KEES TO THE KINGDOM

WELDON KEES HAS BEEN GONE FIFTY YEARS, BUT WHEN IT COMES TO THE DENVER PUBLIC LIBRARY, HE WROTE THE BOOK.WHERE'S WELDON KEES WHEN WE NEED HIM? CHECK OUT THE STRANGE SAGA OF THE DENVER PUBLIC LIBRARY'S CRANKIEST EMPLOYEE.

Last night I finished reading Kees's Fall Quarter, the novel that was finally published in 1990 and in which a woman's hat ornament looks like a paper clip. There are neither hats nor hat ornaments in the library today--unless you count John Deere and the Colorado Rockies--but otherwise, the general ambience is remarkably unchanged from Kees's time. The librarians are still wearing their glasses on chains, the clients are still disproportionately indigent and there is still brisk trade in the kind of popular fiction and positive-thinking blather Kees despised. Security guards, who in Kees's day dealt with men who came to the upper stacks to look at "books on anatomy and sex," are still challenged by boyish coteries of the unemployed who commandeer the video monitor to watch exercise videos, freeze-framing at just the right moments. The janitors still look put-upon--enough so that I turn to the part of "Four Sketches" in which the library custodian has just returned to his living quarters behind the Reserve Desk. He takes out a Big Chief tablet and a pencil stub and writes to his son Tom that he would love to come for a visit, but can't because of his job:

...I am hired by the city as `custodian' for the library and my contract specifys that I am supposed to get 2 wks. off every year with pay. but this place here is so full of graft and corupsion that it dont work out that way. on account of the old woman who is librarian I don't dare to call my Soul my own. She is the menest woman God ever let draw breth and why HE dont strike her dead is a mistery to me.

I become aware of a terrible smell--one-third swamp, one-third grain alcohol, one-third human excrement. I stare at the sunburned neck of the man sitting next to me. I will vibe him nastily, as the mean librarians in Kees stories do, and he will move. It is his smell, all right. Or perhaps it belongs to his overcoat. Still, he refuses to budge--until a pretty female librarian brisks by on high heels, picking up books to return to the shelves. That makes him look up. He focuses on her hips until she disappears into the Dewey Decimal System.

Miss Van Wie went into the periodicals room and hurried from table to table picking up magazines that people were no longer reading.Three or four men followed her with their eyes.

Well, that makes me feel like uptight little Miss Quivey in "The Sign," who came to work at the library and "noticed immediately that a great many things were wrong." I huff out to the pay phones, where an old man wearing a suit that appears to date from 1914, the year of Kees's birth, is screaming into a phone: "WHIMSY? What's that you say?"

Down in the basement, a state-of-the-art interlibrary memo has been posted on a bank of employee lockers: "Because of the current personnel reassignments and agency relocations, a locker survey is necessary to try and match people with lockers in their work areas. Thanks. Ed Kutz."

Ed Kutz! Even that name is straight out of Kees, with his love for Quayhagens, Ridpaths, McGoins and Engbloms. On the wall, a quavering pencil has written "FUCK." More than half of the men I pass on the way to the business periodicals are sporting shorts, black ankle socks and sandals.

All this makes me want to scream--not from Keeslike ennui or fatalism, but because I can't believe he's missing all this. What the hell, Weldon? I want to yell, You never wrote a single short story after you left Denver, and I bet you wonder why! Well, it's simple! It's all here, pal--all those macabre little details you love! Hey, they're making the library BIGGER! You'd LOVE it! Come back, Weldon, all is forgiven!

Then I come face to face with a sign. It reads: QUIET AREA.

Weldon Kees, who referred to the entire American West as "the space between two oceans," was born in Beatrice, Nebraska, the only child of Sarah and John Kees, who manufactured roller-skate wheels down at Kees Manufacturing. Beatrice--pronounced "Bee-AT-ris"--is two hours southwest of Lincoln, agriculture-based, and contains about 13,000 souls, according to its head librarian, Carolyn Bennett, who oversees Beatrice's Weldon Kees collection.

"He was a writer, I understand," she says flatly. "Very few people ask to see the collection. It occupies less than a shelf. I have not read his work."

Kees made a handful of lifelong friends in Beatrice, but most of the townspeople seem to have taken Bennett's attitude toward his writing. "He had rather different interests than most people," says former Beatrice high school English teacher Steve Shively. (Shively caught his fascination with Kees in Beatrice, then moved last year to Lincoln, where he is pursuing a graduate degree with an emphasis on Kees.) "He did not like sports; he liked music, art and writing. He put on neighborhood puppet shows and even wrote a neighborhood newsletter."

The neighborhood, including his parents, appears to have been baffled. This did not stop Kees from writing and performing, but it may have contributed to his mile-wide cynical streak. "Both parents were Saturday Evening Post types. Neither made any effort to make anything of Weldon's writing," Shively says. "As for his mother, there was dislike. She was provincial and cared only about which of her relatives came over on the Mayflower."

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