Anatomy of Circumstance

Anatomy of Circumstance

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Headshot of writer Claude Clayton Smith

Claude Clayton Smith is a Professor Emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University and the author of eight books and co-editor/translator of three others. His work has been translated into five languages, including Russian and Chinese. He holds a DA from Carnegie-Mellon, an MFA in Fiction from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, an MAT from Yale, and a BA from Wesleyan. His short story “Helping Padraig Die” won the 2021 Great Midwest Fiction Competition of the Midwest Review.

 

 


Anatomy of Circumstance

From WTP Vol. X #4

“Outward circumstances are no substitute for inner experience.”
—Karl Jung

Dad met Mom when he accepted a job as an instructor at Spring Hill College. 

Located in the Virginia Piedmont on the road to Bristol, Tennessee, Spring Hill was a dwindling finishing school, boasting what Mom called a “horsey heritage.” At the time, it was in the process of rebranding itself as a university by adding a College of Arts & Sciences to its equestrian program. (Was that why my favorite children’s book was Jack the Horse?) Dad had been hired to teach photography but had no qualifications for the job other than the fact that he’d won the prestigious Weston Award—on a fluke. “I’m a Professor of Poverty,” he’d tell anyone who asked what he did for a living, always adding, sotto voce, “and Prevarication.”

The fluke, which he hadn’t bothered to explain to the Dean who hired him, was a typographical error he’d made on the competition’s entry form. He’d only learned of the Weston Award a few days before graduating from UCONN and was in a rush to meet the deadline. (Mom would later parlay that error into a contract for his first and only book.) His entry consisted of a black-and-white photograph of a sand dune, shot on Cape Cod during spring break. It was titled, simply, dune. But his old Underwood typewriter has rendered it as nude—a logical Freudian slip, from Mom’s point of view, given the subconscious power of suggestion—a photo of a sensuous reclining nude, head tucked under her arm, the grainy texture of sand like the texture of skin, the shadowy curves of the dune so like buttocks and breasts. 

I learned of these things gradually, at first from Dad after Mom died, and then from my own sleuthing during my undergraduate years at Virginia Tech. I could have attended Spring Hill, which, like many colleges in the country at the time, was not only morphing into a university but had plans to go co-ed. I could have attended tuition-free to boot, on the fumes of Mom’s legacy. But Dad had retired early—or gotten himself fired, then seemed to go crazy—so I slipped away to Virginia Tech and a life of my own.

My sleuthing included interviews with Dean Hardwick, long since retired, who’d hired Dad in the first place. I also talked at length with “Auntie” Flavia Finyucane, the Dean’s secretary, likewise retired, along with many of the Spring Hill lovelies who’d appeared in Dad’s book. Mom had handled the arrangements for that project—called nudes, without a capital, in honor of the original typo. She’d hand-picked the young women from among her own students, all of whom owed her a favor of one sort or another (for covering for them when they smuggled their boyfriends in for the weekend, or supplying condoms when necessary) and were happy to comply. Nearly two decades my senior when I sought them out, they had baby-sat for me both before and after Mom died. I located them with the help of the Elatírio, Spring Hill’s yearbook, plus dusty and brittle registration records in Hawthorne Hall, the university’s Administration Building. And all of these women—Mom’s devoted acolytes—were as happy to enlighten me about their college years as they were to pose for Dad in the buff in his Bluff Road basement studio. (Mom surely must have had fun with that one.) Riding the swelling wave of feminism at the time, she’d held her students in thrall before the crash that took her life. 

Elatírio, by the way, means spring hill in Greek. The yearbook was so named because there actually was a spring in a clearing atop the largest hill on campus, an otherwise forested site of clandestine nocturnal adventures. It was also the site of the annual Town & Gown spring-solstice blowout modeled after Mardi Gras. I attended it for a few years as a babe in Mom’s arms, and then with Auntie Flavia holding my hand.

~

Dad once admitted that he’d had doubts about Dean Hardwick from the start, all because

of a pair of ski gloves. Mom was an avid skier and faculty adviser to the Spring Hill ski club. “She dragged me to the slopes to get to know me,” Dad said, “not long after I joined the faculty.” 

But he was too clumsy in her presence, his feeble snowplow no match for the tight parallel arcs she could carve so effortlessly right down the fall line of the most difficult slopes at Ski Shenandoah or Liberty Mountain. Still, he came to know the value of good equipment, from snug boots to warm gloves—like the gloves that sat in the box on the end table just inside the door to Dean Hardwick’s office. The cardboard box, hand-lettered LOST ’N’ FOUND in magic marker by Auntie Flavia, was filled with mittens, scarves, knit caps, sweater vests, and other items of clothing left in winter classrooms by students too eager to get out the door. He’d noticed the ski gloves in question when he descended into the bowels of Hawthorne Hall to change an incomplete grade for one of his fall-quarter students during his first term at Spring Hill—easily a two-hundred-dollar pair of ski gloves. Men’s gloves, at a girls’ school, no less. (He referred to the students as girls, although Mom insisted that he call them young women.) No doubt the property of a visiting boyfriend. 

The secretary from whom he’d sought the change-of-grade form at the time— Miss Flavia Finyucane, according to the nameplate on her desk—was out of the office, and so he’d picked up the ski gloves and studied them carefully, playfully trying them on. But they swallowed his small hands—those large, black, fleece-lined, leather ski gloves, with reinforced leather strips across the palms to buffer the pole straps. With double stitching on the thick thumbs and fingers, and extra-long jersey cuffs extending well up the wrists to protect from snow during wipeouts (which, in his case, despite Mom’s tutoring, had come all too often). And a small ring with a snap at the heel of each hand, for attaching the gloves to a belt loop of your ski jacket, so you wouldn’t lose them when you retreated to the lodge for a beer or a breather. And attached to the small ring on the left-hand glove in that cardboard box was a silver bar of the sort you might find jangling from a charm bracelet, bearing the initials MSG. 

He’d tried to think, way back then, of students with those initials—Michelle Gonder, Mary Gross, Miranda Grothouse (debutantes, all)—but couldn’t muster their middle names, which he never recorded in his grade book anyway, although they routinely appeared on the Registrar’s lists. Then he remembered they were a guy’s gloves. Then the secretary walked in. She’d been “down the hall,” meaning to the ladies’ room. He could recall their conversation clearly:

“How may I help you, Mr. Franklin?” (Dad said she was always cheerful.) 

Monosodium glutamate,” he muttered, dropping the gloves back into the box.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Did you know that the vast majority of vegetarian-prepared foods contain a dangerous nerve toxin ingredient called monosodium glutamate? MSG for short. Angela told me. She’s a vegetarian.”

Miss Flavia Finyucane, an elderly single woman, was a chain-smoker, who—when the nation and campus eventually went smokeless—would be forced to puff away outside, taking a detour whenever she went down the hall. “She reeked,” Dad said. 

I remember that odor, too, the stench of a foreign brand I would encounter in Europe on my first trip abroad—as if the tobacco had been soaked in prune juice.

“Would that be Angela from the English Department?”

“It would.”

“She doesn’t waste any time, does she?”

“I guess not.”

“You’re new here, aren’t you, Mr. Franklin? I remember when you interviewed.” 

“I remember you, too.” (How could he forget those stinky cigarettes?)

He remembered as well—as I do now—her short white hair, which resembled George Washington’s wig, along with the odd name embossed upon the nameplate in front of her brand new electric typewriter, Miss Flavia Finyucane—Miss, despite the gains of female radicals of the feminist movement, despite the presence of women like my Mom on campus. Then again, as Mom was fond of saying, Auntie Flavia, like Spring Hill itself, “was no spring chicken.” The upgrade to university status had doubled the duties of Dr. Charles Hardwick, making him Dean of Arts & Sciences as well as Chancellor. (His doctorate, as Mom liked to remind him, was an honorary doctorate, from the Equestrian Institute of America.)

“But what I need now,” he (Taylor Franklin, my Dad) had said at the time, “is a change-of-grade form.” 

So Miss Flavia Finyucane, in George Washington’s wig, had opened a drawer, withdrawn the form, and handed it across the desk. Then Dad pivoted smartly and left. 

It was a week after that visit to the bowels of Hawthorne Hall—named not for the famous American author but Moira Hawthorne, who Mom called “the benefactor”—that Dad first experienced his doubts about Dr. Charles Hardwick, doubts that increased shortly thereafter when a surprise snowstorm swallowed the campus, just like those large ski gloves had swallowed his small hands. Driving home to his apartment from his office in the Art Building that afternoon, he’d come across the Dean gallantly trying to push Mom’s VW Beetle from a snowdrift. (Dad could never understand why she’d been able to ski so efficiently yet couldn’t drive worth a damn). She was wearing a bright yellow ski jacket. The Dean, hatless, was in a heavy black overcoat, his hands in those expensive black ski gloves from the LOST ’N’ FOUND box, the ones with the initialed charm.

Which fit him perfectly.

~

The framed black-and-white photograph on our Bluff Road living room wall, centered above Mom’s piano, was responsible for Dad’s career, his marriage to Mom, and me—a photo of a sand dune taken with a Diana camera.

What’s a Diana camera?” Dean Hardwick had asked, when Dad interviewed for the job at Spring Hill. 

Mom referred to the Dean’s Office, in the bowels of Hawthorne Hall, as the inner sanctum; the holy of holies. She’d gone there often on her own, to lobby the Dean—to lecture the Dean, rather—on what she thought ought to have been his priorities.

“It’s a plastic toy camera, medium format.”

Medium format?

“A large opening. They were originally produced in Hong Kong, by a company called Great Wall Plastic.”

“I see.”

“Beyond that, everything’s speculation. Diana cameras are a mystery, really. They come in a variety of forms. But they’re cheap. That’s the key, a cheap plastic toy camera. Most use 120mm film. The negatives are four-by-four centimeters. The neat thing is the nature of the photographs you get. They’re sort of clear in the center, but get fuzzy around the edges.”

“I see. I see.” 

“But most of my early work was done with pinhole cameras.”

“Pinhole cameras.”

“I tend to avoid the more sophisticated stuff—all this new stuff that’s coming, this digital . . . ” (crap, he’d almost said. Dad was old school) “technology.”

“But you could teach all that sophisticated stuff at Spring Hill, nonetheless.”

“If I had to, of course.”

“Well, then.”

“What I want you to know, sir, is that the photograph that brought me here, the one that won the Weston Award, it was . . . taken with a Daisy camera. At Cape Cod.”

“The nude.”

“Yes.” 

Dad couldn’t bring himself to explain to the Dean what Mom already knew, about the typo. How he considered himself (a Freud?) a fraud. The Dean had taken advantage of the opportunity to register his disproval of the subject matter, while tacitly conceding that it would be grand to have an award-winning photographer on the faculty. “As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“That’s what they say, sir,” Dad concluded
noncommittally.

He sealed the job offer by shaking the large hand extended across the desk to his small one. Dad had confessed to Mom that winning the Weston Award was the biggest surprise of his life. He was only vaguely aware of Weston’s work—he preferred Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Ansel Adams. In fact, he’d had Adams in mind when he shot that sand dune. 

But it didn’t surprise Mom. She was a fan of Edward Weston, was certain that the nude photos of Weston’s second wife Charis—taken on the sand dunes of Santa Monica, California—had influenced the Weston judges, subconsciously predisposed by the typo. And so, pleased with their mutual interest in photography, she had invited Dad skiing—once he settled into the job, of course—under the guise of needing some help with monitoring the growing numbers of young women in the Spring Hill ski club.

~

Despite being in the English Department, Mom was into Oriental languages, then Oriental philosophies, trying them on as she did her new shoes up at the Roanoke Mall—fascinated for the moment, then disappointed—constantly searching for something more stylish. She’d developed the interest long before she met Dad.

Books like The Sparkling Buddha, Zen Archers, and slim volumes of haiku by Basho, Ryota and Sampu appeared from time to time on the board-and-cinderblock bookshelf in the apartment she rented on the far side of Spring Hill. But the most influential of all was the I Ching, a thick hardbound tome in a gray dust jacket embossed with mysterious Chinese characters. For a while, about the time Dad first met her, she’d done nothing without consulting it. And for a while, when Dad told me about it, all I could think of was a needlepoint sampler in the window of Old Man Kelsey’s Handi-Foods store beyond our house on Bluff Road, with its bit of Chinese folklore about the morning glory, which represents a single day for lovers to meet.

“It’s a distillation of ancient wisdom,” Mom explained on the morning after Dad first spent the night at her apartment. “A primitive computer for self-examination. I Ching means Book of Changes. The introduction is by Karl Jung.”

~

He’d watched her take the heavy volume from the table reverently, with the same care she bestowed on her cats. Then, from the pockets of her cut-offs, she produced three bronze coins the size of a quarter, each with a hole in the center, like old subway tokens. “To use the book,” she said, “you must ask a question, then throw these to determine your hexagram. The ancients used to toss a bunch of yarrow stalks—rather like a fistful of uncooked spaghetti, I imagine—or pick-up sticks—but the coins are easier.” She was seated on the bare hardwood floor in the lotus position, which she insisted that Dad assume as well. “So what’s your question?”

My question is,” Dad said, shifting his weight uncomfortably, “Am I wasting my time? 

“One must not jest with the book, sir. It is a tool of self-enlightenment. He who jests makes a joke of himself. Now toss those coins. Let’s determine your hexagram.”

A hexagram, Mom explained, consists of six horizontal lines, one above the other, like a symbolic ladder from earth to heaven. Some lines are solid, some broken. And some are capable of movement, indicating change.

She’d looked up to make sure he was listening. (“How could I not listen,” Dad told me. “She had a husky feline voice, a delight in itself, yet altogether feminine.”) 

“Each hexagram bears an Image and a Judgment, with corresponding readings to be considered in light of one’s situation.”

“Like a goddamn horoscope.”

“Horoscopes are heresy, Mr. Taylor Franklin. The I Ching is based on the wise observation of human experience over thousands of years. One ignores it at one’s own risk.”

“Let’s get on with it. Give me those washers.”

“Please, Taylor. They’re sacred coins.” Dad watched her pull a pencil from behind her ear, unraveling several locks of mousy hair. Then she cocked her head at a schoolgirl angle. “Now what is your question?”

“Ask the book what it thinks of you and me.”

“Heavy question, Taylor. Heavy question.”

Six times Dad tossed the coins across the bare hardwood floor, often scrambling after them on his hands and knees, while Mom recorded the results in a little spiral notebook labeled Readings. When he finished, she thumbed the I Ching’s index. “The hexagram is Kou. It means Coming To Meet.”

Locating the appropriate passage in the text, she read:

“This hexagram indicates a situation in which the principle of darkness, after having been eliminated, furtively and unexpectedly obtrudes again from within and below. Of its own accord the female principle comes to meet the male. It is an unfavorable and dangerous situation and we must understand and promptly prevent the possible consequences.”

She looked up as if to say I told you so, then continued:

“The rise of the inferior element is pictured here in the image of a bold girl who lightly surrenders herself and thus seizes power. This would not be possible if the strong and light-giving element had not in turn come halfway. The inferior thing seems so harmless and inviting that a man delights in it; it looks so small and weak that he imagines he may dally with it and come to no harm.”

“And the whatchamacallit?” Dad said, suddenly interested. “The Judgment?” He watched her flip the page. 

“The Maiden is powerful. One should not marry such a maiden.”

“That’s the problem,” Dad concluded, extending a small hand to take the book from her lap, just like the Dean had extended his large hand to conclude his job interview. (“I was by no means an intellectual,” he told me. “As I told your Mom again and again, I was just a photographer. I just liked taking pictures.”) 

“You’re hardly a maiden.”

Excerpted from Anatomy of Circumstance, a novel.

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