Copyright 2016 Conquistador
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Table of Contents
Richard M. Herd
Charles George Taylor
Charles George Taylor
SORRY I HAVEN’T WRITTEN in such a long time; I will trust you to understand why when I share my past few years with you.
In 2011, my second son (I’ve written about him before as “Gabe,” the handsome, muscular roofer) began to display symptoms of schizophrenia. This is an inherited disorder in my family. My paternal grandfather most likely suffered from it although we can’t be sure because my father moved away young and never had any contact with his father after age 16. My sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the late 1980s and was successfully stabilized after two six-month hospitalizations, back when there was still a functioning mental health system in place for the seriously ill. So I was very familiar with the symptoms when they began to emerge in my son.
Unfortunately, in our family the illness presents late (my sister was in her early 30s). Gabe was 32 when he began to exhibit serious symptoms such as paranoia, hearing and responding to voices and erratic behavior. I witnessed a serious psychotic break in 2012 when he lost complete touch with reality. I immediately sought medical help.
But by then, he was an adult and I crashed head on into two very high walls. The first was agnosia, his inability to recognize his own illness, which is prevalent in many with schizophrenia. The second was my inability to commit an adult to psychiatric care. In the years following, it was a bitter struggle to deal with his mental disintegration. Educating and getting the family on the same page, enlisting the help and support of his employer, calling mental help hotlines only to be told we could not do anything unless he was a danger to himself or others. It is a special kind of hell they have devised for the families of people with serious brain illnesses, waiting for that sword to drop.
By the fall of 2014, his life had completely unraveled. He lost his house and his girlfriend of 18 years. He lost his job of 10 years. He lost the ability to care for his hygiene or basic needs, yet he struggled to maintain independence by living off of his retirement account. All of my weekends were given over to doing wellness checks, shopping for his basic needs, and trying to talk him into seeking treatment. Just before Christmas 2014 I finally coaxed him into going to a local clinic that offered a “Walk-In Day” every Wednesday. But by that time they had lost funding and they had no prescribing psychiatrist or psychologist on staff so we were turned away. Can you imagine that? In an otherwise wealthy county in America, their “premier” mental health facility had no therapist who could prescribe. I was stunned and defeated by how far the system had tumbled since the days when my sister was treated. Merry Christmas.
Finally on Easter Sunday, 2015 I found Gabe unable to speak. He refused to come to the hospital so I immediately went there and filed a Section 302 Involuntary Commitment Request. I was there when the police took him into custody and remanded him to the hospital. I thought that was surely the worst night of my life, but I wanted him to know he was not alone, that we were not abandoning him.
After two short weeks of inpatient therapy, he was released with an outpatient referral. The next two weeks he had a five-minute session each day with a psychiatrist who barely spoke English. He was “stabilized” on a long acting injection of Haldol but still had not been given a real understanding of what was happening to him. Afterward, I took him every 3-4 weeks for his injections and therapies, and for a few short months, he came back to himself. We began to hope that we’d turned a corner, but should’ve known better. In August, he took a new job against the advice of his therapist and me. We felt that he was still too fragile and too new to therapy to face the stress of a full time job, but his money had run out, Social Security had denied his disability claim, and although I asked him often to move back with us, he desperately wanted to maintain his independence.
One night in November 2015, I got the phone call I had been dreading for so many years. My oldest son called me to say that Gabe had shot and killed a man. He was in custody on a charge of homicide. As the days progressed and I was able to bring myself out of a profound state of shock, I learned more details. He was in the mental health unit of the county prison after having suffered a complete psychotic break, which was to last for several weeks before they were able to stabilize him. I spoke to a police investigator two days following the event, and let them know he suffered from schizophrenia and what medications he was on. At least someone listened to me then; for a minute, maybe.
Six weeks later, he was judged “competent” for legal proceedings. If competence means he was docile and hazy with over-medication, I suppose he was competent. But there is no way he is normal or able to make decisions due to the impact of this illness on the executive functions of the brain. He has no memory of the event. His case has not yet gone to trial. One thing I was told repeatedly was, “He put five bullets in the guy’s head.” As if to see what my reaction would be to such a horror. As if that excess in itself did not point with absolute certainty to a high level of insanity, fear and rage. We have also since learned that the victim was a drug dealer, and possibly the drug dealer who sold a dear friend of Gabe’s enough heroin to accidentally kill her in late August 2015. Some people have told me Gabe “performed a public service by taking that guy out.” This is no consolation to a broken heart, but at least it makes things a small bit more comprehensible.
Because to us, his family and loved ones, Gabe was never a threat. He was always kind and generous in his intentions. So how and why could he do such a thing? The need to come to terms with so many conflicting emotions has been overwhelming for my family and me. If the pain and confusion of his mental illness ripped us apart repeatedly over the past several years, this event almost shattered us completely. My oldest son took it very, very hard. He is in therapy now to reconcile his anger with the love he’s always had for his brother. My husband, my younger son and daughter have been my support and my lifelines through the past few months. For a week after, they never left my side. I know they worry about me as I continue to rollercoaster between deep depression and anxiety, and acceptance of the unimaginable during the past several months.
There are many bad days after visitations when the tears never stop. The son I knew is gone, and in his place is this man with a thousand yard stare and only the knowledge that he has done something terrible, with no clear memory of the event, or possibly a memory he cannot bear. He is still unable to perform even the most basic functions, like asking for a pen and paper, or more water for his dehydration side effects, or his glasses. And prison employees, including so-called case workers, are deliberately rude and unwilling to lift a finger. Basic concepts of humanity continue to be in short supply there, even though they know he is profoundly ill.
His attorney is finding it very difficult to mount any kind of defense because of Gabe’s blocked memories, or being “out of his body” when they occurred. There are only two hospitals with forensic units in the whole state, and there is a two-year waiting list to get into one, even if an insanity defense was viable these days, which it usually is not.
There are so many days when I despair for my son, and for the country we live in which continues to criminalize serious mental illness. It is the firsthand knowledge of how avoidable this tragedy was that pushes me to the brink. It is the knowledge that this continues to go on and on, not just for me and my son, my family, but for countless others in this “Great Nation.” It is knowing that with early intervention and longer in-patient hospitalization, Gabe could have gotten better and stayed better. He and his victim could both have lived out their lives. There is such a sense of terrible futility. I tried so hard for so long to prevent a tragic outcome, and it wasn’t enough. Sometimes a thing is just too big.
Humanity is rarely one-sided, one-dimensional in nature. Maybe no one is beyond redemption. I hold on to that hope because it’s really all I have at this point.
I had an opportunity to meet the victim’s aunt and grandmother (his mother is deceased and his father not around). They were gracious and kind to me, and we all hugged and cried. It meant a lot to them to know I’d tried so hard to get help for my son against all odds. I think they knew what that was like. Probably they had fought their own battles with their loved one. But their understanding of my pain was more than I ever dared hope.
Sorry this is so long, but it’s been a very, very, long and difficult road, with miles yet to go.
THESE DAYS I SPEND most of my life in books. Not novels or histories or biographies, but autobiographies, journals from the past. Maybe I’m just waiting to die, trying to relive my life as many times as possible before I can’t relive it anymore. Maybe this is what they mean when they talk about eternal recurrence; reliving life over and over. Because when life comes to a close, you relive it over and over one way or another, whether it’s in journals or memories or maybe even make believe.
The journals turn my life into fragments. I kept them sporadically; nostalgically. Times when I thought I would have experiences worth remembering. This one right here I’ve been reading and rereading for the past few nights. It’s turned my present into the presence of a prescient past. It covers a period of three months, it’s the three months I spent studying Steiner in Stuttgart. It was supposed to be three years, but things didn’t quite work out the way they—what does Ray Bradbury say?—life gets in the way. The notebook begins with impressions; I was an impressionistic writer in my youth, but these days I find I’m more contemplative, I write:
Spring, Stuttgart, small town, long rolling hills, stairs winding through the city, walking downtown and through the west part of town, walking north up the hill, lonely as a cloud through the park.
I don’t remember these things now, or if I remember them, I remember them narratively, or not so much impressionistically.
The institute was in the north part of the city, in a large building on a hill overlooking the town. From the top of the building you could see those rolling hills of the city roll down into the valley where the city stills, and then rolls back up again into vineyards surrounded by sun. The sun comes pale through the clouds and then sifts through the fog hanging over the city, and I spent a lot of time in that room talking to S. about Steiner’s ideas, about ideas of eternal recurrence, about ideas of spiritual enlightenment, waking up, and waking up in order not to die.
“I’ve died many times,” S. would say, “and I’ve been back again many times, and it took me a long time to learn that the way not to die was to close my eyes.”
“What do you mean close your eyes?”
“When you’re ready.”
When you’re ready. This was what S. would always say. I didn’t know what that meant, and I loved the feeling of not knowing what it meant, wondering when I would be ready. I would walk down the hill into the city. I didn’t speak any German, but it didn’t matter; everyone spoke English. Whenever I tried my German on the people in the city, they would switch to English, and then my ego would get in the way, and it made it very hard to make close friendships. Nothing isolates like language. Or maybe nothing brings people together like a common language, and so language and thinking must have some sort of relationship like lovers.
The notebooks have some of my early clumsy attempts at writing in German. It makes me wince to read them now. Not that my German is any better, if anything it’s worse, because I haven’t been back since, but I continued to study it over the years, and if I’m not able anymore to converse with any fluency, I can spot mistakes much more easily; living through books has its advantages and disadvantages; it’s knowledge; it’s life even; but it’s also illusion.
When you’re ready. I studied Steiner nightly. I tried to read him in the original. I think I liked reading him in the original because it felt like decoding a text, and made the text feel more sacred in that sense. I also think I liked not really knowing what he was saying, because some of the things he says are pretty awful, and maybe that’s what S. meant when he said—when you’re ready. Because sometimes being ready means being gullible enough not to be ready to set your defenses, and defenses are those sleepy senses that keep you from being ready to be duped.
There was an African film director I met there; he grew up in Lyons, and was born in Nigeria. He’d been in Germany for 20 years, had come with his parents and had never left again. Was just as much German as French as African I guess; he had gone through all those stages, and he would talk about France and Nigeria in this wistful kind of way like he was conjuring past lives. His films were always impressionistic. Films about migrancy, displacement, estrangement, always evoked through setting:
Spring, Stuttgart, small town, long rolling hills, stairs winding through the city, walking downtown and through the west part of town, walking north up the hill, lonely as a cloud through the park.
When you’re ready.
One morning S. and I sat looking over Stuttgart in that top floor room on that building on that hill, and he looked over at me, and he said, “I think you’re ready.”
Defenses are those sleepy senses that keep you from being ready to be duped. I sat there in that room looking over the city of Stuttgart, listening to S. explicate Steiner’s ideas of eternal recurrence, talking about his previous lives, about his life as an African, his life as an Asian, his life as a German, his life now, beyond all those stages, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and I think I understood something pretty awful about what he meant about being ready, and suddenly I realized I would never be ready, because I was not yet ready to be duped.
I stood up slow, walked over to the window. Nothing isolates like language, or maybe nothing brings people together like a shared language. The fog over the city settled, the sun sifting through the thick, I wandered lonely as a cloud. I closed my eyes, and I realized it was time for me to go home. I had only been there three months, and it was already time to go home. I thought about New York; the—what do we say?—the hustle the bustle—the hustle the hustle—and I thought about how long and lonely life is, even around those that share your language; especially around those that share your language, and I reminisced about a time when I would be old, when I would be old and ready and could reminisce back on my life in the quiet cadences of death’s unlonely, lovely language. As always. As now.
I WAS EIGHT WHEN WE MOVED from Martinez in California to Tulsa. Dad, mom, me, my brother. But we drove back to California for three summers in a row and went to Trinity Lake with my mom’s parents, in the far northern crevices of California. We rented a houseboat and tied the ski boat to the side and drifted to various beaches. My dad skied for hours, and my grandpa drove the boat. Grandpa yelled, “Just follow along.” I sat and watched my dad carve huge rooster tail curves. Sometimes he went so fast, he caught the boat, no slack left in the rope, and sprayed us. That meant he was done. Granpda made the huge sweeping turn to pick him up. There he was: my dad floating on his back, completely exhausted, endorphines pumping through his veins, and just staring up at the sky, his bare chest, yellow flotation belt, green swim trunks, and a wooden ski. He said, “This is the life Richie. This is the life.” I wish that guy was still my dad.
At some point, I’m not sure when, he figured he had made it back into the social class into which he felt he was born. My grandparents were from Kansas and pretty well off. My grandma was a Rosie the Riveter in Wichita. My grandpa, after returning from WW II, was a game warden. Their families were farmers who survived the Dust Bowl, way before agribusiness bought Comanche County. But just as things were going very well for them financially, they converted to Pentecostal Christianity, getting the full experience of talking in tongues and dancing in the spirit. My grandparents felt the call of God, and they sold everything they had and moved their three children to the First Mesa on the Hopi Reservation. My grandma played an accordion and grandpa preached hell-fire-and-brimstone to the down-and-out folks living there. They spread their Christian doctrine, which in the best circumstances, rehabilitated outcasts into a community. Some were abused by drunken fathers. Some were malnourished. During testimonies, the saved Hopi proclaimed how Jesus had saved them from the evil ways of the tribal elders.
A year later, the small Assembly of God mission had enough members that it reinforced my grandparents’ calling, so the family moved into town and lived in a small trailer on skid row in Holbrook, Arizona. My dad was ten years old, so he remembered it well when he told me, “Why the fuck would God move us to a wasteland? To save their souls? What about mine?” He remembered living in dire poverty with bums and drunks and whores in a brutal, barren desert. The Hopi kids at school teased him for being the weird, poor Pentecostal white boy. The other white kids were wealthy Mormons. He seethed in solitude and anger, and he dreamed of returning to the green Kansas pasture land, the rolling hills, the endless rows of wheat. Yet his hate was interrupted by music, when an old minister, Brother Popejoy, gave him a guitar rehabbed with old Levi’s jeans and lacquer. My dad was no longer alone. He had a guitar. He could play anything by ear. He played with my grandma at church twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday evening. He sang harmony, too. My grandpa’s favorite song went like this:
Come Holy Spirit, we need thee
Come Holy Spirit, we pray
Come in thy strength and thy power
Come in thine own special way
I was seventeen when I won an exciting wrestling match. We were the visiting team and crammed into tiny bleachers. I was down by four to start the second period, and my coach was telling me to stand up and go take downs, but I mouthed “Granby.” When the whistle blew, I hit the five-point move and took the lead by one—keeping my opponent in a pinning combo for the whole second period. The last two minutes, the third period, was a frenzy of action right to the closing whistle. The coaches and scorekeepers had a meeting at the head table to verify the flurry of moves. The ref came to the center of the mat. My opponent and I got ready for overtime, but he said, “Shake hands. It’s over.” Who won? The referee raised my hand. I had won by one. I turned around to shake the other coach’s hand, but my dad was in the way—still in his business suit. I didn’t realize he had come to the match, and I said “Dad, what are you doing out here?” He looked around and realized where he was. He said, “Oh. Oops.” And he walked back into the stands. I rode home with my dad, and he told me he didn’t know he was on the mat. He thought he “just jumped up to cheer, from the back row and must have landed there on accident.” We ate at Carl’s Jr.
When my dad was seventeen, he watched the civil rights movement from the middle of nowhere, that outsider’s lens, working at the truck stop on Route 66: truckers passing through with stories of a bigger world, hippies headed to nowhere, soldiers on their way to San Diego Navy installations. After he turned eighteen my dad signed up for Vietnam, but the local doctor refused to clear him for two reasons. He couldn’t see, and he couldn’t walk. His vision was terrible, legally blind and corrected by very thick glasses. He had a special pair he wore to play weekend warrior baseball. He couldn’t walk because he once wrapped his ankle around second base while sliding. Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War needed boys immediately. My dad recalled a few Hopi boys going to war. The wealthy Mormons went to college. Poor Pentecostals are anti-education because it will disrupt faith, so he was urged to work at the truck stop outside of Holbrook on Route 66, and it was a grind because my grandparents started charging him rent and groceries, and grandma refused to do his laundry now that he was a man.
He remembered his dreams of Kansas and moved there but the romance wore off quickly because the industrial farmers were buying up family farms, and my great grandparents’ farm had shrunk and my great aunts and uncles were suing each other over the remains. Great Grandma and Grandpa let their beautiful home rot and pulled a double-wide trailer in front of it. The move to Kansas turned out to be a visit. When he got home, he bought an Epiphone electric guitar. A country-and-western music producer heard him playing at the truck stop, and offered him a recording contract as a studio musician in Nashville. The south was mired in Civil Rights riots, and it was too big of a risk financially. That’s when it dawned on him.
For years he had questioned God about why the family had to move to Arizona and save souls, and his question What about mine? rang with the sound of money. He asked the admissions counselor at Northern Arizona University, “Which degree pays the most money?” She said, “Accounting.” He signed up.
He moved to Martinez in the heart of California oil industry country in 1970. My parents were married in the local Assembly of God church. I was born a little over a year later. By the time we had lived in three States and then came back to California, my dad made plenty of money. He looked back from where he started and realized he was back in the social class he belonged. That was when he started wooing the Mormon girl he had a crush on since the day he moved to Holbrook and worked for her father at the truck stop. After a couple of years, she relented to his pursuit and he divorced my mom after thirty years of marriage.
Dads always give advice. It’s part of being a dad. The best advice mine ever gave me was, “Don’t be like me. I’m a good bad example.”
BASEBALL HAS ALWAYS been my favorite sport. And I’ve always been a Cubs fan. For as long as I could remember I was the only kid among my friends cheering for them. I’m not a kid anymore, but after all these years, I’m still the only one I know whose loyalty is to the home team at Wrigley Field.
The red, white, and blue colors of Chicago run thick in my blood, even though when I started out I never knew the history of the Cubs. I just knew that they were my team. However, over time I learned through the years of disappointment—and sometimes moments feeling weightless with anticipation and elation. But win or lose, I love to love my team.
A highlight of my growing-up years was watching Sammy Sosa during that historic home run race against Mark McGwire. And I loved outfielder Andre “The Hawk” Dawson, shortstop Shawon Dunston, and my favorite, power-hitting second-baseman Ryne Sandberg. Ryne is the reason my favorite number is 23.
We moved to Los Angeles from Las Cruces, N.M., when I was 5 years old. That gave me the opportunity to see real baseball at Dodger Stadium. My family went all the time, but my favorite games were when the Cubs were playing.
My dad Myrl, mom Patsy, little sister Chelsea and I would stay for the whole game and then we’d wait hours afterward to see the players going to the bus hoping they would come up near the stands and sign autographs.
And then, in 2003, the Cubs came so close: If fan Steve Bartman hadn’t reached from the stands and tipped the ball away from Moises Alou, they might’ve gone all the way. That “incident” almost fucking killed me. Oh man, was that horrible.
But how did I first become a Cubs fan? Interest in any other team was always out of the question. But one day I did start to wonder. So I gave my dad a call and asked him.
“I know we’re Cubs fans, dad, but why, like how?”
“We just are, we have always been.”
I chuckled a bit and in my head I was like “yeah, no shit dad.” But I said:
“Okay, I get that. But, how?”
At this time I’m thinking he’s going to say something like. “Oh, they were on WGN and the only team on TV to watch, so I picked them;” or “I liked their jerseys.” I totally didn’t expect the answer I got.
My grandfather Theodore Stebens joined the Army before World War II started, serving in the 11th Airborne Division. Some of the men in his unit were from Chicago. They had become a tight group—“good ole boys” as my dad put it. One day they were talking about baseball and one of the guys asked Theodore what his favorite team was. Now, my grandpa loved the game of baseball, loved it. But he didn’t have a favorite team, just loved the game. When he told them that, the Chicago guys insisted:
“Ted, you got to go for the Cubs. We’re buds and you seem like a good guy, you have to be a Cub.”
So my Grandpa responded “Sure, why not?”
I was listening to my dad tell that story on the phone and I’m thinking wow, that was pretty cool, and I thought for a moment that the story ended there. Nope.
The war hit. My grandpa’s unit was sent to North Africa. It was a heavy combat zone at that time. One of the guys had gotten wounded pretty badly. My grandfather carried his buddy to safety, but the man was dying.
My grandfather’s gone now, so I don’t know everything the mortally wounded man told Theodore Stebens. But I do know that with his dying breath he made my grandpa promise to continue the tradition of rooting for Cubs. Of course my grandpa said that he would.
And with that vow, sworn on a battlefield in World War II, and passed down to my father then to me, I have been, am now and will forever be a Cubs fan.
I don’t know the names of the Chicago guys in my grandfather’s unit. But I hope that their children and grandchildren are watching the games along with Myrl, Patsy, Chelsea and me. I hope that someday we can find each other and catch a game together.
I’m writing this to celebrate today’s 2016 home opener at a sparkling new renovated Wrigley Field. And to bless the memory of my grandfather and his war buddies, and to bless this season, which everyone believes is going to be the one. Here come the World Champions, the Cubs!
And that’s exactly what happened.
Travis Stebens and dad Myrl
THE RETURN ADDRESS was Graves College, but the letter, typed on thick crème-colored stationery, was not the customary plea for funds.
Ben Klein handled it as if it were a piece of the Dead Sea Scrolls, lifting it with just the fingertips of his right hand as, with his left, he wiped a patina of confectioner’s sugar from the clearing on his desk.
“It was like a bolt from the blue,” he kept repeating.
“Enough bolts,” snapped his wife, Donna. “ This is nuts. You’re not going to accept this, are you?”
“How can I say no? I’d be a fool to say no.”
“You might be a tool to say no, but you’re a liar if you say yes.”
“So what? I’ve lied all along, and it hasn’t hurt a soul. Besides, it’ll be good for the business.”
“That’s a laugh. If you’d just told them the truth, that we own the Donut Queen chain, you wouldn’t have gotten us in this mess.”
“So I’ll think about it. By the way, did the oven guy call about the broken thermostat on Roister Avenue? I’ve got to go check timecards, and I’ve got a three o’clock with Morty about that tax thing. And if the guy from FrozenFruitCo calls, tell him he owes us ten gallons of blueberry. There were frozen ants in the carton they delivered to No. 6.”
Donna gave him a look as he left No. 1, the Donut Queen flagship her father had opened thirty-odd years ago.
After he slid into his blue Oldsmobile, he took the letter from the inside pocket of his seersucker jacket. He slowly unfolded it and checked it for any remaining traces of sugar. At a red light at Third and Gower, he read once again the laudatory lines from Dr. Morse Burns Latham, president of Graves College.
Mr. Ben Klein,
3250 Haile Selassie Way
Addis Ababa 7
Dear Mr. Klein,
It is my distinct honor and pleasure to announce that you have been selected as this year’s recipient of the Graves College Achievement in Life Award.
The committee did not have search for long. None of us could recall a Graves alumnus who has endured so much to help so many. Even in the face of terrorists, family tragedy and your own serious illness, you have persevered in your work with the children of famine. God bless you; if the test of a liberal arts college is humanity, then you have passed it with flying colors.
Do come as our guest to commencement on May 23 at “The Old Quad.” We’ll send further details shortly, Meanwhile, accept my personal thanks for your many sacrifices, and my best wishes for you, your family, and the staff at your clinics.
Dr. Morse Burns Latham
Ben called the office on the way to No. 5.
“Donna? You think I should wear pinstripes or should I go native?”
Later that night, as he was flossing, Donna questioned him further.
“Isn’t it a crime to impersonate a doctor?” she asked from the bedroom. In the bathroom mirror, Klein saw she was wearing her yellow flannel pajamas, and that the worry lines on her forehead could stop a tractor.
“For one thing, I never said I was a doctor. I started the clinics, I hired the staff, I help with injections and spooning out the gruel, but I’m no doctor. And for another thing, Ethiopian law allows any male who passes tenth-grade biology to practice medicine. Providing, of course, that he owns a rubber sheet and a can-opener.”
“A lot you know. You’ve never even been there.”
“No, I haven’t been there. But I have read up.”
He had. Right then, he was in the middle of Astrakhan’s A Sublime Strife: Rationalism in Feudal Ehtiopia. He also had read Unicef volumes on malnutrition and cholera and he’d even ploughed throw that classic 19th century thumbsucker, Foster-Ashcroft’s Divinity and Damnation in Dear Old Addis.
Donna was lying on her stomach. He reached under her fuzzy pajama top to trace the lineage of Ethiopia’s ancient rulers on the bare skin of her back.
“They think it all started with Solomon and Sheba,” he said. His fingers lingered over each bump as he made up the names of the most might of them. “And then after the fall of Amharis, Ibn Daoud ruled for 78 years, until the night he ate some bad hummus.”
He reached around to cup her breasts.
“You must know more about Ethiopia than anyone on the block,” she said lazily.
“Than anyone in the whole damn town.”
Ben lingered at the breakfast table to draft his reply to Dr. Latham. He had a pad of typing paper, a fountain pen with brown ink, a world atlas and a thesaurus. Four accordion envelopes held copies of the quarterly Graves College Alumni Bulletin dating back six years. He moved the crusting remains of his oatmeal off the table and leaned over his materials with the intensity of a medieval monk.
Dear Dr. Latham,
I am thoroughly touched by the honor you have accorded me …
Ben didn’t like it. Too pompous. Although his name had not appeared in it until 21 years after he graduated, he always loved to scan the glossy magazine upon its arrival, keeping up with the doings of his classmates.
“Donna, divorce me,” he once told his wife after he opened a copy. “I’m not a vice president-slash-finance yet.”
“And you never-slash-will-be.”
He sipped his coffee and pulled out the oldest edition in his collection, then scanned the notes from his own class of ’64.
Joseph “Squiffy” Parker has been elected commodore of the Atlantic Corinthian Yacht Club. When he’s not cardiologizing in Boston, the Squiffer sails out of Edgartown. Any Graves men up Martha’s Vineyard way are invited to crew.
Right, I’ll do that.
Zigmund Stein writes that he has secured a promotion to vice-president/finance for CDP ChemCo in Amsterdam. Ziggy, his wife Helene, a Dutch civil liberties lawyer and their two lovely daughters are competitive ice-skaters, so bring your blades when you visit!
Ben knew that Bill Lowdon, Ziggy Stein’s sophomore-year roommate, once saw him in the shower with mighty Thor something, the exchange student from Norway.
Our speedster quarterback, Tom Bateman, was re-elected last November to his third term as a congressman representing Akron. Onward, Batesy! The feds need all the help they can get!
That guy, a congressman? Ben remembered Bateman clenching his jaw and turning red with rage as Dr. Jarvis, the despicable old Shakespeare prof, scoffed at him because the dumb jock couldn’t even pronounce Troilus and Cressida, the play they were supposed to be studying. “A dim bulb,” Jarvis called the speedster.
Dan Jacobsen and family are restoring an 1809 farmhouse near Cooperstown. Jocko telecommutes to his job as a copywriter for Hough & Hostein, Holstein, Holstein, where he developed the “Love Is Blinds” campaign for Venetian Home Products. He also raises Russian wolfhounds. Arf, arf, Jocko!
A nice guy, actually. He once stuck up for Ben when a drunken senior threatened to punch his lights out over the change been had handed him at the college deli known as The Tomb. Once in food service, always in food service, Ben reflected wistfully.
Ben Klein writes that he and Donna are relocating to Ethiopia, where they have an interest in the hunger problem.
Yes, yes, yes, it worked! There he was, among the Squiffies and Ziggies and Batesies and Jockos. Ben still felt the odd elation of the day he’d sent in his little white lie.
“Why’d you do it?” Donna asked. “How come you didn’t just tell them that you’re married, your two kids are at the state university and you’re owner of the Donut Queen? Is there anything so wrong with that?
“Jeez, it’s not some big philosophical issue. It was a joke, that’s all.”
“It’s no joke. If you really need to brag about something, do something to brag about. Help out at the Red Cross or come with me down to the hospital and read ot the stroke people. That’s something to brag about.”
“Come on, Donna, I just wanted to have a little fun.”
But it was fun.
It was fun getting the “Faith House” stationery printed up. It was fun sending his letters via a stamp-dealer in Ethiopia so they’d have the Addis Ababa postmark. And it was really fun seeing the Alumni Bulletin publish his progressively wilder tales in each issue, sometimes even giving them better display in their own box.
His problems learning Arabic, the joy of getting that first big U.N. grant, the difficulty of recruiting native doctors, the fever, sweats and chills of malaria, the uneasy détente with the local warlords, the achievement of building a cinder-block clinic in a remote outpost.
But more than the mere facts, Ben tried to convey a winning can-do spirit. He especially liked his piece for the most recent issue, when he’d settled a bloody dispute over a dowry consisting of a sack of rice and a cow.
When they’re marrying off their kids, nomad chieftains can get as bent out of shape as anyone else. But I had a problem after I ended the nasty little business between Adbillahi and Muhammad Haj. That’s because the custom in these parts is to treat the peacemaker to a very special feast—a bowl of steaming-fresh innards from a slaughtered camel.
It would have been a great insult to turn them down, and it could have undone what little good I like to think I accomplished. At that moment, as I knelt on the rug with my hot mint tea and my bowl of steaming camel guts, with the wind whipping through the tent flaps, I would have preferred even “mystery meat” from the Graves dining hall—although not by much!”
Ben hadn’t yet plotted out his next letter. He thought, though, that he should sent a note of caution to a fellow alum. He’d noticed in the last Alumni Bulletin that Jerry Robinson (’68) was planning to “pull a Kleiner and volunteer for Mother Theresa in India for a couple of years.”
But before he could get to that, there was the task in front of him, the one to President Latham.
Ben started over, refreshed by his rereading of the texts he had penned. He was in character again.
Dear Dr. Latham,
In Arabic, there is a hopeful saying: “Tomorrow we have apricots.” Your offer reminds me that apricots come in many sizes and are as delicious in the jungle as they are in the driest of deserts.
Of course I will accept the Achievement in Life Award
Please send details as soon as possible, as the revolutionaries have made postal service between here and the capital rather unpredictable.
Your most humble servant,
ON THE NIGHT of the event, a fragrant plate of lamb with couscous sat before him, but Ben wasn’t hungry. The label on his brightly colored polyester dashiki scratched his neck. The Arabic chants provided by some eager music majors annoyed him. The chandeliers in the faculty dining room hurt his eyes.
He was worried about the speech he was to give, although he’d written it out on three-by-five cards and practiced it before the mirror a hundred times.
“Dr. Latham, trustees, members of the Graves community, and friends: Forgive me if my remarks are short and to the point, but my flight was long and roundabout. First, let me say how delighted I am to be at this lovely testimonial dinner, and how grateful I am to be receiving my alma mater’s highest honor tomorrow…”
Please hold it together. Please don’t collapse. Please let this thing come off. Ben was frightened.
Of course, he was elated when he parked his rental car in the faculty lot and threw open the dining room’s great oak doors. The cocktail reception was already in bloom. The room was full of pipes and beards and low-cut black gowns. White-haired and ruddy-faced, President Latham came striding toward him, wine glass in hand.
Latham wrapped him in a big hug, looked into his eyes and whispered, “Ben Klein.”
Klein was startled. He’d never heard his name uttered with such seriousness or reverence, as if the drab little words were standing in for “you cured cancer.”
“Yes,” Klein said.
“I am so very, very glad you’re here. I’m just sorry Mrs. Klein couldn’t make it.”
“Well, someone’s gotta mind the store.”
“Mind the store? That’s marvelous,” chortled Latham as he placed his arm around Ben’s shoulders and guided him into the crowd. He introduced Ben to Dr. Harriman, from Middle Eastern studies; Dr. Storch, from sociology; Dr. LaVarne, from life skills; and Mr. Halibut, the college controller.
A skinny man with a bolo tie —“I’m Clemson, Plant Physiology”—shook Ben’s hand and gave him a glass of champagne.
“Wonderful work you do. Most of us can only dream of doing things like that.”
“It just takes will power,” said Ben, drifting off to the hors d’oeuvres table. He drained a glass of white wine as he placed three Swedish meatballs, a crab-stuffed mushroom and a hunk of bleu cheese on a paper plate.
A lanky insurance tycoon, one of the college trustees, was telling Ben how 150 of his employees showed up on a Saturday morning to paint houses in the city’s poorest neighborhood.
“On a Saturday?” marveled Ben, by then sipping a Manhattan. “That’s wild.”
Ben found himself staring into the green eyes of a beautiful woman. She was blonde and had a deep, inviting cleavage. He was conscious of her breathing. They were touching each other ever so lightly in a hundred places.
“I’ve never met anyone who’s done such important work, doctor,” she said. “Would you have a drink with me later?”
“I’m not a doctor. Just a man.”
She patted his dashiki. “All the better.”
But she melted into the crowd and President Latham was once again hovering.
“Ben, I invited someone special here this evening to introduce you. I wouldn’t doubt that you two know each other anyway, but let me make it official: Ben Klein, meet the Hon. Robert Nyabe, Ethiopian envoy to the U.S.”
“We’ve never met,” said Ben, feeling ill.
“No, Mr. Klein, but I must say I do know all about your work,” said the ambassador, an impossibly tall black man in an elegant gray suit as he laughed and pumped Ben’s suddenly weakened right hand.
Now they were sitting next to each other at the dais. They’d been there for thirty minutes and they hadn’t exchanged a word. Twice, Ben had asked the ambassador to pass the rolls, and twice he’d been ignored.
As President Latham finished his opening remarks, a TV crew set up at the back of the hall. The ambassador approached the lectern as gracefully as a giraffe picking his way through the high grasslands.
“As you know,” he said in a deep, lyrical voice, “I am from a poor country.”
The crowd fell silent.
“In my country, more than 30 percent of the babies die before they reach the age of five. There is no food for them, and no medical care. The average man earns perhaps $200 a year. He cannot read or write. He tries to farm, but nothing grows. He seeks water, but none flows. Flies and disease are his constant companions. His life is unending wretchedness. In some ways, then, it is a blessing that he will die before the age of 50, in a dirt hut, surrounded by his wife and six or seven starving children. Yes, I am from a poor country, and we cannot care for the average man. To paraphrase your great playwright, we rely on the kindness of strangers.”
He turned to Ben, who managed a crumpled little smile.
The ambassador continued, his voice rising like a thundercloud over the desert.
“Yet, as poor as my people are, there are those who would exploit their misery. False charities have discouraged the real ones from giving, and we have a sacred duty to our people and to God to spread far and wide the word against this.”
Ben’s upper lip was drenched in sweat. His feet were freezing and he wanted nothing more than to die as the ambassador leaned over the lectern in magnificent wrath.
“That is why I am here. I intend no embarrassment to Graves College, but Ben Klein must not receive this award.”
President Latham rose from his chair, but the ambassador went on.
“Our health authorities have never heard of Ben Klein. The locations of his so-called ‘clinics’ were razed by the Italians in World War II and never repopulated. Our investigators have told us that he has not been out of the U.S. in 17 years, that he runs a business called Donut Queen, and that his two children attend a large state university.”
Shocked cries filled the room.
Ben leaped up, but he could hardly breathe. His words came hard.
“No,” he shouted. “This man, he’s an imposter! I am… I am… I am… outraged!”
He grabbed a dinner roll of someone’s plate and hurled it at the ambassador. The television lights were blinding him. He stepped back, knocked over his chair, careened into President Latham, ran first for one exit, then for another, skirted a cluster of dark suits here, a dumbfounded security guard there, and finally broke through the great oak doors in the center of the hall, as quick and crafty as quarterback Tom Bateman in his speedster prime.
BEN OPENED HIS EYES and saw Donna staring down at him.
“It was all a dream?” he croaked.
She shook her head. “No, Ben. It really happened.”
His mouth felt as if Naugahyde had been baked onto the mucus membranes. There was a tube stuck in his wrist and wires coming out of his pajama top. Green lines jumped on a TV screen sitting atop a metal cart between his bed and the window; every few second it beeped.
“What happened?” he asked.
“I got a call from the hotel manager,” she said, taking his hand. “They found you unconscious on your bed.”
“They thought it was weird when you called room service at two in the morning and asked for razor blades and a rope.
“Then when they finally got in, there was an empty bottle of Pepto-Bismol on your nightstand, and the container with the muscle relaxants for your back was on the floor, empty.”
A tall black orderly in hospital whites, slipped in to remove a tray with a congealed Salisbury steak and a cube of iridescent green Jell-O.
Ben jolted up. “Oh God it’s him, it’s him, the deputy ambassador,” he shrieked as the TV monitor beeped wildly.
“Calm down, honey,” said Donna as the orderly, shaking his head, retreated. “He’s just doing his job.”
They sat in silence. She thumbed through a tattered Sports Illustrated she’d found in the waiting room.
“You know about the dinner?” he asked.
“Yeah. You made the news.”
“My mother saw it? The kids?”
“It was all over TV, on all the channels. But they said it was the best thing that had happened to the famine in years. Everyone’s sending money.”
“That’s good,” said Ben, who suddenly felt as if his palate had cracked and brains and blood were cascading down his throat. “Very, very good. So what do I do now?”
“So you come home. Your life’s not over, you know.”
They drifted into talk about the Donut Queen. He couldn’t imagine walking back into Old No. 1 with any sense of dignity. He couldn’t go to Piggly-Wiggly for a quart of milk unaccompanied by the cloud of fraud.
“Donna, you know when how you’re dying, you’re supposed to see you whole life flash before your eyes?”
“Well, it’s not like that. It’s more like you see every stupid, dumb, idiotic, insane thing you’ve ever done flash before your eyes.”
He looked up at her pleadingly. She stroked a plastic tube and lowered her face close to his.
“That,” she whispered, “is what we call a long, slow death.”
He summoned a vague smile and she kissed him on the lips.
Klein wasn’t sure how he could live with his shame but he soon found he was a natural. He went to work sporadically, and then only for an hour or so. He talked to no one, just riffled through the bills. Then he’d leave and seek out places where he could sit undisturbed for a long time. At home, he put a pillow on the floor and tried to remember the vacuous bliss that he had once pretended to experience in a yoga class with an earnest, giving, gorgeous instructor—as they all were—so many, many lifetimes ago.
He haunted the bar at the golf course, where he’d consume bowls of Pepperidge Farm goldfish, talking to no one. When friends called, he’d tell them he was coming along just fine.
He crated up his Ethiopia books and sent them to Goodwill.
He nurtured his depression like a boy feeding crickets to a pet snake. He knew just how far to indulge it before it burst. Staying in bed day after day would be too much; but dining in silence, smacking his lips and sighing to hold up his end of the conversation, was just enough.
Donna grew desperate in her attempts to snap him out of it. She’d prattle on about a new movie, or her walk down the block, or even about a rainbow she saw in an oil slick in the parking lot of Old No. 1.
But pep talks about the richness of life simply would not cut it. Ben would just nod and say, “That’s nice. Really nice.”
Donna scattered a load of self-help books around the house—“Moment to Moment!” in the breakfast nook, “Wake Up and Smell Your Soul!” in the den—but she had to browbeat Ben into opening them up.
“Donna,” he said one evening in bed as he was laconically leafing through “Choose to Live!,” “you know what you call a guy who’s addicted to hot chocolate?”
“A cocoa-dependent. Get it? Co-dependent? Cocoa-dependent? Hah? And if his wife encourages him, she’d be a co-cocoa-dependent. A co-co-co-dependent?”
“Yeah, I get it, I get it. That’s funny, Ben.”
“You really think so?”
“It’s very clever. Really, I love your jokes. I’ve always loved your jokes. You should send them in somewhere.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not about to attempt suicide again. If that’s what you’re thinking.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Because if I did, I don’t even think it would make the Alumni Bulletin.”
“Ben! Stop it!”
“Or if they did run it, they wouldn’t have the details. Just ‘sudden illness.’ That’s always a tipoff.”
“Ben, shut up!”
“OK, OK. Just kidding”
Ben clicked past an old “Star Trek,” the news, and a show where women in leotards and helmets were pummeling each other with mops. He lit for a minute on Channel 36, the Inspiration Station.
“Hey my friend, do I have good news for you!” said “Miracle Marty,” a bearded bald man wearing a lei of pink orchids as he relaxed in a deck chair on his gleaming white yacht.
“I also once had a boring, dead-end job. I lived paycheck to paycheck, cleaning carpets in rich people’s houses, wondering when my train would finally pull into the station. If you told me then that one day I’d be living in Hawaii with these beautiful friends and this wonderful lifestyle, I’d have told you, ‘Jack, get out of town!’”
The camera panned over Diamond Head, across the rolling blue-green waters, and back to the yacht. Two girls in string bikinis were playing patty-cake next to the railing, and throwing their heads back in rapturous laughter. A beach ball wafted out of nowhere. There were a lot of plinking ukuleles and then, a full brass band belting out “Anchors Aweigh” as a formation of Navy destroyers churned out toward the sea.
Cut to Miracle Marty clutching a Mai-Tai.
“Yes, I was a total loser. But that was before I learned about the miracle—-the miracle of real-estate syndication!”
Donna studied her husband. He had settled back on his pillows, as if he were a pasha reviewing his harem. For the first time in many weeks, he appeared serene. He nodded in silence when Marty asked, “Why be a nobody when you can be a somebody?” The third time Miracle Marty Martin’s 800-number flashed on the screen, he groped around on the nightstand for a notepad but couldn’t find a pen. It was something anyway, Donna thought; Ben’s vital signs, frail and lost as poor little lambs, were finally coming back.
Ben continued, of course, to receive the Graves College Alumni Bulletin, but he didn’t dare send in any more news of his professional activities or community involvements.
Just as well, he thought. He used his index finger to scoop a final, mayo-laden dollop of Denny’s finest tuna melt off his plate. They probably wouldn’t print it anyway.
Still, it would have been nice to get some modest recognition for all he had accomplished in the couple of years since his crackup. The profit-sharing plan he’d put in at work, his highly publicized “Donuts for the Depressed” program, his contributions toward retina transplants for Ethiopian children, even this little jaunt to the state volleyball tourney with his crew of Exceptional Olympians.
“Roland, quit squirting the mustard into that glass. I bring you to a nice place, I expect you to behave better than that.”
Roland, a large, slow boy nicknamed “The Pickle,” cast his eyes on to his lap and set aside the plastic squeeze bottle. The other kids at the table also settled down, taking Ben’s scolding to heart.
Disabled or not, they’re good kids, Ben thought, though he had doubts about George Fontaine, far and away his best player.
“You done good, Georgie,” Ben said as he signaled for more coffee. “Your parents have room for six more trophies and a plaque?”
“Piece of cake,” said George, a tall, muscular boy with black, wavy hair.
That’s the trouble, Ben thought. It was a piece of cake. Everything for George was a piece of cake. Despite what appeared to Klein to be a rather practiced limp, he was quick and he was funny. One the court, his serves were bullets and his spikes were bombs. Next to his floundering teammates, he was Adonis and Einstein rolled into one.
No way this kid should be here, Klein thought. Striving parents, probably, who wanted to taste the thrill of victory but didn’t want to dump their kid into the pressure cooker of his school sports. Sad.
Klein polished off his coffee and told his boys to wait as he took the check to the cash register.
“Everything fine today, sir?”
The cashier looked familiar. He wore a yellow vest, a black bow-tie, and a white short-sleeved shire. His thinning hair was combed forward and greased down. His belly bulged. Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life, Ben thought.
He and the cashier stared at each other. His name tag said “Joseph Parker, Manager.”
“Oh my god!” Klein exclaimed. “Joseph Parker? Squiffy Parker? Graves College?”
“Uh, yes,” said the manager, reddening deeply.
Ben extended his hand. “Remember me? Ben Klein, class of ’64?”
“Keep it down, will you? Sure, I remember you. And I read about you also, that whole Ethiopia thing.”
“And I’ve read about you too. What was it again? Cardiology? Martha’s Vineyard?”
A line of impatient diners was forming behind Ben. His eyes were aglow. Wait until he told Donna.
Parker looked suddenly deflated, like a huge Squiffy balloon the say after the Thanksgiving parade. He handed back Ben’s credit card without ringing up the lunch.
“Have a nice day,” Parker said, looking down.
“Anchors aweigh,” Klein said with a wink, sauntering off to shepherd his boys out to the van and down the long road home.
But there exists a dignity which keeps us from disappearing into God and which transforms all our moments into prayers we shall never offer. Cioran
IN 1961 IN OUR TOWN, we lived among remnants of a past era still close as a lingering breath. There were deep Victorian porches made deeper by extended green awnings. There were slate roofs and herringbone brick sidewalks patterned by the sun falling through tall oak trees. Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches competed in the blocks surrounding our plain brownstone Methodist church.
There was the simultaneous pealing of bells as multiple Sunday services turned out a moving tide of people rushing headlong from their allotted hour with the divine. Waves of netted hats, fashionable handbags, and white-gloved hands clutched closely at breeze-blown skirts as the ladies sailed past. There were little girls with frizzy home perms skipping gay in twos and threes, and young boys in collared shirts and pressed trousers, hair buzzed or bowl cut, running a weave of mayhem through the dispersing throngs. We would try to set our feet strictly on the zigzag of advancing brick chevrons from the church to the parking lot, a child’s game of parkour. Cast off church bulletins cartwheeled down the sidewalks and into the gutters.
The sun rose higher and began its well-worn westward course.
Downtown, shades were drawn against the climbing sun at soda counters offering ice creams, milkshakes and homemade birch beer. Old wire fans stirred unconditioned air across comic books and True Confession magazines in racks near the display window, their paper edges fading in the light, curling in the humidity.
Downtown slid imperceptibly from residential townhouses, to duplexes, to single brick homes. Neighborhood lawns ran together without fences. Kids and dogs roamed at will. School children freed for the summer trailed after mothers pushing baby buggies on new concrete sidewalks through perfect suburban twilights. The warm pure love of the familiar pervaded, and hearts beat with a palpable longing to be suspended forever in the violet hush before darkness falls.
The desire for simplicity and safety is the distilled, eternal essence of nostalgia. It is the seed of every utopia. A certain quality of light, a smell, the humming sounds of everyday life take on a singular significance in memory. Everything seems important at the time, yet given enough time it’s unsettling how little of anything matters. In an hour’s or a day’s time, nothing changes. Yet everything can change. Utopia is a moving target.
“Get back in the fucking car,” Mom said from between clenched teeth when we came back from church early that morning because choir practice had been canceled. She had gone into the house and stomped right out before we could follow, threw her handbag and gloves into the green Ford Fairlane and waited for us to clamor into the back seat before pummeling the gearshift into drive and screeching away from the curb.
My mother Bronwyn was a pistol, a tiny dark-haired Derringer of a woman with flashing green eyes and pearly white teeth. I remember her whole-hearted open mouthed laughter, her earthy smell, her lips moving in a whisper and her small fingers twitching slightly as she read the latest pulp magazines or horoscope books. She was one of those women who loved being a mother while greatly resenting the children she’d created and was now forced to endure for all time. Her quick wit and temper were Welsh, her humor given to flashing bursts of brilliance, her rage or contempt expressed in words strong enough to cause blunt force trauma. For all that, she never raised a hand to us. She was a breathing contradiction. We adored her.
We were still dressed in our Sunday best, wondering why she’d walked back out the front door and closed it behind her with such a resounding slam. Why she’d herded us with her loaded, blazing eyes back into the car. Weren’t we supposed to go in and change our clothes after church? The three of us huddled together in the back seat, whispering at this strange occurrence. But who could ever fathom the shadowy motives of grownups? So as she drove, we shrugged off the unknown and began to giggle among ourselves. The laughter stopped when she took a corner without slowing, overcorrected and nearly ran down an innocent sign post. She now had our undivided attention.
She looked back at us, took a quick inventory of the owners of the three pairs of wide eyes behind her. When she pulled up to the next stop sign, she reached down for her handbag and fished inside. She took a deep breath and handed a wilted white handkerchief back to her oldest daughter.
“Wipe your sister’s nose,” she said.
We let out a collective breath of relief. This at least was normal. The little one’s nose was forever bubbling with snot. As if bolstered by our breath, Mother looked both ways at the intersection and pulled out slowly, careful not to floor the gas pedal again. Her hands were shaking, and she’d kept a fresh hanky for herself.
In 1961, on the other side of town, there was a fenced junkyard with three old mules let out to graze among the rotting remains of horse drawn meat wagons and milk carts, among early model Fords and Studebakers stripped of tires and rusting down to weeds. On this edge of town, there were corner barrooms reeking of cheap beer and cigarettes, with no windows to the outside world, but which possessed the typical allure of such places: unvarnished wood floors and sticky tables hidden in gloom and who-knows-what going on in the back rooms beyond limp curtains.
There were sagging frame houses fringed with asbestos shingles, with gap-toothed porches tilting at patches of crabgrass and dirt. On the streets in front of these houses, slick-haired men in T-shirts and chinos gathered on Sundays for a different kind of communion. They genuflected under propped up car hoods, eyeballing and catcalling the teenage girls twitching by in pointed bras, midriff tops and too-tight stirrup pants. There were children playing in the streets with dark-ringed eyes and torn unwashed clothes who stayed out long past dark because no one ever called them in to supper. They scratched habitually at their heads and picked at their scabs. They knew nothing about safety. They’d never heard of nostalgia or utopia.
On our side of town that day, when Bronwyn brought us home earlier than usual, the shock and thump of the bed collapsing likely kept Thomas from hearing the front door open. Marlene shrieked in alarm, but they were laughing their way through the moment, trying to unwind their limbs and extricate themselves half-naked from the rumpled wreckage. The urgency of the forbidden, and the resulting aftermath of a Sunday morning romp would need to be set right. The bedroom door opened, and Bronwyn’s face appeared, her eyes staring into Thomas’s as he hopped horror-stricken on one leg. He heard Marlene gasp. From the corner of his eye, he saw her move to cover up exposed white breasts. Too late for that, he thought. The door closed just as suddenly. Moments later he heard the front door slam, and the car peel away. Marlene was scrambling into her clothes.
“Now what?” she said.
Two hours later, Marlene was gone and Thomas finished putting the bed back together. He reinforced the slatted frame with new brackets, stripped the mattress and made everything up again with fresh sheets. He sat on the edge of the bed, thinking he might be sick.
Marlene was Bronwyn’s younger friend and occasional babysitter. She’d been playing up to Thomas for a long time. From the very beginning, if he was honest, since she was seventeen. She flirted right under Bronwyn’s nose. His wife paid no attention, busy as she was with the kids and the baby, or maybe she didn’t think there was any cause for worry. For a long time, there hadn’t been.
He did everything he could to avoid Marlene. When he found her at their house more and more often after work, he left to hang out with his buddies. They drank at the beer gardens. Or he did odd jobs for extra money. He wrenched on cars. He poured new sidewalks. He helped install furnaces, did minor plumbing jobs. Anything to keep away from Marlene’s seductive smiles and whispered suggestions. Away from her skintight pants and low cut blouses.
Bronwyn told him Marlene was just a kid and a big flirt and he shouldn’t take her seriously. She didn’t seem to notice that Marlene had turned into a twenty-two-year-old woman. But Thomas did.
Things went along this way until the Sunday morning when Marlene knocked on the back door, pretending not to know that their two oldest daughters were new members of the Little Angels church choir and that it was Bronwyn’s job to get them to church every Sunday. She pretended not to know that Thomas hadn’t been to church in ten years, not since he’d come home from his years as a combat medic in the war. For three months after that morning, he opened the back door every Sunday.
Where was Bronwyn now? Probably at her brother’s house, crying to her mother, spreading his shame. How many weekend mornings had they spent in this bed, Thomas, Bronwyn and the girls, all snuggling in, all piled together reading the funnies? A family ritual. He shuddered now at those desecrated memories of happiness. Marlene’s unanswered question echoed in his mind. “Now what?”
Thomas’ eye fell on the long cedar chest at the foot of their bed. Inside was a small box, buried beneath the winter blankets. He kept the only key to the small hidden locker on a beaded metal chain with his old dog tags. He’d never had to use his service revolver, but he kept it clean. Until three months ago, he’d kept everything clean. Now he felt soiled and sad. Would Bronwyn tell everyone? Would she want a divorce? Would she make him pay dearly? Would his children overhear as she spun the story out, casting him as a sinner and a vile person? In years to come, what would they know of their father? What memories would they have left to love?
Everything seems important at the time. The words we say, or don’t say. Spoken words and unspoken thoughts pass away, each forgotten in equal measure. Our lives, so substantial and immediate, can in seconds become irrelevant as the daily rituals of the Etruscans. Time is a ladder made of dust. It can’t be materialized, except in small and random motes, useless for climbing, though we persist in trying. Dust and time are cast off collections of bits on their way to some absurd and infinitesimal meaning, of stuff descending to an atomic level.
Do things gather dust, or does dust gather things? Watch it swirl in unseen currents, drifting, settling, slowly obscuring those places it collects. Given enough time, it collects everywhere.
Bronwyn drove around and around, burning gas and tears as if there were no end to either. She drove to the local playground. She parked the car, but wouldn’t let us out to play. Confined to the back seat, we began to fidget and whine. We were hungry. Our Sunday clothes were hot and scratchy. When were we going home? She fixed her stare on the horizon, ignoring us. Sweat beaded on her nose. Her lips moved as if she were reading an unseen book.
The little one sniveled something about ice cream. I wanted the new Wonder Woman comic book. Could we go to Steinmetz’s Emporium for both? The oldest held up the ruins of the handkerchief for inspection.
Our mother banged her hands on the steering wheel.
“OK, let’s go home,” she said.
The thing to know about time is that it’s different than timing. Time may be meaningless, but timing is another matter. If Bronwyn had driven at breakneck or even normal speed, we would have been home minutes sooner. But she was quiet now, calm like the eye of a hurricane, and her driving reflected her mood. She’d set her course on something, and whatever it was had slowed her down.
If we’d arrived minutes sooner, she might have stopped him. Or maybe, wounded as he was by his own rootless upbringing, by the war and the world and everything utopia had failed to deliver, he might have taken her with him. Maybe us, too. Timing matters.
For the second time that day, our father must have been too preoccupied to hear the front door open. We were all tumbling through that door, relieved and laughing, looking forward to everything-that-seems-important-at-the-time. That’s when we heard the shot.
We never sang with the Little Angels Choir again.
The idle apprehend more things, are deeper than the industrious: no task limits their horizon; born into an eternal Sunday, they watch—and watch themselves watching. Cioran.
ONE HUNDRED PEOPLE? BUT I ONLY HAVE one bathroom! Fran muttered as she tore down the BATHROOM THIS WAY sign leading from the tent to her house. Why the hell didn’t they rent port-a-potties? I don’t have insurance for this!
She made her way to the kitchen, grimacing as she saw her precious knick-knacks carelessly tumbled into a cardboard box on the floor, and her counters lined with aluminum foil pans. Crumbs covered everything, making her mood even worse.
Larry gestured toward Fran rambling through the living room. “Don’t worry about grandma; just leave the kitchen like you found it.” He whispered to George and Janice: “Aren’t you guys even a bit concerned about her mood, what if she drinks too much? Remember last year?”
“Well we don’t have to worry too much about that…this is an outdoor party, and we’re using plastic, so it’s no big deal if a few drinks get spilled.” Janice whispered back as she grabbed George’s hand. They hurried off to meet the priest and go over the night’s last minute details.
“Hey Grandma, thanks again for doing this for us, we’re so lucky the day turned out nice and warm.”
George tried to hug Fran; she pulled away.
“You’re welcome, but you’d better think about spraying for bugs soon. The mosquitoes are running rampant with this weather. There may be some Citronella candles in the basement you can use.”
“Can’t use Citronella, Janice is allergic, remember?”
“Oh, sorry. I forgot.” Her new granddaughter seemed to be allergic to everything. Should have had the wedding in a hospital room!
My own wedding at the Fifth Avenue Ballroom years before was different. The ceiling was painted sky blue with clouds and cherubs. Marble columns graced the hall, gilded high-back chairs sat in elegance around white linen clad tables. Star lilies scented the air, and two bands played throughout the night. I wore a white lace Vera Wang dress and Kenneth Cole heels. I missed the cocktail hour due to photos in the halls, but my bridal party made sure all was covered. They brought a big silver tray into the ready room. We feasted on smoked salmon, potato puffs, caviar toasts, mini quiche, and hotdogs in puff pastry with honey mustard. Champagne flowed.
Later, we were passing a joint, laughing, having a ball, when Steve, my personal planner and wedding slave, came running in, quite frantic—“What are you doing! Your father’s on his way in right now. Oh my god, someone get some Lysol!”
My friend Rachel nonchalantly looked at him and said, “Calm down, dude. He’s probably just coming to give us another joint.”
Much later, after the wedding toasts, and the steak and garlic-roasted mashed potatoes, after the wedding band packed up and went home, we danced to the music of local rockers The Good Rats. I had found them at a club on Long Island where my husband (then fiancé, later ex) originally wanted us to have the wedding (as if). I fell in love with their covers of Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots. They played all the songs on my list, but as the night got longer I kept waiting for my favorite. Finally I asked my new husband to have them play “Sex Type Thing.” He looked at me as if I were from another planet. “You can’t play that at a wedding, hon—it’s about rape.” Shit. I thought it was about dark lusty sex.
Someone had put up a sign for the guests: Wedding This Way. Fran opted not to rip this one down. The guests would have to twist and turn through a path filled with untrimmed vines, swat away mosquitoes and gnats, and not get alarmed by the garter snakes that wound through the path, on the way to the tent on the bottom of the hill—in the dark. The tiny votives lining the path did not look up to the task.
“Why in hell didn’t those kids rent linen?”
Ten round tables were scattered haphazardly, each had at least two types of tablecloths. Her daughter-in-law had recommended they rent linens and dishes and flatware but her grandson and future bride wanted to save money.
She surveyed the decks and stairs and decided she didn’t give a shit whether the older guests could get down to the tent or not. So what if they weren’t going to be happy with four flights of deck steps and the quarter mile walk. She wasn’t happy with her grandson’s choice.
We honeymooned in Hawaii. I was still so naïve. I wanted to make love on the beach. Instead I spent my time getting my nails done and trying to find someone to sell me pot while he played golf and tried to learn how to surf. We ate magnificent lobster dinners and toured beautiful gardens. I sunbathed on the black rocks of the Big Island and thought about my big wedded life ahead. I looked good. I have the pictures to prove it. In Kona I got some magnificent bud. It was killer weed. My husband said I had to smoke it on the balcony. It gave him a headache.
In Maui I saw rainbows everyday—the biggest most magnificent purples, blues, and brilliant oranges—stretching from the mountains to the water. I can’t imagine living in that land of rainbows. I’d go mad from the constant beauty.
On the last day before we were to leave, my husband lost my wedding rings. I had tasked him with emptying the safe. He gave me the white silk bag filled with jewelry and I put it in my purse. I didn’t bother to check, because we were in a rush. We had just come back from the last surfing lesson, and had to get to the airport right away. When I opened the bag, all my jewelry was there except for the wedding band my grandfather made for my grandma, and my diamond engagement ring. The hotel assured us they would do their very best to try to find them. We filled out a police report and flew home. Insurance covers everything but the sentiment. I didn’t have one orgasm in Hawaii.
“Fran, you look lovely. Isn’t this tent fabulous?” Diane noted her sister’s grimace and again feared Fran would ruin the day for all involved. “The kids really did a great job, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, sure, but they could have rented linen. Just look at those tables, none match.”
“Oh, I think they look artful, just like Janice. Look at her dress, with all those appliqué flowers, it’s beautiful! And this food is delicious.” Diane had a huge plate of filet mignon, chicken marsala and roasted potatoes.
Fran could not believe how Diane had managed to pile her plate so high. What a gluttonous fool! She forced a smile as they walked together to their blue and purple candlelit table. Nails rolled in her gut as she had to concede the kids had done a decent job.
“Hey Grandma, isn’t this fabulous! The band should be starting soon. Thanks so much for letting us use your place.” George kissed her on her cheek. Naturally, he assumed she was happy for them. Champagne can do that to a person.
She looked around the room and smiled at the couple, each holding a plastic champagne glass. Here’s to the happy couple, hope they live together for fifty years just like Pat and me, separate bedrooms and four kids, every day a misery. She muttered her curse under her breath and grimaced as she saw Pat, obviously enjoying himself, sitting with the kids. Enjoy it now you disgusting old man, because tomorrow I’m going to have a huge headache and you will be picking up the garbage.
My marriage lasted for more than a decade. I knew it was over at the honeymoon. I tried my best to be a good wife but I withered, and pieces of me were left on the floor after every dinner. I put my passion into my daughter and cried when I was alone. I cleaned and complained and martyred myself to a life in suburbia when all I wanted was to get back to the city. Fourteen years and not one friend—plenty of mommy-n-me pals, but as our kids got older the talk of childcare, Oshkosh, and Uggs became tedious and terrifying. People go mad in the suburbs. Moms with nothing better to do than plan PTA luncheons go ballistic if someone brings a tray of homemade sushi to a Tuscan themed luncheon. Ballistic! Jeez—get a life.
I love sushi.
“It’s a good thing they set this tent up here in the field. At least they can smoke outside and not bother anyone.”
Not bother us? Fran felt sick as she surveyed the guests and noted most were happy, smiling, and enjoying the meal. Larry was manning the buffet, he looked a little tired, but he was keeping the line going. The caterer had a big tray of salad in hand. She deftly replaced the empty one on the buffet and then headed upstairs. It would be pretty damn funny if she tripped right now … even better if she spilled something.
The band played “Wonderful Tonight.”
“I can’t believe how many smokers are here. I’m feeling a bit nauseous, I’m going to go up to the house and sit with the old folks.” Fran feigned tired quite well. Her son asked if she needed help up the path. Shooing him away, she smiled her best and said, “Just make sure you clean this stuff up fast. Otherwise the bears and raccoons are going to have a field day.” She noted his forced smile and made her way upstairs.
Getting divorced was harder than anything I’ve ever had to do in my life. I put it off after years of sleeping in separate beds and complaining about where he put the forks in the dishwasher, how he couldn’t wrap up food properly, and his socks—all over the floor. Someone told me these things mean nothing when you love someone. You can fight and make up and have great sex. We never fought. We never made up. Sex?
Every day I wonder how I lasted so long. I tried to make it work, mostly for my child. I didn’t want her to grow up like me with divorced parents who shuffled their kids back and forth from holiday to holiday, hating on each other.
I managed to end the marriage amicably. He comes over when I go to school and stays with our teenager, and we are both active in her life. She lives with me full-time. Someday he might move out of his parents’ house, but until then I’m a single mom with no free time and no real relationship (he has a girlfriend, started seeing her six months after he left). My daughter met her and came home crying. She said “Mom you won’t believe dad’s girlfriend, she’s ten years younger than him, looks ten years older than you and smells like an old person.” I had to smile. I did my job.
I met her later and realized my daughter wasn’t painting that picture for my benefit; it was an accurate description.
I carry the mark of that unfulfilled life and those wasted years. The scars of an unhappy marriage are easy to hide, but they run deep, and though they may always appear in the creases, eventually they heal—if you give them enough light and air.
A MAN HANGS ON THE WALL, half encased in stone. His mouth hangs open in mid-scream, his skin looks like it has been turned to coal. Someone enters, wearing a mask with a black strip of glass across the eyes and what looks like a sideways mouth with big metal teeth. The figure presses a button on a control panel on the wall and the man start to glow, the stone melting away. He collapses to the floor and the figure cradles him, murmuring in a mechanical alien growl.
“Who are you?” the man manages to choke out.
The figure removes its mask, revealing a woman’s face.
“Someone who loves you,” Princess Leia Organa says fondly to her beloved Han Solo. And a curtain is pulled aside, revealing a roomful of hideous monsters.
I was ten years old when Return of the Jedi hit the theaters. It was all we talked about at school and all my brother and I would play, both with and without our action figures. I remember the tragic day I lost my Princess Leia figure (in Bespin gown) in the grass in our back yard. I scoured the entire yard for hours, looking for a hole she could have slipped into, but she was gone.
Our family didn’t go to the movies much. We saw the yearly Disney cartoon and anything involving the Muppets, but that was about it, so it’s not surprising that, like many guys of my generation, the Star Wars films had a huge impact on me. They were exciting and melodramatic and not like anything else we’d been exposed to up to that point.
My parents were very cautious about television as well. Almost anything on PBS was fine, as were the ultra-violent Looney Tunes for some reason, but everything else was strictly prohibited. Of course they would watch whatever shows they wanted after we’d gone to bed, and in 1983—the same year Return of the Jedi came out—one of those shows was Fame.
It was a drama about the kids attending a performing arts high school in New York City. Its hour-long storylines were punctuated with musical numbers put on by the faculty and students, sometimes in the context of a performance or class but just as often not, with everyone breaking spontaneously into song and dance. My mother, a big fan of show tunes and divas like Barbra Streisand and Melissa Manchester, absolutely loved this kind of shit.
I remember sneaking downstairs one night, being unable to sleep for some reason, and asking if I could watch. I found myself instantly smitten with one of the characters, a slightly pudgy girl with curly brown hair and pasty white skin. That girl’s name was Doris Renee Schwartz.
I was just finishing dinner when the phone rang.
“Hello?” I said, sounding surprised. I didn’t get many calls.
“Hi.” It was a woman’s voice. Nasal, sort of high-pitched.
“Who is this?”
“Don’t recognize me, huh? It’s me, Doris! I guess it has been kind of a while.”
“Doris? Holy shit. I can’t believe it’s you. I don’t even know what to say.”
“Why don’t you say you’ll come get a drink with me? I happened to be in town and I thought I’d look you up so we could catch up on old times.”
“Really? This is unbelievable. I’d love to see you. When’s good for you?”
“I’m so sorry I’m so late,” she said, giving me a huge hug. “Some things never change I guess.”
We sat in the booth and looked each other over.
“You’re really here,” I said.
“Well what do you know. Give the man a kewpie doll!”
She looked exactly the same as she did the first time I saw her thirty years ago. I mean, exactly the same. Same curly hair, same warm brown eyes. She doesn’t even seem to have any wrinkles.
“So what have you been up to all these years?” I ask. “Tell me everything in under a minute. Starting—now.”
“Oh you know, acting a bit here and there, though you know it gets harder when you get to be my age.”
“Are you kidding? You look exactly the same as you did thirty years ago. What’s your secret?”
“Oh, stop it, you. Mostly these days I play music, just small gigs here and there. Music fans don’t care quite as much what you look like. Especially in these little clubs where the light’s not real good. Which reminds me, I brought you a present.” She dug around in her enormous purse. She pulled out a CD, slid it across the table to me. I noticed that it had a version of her most popular song from the TV show on it, “High Fidelity.” The original had been on the first “Kids From Fame” album. My brother and I would put that record on and dance around like lunatics. That song had been my favorite.
After venturing downstairs that first time, I started bugging my parents to let me join them every Wednesday to watch. I was ten and my mother figured I was old enough to stay up until nine once a week, even though it was a school night. Of course this made my brother, who was two years younger, very jealous. So our parents gave in and let him watch, too. And soon my brother and I stopped playing Return of the Jedi all the time and started pretending we were the kids from Fame.
The show was based on the movie of the same name, which had been out a few years earlier. A few of the cast members reprised their roles while others were replaced. An actress named Valerie Landsburg played Doris in the show, though someone else had played her in the film. My mother played the soundtrack all the time, and as we would later with the TV version, my brother and I would dance all over the place when it was on. Our favorite was called “Hot Lunch,” which like the theme song was sung by the half-Cuban actress Irene Cara, who was replaced by Erica Gimpel on the show to play her character, Coco Hernandez.
Fame was in its second season when we started watching it. My brother and I divided the cast in half as we had with Star Wars and other the other stories we played. Guess who portrayed Doris Schwartz?
“So, you wanna go for a walk or something?” she asked. It was dark; Doris and I had been talking and laughing and catching up for hours. We were both a little tipsy.
We headed down to the waterfront. A boat festooned with tiny lights passed, briefly filling the night with the sounds of drunken party goers.
“You know something? All this time I’ve never stopped thinking about you,” she said.
“Me too,” I said, my voice cracking. This was a lie. I hadn’t thought about Doris in years, though in a way she had always been there, a version of her face appearing in that of every woman I’d ever dated. She had set the template for the kind of woman I inevitably fell for; pale, neurotic, usually Jewish, always a brunette. Preferably a bit on the unkempt side. Hell, many of them had even been drama majors like her.
Her fingers brushed mine. Without really thinking about it I took her hand. She looked at me then turned quickly away, smiling.
My brother and I would often start a story by acting out plotlines taken directly from the source material, and when we’d exhausted or grown bored with these we’d make up our own. I don’t remember any of the stories we played based on Fame, aside from one.
My brother was playing Leroy, the heartthrob dancer of the show, a rough-and-tumble young black kid, street-smart with a good heart. I was playing Shorofsky, the gruff old German music teacher who also possessed a good heart. We would do a rough plan before our performance, then improvise the actual scene. One day, Leroy had gotten a bad grade or a reprimand from Shorofsky and in retaliation was going to push him down a flight of stairs. So we got up on the top bunk of the bed we shared and pretended to scuffle, at which point he pretended to shove me. I slid off the bed and landed on my foot so hard that I crumpled to the floor in pain. I don’t remember if I screamed or if my brother just ran to get my mother, all I know is my mother loaded my brother and my little sister and I into the car and rushed us all to the emergency room.
“So, um, how long are you in town for?” I asked Doris.
“I told you, I fly out Wednesday.”
We walked on in silence. Tents full of homeless people lined the waterfront. A plane blinked silently overhead. I kept sneaking glances at her, marveling how much she really did look like she had thirty years ago.
“Penny for your thoughts,” she said. “Though I guess with inflation that’s probably what, like five bucks by now.”
“I just still can’t really believe you’re here.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Are you OK?” she asked. “It looks like you’re sort of limping a little.”
“Just an old injury.”
“We can sit down a while if you want to.”
“I’m fine, really.”
“No, really, I don’t mind. Here’s a bench, let’s…”
“Doris, really, I’m fine.”
We walked on in silence.
“I have a crazy idea,” she said. We stopped and she grabbed both of my hands and looked into my eyes.
“Let’s go back to your place.”
The backdrop is painted in a swirl of galaxies. A row of men in full body armor- helmets, chest plates, knee pads, the whole works, emerge from the wings. The armor is white, with black cloth showing through the joints. The dancers move more gracefully than you’d think, spinning their laser rifles like batons, doing backflips and somersaults. One of them break-dances, then does the worm as the others egg him on. While they’re cavorting around the stage, a beautiful woman in a leather and metal bikini appears. Her braid whips the air behind her as she leaps and twirls around the dancing Stormtroopers.
The music turns ominous and a huge black sphere is lowered from the ceiling. Just before it touches the floor it opens from the front and Darth Vader steps from inside the Death Star. He sees the woman dancing and is immediately smitten. He follows her around the stage, his black cape billowing behind him. She toys with him, dancing faster and faster until he finally has to stop to catch his wheezing mechanical breath. She laughs at him. He takes out his lightsaber and turns it on. She laughs harder. He raises it threateningly but the glowing blade droops. He hurls it away and orders his men to capture her but she has entranced them all. The men turn on their master and he disappears in a mass of white armor as she dances and dances. The curtain drops.
My ankle was fractured. They wrapped it in a yellow fiberglass cast; I remember being disappointed that it wasn’t the kind you could write on. I had to stay off of it for a couple of months so we borrowed a wooden pair of crutches from somewhere. All the kids in my fourth grade class signed a big card at the urging of my teacher Mrs. Kilgore. I mention her because she was one of the first teachers who really supported my art. She loved my work and would make me read my cartoons to the entire class. She played the piano and we did a lot of singing in that class.
I watched Doris eat as we sat at the cafe the next morning.
“Mm,” she said. “God this is so amazing. Mmmm.” She looked up and shook her head. “Mmmmm. Oh my God. Oh my God. So good. I can feel this going straight to my ass and I don’t even care! Here, you have to try this. Hey, everything alright over there?”
“I’m not really all that hungry,”
She reached over and patted my hand.
What I remember most vividly from the incident is how difficult it was explaining it to my mother.
“So your brother pushed you out of bed?”
“Yes but it was an accident.”
“So you fell?”
“Yes but I was pretending to fall. It was just pretend.”
She was understandably upset, and since I didn’t want to get my brother in trouble I told her the whole thing, that we were playing Fame and Leroy was lashing out at his teacher though later on he would feel bad about it and apologize and learn a valuable life lesson, because that’s how the show worked, whenever some kid or teacher or random guest star made a mistake they learned from it, all the characters had good hearts, they were all good kids, even a kid from the wrong side of the tracks like Leroy, even a dopey whiney pain-in-the-ass like Doris, even an arrogant, loudmouthed prima donna like Coco …
Coco! I’d completely forgotten about her. My brother got saddled with playing Coco, I don’t think either of us liked her much. What, I wondered as I sat there watching Doris tear the crust from her toast in disgust and pushing it to the side of her plate, what had become of Coco?
Doris didn’t fly out Wednesday after all. Maybe she’d never actually intended to, I never found out for sure. Instead she moved in.
It didn’t take long for me to grow tired of having her around. It started the following morning when I got up for work. Seeing her next to me, still asleep, a spot of drool darkening the pillow beneath her chin—what had I ever seen in her? Sure, she was a sweet kid-good-natured as hell and full of pluck, but God was she whiny. And plain. And, well, kind of boring.
Why had she of all people become the template for all my future loves, crushes, infatuations? Why her and not someone else? Coco, for instance? Coco with her lithe dancer’s body, with her energy, her passion. And so confident, so sure of herself! Doris wasn’t like that at all. Doris was riddled with self-doubt, with self-loathing. Doris was a fucking mess.
But I had been drawn to her, the lovable shlimazl, the earnest nerd, the goof with a heart of gold. When I played Doris, I felt a warmth in my body, like she was actually inside me, wriggling around like a worm in a cocoon. It was slightly sexual.
I’d felt a similar physical sensation to a lesser extent while playing other female characters in the past, a tingling of sexuality, even though I didn’t understand these things yet and didn’t recognize them as such. I fantasized in bed each night about being these women. The most intense scenario I remember, one I would repeat over and over, was that I was Princess Leia in a scene at the end of the Empire Strikes Back, in which she is strapped in some sort of chair and tortured by Darth Vader, who is trying to extract information about the Rebel Alliance. She of course remains strong and resists, but the feeling of being bound in that hard chair, of having pain inflicted upon her with all sorts of instruments, was undeniably erotic. That I never grew up to be a crossdresser or have any sort of interest in sadomasochism is something I have wondered about. Have I just repressed these things so deeply I can’t even acknowledge them?
Doris certainly wasn’t interested in any sort of kink. Our sex life was plain as gefilte fish. We stopped having sex altogether after just a few weeks together. She didn’t seem to care, she just wanted to be there, all the time, wanted me to listen to her whine about her weight. Wanted me to reassure her about her beauty, wanted me to convince her she wasn’t stupid. My entire life soon consisted of trying not to be crushed beneath her insecurities.
By the end of Fame’s second season, Coco Herandez had all but disappeared from the show, and sometime in the third season she was phased out. She had always been the ambitious one, always pushing her teachers to let her go out for auditions even though it was strictly against school policy. Of all the actors on the show, I would have thought she would be the one to find success in the real world. And I guess she did, sort of, appearing on shows such as ER and Veronica Mars, though I’d never watched those shows so I never saw her.
Adolescence brought with it an apparently incurable case of snobbery that I suffer from to this day. It’s hard to believe I really loved a show as corny as Fame at one time, hard to admit that there is a part of me that likes it to this day.
One day at the grocery store, at the end of the bulk foods aisle, I caught a glimpse of a slender dark woman with wild, frizzy hair. She turned around and I nearly fainted when I realized that it was Coco.
I yelled her name and ran toward her and gave her a big hug. When I finally let go, she looked a little taken aback.
“It’s so good to see you!” I gushed. “What are you doing here? I mean, do you live in town? God it doesn’t look like you’ve aged a day.”
As I rambled on I saw her start to relax. I laughed.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to chatter on, I’m just—god, it is so good to see you after all these years! I mean, I know it’s crazy but I was just thinking about you and watching some of the old shows and I kept thinking to myself, wow, that Coco really is gorgeous, I wonder what she’s up to now?”
“Well, right now I’m up to shopping.”
“I know, sorry, I don’t want to keep you, I just—look, would you like to grab a drink sometime? Catch up? Talk about old times?”
“OK, yeah, sure, I’d like that.” We exchanged numbers and parted. I spent the rest of the day with a goofy smile on my face.
“What the hell are you so happy about?” Doris asked the moment I stepped through the door.
“Well did you pick up my foot powder like I asked you to? Or did you forget again?”
“Don’t you see,” I said to Coco later that week over dinner, “I made a mistake. I chose the wrong woman. I had no self-esteem, I hated myself. I related to the weirdoes, the losers. I should have been aspiring to be with a strong, confident woman like you. Now look at me. I’m a wreck. I’ve fucked up everything I’ve ever tried to do in my life. The other day when I saw you in the store, I felt, well, I felt reborn. I felt like I’d been given a second chance to get things right.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying marry me. No, I’m kidding, I mean, not really, but, god, Coco, you’re my ideal woman. I mean, you weren’t. But you should have been.”
“Look, baby. I’m real flattered and all that but, I mean, you’re a nice guy and all. This is—I mean, come on, we barely know each other!”
“Then let’s get to know each other. Give me a chance to show you who I am. To show you the man I can be. I will do anything for you. I mean, if I had a chance to be with a woman like you, there’s nothing I couldn’t do, I’m sure of it. With you by my side, I could live forever. Light up the sky like a flame.”
In reality, my favorite character on the show wasn’t Doris or any of the women but Bruno Martelli, a musical genius with curly black hair. Bruno loved synthesizers and modern technology, which drove music teacher Mr. Shorofsky batty. As I crept toward puberty I think I subconsciously modeled my personality after his; wisecracking, misanthropic, an inner arrogance hidden beneath a shell of self-deprecation. In other words, a dick.
I even played an instrument. My mother subjected all of her children to years of piano lessons. I retained nothing, and, the year before we started watching Fame, I started playing French horn. I remember the assembly when they tried to convince us to join the orchestra. The man demonstrating the various brass instruments played the theme from Star Wars on the horn, and I was hooked.
Coco and I talked for hours, and I don’t know how I did it, I seemed to be tapping into reserves of charm I’d never known I had, but at the end of the night, as I walked her to her door she asked, “Do you want to come in?”
A half hour later she was naked beneath silk maroon sheets, watching as I took my pants off. She made a face.
“Uh oh, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“Are those, like, women’s underpants or something? They are, aren’t they?”
I looked down.
“Huh. Well, um, yeah, I guess they might be. Is that going to be a problem?”
“I guess not. But take them off before you bring your skinny white ass into my bed.”
After the fall from the bunk bed, my brother and I stopped playing let’s pretend as often. We relied more on our action figures. It was like we’d lost the pure power of imagination we’d had as young children and now needed physical objects to bolster our fantasies. And our action figures themselves changed; as there were no more Star Wars movies coming out, our interest in space opera waned, and my brother’s interest in more terrestrial warfare took over. Thus our stories became occupied by the special armed forces unit of G.I. Joe. I had absolutely zero interest in warfare but I liked how detailed the figures were, liked all their code names, and so I allowed myself to get caught up in my brother’s enthusiasm.
Plus, it was much more, well, manly. There weren’t many women in the testosterone-drenched world of G.I. Joe. And I was starting to notice how different I was from the girls, I no longer felt any urge to pretend to be one. Besides, if anyone from school ever found out, I would no doubt be forever labeled a fag, and I knew I needed to do whatever I could to keep that from happening.
Doris was gone when I got home. All her stuff was gone. It was as if she had never existed in the first place. I called her number and got a recording saying it was not in service. I sent her an email and it got bounced back.
I had trouble falling asleep that night, and I popped in an episode of Fame from season two, the one where Doris thinks her parents are getting back together when in reality her father is planning on marrying a much younger woman, except that something was wrong with the episode in that Doris was not in it. She had completely disappeared from the show. Every time another character would address her they would be met with silence. Her name was gone from the credits. I watched another episode and it was the same. There was no more Doris Schwartz anywhere to be seen.
My brother called. I asked him if he remembered anything about playing Fame as kids. We’d never talked about it. He said he only vaguely remembered watching the show. He didn’t remember me falling from the bed and breaking my ankle, either.
“I mostly just remember playing Star Wars a lot,” he said.
“Me too. You excited about the new movie?”
“Hell yes, I can’t wait. I don’t really know about that J.J. Abrams guy directing it though.”
“Well, it’s got to be better than those fucking prequels.”
“Let’s hope so,” he said grimly.
Coco moved in a few weeks later, and from that day on we were inseparable. Her initial reservations soon faded and she was radiant.
We did everything together. She was everything I could hope for in a partner. The only thing I found strange was that she always wore dance outfits, even when we went out to a fancy dinner or an evening at the ballet. It was weird but that’s what love is, putting up with your loved one’s weirdness, right?
None of the actors from Fame went on to achieve much fame. All the kids faded into obscurity without ever hitting the big time. The exception was an 18 year old named Janet Jackson who appeared briefly in season four. My brother and I had lost interest by then, so I have no memory of seeing her on the show. I wonder how different things would have turned out if we would have kept watching. Would I have ended up falling in love with her instead of Doris, I mean Coco? Would I be living blissfully with Janet Jackson right now?
When the new Star Wars movie came out, Coco reluctantly let me drag her along. It was Episode VII, hailed as a triumphant return to form for the franchise.
“You OK baby?” Coco asked afterwards as we walked to the car. I nodded.
“I should have known. I mean, I knew there was no way it was going to as good as my inner ten-year-old wanted it to be. I know I need to face the fact that no movie is ever going to excite me the way those original movies did, thirty-odd years ago. But God, this all just felt so cynical. You can see them trying so hard to re-create that original formula, just like I’m trying so hard to look for something to make me feel that way again. But it all feels so calculated, so artificial. I feel like they’re feeding on my nostalgia, like some kind of fucking parasites. They’re trying to sell my past back to me. Those fucking assholes. Those motherfucking assholes. How dare they? How dare they fuck with my childhood?”
I realize at this point that I am screaming in the middle of the parking lot. The wind is whipping through my hair, and the sky has gone dark, and the love of my life is nowhere to be seen.
When I got home that night, all her things were gone. I didn’t know what to do without her.
That night I once again put on an episode of the old show and, sure enough, she had vanished from the program just like Doris had. With two main characters missing the episodes had become strange and disjointed, with long silent parts and empty desks and empty spots on the dance floor. It was very strange.
The following weeks were a blur. I lost myself in drinking. I went out and bought a bunch of outfits just like she used to wear and tried them on, looking at myself in the mirror, but it was no good, she was still gone.
I couldn’t tell anyone, the whole thing was so confusing and made no sense, even to myself. Our friends asked what happened and I just told them she’d left, but I could tell they were suspicious, and I couldn’t blame them. They suggested I call the cops but I knew that wouldn’t solve anything.
“I’m so sorry, dear,” my mother said when I told her. “I was really looking forward to meeting Crystal.”
“Coco, Ma. Look, Ma, there’s something I have to tell you, I said. Remember that show Fame we used to watch when we were kids?”
“Oh yes, I used to love that show.”
“I know. So you know there was that one dancer on it, a half-Spanish girl?”
“Was she the one who went for an audition and it turned out to be for an adult film?”
“Well, yes, sort of, but you’re thinking of the movie. This was the same character but a different actress played her, and in the TV version she…”
“Oh, that’s right. It was all so long ago. Mostly I just remember Debbie Allen. Now that woman could dance.”
And then I knew what to do, where I could turn to, who could help me with this bizarre situation. Someone who knew Coco, who had worked with her closer than anyone else.
I had to talk to Debbie Allen. I had to find Lydia.
Lydia was the goddess, the African-American queen, the hard-ass dance teacher everyone was afraid of though of course she had the most tender heart of anyone. Played by Debbie Allen, who also did most of the choreography for the show, Lydia was the one you pictured when you thought of Fame. She was the core, the white-hot center of the whole thing. If Doris was the heart, and Coco was the body, then Lydia was the soul. Smart, sexy—why would I have bothered even with Coco when there was Lydia? Because she was too powerful for even my fantasies, I couldn’t approach her even in my imagination. She was superhuman, a force.
But I needed her help, even if I had no idea of how to find her. I thought of how both Doris and Coco had both just materialized when I most needed them, as if by magic, and hoped that the same might happen with Lydia. But no, she was above that kind of thing, she rarely appeared to us mere mortals, I was going to have to come after her.
I felt completely lost. I missed Coco terribly. I was confused and frightened by both her and Doris’ disappearances, not just from my life but from the very show itself. I wondered if I might not be losing it.
Then one day as I was staggering half-drunk along the waterfront where Doris and I had strolled hand in hand, I tripped and went tumbling to the wet grass. I felt something hard beneath my hand, something plastic half-buried in the damp earth. I dug it out and brushed the dirt off it. It was a Princess Leia action figure (in Bespin gown), just like I’d lost in the back yard.
After the second season of Fame, the show was canceled, and though they later revived it, by the time it returned to prime time a bunch of the actors had moved on. The changes were jarring but we stuck with it through the end of the third season. It lasted for two more seasons after that, which saw more and more regulars leave. Debbie Allen stuck with it through to the bitter end though. The final episode, which I’ve never seen, apparently features cameos by many of the original kids, including Doris, who is seen holding a two year old baby—her own child from real life, apparently.
My mother faithfully bought all three albums put out by the Kids From Fame, but we listened to them less and less.
One day she handed me a book explaining human reproduction, and told me to come to her if I had any questions. I remember reading it on the back patio one weekend afternoon. It sure as hell explained a lot.
Shortly thereafter they separated the boys and the girls in school for an afternoon and explained the same things to us, accompanied by comical films, out of date even then. Breasts were sprouting all over the damn place. I started experiencing the severe mood swings that would accompany me for years to come. Childhood was officially over.
I put on a DVD and fast-forwarded to Lydia’s dance numbers, watching them over and over, watching those powerful legs kick, watching her twirl and leap across the dance studio, reflected in the mirrored walls. It finally occurred to me that I was going to have to go to New York to find her.
It felt strange to actually be standing in front of the School of the Arts, with its familiar facade I’d seen so many times during the opening credits, when that maddeningly catchy theme song would play:
I’m gonna live forever
light up the sky like a flame (fame!)
I’m gonna live forever
Baby remember my name
I did go to my own sort of School of the Arts, briefly. In the summer of my junior year of high school and I got accepted to the Pennsylvania Governor’s School of the Arts, which was basically a summer camp for art nerds, staged at the far end of the state. It differed from the school in Fame in that it included visual artists, of which I was one, as well as performers. (I’d abandoned the French horn years earlier, having suffered through middle school band hell, but that’s another story.) It was a lot like the show in that the kids were always dancing and singing and playing music.
Despite my crushing social anxiety, I did make some friends there, mostly other misfits like me. I also fell in love with a real live girl for the first time, though it remained strictly unrequited. Oddly enough, she looked and acted more like Doris more than any of the other Schwartz clones who I would end up pursuing in the future. She was Italian rather than Jewish, but nevertheless she bore an uncanny resemblance to my old TV crush.
I climbed the stairs and entered the main hall I’d seen so many times. Kids swarmed everywhere, though they weren’t singing and playing instruments and dancing like they always did in the show. They were just hurrying along on their way to class, slamming their lockers like normal kids.
I walked into the office. The lovably daffy secretary from the show, Mrs. Berg, had been ancient even back then, so I didn’t expect her to still be there. I approached the smiling young man who stood behind the familiar counter.
“Excuse me, I’m looking for a Lydia Grant?”
“Do you have an appointment to see her?”
“No, I tried to call but—”
He snapped out a business card. “Here’s her email so you can set something up with her. Have a nice day.” He stopped smiling and went back to typing on his computer.
I slipped back into the hall and went looking for the dance studio, trying to navigate my way by how I remembered from the show. It hadn’t been filmed in a real school or even in New York, it was all shot on a sound stage in Los Angeles, so I found myself wandering up and down seemingly endless corridors lined with lockers those old wooden doors with windows set in them. I stopped when I heard a familiar voice coming from a classroom.
“You got big dreams. You want Fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying—in sweat!”
It was Lydia’s voice, reciting the very lines she said during the credits sequence! I waited outside the door; I knew what her temper was like, knew how unkindly she would look upon having her class interrupted. I heard the scuff and thump of feet from the other side of the door. I planned to listen and wait until the class was over.
“Let’s take this from the top, people. Ready now, 5, 6, 7, 8…”
“You’re going to have to come with us, sir,” intoned a mechanical voice behind me. I turned around. Standing there was an entire phalanx of Stormtroopers, clad in that white armor. I didn’t know how they had snuck up behind me in those heavy boots, but there they were, each one cradling a laser rifle. I decided not to argue.
There was a Fame reunion show in 2003, just before Leroy died of a stroke at the age of 41. He’d been HIV positive. (Mr. Shorofsky had died a few years before, so he wasn’t on it either.) I didn’t see the program or even know about it until recently. I guess I could try to find a copy somewhere but what would be the point of that? Reunions are always a mistake. They do nothing but cash in on nostalgia, try to recreate something that happened long ago. I don’t need to see a middle-aged Valerie Landsberg or Debbie Allen. Better to just hold onto them as I remember them. Better to take the feelings those stories gave us and use them to make new things, not just try to rehash and recycle the same old thing over and over again.
Of course, don’t tell J.J. Abrams that.
The troopers marched me down the hall to the principal’s office. I tried to remember who the principal had been on the show, but I couldn’t remember his name.
They shoved me through the door. Behind the desk with his back to me sat Darth Vader.
I guess I should have seen it coming, what with the sudden appearance of the Stormtroopers and all, but I admit I was pretty surprised.
Vader turned slowly around in the creaky leather seat to face me. As frightened as I was, I still felt a twinge of childlike excitement at being face to mask with the most spectacular villain of my childhood. Just hearing the heavy breathing coming out of that futuristic samurai helmet made my pulse race.
“So, we meet again,” he said. I started to say something but he held up a black-gloved hand and I felt my throat constrict.
“Silence!” he bellowed. He rose slowly, regally, and came around the desk. I was shocked to see how short he was, fully a head shorter than I was. He reached up and unfastened his mask.
“Happy to see me, you little piece of shit?” she asked.
“But what happened? Where did you go?”
“I decided to vamoose. What’s the point in sticking around with someone who obviously doesn’t need you anymore.”
“Well, it’s, um, nice to see you. You’re looking—”
“Cut the crap, asshole,” she said. “Doris Schwartz wasn’t born yesterday. For years you worship me, do everything you can to go out with chicks who remind you of me, then all of a sudden decide you can do better and chuck me out of your heart like yesterday’s pastrami? You know what that does to a girl?”
Turns her to the dark side, apparently. I wanted to point out the irony of a nice Jewish girl from Queens being in charge of a bunch of Stormtroopers, but figured this probably wasn’t the time. She was already fingering her lightsaber. She saw me watching and gave me a wicked grin.
“Wanna see how big it is?” She flicked it on. It glowed a bright, garish violet.
“What can I say,” she shrugged. “I dig purple.”
She waved it back and forth, hissing and crackling in front of my face. “And now I think I’m going to see just how far I can shove this up your ass.”
She was no longer the nerdy klutz I remembered from my childhood. Her face in the glow of the lightsaber was fierce, her teeth gritted, her eyes flashing. Her hair crackled with static electricity, or perhaps the power of the Force. Had this side of her been there all along? Why hadn’t I seen it? With her black cape billowing behind her, glowing sword held above her head, she looked positively radiant.
“I know you don’t believe me but I really do love you,” Doris, I said. She looked as if she had been struck. “Look, I’m sorry I never said it before, but, well I know I didn’t appreciate you, and thought you were just a reflection of my own lack of self-worth. But I never realized how strong you are. How really beautiful you are.”
She looked like she was going to cry. Then her eyes narrowed.
“Nice try, sweetie,” she hissed, putting her mask back on.
She swung her lightsaber. I jumped aside and grabbed the arm that held it and yanked it as hard as I could. The weapon flew out of her hand and sliced through the armor of the troopers standing at the door. I pushed past the others as they jostled to reposition and took off down the hall before they could block me. I heard their boots stomping behind me as I turned the corner. A bell rang and the halls were suddenly flooded with students, only they weren’t students at all, they were all the actresses I had crushes on growing up, starting with the hippie girls from the Magic Garden and continuing with Maria and Susan from Sesame Street, Lady Aberlin from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, all the women from all those children’s shows and continuing on through sit-coms and soap operas and even the commercials I saw when our parents finally relented and started letting us watch TV without limits. I recognized the women my brother and I had seen on Cinemax’s soft-core offerings during that brief magical time when we’d stolen cable; women from music videos, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna and Debbie Harry; Audrey Horne from Twin Peaks; a half dozen Winona Ryders.
And they were all being mowed down by the ricocheting laser beams of the Stormtroopers’ rifles.
“Get your ass in here! And I mean now!” A hand yanked me into a classroom and slammed the door behind me. It was the dance studio, and the hand belonged to Lydia. In her other hand she held the stick she used to tap time on the wooden floor.
“Would you mind explaining to me just where you been, child? You know I don’t have patience for any of my students showing up late.”
She stared at me with that fiery look of hers. I stood there panting. I could still hear screams and bursts of laser gunfire through the closed door.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered, “but—”
“You know what, never mind, I don’t want to know. You’re not even dressed right. Here, change into this so we can get this party started.”
She threw me an outfit and pointed to the dressing room. I pulled the door behind me and changed. She’d given me a pink woman’s leotard with a little skirt and bright teal legwarmers. I ran my hands over the fabric, felt it rub against my flesh as I pulled it on. It felt good.
“I haven’t got all day, Coco,” Lydia yelled.
I burst out of the dressing room.
“Coco? But I’m not—” Then I looked at myself in the mirrored wall of the dance studio.
“I hope you are ready to sweat, girl. Because you are not leaving this room until we get this thing right.”
Grabbing the boom box from the stool, she flashed me a merciless smile and pressed play.
“Five, six, seven, AND—”
FAME! I’M GONNA LIVE FOREVER—I’M GONNA LEARN HOW TO FLY!
I WAS RECENTLY ASKED an interesting question. “If you could take one memory with you into the next world, what would it be?” I didn’t know how to answer. But I considered this one, the story of the tree I planted that wasn’t supposed to grow.
Before I was a newspaper boy, I sold packets of Burpee vegetable and flower seeds. I carried a small cardboard box full of fifty-cent merchandise from door to door and begged old ladies to consider new brands of marigold flowers for their beds. The seeds were not hard to sell—who can resist a boy with chestnut-hair over his eyes and pretty pink lips that ask, “Would you like to buy some seeds?”
Grace Hershey, an old lady who lived at the top of the hill in Three Springs told me that she would love to buy some seeds but she was too old to tend to a garden. Summer was her favorite time of the year, Grace explained—it was the only time when it was safe for her to walk without slipping on ice. Winters were always cold, she said, but something had changed in the air from when she was a little girl, and she could no longer tolerate those chilly, dark nights. She did, however, inspect every last pack of seed and after a long explanation about how the space shuttle was causing another ice age, she settled upon several varieties of flowers that I did not know how to pronounce. I was so happy she bought them; I was afraid no one in Three Springs would be interested in simple white flowers. All of my cucumbers were gone, so were the radishes.
Tired of always wearing my clothes handed down from my brother—that were given to him by some kids we did not even know—I decided that I needed to do more than sell seeds every spring for just a few bucks. The town paper route was still controlled by the Bennett family and I couldn’t get a job with them yet. I was too little to work on any of the nearby farms, and my aunt Cathy paid me just $2 a week for feeding her dog Dusty every morning and every night.
So in May, I asked Grace if she needed someone to mow her yard and do weeding for her and told her I’d take whatever she wanted to pay. She took me up on the offer like I was a pack of morning glories. “Yes, I would like that very much. My son-in-law does it for me now, and I hate feeling like I owe someone something.”
I was soon promoted from mowing the yard to spading Grace’s flower bed and then to planting the very seeds that I sold to her. Every week Grace called me over, in need of some help in her little yard. “Your son is such a good little gardener,” she told my mother on the phone. “Everything he plants grows so well. I wonder if Charlie would be interested in digging up the ground over my septic tank; I have to have it emptied.”
The job of unearthing that tank took all day, but I made $40 and it secured for me steady summer employment for the rest of my childhood, even after I started delivering newspapers every evening.
As I got older, I slowly cut back my hours working for the old woman. I still opened Grace’s door every evening without knocking, to hand her the paper—it was on these occasions that she guilted me into doing her spring planting.
“My daughter sent me a tree that only grows in the south—Florida I think—that’s where she lives now. I was wondering if you would dig me a hole in my flower bed and plant it.”
I dug the hole with a canvas bag of heavy newspapers strapped over my shoulder. I had the tree in the ground in less than five minutes, and forgot I had ever planted it until years later, while home on leave from the Army. I came to visit Grace and she pointed it out to me.
“Just look how big the tree you planted is. Have you ever seen anything like it? It’s not supposed to grow this far north, but somehow I knew that if you planted it, it would grow for me.”
Grace is gone, planted far under the ground, but her pink trailer is still at the top of the hill in Three Springs and that odd tree from Florida is still growing there, high above her tin roof. I can see it when I drive by, a reminder that I once sold seeds door-to-door.
They say you can’t take it with you, but they say a lot of things that aren’t true. When the time comes for me to go, I’m going to zip up my fly but I’ll get the tablecloth stuck in it, and when I walk away, the tablecloth is coming with me, like my memories, and everything on the table will fall to the floor with a spectacular sound of broken dishes and shattering glass, because I’m Charles George Taylor and there’s never been anyone like me, so I’ll walk away with all of my memories hooked to my fly like that tablecloth, I’m taking them all with me, not just one.
Bonjour. The pharmacist is in the back, on the phone, taking a big order from a doctor for all his patients. He asked me to wait and let any other customers know that he’ll be up front in a few minutes. His clerk is off sick.
Oh, thank you, madame. No problem, I’m not in a rush. Lovely coat. Chanel?
Yes, thank you. I am overdressed for the pharmacy; I shouldn’t have worn it. Not in this neighborhood, anyway.
Do be careful. See that kid across the street? Just standing there? He may have already spotted you. It could be he’s waiting for you to come out, then he’ll run over and snatch your purse.
Oh, don’t I know it. I used to live around the corner; I never come any more. But an old friend just died and I’m filling a prescription for her sister. Some kid grabbed my friend’s necklace and yanked it right off of her. Cut her neck, but not that badly. She staggered home and the shock must have given her a heart attack. Her sister came over a few minutes later, she told her the story then fell over and died.
That’s horrible! I’m so sorry. My condolences. Crazy, though, same thing happened to me. Except I was in my car. A motorcycle pulled up with two guys wearing black helmets and black visors riding double. The guy on the back reached over and yanked my necklace right off me. I’m lucky he didn’t break my neck. If the chain were a bit thicker, he might have!
Oh, good lord, I’m so sorry to hear that, too, madame. This neighborhood has changed in the years since I left, hasn’t it? I’d never come back; but my friend’s sister isn’t doing well, as you can imagine, after seeing my friend die in front of her.
Yes, I can imagine.
So I’m trying to help.
That’s very good of you.
Thank you. But as I said, I would have never returned otherwise. This neighborhood has such an intense bad memory for me.
What happened, if you don’t mind my asking?
My son had a friend who died very young.
Oh, that’s terrible. That’s something that hurts like no other pain.
Yes. Especially that his friend had done everything for him. My son was OK, but stuck in a dead-end career. His friend got him going as a professional. Took him under his wing when no one else would give him a chance. They were friends from school. Little kids. Now my son’s a huge success, thanks to his friend, who’s gone now. Very painful for me. I loved his friend, too. And we owe him so much.
Oh, that’s so nice that your son’s friend helped him. I understand the pain.
Yes, this coat, that you mentioned, my son just bought it for me. He’s in the south now, running his own business. His friend got him started in banking. No one else would have given him a break. He didn’t have much in the way of education; none of the boys did, they didn’t make it to college, only trade school. So my son started working with his girlfriend, now his wife, my daughter-in-law, at Air France. Without diplomas, he wasn’t going to advance, he would’ve been a clerk all his life. But his friend taught him finance, his star was rising at the bank where his friend got him the job, then he learned how to do financial consulting from his friend, now he’s a huge success. Madame?
Oh, I’m sorry, it’s just that …
Are you OK? You look pale suddenly.
Yes, but … your son’s friend lived in the neighborhood? And you did, of course, and your son?
Yes, that’s what I was saying, but in fact, we left because … it was just so hard, to still be here after his friend died. Madame?
I’m sorry. It’s just that … may I ask the name of your son’s friend?
His name was Philippe, madame.
Yes. You knew him?
That was my son, madame. So you are Lolo’s mom, Madame B. I am Madame A.
Oh my god. Madame A. This is not possible. Yes, Lolo. Manu. Manuel. But they called him Lolo.
It’s OK Madame B. Do not cry, please, you will make me cry and once I start I cannot stop.
I’m sorry, Madame A. But I am overcome. We owe so much to your son. We have such amazing memories of all the good times they had together. And all he did for Manuel. We thought Philippe had been getting better. What happened? It was so long ago. I did not expect it. It was such a shock.
They did cure the cancer. But the radiation after the bone marrow transplant give him another cancer.
Oh, la la. He was 34, wasn’t he?
Yes. This year makes it 20 years ago.
My god. He was so good to my son. Such a good friend. When they were teenagers they got so rowdy at a café one night that the owner took out his bullwhip and threatened them with it, remember that story? The guy would’ve hit Manu with it, but Philippe calmed everything down.
Yes, Madame B. They were always together. Planning parties for birthdays. Or anytime for no reason. I remember that Philippe and Lolo rented a windmill on a farm one New Year’s Eve. Everyone danced all night and they came back after dawn exhausted. But they all said, “well, no one can say we didn’t do anything New Year’s this time.”
But what still gets me, madame, is that Manu was going nowhere until Philippe picked him up and propped him up on his own. I mean, he had that job at Air France, and they got to travel with 90 percent discounts, but still, it never was a career. Now, thanks to Philippe—your son—he’s a financial consultant and he buys me this Chanel coat, which I’m wearing now and I shouldn’t be wearing in this neighborhood, and I meet you, and I shouldn’t even be in this neighborhood, and never would have been if not for my friend dying last week, getting her necklace torn off her neck, just like yours was. This is all just so crazy.
Hey, life is crazy stories all the time. It must have been meant to be.
Philippe had a brother and sisters, I remember Manu told me. They are fine, please tell me, I hope.
Yes, very well. The brother and one sister are here and they are married and have kids so that’s all good. The other sister is in the United States.
She married the American, right? I remember the wedding. Manu rented a limo to chauffeur them that day.
That’s right. I remember that. Lolo rented the limo. That was his wedding present.
Yes, ha ha, he had always wanted to drive a limo, I think he might’ve even wanted to be a limo driver then, so he rented the limo to drive them from your house to the wedding!
Right, and the other boys from their little gang came, too. Do you know how those kids are doing? Listen to me, still calling them kids. They’re 50-plus now. Boulite? Raymond?
Boulite has had his challenges. One job. Another. Never really doing well. Manu tried to help him at one point, but you know, some people—they’ve got it tough.
And Raymond? They were all so nice, they were all with Philippe to the end.
Raymond was doing OK, but then he married a very pretty girl and—well, you know, how can I say it, she tightened her grip on him. Doesn’t let him see friends; you know how that can happen. I’ve heard of that, I’m sure you have, too. Very possessive, insecure, it must be that.
Yes. Do please have Lolo send them my best.
I will mention it. Or maybe. I’m not sure I should tell Manu I bumped into you. It’s too painful. He had to move away. After Philippe died, he couldn’t stand coming here anymore, seeing the old streets, the cafes, the apartment buildings where they used to hang out. Just too painful.
I understand, Madame B.
I will talk to his wife about it and see if we think we should tell him.
In fact, Madam A., I think I’m going to take off now, these memories are starting to get to me, too. I think I’ll have to go to another pharmacy to get this prescription filled.
Au revoir, Madam B. Keep your eye on the kid across the street, though. Don’t turn your back on him.
Merci, Madame A. Au revoir. Merci beaucoup.
AS I SAT reading a copy of my new book, Chill and Other Stories, a twelve-point buck walked near the beach, just a few yards from our blanket. There was still felt on the massive antlers. The creature seemed more like a moose or a reindeer than a white-tail. It occurred to me that the animal picked up the scent of the food we were eating and wanted some. Since it was Fire Island, where everyone is gay, the animal was not at all threatened by our presence, or by the presence of the many dogs that were being walked at sunset on a beach that faces east.
B had been feeding a seagull all afternoon. The winged creature, upon discovering that all our bread had been eaten, seemed to scream in pure terror near the edge of the hand-knitted blanket upon which we sat. But we had other food the bird did not know about. “Please don’t feed that deer,” I ordered B. “you have already angered the locals. They hate deer out here. They call them rodents.”
“How long do you want to stay?”
“Let’s wait and be the last ones to leave the sand. You do have another hand-rolled cigarette don’t you? I think the Long Island Railroad runs at least until midnight. You’re eyes are red as hell. Just sit here and marinate.”
B hadn’t left our blanket all afternoon. He managed to finish the entire pint of vodka we brought with us, and he had yet to walk to the water to take a piss as I had done several times throughout the day.
“Let’s walk to the Grove,” he suggested. The Fire Island Grove is considered the poorer neighborhood there. Unlike the Pines, where wealthy homosexuals rent summer homes for nearly a quarter of a million dollars, the Grove is much cheaper and is infested with Lesbians. B, a butch street thug himself, gets a kick out of lesbians, whom he calls “professional wrestlers”.
We walked the narrow boardwalk that leads from the beach and extends the entire length of the Pines neighborhood. B, who wore sneakers with socks to the beach, fussed as we tiptoed along the wooden planks to avoid splinters. We marched on and my lover found a trash can upon which he could sit to brush off his feet and put on his shoes.
A trio of gay men with highlights in their hair saw us tiptoeing down the boardwalk—“Oh look, they are being so quiet. Shhh!” one of the men exclaimed. The others chuckled as they passed by. “We don’t want to get splinters,” I told them. It occurred to me that we had smoked too much and we were not being quiet so I became paranoid and thought that somehow, the queens knew it and were poking fun of the two common stoners who had made their summer getaway a playground for the day.
We walked as far as the boardwalk would take us before entering a wooded area that leads to the Grove. I stopped at the tip of the runway and showed B where my old boss Claude Winfield and his friend Tilly Davis once owned a home. Reeds and bamboo had grown so high it was no longer possible to see the heated swimming pool built upon stilts, as was the rest of the cozy house with a fireplace, resting like a bird in a nest upon the green swamp.
“When was the last time you saw him?” B asked.
“It has been a very long time. He’s probably in heaven now. I heard him years ago, on one of those 900 gay hotlines. I was so shocked when I called that number and was scanning through the voice messages when I heard that fake British accent of my old black boss, Claude. It was December and it was cold as a lesbian’s tit outside. Claude left a message inviting anyone to come on out here to Fire Island. That’s when I knew for sure it was him. He was seeking some sort of play with toys. I never would have guessed he was the type. He even offered to pay for a limo in his message. Claude was such a generous guy. I wish to God he still lived here and was still alive—we could drop by and have one of Tilly’s famous mimosas—she made them with freshly squeezed orange juice that she squeezed with her bare hands.”
We entered the wooded area near Claude’s old home. The area was called the Meat Rack because of the heavy cruising that once went on there. Unfortunately, it’s now flooded; a swamp covers the site where the men had been posing like inflatable dolls that were leaning on trees.
Claude liked to share stories about the Meat Rack. He was one of the few gay men to survive 1970s Fire Island. Claude was a twin and had a sister named Claudette. So he was especially interested in the two identical male twins who were “twice as hot as Rock Hudson” when they ruled the Meat Rack.
According to Claude, they gave the best gay sex any homosexual man would ever encounter. The brothers did three-ways and often had sex with one another. Claude said they were strikingly beautiful, and watching them was like watching the beautiful bucks that are still so plentiful out here.
We made our way to the station and took the train back home. Goodbye, Fire Island. Goodbye, Claude. Goodbye, house on stilts. Goodbye, Meat Rack. Goodbye, twins. Goodbye.
AUTUMN CAME as soon as the Norwegian geese flew overhead. With summer over at the beach, we passed the time by playing cards and checkers and listening to records while the streets of the town were covered bit by bit with sand that drifted from the shore as the wind blew from Atlantic.
Christian Winegrain, between his bouts of depression, couldn’t stop himself from taking stupid risks. Among them were night landings of his plane in the middle of the sandy marshes near Geurande. He was flying an old Jodel that he had jury-rigged himself. He wouldn’t let anyone light a runway for him and always picked nights with no moonlight. May God protect him.
Delval and his young protegé were still listed in the phone book just four or five years ago, at the same number they had on rue de Rivoli. You could even read: “Michel Maraize, Dramatic Artist, RIC 14.78.” They’re not in the book anymore, neither one of them, and a clothing boutique has replaced their unfinished-wood store on rue d’Artois. Michel or “Claudio,” if you read this, please be kind enough to let me know how you’re doing, wherever you may be.
And Georges Bellune, who introduced me to all those people? He took his own life. I think of him often. Toward the end of our time together, he shared a big secret with me: He was born in Vienna and his real name was Georg Bluëne. When he was twenty-three, he composed the music for an operetta. Hawaiian Roses. His friend from Kitzbühel, Bruno Kramer, wrote the libretto. The show was an immense success in Vienna then in Berlin, and as irony would have it, at the moment of the election of Adolph Hitler the charming and exotic refrains of Hawaiian Roses were being whistled down every street. I bet that’s when George Bluëne met Oscar Dufresne in Paris, and that they met because Dufresne wanted to put on Hawaiian Roses at his music hall in Montmartre. Just between you and me, isn’t it odd to note that the Nazis’ climb to power culminated the same year as Dufresne’s assassination?
Shortly afterward, George Bluëne left Vienna for France and became Georges Bellune.
He reproached himself for his frivolity. You don’t write operettas on the eve of the apocalypse, he used to tell me. But I argued that the opposite was true: Unconsciously, he had hoped that his rose petals and the lilting sounds of Hawaiian guitars under the linden trees would break the evil spell. I also told him something he liked to hear: He was like a squid in the face of danger, shooting out a cloud of black ink to cover his trail. Poor Hawaiian Roses by Bluëne and Kramer.
Of all of us, Françoise came away the best. For the past few years, she has graced the screens of movie theaters as a leading actress. She changed her first name, though. The other night, while I was passing by the Rond-Point des Champs-Elysées, I noticed a giant poster for one of the films she’s starring in and admired her face, blown up out of all proportion. Nevertheless, I recognized the very young woman whom I had seen watching Christian Winegrain with her sad, passionate eyes.
She and I, we were twenty years old together. If we met, we’d be the only ones left who could talk about the old times at Grosbois and the great days of the Hacienda. But would she want to? Sometimes you force yourself to forget the little group that presided over the beginning of your life.
Conquistador Review will be published as often as possible.
It was originally conceived as a quarterly, but plans come and go, don’t they?
Regardless, each time we’ll pick up where we left off. Or try.
I was going to write a more involved introduction, but I decided not to.
Editor: Steve Silkin
Front and Back Cover Photos: Cowboy Palace, Jennifer Sands Revitz Soper
Conquistadors and Conquistadorettes (roll call!):
Kay Washkoe lives in Pennsylvania.
Whit Frazier lives in Stuttgart; he is the author of Harlem Mosaics and The Freewheeling Jazz Funeral of Robert Johnson.
Richard Herd lives in the Bay Area.
Steve Chawkins lives in Ventura.
Travis Stebens lives in Los Angeles.
Liz Axelrod lives in New York; her poetry book is Go Ask Alice.
Seann McCollum lives in Portland, Ore.; he has written numerous poetry collections.
Charles George Taylor is Charles George Taylor; he lives in New Jersey.
Steve Silkin (that’s me!) lives in Los Angeles.
Patrick Modiano lives in Paris; he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. Steve Silkin (that’s me again!) translated this excerpt from his short novel, Memory Lane.
Jennifer Sands Revitz Soper lives in Los Angeles.
Previously on Conquistador:
YOU! OUT! NOW! by Steve Silkin
Chill and Other Stories by Charles George Taylor
Magnifying Glass by Seann McCollum
A group forms. It's an organic process. Some people come, others go. Sometimes you stay together for years, other times just for months. But in either case, you will likely bump into each other again in the future. With good memories. Or bad. With happy news. Or sad. These are stories of looking back from the present onto the past. Nietzsche once said that our challenge is to develop a nostalgia for the present. The word nostalgia can carry a subtext of an illusion of fondness. I remember a 1970s song about the wave of nostalgia for 1950s culture, with the lyric: "I don't despair that I was there – you're lucky it wasn't you." Would nostalgia for the present suggest the same illusory fondness? Oh my, I got too deep into the weeds here. If you read these stories, you will enjoy them. They're wistful, sad, funny and wacky and only troubling on occasion. You don't have to contemplate my thoughts on nostalgia. Unless you want to. It's a free country, as they say. For now.