The Body Of Jonah Boyd - By David Leavitt


EVERY THANKSGIVING, THE Wrights gave a big dinner to which they invited all the graduate students—the “strays,” Nancy Wright called them—who happened to be marooned in Wellspring over the holiday. Glenn Turner was usually one of these, as was Phil Perry (later to cause such grief and uproar), and a shadowy girl with bangs in a plaid skirt whose name, for the moment, escapes me. Also me. My name is Judith “Denny” Denham, and I was unique among the strays in that I wasn’t any kind of graduate student. I was Ernest Wright’ secretary in the psych department. Since the Thanksgiving about which I am writing—1969—thirty years have passed, which is as many years as I had then been alive.

In Wellspring, California, many of the street names combine the front and back ends of different states. Calibraska Avenue is the main shopping thoroughfare, rising at a steady eastward incline from the university and then crossing under the 420 freeway to Springwell, where I lived, where most of the secretaries lived. Springwell is Wellspring’ service entrance, its mirror twin; it is where you go for the best Mexican food, or to visit your children by a woman you have long since abandoned; it is the wrong side of a freeway the chief function of which, I often suspect, is to give people something to live on the right side of.

Florizona Avenue, where the Wrights lived, is on the university side of the freeway—the right side. It begins its brief, three-block trajectory as a sharp left turn off Minne-tucky Road, then winds upward amid rows of capacious houses, most of them two-story, shingled or stucco, with somersaulting lawns and old oaks—and then, just at its point of greatest glory, where the view opens up to reveal all of Wellspring, the university with its tiled roofs, and the arroyo, and on sunny days, in the remote distance, the Pacific, it comes to an abrupt end at Washaho Avenue, the name of which has for generations been the subject of crude undergraduate jokes. Today, due to the university’ peculiar charter, this neighborhood remains the exclusive domain of tenured professors and senior administrators, even as the rest of Wellspring has been colonized by movie people and software engineers from the “campuses” of the tech firms that have sprung up of late in the hills, as if in parody of the real campus to which the town owes its name. The reigning provost, Ira Weiss, is at 304, formerly the Webb house, while at 310, where Ken Longabaugh from Math once lived with his wife, Hettie, there’ a Russian biologist named Federov. Francine Chambers from History has replaced Jim Heatherly from Geology at 307. 305 still belongs to Sam and Bertha Boxer—"the bizarre Boxers,” as we used to call them, Sam long retired from the Engineering department and their yard more dilapidated than ever.

As for the Wrights’ house—302—after Nancy Wright died in 1981, it went through three more owners, the price doubling with each resale, until Ben Wright, by then a famous novelist, managed at long last to buy it back in the late nineties. He lived there until his own death last spring.

I remember that when I first started working at Wellspring, I used to sometimes take Florizona Avenue on my way home from the office, just so that I could admire, for a moment, its easy affluence, the fruit trees and rose gardens and winding stone paths. After school, if it wasn’t raining, there would be children in the street, playing Capture the Flag or Red Rover, though Ben Wright was rarely among them. His allergies kept him indoors. In those days I thought the name “Florizona” exotic and colorful; it brought to mind some tropical tree, a palm or a banyan, growing out of hot sand, in a landscape as crooked and severe as the one through which the Road Runner chases the coyote.

Ernest Wright was an authority on Freud, and also maintained a small private practice as a psychoanalyst. Although he had been born in St. Louis, where he had met and married Nancy, his ancestry was Eastern European, his parents having emigrated from Poland around the turn of the century and adopted the name “Wright” in honor of the brothers who made the first successful airplane flight. (His father had ambitions to be a pilot.) For much of his professional life, Ernest taught at Bradford College in Bradford, New Hampshire. The Wrights only moved to Wellspring in 1964, two years before I