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Ann Beattie

My Life At The Very Top

In 1975, I was offered a job for one year at the University of Virginia. My ex-husband was also given a part-time job, and the next year things reversed: he taught full-time, I taught one course. In 1977 I went to Harvard. That was the end of full time teaching, ever. Three times I returned to pinch-hit for John Casey, who was always kind enough to think of me when he was either on leave or when he’d gotten a great award that precluded teaching. When I returned, I lived in the then rather-dilapidated Altamont, where in one apartment my father pried open the painted-shut windows and rigged up a shower, and in another a friend stood in the dark with me for what seemed like hours, tennis racket at the ready, window open in hopes that the bat who’d taken up residence would fly out. When I left New York City in 1984, I again moved to the Altamont; interestingly, the house I soon bought was right outside, viewable from my rented apartment window. The elderly lady who owned it was impressed that (though I didn’t say it was not currently true) I taught at "Th’University" (all one word), and sold to me though her grown son was surprised that his mother had listed the house. My mother never did approve of me buying a house right outside an apartment building (then again, she and my father loved to chop down trees: as soon as a tree they’d planted gained substantial height, he’d get out the buzz-saw). Now, when I take her for a drive, we sometimes drive by the old house, which of course brings back a lot of memories: the time she bought me strings of ghost lights to decorate for Halloween; how pleased my parents were to give me the gift of a back deck; my yard that she came from Washington to rake, so many times. She and my father used it as a weekend house. Sometimes I was there, and sometimes I wasn’t. I went to Paris for the first time the year after I moved in. It was there that I bought furniture that was shipped to Virginia and arrived the day after I met Lincoln, my husband-to-be-now-long-my-husband. He came back after our first "tea" to check out the furniture. We still have it in Key West, where it is comfortable and scratched and stained. He, it turns out, is addicted to tea.

But this takes me far from the Altamont. As the Altamont always took me far from Th’University -- the University that originally took me far from New England (blundered Ph.d), where one friend in Connecticut had turned the unheated pantry into a bedroom, and where, located in the center of town, I held lawn sales with the town first selectman, who was also the garbage man and who rescued "good stuff" from the trash ("Hal, doesn’t this look just like that decanter Uncle Fred sent us last Christmas?") Religious items I got at auction were big sellers. I bought "box lots" for 50 cents, discarding all but the colander or the carving fork ("Look, if you tilt it this way, there’s a tear rolling down his cheek."). Those New England auctions were a riot: one auctioneer, in particular, who called the enormous men who hauled out boxes you couldn’t see into "Boys." All the women who bid were asked, "How can you be so pretty, and be so cruel?" I once wrote a short story in which a young boy goes to an auction and agrees to take a puppy his father is later shocked he’s said he’ll take. In real life, I’m female, was ten years older than the character, and resisted.

I guess what I’m writing about is a place and a time, when I kept returning to the same place in Virginia to live – much to my surprise -- as if all roads had switch-back curves that eventually terminated at the tall icon of a building that commemorated itself by announcing that its day had passed ( peeling linoleum; claw-footed tubs. But oh, that blasting heat that would anesthetize you (how extravagant, I think now). It had no University of Virginia affiliation. A friend who still has an apartment there pulled strings time and again to get me back in. And once when my editor, wife, and child came from New York to stay, and it was a little overcrowded in my one bedroom, he jimmied open a door of a vacant apartment, where he dragged my mattress for me to spend the night.

I wrote fiction there (signaling goodnight to one of my best friends, whose light also glowed across the way late into the night); I was sometimes kind (not nearly enough) to my neighbor, Mil, who lived next door with her grown daughter, Shirley. I loved her stories about being a clerk at the most prestigious jewelry store in town – her being called upon after hours to model engagement rings someone was debating between for his girlfriend. When the story concluded (we both liked it so much, it was told more than once), she and I would both look at her old hands as stunned as Lady Macbeth (minus the guilt, of course). There were plenty of residents in those years who could tell you what the town had been like: retired schoolteachers; widows who used to go dancing. One old gentleman was known to poke pretty girls in the side with his cane in the elevator. Another man who lived on the first floor swung his hands ten times at his side before every slowly completed step forward (my husband used to watch him through the window of our old house: he does a great imitation).

Now the mall has taken off, the building is in a great location, people adore the views, and the high ceilings. You pretty much can’t get in. I think all the old people are gone. I only know what one apartment inside looks like. It’s not exactly memory lane when I go back, but I do remember my husband doing a painting looking down from way up on the roof, and our climbing the same "hidden" ladder to watch the fireworks, and a lot of stories I wouldn’t tell on myself. In the late seventies, early eighties, it was filled with what would now be called "seniors," and I had their stamp of approval because of my University connection. It was a lot easier to explain than that I was a bleak Minimalist who wrote about characters lamenting the insufficiency of their white wine. Today, if people on a plane ask, "What do you do?" I’ve learned never to say I’m a writer. I don’t even need to tell you, parenthetically, what heartbreak such a statement engenders. (Oh, okay, I can’t resist: they, too, are writers, though they haven’t yet written.) I also try to say, "I work at the University" rather than "I teach," and if I blow it and indicate that I’ve written something, I make a pre-emptive strike by saying they won’t have heard of me. (They haven’t.) (To the ruder question, "Should I have heard of you?" I’ve taken to responding, "Well, book sales help me eat.")

Now I have my AARP card (I regularly throw it away, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have it). I haven’t exactly come full circle -- the image I hold is more like a dog chasing its tail -- beginning as a one-year lecturer to being re-hired twenty-five years later as Professor Beattie. I live in a house not too far from the Altamont. My friends all joke about what we’re going to do when we get older. Let’s buy a building, they say, get somebody to live there and take care of all of us. (Wouldn’t be a bad job: pretty soon, we’d all kill each other.) We joke, we nervously joke. Not quite yet needing perfect shelter – which is what the Altamont once represented -- we can pretend our scenarios for the future are amusing speculation. We can assume the way forward is a straight line, when we already know better, when few of us have escaped those motion-sickness-inducing switchback turns. And the beacon at the top is gone, of course: the more the Altamont stands firm, the more obvious it is that it’s gone. The University leaps and bounds, spills over, plans passageways over the traffic (or is it underneath?). But the Altamont – never a part of the University, but never entirely removed from it, either -- was allowed to age so gracefully that it finally did its Phoenix routine. There it stands, so desirable. As was our youth.

Ann Beattie is Edgar Allan Poe professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Virginia. Ann’s interview with Lacy Crawford can be accessed at, where there is a picture of her back porch in Maine. Also: page 12 of this interview shows Ann, in white socks, with big dog. Bliss.

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