In this excerpt, set in Tampa in the early 1970s, Patrick describes how he first learned of Dr. Weightnovel, which turned into a writing project he worked on for the rest of his life, but never finished. I’ve made only minor edits, primarily fixing typos and punctuation.
Caution to the reader: this story includes a bit of explicit material.
Marvin introduced me to Shari. Shari introduced me to Sherri, to get me out of her bed. And Sherri introduced me to Julie. A chain of events, in Tampa they continued from one female to the next in the absence of a flourishing romance with my wife, mother of my child.
Marvin is the drama teacher at Hillsborough Community College in Ybor City. This location is intended to lure the Blacks and Cubans of West Tampa into the halls of academia and give them entrance into the American Dream.
But not always will the nature of these two ethnic groups allow them to benefit from English Literature or the study of the Humanities. Too much already of dead white painters, poets, and writers. Too many wrongs against the Africans and the Caribbeans. Too much of history put them in a mental place where Wordsworth is as foreign to their thinking as HCC’s modern architecture is different from the 19th century Spanish style in the Seventh Avenue of Ybor.
But Marvin’s course is highly popular. He goes in for experimental theater, the experience of immediacy. In one of his productions, an original work based on his own inner life – what a weird inner life he must have – the audience waits an anteroom lined with chairs. Silence is observed. Each of us has had his shoes removed by one of the performers. We are given a lighted candle, strange because we are then blindfolded, and we are led through a heavy curtain into a maze, full of impressions.
A voice whispering in your ear, words you cannot almost but not quite grasp. Three loud whacks signifying, you learn later, the blows nailing Jesus to the cross. Then under your bare feet sand and then sand? And gravel? Hands touching your shoulder, cheek, forearm, a slight push at the small of your back and a moist whisper in the other ear.
Then you are out of the maze and led to a seat. The blindfold is removed. You are in a dark room, a beam of light gradually illuminating an altar covered with a cloth stained red. Figures in white masks are snuffling and lurching into various grotesque postures. Marvin himself enters to stand behind the altar, wearing little more than smears of paint on his emaciated chest. Without glasses, he sees nothing I know, and his long hair in any case is covering his eyes.
During long, agonizing minutes, he struggles to plunge a long knife into a living cock fluttering and bucking and clucking before him, wings and feet bound. The hideous figures behind him reach out and touch Marvin where you were touched in the maze. At each new attempt to stab the unfortunate fowl, you are able to identify more of the words whispered into your ear, now coming louder as the light intensifies until once more you are in total darkness just as the knife strikes home. Silence.
When the lights come up, applause, multiple bowing from the stage and then discussion, very deep and meaningless, if you want to know.
The white boys in his class are nearly all too slow witted and uncertain to be comfortable in a state university, which is why they are in the Community College. It is also cheaper. The white girls are after the fun of college without undue strain.
The Afro-Americans and Cubanos in Marvin’s class have closer contact with the Anglo-Saxons than they can reasonably expect to have ever again, if they stay in the South of the 1960’s, and maybe even if they move to Spanish Harlem in New York. Though to me it’s not clear why they would want to hobnob with us in the first place.
Shari was one of the white girls after new experiences who took the drama course. She made it increasingly plain that she would sleep with Marvin if he asked. But he had a taste for young women, so it was not likely he would succumb to this thirty-something plump blond with large incisors typical of a predator. He was a homely forty-five year old North Dakotan, skinny, balding, with a hollow voice. Nevertheless he married a tall fragile beauty of twenty-two, a former student.
When he and Holly married, Marvin bought a 1930s classic brick house in Hyde Park with money he inherited from his parents. I met him when he came to the factory I had inherited from my wife’s father. He came to buy the long strips of basswood left over from the days of wooden Venetian blinds. Instead of wallpaper, he covered the walls with overlapping wood slats. When he was not teaching and had no rehearsals, he covered the ceilings with tongue and groove, sawing and sanding on the front porch. He blow-torched the layers of old paint from the window frames and the doors. By the time he had finished the living room, dining room and kitchen, Holly had lost patience with the interminable renovation and left him for a younger man.
Marvin continued with his renovation, fixing up the adjacent garage apartment as a rental property using the last of the basswood.
When the divorce was final, he invited students and friends to a séance in his one hundred-year-old house. I think he hoped for an apparition of a certain Dr. Weightnovel, a Russian immigrant poisoned in 1906. No such luck, but it was a good party, and that’s where Shari finally gave up. He was now a bachelor and still wasn’t interested, so she took me home with her that night.
For two weeks it was an old-fashioned fling.
We ate stone crab in Tarpon Springs. We drove all over the county visiting her friends and seeking a country house for her to rent. She eventually found one with three rooms and a trailer home on a lake.
Right away she asked me to install a flexible tube to the shower head. She liked to achieve orgasm with the hot jet between her legs.
Everything went pretty well between us until one night she laid herself down in the bathtub and asked me to urinate over her while she masturbated. I couldn’t do it. Impossible with an erection. Maybe after I had an orgasm, but she didn’t tolerate a man masturbating. Weird, if you ask me.
The next day she was working on a painting at the breakfast table when I lit a joint.
“You smoke too much,” she said, and walked out the door. I went home to Seminole Avenue.
The next day I drove out to the lake house. The door was opened not by Shari, but by a big blonde chewing spearmint gum. “I’m Julie,” she said. “Shari thought we should meet.”
I had the feeling she was swallowing me with her eyes and that was me between her teeth. She leaned back on the couch. She removed the gum and put it in the ashtray.
“Should we give it a try?”
“I guess so!”
Surprisingly, Shari and Lois by this time were good friends. In fact a whole group of women turned up at various gatherings around Tampa, all of them familiar. They seem to have been passing a few men around. Nelda’s house not far from Marvin’s in Hyde Park was one of the hangouts. Nelda held hootenannies at her house, cookouts where chicken and hamburgers were roasted on a grill in the backyard. Her man Jim played the banjo, there were a couple of guitar players, and joints galore.
At Nelda’s with Julie I met Shari again, and Nelda’s friend Sherri, who was, like Nelda, a reporter at the Tampa Trib, the organist from the Catholic church, and her girlfriend – married I found out almost too late, to a traficante buddy and therefore Tampa Mafia.
This flock of females showed up at various cultural events as well. Sherri and Nelda because they wrote for the newspaper, the others for the parties before, during, and after.
At an art exhibit when I was able to keep up with Julie’s immense appetite, we stood in a narrow hallway lined with pen and ink drawings of buttocks and penises woven into mandala complexity. Julie was popping her gum in my ear and rubbing against me.
“Oh shit,” she said, snapping a gum bubble between her molars.
She stared in an unfriendly way at a smaller woman sidling up to us. “I guess I have to introduce you,” she said with a sigh. “She’ll move in on you anyway. This is Paula.”
As it turned out, Paula and I had a few things in common. She grew up in a military family based in Germany after the war. She knew many of the clubs I had played in.
When the party dissolved to reconvene in an English professor’s apartment on the other side of town, Paula suggested we pick up cigarettes and beer on the way.
Julie smiled ruefully as I left and called me a bastard.
Paula didn’t like the looks of my Ford Pinto, and asked me to drive her 1949 Ford convertible in mint condition. She was a freckled twenty-two-year-old and hung on in the car like a creeping rose, biting my neck and smelling sweet. We didn’t make it to the party, checking in to a motel on the highway. She was insulted when I started to hang up my clothes.
“Not in any hurry, are you?” throwing herself naked onto the bed.
After that night of frenzied sex, I ran into Paula everywhere I went. Sometimes she arrived alone and left with a man. Sometimes she arrived with a man, and left with another man. But I don’t think I ever saw her leave anywhere alone.
One of the haunts where you could be sure to meet up with her was at Nelda’s hootenannies in Hyde Park, not far from Marvin’s house. Sunday night Nelda threw chicken breasts onto a grill in her backyard and made a plastic tub of tossed salad. There was always a keg of beer. Her friend Jim played the 5-string banjo on the front porch. Bernie Travis and Mike Barlog were there with their guitars, running through their new songs. After a while I joined them on flute or twelve-string. Eventually I was part of their group and we made an album together.
Aside from the ubiquitous Paula, Nelda’s friend at the Tampa Tribune, Sherri was there, and Shari, and of course Julie. There were other semi-attached women there as well, and some semi-detached men. It always took an hour or so to determine who was fishing and who was not.
I usually sat with Nelda early on in the evening. She held court by barbecue, flipping the chicken and shoving what was done off to the side. Paper plates and napkins and plastic forks and knives were on a card table with paper cups for the beer.
She filled me in on who was who, and in between, knowing I was a sometime writer, told me stories about Tampa. She was a feature writer, always digging into the past history of the most influential families. She was full of gossip about the descendants of the founding families and robber barons. This included the McKays the Plants, and the Lykes, three of the most illustrious now that Tampa had settled down into a thriving port, but subject to much talk of early scandal and skullduggery at the turn of the century.
“Here’s one you’re going to like,” she told me one night. “Get this name: Dr. Weightnovel.” She peered at me through her thick glasses, an expectant smile on her lips.
“Dr. Frederick N. Weightnovel. I’ll give you what I’ve written so far. But somebody’s got to do a book about the guy.” She flipped a couple of chicken bits over and pushed herself to her feet. She was way too heavy, and she knew it, but I never actually saw her eat very much. Her son Chris was on the way to obesity as well, so maybe it was a genetic thing.
“Here. Take these home and have a look.” She handed me two clippings from the Tampa Times. The first headline read “Russian Floats into Tampa.”
Before long Paula turned to frequenting a sawdust-floored bar where roofers and plumbers played pool and listened to country band in bib overalls. That was fun for a while, but in the end, I returned to the backyard hootenannies.
Whenever Nelda had an article she thought might interest me, she would bring me photocopies. Little by little I became fascinated by this Weightnovel character, and for years after leaving Tampa, continued to be obsessed by him and the period encompassing 1880, when he arrived in Tampa, through 1906, when he died of poisoning after four years in jail.
This excerpt is from a collection of files Patrick called Scattered Notes.odt dated from 2014 to 2016. I’ll continue to add other segments as time allows.
Patrick Meadows 1934 – 2017.