The essays are exquisitely wrought, sometimes distractingly so, but that should be expected by a man who would ask “For whom are you babysitting?” while holding a drink with an umbrella in it, not that he ever drank drinks with umbrellas. The subjects of his essays range from his childhood in Chicago to his tense relationship with the rural Midwest to the significance he gleans from commonplace things that most of us take for granted. About the board game Scrabble, for example, he writes, “It is merciless. It reveals too much. No other game is so charged with implication and prospects for shame.” That same essay also includes close readings of Sorry and Monopoly.
Most of all, however, the essays reflect the man in the baldness of their honesty. Dr. Saltzman was not one who could conceal what he was feeling at any given moment. He was not one of those teachers who carefully delineated his professional and his private lives. He refused to speak in hypotheticals. Everything was actual. Everything he was experiencing at any given time—whether it was Michael Jordan’s retirement or his daughter’s battle with a rare disease—he carried with him into the classroom, which meant if he was having a bad day, then you were having a bad day. As he was fond of saying, “Your goal should be to make me happy. Because if I’m happy, then you’re happy. Capiche?” He was also fond of saying, “I’m not really teaching you anything. I’m just telling you how to live your life.” And for him it was all life.
“Living Space,” for example, from his first book of nonfiction, Objects and Empathy (2001), starkly captures the emptiness of a home that has been abandoned in the wake of divorce. Saltzman achingly describes how a man goes from dining at the kitchen table to eating while standing at the counter. “Living alone accelerates the progression of absent habit into studied ritual,” he writes. “For example, it may begin when you decide against spooning the beans onto the plate and opt for eating out of the pot directly. Soon enough you find yourself eating over the kitchen sink to catch the spills more efficiently. You define the elimination of social graces as efficiency.” That image of a man who eats while standing so captivated me that I once tried to write a whole play around it. The play failed. The man, of course, was Dr. Saltzman.
Before Objects and Empathy, Dr. Saltzman boasted a number of books of literary criticism. Some of the titles were straightforward enough—Understanding Raymond Carver or The Fiction of William Gass—but others carried with them the stench of Academia—Designs of Darkness in Contemporary American Fiction or The Novel in the Balance. I never knew exactly how he felt about playing that game. “You have to consider both sides of the colon,” I remember him once telling the class. “The first part you’re supposed to be clever, but the second is what it’s really about.” He mentioned this around the time of the release of This Mad Instead: Governing Metaphors in Contemporary American Fiction. I never read any of Dr. Saltzman’s academic books cover to cover, but I did flip through a few of them in the library on occasion. I memorized as much as I needed to in order to casually drop by his office hours and insert a reference—a reference that I knew would switch him into lecture mode—but the truth is that I barely understood a word. How can he be so engaging in class, I wondered, and so obfuscating in print?
"Obfuscating." There's a word I didn't know until Saltzman introduced it to me.
My copy of Objects and Empathy includes an inscription that says, “For Kirby and Leuinda, just don’t get me involved in the Woolf controversy. In lieu of instant cleverness, all good wishes! Art Saltzman (28 Feb. 2003).” My dad is the one who bought the book for me and secured the inscription. There’s an email printed off and pressed into the pages in which I had written and my dad had underlined, “I can’t wait to see what witticism he comes up with on the inside cover.” I think I would say “for the inside cover” today. Apparently, too, there was a controversy about Virginia Woolf.
The story of how I acquired Solve for X is less memorable, its markings less personal. I heard that he had died and I ordered it online. See. I told you. I figured that buying his most recent book was the least I could do to honor him. The rock star who sells more records in death than he does in life. I guess there’s something there too about hearing his voice one last time, though it had been a long, long stretch since we last communicated. Still, just not being able to anymore was enough to prompt the purchase. I still haven’t bought the book that was published after he passed. There’s something about not finishing all of him that I find comforting.
|Dr. Saltzman wrote achingly about life turning your dining room into a sink.|
The only thing of note in my copy of Solve for X is a message on a piece of scratch paper that has become the bookmark. Apparently I received the book in the mail and had gone out for the night before my wife got home. I had scribbled for her a message and left it with the book. The message says, “The dedication is lovely and I suspect the opening of the first essay will inspire some mixed emotions. See you soon! love – k.” The book’s dedication says, “For EMS and WHG, who make me celebrate July 30, and for Joy, who altogether graces the calendar.” I don’t know who “EMS” and “WHG” are, though I suspect they are Dr. Saltzman’s parents, the “S” in the first set of initials and what appears to be a birthday all but giving that one away, but I do know who “Joy” is. Joy was Dr. Saltzman’s girlfriend, or, as he calls her throughout the book, his “beloved.”
|The campus, in the wake of the affair.|
I knew both Joy and Dr. Saltzman when they were someone else’s beloved, but, hey, these things happen. Don’t judge him for that. Judge him because he wouldn’t say hello to you in the hall unless you said so first or because he wouldn’t ask what happened if one day you came to class with a cast on your forearm or because his favorite response to students who didn’t agree with his ways was “I have tenure. What are they going to do?” But don’t judge him because he met his soul mate after he met his wife.
Not that anyone on campus was able to resist. Their affair caused quite a stir, as Joplin tried to prove how cosmopolitan it was by fielding a chattering class. I worked at a retail store just out of college, a toy store—OK, it was a Toys R Us—and the wife of a professor whom I much admired came bounding up to me not long after the story broke. “What is going on with Art and Joy?!” I had no idea she traded in such scandal. Joy also taught at Southern, her office a few doors down from Saltzman’s, so you can imagine.
Truth is, though, when I first heard the news about them getting together, it felt like a natural match. She hung pictures of Sinead O’Connor in her office, had had a poem published in The Paris Review. It was something to do with a bird taking flight, if I recall correctly, the poem. I read it. Didn’t understand a word. I think she used the scientific term for what I would refer to as the bird’s “shin.” He was the resident scholar, the only one on staff who was regularly publishing while still juggling a full teaching load. When the poet Donald Hall visited nearby Pittsburg University in Kansas, Saltzman accompanied him into the lecture hall. They entered like they were a couple, Charles and Diana for fuck’s sake. After, when we were having post-reading drinks and all of the students were trying to one-up each other in front of the faculty with our insights, Saltzman called Donald “Don.” “Don was telling me on the ride over.” Why they weren’t together on the way back I’ll never know.
No, Saltzman and Joy were inevitable. They were bound to swim into each other’s lives, especially given the size of the pond that they had chosen to call home.
“At nine years old, Jeremy is anxious about wasting any more time than he already has.” That’s the first line of Solve for X, the one that I thought might inspire some mixed emotions. Jeremy is Joy’s son with her first (maybe second?) husband. Leuinda babysat him for the first years of his life. Leu tells a story about how he went through a Batman phase and refused to go anywhere without his costume on. She was driving, he was in the car seat in the back, and all she could see were his little pointy ears in the rearview mirror. We marveled at how well he was able to say “Schenectady.”
That Jeremy is nine in this essay is hard to fathom. That he is a teenager at the time of this writing is impossible. Almost as impossible as Saltzman being gone.