I shy away from mentors anymore. Once I had one—he stood tall and shaggy-haired handsome and thought that I, like him, should be a writer. I was a voracious reader of anything that could keep me from making eye contact with strangers on public transportation or in the study area of the Cathedral of Learning. He reminded me of my stepfather at home in Philadelphia, perhaps my first mentor, who had taught me about The Replacements, Tom Waits, The Movie After Hours. I missed my stepfather when I went away to school. He wrote me hand-written letters about his recent sculpture, or about how he inadvertently killed his old cat while giving him a flea bath and how he rolled him up in the bathmat and buried him in the glass-speckled back yard.
I would visit my mentor for office hours and wear jeans with huge rips in theknees even though it was below freezing outside and I hoped that he would notice. I told him that I had tried to read that Pynchon novel that sat on his shelf—three times I tried—and I still couldn’t get through the first third of it, but I had been younger all those three times, so maybe I’d give it another shot now. He admitted to me that he couldn’t get through that one either, but he smiled that smart, corn cob-teeth grin of his and I knew that he was lying. He was far too smart for that to be the truth. That’s why he was my mentor. That’s why I was becoming a pretty good writer. That’s why when he asked me what grade I thought I deserved and I said B-, he smiled that smile again and wrote down: A.
What are you reading now? He would always ask me that and that would always excite me. One time I held up a soft cover book that looked like it had been found in a muddy puddle and it did because that is where it had been found. That’s where I found it, just there in a puddle on my way to art class. Breaking it Down, by Lydia Davis. I really love it so far, I told him, which made sense, he said, since I was so obsessed with Amy Hempel, and I adored the stories of Vonnegut, Salinger, and Paley, too. And don’t forget Jamaica Kincaid, I said. How could I, he said?
I was always quoting Jamaica Kincaid in the epigraphs of my essays I wrote for him.
These were books no one taught me in school. Thanks school! These were books I happened upon in puddles and in the dirty sheets my uncle Jimmy left ruffled when he took off somewhere else after crashing with us for a while or what my mother brought home from art school or what I stole, because the only thing I ever allowed myself to steal was a book; a book employing brevity that could easily slide into my thrift store trench coat.
My stepfather left my mother, me, my family, before I returned home from college, just a few days before—perhaps only a moment before. I was supposed to have a parting lunch with my mentor before I moved back home, but I left town pretty damn fast because my mother had not dealt with my stepfather leaving with much of her sanity intact and I was needed there to care for her. She would someday become my hero, but this was not the day. These were not those days. Sometimes at night I’d flip through my stepfather’s still-there record collection and want to play them, but he wasn’t there to tell me which song to start with and what to relate it to (the Pixies? My new adoring loves?) and anyway I think he did manage to take the turntable with him on that first frenetic escape. I didn’t know him in that same first sort-of mentor way ever again. I went to the Death to the Pixies tour at a skate rink in Maryland all on my own and I got a set list because one of the roadies was my old peeping-tom neighbor named, no lie, Tommy. I was doing it on my own now.
It was a good five years until I got back to Pittsburgh and was able to make a lunch meeting with my old mentor. He was into Tai Chi by then, spending half of his year in Korea. My stepfather? I heard he was obsessed with Japan, left my mother for a Japanese printmaker, who knows? My mentor was kind, but different, like your friend who discovers Yoga for the first time and always sits up straight. We had lunch at his home. These are wraps, he told me. Very popular in Korea. They are like sandwiches, but they are wraps.
Probably because they are wrapped, I said.
Yes, he said, and smiled that smile, but the sardonic was gone.
We then had tea on the sofa that had no back to lean on. He showed me the special tea-pot and tea thingy and cup thingy and I thought of my stepfather, obsessed with Japanese culture, or so I heard.
Tea in Korea is very ceremonious, he said.
Tea anywhere, I thought. Ask me what I am reading. He danged the pot, or donged it. Ask me something.
I would have told him, Two Cities, Jon Edgar Wideman. Two cities. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh. Breathtaking.
Dong! Ask me a question!
I ached to leave. I’ve outgrown you. I’ve lost you both, two cities. No more mentors. I’ll stick with my staples, my personal classics. I’ll reread them all again and again while I head off to quiet residencies that inspire me (Michener Center, Yaddo, Jentel, VCCA), and find homes for my stories in innovative presses, and a nurturing home for my collection of stories, Walk Back From Monkey School, Press 53.
Kate Hill Cantrill’s writing has appeared in a variety of literary publications, including, StoryQuarterly, The Believer, Salt Hill, Mississippi Review, Quick Fiction, Blackbird, Wigleaf, and others. Her story collection,Walk Back From Monkey School, was published by Press 53 in 2012. She runs the Rabbit Tales Reading and Performance Series in Brooklyn, and is completing a novel.