The Stewards of Ultimate Things: Douglas Bauer’s “What Happens Next?”

By Susan McCallum-SmithNovember 16, 2013

The Stewards of Ultimate Things: Douglas Bauer’s “What Happens Next?”

What Happens Next? by Douglas Bauer

In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of these fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there.

— My Ántonia, Willa Cather


I LOOKED UP from my reading at the field outside the window. The hay bales that had lain like giant abandoned bobbins were gone and the plowing was done, the farmer’s tractor having trailed a swooping ribbon of white birds. Now I watched him till, back and forth, sifting clods and furrows, turning the land from a shorn muddy-gold into the rich brown of coffee grains. Having been born and raised in a city, I find myself, unexpectedly, living in rural Ireland, the antithesis of the journey taken by Douglas Bauer, who was born in Wyoming and raised on a farm in rural Iowa, but who now lives in Boston. In “What Was Served,” the third and finest essay in his new, exquisitely calibrated collection, What Happens Next? Matters of Life and Death, Bauer remembers his mother “frequently glancing out the windows above the kitchen counter,” while preparing their midday meal, “[telling] the time by where the men were in the field […] their tractors and machines inching along at an almost imperceptible pace, their sounds made soundless by their distance from the house.” His mother has recently died, his father had passed seven years before, and Bauer (like many of us, or let me confess, like myself) is entering his middle years assailed both by memories of his childhood and a kind of — if you’ll forgive this somewhat purple phrase — metaphysical astonishment. He is “inside a life of uncanny design, one marked by the dual calendars of her age and passing and the suddenly heightened sense of my own mortality.”

It could be deemed risky for any writer — even the acclaimed teacher, editor, and author of three novels (Dexterity, The Very Air, The Book of Famous Iowans), and two works of nonfiction (Prairie City, Iowa and The Stuff of Fiction) — to outline his or her intent in an introduction, lest the reader decide that the following effort misses the mark. Nevertheless Bauer recommends approaching the nine essays in What Happens Next in the order in which he’s arranged them (having been originally written to stand alone) to convey “the sense of the tale gathering and building,” and so this is exactly what I did, and, happily, he does not miss his mark but soars well beyond it. The collection does indeed gather and build; like the concentric rings inside the trunk of a tree, each essay layers meaning over the one before, imparting strength, complexity, and allegorical resonance to the whole. By interweaving the narratives of his parents’ lives and marriage with his own physical tussles against the corrosions of age and injury (of his eyes, his limbs, his heart), Bauer has created a tender and unsentimental meditation on love, mortality, and time. Rather than attempting to review these essays, I found myself, as one does with the best of collections, falling into conversation with them.

Let me first deal with the business of dying. Physically, as you know, it’s all downhill from birth: Bauer tackles this insurmountable human predicament without flinching, giving details of his various medical adventures and misadventures, about his cataract surgeries (particularly in the opening and closing essays, “Here We Were at Exactly This Moment” and “It’s Time”), and the effect of arthritis on a knee injury (in the seventh essay, “Hoss’s Knee”). Beautifully composed, forensically accurate, and metaphorically imperative to the collection, these details will cause no discomfort to most readers. (I’m impelled to admit that although I can deal with blood and scrapes and all manner of medical intrusions we women are heir to, anything to do with bones or eyeballs triggers my vapors. On a couple of occasions while reading Bauer’s almost boyish enthusiasm for the way calcium can make “an artless mess of things” while “haplessly attempting to repair” a bone, I felt the need to shift my focus to the soothingly bucolic view outside my window.) In truth, the author’s approach to our eventual decrepitude can be both comic and moving. As a boy at his grandfather’s funeral, though he kept his mother’s grief company by squeezing out a few fraudulent tears, the young Bauer was astonished to find the old man, a coal miner, almost unrecognizable in the coffin, having “been transformed, not so much by death, as by hygiene.” Much later, though, in “Hoss’s Knee,” a high school football injury changes the direction of his life in ways so dramatic and emotionally complex that he still struggles to sift the consequences, heroism from fear, pragmatism from guilt. “My injured knee confers no lonely valor, no status as an injury to play through,” he writes, in one of the most astute and touching moments in the book.

It is inevitable when reading about the death of someone else’s mother that your thoughts will turn to your own. In the opening essay, “Here We Were at Exactly This Moment,” Bauer undergoes cataract surgery oblivious that his brother has rushed to their mother’s deathbed. Having been with my mother when she died, I felt a chill of recognition at the description of Mrs. Bauer’s final moments. “So fiercely was she inside her need to breathe,” she barely noted his brother’s presence, having only “the strength to make the effort a few more times, three, four, her dying keeping time.” And I shared, too, the brother’s confusion as described by the author, about what to do in the minutes after his mother’s death: “Now, when she couldn’t take a pulse of comfort from his staying, he felt not urgency but inexperience at the thought of leaving her. What rules, what etiquette were there that could help him? How brief was too brief, how long was too long?” It astonishes the brothers — as it astonishes so many of us — that the defining act of our mortality should catch us so perpetually off guard.

Following his mother’s death from heart failure, and because he has been experiencing random palpitations, Bauer visits his own doctor, who is fond of “kindergarten diagrams” and “gives the impression of being perennially en route,” who fits him with a monitor and an 800 number to call if his heartbeat feels “odd.” After the appointment Bauer returns to Iowa to clear out his mother’s apartment and recalls, in “Tenacity,” an earlier incident when she’d lost her balance in the kitchen and broken her hip. Wanting to “imagine the cruel calisthenics of her [twelve-hour] ordeal,” he crawls along the apartment floor, over the “fifteen steps, roughly five yards” it took her to reach the telephone, progressing at “slightly more than a foot per hour.” After turning the key in her door for the very last time his heart “began a quickened rhythm, a wild short-circuitry of regret and finished time […] the world was color and energy, cosmic vibrations, negative white and positive red, glorious evidence of things not seen.” But he doesn’t call the 800 number. After all, how can you define “odd” versus “normal” in terms of the human heart?

It is Bauer’s mother, Maude, enigmatic and tenacious, who is the heroine of this collection, and I fell for her the moment I read of her putting potato chips in her sandwiches, and of the noontime meal she prepared every day — dinner, not lunch: two markers instantly endearing to anyone with a Scottish working-class upbringing. The third youngest of 10 children, Maude graduated high school in 1939, and became, for a short time, a country teacher. After her marriage to Bauer’s father, Kenneth, they lived for a few years in Cheyenne before settling on Kenneth’s father’s farm.

“What have I done with my life? What has become of it?” reflects Glory, the heroine of Home, Marilynne Robinson’s novel from 2008, set in 1950s rural Iowa. Men

were the stewards of ultimate things. Women were creatures of a second rank, however pious, however beloved, however honored. […] None of this had mattered much through all the years of her studies and her teaching, but now, in the middle of any night, it was part of the loneliness she felt, as if the sense that everything could have been otherwise were a palpable darkness.

While watching his mother prepare dinner, Bauer had sensed a similar “brooding humor.” She never implied that she was “uniquely put upon” by a life of repetitive chores; still, he intuited, even as a child, that compared to his father and grandfather toiling in the fields outside that window, “my mother’s was the harder and more manual labor.” Farming fed others beyond the family and provided an income, whereas his mother’s work was relentless and unpaid. Even though she was proud of her baking, “I remember her predictably complaining about her three grandsons, devouring those irresistible cookies,” he writes — “What she saw [...] was not the pleasure her food gave her grandsons, but rather the evidence that she must now make more of it.”

Whenever my husband thanks me for spending a day in domestic wrangling, I try to take it with good grace, because heaven knows it is meant kindly; yet inwardly I bristle. Sometimes we recipients of “thanks for the cookies” detect a note of condescension, even when it’s not there. Cultural norms still dictate that gratitude itself should be sufficient reward for “women’s work,” and cookies would not be devoured so frequently and casually were it not for the assumption that more cookies are forever forthcoming. When “tidying” is all you do, then all you do is “tidy” — and to pause and contemplate what Bauer terms the essentially “Sisyphean” nature of his mother’s life would be to risk tumbling into a metaphysical abyss. Is it any wonder that she began to see “the outdoors as just another room,” and kept one beady eye on those miscreant weeds at the fence line? He describes her “coiled tension,” a trait I recognize in my own female relatives, who, like Maude, rather than sit down on a sofa, perch and hover, “poised in [their] vigilance for the room to misbehave,” because if it does, when it does, it will be nobody’s problem but theirs. It continues to be the assumptions about women’s responsibilities — not the responsibilities per se — that are tough to bear. So when Bauer notes in a later essay that his mother would not have flinched from that last “hard domestic duty” of writing her own will, I could have wept. I bet she had it on a list of things to do; I bet she ticked it off.

The best essayists share two critical attributes: a forensic eye and the recognition of honest, not manufactured, emotions. When Bauer drives to his parents’ old house in Cheyenne, where they spent those first few blissful years enjoying an “all-permissive present, a great, freeing distance from their past and from their future,” he parks outside for a moment and takes some photographs. But he “wasn’t transported […] wasn’t moved”: rather he was “extremely interested,” and “attentive.” Although he attempts to fathom his parents’ feelings, he doesn’t then appropriate what they might have been as his own, as some lesser essayists might have been tempted to do in order to manipulate the reader’s empathy. Bauer takes his obligation to truth in nonfiction seriously. Furthermore, in this instance, at least, he doesn’t have to ask what happened next.

Bauer’s parents had harbored thoughts of moving west from Cheyenne, but they didn’t — returning instead to live with Bauer’s paternal grandparents: his grandfather, a shy, wiry, courtly man, with “one hip permanently cocked from a boyhood accident,” and his grandmother, another vigilant woman “forever bounding up out of her chair without warning to go and check on nothing in particular a room or two away.” The couples struck a deal: Bauer’s grandparents would move immediately to Prairie City, allowing his parents to take over the farm. But the deal took five years to come to fruition, five long years of “freighted daily contests” between Bauer’s mother and her mother-in-law over control of the domestic realm. His father’s inability to resolve the situation compounded his mother’s feelings of resentment and obligation — by “owing nothing,” the young couple “owned nothing” — and while watching her husband and her father-in-law farm together outside that kitchen window day after day, Maude became convinced that Kenneth had determined that it should never be resolved. Bauer’s father, meanwhile, more “alert to the language of the land” than the language of human relationships, never considered the “core of my mother’s unhappiness.” Before she died Maude confided that “your grandpa was the love of your dad’s life [...] and no one, sure not me, could be a replacement.” A complicated marriage, then, as most marriages are. However, in “The Life He Left Her,” Bauer reveals that after his father passed, he and his mother made a discovery that left both of them reeling.

Bauer attempts to reach a conclusion about whether or not his father had deliberately committed a kind of betrayal, but it is difficult to fathom the intentions of someone who has died. All relationships succumb to a pattern, and Bauer outlines the pattern to which his parents’ relationship succumbed. His father would often feign deference to his wife’s wishes, while quietly digging in his heels: “His way of getting what he wanted in the end was simply not to do what he’d said he would when it went against some stronger, private wish.” Meanwhile his mother made the common mistake of attempting to change the very traits in her partner that first caused her to swoon: “Every moment of her judgment of my father could also be seen as a perverse act of mourning, that she mourned the loss of the man she’d fallen in love with, while she worked without pause to make that man disappear.” This reminded me of the widow sitting in contemplative vigil at her dead husband’s side in D. H. Lawrence’s story, “The Odour of Chrysanthemums,” who has a final chilling thought: “She had refused him as himself.” While, Bauer, attempting to articulate his mother’s complicated feelings after her husband’s death, quotes from My Mortal Enemy, Willa Cather’s novella, in which a bitter woman reflects on her derisive treatment of her husband: “Perhaps I can’t forgive him for the harm I did him.”

In his own relationships, referenced subtly throughout the collection, Bauer seems to have followed the modern pattern of falling in love, suffering heartbreak, moving on or returning. His parents, however, seem to hail from a generation and a culture (farming) that would no more abandon a marriage than a field. Baffled if resigned, Bauer describes how in the seven years between his father’s death and her own, his mother grew to accept and then overlook her husband’s actions. His parents had agreed that “whoever survived the other would inherit everything,” he notes, a simple, sly profundity that hit me like a slap, because we do inherit everything from our relationships — not only memories of happiness or transcendence, but also the bitterness, the frustration, the guilt, the disappointment — and then we must decide what to do with it all. His mother parsed her inheritance, keeping the best, mulching the rest, contorting time by choosing to remember her husband as he was when she’d fallen in love with him rather than to wallow over more recent regrets, not because she was willfully naive but because she was pragmatic (make a list, tick it off); although she may have reaped what she sewed, she could still separate the wheat from the chaff.

The Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (famous for recording a cover of “Space Oddity” on the International Space Station) said in a recent interview, “If you take the time to notice, there is a fascinating amount of things happening in one square foot of earth.” He learned this lesson as a sixth grader, when his teacher took his class to a weedy, deserted parking lot and instructed each child to study a small piece of ground. My mother’s square foot of earth was the Glasgow South Side neighborhood in which she was born, lived, and died. She was a comically ardent Scottish chauvinist in the way that Bauer’s mother was “a comically ardent Midwest chauvinist.” Bauer’s mother feared being labeled a “hick,” my mother feared being labeled “common.” She enjoyed travel but lacked the greater perspective having never considered her (admittedly fascinating) square patch of ground for any length of time, from any significant distance (unlike Hadfield), and whatever she discovered in the wider world she judged against what she knew to be “true” at home. When first faced with a huge, beefy American tomato, she recoiled; rather than accepting that our puny Scottish equivalents were the outcome of a lousy climate, she took its quality and almost rude abundance as a personal affront. This difference in our life experiences made my visits home to Scotland somewhat fraught as if she and I now spoke different languages:

In college all of them had studied the putative effects of deracination, which were angst and anomie, those dull horrors of the modern world. […] And then their return to the pays natal, where the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose and bloomed as negligence permitted. Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?

So wrote Marilynne Robinson in Home, and Bauer shares the story of his own exile in “Iowa Wine,” of leaving his home state, frustrated by its pride in its “grand inelegance, a determined plainness.” He had proven to be a klutz at farming, for which readers and students should be grateful; he suffered from asthma and “brought a stunning lack of skill to every facet of the work.” Instead he decided (apparently with his father’s blessing) to dig with his pen. He fell in love with cities, and with California, finding there “a cadence of life that was as far as I could get from the seasons and solemnities of my home place.” The first time he took his parents to visit his beloved wine region, he was annoyed by his father’s apparent indifference to its gorgeous arid landscape, before understanding that his father was simply making a judgment (as my mother had) based on what he knew to be “true” at home, “true” in his own field. To “a lifelong grain farmer there could be nothing beautiful about a countryside that had lost its greenness.”

Much to Bauer’s surprise, winemakers plant a vineyard on the land adjacent to his family’s old farm, so he goes to visit, overhearing again the somewhat fancy vintner terminology he’d first encountered in California. But winemakers are no different from farmers, he discovers, they like to indulge in “crop talk” and share the “mystic’s whimsy required for putting something in the ground and assuming it will live.” Iowa’s soil, he learns, proves almost too good for grapes (I suspect Ireland would face a similar issue should the sun ever come out); the terroir is too rich, too moist, too bold, and the winemakers must decide “how much Iowa to let in and how much to keep out.” He imagines Iowa’s (or his father’s) determinedly plain response to such crop talk: “Terroir? What we call it here is dirt.”

Recently I had to choose a photograph for a project representing my work, a task that should have been quickly dispatched but proved ridiculously time-consuming. I had to calibrate the contradiction between not wanting to be perceived as a Scottish writer (too one-dimensional, too parochial) while acknowledging Scotland’s influence on my voice and work. I struggled — I still struggle — with how much Scotland to let in and how much to keep out. Like it or not, writers are the harvest of a particular landscape, of a particular field, “a life and a conundrum” Bauer knows all about, and although his prose is not determinedly plain but complex and elegant, you can taste — in its unflinching honesty, its lack of airs, its solemn magic — a harvest from Iowa dirt.

Iowa dirt — its importance to Bauer’s father (and to Bauer) cannot be overstated. As my mother was figuratively rooted in Glasgow, the Bauer family was figuratively and literally rooted in Iowa. Farming — unlike the majority of professions — is not portable, nor is it extractable from the rhythm of the seasons; it is not a job but a way of life, rooted in a sensitive tango with nature and time. If we fill our days with different experiences in different landscapes, does our sense of time expand or contract? Or if, like a farmer, we repeat the same intricate and critical tasks, year in and year out, in the same landscape, does time transform from finite to endless? Is it possible to shift from living through time, to living within it? A sense of order, familiarity, and safety are some of the benefits of living in the same small patch of ground, in the same field, Bauer writes in “What We Hunger For,” but “people who live their whole lives in such small places must deal with a terribly intimate geography. Memory and moment and future, all of them are embedded and overlapping.” And yet, I suspect Bauer’s mother, like my own, preferred that terribly intimate geography over the inevitable dissonance, the stomach-lurching shock I sometimes experience when I momentarily grasp the physical distance between where I live now and where I was born, or (even more horrifying) grasp how much of my life span has passed and how little I may have left. It is as though I have awoken to find myself dangling off the International Space Station, (an experience Hadfield describes as agoraphobia and claustrophobia combined), attached only by a flimsy wire.

“The surgery absconded with time, in the way that all the events of our days are thieves of a kind, taking our time,” writes Bauer, in his final essay. “Time had been reversed and time had been suspended and time had emphasized how mercilessly it proceeds.” Life is often described by artists as a journey from here to there, with a starting point and a destination, but it more accurately resembles, as Bauer illustrates, a fluid and malleable circling. Like participating in a marathon held inside a stadium, we continuously lap the same landmarks, the same relationships, the same square patch of earth, in our race against time, while time “takes its defeats with patience and grace as it waits for the day it will start to win and, once it does, never lose again.” While the endless circling corrodes our skin and bones, hopefully we grow perspective, love, wisdom in their stead — while we leave and arrive (again and again) “back where we started, [knowing] the place for the first time.” What is so astonishing, as Bauer’s brother witnessed at the death of their mother, as I witnessed at the death of mine, is that we fight to the very last breath to keep running.

A few weeks ago when I first read this collection, the field outside my window was a freshly tilled dark brown. A warmer-than-average October combined with generous rainfall has now transformed it into what Bauer’s mother would have called a very “pretty” field with precise rows of sturdy shoots, rumpling up and over the horizon like an unfurled bale of Kelly green corduroy. Three figures are walking along its outer edge: the farmer, his son, and his grandson. The two men pause while the toddler swoops and dips like a bird. One man gesticulates, the other sticks his hands in his pockets and nods, no doubt indulging in crop talk: then they strike out, cutting across the field’s weft, trampling over the rows of green shoots in their rubber boots with the blithe confidence of those who stick things in the ground and presume they will grow, and I think of Bauer’s mother, “that rich mine of life,” that more conflicted and disillusioned Ántonia (though no less loyal and stoic), working in her kitchen, glancing up now and then out of her window to mark her husband’s progress across the field, each of them lapping through the day’s chores, keeping time.


Susan McCallum-Smith is the author of Slipping the Moorings, a collection of stories. She was born in Scotland and currently lives in Ireland.

LARB Contributor

Susan McCallum-Smith writes essays, fiction, and reviews. Her work has appeared in, among others, AGNI, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, the Dublin Review of Books, and the Scottish Review of Books. Her story collection, Slipping the Moorings, was published in 2009. She lives in Scotland.


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