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Friday, December 19, 2014

A Bipolar Christmas

by Martin Achatz

My daughter was born at the end of an early December snowstorm. I remember the wind that night while my wife was in labor, the kind of wind that shakes parked cars. It tore up the darkness, as if it was mad at the sun for disappearing to the other side of the planet. At some point during that long, midnight vigil, I joked to my wife, Beth, “Keep it down. I can’t hear the wind.”
She didn’t laugh.
At 7:29 the following morning, our daughter was born, screaming and healthy.
The storm had blown itself out like a birthday candle by the time Beth gave the final push that brought our baby into the world. Outside, everything was blinding white and calm, a scene from Currier & Ives. Inside, I stood by my wife’s bed and stared at her and my newborn daughter, felt myself opening up, unfolding like some rare orchid in the moment. So serene. So perfect.
I’d like to end with that Madonna and child moment, tell you that later in the morning, three kings showed up and showered us with presents and food and free camel rides. But that isn’t quite what happened.
Before she became pregnant, my wife had been battling crippling bouts of depression. She’d been to counselors and therapists, talked about her mother’s death, started taking Prozac. Nothing worked. The depressions kept getting deeper and longer, as if she were on some endless donkey ride through the Grand Canyon at night during a full lunar eclipse. These lows were always followed by periods of respite, chrysalis times when my wife broke free, became all wing and sun and light.
Then Beth got pregnant. For those nine months, the darkness simply vanished. At first, we kept watch, waiting for the nose of an iceberg to appear on the horizon. After a few months of clear seas, however, we relaxed, began planning our future with something like hope. My wife seemed to be waking up after a long fallow season. Our life became a series of doctor’s visits and firsts. First hearing of our daughter’s heartbeat. First ultrasound. First time our daughter moved.
When we painted the nursery walls that autumn, my wife’s depressions were like shadows in the corners of a well-lit room. I was in graduate school, writing poems about mosquitoes and moons. Beth only had one bout of morning sickness her entire pregnancy. Approaching her due date and the upcoming holidays, we never heard the chains of the Ghost of Mental Illness Yet to Come rattling at our front door.
It took only a couple days after our daughter was born for the honeymoon to end. Beth woke up one morning and said to me, “I have a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach.” These nervous feelings were omens that something dark was about to descend, and I could see it in my wife’s eyes. She had the look of a rabbit being chased by a screech owl, ready to bolt down the nearest burrow.
Her ob-gyn seemed concerned but not panicked. She gave Beth estrogen patches and told her it was the post-partum blues. We liked this doctor a lot, and both of us clung to the belief that these little round stickers of hormone would steer the UPS truck to our house to deliver a glowing package of joy to our front porch.
As the winter solstice approached, however, I would come home from work night after night to find Beth still in bed, our daughter on the pillows beside her. The bedroom was a cave filled with the smell of sour breast milk. I’d climb into bed with them and hold Beth while she wept. As a writer, I don’t often use the word “wept.” It’s too melodramatic a verb, summoning up Heathcliff and Jane Eyre on the moors. But there’s no other word for how my wife clung to my shirt and sobbed, her body convulsed with a grief so profound it made her seem unstitched, as if her bones and muscles and skin couldn’t contain it. Sadness seeped out of her pores like thick, black sap.
Pain is a part of most Christmas narratives. Mary is a pregnant teen, shunned and rejected. As a boy, Scrooge is abandoned by his father. George Bailey is suicidal. Rudolph is bullied. And then there’s Nestor, a little donkey with ears as long as elephant trunks. In this Rankin/Bass holiday special, Nestor is teased for his anatomical anomaly and eventually gets kicked out of the barn during a blizzard on the winter solstice, a night, according to legend, when animals are given the gift of speech. Nestor’s mother follows him and ends up lying on top of him to keep him warm. She saves Nestor but loses her life in the process.
Despair accumulates like heavy snow in all these stories. Yet, there are also Garcia Marquez moments of magic. Ghosts. Wingless angels. Blazing comets. The long December nights always end with warm hay and church bells and sunrises.    
The druids and Celts understood this dual nature of the winter solstice time, this battle between death and life, darkness and light. I think early Christians understood it, as well. That’s why they chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ around December 21. They saw it as a time when human beings reached through the black and cold of winter toward the warmth and rebirth of spring, the very planet tilting from sorrow to hope.
On Christmas Eve, Beth was having a good spell. For a few days, she’d been able to get out of bed, play with our daughter, and wrap presents. During the day on December 24, we made sugar cookies and fudge, watched one of the multiple broadcasts of It’s A Wonderful Life on TV.
Outside, the clouds were the color of a dirty gum eraser, smudged with the promise of snow. The lilac bushes along our property line were capped with white. Their branches rattled in the wind like startled deer hoofs on ice or stone. A storm was coming. The weatherman was forecasting several inches by Christmas morning.
At church that night, Beth and I sat with family. Our daughter slept in the crook of my arm the entire service, her velvet dress the color of evergreen. As we lit candles and sang “Silent Night,” my wife slipped her fingers into my open palm and looked at me, a thin smile on her face. She wasn’t doing well, I could tell. It wasn’t anything physical in her appearance. It was the pressure of her body against mine as we stood, as if she wanted to climb inside my skin, disappear into me.
We drove home in silence, her hand holding mine so tight my fingers ached. I thought of the new ornament hanging in the branches of the tree in our living room. It was an angel sleeping on a cloud, and on the cloud were the words “Baby’s First Christmas.” It should have been that simple, that peaceful.
As we walked to the front steps of our house, Beth leaned into me. The moon pressed through the clouds above, shedding a dim silver on the snow banks along the sidewalk, like a failing flashlight. Familiar shapes, shovels and garbage cans and bushes, became looming shadows. My arms ached, as if they were holding up not just my wife and baby, but the heavens, as well. All of the talk of light and hope and joy from the church seemed as distant as Orion or Antares.
Then I saw something move in the night. A small, hunched shape on the apex of a snow pile. I stopped and stared at it. For a few moments, it remained frozen, and I started to believe it was simply a chunk of ice, that my mind was playing tricks on me. But it eventually stretched upward, like a crocus blooming in time-lapse, until it stood half in darkness, half in moonlight.
It was a rabbit, brown and tall. Its ears twitched back and forth, testing the night for danger. I could see the Christmas lights from our front porch reflected in the black marbles of its eyes. Its body was taut, like the band of a slingshot. It stayed balanced on its hind feet, regarding me. I suddenly thought of the legend of the talking animals, of Nestor crying for his mother in the night. The rabbit looked as if it was going to speak, to impart some ancient lepus wisdom of how to avoid pain and sorrow.
I waited on that Christmas Eve, that night of turning from darkness to light, for some kind of miracle to happen. I wanted to believe that a rabbit could tell me how to help my wife, that God could become human, that happiness could overcome the black of winter.
My daughter cried out in my arms, and the rabbit bolted. I watched it scramble out of the moonlight into the pitch of the lilac bushes. Then, silence and snow and dark. We began moving toward our front door. For some reason, the distance seemed unusually hard, as if we were struggling through water or against a strong wind. It would be half a year before Beth was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Those six months were filled with more deep depressions, followed by flights of sleepless energy. Some days, Beth would carve hieroglyphs into her arms with razors or knives. Other days, she would book airfare to Florida and Walt Disney World. I kept waiting for the long night to end. For a ghost bear to materialize and groan a healing incantation. Or a flock of angel starlings to gather in our maple tree and sing a lullaby. Something soft that would quiet my wife’s unquiet mind.
That Christmas Eve, as we walked to our home, I thought of the magi, struggling through desert and mountain. I thought of the sand in their teeth and hair. Their tired camels and mules. Their muscles and bones aching for water and rest. Their long journey, following a star, through the darkness toward the promise of light.

Martin Achatz’s work has appeared in Kennesaw Review, The Paterson Literary Review, The MacGuffin, and Dunes Review, among others. His collection of poems, The Mysteries of the Rosary, was published by Mayapple Press, and his contribution to the anthology The Way North was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He teaches at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan, where he is the Poetry Editor of Passages North.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Woman Who Is Not My Mother

by Marsha Roberts

I can hear her walking toward the front door, her sensible shoes shuffling closer and closer. But the door doesn’t open yet. She is standing there, just on the other side. She’s making the sign of the cross and asking the Blessed Virgin for courage. I know this because I have seen it many times from the other side.

“Who is it?” she says, her voice the size of a doll’s.

Before I can answer, she says it again, this time pleading. “Who is it?” She's imagining the worst … no, not imagining—remembering. It is wartime and they've come to take her and her family away. The words tremble through the door again. “Please, who is it?”

I try to sound as cheery as I can. “Your daughter!”

“Who?” Mercifully, confusion spills over the terror, blunting it.  

“Your daughter… remember me?” One day, maybe soon, she won’t.

The door finally opens just a slice and she blinks in surprise. “Oh, I didn’t know you were coming.”

The sight of her takes me aback, too. It always does. Even if I’ve just seen her the day before, the first glimpse is always a shock. The woman at the door isn’t my mother. My mother would be appalled at the sight of this woman. “Why doesn’t she comb her hair, or put on some lipstick, or wear a clean blouse, for god’s sake?” my mother would say.

“Why don’t you comb your hair, or put on some lipstick, or wear a clean blouse?” Some days I actually say it before I can get ahold of myself. On those days, she fires right back. The anger that used to be folded neatly under her lets loose with full force. “What does it matter? I am old. Nobody sees me.”

“We’re going out now, Mom. People will see you.”

“If I embarrass you, then I’ll just stay home.”

We go out. She’s wearing the same thing she’s worn for the last three days. A kelly-green t-shirt, topped with a turquoise cardigan—colors clearly unhappy with each other. At the grocery store, I get the usual looks from other middle-aged women. How can you let her go out like this? Why don’t you take care of her like she took care of you?

And then it gets worse. We get to the checkout counter and she takes three candy bars from the stand and slips them onto the belt. I scoop them up and put them back. She grabs them again. I put them back. Her eyes well up and she starts crying—really crying. She says for all to hear that I won’t let her have any candy and that I’m mean and why can’t she have candy because after all, she doesn’t have anything else—candy is her only happiness and I won’t let her have it. By now our audience has turned into a jury. And they're disgusted with me. 

“Diabetes,” I want to explain.

On the way home, I tell her about the senior center dance tomorrow. Would she like to go? I look over and do a double take. It’s my mother. Her eyes are bright blue and her old smile is right there where it always was.

“Oh, yes,” she says, she would love to go. And then, with a giggle, “Maybe I’ll find a boyfriend!” Her cheeks are flushed like she's already whirling around the floor.

She isn’t my mother, but sometimes she reminds me so much of her.

Marsha Roberts lives in Mill Valley, California. Her short stories and humorous pieces have appeared in Gravel, Loud Zoo, Hospital Drive, The Marin Independent Journal, America's Funniest Humor Showcase and soon in Thrice Fiction. Some of her comedy skits have been performed by a San Francisco troupe. She just finished her first novel, The Agent, about an elegant con game. She has visualized Paramount buying the film rights to her stories and novel, so it will happen any day now.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Down the Aisle with Henry James

by Renée Tursi

In his 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James put his heroine Isabel Archer’s marriage at the story’s midpoint. Before then, nuptials had always dwelt at a tale's end. Following Isabel’s ill-considered decision to wed the pernicious Gilbert Osmond, James kept the cameras rolling, giving his readers unnerving access to a very unhappy ever-after.
Having recently entered the marriage plot for the first time in my early fifties, I am thrown off by the return of the fairytale arc in my life. My ever-after, a copiously joyful one so far, has fallen a considerable distance from Isabel’s youthful start of the tale, and presumably well past the middle. Crunching the numbers, I see I could conceivably escape any marital strife just by where my husband and I fall in the actuarial tables. “Before the charm wears off, we’ll be dead” was how the last boyfriend had spun our dating circumstance. He missed the mark for that romance. But he may be spot on about my marriage.
            Yet, while it turned out not to be too late for me to be married, I wonder if it might be too late for me to feel married.
            Mrs. Osmond strikes me as someone who, to James’s astute and life-long unmarried observer’s mind, would have a particular quality that differed from a woman who wed for the first time later in life. It goes deeper than her regret at having married the wrong man—and beyond the fact that, as James notes, “It may seem to the reader that Mrs. Osmond had grown of a sudden strangely cynical.”
            I cannot name the quality, nor would I presume to try. And that’s my dilemma.
Of course I know that marriage in this country today, at least on paper, allows for both partners to remain fully realized individuals. When I talk about feeling married, what I’m referring to is what otherwise strongly autonomous women, ones who had wed at an “expected” age, will often say to me. That long after becoming single again, they still carry a married orientation. They confess to entering rooms as an “I” with ever-so-slight a hesitation, an inner pause registering only on their own finely tuned gauge.
Being unmarried turned out to be nowhere near the “dreadful existence” my 16-year-old self, despite its nonconformist spirit, had imagined such a life. Freedom has been mine in every sense: I made my way through graduate school to an academic career. I went from my own apartment to buying my own house. I had long-term relationships, albeit always fraught ones. I never cooked. And the only diapers I changed were those of my sisters’ children. When one of my nieces was asked once what her aunt does for a living, she replied: “She gives me books.”
But I wasn’t content. I wanted a forever partnership.
That said, the dating advice to “get out there” doing the things you love so as to meet like-minded people landed on my doorstep with a thud. When what one loves most is to curl up at home with Henry James, potential mates tend to remain fictional. 
Plot lines, however, do not. Those tragic miscommunications, tortured ruminations, excruciating choices, and unrelenting disappointments James visits upon his characters were the very storylines I seemed fated to pursue. His heroines and I took on narcissists like lint. 
            After too many decades and very little effort from me, my future husband, in a stroke of impossible irony, just showed up at my door and rang the bell. 
            The day before, I had put down my book and gone for coffee at my neighbor’s, whom he was visiting. He was magnificent. His three children, too. Within a year, he and I wed, surrounded by the people we love and a Vermont downpour.
            When friends ask me “did the marriage take?”, the answer is easy. Happy sped by in a blur. Now I’m in some sort of incandescent bliss. My husband is loving, kind, brilliant, funny, patient, generous, charming, tall, and handsome. Really. When someone talks to him in front of me, I’m so relieved; it’s proof I’ve not made him up.
Astonished to have found each other “at this point in our lives,” we feel so temperamentally enmeshed that he and I are as much a “we” as I imagine two beings can be. As my stepson watches his father and me eat breakfast with our oatmeal bowls touching, he just shakes his head.
But the first time I was asked whether I was planning to change my name to my husband’s, I admitted the thought hadn’t occurred to me. Honestly, at my age, the question felt even a bit embarrassing. Like my trying to pull off a navel piercing. And now when I’m asked what being married feels like, the truth is, beyond my absolute happiness, I don’t know. I think I may have a permanently unmarried state of mind.
            So here’s what I tell people: I feel like a single person who’s married.
            Everything and nothing prepared me for this impasse. During the feminist-turbulent years of my childhood, the fact that my mother had forfeited a dance career because my father deemed it unfitting for a university faculty wife to be seen in a leotard made no small impression on me.
            “Never count solely on a man” she told my sisters and me within earshot of the spouse upon whom she could count for everything, except recognition as a sound decision-maker.
            She loved my father and she loved us. But it was clear that her life had left her in service. I came away with few convincing arguments for becoming a wife and having children myself. Virginia Woolf said what we all know: “we think back through our mothers if we are women.”
            My mother spent the last dozen years of her life a widow. As much as she changed remarkably during that period—traveling, building a house, and tramping the Vermont woods with chainsaw in hand—she would never have been mistaken for a life-long unmarried woman. Mistaken for me. Something about the tilt of her head, as though still listening to my father’s voice.
            She would also never come to like James. A perceptive reader, she found the way he loitered about in a discontented mind unsettling.
            In high school, no one had asked me to the prom; the day after, however, a boy came up to me to say that he had thought about asking me. This utterance, astounding for its Jamesian conflux of misdirection, bewildered me as nothing had before.
I could understand his deciding not to ask me. It was his telling me that was impenetrable.
            I turned to novels. There I was sure that such unfathomable discourse would be explained. I started to really read and I started to date. But the two experiences seemed to conspire to make the possibility of fruitful pairing mere fantasy.
            Had I been able to identify more with another author’s heroines, Jane Austen’s, say, maybe my decisions would have sent me down the marriage path, for better or worse, at a younger age. What I ended up taking to, instead, was James’s sensibility. There is such a profound inwardness to it all. An aching aloneness and yearning that surges through his careful studies of human behavior. I ate it up.
            If only he had chosen, just for me, to keep going his short story “The Jolly Corner.” It ends with the promise of a mature kindling of an earlier friendship. Having waited, on reserve as it were, for Spencer Brydon’s return to New York after thirty-three years abroad, Alice Staverton had been getting on with her life. She “sallied forth and did battle.” In appraising her after all these years, Brydon thinks her appearance “defied you to say if she were a fair young woman who looked older through trouble, or a fine smooth older one who looked young through successful indifference.”
            I would like to read about the married Staverton a decade down the road. Just to know whether or not James would leave her unmarried habits of mind intact.
            Perhaps only someone as never-married as James, someone to whom women often confided quite deeply, could suggest so enigmatically the transformation that the young Isabel Archer undergoes in becoming Mrs. Osmond. When a few years into the marriage James has her become absorbed into thought about her husband’s irregular conduct, he seems to imply that she is feeling emotionally alone. But not exactly solitary.
            Since I’ve been married, my interiority has withstood any breach upon my feeling solitary. This despite the absence of lonesomeness. Despite a husband who, with such sweetness, has somehow come to read my mind and to protect my every vulnerability. Nevertheless, on forms, I still search for a hybrid term somewhere between “single” and “married.”
            My life has been a rich yield from feminists before me. They gave me choice, income, and innumerable rooms of my own. Unlike Mrs. Osmond, who “sometimes felt a sort of passion of tenderness for memories which had no other merit than that they belonged to her unmarried life,” I suffer no need for nostalgia. As my husband works at his desk near mine, his presence offers neither rescue nor suffocation. He is there simply as a pure good, added to my singleness.
            James’s world denied the author the comfortable possibility of a satisfying union for himself. Maybe he is suspect, then, for presuming to write the inner life of women. But his prescribed singleness may explain why his outlook has given me insightful companionship equal to that of any female author.
            At key moments in her life, Isabel Archer has just been reading. She lays down the book and stares ahead while her intricate Jamesian contemplations take shape. It’s terrible how, after all that, she so misreads Gilbert Osmond before marrying him. 
I had the benefit of reading much longer than she did before marriage. As it turns out, a deferred ever-after has its advantages. Even if it means my state-of-mind never catches up. 

Renée Tursi is an associate professor of English at Quinnipiac University, where she teaches (mostly) American literature. Her academic work has appeared in the aesthetics journal Style, the Henry James Review, and Studies in the Novel. Her book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and the Times Literary Supplement. With her submission to bioStories, she takes her first steps with a new genre.

Monday, November 17, 2014


by Marcia Butler

One day in the early 1970s, a friend and I played hooky from conservatory classes at The Mannes College of Music. Diligent, disciplined and hopeful about our future careers in music—mid-semester blues had nonetheless descended upon us. We’d had just about enough of music theory and solfeggio classes for the morning. So on a lark, we left the comfort of the upper-east-side and ventured down to the vast construction site where the Twin Towers were being erected. Somehow we were able to slip into an elevator in the South Tower, punch a very high number and ride up to one of the top floors still under construction. A few workmen were milling about, but no one stopped us or paid any attention to our wide-eyed shenanigans. The site was surprisingly deserted, at least on the floor we happened upon.
Walking out into the yet-to-be-constructed offices, we felt simultaneously inside and outside. The wind was whipping through the open space, because the windows, all stacked up against those now famous thick interior columns, had not yet been installed. Curious and brave, we walked towards those huge gaping cavities, and for a moment we really did feel on top of the world. Hand in hand, we ventured right to the brim, without fear or hard hats. We felt giddy as the building swayed, and we gripped each other more tightly.
The Trade Towers had been controversial, considered potential eyesores in the Wall Street area. No one wanted the towers to be built, just as years later, no one wanted the Time Warner towers to be built at Columbus Circle. But these behemoths ultimately do get built, and eventually everyone gets used to them. We forget about the resistance and drama surrounding new construction in our city and the worries of how it will impact our beloved skyline, which is always changing like cumulus clouds. The New York City skyline is imbedded in our consciousness and yet, it slowly undulates with the gradual and inevitable new construction that is the hallmark of progress.
Through the years, I developed a curious sense of personal ownership of the towers, remembering them as the enormous lumbering babies I met when I snuck into that elevator and walked to the very hilt, looking out onto my vast city. I saw a view that few had yet seen. That view was just for my friend, the construction guys and me. As we looked out of the wide-open holes in the walls, we were inured to the height and the expanse and the potential danger of the tower’s verticality.
Out and about in the city, I found myself looking southward often, and feeling comforted; there they were, just as they should be, a solid visual homing beacon. At times, thick moisture laden clouds obscured the tops, and I imaged them as chunky steel legs connected to a robot-like body overlooking the city—protecting its territory. The skies always cleared to reveal spires soaring upward to points unknown.
The Twin Towers were my towers. I loved them so. No matter the weather or my particular day’s coordinates, they grounded me. They were just there, looming over the Woolworth Building and 40 Wall Street, dwarfing those eschewed edifices of the past by dozens of floors.
On the day they fell, imploding a bit too perfectly into themselves, I hunkered down in front of the tube, feeling ghoulish and selfish, watching the horror unfold less than a mile away from my house in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens. I’d endured a yearlong battle with dive-bombing personal terrorists in the form of cancer cells, and was furious that the balm of normalcy through music and those ever-present towers had been ruptured. I had just begun jogging again. My skull was sprouting what would become a fantastic plume of gray hair. The demand of upcoming concert schedules had returned to my life. But with a white hot prick of awareness and then the dulled iron clad concession to fate, all hope of a normal day of rehearsals for upcoming concerts evaporated. All I wanted to do that day was play the oboe—play music.
I’d lobbed a few grenades of my own just a few months before. The target: my oncologist—in charge of pouring toxic chemicals into my body under the guise of saving my life. The treatment felt nonsensical, uncalled for and surely sadistic. Railing into him during one office visit, he took my attack with a grim, knowing smile. He’d heard this rant of “re-transition” before. The next week I sheepishly apologized and accepted the red chemo like a soldier suffering from battle fatigue but willing to follow orders for my greater good.
Anger and grief, for the city and myself, folded onto each other like cake batter and I was once again brought to my knees for my off-target emotions. A grim and selfish thought began to surface at the edge of my chemo-brain. On 9/11/01, what was really on my mind was the appointment scheduled at my radiologist’s office for 9/12/01. At 9 AM I was scheduled to have my brand new baseline x-rays, which would tell the new story of my now non-cancerous breasts. My rehearsals never transpired; all concerts were called off. What if my appointment was cancelled due to the Twin Towers collapsing?
Of course, no one was in the doctor’s office to answer my repeated calls. The phone service all over New York City was sketchy at best. I felt sheepish and embarrassed to even bother with this detail in my small life. My gigantic baby towers were gone and my breasts needed to be photographed. The Towers and The Breasts: like the title of a bad soap opera, just cancelled by the networks.
As the wind shifted into the evening, my house began to fill with the smell of smoke and minute detritus of God knows what. I went to bed that night with the windows closed, trying to ward off that odor of death and pulverized computers, the particles of vaporized documents and other ephemera of life that made up the Trade Towers and everything and everyone trapped inside. The very concrete that I may have stepped on as I emerged from the elevator that day over 40 years ago might have been crossing the East River and seeping into my house in Queens on the night of 9/11/01. As I tried to sleep, I inhaled my baby towers—an odor that I imagined contained my own young and ancient footsteps.
On the morning of the 12th at 6:30 AM, the call came from my doctor: they would see a few patients who needed crucial scans and I was one. "Come on in, if you can."
Walking to the subway, I sensed a tentative calm in the air, not yet to be trusted. The streets and stores were empty, save for a few stalwart Korean delis. Most people had undoubtedly been glued to the TV all night and were still watching, or were drifting off to sleep into an unwanted day off. Miraculously, the 7 trains were running and I boarded the Manhattan-bound subway with a few others, our eyes meeting, but mostly behaving as if we were going into work as usual.
I sat on the side of the train that faced north. As the elevated subway went into its big turn just after the Queensboro Plaza station, it suddenly occurred to me to turn around and look south. The gesture was an instinct. My southward view had just cleared the Citigroup Building. With this building in the foreground, the Twin Towers would have emerged. But they were gone. What appeared in their stead was the most beautifully sculpted double billow of thick smoke imaginable. They were solidly planted where the towers had been, almost as if they were new structures, and not going anywhere. Casper-like billows: ghostly. Monumental bulbous balloons of grey steely smoke, the wind unable to dissipate their sheer density. The towers had been rearranged into a softer effect; not the huge phallic-like structures that everyone griped about in the 70’s when I was a music student. No, these might be kind and gentle and forgiving towers, because they were now not only made of concrete and steel, but also of lives lost. Mixed up in the chaos of these gentle smoke stacks were countless bodies, pulverized into a massive, vertical sandy compost heap. Is that what I inhaled the night before? This thought roiled in my guts and I bent down to retch onto the floor of the train. My fellow commuters looked away.
The radiologist’s office was on Madison Avenue, a building of solid steel, concrete, granite and glass. The elevator let me out into an intact hallway. Doors to the offices were wide open; a few bald comrades sat, waiting. Angels disguised as doctors in white coats had flocked to this solid building to quell my fears and complete my treatment, taking the pictures that would become my breast’s new baby pictures, to gaze at and refer to in subsequent years.
9/12/01 was the end of my cancer journey. On that day, I began my final stage of healing. I heard the somber music of death knells throughout the city. The killing of my cancer was complete, and my beloved baby Twin Towers had died too.

Marcia Butler’s life has been driven by creativity. For 25 years she performed throughout the world as a professional oboist. She was hailed by the New York Times as “a first rate artist” and performed with such luminaries as pianist Andre Watts, soprano Dawn Upshaw and jazz great Keith Jarrett. In 2002 Marcia switched careers and began her interior design firm, Marcia Butler Interior Design. She has served well over 100 clients in twelve years and her design work has been published in shelter magazines. She resigned from the music business in 2008. The personal essay “Cells” is part of a memoir Marcia is currently writing, whose working title is My Isolde. She lives in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Guy and the Doll

by Donald Dewey

        Louie Sad was born in Lebanon as the Maronite Christian Elias Saad. Brought to Brooklyn Heights as a child, he was transformed by neighbors and school companions (and later by others who had once gone to school) into the Syrian Moslem Louie Sad who must have had an ethnic in with Ali Baba, Omar Sharif, and the swarthy brothers who supplied the beer kegs for the annual Arab street festival on Atlantic Avenue. Louie seldom disabused people of their preconceptions and misconceptions. A shy man waiting to hear something funny and with a raspy, hyena-like laugh at the ready to reward it, he often conveyed a sense of being on their territory, with their ignorance about nationalities and religions part of a small but necessary admission tax. Even on the corruption of his name, he smiled to me once and for good that “Elias sounds Greek and I’m no Greek.”
        Which was one of the few things Louie wasn’t at one time or another. When he wasn’t whatever burnoused camel driver lived in the minds of others, he was qualifying for all the jobs listed in the Daily News want ads. There were several years in a ticket office where he came to appreciate which theatrical producers had discovered the magic formula for a hit and which ones left him trying to hustle twofers before the final curtain dropped. There was another period when he did something on Wall Street, though he always kept it vague about whether he was running Merrill Lynch or an elevator car in the Merrill Lynch building. What stood out for me was his job in a factory that made those big wheel pretzels that eliminated the need for any other meal on the day. Louie’s task at the plant was monitoring the infinitesimal dosage of lye dropped into every pretzel for preservation purposes. His tales of other monitors who got into distracting arguments about a previous night’s ballgame and had to be switched to other responsibilities because they had allowed too much salted acid to proceed down conveyor belts and out to street carts always provoked hilarity—and resolutions to stick to hot dogs from sidewalk peddlers.
        When he wasn’t working or looking for work, Louie was satisfying his addiction to show business. There was the show business of the downtown Brooklyn movies he checked out as rigorously as the theater bookers, the show business of the television programs he asterisked in TV Guide for appointments, and the show business of the Broadway producers whose tickets he sold and (when it was twofer time) whose productions he personally reviewed in the spirit of attending a wake for someone he hadn’t known in life. But as much as in the celebrities he watched from a distance or read about when they were marrying, divorcing, or slugging photographers, he was also immersed in the closer show business of some neighborhood actor who had just played a corpse in a New York movie or of an electrician who was working backstage on the latest Shubert Alley musical. For Louie these tenants across the hall or fellow bar patrons were equal to famous actors and singers in their place in the glittery commotion he savored as a daily high. He could be as gratified by gossip about E.G. Marshall as about Barbra Streisand, and behaved as circumspectly as a CIA agent when he passed it along to another party.
        Well into his fifties, Louie squeaked one of his hyena laughs at the idea of a show business career of his own, never having hatched grandiose ambitions from selling his theater tickets or from singing along late at night in piano bars. That too was their turf. But then Lorna came along. Lorna was a tall, stately brunette 15 years younger than Louie and with thick makeup bent on making it look 25. She might not have been royalty, but she never sat down without fanning her skirt to mark a wide boundary from her subjects, the way the queens played by Deborah Kerr in MGM movies once did. During the day Lorna worked as a secretary in the rectory of a Catholic church; afterwards and on weekends she took the voice lessons she had been taking since a teenager, clinging to the thought of being discovered one day by an agent or producer who would launch her professional career. Her only conspicuous public performing over the years had been with her church choir on Sundays, when parishioners never had to raise their eyes to know Lorna was in the loft. Once she released her educated soprano, not only the other choir members, but the priest on the altar knew better than to intrude upon a star turn. The rituals could be observed any time; as the filled pews (and substantial basket collections) demonstrated every week, Lorna reduced the sermons to a bill filler. Mahalia Jackson would have understood.
        Having all but converted to Roman Catholicism to hear Lorna, Louie needed little incentive to talk up her talents with anyone who had ever ridden in the same subway car with an agent or producer. Since I had been in a couple of those subway cars, my wife and I were invited fairly regularly to go out with Louie and keep up Lorna’s spirits about eventually finding the maestro who would take her career in hand. In fact, Lorna didn’t need me or anyone else to keep up her spirits. She had already completed a thorough analysis of her hopes and requirements, concluding that she still had reason to get out of bed every morning with bigger dreams than alerting a priest to a telephone plea for the last rites.
        In the hope category, there was Lorna’s endless list of singers, actors, composers, comedians, painters, and sculptors who hadn’t achieved their breakthrough until they were older than Louie. Anyone who had met Lorna and didn’t come away knowing that Giuseppe Verdi had composed Falstaff when he was 79 or that Richard Strauss had waited until his 80s to write his most beautiful Lieder hadn’t been paying attention. What did any of that have to do with the actual singing of Verdi or Strauss? Lorna was amazed you had to ask. What she was even more baffled by, though, was questioning the one and only restriction she had put on her eventual stardom—that she could not stay away from Brooklyn Heights for any length of time, leaving her widowed mother to fend for herself. When had her father died? Twenty years ago. Was her mother ill? No, she smoked too much but was in the best of health and still worked for Con Edison. So what was the problem? See, that was why the question puzzled her. The problem should have been obvious.
        Louie tried his best to pretend it was, too—and then to move on to the less obvious as fast as he could. If Lorna had a warehouse of stories about artists breaking through at 75, he had another deposit of them about mothers who blunted the yearnings of their children, mothers who had always wanted their children to succeed in show business, and mothers who didn’t like being used as excuses for the behavior of their children. He was particularly careful holding forth on this last group, of course, voicing his own bewilderment when Lorna suspected he was referring to her. Nothing of the kind, he reassured her, then went on to entangle himself in a Louie Sad Rule about the map miles that would amount to abandoning a parent and the distance that fell short of that crime. More than once, this prompted debates about whether, say, a one-week engagement in Philadelphia was practically farther from Brooklyn than, say, a two-night stand in St. Louis. Mostly, these discussions wound down to two important points of agreement: that it depended on whether a train, plane, or automobile was moving Lorna back and forth and that it wasn’t worth getting upset about anyway until she received an invitation to go to either place.
        Off by himself, however, Louie was getting upset with these futile calculations, and confided to me that he had taken a step toward acting as Lorna’s agent. Instead of grabbing a sandwich on his lunch hours at the pretzel factory, he began canvassing nearby community halls and theaters to see what it would cost to mount an evening of Lorna and her songs. The numbers that came back to him were not encouraging, they were certainly nothing he could afford, and that was without even approaching a performing palace like BAM to get an estimate. “There’s more involved than the rental of the space,” he moaned. “You’d have to pay at least a piano player. Then there’s the lighting guy and the sound guy and probably a couple of ushers. And you can’t do a thing like this without a program. You know how much these printers want for just a single piece of paper? It doesn‘t have to be colored paper, either. Just the plain white.”
        There was good and bad in Lorna finding out about Louie’s lunch hour soundings. The good was in their relationship, which advanced to her hanging on to his arm and pecking his cheek in public, announcing that she believed in him as much as he did in her, whatever the calendar or her makeup said. The bad was in her nudges about why he hadn’t tried this or that place for her recital—an admission she had been going through the Yellow Pages on her own and a veiled accusation of negligence he sought to correct as soon as another lunch hour bell rang. Somewhere in the middle was the reluctant decision to look for a hall further afield than Brooklyn Heights, all the way out to Park Slope and Sunset Park, if necessary. And when you came right down to it, wasn’t even Bay Ridge at the far end of Brooklyn closer than both Philadelphia and St. Louis?
        Louie soldiered on in his search until it seemed everyone in Brooklyn knew that finding a recital hall for Lorna had become as improbable as talking the Dodgers back from Los Angeles. Then one evening, while waiting at a restaurant bar for Lorna, he ran into an actor who had been hired as a ringer for one of the Lighthouse for the Blind’s occasional presentations of popular musicals. Although the Lighthouse prided itself on giving leads to blind actors, singers, and dancers (the raison d‘etre for the undertaking), it also dropped in a sighted ringer or two—usually as members of the chorus or walk-ons who had some barking dialogue moment—to serve as guides for intricate stage movements. But in the case of the Guys and Dolls then in rehearsal, the actor informed Louie, the whole production was in jeopardy because the blind singer cast for the role of Adelaide had been forced to quit and no replacement could be found. Against Lighthouse intentions, the director was desperate enough to take on a singer-actress who could see.
        Louie told the actor not to worry and to alert the director his new Adelaide would be giving him a call in the morning. He had a harder time persuading Lorna not to worry. Yes, she was familiar with the Guys and Dolls score, and yes, she considered herself capable of learning dance steps, and God knew, she had memorized enough opera roles to handle lines. But she had never planned on performing with a cast of blind people. To Louie’s objection that few people ever had, Lorna retreated to the more worn excuses of her schedule at the rectory, the awkwardness of replacing somebody in the middle of rehearsals, and her preference for bel canto to popular musicals. As Louie would insist later, it was Lorna’s own acute ear that finally heard all these evasive notes and led her to agreeing to see the director.
        Lorna’s reverberating audition rendition of “Adelaide’s Lament” swept away any lingering reservations by the director about taking on a sighted person. As soon as that was settled, the elated Louie started rounding up more commitments for attendance than he ever had for Rogers and Hammerstein from his ticket office. His joke was that he was twisting more arms at his factory than his co-workers were twisting pretzels. As for Lorna, she developed new worries—not about performing with blind co-stars, but about what she detected as the waning strength of her voice during rehearsals because of trying to keep up with the firm baritone of the actor playing Nathan Detroit. It took a concerted effort by Louie and growingly irritated parish priests to convince her she would worry a lot less if she didn’t spend just about every minute of every day—at home, at work, in restaurants—singing “Adelaide’s Lament” to whatever walls were around her.
        There might have been bigger opening nights for a Lighthouse show, but nobody remembered when. When Louie wasn’t glowing over the numerous familiar faces he greeted at the entrance, he was beaming over the scores of arrivals who hadn’t required his personal urging to spend their evening with Lorna. His enthusiasm dipped only when Bessie, Lorna’s mother, swaggered up. Most of Bessie’s long, straight gray hair draped down to cover her face; the rest of it made for a façade of bangs copied from beauty parlor photos; all of it was endangered by her tic of constantly tugging at the ends with a Lucky Strike between her yellowed fingers. Bessie might not have actually sipped anything stronger than tea for decades, but she carried herself as if shaking off a leg cramp after rising from a bar stool. “This your idea?” She greeted Louie with a Lucky Strike voice that made his rasp sound like a trill. “You break my Lorna’s heart, I’ll break something of yours.”
        Louie tried to think that was funny, and kept his eyes on her as she negotiated the front door with a final siss at having to toss away her half-smoked cigarette. “She doesn’t like me much,” he said.
        By the time the imposing-sized orchestra from local schools went into the overture, a couple of hundred people had filled the folding chairs rowed before a high stage. The fact that most of them were relatives and friends of the performers didn’t dilute the objectivity of their attention so much as strengthen the formality of what was being presented to them from the elaborate sets. Whatever the professional or physical limitations of the players, the traditional gulf between entertainers and audience was quickly in place. Halfway into the first scene, there was little patronizing of the blind in the air. The songs and dances were succeeding or failing only on their execution, and the script didn’t call for any pratfalls.
        Bessie didn’t hear any of the sour notes or flubbed lines because she had made sure to plant herself on an aisle seat from which she could get outside for a cigarette break whenever Lorna went offstage. She seemed to have committed the score to memory as scrupulously as any cast member because she timed her returns perfectly to Lorna’s entrances. When a house manager standing in the back suggested she stop coming and going and disturbing the rest of the audience, Bessie separated herself from the play’s Salvation Army characters with her gravelly roar to “go screw yourself.”
        But the main reason Bessie didn’t hear any of the sour notes was that Lorna, for one, didn’t hit any. Just as in the choir loft every Sunday, she swooped down on the golden oldies and shook them with such vibrant force that they didn’t dare not gleam again. When she told Nathan Detroit to “Take Back Your Mink,” he had to be forgiven for thinking it was an order to reanimate the animals that had gone into the coat. The one juncture at which the peculiar sponsor of the evening came to the fore was during a dance when Lorna was outfitted in more beads than solid cloth and she flaunted long legs that had no need of makeup. Behind the smile that had been on his face since her opening number, Louie cast suspicious glances around to reassure himself much of the audience couldn’t see what he wasn’t all that eager about anyone besides himself seeing. He might have been more certain of it if her drum-aided bumps and wiggles didn’t bring loud, hoarse laughter from Bessie at the end of his row.
        The repeated surges of applause at the end of the show only confirmed what had been evident for a couple of hours: Nobody had missed anything by not spending the evening across the river in some Times Square theater. Back to his shepherding role, Louie led more than a dozen people to a restaurant where he had reserved three tables. The one touch too much was in having transparently indifferent but rehearsed waiters clap as Lorna entered, but it didn’t bother her and she immediately kissed her agent-producer for his part in her triumph. Only Bessie blew smoke on the moment as she peered out from her hair in wonder that she hadn’t been brought to a better place.
        The food and wine went on for hours. Lorna volunteered a couple of choruses for nearby diners who wanted to know what was being celebrated, Bessie volunteered a couple of hacking coughs when the pretzel salter next to her asked if she was related to Lorna. Louie didn’t have to wait for somebody to say something funny to laugh since just about everyone did. And then, over the sixth or seventh toast, Lorna stood up to thank everyone for being part of “the happiest night I’ll ever have singing.” Louie jumped up to top her, to predict there would be many more such evenings, but she cut him off with a long kiss, this time on the lips. He didn’t know if he was more flummoxed by the kiss or the tears in her eyes. “Sit down, Louie,” Bessie croaked from across the table. “You’re rockin’ the boat.”
        Bessie liked herself for the reference to another of the show’s tunes, and several people at the table laughed with her. Louie turned pale as Lorna sat down away from him. He knew he was rocking the boat, too. It still wasn’t his turf.

Donald Dewey has published 37 books of fiction, nonfiction, and drama for such houses as Little, Brown, HarperCollins, and St. Martin's Press. His latest books, both published in 2014, are the biography Lee J. Cobb: Characters of an Actor and the novel The Bolivian Sailor.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


by Paul Perilli

“You take a job you become the job,” Wizard said in Martin Scorcese’s cult classic Taxi Driver.
I felt much like Wizard the summer I was twenty and drove a taxi for Red Cab, a Waltham, MA company owned by my older cousin, Joey. Joey was a wise-cracking, street smart, tough guy, who at the same time was incredibly generous and also ambitious. At an early age he turned an interest in cars and a job as a gas station grease monkey into a business that would grow from owning a few cabs to having a fleet of them and eventually include school buses as well as vans for people with special needs and senior citizens, making make him millions of dollars.
Of course, I made a bit less than that working for him those months, an amount that fluctuated depending on how many hours I was willing to put in. And that was a lot. I was hired to drive weekdays but if there was a no-show or someone was late or quit, and that happened often enough, I’d volunteer to stay on. I could drive long hours, 12 or 16 of them with only a few breaks: a to-go breakfast from Wilson’s Diner, a couple of takeout slices from Piece o’ Pizza, a large afternoon coffee from Tony’s Spa. I liked the money and it was there to make if I wanted it, and there were times I’d be home with my family or shooting hoop with friends thinking I could, and probably should, be on the road making some cash instead. I took the job. I became the job.
It wasn’t more than a few days after I started that my friends began calling me Hacker, as in “Hey, Hacker, you coming out with us tonight?” It was a moniker I couldn’t dissuade them from using. The identifier, I was sure, would turn off the girls we ran into at parties or bars or the beach and would doom me to a long dry summer. But, to my surprise, it actually turned out to be a good conversation starter, and I recall more than a few wide-eyed female faces exclaim, “Wow, are you really doing that?” My answer in the affirmative would lead to the usual follow-up questions. “Is it interesting?” “It can be.” “Are the people weird?” “Mostly.” “Do they give you great tips?” “Not especially.”
In truth, I picked up the whole gamut of local humanity and folks passing through Waltham for whatever reason. I transported executives to and from the technology companies out on Fourth Ave, Bear Hill Road, and Winter Street to the airport. I took bossy old ladies who gave me ten cent tips to Super Market to do their grocery shopping. An hour later I might pick them up again and for another ten cents carry half a dozen bags to their door and maybe even respond to a command issued with the authority of a drill sergeant: “Don’t just leave them there, take them inside.” I drove men to their jobs in the morning and picked up others outside bars in the evening and at night, and who, shitfaced and disoriented, might be overcome with a swell of generosity that could yield a 50 percent tip I’d have no problem pocketing. I took people of all ages to Waltham Hospital for tests or admission or to visit an ill spouse or child. Some would go into great detail about their plight, and the fear I heard resonating in their voices might depress me until my next pickup occupied the back seat and a new conversation started up. There were times, once a day maybe, when I’d turn the meter off early to keep the fare low for an elderly person I thought might be down to his or her last few dollars. In a few instances one of them might look so sad and destitute I’d open the back door and say the ride was on me and end up eating the cost myself for a few kind words in return.
My car was a Checker, one of those big, extra-roomy four door vehicles manufactured in Michigan. The model that, three years later, Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle was seen driving in Taxi Driver. Not long after the movie came out I sat in an old, worn seat in Harvard Square Cinema awed at the skill and imagination of Bickle’s creator. He, Scorcese, was talking to me and I assumed lots of other buzzed-up drivers spending long, lonely nights taking strange folks to places they might not feel comfortable being in very long. To this day I still feel an unreasonable identification with Bickle (“You make the move. It’s your move.”) and wonder whatever happened to the draft of the story about a cab driver titled “Time and Distance” I’d written around then?
Time and distance. Those were the two settings on the old meters with the iron flag that was dropped at the start of each new fare: set to distance it ticked off the ten or so cents for each eighth mile traveled; set to time it ticked off a similar amount for each minute that went by as you were stalled in traffic or waiting for your fare to run an errand. Setting the meter to time and distance while the taxi was moving was illegal, though unscrupulous drivers might take advantage of unsuspecting riders. I admit I did it often as I could, though never to someone I was sure was on a fixed income or that I knew or knew of. I did have a penchant to stiff demanding out-of-town businessmen I assumed were on company expense accounts and in a hurry to get to the commuter rail station or back to their hotel up along Route 128 or in downtown Boston. I did it to others whom I decided deserved it or I just didn’t like. Only a few times did someone mention they knew I was overcharging them. Only once did someone call the office to report me to Chuck, the dispatcher.
Presumably because I was the owner’s cousin, a cousin he liked and favored, you would think that might have guaranteed me one or two extra better paying fares a day. Nah uh. Not while Chuck was taking the calls and doling them out.
A grouchy ex high school offensive lineman, Chuck had worked for Joey for years, maybe even from the start, and no way he was going to give the summer help, not even Joey’s blood relative, special treatment. Not when there were men riding the streets with families to support (and at that time all of Red Cab’s drivers were men). Not when Big Mike, a feared and uncommunicative man who’d been driving a taxi since he was old enough to have a license, might be out there waiting for his number to be called.
Big Mike was on the streets twelve hours a day six days a week. I don’t know what kind of life he had outside of that, and it’s likely I never let my imagination wander too deeply into it, but his stature at Red Cab was such that he wasn’t afraid to key the mic and snap something at Chuck if he felt he was getting slighted in the distribution of good-paying fares. Big Mike always looked like he was getting slighted and that made him a little scary to be around. I don’t think I had a single conversation with him. In fact, I don’t think we ever exchanged any words at all, not even hellos at the garage where we picked up and dropped off our cabs.
The taxi business attracted a lot of those types, loners, social misfits, those in transition from job to job or place to place or life to life, people like me who needed some quick money, or those others who, for whatever reasons, thought spending a good chunk of the day alone in a car and sitting in stalled traffic and waiting for lights to change would be an all right job. (“All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go,” was how Bickle put it.) While the seeming freedom of being your own boss and making your own hours, as many or few as you wanted, of hearing the meter click and imagining a steady flow of greenbacks coming your way, might be seductive, its reality was anything but freedom and riches. The constant hustle to make decent cash, the meager tips, whiney people and empty, frustrating downtime, wasn’t for everyone. Joey had a core group of steady drivers, but otherwise the turnover rate was quite high, and he was constantly looking for people he thought might stay with him a while.
84 was my handle, the number Chuck used to communicate with me over the two-way radio, as in “84 there’s a pickup waiting on the corner of Crescent and Moody.” Everyone had a number (Big Mike’s was 1) but Chuck never used it to address them as he did me when I was in the office or on those occasions I went out with them for beers and some pool playing. It was as if I didn’t have a first or last name or that we’d entered a time when the use of birth names was unnecessary. Truth was, I think he was intimidated by a college kid. Sports and women were the two dominant topics among the drivers, and ones I wasn’t averse to delving into great detail about, but books, academic knowledge, those were for the Brandesians, as we townies referred to the Brandeis University students who lived up on the hill on South Street and had long hair and went to protests and who also, we were certain, screwed each other like bunnies on amphetamines. Chuck knew I read books during those dead zones in the mid-mornings and mid-afternoons when business was slow. I’d locate a shady spot to park my Checker and take out the volume I’d brought along, and when Chuck was in a joking mood, or a frustrated one, and there were plenty more of those, he might tell me to put it down and head to such and such a number on Upland Road or Weston Street or over to the main entrance of Polaroid: “I hate to interrupt study period 84, but you need to get right on that.” I’d finish the paragraph I was on and key the mic and repeat the address for him. In the office at end of one day I remember Chuck looking at the big, thick book in my hand and wondering just why the fuck would I (I as 84) want to read something that was titled Cancer Ward?
I still don’t think it’s an unreasonable question.

Paul Perilli's writing has appeared in The EuropeanBaltimore MagazineNew Observations MagazinePoets & Writers MagazineThe Brooklyn Rail and others. "Hacker" is from a group of non-fiction pieces titled Tracking Back.