Tap tap tap goes the mallet.
Turning a block of wood into a sculpture, in search of
Hands are steady, but the rest of me feels like a snowglobe
in the Fist of Kismet. Like I felt that year my mother
and I spent at Gramps Rhine’s, waiting for comprehension’s
other shoe to drop.
My grandfather was, in his own words, an honest-to-God
Indiana boilermaker. (Also partial to drinking the same
and rooting for Purdue’s.) He had five children, all
girls; “the Rhine Maidens,” they called themselves. Each
was given a solid respectable hausfrau name—Mabel,
Clara, Louise, Lillian, Thelma—but with Gramps being an
incorrigible girlwatcher and moviegoer, he might have had the
Misses Normand, Bow, Brooks, Roth, and Todd in subconscious
mind. At any rate his Maidens clamored all through
girlhood to get out of the house and away from each other as
soon as possible; then spent the rest of their lives keeping
in constant five-way touch. (According to Gramps, the
racket they made caused the boiler factory to complain.)
My aunts produced a dozen grandchildren, all girls, with my
half-sister making it a baker’s dozen. By the time I
came along, 40 years had passed since Gramps first wanted a
son, and I proved too puny and wheezy for any kind of open-air
sporting activities. Except for one or two: We
spent a lot of time on the veranda watching the ladies of
Terre Haute stroll by. That is, when we weren’t watching
latter-day actresses onscreen. Gramps was a great
admirer of Ali MacGraw and Sally Kellerman, as well as Jane
Fonda “before she turned Commie.”
My mother barely escaped being classified in that
species. Of the five Maidens, she baffled Gramps the
most. All her friends and even her sisters called her
“Rhino”—not because her nose was particularly large or sharp,
but due to the hard-charging attitude she’d had since
birth. That and her galloping gait: You could
always tell when she was headed your way. During our
time in Indiana, Mom would gallop in and out of town “trying
to line things up” that kept straying on her. That is,
when she herself wasn’t meandering. More than once she
would accompany us to the movies only to end up in another
theater watching a different film alone.
“Take it from me, boy,” said Gramps, “there’s only one time
you won’t be able to understand women. And that’s your
whole life long.”
At age 13 I wasn’t so intent on understanding women as I
was on feasting my eyes while pressing their flesh. Of
course I never got beyond fantasy with my young art teacher,
Miss Pankiewicz, who engendered quite a few; nor with any of
the girls in her class or eighth grade generally. But I
did gain a handhold on sculpting in clay, with most of my
early productions happening to resemble boobs. (I ended
up adding two eyes above the nipple and a fishtail in back to
make them look more like bass or bluegills.)
Whittling was another veranda activity I shared with
Gramps. He would take a pine block and methodically pare
it down to a miniature water heater, complete with
inlet/outlet pipes and shutoff valve. I hardly needed
any instructions when given my first block and pocketknife,
quickly carving a smooth bulbous oval that might have
been a fish. In fact, I found woodwork so instinctive,
so effortless, that I put no great value on it—unlike modeling
in clay, which took a lot more exertion. That Christmas,
Gramps presented me with a set of fixed-blade knives I still
use today. “He may be puny,” he told my mother, “but
he’s got The Hands.”
After a year in Terre Haute, my mother announced we would
be rejoining my father in Columbia, the gem of Missouri, whose
university had offered Dad a full professorship.
He greeted us as though we’d just stepped out for a few
minutes, but remarked I had grown so much he didn’t recognize
me. And from then on my father often seemed mildly
puzzled as to who I was.
Not that I was entirely certain of that myself after
enrolling at brand-new Stonehill High School, home of the
Fighting Quixotes. It was a complex of space-age
buildings connected by skywalks, each with a giant banner
proclaiming THERE ARE NO IMPOSSIBLE DREAMS. Instead we
got Large Groups and Small Groups instead of classes,
Independent Time instead of study hall, filmstrips instead of
chalkboards, and “modular scheduling” instead of
regularity. On some days, I had to eat a 15-minute lunch
at 10:45 a.m.; on others, half an hour at 1 p.m. The
result of all this (besides dyspepsia) was
ultradiscombobulation. And never, not once in 4 years,
did I get assigned consecutive classes in nearby rooms.
I ran myself winded going from one place to the next, up and
down futuristic corridors.
My mother, however, was ecstatic to be in a college town
again. She quickly immersed herself in the MU campus
swim, sprinting home one night from a faculty fest to bubble,
“Do you know a girl named Crystal Smithson? Well she
sure likes you!”
Intriguing news (which I’d’ve preferred hearing from
somebody else). This girl who sure liked me: Did
she hail from the Black Lagoon? Or was there any chance
she could be a spectacular breathtaker?
Reality, as usual, fell between extremes. Crystal
Smithson proved to be the Tall Chick at my workstation in GAL
(General Art Laboratory). Fairly nice-looking, but
painfully shy. In childhood she’d suffered from a Cindy
Brady lisp that made uttering her own name a torment. By
age 14 she was burdened with braces she tried never to reveal,
and a height of nearly 6 feet that she could do nothing to
hide. Plus a frequent blush that exactly matched the
vivid tomato shade of her long red hair. When she saw me
the day after our parents met, Crystal’s entire head turned
the color of catsup.
As I said: intriguing.
“Wanna have lunch?” I asked her.
“With me?” blinked Crystal.
“No, with me,” I replied. The suave new kid in
She tagged along diffidently to the cafeteria (1 p.m., half
an hour). Whether Crystal really sure liked me at that
time I never found out. She admitted only to blurting my
name when quizzed by her mother about boys in high school—part
of Mrs. Smithson’s nonstop quest to elicit info on every
aspect of Crystal’s existence.
She fell silent for the rest of the meal, scarcely opening
her mouth even to eat. So I made a tentative stab at
tuning into any vibes she might be emanating.
Chant that mantra. I rather liked the use of
“homely.” Unlike “ugly” or “hideous,” it implied some
degree of self-worth; even a touch of vanity. Say about
her vivid red hair. Which I asked if I could use for my
first Art project. Which alarmed and confused Crystal
until I explained “as inspiration.”
“It’s natural, you know, my own real color,” she
“Glad you don’t have to send away for it,” I said.
Her mutters turned into titters; and my reputation as a
laconic wit took root.
We took 4 mortal years of GAL together, along with the
other students at our workstation: Link Letterman
(related to neither celebrity) and his occasional old lady,
Nancy “Green Springs” Ghillie. They exemplified two of
the three syllables in Stonehill High. Link would blaze
up anything remotely flammable—one of his projects was a large
cross made of empty Hamm’s cans, topped by a ceramic skull
full of airplane glue that Link set afire so the eye sockets
would glow smokily. Nancy G.S. could make hers do that
without glue: She was the only person I ever heard of
who could mellow out on ditchweed, which is to true pot as
baker’s chocolate is to candy.
The four of us joined the school art club on the insistence
of Crystal’s best friend Elizabeth Erpe, a poisonous shrew
with an adequate singing voice who discovered the music club
was rife with controlled substances. Music and Art were
born allies (they took part in dramatics, we painted their
sets) and jointly mustered enough college connections to form
the stoner auxiliary called Our Gang. I couldn’t smoke,
except in the secondhand sense, and Crystal was afraid to
inhale, no matter how much peer pressure Elizabeth
applied. But Nancy gained fame and Our Gang’s gratitude
for her Green Springs hash brownies (ditchweed-free).
They made ultradiscombobulation a whole lot more
But didn’t enhance my esp-ability, which faded into
Certainly I had no success subliminalizing Crystal.
Give yourself to Aitch! He will reward you with
orgasms! Nothing doing. She was pleasant
enough company, agreeably deferential as to where we might go
and what we might do there—except for “bed” and “boff.”
Willing to hug and kiss and sometimes be fondled, especially
when green-sprung. But not to jettison her virginity or
help me overcome mine. It didn’t help that I was 5'1"
when we met, achieving only 6¼ additional inches (eventually
above, relentlessly below) by way of growth-spurt.
Crystal’s father, a professor of astronomy who could have
expressed himself in celestial terms, called us “Mutt and
Jeff.” Even Our Gang, whose elevated remarks tended to
sound hilarious or profoundly insightful, felt compelled to
say, “Wow... you two, it’s like... she is like... so much
taller than you, man...” at sporadic intervals.
We were neither’s ideal sweetheart. Crystal mooned
after basketball players; my eye kept getting snagged by
shorter, darker, narrower-eyed girls. We both nursed a
hope that if the other left us for an Ideal, our own
would be bound to appear. (This was offset by dire
foreboding that we’d be abandoned and have to scrounge for a
replacement—in my case, ending up with toxic Elizabeth.)
But no one better came along, so we kept going together.
Farther afield, as time went by and we got our driver’s
licenses. Many an evening was spent on or around the MU
campus at art-house cinemas, watching Fellini, Film Noir, and
Bogart movies for the first time. From these I adopted
certain mannerisms, such as being laconically witty out of the
side of my mouth.
One place Crystal and I never ventured was to school
dances; we got enough Mutt & Jeff commentary as it
was. But when the junior prom rolled around, she yearned
for an environment in which she might wear a strapless evening
gown, so I bought tickets to opening night of Britten’s
Turn of the Screw at the New Mizzou Opera House.
All the perks of a prom: limousine, tuxedo, corsage,
parents going through umpteen flashbulbs. (I stood there
imitating Philip Marlowe; Crystal sat beside me looking almost
lovely.) The house wasn’t full, and we got a loge to
ourselves, which made canoodling a distinct possibility once
the lights dimmed. The production itself was typical New
Mizzou: outré for outré’s sake. The children were
costumed like the Jetsons, while Quint and Miss Jessel
wore shrouds of aluminum foil and tossed a black volleyball
back and forth at the beginning of Act Two. Enough bona
fide eeriness seeped through that I grew concerned about its
effect on Crystal. Would she be put off? To the
point of not putting out?
At which moment I found her giving me her hand. And
not for me to hold.
My first thought was: This is a rented
While onstage Miss Jessel sang: I shall come
closer, closer and more often.
Yet when the lights went up, Crystal seemed to emerge from
a state of mesmerization, and everything below the navel was
again off limits.
By our senior year, all futuristic gloss was gone from
Stonehill High. Modular scheduling had been scrapped,
leaving nothing but impossible dreams. Yet
Crystal Smithson strode confidently through the skyways,
shedding her braces and occasionally her bra, allowing that
vivid tomato mane to grow so long she could sweep it back and
sit on it. Her mother fretted and quizzed as much as
ever, but Crystal was able to parry every cross-exam.
She even inhaled now and then. I take credit for none of
this, other than being a passable stand-in boyfriend.
For her eighteenth birthday, I got a block of cherrywood
and carved her a bust—as I told her more than once, to make
her titter. I used wood because clay would have taken
too long and required a kiln. As before, sculpting in
wood was such a natural snap I didn’t rate it too
highly. Did I catch Crystal’s essential image, blending
shy with bold and preserving it in Prunus
serotina? Maybe so, but without breaking a
And cherry bust or no, she still wouldn’t sleep with
We corresponded for awhile after graduation. Crystal
went to UCLA, got a degree or two in seismology, and last I
heard was teaching college students about rocking their
world. Good for her. (I wonder if she still has
that bust? Wouldn’t mind seeing it again—the wooden one,
that is. Not so much her own, after 27 years of wear and
Once upon a time there was a bashful beer baron called
Gerhard Liederkranz, who gave the greater part of his fortune
to the arts—always anonymously. After his unassuming and
beneficent death, they plastered Gerhard’s name all over an
educational institute in Madison, Wisconsin. I opted to
go there for college because of its laidback attitude toward
figurative art, which elsewhere enjoyed much the same respect
as Rodney Dangerfield. Laidback was the theme and casual
were its variations. Forethought yielded to the offhand,
the impromptu, the spur-of-the-moment. Intimacy might be
superficial, concern might be nonchalant, and the atmosphere
might be cheesy—but we were in Wisconsin, after
all. With plentiful ways and means to relax and unwind
in the Long Lounge Act that was the mid-Seventies.
At Liederkranz one quick casualty was my chastity, thanks
to sandy-haired Bonnie Pattering and her luminous lime-colored
eyes. Plus a sun-kissed gymnast/equestrienne’s body that
she put to bountiful use. If her unspoken ambition was
to boink everyone at that institute, who were we to say her
nay? Least of all me, to whom Bonnie took an early shine
as a fellow Missourian. (She arrived at college
triumphant from the State Fair in Sedalia, where she’d won a
fistful of ribbons in assorted categories.) SHOW ME read
her snug gold crop-top the day we first conversed.
“So you’re H. Huffman, hunh? What does the ‘H.’
stand for?” she wanted to know.
“The eighth letter of the alphabet,” I told her.
“What’s it stand for besides that?”
“Hydrogen, enthalpy, and Planck’s constant.”
“You are so weird!” said Bonnie, not without delight.
Nothing she did ever lacked that element—bliss, felicity,
euphoria, what have you. In this she anticipated future
decades of aerobics instructors: Let’s see which of us
can touch our toes! Now let’s see how many cookies we
can pop in a single sandy-haired hayroll!
Encouraging enthusiasm. Which sometimes chimed with
being laidback, and sometimes disrupted it.
I hit sandy hay on three separate occasions with Bonnie
Pattering—chimingly at first, given her jubilant blue-ribbon
glee. More disruptively the second time, she pausing
again and again to call me names that start with H and watch
for my reaction. Our third time she pulled this stunt
during the deed itself, panting a series of question-marked
H-names into my ear while doing her pelvic best to hotbox the
answer out of me. But Bonnie’s best was far too good for
that purpose: I was beyond verbalizing, unless
Uhhhhhhh counts as a verb.
Though I welcomed further rolls, she decided to label me
“Herkimer” (after her favorite pet rock) and move
along—roaming the coed dorm in impish nightshirts,
reinterpreting Wee Willie Winkie as she brought joy to
Liederkranzers. An uptight lithography major on the
fourth floor denounced Bonnie as “promiscuous,” which was like
accusing a Good Humor truck of fostering juvenile
delinquency. Some of us rushed to console her, but
Bonnie just laughed, saying we would never meet a woman more
choosy about whom she had fun with.
Choosy, and changeful. She liked to sing a ditty
about there being safety in numbers, the more the merrier and
so forth. (This was still possible in the later
Seventies: That fleeting interlude between the claps of
old and high-fives on the horizon.) Not many were
granted three different hayrolls, which only goes to show what
initial abbreviation can get you.
After we left the dorm and moved offcampus, I saw Bonnie
less often, though she’d always greet me with a
“Herkimer-smooch” whenever we ran into each other. Her
sharing an apartment with Angela Thorwald (whose ample chest
sported tiny buttons reading I CAN CRUSH YOUR NOSE WITH THE
HEEL OF MY HAND, SO BACK THE HELL OFF) enabled Bonnie to play
the field in every position. Angela was already at work
on her scathing Pudenda in Absentia that would later
make waves on the independent film circuit. It had no
effect whatsoever on Bonnie’s exultant affability: At
graduation, she was given a not-a-joke award for outstanding
achievement in interdisciplinary art, and we stood and cheered
her thirty-times-three. She looked happy yet accustomed
to receiving such plaudits.
I lost all track of Bonnie Pattering after college, and
have no idea whether she settled down or came to grief or
continues popping cookies to this day. But if there’s a
lime-colored field in Casual Elysium, she deserves a luminous
When I saw that my attempts to sculpt in clay were lumpish,
I disposed of them and turned to wood. (As it
were.) When all else loses definition, you can work your
will upon blocks or blanks with a knife, a gouge, a chisel and
When all shook up by the Fist of Kismet.
My luck in love has been bad more often than not.
Sometimes the bad luck stems from circumstances beyond my
control; more often, from my inability to understand
women. Even Crystal, even Bonnie; all the other
wavelengths I’ve tried tuning into, the essences I’ve
attempted to tap. Yet at 45 I’m still stuck on the Terre
Haute veranda or in the New Mizzou loge, callously callow in
the face of indefinite infinitude.
Your whole life long, Gramps warned.
Women are transcendent. Transcendence is
unfathomable. Only through artwork—shaping wood with
chisel and gouge—do I even seem to come close.
Outside, skyrockets are splattering the night like motion
sickness on an astral plane. It’s the 4th of July, and
the people next door are celebrating independence by blowing
things up. I stay indoors under the spotlight with my
scalpel and dental pick, bringing out niceties in Honduras
mahogany. Adding traces of all the ladies I’ve
remembered: diffidence, derangement, delight.
Bountiful mettle and butterfly pluck. Hot fidgets and
There we go. There they are. This is it.
I snap off the spotlight, step away from the workbench, and
mix myself a drink.