueller, whom I brought to the College of Lake County for a poetry reading. She recommended me for the board of The Poetry Center and introduced me for readings at various places. And in terms of getting published, I found a lot of magazines in Chicagoland took my work, maybe because many of my poems try to catch the mystery of a big city like Chicago.
Q: Right. I love "Stunned in Late Winter by the Flower Chamber of the Chicago Lincoln Park Conservatory."
A: Yeah. That place has always felt kind of haunting. Particularly because there was an incredible blizzard outside that day and I was there on my own.
Q: Could you tell me about the NPR feature?
A: Well, I published some poems in a Kansas City magazine called New Letters. The editor had a weekly series on NPR called "New Letters on the Air," which is actually still going. Anyway, he'd invite one of his guest poets in and do an interview interwoven with some readings.
Q: What were some of your favorite reading experiences?
A: Well, the Newberry was the biggest honor, because it's a really big deal to be invited to be the guest poet of the year at the Newberry. And then at Ragdale I had a good reading.
Q: Wait, was that the reading where you showed up having had a few beers?
A: Yeah. I hadn't realized it was such a highfalutin occasion. But it seemed to go well; I didn't get any sense that I flubbed it.
Q: Well, you're a poet. So that was probably part of the mystique.
A: That's what I was counting on.
Q: Which reminds me, back in grade school right before winter break, all the other kids would be giving the teacher gifts and chocolate and stuff, and you'd always give me one of your poetry books to give to her. It wasn't until later that I was mortified to see the f-word in the poem "After Drought."
A: (Laughs.) Is that right? That is so funny. I didn't worry so much about that stuff back then. Using language in classes and stuff. I find that I watch my words more carefully now when I'm teaching.
Q: I also remember on one of our summer drives to Michigan, when we passed through grim Gary, Ind., you saying you wanted to write a poem about it. When I protested, you said not all poetry should be about pretty things like trees and flowers.
A: I've always liked the beauty of abandoned industrial structures. Places with kind of an interesting haunted wasteland quality. Actually some of the photos you see of the remnants of Detroit right now — I mean they're sad and so forth — but there's an odd kind of desolate beauty to them.
Q: You definitely instilled a sort of dark creativity in me, with all those bedtime stories about white-eyed aliens landing in the field behind our Antioch house. You'd also imagine out loud what creepy things might be going on in those woods behind the field. I think you ingrained in me this notion of potential strange dark things going on behind the scenes.
A: Right. Something just slightly beyond the edges of reality. Which you've incorporated so beautifully in your own fiction.
Q: Well, thanks to you — because when I started writing my novel, "The Salamander's Slipper," I didn't instinctively get how and when to weave in the supernatural elements.
A: Actually, I've learned more about writing fiction from helping you with the editing of your book. It helped me see what wasn't quite working, and what you have to do to change a scene that either needs to be developed more or whether the fantasy is too strong and obvious.
The way you responded to my suggestions was interesting too. I mean for me, it's always been easy to cut my work. But where we said you need to rethink this or that scene, that's where I would have panicked, but where you actually really triumphed.
Q: I've never seen you lose your temper, but legend has it you've destroyed a typewriter or two.
A: Yeah, I used to get very frustrated with writing, and I think that I may have smashed a couple typewriters in my career, back when I was too self-serious.
Q: Did you actually burn a bunch of poems in a wheelbarrow once?
A: Uh. Yes (laughs). Yeah, that was another time I just was so frustrated as a writer; I just said to hell with it, and put all my poems in a wheelbarrow and set them on fire. I think (your mother) Tricia may have saved some of them.
Q: I'd like to hear more about your short story "The Center." What sparked that idea about barbarians attacking a shopping mall?
A: Just the basic image of driving down (Interstate Highway 94) and seeing the screen of the woods there, as though there's some sort of mysterious stuff that could be going on beyond those trees — such as the idea of barbarians surrounding the world's biggest shopping center. And somehow other ideas developed, putting alligators in the moats around it and so forth.
Q: Dad, I only just discovered your poem to me, "The Mad Animal of Happiness." When did you write that?
A: That was one of my early poems that I wrote at the farmhouse. You were just a baby. I wrote it when we moved out there, kind of inspired by the natural setting.
Q: Right, when we lived up in Elkhorn, Wis., after I was born. That farmhouse was pretty isolated, right?
A: Yeah. It could get kind of creepy out there. That's one reason for my "Natural Protection" poem. That was selected by (the) CTA to appear on 1,000 buses and trains. They had a "Poetry on the Buses" contest, where they selected poems that ran one month each for a year.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: I'm reading the latest Ian McEwan novel. It's pretty good, but not utterly compelling. I'm finding it harder to read right now.
Q: Is it hard to focus?
A: Right. It'd have to be a pretty strong plot that grabs me now.
Q: All right, Daddy. I think we can wrap it up for now.
A: Yeah, we might think of some other stuff to toss about later.
Q: Maybe next week I could come up again.
But then a call came from Mom the following Saturday night. He was getting worse.
The car ride up to Wisconsin Monday morning was a strange, bleak pilgrimage. The familiar scenery and markers now awash in gloom: the Paddock Lake park dubbed "Slime Lake" by my daughter and dad, who'd once waded together through the mossy water; the improperly punctuated billboard: OBEY GODS' WORD, always bringing to mind Dad's joke about its unintended reference to multiple gods, like in Greek mythology.
When we arrived, Daddy sat in the oak-trimmed living room, in a chair by the large sunny window, smiling as we entered. Mom settled at his feet, me beside him, stroking his hand as my daughters recited odd facts to him from their "Weird But True" book. Later, as the wintry afternoon darkness seeped in, he told me what a wonderful daughter I've been. How proud he was.
And then, six weeks to the day from that first text, my father was gone. And yet not gone.
That "Mad Animal of Happiness"? It was always him.
Jennifer Schaefer is an Evanston-based fiction writer whose work has appeared in Chicago's Curbside Splendor literary journal.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun