Barbara Fassler, another faculty wife, asked me if I’d like to go to a poetry reading at Grinnell College. Sure, I said — what’s it about?

“They’re celebrating Black Culture Week, and there’s a woman reading on Saturday who’s really very good. If you want to go, I can pick you up, and we can go in my car. I think a student of mine, John Hensley, will want to go, too.”

I said I’d be ready.

We left before noon, riding in the rain over low, rolling hills, through the spent cornfields. The two-lane country roads turned neat right angles beside farm fences, finally guiding us into Grinnell and its gingerbread houses.

We parked the car and walked through the wet grass to the auditorium, where we waited quietly in our seats, not much to say. As the auditorium filled up, I began to realize that we were almost the only white people there. I don’t understand this place, Iowa. In all the pictures I see, all the faces are white. Where do all these black faces come from? And where will they disappear to? Here they were, gathered together in the name of Black Culture and Power and Poetry; and we had come to be entertained (Barbara had come as if she were reading one more dry journal article).

Sonia Sanchez soundlessly moved to the podium, manila folder in her hand. She was a small woman in a long skirt, with rows of tiny black braids embroidering her head. She began to read with a voice soft, well-defined, and as artful as the body of a black widow, the energy of her submerged anger raising the hair on my spine.

The air grew charged, turgid; it expanded and filled all available space in the hall: we were in the midst of a black revival meeting, a resurrection of the spirit. It was the same thickness, the same solemn excitation that precedes the rain in New York City in mid-July. Everyone waits silently for the power to collect and break, and here she stood, collecting it. The young black faces from all over Iowa — surely they didn’t all live in Grinnell — looked up: caught, rapt, wrapped up and delivered. I know a number of poets who’d give anything to be able to spellbind as she did. My mind said, “Yes, I understand this. They/we all have to bind together to distill some sense of self-worth, identity and strength.” My gut said, “Get me the hell out of here.”

The audience clapped, warmed up, stepped in: they said Yes, this is our woman. Nothing coy, cute, flighty about her; no cheap smiles, easily dispensed. A woman to be reckoned with. She read; they wanted more. She read more. She was theirs — not mine — though I felt I could like her. Where were the bridges between us? Burned in the eyes of the glances we got leaving the auditorium at the end of the reading.

I felt depressed, much quieter than when I went in, almost drained. Barbara said something with a false buoyancy, like, “Well, she certainly has an effective reading manner, hasn’t she?” And John, with his flabby grin, liked anything she said. I didn’t feel enough vitality to say anything. It was as if I’d expected to go to a middle-class barbecue, and instead, the steer was brought out on the lawn and slaughtered in front of us: too unexpected, too powerful, too much awesome intimacy for me to discuss afterward with strangers.

We drove home in the misting rain, over the waves of dark and furrowed hills, forever the heavily-clodded, sodden cornfields. Past unending rows of parchment-yellow cornstalks bent double at the waist, joints protruding, skinny-boned, beaten and tattered by tractor and rain, cowpath and country winds.

Barbara, driving, talking to John next to her: “The problem is exacerbated by the government funding . . . due to the necessity of our own stringent qualifications . . . so I teach black drama so that Central’s black students be exposed to a collection of literature that will give them an idea of their culture and its antecedents. . . .”

John is smiling, affirming. I’m glad he’s carrying the load. I look out into the rain and the mud, and I can hear the deep sweet resonance of Tchad’s voice playing with me:

Look, Ma:
     them cornstalks
           has knobby knees.

I love him and miss him and his humor, countrified and lusty. Tears force their way into my throat, wash down my face and drip onto my coatfront. What will I do with me, encased with a woman who has a mind like a college catalogue, and a student who owns nothing but a fearful smile?

I remembered when Tchad and I were first alone together. We went, after a long drive, to his house and talked and danced and parried. He was clear that he wanted to go to bed with me, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I had a generous shot of bourbon and water and listened to some music, and then thought, “What the hell; the only way you’ll know what you really feel is by doing it.” So we went upstairs and did it. There was nothing remarkable about him or me, or us in bed, until he went inside me. And then it was as if he were shouting, as loud as he could, and shouting with hatred and direction: “I’m gonna rip you apart.” It was as if each of us were other people, deeper spirits and bodies within us, who spoke without words, who understood clearly, without saying, how we truly felt. It is that inner place you go, one within the other, when you make love, knowing just how open or closed, and in what attitude, the inner gates are. I went inside him and knew, without a doubt, that I was going to be killed, up there in the second story of a dark house that I probably couldn’t get out of. He was not physically brutal, but the knives were there. I went stiff, in a terror I have never felt before or since, and after he finished, I wept for hours. “What’s wrong?” he kept asking. I knew he knew, but I felt that my best defense would be to feign innocence and confusion. I was sure, if I told him the truth, that it would acknowledge something he might otherwise deny or postpone. I said I didn’t know. I lay beside him and cried. He held me and stroked my hair as he would a child, and crooned stories of his childhood, soothing me with tales of when he had been most frightened, too.

I thought of that as we drove through Iowa, and remembered how he and I had kept on going. I left him alone for a year after that; I didn’t see him or speak to him. Then I wrote him a long letter, saying that I had, at the time, been going through a lot of turbulence in getting a divorce, and there had been no space inside me to figure out anything else. Now that space was clear, and I knew, underneath, that both Tchad and I were better than what we’d shown each other. I hoped we could try again. He picked up the phone when he got my letter, and in that deep bass voice, said only, “Wow.”

We came together in another attitude after that. He never stopped wanting to marry me or get in bed with me. I didn’t want either one, but I did want his friendship. I loved dearly that he only said what he wanted once or twice, but from his shouting other self, I knew how he felt, and he never pressured me. Pure class. Had I been on his side of the fence, rather than on my side, I couldn’t have behaved as well. There he was, so alive to me, on what seemed the other side of the world, yet with me and loving me, both of us reaping the rewards of having broken all the cultural and personal barriers to get to this love.


I was last with Tchad in the summer. Don and I had come from Vancouver for a visit in Berkeley, and had stayed at Tchad’s house. One sunny Sunday the three of us piled into Don’s old red convertible, hiking ourselves up and over the sides, since the doors wouldn’t open without sounding like rifle shots and waking the neighborhood. We set out, feeling good, ready for Adventure and a good day among friends. We picked up Suzie, and took off for Sausalito. The morning fog hung low, so that going over the Golden Gate Bridge was like one of those old-fashioned dream scenes in a movie. Softly moving fog alternated with pockets of sunshine; the sharp outlines of the bridge became muted, unanchored in space.

I felt secure, in the right place: we were together, relaxed, in a funky old car in a dramatic setting. Home. We belonged this way. We watched patches of fog drift by around us. Tchad, in the front seat, turned to me in the back, waved his arms expansively and yelled above the traffic noise, “Tell us again how your grandmother barks like a dog, Linne! Tell it again!”

That instant I loved Tchad with all my heart, loved him and Don and Suzie, the fog and the bridge. Loved my grandmother Kathryn for being who she was so that she gave me stories that turned into myth among friends. Most of all, I loved Tchad for his recognizing the radiance in that moment, the fullness of it, and giving voice to it.

So I told him again, like a child at bedtime wanting a familiar story: When I stayed at her house, often she and I would go off to separate rooms and be very quiet, and then have the need to get up for a minute. Sometimes we’d meet coming around a corner, neither of us expecting the other. When she’d see me, she’d do a little involuntary jump, and give a high, sharp cry — kind of a sucking in, wide-eyed bark — “Woo! Woo! Woo!”

He’d laugh that great easy laugh and try to imitate her, always failing. He said he’d love to meet her, and I’d say, “Yeah; you’d love her,” knowing he’d have to be content loving the stories about her. But at the same time, I’d feel sad, knowing that he’d never be able to see her as I saw her, no matter how much time he spent around her. She’d never let him see who I saw. If he met her coming around a corner, and she barked, she’d be profoundly embarrassed, and neither of them could relax and laugh at her barking, the way she and I did. He’d have to stop and reassure her and speak to her embarrassment, and let the laughter go. She would never let him be “family.” When she’d say, “You have to do for a man,” she was saying she couldn’t ever be who she was, let down her guard, go off in her absent-minded reveries; she felt she had to be on call and be attentive to him, all the time. Men were always “company,” and for that often resented.

Most importantly, I knew she’d never forgive him for being black, never be able to see much more than that about him. I had tried to talk to her once about him, but she asked me, “Do you think it’s good, your being around him if he’s colored?” I heard that as a statement, not a question: I don’t want you hanging around colored men. I was hurt that she was asking me to see Tchad only as a black skin to be avoided. I felt self-righteous and defensive about her bigotry, forgetting that in her experience, there might not have been many Tchads. As far as I know, the only experience she would have had with black men would have been living among them in Watts in the late ’30’s and early ’40’s. The Depression wasn’t over for them or for her; fair numbers of black men probably hung around street corners and hassled her as she passed — the same as they’d hassle me today, if I walked down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. “You know colored men are only after one thing,” she told me. My anger got the best of me then, and I snapped back that I didn’t think that was true of Tchad. It was the one time I ever tried to talk to her about him. I never succeeded in making the connection inside her and out toward him, as one had been made from him to her. I cried about the inherent tragedy that these two people I loved so much, two people who were generous and vital and loving, would not know and love each other. I had to cry a lot more before I realized it was all right that she never knew how much fun that black man was.


Three days before I was told that Tchad was dead, I began to get inklings that something was wrong. It was in November, before Thanksgiving; he and I and Don were making Christmas plans together. Don and I were going to drive out to Berkeley and spend the holidays at Tchad’s house, stopping to pick up Yoya in Denver on the way. I pictured arriving with excitement and Yoya and big bags of food: we would be in Berkeley among good friends, good food, and if everyone was lucky, a good bond between Yoya and Tchad. I had already pictured them married and living together, Don and I coming to visit; we all would be glad that we had each other, and we would be one big happy family.

I called Tchad on a Sunday, to say that Yoya would be able to come with us. Tchad was looking forward to seeing her again. He commented that Yoya was a “real woman”; he was tired of all the little girls he seemed to be meeting. He had been depressed about the women in his life, about not being able to find a job, and about running out of money, and going through bankruptcy. For him, both relationships and jobs seemed to be piecemeal in the present, or longshots for the future. He sounded down, but still loving, warm, and able to endure. I told him that Yoya was looking forward to being with him — she’d remembered him from the party I’d had. Yoya had complained, around that time, that most men she’d met hadn’t been down the pike far enough to suit her, and that Tchad certainly had been down the pike. He laughed. It was going to be a fine time. We would eat a lot, smoke a little grass, harmonize on Christmas carols, and sing along with Judy Collins when she did “Amazing Grace” while Tchad scrambled eggs for breakfast.

It was easy and natural for both of us to end the conversation saying, “I love you,” before we hung up.

I tried to call him the following Wednesday, but there was no answer at his house. I shuddered. I began to feel that something was awry, but I didn’t know what. I could picture Tchad at Herrick Hospital in Berkeley, in a white hospital gown, lying motionless on a gurney. I told myself that I was being silly, that often Tchad was out at night, scouting out women, visiting friends, having coffee at the Mediterraneum Cafe, or helping the people across the street package incense in their incense factory. It wasn’t at all unusual for him not be there when his phone rang.

The next day I woke up feeling like I’d dropped down into mourning, and not knowing why. I wandered around the house feeling sad and teary-eyed, needing to hear Joan Baez sing “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” over and over again. I couldn’t explain it, and I felt foolish doing it, but it was as if I’d been given a post-hypnotic suggestion to play the record repeatedly, whether I could explain it rationally or not.

That Saturday, Don had gone to a workshop on campus; a student, John, had come over to use our oven to make pumpkin bread. I sat on the back steps and waited for the mail to come.

Around noon, Tchad’s daughter, Susan, called me. “I’ve got bad news,” she said. “My dad’s dead.”

My first reaction was to think: he couldn’t be — I just talked to him a few days ago. I wanted to scream and cry and ask her if she was kidding, but her tone of voice told me it was true. I admired her for being able to say it the way she did — straight out, as if she were telling me an unemotional, firm decision. She must have had to tell dozens of people as she had to tell me. Her strength demanded that I reciprocate in kind, not drag her down, not ask her to bind my wounds, when she had her own. I wanted to ask her question after question. I held them back.

“I found a letter from you in his pants pocket,” she went on. “I wanted to call you sooner, but I didn’t know how to find you. Then I found your letter. He had a check from you in his wallet, too. What should I do with that?

It was money he’d borrowed from us, money that meant that he was a quarter-step from the very bottom, or he wouldn’t have asked me at all. If he’d been on the bottom, he’d have cashed it. “Just tear it up or send it back. Whatever’s easiest for you. Are you all right?”

“A lot of people are here with me, helping me take care of things,” she said.

“Susan?” I asked tentatively.


“When did he die?”

“He died Wednesday night, apparently. No one was with him at the time. I came in and found him a couple of days later. Nobody knows what happened. An autopsy’s been performed; we’ll get the results in a couple of weeks.”

I thanked her for telling me, told her to take care of herself, and that I’d talk to her again soon. She’d had a few days to get used to the idea, but it had just been dropped on me, and I couldn’t talk anymore.

I felt numb, unbelieving. I had to find Don. He was on campus somewhere, I didn’t know where. I walked rapidly through the kitchen, telling John only that I was going to find Don. I didn’t want to stop and chat with him, and I hoped that no one would see me on campus and expect pleasantries. Don wasn’t in his office. Or the library. Or the student union. A student we both knew met me at the door of the cafeteria with a loud, “Smile! Don’t look so down!” I acted as if nothing at all had been said, and kept on walking. Screw images, anyway. Gossip would go around again now, that I was bitchy and a malcontent, impossible to get on with. These were probably the same people who pasted those idiot yellow smile stickers on everything.

I walked back down the alley toward the house, hating Pella, hating being away from Berkeley. The autumn leaves were on the ground, beautiful, composed for a picture postcard. This was a town with every hair in place. All a facade, as a defense against the real life, the feelings they couldn’t cope with. I never in my life felt more alone.

I walked into the kitchen and over to John and hugged him, hard. I needed a warm, receptive body, someone to hold me. I started to cry. As I pressed my head against his shoulder, he stiffened, as if he’d been totally forbidden to touch me. I looked at his face through my tears: his eyes had terror in them, and his mouth retained that same insipid grin it always had. I sobbed noisily. “My best friend just died,” I managed. I wanted to add: Hold me, hold me; forget about the god-damned roles — student/faculty wife; older woman/younger man; married woman/single man; straight/gay. I’m a human being, and I hurt. He stood before me and accommodated. I was not grateful. I panicked: I’ve got to get out of here. This place is crazy. They’re all crazy. I’m going crazy, too. How can you live, be alive, and not see depression or sickness or anger or death? How can I live here, in this town, and deny half of life?

Was it true that Tchad was dead? I had to leave, to be around friends who could hold me and tell me, again and again if I needed it, that it was so. I had not to deny it, to incorporate it somehow. I needed to be around people who’d known him, to see his body, to hear his friends use the past tense about him. It was as if his death was a rumor, and when we went to Berkeley at Christmas, he’d be there.

I went into the spare bedroom and sat down in front of the typewriter. John would have to cope as best he could; I was barely hanging on. I was in no shape to explain, or play hostess. I wrote to everyone I knew, each of my friends who’d known him. I gathered them all around me, as the sun went down over the Iowa cornfields, and wondered how I would get through it. I wondered if my letters made sense, if they were coherent at all. If I’d written what I’d felt, I’d have taken one large sheet of white paper and have said only:

Tchad is dead.

In my mind, the city of Berkeley had been reduced to rubble; it might as well have been fire-bombed. Tchad was Berkeley to me, the reason we went back there. Without friends in it, a city is nothing more than a name, a silent stand of buildings. I knew, on some level, that I had other friends in Berkeley, but I couldn’t remember who they were. That they were still alive, probably still there for me, seemed unreal.

Don came in and knelt beside my chair and asked very softly: “Which one was it?” Oh my god how I loved Don, his tenderness, his strength, his never asking me to deny how I felt.

It was all I could do to say, “Tchad,” as continuous tears wet my face, my shirt, my hands.

“Come lie down with me,” he said.

I let myself be led back into our bedroom, where we lay down on the waterbed. I snuggled into him and cried and cried. Tchad had shipped us our bed from San Francisco. For the next few days, everything would become a reminder of Tchad.

— Iowa, 1972