Thursday, March 11, 1976
7 PM. If my hand is unsteady, it’s because I’m still shaking. A terrible, terrible tragedy has happened. It’s one of those things where you sigh and thank God it didn’t happen to you.
Maybe if I try to write things chronologically, it will be easier.
Last evening was supposed to be the organizational meeting of the Graduate English Student Association, but only Marie, Donny and I showed up, so we decided to dissolve the club and just try to get money to publish Junction.
Marie finally convinced Mike to join her in leading the Graduate Student Organization, so he’s vice president to her president, and we have a new secretary, too.
Marie had come in late to our meeting from a conference on governance with President Kneller. This year is supposed to be the absolute deadline for coming up with a new Brooklyn College governance structure, although I remember the last time it was overhauled, in 1970-71 when Dick Wright and Kieran worked on it.
Marie mentioned that a student had committed suicide that afternoon by going to the penthouse of SUBO and jumping to his death. I wondered what could make a person do that, and I thought about it all last night, though intermittently, of course.
After Marie said she needed a lot of graduate students to serve on the various college-wide committees, I agreed to sit on the brand-new Committee on Emergency Health Procedures, chaired by Dr. Solomon Stone, Shelli’s former shrink (and Scott’s and Ellen’s as well).
I read the charge to the committee, written by Hilary Gold: because of the budget cuts, there has been a terrible cutback in health personnel, and there are no more mental health counselors at all now. “Great,” I said to Marie. “So if you’re so depressed you want to kill yourself, there’s nobody to talk to.”
“We’ve got to fix that,” Marie said.
I rushed off to Prof. Kaye’s class, where we discussed “Grace” and “The Dead” and finally finished Dubliners; all of the people from the MFA program were absent last night, for some reason, so I didn’t get to hear about the bookstore fire from Laurie.
I had a nice ten hours’ sleep and was feeling very fresh today. My meeting with Baumbach was at 3 PM, and I was a bit late; I met him on Nostrand Avenue, where he’d been buying bagels.
He told me that the reading in the Wine and Poetry Series that he, Simon and I are doing will be on Wednesday, March 31 at noon.
Back in the office, he told me he felt my novel was unpublishable because of the too-generous portions of “slice of life” and the many characters. He felt the parts about the characters based on Shelli, Ronna, Avis and Vito were the best – though I undercut myself by giving minor characters’ problems and intrigues equal weight. Basically, it was what Jon had said before he finished the book.
I told him, honestly, that I wasn’t discouraged, that I was certain that I could come up with a publishable novel in another incarnation of the material. I’ve been quite productive and my stories are getting published and I’ve gotten a lot out of the MFA program, although lately I’ve found the class of very little value to me.
I went down to the cafeteria for a drink and was joined by Sharon, who had been ill and absent on Tuesday. We were talking, and the 4:30 PM WBCR news came on. I heard the story about the suicide: “19-year-old boy . . . Kenneth Klee . . . killed instantly.”
Sharon later said that she thought I was going to faint. A delayed reaction hit me: Kenneth Klee – Mason’s brother Kenny! I felt sick to my stomach, and perhaps that’s why I was able to sit through class without breaking down: I didn’t want to think about it. Yet I couldn’t stand to listen to inane talking by Denis and Todd and Simon; I didn’t care what they thought of my story.
I met Mark at Campus Corner for dinner, but I couldn’t eat a thing. Mark was shocked to hear about Mason’s brother, but we talked of other things: his job, how now he gets A’s in night school and doesn’t follow what’s happening on campus, the baby’s health.
When I got home, I shakily dialed Mikey’s number, and his mother answered. “I hope you’re not going to tell me what Mike just did,” she said, crying, and then I started to cry, too.
“I can’t tell Mikey now,” she said. “For once, he’s enjoying himself, spending the night in Manhattan, and this will be a terrible blow. I told Mike to call later. I can’t tell him about Kenny.”
I’m really sobbing as I write this.
Friday, March 12, 1976
3 PM on a grey afternoon. Kenny Klee’s death overshadowed everything in all our lives today. When the initial shock wore off, I began to feel things.
After writing what I did in my diary yesterday, I went straight over to the Judsons’ to break the news to Libby. When I arrived, she and her mother were just sitting down to dinner after going shopping.
Somehow I told them the news and they kept repeating, “Oh God . . . fuck . . . shit” until the shock sunk in. Libby, of course, knew Kenny very well from going with Mason for so many years.
She wondered if her seeing Mason might just upset him more, and her mother suggested that they send a condolence card “from the family.” As Mrs. Judson said, just as Mikey’s mother had said earlier, the Klee family will never get over this.
I felt a little better after spending time with Libby, her brother and mother, and watching Angelina bake Wyatt a birthday cake: he’ll be 19 on Sunday, the same age Kenny was. But by the time I got home, I felt really shitty again.
I called Elspeth to tell her the news. I told her that if she ever tried to commit suicide again, I’ll kill her because I don’t ever want to be this upset again. Mason had taken Kenny to Elspeth’s party on Memorial Day weekend. I remember that night and Elspeth telling me to watch the people on the terrace because they were tripping and she was afraid they might jump.
Gary phoned to say he’d read the story in the Daily News and made the connection immediately even though he didn’t know the names of any of Mason’s brothers.
I couldn’t sleep. I had a terrible tension headache. I kept thinking of Kenny the way I last saw him at the Klees’ last summer.
He popped into Mason’s bedroom, wearing only a pair of cutoffs, and immediately I thought how beautiful he looked. He was tanned and broad-shouldered and muscular – Libby says he was always working out – and he had that reddish-brown hair and a goatee.
Every time I closed my eyes, I kept seeing that freeze-frame of him, standing in Mason’s doorway, and then I thought of how awful that beautiful boy looked when he died.
I had this absurd desire to grab Kenny, to try to snatch him from death. He hardly knew me, but I felt maybe somehow I could have helped him, could have stopped him – even as I knew how absurd that was.
Then I thought: If this is how awful I feel, imagine the hell, the thousand-fold pain, that Mason and his family are going through. Of all three of his brothers, Mason was especially close to Kenny.
Mrs. Judson said that last October, Mason had read her a letter from Kenny, telling how much fun he was having in Israel.
Somehow I slept and I got through my class at LIU this morning. When I arrived home, Mom said that Mike had called, that I was to call him back at Mikey’s. But I got no answer.
Then, at 1 PM, Mike called, saying that they’d just come back from the funeral. Mikey had slept over at his friend’s house in the city last night (oh, I hope it was at a girl’s house), and when he called his mother this morning, she told him the news.
He called the Riverside Chapel in Far Rockaway and learned the funeral was at noon. Mikey said that Mrs. Klee was carrying on something terrible before the services about how God should have taken her instead of a young person.
Mike said that Alan Karpoff, Davey and Fred were also there. No one knew what to say – there’s nothing to say – but Mike said Mason looked “all right, considering the circumstances.”
I told Mike that I would like to pay a shiva call, but understandably, I didn’t want to go alone and so told them to tell me when they were going.
Mike put Mikey on the line, and I could tell Mikey was really devastated by this. He said we’ll probably go there on Sunday night. Mike, like Gary, had known because he read the story in the Daily News; they didn’t release the boy’s name until late Wednesday night.
There are so many conflicting stories going around. The Times said that Kenny had an accident in Israel last year and that he had been in constant pain from a head injury he suffered.
But there’s also the story of Kenny’s arrest, and Mike said that Rep. Scheuer had to intercede with Israeli authorities to get Kenny back to the States. There was no mention of this in the press coverage, but Mike suspects that Kenny was perhaps beaten badly by Israeli police, and that’s how he got the head injury.
“God knows what that kid was thinking of,” I told Mikey.
Elihu called later, to ask if there was anything he could do. “Everyone is so upset,” he said. He’s going to write Leon, Jerry and Shelli in Madison – they were close to Mason, especially Leon – and I guess I have to write Avis. She’ll be so upset, and so will Helmut, who stayed with the Klee family while he was here.
I’d like to do something: write a story dedicated to Kenny or establish some kind of memorial at the college. If only there had been proper counseling facilities – who knows, it might have prevented this.
Now that I’m going to be on this Emergency Health Services committee, I’m going to do everything in my power to see that there is help for other people. They say suicide among teenagers and young adults is nearly epidemic. Something is very, very wrong somewhere.
Elihu told me one terrible fact I hadn’t heard from anyone else. I was hoping that Kenny died instantly, but apparently he lingered on for two hours at some hospital.
A student was passing by when he heard a muffled cry and a thud in the narrow space between the Student Center and the apartment building where Melvin lives. Kenny’s head was very bloody, and death was caused by “major multiple head trauma.”
According to the papers (which keep writing “jumped or fell” although it’s almost definitely a suicide), Kenny was alone at that corner of the sun deck and left a looseleaf with notes from an English class and a Music text on the ledge.
This afternoon I went to SUBO; I just wanted to see the spot where Kenny jumped. It’s impossible to see it inside the penthouse. Three guys were sitting at a table near the ledge, and they were joking about it.
I went inside and I stood, numb, listening to the music of Cat Stevens coming over: “Settle down . . . If you want, you can marry . . . Look at me / I am old /But I’m happy.”
Yesterday, when I told Baumbach that a friend’s brother, one of my characters in the novel, was the suicide, he blurted out, “Fantastic!” It was a stupid thing to say and he immediately knew it.
But I hope that I never become so much the writer, thinking in terms of literature and fiction, that I stop being the person. I know this has convinced me never to commit suicide; the pain on others – even on relative strangers like me – is too great to subject other people to.
Saturday, March 13, 1976
3 PM. The clouds and rain have cleared up and the sun is out, though a brisk wind makes things cool.
I’m feeling a little better now, just going on with my life. One sign of renewal is that I wrote a new story last night. It’s my first realistic, “old-fashioned” story in some time.
We were discussing “The Dead” in class Wednesday night and Prof. Kaye in passing mentioned the Greek Orthodox ritual on Epiphany in which a priest throws a cross into the water and young boys dive to retrieve it.
I thought that might make an interesting background for a story, so on Thursday, I did some research on the subject. And last night, after a solo dinner at the counter of the Arch, I came home and wrote the story by instinct.
It’s from the point of view of a young boy, Randy (for “Periander”) Chiragros (the name is an anagram of my own name) who is chosen as one of those to dive for the class but because of a sexual experience with a waitress at the diner where he washes dishes, feels unworthy of the honor and decides to merely “make it look good” and let one of the other boys get the cross. But instinctively, he ends up retrieving it himself.
It’s a very unusual story for me, but it seems to clear up a lot of things that have been on my mind lately. And the positive, hopeful ending makes me think I am, despite everything, basically an optimist.
Sunday, March 14, 1976
7 PM. I just heard Judy Garland sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for the umpteenth time. I must have seen The Wizard of Oz fifteen or sixteen times in my life. I’m not sure what that has to do with anything.
Last night I had a passel (how I like that word!) of strange, vivid, very pleasant dreams.
Today I paid a shiva call on the Klees. Life is so strange. I can’t blame Kenny for committing suicide. I guess a person has the right to decide if the pain is so great that he can’t bear living. Very likely I may decide that I want out of it, too.
But for now, I think I believe that we are put here to serve some kind of purpose and life is a search for that purpose. Most of life, after all, is trivia: riding the subways, going to the dentist, arguing over who’s going to take out the garbage.
Oh, I hate it when I try to be profound! Stick to your fiction, Grayson, and skip the philosophy. I’m not very good at living, I suppose.
I just thought back to being on the beach one summer – two years ago – with Mikey, and we came across Mason’s mother, who was telling us that Kenny was working in the post office.
And today Mikey and I were in Mrs. Klee’s house, and Kenny is dead because he wanted to be. Mike and Cindy picked me up early this afternoon after we decided it was silly to take two cars.
On the ride to Rockaway, Mike said he’s very busy with schoolwork, most of which is bullshit; he’ll be in the GSO office only on Mondays so it doesn’t take away from his studies. On Saturdays, he and Cindy teach brain-injured children, and Cindy is still working at the same office where she’s been nearly a year.
We arrived at Mikey’s house – he and his mother will probably buy the house now that the landlord has brought it down to a reasonable price – and we waited for Larry to arrive.
Mikey has already gotten seven rejections from law schools, and things do not look good. But at least now Mikey has a relationship with this woman, Nina.
On Thursday night, they went to The Who concert at the Garden and he stayed overnight at her apartment. And Nina called while we were there. I think Mikey is finally in love.
Evidently Mike and Cindy aren’t in Rockaway very often, for Larry said he’s seen me more often this year than he’s seen them.
Mikey’s mother said she was too upset to go over to the Klees with us today but would probably pay a shiva call later in the week. So just the five of us walked over to Beach 126th Street and found the house full of guests.
Mason’s father came over to say hello to us, and his mother looked like a mess, but she was functioning. I guess the rituals of shiva make it easier right now, and when all the guests are gone, they’ll really begin to feel it.
When I saw Mason, I had to kiss him; the other guys gave him handshakes, but I just didn’t think about it, I wanted to kiss him. He sort of laughed and said, “Richie has always been my special friend.”
He looked all right, considering the circumstances, and we sat at the kitchen table, talking. Mason has been subbing regularly, at Beach Channel High School and other places, so that’s good. I pray he’ll be able to make it through this crisis.
He said he received a very nice letter from Leon, who seems to be doing well: Leon is working at the Madison public library, living with three or four people, taking courses, spending a lot of time with Shelli and Jerry.
All the people from LaGuardia and the network of people surrounding them seem to me like a large, wonderful, fractious family. We may not see each other very often, but we come together in bad times and good times.
That is why I am glad that lately I’ve been seeing Elspeth, Mark, Mike and Cindy again. And maybe that’s why I don’t care if my novel is ever published. I wrote it for myself and as a kind of love-letter to the friends I made at college.
We left after an hour or so, and I told Mason I’d call him; Mike and Cindy dropped me off on their way back to Sheepshead Bay.
I spoke to Alice, who had another disappointing meeting with a guy who put a personal ad in the Village Voice. The guy was terrific, but he was so nasty because he didn’t like Alice and so he didn’t want her to like him. She felt hurt, but she’ll get over it.
Wednesday, March 17, 1976
7 PM. I’ve decided not to go to Prof. Kaye’s class tonight. There’s too many things I’d rather do than sit through an hour and fifty minute session on Joyce. Also, I’m rather tired.
Yesterday I went to our workshop; Todd and Anna were missing as we went over a story by Simon. I like Simon’s work, but I guess I’m more into a variety of things and I wish Simon would extend himself. Of course, he’s very rigid and doesn’t seem ready to do that.
I gave Josh the Bremen address of Avis and Helmut so his friend Annette can visit them when she goes to Germany. After class, I went to the Sugar Bowl with Simon and Sharon, who hasn’t handed in a single story all term.
Back home, I got to bed early, watching The Adams Chronicles and the Illinois primary results; Ford and Carter both won substantial victories which will no doubt be repeated next week in North Carolina.
Carter is the clear Democratic front-runner, but no one is sure he can muster enough delegate votes to win on the first ballot. Ford is certainly going to be the GOP nominee, and I think he’ll win the election; incumbency is a difficult thing to run against, as Reagan is discovering.
I received a letter from Teresa from her new address in Palo Alto. The shit hit the fan when she returned to California, and Ted became very nasty, asked her to leave, and precipitated a lot of quarreling over who was getting what.
Teresa would have come back to New York, but the March of Dimes made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: a job in San Francisco. She’s made a commitment to stay until May, and then she’ll come home. Teresa seems content to be living alone, as it seems a nice interlude in her life.
This morning was so terribly cold for a St. Patrick’s Day, and it didn’t help that my car’s heater was on the blink. Also, my car vibrated terribly, and all this after being in the shop for two days. It had been riding better before I took it in to be repaired!
My class, at least, went well today: we talked about Sherwood Anderson’s “The Egg.”
But I’m worried about the quality of papers being handed in. Whether I ask for an essay on point of view or a comparison of characters, I seem to get mostly plot summaries. And the structural problems I encountered in English 10 and 11 are still around. I guess other teachers passed these students on.
After class, I ran into Carmen South, who said she’d come in on Friday to take her make-up exam for last term.
I drove across downtown Brooklyn to the Fiction Collective office, and when I arrived, Peggy was on the phone with Peter, who had just returned from his Mexican holiday.
A lot of manuscripts had come in – both Ron Sukenick and Russell Banks brought in friends’ novels – and I had nearly three hours of work, including a lot of First Novel Contest queries to answer.
So many people all over the country are writing novels and you can see from the queries that most of them are close to illiterate; I really feel kind of sad when I see these things.
Peggy seems to have found a successor, a woman who used to work at Antioch Review; she’ll be coming in half-days starting next week to learn to the ropes.
Yesterday Hope Cooke, the Sarah Lawrence debutante who was Queen of Sikkim came in to interview for the coordinator job, but she felt the position was “too much detail work” for someone as “scatterbrained” as herself.
I looked at her résumé to see if she listed being queen as a past job, but it just said she’d been head of the Sikkim Cultural Council. Russell Banks was in the office and he said that Hope had the look of someone who had been “injured.”
Peggy showed me a letter from a Miss Scattergood who was demanding her money back. She had sent away for three Fiction Collective books and found them to be “pure filth.” She wrote: “Must the American people stand for such filth? If this is literature, our culture is at its nadir.”
I came home tired and cranky, facing yet another brace of rejection notices. After lunch, I had to spend an hour at the gas station while they re-fixed my car.
Finally back home at 3 PM, I was feeling more tired, frustrated and discouraged. I’m beginning to lose confidence in myself as a writer. It’s been two months and I’ve had nothing but rejections from magazines.
Thursday, March 18, 1976
3 PM. It’s such a cold day. I feel very apprehensive this afternoon, as if something really bad were going to happen. For the past week I’ve heard nothing but bad news.
It started with Kenny Klee’s suicide, and then Steven Ginsberg’s grandmother died and he fell ill; and there’s Gary’s sorrow over the death of his dog and Clarence Major being hospitalized and Dad’s spells.
Dad’s at the internist now, getting his first checkup in years. It took a scare five years ago to get him to go to the doctor: when he thought he’d had a heart attack. I don’t know, I guess I’m expecting bad news.
Dad is so nervous, and he doesn’t take care of himself at all. He smokes heavily, and in the mornings he cough up a storm; he’s beginning to sound like Grandpa Herb.
I just feel so blue. I don’t think I’m getting anywhere. Last night I slept for ten hours, and that was only because I didn’t want to face being awake. When I briefly woke up at 11:30 PM, I thought it was the middle of the morning.
Gary called this morning, sounding very depressed. He said he keeps seeing Taffy before him, and in his mind he keeps going over how Taffy died, how she must have felt, what the dog looked like dead, etc.
I told him his sorrow was natural, and he said he wondered if his grief was not going on for too long. When we talked, I think I helped Gary but in the process made myself depressed.
Today I wrote a slight, humorous story. In the shower this morning, I thought of a letter Allan once wrote me about oranges rising up in revolt and taking over Tampa.
I made this into a piece using a device of a letter from an elderly Midwestern woman transplanted to Florida, writing the events back to her friend in Dayton. I called the character Mrs. Scattergood after the lady who thought the Fiction Collective books were “filth.”
The conceit is a nice one, but I’m not sure the story works. However, I do like the title: “O Tampa! O Mores!” Of course, it’s a play on “O tempora! O mores!”
I know that I have very little talent as a writer. I’m persistent and hard-working and I’m good with people, and if I succeed, it will be because of those reasons. But even writing can’t build up my self-confidence.
I feel like a failure. I know I’m just 24 and I’m a college instructor, and I’ve had stories accepted, and I have lots of friends, and I’ve been loved and in love, and I have a wonderful family. I’m bright and popular and perhaps even successful.
But I say to that, “So what?” and I fear that no matter what wonderful things I live through, all I will always feel is “So what?”
If I had never been in love, I’d say, “It’s just because you never had a lover.” But even when I was so close to Shelli and Ronna, bless both of them, I still wasn’t satisfied.
I feel that a black curtain has descended somewhere and a lead weight is dragging me down. I feel like throwing up or – yes – like flinging myself off a roof.
Maybe – just maybe – that’s it. I envy Kenny Klee. It had never occurred to me before this minute. To have it all over and done with, to have people grieve for you, to make others feel pain or guilt or
live love: I want that for myself.
I can understand what makes lemmings rush toward death. I want death for myself: the peace, the idea of being free from earthbound things – and I’m not even a romantic. I keep hoping death will come just to release me from all of this. Not to be: it’s not frightening to consider it, but beautiful.
Or am I dead already? I’m such an insignificant person and nothing I do will make a difference, and this impotence – worse than sexual impotence – is wearing me down and killing me slowly. I would prefer a quick death.