Posts Tagged ‘short story’

The woman who attached herself to food with a string

August 10, 2011

Part I

It made no sense to spend the night driving from Ouarzazate to Agadir, considering that we would have to go through the Tichka pass with which neither of us were familiar. Besides, Paul wanted to take pictures and I wanted one last glimpse of the desert before reaching the coast. But another night at the Ksar Ighnda was not an option, and so we packed our bags and found an older room at a riad about two miles from the center of town.

We had no set schedule. We were itinerants addicted to the unfamiliar. And as such, we had to impose customs on ourselves within the confines of our peripatetic lifestyle. Where once our children and the daily grind of work and home dictated the entire structure of our New Jersey existence, now we were living gratis. We had returned to innocence, like free-floating kids without a lick of responsibility. On this particular night, like every other, Paul took his thé à la menthe at the café or lobby alone, while I stayed back in the room to read or nap or simply linger on my own mindlessly, doing nothing, save stare at the architecture and decor of the four walls surrounding me. At 10ish, I would join him for dinner at whatever restaurant the hotel offered. But the longer I lingered in our tiny room, the more apparent it became that the Hotel Nord offered little more than a bed, a broken air conditioner, and two open windows that looked out over the N-9 in Tabounte, a noisy suburb. I was restless. And so, despite needing the order of my alone time, I decided to join Paul early.

When I arrived, he was talking with an American, a man about our age, with grayish sandy hair and a peculiar, vapid smile–the kind you might see on a glassy-eyed, cultish Jim Jones, or Claude Vorilhon. He was dressed inappropriately for tea, and too wealthy looking for a budget hotel. He was in the midst of going on and on about the company he owned, Southern Bio Technologies, LLC., which improved bean and other crop production technologies in Central and Southern Africa. I didn’t have the patience to find out what he was doing in Morocco, let alone Tabounte, so I assumed he was here on business and like us, couldn’t find a better hotel on such short notice. I remained on the periphery of the conversation. Paul was such a good listener and so, it wasn’t uncharacteristic of him to get stuck chatting with someone he had literally nothing in common with. He was a small town, county attorney—think Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird—kindhearted and fair like Atticus too, who despite making a good living for himself and his family, had never voiced an interest in bean farming, that I know of. And yet, to his credit, he genuinely found something interesting in everyone.

But, I was burnt out on listening, or for that matter, talking. It seemed to me that most tourists were not used to the isolation of travel and so when they’d meet up with someone who spoke their language, they would incessantly ramble on about nothing— superficial, braggy stuff—where they’d been, what they owned, how they managed, “knock on wood,” to stay afloat during the economic downturn, how many kids they had in what Universities, where they were going next. If we’d mention our trip to the south of Spain, they too had been there, plus the Canaries, plus Portugal. If we mentioned we had four kids between us, two of whom were at State Universities, they had five: two in Harvard, one in Princeton, another at MIT. It got to the point where I simply didn’t care to meet or talk to anyone anymore as a method of self-preserverance. Where once a stranger was a lifeline, now he was a source of encumbrance.

Instead of socializing, I kept my head buried in a book. While in Morocco I felt as though I had no choice but to read everything by Paul Bowles, and the Spanish author Juan Goytisolo. Presently I was reading Makbara, by the latter. A chapter entitled, The Cemetery—but still catching tidbits of the American’s pontifications.

“SBT disseminates technologies to and educates thousands of bean farmers all across Africa for the purpose of transforming their subsistence farms into local, national and potentially international-selling cash crops…”

I was bored with him, until, “One of my favorite charities that SBT is involved in at the moment is assisting the little guy in his endeavor to forge a relationship with the big guy.”

“For what purpose?” I asked, placing my book on the bar. “What would the little guy want or even need from the big guy?” I already didn’t like his arrogant tone.

“So that they can buy more seeds, more readily, so as to handle the increasing demands of their crop.” He smiled.

“So basically you help make it impossible for local farmers to feed their families because suddenly they can’t afford the cost of their own crop?”

“No, my dear,” his odd smile remaining, “We are improving lives.”

Paul interjected, “my wife loves a good conspiracy.” The American laughed and invited us to his place for drinks, just across the N-9,

“I’d like you to meet my wife,” he said, looking at me in particular. “I think you’d both get along quite well.”

I assumed he meant he had a house. It’d been a while since I’d been in one and so I looked at Paul, he looked at me, and we agreed. I grabbed my book and a sweater and the three of us  headed away from the safety of hotel life into the dark, unfamiliar street.


Fabulous

June 22, 2010

Write, write, write; read, read, read…bleary-eyed and catching up on a few essays to be workshopped tomorrow. And so begins the week of the Summer Writers Conference.

What did I learn? Loads. Forthcoming.

But first, a quick tale of high highs and low lows.

I don’t know what it is about the human brain that can churn out what it thinks is a great tale, see it on the page and believe in  its perfection only to be told by a group of trusted readers that x  is wrong, y is wrong and z is wrong. How is it that we cannot see the errors and omissions of our own work? How is it that we can make such seemingly obvious flaws? Not sure. Don’t have answers.

But having workshopped Fertility again, after this second draft, I feel as though I am closer to a more publishable version. I just need to sit down with one person that I trust and work it out, almost line by line. Is that so hard to do. I feel as though there’s only so much I am capable of figuring out on my own, piecing together from student comments.

Oh, but I did love Jewel Parker Rhodes. She was vivacious, exciting to listen to, to watch, to experience. And she taught us a gazillion things: the difference between a melodrama and a tragedy (something I should have remembered from undergrad), how to take responsibility for your characters’ lives, actions and decisions, and that there are obvious “breaks” in tone as a story rises and descends. That a writer must giveth and taketh away. Keep the lid on things, so to speak. That what is not spoken is just as important as what is. And that most good novels are character driven. I can’t wait to read her book “Yellow Moon.”

Her feedback on Fertility was priceless- “You came so close,” “You almost pulled it off,” “It’s a fucking amazing story,” “But you need to tighten it up,” “You need to recognize that it has the potential to be a tragedy; instead you gave us a melodrama,” “The real tragedy is the untold backstory of her husband and what she’s losing,” “Expose it.” “The protagonist is so conscious about everything, and yet completely blind.” “That’s the irony.” “Everything’s there, you just need to know what to do with it.” “This story can be so much shorter,” “Cut it back, but bring forth the important stuff,” “Keep the lid on things.” And so on.

So, it will be my job to write out questions and try to get answers: So, there should be no confrontation in the supermarket then? At all? But what then?

Revision is a bitch. Back to the drawing board. And yet, it is during the act of revision that we learn of our limitations or our talent. I feel as though I am indeed stuck in the former, trying desperately to hurdle my way toward the latter.


The Visit

April 23, 2010


She takes the hour’s drive down to Long Beach Island, the kids in tow, under a sky dark with storm clouds and rain. Kate’s twelve-year old son Daniel, sitting in the front seat, for the first time. That grown-up inner-voice of hers playing by the rules denied him the privilege of sitting in the front seat until he’d hit the 90-pound-weight restriction and the legal age of twelve. Until today, she refused him a tradition that she herself experienced almost from infancy—not for any other reason but birth order. The 70’s. No seatbelts. Brothers bouncing around in the hatchback of a 72′ Ford Pinto, or sprawled out lying on their backs in the roomy Hornet, staring up at the telephone wires that looked like some poor soul’s flatline on an EKG. Her father flicking cigarette ashes out the window that flew back in and around the inside of the car, into their faces and hair like party glitter. Holding onto a tumbler of something or other in one hand, the steering wheel in the other. And Kate, bopping forward, dancing in the passenger’s seat, her hand perpetually affixed to the radio dial, her radio dial, as if it were a lifeline to a normal existence. Copacobana or Boogie Oogie Oogie, playing like a tiny orchestra inside a black box despite her father’s endless orders to turn it down, or for that matter, turn it off. That’s not even music.

“I’ve waited my whole life to sit up here,” Daniel tells his mother, with his arm out the window, coursing the waves of sixty-mile-an-hour winds as they cruise down a desolate 532, replete with Pgymy Pines and white sandy trails that lead deep into the forest. Kate laughs and pats his arm which is hovering over the dash. Julien is perched contentedly in the back, in his booster, strapped down, locked in, tapping his fingers on the tinted glass of the minivan.

“Your whole life, huh?”

He smiles at her. He knows it’s silly to talk about a whole life at this age. He’s just starting to put things into perspective. To maybe feel old enough to know how young he really is.

She watches him out of the corner of her eye explore the new area around him. The glove compartment. He opens it, shuffles through papers. Closes it. He puts the window up, then down. He locks the door. He unlocks it. He puts his feet up on the dashboard.

“When I was your age, my father used to take us down the shore, down these back roads, through the Pinelands, every summer. Sometimes he was drunk. Sometimes not. But Grandma would yell at him and say, ‘I need a break,’ and so he would throw me and Uncle Mike and Uncle Tim in the car and he’d take us down here. I was always the one who got to sit up front.” His eyes light up like he shares some special rite of firstborns with his mother.

Kate points to a displaced hill in the distance that is possibly the only hill in southern New Jersey. “There it is,” she says. “The end of the world.”

Her boys are used to this. It is yet another tradition she keeps intact. They fly over the hill screaming, “It’s the end of the world,” they say their goodbyes, their it was nice to know yous and then suddenly, when the car touches bottom over the other side, they act shocked that they survived. It’s all a part of the trip and a simple but clever trick to keep children from dying of complete boredom.

“Do you remember Grandpaw?” Kate asks.

Daniel says “vaguely,” and Julien says no, but that he thinks about him. In reality they remember little.  How he used to sit them in his wheelbarrow and cart them all around the yard. Or take them to the hayloft and build forts for them.  Or when his eyes filled with tear the day Kate put his first grandson in his arms. He said to her, “It’s like you’re giving me a second chance to do it right. To be a good father.”

“Well, Juli, you were only three when you last saw him, honey.”

And then he stretches with restlessness and monotony. She forgot to pack his coloring book and DS. He asks, “Do we have to go down here and do this? I want to go home.”

Daniel chimes in, “Yeah, what’s the point. It’s not like we’re going to actually see him, see him.”

“True dat,” Kate says, forgiving herself a slip of bad, contemporary slang despite being forty. “But it’s called ‘a visit’ just the same.”

She drives on forgetting the sadness, the anger, the wreckage of her life for the sake of this visit. The drugs. The drinking. The weirdos and loan sharks of the 70’s and 80’s that came to her front door looking for her father, threatening her mother with warnings that she and her brothers could go missing if he didn’t pay his debts. She tries to forget the nights she heard her mother whimpering alone in her room at four in the morning because her father hadn’t come home and hadn’t called. She tries to forget all those art exhibits and chorus concerts of hers where she looked out over the audience for that man, but never saw him. Not once. Nor ever did he come to where she sat on the living room sofa, brooding over the sad fact that Rex Smith or Lief Garrett were only actors and would probably never date her. Never did her father come to console her or put his arm around her and say, but I love you.

They get to the bridge from 72, open all the windows and fly over the Causway. The smell of bay muck and dead fish rise up from the water on salty currents of wet air. When they hit Peahala Park or Brant Beach, she never really knew when one town ends and another begins, all the street names change to states. California, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. They turn left on Nebraska.

When Kate’s dad was seventeen this was his beach. He knew this island like a clammer knows how to dig for little necks with his toes. He lived, during the summers, on Cape Cod Avenue, but life-guarded on Nebraska. And him and Jimmy, Johnny and Josh smoked Winstons and chased after girls who rented rooms in Chalfont for the summer. They drove down the boulevard in Johnny’s or maybe Jimmy’s ’63 Chevy Nova, writing songs to those girls and promising to marry them.

When he was nineteen he formed a band called the Wharf Rats and got a gig playing guitar and singing nightly at the Jolly Pound Boat in Bay Village with Jimmy and a blond named Mary. When Kate was a kid she could buy vintage postcards of her father singing with the Wharf Rats in one of the antique shops on the island. But the Jolly Pound Boat isn’t there anymore, nor is the antique shop.

When he was twenty-one he fell in love with Kate’s mother and had babies and stayed in New Jersey. He did this instead of becoming famous like Jimmy, who, in the fall that following summer, stuck to the plan and went out to Hollywood and joined the Dirt Band, which became an instant success. He didn’t become rich either, like Josh, who inherited his father’s real estate empire and flew off to India and married a sixteen-year-old Hindu princess. He just was. And that, I guess, wasn’t good enough.

By the time Kate could remember, he’d already begun drinking gin and tonics and selling copy machines, and sometimes even kiting checks when business was slow (because he had a family of five to support). And on days when her mother couldn’t take it anymore, he’d fly Kate and her brothers down to Nebraska Avenue, to the jetty, where, at low tide, there was an enclave among the rocks and there they’d set up camp for a couple hours with a blanket to protect us from the wind.They would all fit in this spot that Kate’s father called “The Thinking Spot,” and mostly, the kids let him sit there and stare out toward the Atlantic and think by himself while they crushed shells on the rocks or looked for starfish. And he wouldn’t move and sometimes he’d lower his head in his hands, and while he never said anything, they all knew he was suffering. But more than anything, no matter what conscious hurdles he was jumping, Kate told herself that she was loved.

At least that’s how she wishes to remember it.

Kate takes her sons up onto the beach, and says, “We’re here to see Grandpaw.” But the beach is empty and dark and cold for April. Daniel rolls his eyes. Perhaps he’s too young to appreciate the implied spirituality. Julien half-believes he might see a ghost.

“OK,” Julien says. “There’s no one here. Let’s go.”

It’s high tide and they can’t reach The Thinking Spot, so Kate stands at the precipice of the jetty and much like her father, she look out toward the waves, crashing onto the smooth black rocks with a somewhat melancholy expression on her face. “He’s here, boys. He’s all around us. Let me pay my respects,” she says. The little one scurries around in the sand. Daniel, on the other hand, stands by her side.

“Translation, please?” he says.

“Translation,” she say. “When you love someone and they die, you still love them. That love never goes away. It just changes. And instead of actually seeing the person again, which, obviously, you cannot do, you go to the place where he or she was buried—or in this case, where Grandpaw’s ashes were sprinkled—and you visit. And you remember. And you celebrate all the happiness he or she brought to your life.”

There’s a storm coming up from the south end of the island and the sky rumbles in the distance. There’s not much time, so Kate scoops up a handful of white sand and says her hellos or goodbyes or whatever you say to the dead. I miss you. I love you. I forgive you.

She takes the boys to grab lunch at a little place called The Bayside Diner. It’s the only place open during off-season. They laugh, they plan their summer vacation. They talk about how they’ve all outgrown the kiddie rides at Fantasy Island. And then they head home. There’s something eerie and deserted about the island in winter and early spring. Something that makes you glad the winter is only temporary.

They are quiet for a while as they head West on 72, back towards their town. Kate imagines their brains working to grasp the concept of loving someone who is dead, and possibly even wondering how it is that they can make it over the end of the world, die and then come back to life a dozen times during the course of year.

Daniel’s hand courses over the cool dashboard. He looks at the buttons on the console. And then, it suddenly occurs to him, right as Kate makes the left turn back towards Chatsworth, that the radio exists and that he can actually turn it on. How or why he comes to this realization so late in the day, Kate wonders, is one of the mysteries of who he is. But there it is. He turns the dial on the radio to 102.5, to the sound of Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, Justin Bierber and the Black Eyed Peas; his music. And just like a time-lapse photograph of the opening of a flower in spring, the meaning of freedom crawls across his face and transforms his expression from curious distraction to beaming recognition. A coming of age moment unfolding in the front seat of the Honda Odyssey. Kate knows the radio, from here on out, no longer belongs to her.

“You can even turn it up,” she says, as they dance in their seats down the last of the empty roads to a song that holds no memories, but feels good just the same.

Stay

August 15, 2008

 

Stay

 

I keep watch under the ceiling. It’s not really a ceiling. It’s all pipes, vents, beams and wiring. And I’m on my back, on the bed looking up at the innards of the ceiling. Ceiling guts. Listening to the water running through the pipes. And when Pop gets up in the middle of the night to use the toilet, he flushes and water comes pouring down real loud through all those pipes, like a river, and there I am. Lying underneath this river, and I can’t move. I’m stuck at the bottom of a septic tank. Watching and listening and scared to death that one of these days, one of those pipes is going to blow, and I’m going be covered in shit.

So I stare up and keep watch.

I live in the basement. It’s one of those finished basements that was never finished. And I’ve been here most of my life—past the time when everyone’s supposed to be out. And five years past the time my younger brother Michael moved out with his woman Anne. And here I am. Still. Watching the pipes and waiting tables on the Pike.

There’s a curtain separating my side of the basement from my brother’s side, where he used to sleep. We called it the “Russian peasant room.” And he’d fall asleep watching CNN or golf and he’d snore and I’d push back the curtain and reach in toward his bed and give him a nudge.

“Shut up,” I’d say, “You’re snoring.” And he’d roll over and keep snoring. And I’d say, screw this shit and wish that someone two-flights up would flush so that it would drown out the sound of his clogged breathing.

And outside the not-so-finished part of the finished basement, there’s the cardboard construction of a row house. Flimsy wallboard. Refrigerator box, really. And the clutter of all the stuff that got left behind when everyone packed up and moved out.

            I’m the last to go. When I go. If I go.

* * *

            It takes exactly sixminutesandsevenseconds to walk to the Pike. Another 22 seconds to open the door of the restaurant, walk past the bar, pick up my apron and head to the back bar to clock in. Clocking in is this: “Hi Ro, I’m here. You got any tables for me?”

            “Section four, front,” says Ro, “But have a coffee. I just sat ‘em.”

            We drink percolated coffee. We pass around the twenty-pack of Virginia Slim Super Slim menthols. Ro and Jeanie and me. Ro and Jeanie stand in front of the mirror by the back-bar, touching up hair, lips; diner-style. Hardcore waitresses. Career waitresses. They never forget the side of tartar. They always remember to bring the steak knife with the Surf & Turf. Their tips always exceed $120 a night. And they never tell the IRS they earn more than fifty-bucks a week. Pros.

            Ro, short for Rhonda, tells stories.

     “When I tell you that old man was in my pants, I mean it.  The sonofabitch chased me around that room every single goddamn day . . . Get this,” she says, “the old shit rents me this room for two-fifty a month, tryin’ to be all sweet an all. So, I ain’t got no place to go and I says yeah, sure. I move my stuff in and it’s, like, real close to where I work so I ain’t got no problem living there. And so I’m there about a month and the Tiffany Lounge burns down – yeah, that’s the one.” She catches me pointing Southward with the tip of my smoke. 

“And so I’m living in this dump and I ain’t got no job.  So I tell this guy that I ain’t got no money, and he says to me, ‘no problem.’ I’m like, cool, maybe he ain’t such an old shit after all. ‘You can stay for nothing,’ he says,  ‘so long as I can use your phone.’ No problem, I say, I can handle that.”

     She coughs. Lights another menthol.  Applies more red to her lips. It’s slow. We have time to talk before the dinner rush. Jeanie says, “Sugar, you never let a man in your business.”

     “Anyway,” Ro says, “he starts coming up to my room and talking on the phone to some guy down in AC. Then he calls Vegas and who knows where the fuck else. And each time he’s asking for cash—telling everyone that he’s broke an’ all. Then, y’know, when he gets off the phone he starts drinking, and looking around in my ‘fridgerator for another beer. And he drinks like a goddamn fish. And then he just ends up sleeping on my fucking floor. Asshole. This was happening every night. Finally I told him to go back to his own place because I wanted to watch TV, or something—anything to get him outta the room. That’s when it starts. ‘I let you stay here for nothin’, bitch, and yer kickin’ me out? Fuck you!’ That’s what he tells me. ‘Fuck you.’” She extends her arm and pops out her middle finger.

     I watch her and I wait. The smoke from our cigarettes swirls around us. Smog over Atco, NJ.  I can’t see anything but us.

     “And then. Oh man. Git this. One night he comes up to me, all messed up, and starts putting his hands in my fuckin’ crotch. I’m like, get the fuck outta here. Ain’t no old man gonna get a hold of my pussy ‘n shit. And with that I packed up and moved out.” She exhales. The host calls her to pick up table 32.  “You gotta survive, y’know. You gotta.”

Three of us pull a swing. We rage through the dinner hour like flame throwers. Passing off hot plates of lit and smoking fajitas, steamed vegetables, lobster tails, baked potatoes, with dollops of sour cream and chives until our eyeliners bleed. The kitchen is 112 degrees. The fans turn slowly. We bitch at the cooks for fucking up orders. They bitch at us for not giving them our asses to grab. “Your ass makes the night move faster” Leon says, with a smile, a giant of a black man whose sweat beads drip from his forehead and christens every dish on it’s way out. Jeanie picks up two more stations at last call.  “Sugar,” she says, passing me with a tray of martinis, “I’m gonna meet the man of my dreams tonight. I can feel it in my skin.” But I know that’s not gonna happen. Not here. Not tonight. Not that skin. Only regulars left now. Only old martini drinkers and make-up wearers, and trash-talkers and pipe watchers. It’s too late.

* * *

I take the dirt path through the weeds, through the backyards, through the stars to get home. It’s two in the morning. Moving. Looking up. Pegasus is high above a half moon. Andromeda falls northeast to Perseus then to Taurus in the East. Everything’s connected.  I close my eyes, pack my bags and leave. I follow the course of Orion only to end up back here the next night. I open my eyes and keep walking. The flat earth rolls me homeward through the stars. To the pipes. Not a very long walk to lie under the flush of a toilet. Not long enough to know it’s time to go.

Word Riot Press

Word Riot Press