Copyright 2016 Cat Oars
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and lending to friends as commonly allowed. This ebook may not be re-sold.
Thank you for respecting the hard work of these authors.
Table of Contents
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, waked 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 begot 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. I 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.”
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 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.
“Okay, 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 okay?” 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 be caught watching 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?”
“Okay, 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 and 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 okay 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 every going to excite me the way those original movies did, thirty-odd years ago. But God, this all just felt so cynical, so calculated. 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. Losing Doris was one thing, but this.
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 things 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 LIGHT UP THE SKY!
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 from 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 CGT 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 a very sick patient. 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 okay, 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 okay? 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 okay 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.
HAVE YOU HEARD the name Huckleberry Finn? Do you know this person? You do? And you know he’s a fictional character, not a “real” person, don’t you? You know that, too? But you can tell me about him, can’t you? Can you also tell me about his father, and Jim, and his friends Tom and Becky? Yes? No? Maybe? Maybe some and not others? Are you answering these questions as you read? No? Then why are you still reading?
Have you heard other names of other people that aren’t “real” people, such as Dmitri Karamazov? Dean Moriarty? But wait—that was a pseudonym for Neal Casady, wasn’t it? Can you tell me anything you know about Dean or about Neal? Do you know as much about Dean as you know about Neal? Or do you not know either? Do you know the name Lady Chatterley? Or Emma Bovary?
Was it a good idea to start this story with those two paragraphs? Yes? No? Maybe? Or is it too early to judge? Doesn’t it depend on what comes after? When will the action start? Do you think the action should start now? Have you suspended disbelief? Is that called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’? If so, is there a corollary called ‘unwilling suspension of disbelief’? Have you asked yourself why this story is being written in questions? Are the last two questions related? Yes, no, maybe?
Can you picture a young man in a cubicle in an office? That should be easy, shouldn’t it? Haven’t most of us worked in such a place? Or at least seen one on TV or in the movies? Shall we start our story there, with our young man in a cubicle? We could, couldn’t we? But wouldn’t it be better to set it at a bar? As our story involves conversations and interactions among people, wouldn’t it be better to set it at a bar than in the abstract world of computer messages? Why am I calling it “our” story? I’m writing it, aren’t I? But if I keep asking you questions and I call it “our” story, is that a trick to keep you engaged? If so, is it working? If not, why are you still reading?
Can you imagine a young man who, for the purposes of our story, has left his cubicle after hearing about a nearby village that’s just been built? Can you picture a village, or maybe a town or even a city, where there are stores to buy and sell things, such as cars, bicycles, cameras, musical instruments? And advertisements for apartments to rent? And jobs by category? Would you find such information useful? Sometimes? Never? Depends?
Did you know that in this village or town or city that there are even special places to go to find friends or lovers? Or to find other musicians if you want to form a band or replace your conga player if you already have a band? And other places—bars, or taverns, or saloons, as you prefer—where you can go to discuss your favorite subjects, such as politics or literature or television, with other people who have similar interests? Have you been to such a place? In real life, or online? Yes? No? Maybe? Yes, right?
If our protagonist were a writer he would be interested in the writer’s bar, wouldn’t he? Can you picture our protagonist entering the writer’s bar? Have you formed an image of him yet? Or should I describe him? Do you know what Huckleberry Finn looks like? Was he described in the book? Or can you picture him anyway because you just fill in the details with your imagination? Is it time we named the writer? Do you have any suggestions for a name? And what about the writer’s bar? Do you know what it looks like? Do I need to tell you, or would it be better to leave it to your imagination? Is it time we named the bar?
Have you noticed the action hasn’t started yet? Have you read essays on fiction? Don’t they usually urge you to start the action quickly to make sure the audience keeps reading? Why did I just say “you” when I probably should’ve directed that question at myself? Why would I ignore the advice of all the experts? Is this page 2 on a single-spaced 8 ½ by 11 piece of paper or is it only a representation of a piece of paper on a computer screen? How many words have I typed so far? Did you guess about 720? Would you be surprised if I told you that was the correct number? Do you think of yourself as a good guesser? Have you ever won one of those contests where you “guess-the number of jelly beans in the jar?” If so, what was the prize? Fifty bucks? A Starbucks gift card? If you did not win, would you guess again next time? It’s free, isn’t it? You can’t lose, can you? Are you still reading? Why? Have you checked the time? Are you late for an appointment? Don’t you have anything better to do?
Do you want to know what happens to the young man who enters the writer’s tavern? Do you suspect it might be interesting and enlightening and relevant to your life? Or are you reading for entertainment and escape from boredom? Or are you wondering where I’m going with this? And whether I can maintain this all-question format while telling a story? Is that why you’re still reading even though the action has yet to begin? Yes? No? If no, then why are you still reading?
When the writer arrives, does he listen to the conversations before joining in? Or does he “belly up to the bar” and start blabbing his opinions without first taking the temperature of the room? (Did you notice that I put the cliché in quotes? Did you guess I did that because they tell you to avoid clichés? And when I say “they” do you know who “they” are? Are the quote marks a form of cheating, of using clichés while acknowledging you’re doing what you shouldn’t? Like adding the word “proverbial” in front of a cliché?)
For the sake of this story, can we stipulate that he listened to some conversations first? And can we agree that he we was surprised to hear that there was an intense hatred for the Harry Potter books? And that he wondered why a – anyone would hate the books that much and b – why they would come to the bar to discuss their hatred of these books? And that he was perplexed by the young woman professional editor whose response to every question from aspiring writers was “hire a professional editor”? And that he was upset by a series of attacks—both personal and generic—on writers posting in the bar, on writers in general, and anyone else who happened to walk into the room?
Do you remember that a few days after he began to frequent the bar, he joined the conversation by responding to a particular insult with another insult—but as it was a literary bar, he used a haiku format to respond? That was a long time ago, so it’s unlikely you’ll remember, isn’t it? Would it surprise you that the response prompted a frothing-at-the-mouth anger from the original insulter? Did our writer realize he had hit a nerve? Is that why he decided to stay? Because he knew he could come to the bar and hit nerves and make people angry? Did he enjoy that? Yes, no, maybe? Or is the answer more complicated than a simple yes, nor or maybe? Has the action started yet? Did the action start with the insult haiku?
Did the writer decide to return to the bar every now and then? If he didn’t, that would be the end of the story, wouldn’t it? So can we then assume that he did? And can we assume that when people said stupid things, he enjoyed pointing out their stupidity? Or ignorance? Wouldn’t he have better used his time to write? Or do you think he might’ve been just bored at the office? Did I just tip you off?
Would you be surprised to learn that he soon encountered like-minded people at this bar? And despite the rambunctious and sometimes frustrating nature of the place and deep hostility of some regulars and many newcomers, they began to enjoy their time there? (You’re with me there, now, right?)
Would it have been reasonable to expect that the group were arrivals from East and West? Did you know that western members included a businessman from San Francisco, a water engineer in Arizona, divorcees in Washington (including one now deceased, may she rest in peace), and a security guard in Oregon; and the New York contingent included a Bohemenian classics graduate, a gay man who grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and a soon-to-be-single mom originally from Arizona? Are you aware that one of the Californians came a few feet away from being short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize?
How could anyone have expected that between the attacks, insults, stalking and harassment that the group wrote stories on the forum, criticized and commented upon each others’ work and even offered financial support to a member who had fallen on hard times?
Is this action or exposition? Is there any action in this story? Will there be? What is the story about? What would be a good title for this story? Should the title be explicit or evocative?
Shall we name our protagonist now? Shall we call him Pierre? Would that suggest his nationality or Melville’s book, “Pierre or the Ambiguities?” Can we imagine him as a foreign-language speaker in an English-language bar? Would that strain the “suspension of disbelief?” It probably would, wouldn’t it? So let’s name him Seth, shall we?
How do you think Seth felt when a member of the Eastern contingent suddenly turned against him, developing some sort of fixation, and threatened to hound him at the bar unless he revealed his identity so that the man could find Seth and hound him outside the bar, too? Did Seth realize it was an empty threat and brush it off? Or did he try that, only to realize that it wasn’t the threat that was the problem, the problem was the intensity of the hatred the man had developed for him?
And how do you think Seth and others in the group felt that soon after that episode, when one of the shadowy figures at the back of the room, who was constantly heckling the other regulars, spitting in their drinks, trying to intimidate them as they walked from the bar to the table with a tray of drinks, threatened to call child protective services on a members of the group who had written about raising his young son? Do you think it was an empty threat? Yes, no, maybe? But isn’t that a secondary question to this one: What kind of person would make such a threat? Was that the same person who followed a writer (the one who had received financial support from the group) to other bars, where he was paid for his writing, and harassed him there? Do you think everyone in the group might have started, at that point, to feel uneasy about showing up at the bar? Or maybe just some people?
What happens next, you ask? No? You don’t care what happens next? Then why are you still reading? Do you think the action has started? What if I wrote that last sentence to give a clue that the action hasn’t started yet? Would you be frustrated? Would you think I was toying with you? Would you turn against me? Or have you already turned against me? Or were against me at the beginning? If so, why did you start reading and why haven’t you stopped? WHO ARE YOU? WHY DO YOU THINK I HAVE TO JUSTIFY MYSELF TO YOU? Do you think I’m writing to “you” specifically or to the general “you”?
Did you know that soon after the threats and the stalking from the shadowy figure, another young man came to the bar? Would you believe that he had lived off the grid in Hawaii for many years, using a generator for power, raising a child in a tropical jungle paradise, making glassware? Can you imagine this unusual lifestyle? Do you admire him for his independence and self-sufficiency? Does my question make my position apparent? Why did this man suddenly appear at the bar? Is this the beginning of the action, the arrival of this interesting person? Yes, no, maybe?
Did he say that he arrived at the bar because his life in Hawaii had fallen apart, his glassware business wasn’t sustainable and that he had to reinvent himself, and oh, by the way, he was heavily medicated because of a mental illness (that his teenage son had unfortunately inherited from him)? Did you guess that the answer to that question is yes? Do you know that there is no prize for guessing correctly? Did this sudden turn in the narrative indicate to you that there will be no prizes for guessing in this story? Would you rather guess the number of jelly beans in a jar? Would I? Did you guess that the answer to that question is also yes? Are you still reading? Why? You can stop now if you like, can’t you? No, you don’t think you can? Why not?
Shall we name the man? Why not? Didn’t he announce his name when he entered the bar? Shall we call him David? I do, so why shouldn’t you? Was he a real person? Or is he just a character in a story? Is this his story? Is this Seth’s story? Is Seth the protagonist? Or is David? Is one of them the good guy? Is one of them the bad guy? Will there be a surprise twist that will answer that question ambiguously?
Do you think that David was likely in his manic phase when he entered the bar and accosted everyone in sight (and some not in sight), entering debates, at times charming, at times respectful, at time hostile and unreasonable? How do you think David reacted when he realized he had no control over whether his posts were removed, over who could respond to his posts, over how they could respond? Do you think he was frustrated, hurt and resentful? Do you think he looked for someone to blame? Have you predicted that he scanned the bar and his eyes came to rest upon Seth?
Is this where the action starts, or has it already started, or has it yet to start? What if I were to bet that you know the answer to that last question? Did it take too long for your taste to get to this turning point in the story? On page 5 (or the computer facsimile of page 5), after 2,000-plus words, with no dialog and only questions? Can you please tell me why you’re still reading? Haven’t we just broken every rule? Did I just use “we” because you and I are now partners in this debacle and I am sharing the blame for this with you? Weren’t you supposed to stop reading before now?
Did this next part really happen, or is it Seth’s paranoia that led him to believe it? Or am I making it up? Did David accuse Seth of controlling the occurrences at the bar? Did David accuse Seth of hacking into his personal email and passing the contents along to others in the bar where they turned them into stories to taunt David? Did this take place in full public view? Did most people at the bar witness these accusations? Did one or two people defend Seth while others urged David to calm down? Did David leave in a proverbial huff (did you notice the use of “proverbial”?), only to return a day or two later and continue the accusations? Did he leave again, promising never to return? Did he break that promise? Repeatedly? Did Seth ask David to explain his accusations? Did David refuse? Did David then leave again, never to return?
Can you picture Seth, a year or so later, not in the bar this time but bored at his desk in his cubicle? What brought David’s name into his head that day? Do you realize that there may never be an answer for that question? How do you know what brings things into your own head, let alone Seth’s? Or mine? (Were you presuming I’m Seth?) What brought it in my head to write this story? Do I think you may know the answer to that question?
If you could, would you look over Seth’s shoulder while he Googled David’s name? No? Why not? Are you afraid of what you would find? Do you think Seth expected to find his obituary? Do you expect that Seth instantly knew that David had done what others with his ailment do, taken his own life? Do you feel that the obituary’s omission of the cause of death was sufficient confirmation of his conclusion?
Is this the end of the story? You’d expect me to go back to Huckleberry Finn, though, wouldn’t you? Isn’t that where I started? Wouldn’t I need to tie everything back to those first two paragraphs to justify the use of that introduction? Where do you think I’m going next?
If you were Seth, would you wonder what your next encounter at the bar might become? Could it be another disturbed man who blames you for hacking his computer, or harming his childhood sweetheart, or playing a role in a Supreme Court decision such as Dred Scott or Citizens United? And decides to take action against you? Or your family? Or friends? Would you ask yourself how you could justify your continuing presence at the bar if it might result in serious problems for people you knew?
Would you then choose to come to the bar incognito, as others do? Without letting anyone know your name? Might you decide it might be wise to sit off to the corner and keep the proverbial lower profile? (Did you notice how I used “proverbial” again to acknowledge the cliché of “lower profile”? Is lower profile a cliché or is that a margin call? Couldn’t I have done better, say, just by finding different words for “lower profile”?)
Could you continue enjoying the atmosphere in the bar that way, even though most if not all your old pals have left? Could Seth? Did he try? Did he still enjoy critiquing the writing of people who shared their stories in the bar? Did some appreciate it and others become defensive? Why didn’t he just stop? If he had just stopped, wouldn’t that be giving victory to the people who hated him? Why should they be able to force him out of his favorite bar?
What about the guy who claimed Truman Capote stole the phrase he’s most famous for? Why shouldn’t Seth point out that it was a bullshit claim? What about the guy who claimed Einstein worked in the Austrian patent office calmly thinking up the theories that would reshape modern physics and astronomy, when in fact Einstein worked at a Swiss patent office and specialized in electro-mechanical devices, spending eight hours there during the day and then eight hours studying physics with his professor at night? Why would Seth let their ignorance or bullshitting go unchallenged?
And why shouldn’t Seth try to help aspiring writers who don’t have the grasp of the basics by telling them they’re not ready to write, they need to read a lot more first? Why would people insist that he was discouraging them when he was trying to help? Why was he attracting so much attention and animosity at a time when he was no longer a key figure at a prominent table in the bar, but a quiet man sitting in the corner?
Why didn’t the story end with David’s suicide? Is David coming back? As a ghost, maybe? Is he haunting Seth? Is he haunting me? Is he haunting you? Didn’t the action end with David’s suicide? Is there going to be more action? More conflict? Or just more questions? What do you think? Are you still reading? Why? If you’re still reading, why can’t you stop? Do you want to stop but feel you must continue now that you’ve invested all this time? Do you think there might be a payoff at the end, some insight that will reward you for taking this journey with me? Did I just give you an idea of why you should keep reading even though David’s story is over?
Then you are a good guesser, aren’t you, you little devil? And here all along you’ve been playing dumb, haven’t you? (Who am I talking to in this paragraph? Is it effective? Does it break with the unity of tone of the rest of the story? Should I delete it? Yes, no, maybe? You don’t know? Really? Did I just say “rest of the story?” Is this a story? I’m not really writing a story, am I? Do you think you could write a story in this all-question format? And if you could, would you? Why or why not? And if not WHY ARE YOU STILL READING? WERENT YOU SUPPOSED TO HAVE STOPPED BY NOW? AND ESPECIALLY NOW, THAT I’M SHOUTING AT YOU IN ALL CAPS? Is it because you’re wondering when I’m going to back to Huckleberry Finn, Dmitiri Karamazov, Neal Casady, Dean Moriarty, Emma Bovary and Lady Chatterley?) Or have you already scrolled down or turned the page and seen that I did or didn’t?
Do you want to know what happened after David’s suicide? Do you think the atmosphere in the bar changed? Do you think Seth was able to continue enjoying the bar knowing that any day someone else like David could enter the bar and suspect him of somehow plotting to do harm despite repeated assurances to the contrary? Is this a repeat of an earlier paragraph in different words to bring us back to the bar? Why wasn’t it edited out?
Would you understand Seth’s point of view about hanging back and declining to reveal too much about himself? And what if someone walked into the bar one day and declared he wanted to find out what the place was all about? What if Seth responded, in a friendly tone, and suggested that he listen for a little while before he spoke, take the temperature of the room, see who was who and what was what, then see how he could fit in or not?
And what if that person, let’s call him Sixy, said he was a “belly up to the bar” guy (did I repeat that, too?) and that he had no intention of letting others set the tone? What do you think happened when he immediately entered a stupid debate about a stupid post (was it a story about a rape, but then turned out not to be a real story, but a modified joke?) and the conversation then ran through the usual arguments about freedom of expression, one man’s porn is another man’s pleasure, etcetera, etcetera?
Do you think everyone got on their usual hobbyhorses and rocked back and forth spouting their usual platitudes? And what if Seth and others (do I remember correctly?) pointed out that the original post didn’t have any value as literature or writing? And that conversations like this were routine and didn’t have any value as conversations because the text under discussion wasn’t worth discussing?
Is Sixy the protagonist or the antagonist of this story? Is Seth? Or is it the guy who wrote the rape joke? Are we analyzing this story using a template from the structuralist school of literature, where entire social classes (or movements, or communities) can play the role of protagonists and antagonists, as in Malraux’s “Man’s Hope?” Is there no protagonist? Am I the protagonist? Or are you?
Did Sixy then dig in his proverbial heels? (I don’t have to point it out, anymore do I? Do you think I should stop beating you on the head with this and just avoid-the-fucking-cliché-already-for-Pete’s-sake?) I knew you’d be a good guesser when I started this story, didn’t I? And then what happened?
Did Sexy become overly interested in Seth? Did he demand to know who Seth was? Did he object to Seth’s anonymity and to that of anyone else who didn’t disclose his or her identity? You know the answer to all those questions, don’t you? Did he ask a question that inspired these questions?
Meanwhile, did another man come to the bar and sit in a prominent place, constantly spouting nonsense? Did this man claim to join the crowd at the bar to perfect his English? Did he tell stories that often contained references to sodomy? Do you remember the time someone responded by calling him a “sand nigger?” And that he retaliated with a fantasy about hiring a man to rape him and piss in his ass afterwards? And then when Seth objected, he told a story about lubing Seth’s butt in preparing for sodomy? And then another person in the crowd suggested musical accompaniment to the sodomy?
Would you find that offensive? Yes? No? Maybe? If no, would you find it offensive if the story were written about you, or your friend, or one of your children? If yes, then why did you answer no to the previous question? Is it because your friends are real but Seth isn’t, he’s just a character in a story? But in this story, aren’t you just a character, too, and so your friends and children are just characters in this story as well? And even if that were true, why would it be okay for our foreign character to threaten one character and not another? Is there going to be more action in this story? Did I just tip you off?
You know that over the years, bad things happen to people, don’t you? You remember that one of the regulars at the bar, a lovely young single mother, caught a virus and died within weeks? You know that even though these people are avatars in the virtual world of this community and the imaginary bar, they are real people in the real world with real lives, don’t you? Yes? No? Maybe? After all, how can we really know anything? It could all be just an illusion, couldn’t it? Do you think the people who write the texts featured at this virtual bar are fictional characters like Huck Finn, Dmitri Karamazov, Lady Chatterley or Emma Bovary?
How would you feel if you were Seth and one day you learned that your friend Mike, whom you knew through many years of conversations at the bar, had been the victim of a devastating injury during a carjacking in real life, then ridiculed by the foreign man? Would it surprise you to learn that the foreign man used repeated references to anal rape (his favorite subject) when ridiculing Mike? Even though Mike repeatedly said he hadn’t been raped as part of the attack? Would you be horrified? Yes? No? Maybe? Or would you say something like, “no problem, that’s how I talk to everybody”? even though that’s a blatant lie?
Do you recall what happened when Mike pointed out that he was shocked to see that the people at the bar were friendly toward the foreign man? Is Mike’s reaction justified? How would you feel if you were Mike, had suffered a traumatic brain injury, and while you were recovering you visited your old friends at your old bar and instead of receiving kindness you were ridiculed? And that your old friends not only tolerated the man who ridiculed you, but seemed to approve of him, and by extension, the fact that he was tormenting you?
Is this confusing? At first I asked you to imagine being Seth and then I asked you to imagine being Mike, didn’t I? It should be one or the other, for simplicity’s sake and ease of reading, shouldn’t it? Would you believe me if I told you I had considered that issue and then rejected any simplification because both requests were necessary? Has the action begun? Was there any action in this story besides the paragraph where Seth learned of David’s suicide? Do we count the moment of Seth learning that Mike had been attacked as action? Probably not in the strictest sense, right? Did I just tip you off that there is going to be another moment of action now?
What happened when someone questioned why Mike was angry? Do you remember that Seth pointed that person toward the foreign man’s insistence that Mike was anally raped? Would you be surprised to learn that instead of condemning the hideous and heartless tormentor of a man who had been critically injured, several people at the bar— including Mike’s old friends—actually defended it? Does this remind you of the routine freedom of speech debates? Doesn’t someone always say “I have the right to say whatever I want blah blah blah.” But then someone else says “Yes, but blah blah blah and did you know blah?” And what about Nabokov? And censorship? But aren’t those empty questions that are inconsequential compared with the real question? (Did you notice how I avoided the cliché “pale in comparison” by using “inconsequential?” No? Of course not, because it wasn’t there, was it? Would you have noticed the cliché “pale in comparison”? Maybe? Do you see now why they say to avoid clichés? Isn’t it because all the rewards are on the side of avoiding clichés?) Do you know the real question? Isn’t the real question whether the foreign man showed any human decency toward Mike after his ordeal? Do you know the answer? Yes, no, maybe?
Was that more action? Or is this next part the action? Or not?
Would you be surprised if the crowd then attacked Seth again, as he had been attacked in the past? Is it conceivable that he was attacked for showing people what the foreign man had done? As if it were his fault that the foreign man had done that? And also attacked him because he had adopted anonymity? Did you know that when he responded to those attacks he explained that he had been forced into anonymity by stalkers? Would you be surprised to learn that no one cared about his safety and continued trying to reveal any information that could help his stalkers identify him?
Shouldn’t this be the paragraph that serves as a transition to my conclusion? Why did I leave it out? Why did I not elegantly slip from one idea to these final ideas? Is it because I want to challenge you once more to stop reading? Was there any action in this story? Have you ever written 10 pages of questions? Is this the work of a madman? Have you ever written anything this challenging? This ambitious? With the restriction that each sentence be a question? Are you a better writer than I am? Have I shifted the tone again? Do I sound like a megalomaniac? Do you think that is intentional?
If Huck Finn wanted to get Jim to freedom, why was he taking him down the river, to the south? Wouldn’t he be trying to go north? Did you notice that incongruity when you read the book? Or did you only think about it when you read “Studies in Classical American Literature” by D.H. Lawrence? Had you understood the elaborately screwy explanation of the plan that Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens or whatever name you want to call him by) inserted at the end of the story to prop up the whole rickety mistake on which the novel rested, the epic trip down the river? Does the mistake not matter to you? Should it have mattered to D.H. Lawrence? Why not? Did you enjoy reading Huck Finn? Did you enjoy reading Lawence’s essay on Huck Finn? Can you appreciate both? Does reading Lawrence on Twain (or Clemens) lessen your appreciation of the book or deepen it or not change it at all?
Did Dmitri Karamozov kill his father? Did he commit the murder at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel? If you knew, would you feel differently about Dmitri? Is Dmitri the protagonist? Or is it Alyosha? Or Ivan? Or all three of them? Are they struggling against each other? Or something else? And if so, whom or what? Why does Alyosha have the last word? Was that Dostoyevsky tipping you off to what he was trying to say?
Who was the protagonist in Lady Chatterley? Was it Lady Chatterley, the lover or the husband? Do you think Lawrence judged her? Do you judge her? Was she in an impossible situation with no good choices? Or did she have a good choice? And did she make that choice or not make it? What do you think happens after the end of the novel? How was she similar to and different from Emma Bovary? Do you think Flaubert judged her? Have you read these books, or do you just know their names?
Why did I start with a reference to these books and not others? Should I have referenced some other books? Or is there something particular to each of these books that inspired me to use them to frame the story of the virtual bar that I’ve told? Or should I have referenced Flannery O’Connor instead? Did you know that she once said “Freedom is a mystery that a good novel can only deepen”? And did you notice I didn’t go back to Neal and Dean, one a real person, one a pseudonym for that person?
Why did the person known as Sixy ask the questions that he did about MrMelloYello, or Seth, or whatever names he was using? Why did Eebet ask “to what end,” as if he was doing something nefarious? Does this story answer those questions? Is it even a story? Are you still reading? Why haven’t you stopped? Is it because it’s a good story? Or is it because you’re intrigued by the all-question format? Is it because you think you’ve discovered the text of an insane person and that makes it compelling? Are you still reading? Shouldn’t you have stopped by now? When will you stop? Are you about to stop? No? Is it because you want to see how I’m going to end this? Have you judged me? Do you believe I’m demeaning, dismissive, superior? Or compassionate, kind and helpful? Do you think I’m smarter than you are? Yes, no, maybe? Do you think I know more about literature than you do? Or less? But even if I know less than you, do you think my knowledge might make me an interesting conversation partner about books and literature? Yes? Is that why you’re still reading? Or is there another reason?
Have I tipped you off that I’m going to tell you the real reason you’re still reading? Or have you figured it out for yourself? Is it something like: “There are 612 jelly beans in the jar; how many jelly beans are there in the jar?” Or: “Who composed Beethoven’s Fifth?” (See how I worked the jelly bean jar back into this story? But where did Beethoven come from? Should I go back and insert two references to him in early portions of the story to make this the magical third? Would you?) Do you remember the title of this story? Do you have an answer for that question now?
Is this going to be the last paragraph? Did that just tip you off that it is? Do you remember that there are no prizes for guessing in this story? Are you becoming exasperated with this ending? (You can tell it’s the ending, can’t you?) If so, why haven’t you stopped reading? Is it because you know I’m about to tell you why? Have you figured out that we’re partners in this arrangement, I’m writing, you’re reading, and the only way you’ll stop reading at this point is when I stop writing? Wouldn’t it be great if there was a prize for a good guess at the end of this story? But you know there won’t be a prize, don’t you? Would you mind if I asked one more time? Why haven’t you stopped reading? You’re going to keep reading until I stop, aren’t you? Isn’t it time you put a stop to this? Can’t you stop reading now? No? I’m the only one who can stop this, aren’t I? Does that mean I have all the power in this relationship? Is that true unless no one’s reading any more and I’m just typing these words into the void? I doubt it, don’t you? Will this be the last question mark I type? Or will it be this one, right here, at the end of this sentence? Has anything about this story been unclear? Do you understand now? Are you going to stop reading now? I’m the only one who can make you stop reading now, aren’t I?
BILL IS THAT YOU?
Whoa! Bill! It’s you! How ya doin’, buddy?
Oh my lord. Is it really you?
Of course it’s me. But shush. Come over to the side here. Can’t have people hearing me talk.
Okay, uh, wow. I didn’t know you could talk; I mean not like that.
Been a while, Bill. I’ve learned a lotta stuff. You finally came! I’ve been waiting.
Lenny, what? Waiting? I didn’t know. Waiting? How long? When did you get here?
More than a year ago! What took you so long?
I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I had no idea you were here.
What? So you just showed up? What are you doing here?
You know me. I love animals. Even if I have to come to the zoo to see them—I mean you—behind bars.
No more crazy stuff, though. Not now, right?
Oh no. I don’t think you should be in captivity. But that’s not my business anymore.
Good. And trust me. Captivity is fine. Compared to what’s out there. But what about you? You still writing?
Not so much. My lawyer told me to lie low. She was afraid somebody might recognize my style. Rhythm. Word patterns. Rhymes. Match it to the letter they found after the “incident.” I signed it, remember. But after I was arrested, she convinced them it was a forgery. So I never got charged. Maybe I’ll go back to it now that the statute of limitations has passed.
A lady lawyer! Cool.
I should add: My wife. She was my lawyer, and we got married.
Mazel tov! You do that thing where you stomp on the glass? I like that.
Thank you Lenny. Yes, I did. I stomped on the glass.
And are there little Schneidermans?
Twins. Boy and girl. Just a few months old.
You didn’t bring them?
Too young for the zoo, yet. Wait, wait. What about you? Still painting?
I was. Until I came here. Got pretty good, too.
Why’d you give it up?
Oh, you know. Like everything. Sometimes you ask yourself, “What’s the point?” Plus painting isn’t like writing. Where do you put the stuff? You’d be amazed at how much room it takes to store canvasses.
But Lenny, what have you been doing? Where have you been? How did you learn to speak so well? You were monosyllabic when I met you.
I got around. Read some. They studied me at a university for a semester and sometimes I could make my way into the ventilation system when the lab was closed and listen to classes.
Oh yeah. Then I had to get out. After the drugs and the blood tests I figured autopsy was a real possibility so I “vamoosed.”
You even know slang. And archaic slang at that.
Movies, Bill, lots of movies. Isn’t that how most people learn it?
Yeah but, Lenny, you’re not most people. And what are you doing here now?
Told you before. You thought captivity wasn’t a good thing. I’m here to tell you the opposite. You would not believe the adventures and misadventures I’ve had, Bill. You’re a kind man, so you don’t understand unkindness. There are people out there – I’ve met them, Bill – they enjoy hurting and humiliating others. They enjoy thinking about hurting and humiliating others.
Oh, don’t I know it, pal. But how did you get here?
Well, I knew about zoos from the incident, of course, even though I was too young to remember the specifics. So when I’d had enough of the outside world, I figured, why not come here and be among my own? I’d get fed, wouldn’t have to stress with commuting and shopping and the rest of it …
Oh, I hear ya. But they let you in?
You don’t know the song, Bill?
There was a hit song. On the radio. When it charted, I thought for sure you’d come to visit. Gotta admit I was disappointed.
I don’t understand. I’m lost.
Ok, then, keep this on the q.t., though. That song is about me.
Doesn’t it mean quiet? Confidential? Did I get that wrong?
No, no, you’re right. Sorry, I’m just—I mean, this is all amazing.
Okay, since you didn’t hear the song, I made my way in one night, jumped to one tree, then another, hit the moat, then the other guys and gals tried to help me up the wall, smart girl over there, Akalmi, reached down with a long branch …
And so it’s worked out for you?
Yeah. Akalmi’s been good to me. So have some of the guys. Ben and Jerry are a riot. We have some great laughs. And the food is pretty good. Do me a solid, though?
I did love those pomegranates you used to share with me. Bring one. Come to the front so I can see you, then step way back, behind the crowd and throw it high up in the air; I’ll be watching for it. That way nobody sees you violating the “don’t feed the animals” rule.
“Violating.” I can’t believe it.
What? Should I have said “breaking” the rule?
No, no, it’s okay. You’re doin’ great, buddy.
Okay, good, sometimes I worry I don’t quite have the vernacular down.
Don’t worry, man.
And Bill, next time bring the lady lawyer and the twins. Whatcha name ’em?
Uh, I went with L’s. Lisa.
And the boy?
Don’t cry, Lenny.
But, Bill, oh Bill.
I know, I know. You were my best friend. Ever.
If I could jump over the moat, I would hug you!
I know, I know. It’s okay, though. Maybe you can sneak out one night and we can do the town? I’ll get my hug then.
Oh, you still want to get up to your old shenanigans, huh? Can’t resist?
“Shenanigans.” Yeah, I guess. Can’t stop being who we are, can we? What about that song, though?
Country duo. It was on the radio. I forgot their names. Can’t believe you didn’t hear it.
Don’t listen to country.
You should. Dolly. “Jolene.” Great song. Kenny. “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Another good one.
Yeah, I don’t doubt it, just not my thing.
You’re missin’ out, man. Cody and Joe. That’s who did the song. Call a country station. Ask ’em to play that Cody and Joe from last year where they’re singing about the chimp. Good song. Great hook on the chorus.
Okay, will do. See ya, buddy. I’ll be back with the pomegranate next weekend.
Good. Don’t get hit by a car, leaving me here waiting, wondering why you didn’t come back …
Uh, I think you’ve listened to too many country songs.
Lenny, this was amazing. Bye, buddy. Luvya.
Love you too, Bill.
Front Cover: Painting by Kongo
Back Cover: Kongo at work
Previously on Cat Oars
The Starving Artist and the Chimp
Book of Desire & Regret
Black & White
A Charlie Taylor Christmas
Love to Hate You Baby
False Prophets / True Believers
Fire & Ice
Voices in Our Heads
Z Is for Zombie
Odds & Ends
Most titles available in paperback print or e-books through Lulu and as e-books via Shakespir.
We were together. For about five years. All in the same place. Talking and laughing and bantering and comparing notes about all the big things: life and love and death and despair. Then we went our separate ways. After five years, we had a reunion. Want to see what happened? Then this is the book for you. Stories on a theme. How life has changed with the passing time. How a father changed as the years went by. Are you nostalgic? Do you miss your idyllic youth? What about those TV shows and movies you grew up with? Isn't it amazing when you make a chance encounter with an old friend and suddenly you feel like getting up to your old shenanigans again? With a photo finish.