Literary Spotlight: John Skoyles

Literary Spotlight: John Skoyles

From WTP Vol. V #8

The Nut File
By John Skoyles

When I was in college, I worked for the Associated Press at 50 Rockefeller Center in New York City. I sorted mail, typed, and filed documents. One day, I found a fat manila folder labeled, “Nut File.” A reporter told me it was a collection of memos, articles, and letters—most of them bizarre, others well-meaning, a few of them touching, some ridiculously misguided—that the newsmen had gathered for their entertainment. On a slow news day, one of the writers would grab the folder and amuse his colleagues by reading aloud from it. These are excerpts from my own nut file, an anthology of many voices: friends, relatives, strangers, reporters, as well as that of the author.

I stick out my tongue, he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a jackknife, opens it, and brings the blade close to my face. He says, “Now we’ll cut off his tonue.” But he does not cut off my tongue, he only carves the letter g from that word.

We swam in the North River, off the docks. The little guy was a stranger, a Polish kid, and he was very brave. He went off the roof of the pier in a swan dive. We waited for him to come up but he didn’t. We dressed and stood around while the cops dragged the waters with hooks and his mother stood there, screaming. They located him after a while and the hooks pulled him up. His head was jammed into a milk can which must have been standing on the river floor. The mother stopped screeching and started to turn down the dock, her apron strings streaming out behind her. She seemed blinded by her grief because when she came to the police cord, she didn’t falter. It tripped her and she fell into the river. A cop dove in and he had to punch her senseless before he could get her back to the wooden ladder of the dock. They forgot about the dead boy with his head in the milk can and worked on his unconscious mother.

I came home from school one day and told my Italian grandfather that we learned that Jesus performed miracles. He asked me to explain. I said that Jesus went to a wedding and changed water into wine. My grandfather thought for a moment and said, “It seems to me this miracle is worth nothing more than the price of a bottle of wine.”

Found in my aunt’s apartment after her death:

•A manila envelope containing a swizzle stick from P. J. Clarke’s.
•Matchbooks from Jack Dempsey’s and Il Vagabondo (a restaurant whose tables bordered a bocce court).
•Cards from funeral masses for relatives, and the obituary of her father—a roofer who “fell six stories from the National Sugar Refinery in New Jersey, landed on a railroad car filled with pig iron and was killed.”
•A photo of prizefighter Tony Canzoneri, taken at the Beverly Farm resort in the Catskills, where she vacationed each summer for a week. Tony’s thick arms are folded across his knit shirt, his head tossed back in laughter, giving even more prominence to his well-pummeled nose. Clipped to the picture is a newspaper column entitled, “Building a Universe on the Basis of a Man’s Slim Remark,” in which the writer recounts falling for men who allured her with words. As far as we knew, my prim aunt had no lover in her life but it seems she had a crush on the holder of three world boxing titles.
•Her fortune-teller’s deck. Passion was the subject of every forecast. The image of a life pre- server signaled a voyage to or from romance. The bright engagement ring meant happiness. The tea set, gossip. She used to set up a folding table in her living room and predict the futures of our neighbors. As she shuffled the deck, she insisted it had no bearing on the truth. But if she turned the image of the pierce heart, she winced visibly, unable to stop herself from saying, “I hate to see that card!” and shaking her visitor to the core.
•A postcard I sent her from Dallas, where I had moved for my first real job. My salary made me feel so flush that on Valentine’s Day I sent bouquets to her and my mother. My mother loved the surprise, but the florist phoned me troubled, as my aunt refused to open her door. The more the delivery boy pleaded, the more certain she felt his words were a criminal’s ruse to enter her apartment. The florist reported her saying, “No one’s sending me any flowers.”

I sent them again, this time for her funeral, when they could not be refused.

During his quest for spiritual enlightenment, my friend apprenticed himself to a roshi, a Zen Buddhist master, who could hardly speak English. For lunch, he offered my friend a “penis butter and jelly sandwich,” and apologized for meeting him early one morning still wearing his “vaginas.”

My father had no friends. He said, “As long as I have a buck in my pocket, I don’t need a friend.”

If you have a brother and he loves cheese, that’s physics. If you have a brother and therefore he loves cheese, that’s metaphysics. If you don’t have a brother and he loves cheese, that’s pataphysics.

My aunt asked what I liked about kindergarten. I said nap time because that’s when we lie on our mat and look up girls’ dresses. My aunt said that if I did that, God would blow a piece of dust into my eye.
……..Fifty years later, fifty years of that same activity in different contexts and afflicted with corneal erosion, I’m sure He did.

The surgeon, a professor at a medical school, was reading applications for admission. “My first question when reviewing candidates,” he said, “is whether they will kill somebody.”
……..The poet, a professor at a university, was reading applications to the MFA Program in poetry. “My first question when reviewing candidates,” he said, “is whether they will kill themselves.”

Brain-damaged Brian Denner was never a figure of fun in our neighborhood of unusually cruel children. He sat in a rusty chair on his stoop, rubbing the bridge of his long nose.  We always waved and he sometimes waved back. We tried to engage him in conversation, but his words were confused. When he returned from family vacations and we asked how it went, he always answered, “Same but different.” He said this about holidays, birthdays, and weddings. As a child, I found it paradoxical. As an adult, perfect sense.

Our Lady’s is a nice place except for the very infirm. I’m sure it is hard for Aunt Grace to see herself living among people so disabled. A nurse said they are referred to as the Os and the Qs depending on how their mouths look and the position of their tongues.

Everything is the same and everything is different.

The English Department bulletin board is known as the Wall of Fame. It contains poems, articles and stories published by faculty members. If your name doesn’t appear, you seem lazy and unproductive. After a long dry spell, Mary Yindell tacked up a story about herself from the local paper. It reported that she was “fortunate to have just learned the secret to removing Christmas tree sap from animal fur when her cat, Jonathan Livingston Seagull got his head stuck to his chest at 2:30 in the morning.” The photo shows Mary holding the cat by the neck and applying Skippy peanut butter with a stick.

Our well-loved and distinguished colleague retired after fifty years of teaching Victorian Literature. A slight and gentle soul, always in a blue suit and solid tie, he had become almost deaf and was forced into emeritus status. We wondered what would happen to him, as he was born to the lectern. Watching him walk to class, shrinking from the crowd, head down, dodging anyone who knew him, I was reminded of seeing baseball great Willie Mays outside the Polo Grounds, uncomfortable in a shirt and tie. In the stadium, he was at ease, born to roam a field of grass with a piece of cowhide fitted to his hand. In the same way, our colleague seemed alive only in the lecture hall.
……..He lived alone, and had no relatives; the students were his family and the college his home. After his farewell party, it was agreed that each of us would call him once a week to check on his well-being. The department secretary drew up a chart. In the beginning, I dreaded the calls, as they involved shouting into the receiver with considerable exertion and constant misunderstanding. But what he said was always inviting and often astounding: he had just added a small auditorium to his already enormous mansion; covered the cage of his canary, a waterslager that sang like a falling stream. He had spent the morning gathering Asiatic lilies in his acre of garden, in the company of his housekeeper, a beautiful woman named Delight. He was finishing a rare burgundy with a visitor, a chess grandmaster he had almost defeated. My colleagues and I compared notes, amazed and even envious.

Our retired Victorian specialist told our department chair that he had just climbed down from an eleven-foot ladder, clearing oak leaves from his copper gutters, where he found a martini glass that someone had flung skyward at one of his summer extravaganzas.

A party has a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

My friend, a tree surgeon, lived in a house so big you didn’t notice the two magnolias in the living room. He bought a watch dog, a Rottweiler, trained to check every door for intruders, but Willow became neurotic because her job never ended—there were ninety-five doors. It was like washing the windows of the UN building—when finished, time to start over. The dog needed something else to do and bit the electrician and the plumber. On walks, it lunged at the ankles of cyclists. My friend’s wife feared being sued and wanted to get rid of Willow. They fought and nearly divorced. One day his wife called me, relieved, their debate over. They were about to split up, and when my friend left for work that morning, she was dialing a lawyer. She told me, breathlessly and tearfully, that God had intervened. I asked how, and she said that Willow had bitten the lip of the landscaper’s young son, tearing it to his cheek. At that, even my friend agreed the dog had to go and the marriage was saved. His wife said, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

If God performs an Act of God and then regrets it, does He doubt He is God? And if God doubts Himself, is He an agnostic?

Monica sat at the ocean’s edge reading Lolita. She didn’t notice the rising tide until it almost crashed over her.
……..Judith sat in a lawn chair in her front yard reading Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves. She didn’t notice that her baby boy had crawled over the grass, across the sidewalk and was on all fours in the middle of the road.

Everything must be learned, from reading to dying.

The painter and printmaker Judy Shahn, whose precisely drafted works were known for their craftsmanship, received a phone call one day at home.
……..“I’m calling to say I really love your paintings,” the voice said. “Don’t hang up.”
……..“I won’t,” she said.
……..“I’m crazy about them,” he said. “I just can’t explain it.”
……..“Thank you very much,” she said. “Don’t hang up,” he said.
……..“I won’t,” she said.
……..“They’re really beautiful,” he said.
……..“Tell me,” she said, “where have you seen my paintings?”
……..Paintings?” he said. “I said panties!”


I thanked the electrician as he left our house.  He asked, “Are you John Skoyles, the writer?” Shocked to be recognized, I said I was.
……..“So those are all your books stacked next to the fuse box?”

Answer that and stay fashionable!

Doctor, my eyes
Tell me what is wrong
Was I unwise to leave them open for so long

Judy Shahn reported the phone call about her panties to the police. A cop visited her house, took a look around and told her not to hang her laundry on the line for a few weeks.

Mr. Lobelli, our fifth-grade teacher, weighed nearly four hundred pounds and threw erasers at the head of any student talking when he wanted quiet. Once in a while he slammed the wrong kid in the face. A cloud of chalk dust and a bloody nose was cause for a weak apology.  He used to exit and enter the classroom door sideways, he was so large. I checked out his belt at a rehearsal for The Sound of Music—a sixty-two-inch waist.
……..He placed his desk near the window he kept open because he smoked: one menthol, followed by one regular.
……..He had a long-standing feud with Miss Prentiss. One day she stomped into our classroom and began an argument, saying he knew none of our names. She challenged him to name just one boy out of the forty of us, but he couldn’t—he called each of us “Sonny.” They yelled at each other, louder and fiercer while the class watched. Finally, she left, but turned at the door and called him a faggot. Mr. Lobelli said, “Why don’t you plaster up your vagina, you’ll never use it again.”

When I had brain surgery for an acoustic neuroma, I returned from the hospital with large staples running up the side of my shaved head. At the same time, my wife’s father was dying and she left to be with him. I needed to refill the prescription to alleviate my headaches, but I couldn’t drive as my balance nerve had been removed and I couldn’t even walk with any stability. I called the religious woman across the street to ask her to take me to the drug store, which she generously did. And generous, too, were the other customers who moved aside on seeing the ghastly scar, allowing me the front of the line. When my neighbor dropped me off at home, I thanked her and she said, “That pain almost makes you want to believe in God, doesn’t it?”
……..“Almost,” I said.

I had dinner with Allen Grossman and his wife Judith at Henrietta’s Table. Judith ordered tuna, rare, but when it arrived, it was overdone. She mentioned this to the waiter, who brought the manager to our table. He apologized profusely, saying, “There is nothing worse in the world than overdone tuna!”
……..Allen said, “It must be a very happy world then.”

My doctor ordered an MRI of my brain to see if a tumor was responsible for the ringing in my ear. At the end of the first round of images, the technician who administered the procedure said there was nothing there, and I rejoiced as he injected dye to get a clearer picture. When that was over he said, “Oh, there is a tumor.”
……..I drove home, stopping for a drink at a place called Louie’s Beer Stadium. The bartender told me the stadium was a private club and I had to be a member in order to be served. He apologized, saying the county was dry, and the club was a way around the law.
……..“Although you could be a guest…” he said, nodding to a member leaning over a gin and tonic.
……..The patron did not look up, but simply said, “He’s my guest.”
……..I had to sign a register, and then I bought a drink for myself and for my host before going off to a table to contemplate the tumor in a world where everything seemed either host or guest.

Dining with Allen Grossman at his favorite restaurant, Villa Pizza of Sienna, I asked him what he was having. “Veal Parmesan,” he said. “But I don’t recommend it.”

Ida suffered from trichotillomania, pulling her hair out. Her psychiatrist told her to go to Chinatown and buy a fresh chicken, and when she felt the urge to hurt herself, she should pluck the feathers instead. She went to Kneeland Street in Boston, to a place with a sign that read LIVE CHICKENS/FRESH KILLED. When her turn came, Ida told the clerk she wanted one chicken and paid for it. She moved down the line, where another man held up her bird and she nodded. Then he tossed it into what she didn’t know was a centrifugal tumbling machine that removed all the feathers. He threw it into a plastic bag and she was ushered out the door.

In 2003, Stanley Kunitz was dying for the first time. He laid in bed in his 12th Street apartment, surrounded by friends, mostly women. My wife, in town to give a reading at the New School, visited him to say goodbye. At the end of their talk, Stanley said that he had something important for her to tell me. She told me this story on her return, and I couldn’t imagine what this could be. He said to tell me that “the best thing I’d ever done…” and here I waited for his judgment on my career or my work… “Tell John,” he said, “that the best thing he ever did, was to marry you.”
……..Stanley recovered a few days later, rising from his bed and ordering three more years of batteries for his hearing aid, exactly the number of years he would live after this first death at ninety-seven.

My son’s goldfish died, and I told him that eventually everything dies, that everything breaks, including toys, computers, cars and that he shouldn’t be sad about it because everything in life is temporary. He took this very well. A few weeks later, his friend visited and, during their game of racing cars, the boy’s convertible lost a wheel and he began to cry. My son ran up to me, cupped his hand to his mouth, and whispered, “He doesn’t know!”

Our class praised the student’s poem about a robin. At the end of the critique, when it was the poet’s turn to respond, he said that the robin was a symbol of capitalism and that he was disappointed in us for not making that connection. He said he couldn’t believe how naïve we were about political poetry, as the robin, for him, has always been associated with the wealth of the United States. He said he was disappointed in us as readers, his temper rising. He called us bourgeois, ill-informed, misguided and apathetic. He wondered why he even bothered to bring his poem to a class of such ignoramuses. We wondered what to say, and turned to our teacher, who said, “Poetry allows a success for everyone at the limits of the autonomy of the will, to enact its purposes by other means.” He paused. “But I’m afraid this poem doesn’t do that.”

My friend the gravedigger told me that a sculptor named Cutler whose work consisted entirely of hair, had bought a plot in the Provincetown graveyard. But a few weeks later, Cutler discovered the plot alongside Robert Motherwell was available, and he switched his gravesite to be near the celebrated artist. Proving there is social climbing even in the afterlife.

Art: the struggle between what we want to do and what we are able to do. Like being very young or very old.

Excerpted from The Nut File, published by Quale Press 2017.

John Skoyles has published six books of poetry. He also has authored two books of nonfiction, Generous Strangers, and Secret Frequencies: A New York Education. His autobiographical novel, A Moveable Famine: A Life in Poetry, was published in 2014. He currently teaches in the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department of Emerson College, and is the poetry editor of Ploughshares literary magazine.

Leave a Reply