Thursday, September 24, 2009

Scenes From a Divorce: The Private Salon

Maybe writers need their own social apartheid. We don’t really mix well with regular folks. They find it bizarre and disagreeable that we sit for hours in front of a computer screen, inventing gossip about nonexistent people. I spent one afternoon with the son of a woman I was dating, making up a story. The whole idea upset and disgusted her. Okay, it was a story about finding a magic stone that would make adults do anything he wanted, and he was asking his Mom to triple his allowance, make homework optional and sign a liability waiver for skateboard camp. But we were having fun. Incidentally, you should never read one of those liability waivers for skateboard camp -- they’re terrifying.

Another woman got annoyed when I complained about some film we’d just seen trashing the book it was based on. “Who cares?” was her final, exhausted verdict. “It’s only a movie.”

Only a movie? And the book they ruined was only a book. And books are what you read when the magazines run out. But they never do.

One girlfriend was furious because I used her in a story; another was mad because I didn’t.

Neither one of them understood that it wasn’t them, or wouldn’t have been … just someone who looked and sounded like them, with a few of their more annoying mannerisms Girl who over-filled every room she entered with show-off ballet moves, you know who you are. You, too, nail-biter who said “Totally,” every time you agreed with me and “Thank you” every time I agreed with you.

Other writers understand when you fade and stop paying attention because of some plot point you can’t fix; they shrug when some stray comment winds up in one of your characters’ mouths. They like to be alone just as much as you do, and need your critical attention when they read long passages of fresh-minted prose, just like you need theirs. They don’t mind if you eavesdrop in restaurants; they’re eavesdropping, too.

It’s a good set-up, if you can find a writer you respect that you actually want to live with. That’s the tough part, because let’s face it, writers are pretty much just as annoying as all those non-writers think.

Driving out to Annie’s cottage in Polpis on the night of our private salon, I couldn’t help wondering if she might be the one. But I had heard she was still wary after the break up with her crazy actor and I wasn’t quite as finished with her friend as I should have been. It felt like a potential mess waiting to happen, “a regular monkey’s tea party” as my grandfather liked to say. I thought of Edna St. Vincent Millay starting an affair with one of her readers after a particularly well-written fan letter. That was the way to do it: translating the love of words into a more urgent carnality without ambivalence or complications.

The drive from town settled my nerves. After the last grasp of commerce – a liquor store tucked into the trees on the right, a ford dealership on the left – vanished around a curve in the road, and the last ostentatious real-estate boondoggle fell behind me, Polpis Road turned into one of the most beautiful drives in New England. With the moors on one side and the grand old clapboard mansions allowing glimpses of the harbor between walls and hedges on the other, I could feel myself escaping the gravitational pull of the busy town and the crowded ‘mid-island’ with its convenience stores and gas stations. Much of the island had been spoiled – even despoiled – but the farther out you cruise along Polpis Road the less it seemed to matter. These old houses weren’t going anywhere, though the cars in the driveway had changed (more Minis and smart cars, now; fewer Hummers and Expeditions). The moors and the bogs were protected by the Land Bank and the Conservation Commission. This was old money country, shabby with a haughty indifference to the granite counter top and the sub-zero refrigerator: no one was selling, or moving, or installing a climate controlled wine cellar or a state-of-the art digital screening room. They’re just going to keep on fishing in Coskata pond, drinking Bloody Mary’s on the deck and complaining about the food at the Yacht Club.

It seemed fitting somehow that Annie had found a place for herself out here, surrounded by the wealthy, but living hand-to-mouth, tucked away in a four hundred dollar a month cottage among the wild blackberries and the poison ivy. It turned out years later that she was actually related to the owner, going back five generations of landed gentry. The thought terrified his family when she mentioned it over cocktails one evening, as if she was going to rise up with a cold-eyed gang of Boston lawyers and demand her share of the old man’s property. Nothing could have been further from the truth. She had been living out there for twenty summers and it just pleased her to find an ancestral connection to her cantankerous but affectionate landlord.

I pulled into the bluestone driveway, rolled past the main house and down to the cottage. The lights were on in the dusk and when I climbed out of the car the silence of the place closed over me like water, like a tropical ocean, and I was breathing it like a fish, a new creature in a new world.

This place is gorgeous,” I said when she came to the door. “I could feel my blood pressure dropping about ten points a mile as I drove out here.”

She smiled, stepping back to let me inside. “I know,” she said. “But the problem is, you never want to leave.”

Her hair was down, a frizzy blond cloud that softened her sharp features, as the grey cashmere cardigan buttoned over a flimsy t-shirt and loose jeans accented the girlish allure of her body.

She pushed at her hair nervously, pressing the wild mane to her scalp. “I’m sorry. I look awful. My hair gets insane when it’s humid like this.”

“I think it looks great.”

“It looks horrible. It’s Ok. You can say so. It looks like I just stuck my fingers in a wall socket. The Mad Scientist look”

“I like it.”

“You’e insane.”

“Lucky for you.”

She squinted at me. “We’ll see about that.” Then she noticed the bag in my hand. “What did you bring? I’m starving. I was fine until about five minutes ago then my blood sugar dropped. I was about to start eating shredded wheat out of the box.”

“Ugh. That would definitely have spoiled your appetite for the picked lobster, home-made red cabbage coleslaw, and potato salad I have here. Plus the baguette and the raspberries. Oh, and a bottle of Pinot Grigio. No wait a minute. Two bottles.”

“Sounds like a wild night you’ve got in mind.”

I lifted out one of the bottles. “Onward and upward with the arts.”

The cottage was a simple rectangle maybe fifteen feet by forty. I had stepped into a high raftered, open-stud living room, with yachting pennants, old quarter boards and fishing rods decorating the beams, 1920s Nantucket theater one-sheets (Rose Tremaine in Private Lives the ‘Sconset Casino), family photographs and equestrian prints tacked to the wooden walls. The cracked cement floor was softened by sisal rugs, set about with an old velour couch and some white wicker chairs. A dusty television sat on an antique desk between two windows, but it looked as though it hadn’t been used in years. Beyond the dining room table, a raised a step led to the kitchen, with doors leading into the bedroom and the bath. Annie had lit Candles and hurricane lamps. The place was cozy, lost in time.

I stood looking around, taking it all in.

“It’s like some relic of another era,” I said.

She smiled. “Just like me.”

We walked into the kitchen and I started unpacking the bags.

“And what era would that be?” I asked her. “The eighties?”

“Come on.”

“The seventies?”

She made a little puckered wince, as if she had just stepped into a cloud of gnats. “God no.”

“The sixties?”

“I kind of hated the sixties.”

“No Woodstock?”

“Too muddy.”

“But the bands! Jimi Hendrix and Joe Cocker and Creedence. Neil Young played with CSN for the first time ever that weekend.”

“I don’t know, My sister went and all she heard was crowd noise, Melanie and Iron Butterfly.”

I smiled. “Great band, Crowd Noise. Their older stuff was better, though.”

“The older stuff is always better.”

“What a drag though – I mean if you keep working, If you’re Coppola and all anyone wants to talk about is The Godfather. Or like – that scene in Cakes and Ale when Maugham’s unsuccessful friend is telling how great his crappy first novel was.”

“I love that book.”

“Most people have never even heard of it.”

“That’s why I didn’t invite them tonight.”

I put on my best English accent. “Most of us resent people when we treat them badly. Alroy Kear was far too big-hearted for such pettiness. He could treat you very badly indeed without afterward bearing you the least ill-will.”

“I love that. I always see him as George Sanders. That must be because of the movies.”

“They;lve made some pretty good ones. But they can’t seem to nail The Razor’s Edge.”

“That’s because they don’t understand that it’s really about Elliot Templeton, not that drippy woo-woo guy. I love Elliot Templeton. He’s so wonderful and so sad. Remember when he’s on his death bed and all he wants is to be invited to the Duchess’ party?”

“And Maugham lies to him and he dies happy.”

“Yeah. Poor Elliot.”


She handed me a cork screw and while I was working it she said, “I guess … the Fifties. No -- the late forties. Just after World War Two. Men wore hats and kids didn’t wear bike helmets. Cars had fins. People drank scotch out of little flasks at football games. The Giants played the Polo Grounds. Everybody smoked and nobody cared. John O’Hara world. That’s my era. Maugham was huge then, too.”

“He met my Dad once, at a party. He tottered up – that’s one of my Dad’s favorite words, ‘tottered’ …and he steadied himself and looked my Dad in eye and said, ‘Dear boy, I hear you are the toast of Broadway. I’m happy to say that I am too old and too rich and too drunk to give a shit.’ Then he turned and lurched off. One of my dad’s fondest memories. Meeting Maugham.”

“You must have had a cool childhood.”

“It was weird. I was a bi-coastal kid. I spent vacations in L.A. – enough time to get hooked on my Dad’s world, but not enough to really be part of it. I was always on the outside. Which was actually okay, because my Dad’s new family was seriously fucked up. My half-sister was over-dosing on LSD, my step-brother tried to drown me in the swimming pool and my step-mother was right out of Grimm’s fairy tales – the uncut German version. None of this smiley-face American shit. I think she secretly wanted to chop me up and stick me in a batch of cookies. But she wouldn’t be caught dead baking, and it’s not the kind of thing you can ask the Filipino chef to do, unless you’re planning to give him a really big bonus, which was not her style.”

She laughed. “It can’t possibly have been that bad.”

“That’s why I can’t write about this stuff. No one believes it. No one believed the Mary Tyler Moore character in Ordinary People and I was like … that bitch is Mary Poppins next to my step-mother.”

“Well, my parents stayed married and I sometimes wish they hadn’t. My Mom deserves a better life. She – I don’t know. She chose it, I guess. She chose him.But I don’t think she really knew what her choices were. She could have walked away. She almost did a few times.”

“But she came back.”

“My Dad writes a mean love-letter.”

I poured two glasses of wine, handed her one and made a toast.

“To our crazy families, which made us the writers we are today.”

I cut the lobster into bunch of mescal greens Annie had in the fridge and made an olive oil and vinegar dressing while she put the baguette in the oven and set the table.

While we ate I told her that I regretted missing her plays – she had done a lot of theater on the island: a solo turn in The Belle of Amherst, leads in My Fair Lady and The Glass Menagerie, Linda in Death of a Salesman. Apparently she was great; but the only local productions I had seen were terrible – a clumsily staged One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a teeth-grindingly inept Odd Couple with women in the lead roles. I had acted a little, but I found the stage fright debilitating.

“I’ve never had that,” she said. “I always feel comfortable on stage. I have life-fright instead.”

We finished eating – I noticed that she wolfed her food almost as fast as I did – and cleared the table. We got out our stories and settled in for the salon.

My story began this way:

The worst year of Michael Gersh’s life started with a morning of easy victories and good omens. There were bad omens too, but like most people, he chose to ignore them. The good stuff was just too distracting. At dawn, he finally managed to get a tube ride on a ten foot wave; at breakfast, he sold a screenplay about the Intifada to a pair of Egyptian bankers; and at lunch he closed a deal with the biggest star of the late twentieth century to make his best friend’s movie.

He could hardly wait for dinner.

Mike didn’t much care for irony, especially when it happened to him, but looking back at that sun-splashed March morning, he would have to admit it made perfect sense: he was riding high.

And a downfall is just a stumble, without altitude.

Annie’s started like this:

Alison was sitting in her old black Ford pick-up, peering into the rearview mirror, inspecting a smudge of yellow paint that ran along the left side of her nose, when he leaned over and stuck his head through the open window.

“Would you mind not parking so close to my fence? See, it forces people out into the street, and we've had some close calls, so could you please--?”

It was a ridiculously hot, sun-battering afternoon in early September and the last thing she needed was some Brooks Brothers rolled-up shirt sleeve leaning in, some thinning blonde going to gray-ex-Hotchkiss-ex-Taft-ex-Andover cum Harvard cum Yale Law School cum, beautiful wife cum Polaroid-perfect family back-drop, asking her to ease the margin of infringement on his self-important existence.

The stories were long and it was late when we finished.

We had an awkward moment at the door, as I was leaving. We were both a little drunk. She brushed against me, seemed to lose her balance. I caught her and held her for a second. The immanence of a kiss trembled between us. Then she slipped free of my arm and stepped back. We wound up shaking hands.

“Thanks for a great night,” I said.

‘Thanks for the picnic.”

“I liked what you said about the repetitions.”

She smiled. “You can say something fifty different ways. You just have the choose the best one and file the others away.”

“You said get rid of them.”

“I don’t think you ever get rid of anything. I bet you have lines you’ve been trying to stick into stories for years. Orphans left over from high school.”

“The problem is, most of them suck.”

“Tell me one.”

“It’s late. I can’t remember any of them, and besides-- ”

“It’s embarrassing.”

“Try mortifying. That was one of my favorite words in high school.”

She took my other hand, holding me in place. “Just one.”

“It would have to be a paraphrase.”

“I’m sure you’ll improve it.”

“I couldn’t make it much worse.”

She stared at me, eyebrows raised, head tilted down a little. Her posture said: Come on, let’s go. Spill it.

“I was really proud of this at the time,” I said.

“You’re killing me. I have to work tomorrow.”

“Okay, okay … let me set it up. The guy comes to the door, they haven’t seen each other in years, I was expert at true love tested by long separations in high school. I think I’d been on like one date at that point. Anyway, she doesn’t recognize him for a second, then she does.”

“Okay, so?”

“Ugh. Are you really going to make me do this?”

She just stood there, holding my hands.

“Okay, okay -- it was … ‘perception and response joined and separate: the lightning of recognition and then the slow thunder of a smile.’ Something like that.”

“It’s nice.”

“It’s awful.”

“I like it. Maybe you’ll wind up using it after all, now. When you write about tonight.”

She nailed me perfectly at that moment, as she always does. Of course I denied it at the time.

But here we are.

Anyway, it’s the next session I really want to write about.

And that night deserves a post to itself.

The Home Care Diaries, Part Two: Settling In

This is not a story anyone wants to hear. It violates the basic tenets of American optimism. It’s not Norman Rockwell picture; more like an Andrew Wyeth, with occasional torn fragments of Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon pasted over the canvas.

“How is it going?” everyone asks. And of course I say fine.

“Is it tough having your mother living in the house?” And I say no, of course not. Even to her.

Especially to her.

But the facts remain. That’s what facts do. There’s a mindless obstinacy about them. My mother is eighty-eight years old. She has a rapidly advancing case of Parkinson’s disease. She wants to go to the lovely assisted living place nearby, but she can’t really take care of herself, so I don’t see how that could happen. She works hard to improve her physical condition but the odds and the years are against her. Mortality mocks her optimism. Mortality mocks and diminishes everything. Its ruinous taint, the sheer poison of its proximity created every religion and philosophy on the planet. We forget that because we avoid it like the contaminating radioactive isotope that it is. Shunning death may be the one authentic human instinct beside the ability to suck. We come into life ready to take sustenance from the nipple, hardwired to travel forward ignoring the end of the trip. We build a culture based on youth, we shun the old, we spend a billion dollars on cosmetics and plastic surgery just to keep mortality at bay. I do it. I didn’t know I was doing it until my mother moved in and the awesome, appalling specter of mortality moved in with her.

So how does it feel to change your mother’s Depends undergarment? How does it feel to walk her from the bed to the bathroom, watching her legs tremble as she tries to find her balance? Well, first of all, it’s exhausting. It’s an illness itself, this new awareness of death looming everywhere, a leeching ailment like mononucleosis that saps the life out of your muscles and buries you in your bed. The fatigue is too complex to fight, and only certain parts of it can be solved by sleep. It’s spiritual as well as physical, emotional as well as mental. Part of it is about seeing someone you love so stricken, the penetrating unnaturalness (or so it seems, or so it feels) of your reversed positions, the upended role you have to play in the endgame of a parent’s life. In a way it’s like having a new baby in the house, without the sustaining thrill of a new life to protect. The needs are startlingly similar, but the joy is replaced with sorrow and dread. Of course I know I’m lucky in many ways. Things could be much worse. We have help during the week. And Mom is as sharp as ever, reading The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine from cover to cover, commenting on the news (“In this country we have Socialism for the rich and free market capitalism for everyone else”) dismissing her Doctors (“When you’re past a certain age, they just don’t care any more.”). She still loves life and her spirit is ferocious. Watching her do her physical exercises has shamed me into getting back into shape myself. She’s still herself, and she loves being here. She feels like she’s been sprung from prison. The used the term ‘evacuated’ the other day, as if we had plucked her from the midst of some natural disaster when we took her out of the “skilled nursing facility” where she had been living after a urinary tract infection almost killed her.

Annie is a huge help. Of course that has its downside also. Mom said something other days about being so grateful to me and my brother. I pointed out that some significant portion of that gratitude should be directed toward the one person in this situation who isn’t related to her. It’s an immense unfair burden for Annie, who provided hospice home care, spelled only by her two sisters, for the last six months of her mother’s life. The sight of a walker or a wheel chair, a bath seat or a bedside commode, brings back the most painful memories of her life, and that’s only part of the problem. My son is living with us now also, and he has dubbed the tiny, 200-year old apartment (Five rooms and two baths on two floors connected by a narrow stairway) the NoPrivacyHouse. The name made Annie smile, and she needed a light moment, but it’s another fact and it remains just like all the others: we have no privacy at all any more. Annie feels dislocated and displaced. The small comfortable life we had cobbled together for ourselves is gone. The disruption is temporary, but with no end in sight, some future restoration of our old routines seems far too abstract for comfort. For now this is our life. It’s constricted, as the lungs constrict during an asthma attack. It’s hard to breathe, impossible to relax. I found myself resting in a customers house for half an hour yesterday, just lying down in the quiet room, beyond the reach of obligation, feeling the vibrations of stress shiver out of my nerves like a struck piano string, wobbling to silence.

I needed that, but I couldn’t afford it. I need to work that job and I need to finish it. I can’t afford this new flimsiness, this swooning lack of energy. That’s scary. And my brother, to whom my mom feels such gratitude, is living five thousand miles away in another country, and generously sending an extra $300 a month to help out. That just about covers a week’s groceries in the most expensive town in America. Thanks for the gumball, Mickey.

So money is tight and living is tight; everything is tight, inside and out. A lot is happening just inside me, weird climate change in my frontal cortex and my limbic system. I feel simultaneously a wild howling sexual desire, the need to throw orgasms at death the way a kid might egg the factory owner’s house on Halloween. And at the same time a scrim of age and decay seems to cover both of us, making the whole idea feel creepy and repellent. The two feelings cancel each other out and nothing happens, which works well for us since sex is the last thing on Annie’s mind right now and we live in NoPrivacyHouse anyway.

So it’s grim and debilitating and the strange dark secret of it all is that I feel absurdly blessed and lucky to have this time with my mother, whatever the cost and however long the ordeal goes on. Because make no mistake, it is an ordeal and I can’t wait for it to be over and I hope it lasts and lasts, until I finally get enough of my mother to really remember her by, because soon enough the remembering will be all I have and I dread that day and I all have is the time until that day to prepare for it.

So we push forward, easing her end, taking the flickers of rest or pleasure when they present themselves, and hold her and hold each other and somehow make the best of it.

Maybe it could be a Norman Rockwell painting, after all.

The Trouble With Rich People

What's wrong with them?

The question keeps coming up.

I’m surrounded by rich people; I work for them on a daily basis; I have wealthy family members and friends, as well as various in-laws and acquaintances who would be considered rich by any normal standard, though they deny it stridently, and act insulted if you mention … not the elephant – more like the 1955 Bentley S1 Continental touring car in the room. Or the Matisse cut-outs on the wall. Almost without exception they follow rigid protocols of behavior that I find baffling, mean-spirited, stingy and awful.

Years ago, I overheard a friend of mine, beseeching a wealthy patron for another cash transfusion to his struggling literary magazine. I listened, stunned by the tone of the exchange. At the time I thought it was a perverse anomaly. I know better now.

“ --perhaps the magazine ought to fail,” David, the benefactor was telling my friend Toby, when I happened on their conversation. I paused in the shadowed hallway to listen.

“Maybe,” Toby said. “But I can’t really deal with that idea right now. I have a staff of ten and a growing subscription base and I can’t let a two week cash flow problem ruin that. You have to see that I can’t just -- ”


“I can’t just let everything – what?”

“You talk too much. You don’t listen. That may very well be one of the reasons your business ventures fail so consistently. You can’t always count on this kind of free ride. It’s making you lazy and careless.”

I almost laughed out loud at this comment: David had in the time I had known him, never let anyone slip more than a word or two between the cracks of his self-important monologues; he had never shown a speck of interest in anyone else’s life, their problems or their ideas. As to the notion of a free ride, David Barandes had been bequeathed a free ride unparalleled in the history of the human species. He had never worked a day in his life, never done a scrap of laundry, cooked a meal, or even paid a bill: the Barandes family domestic staff and accountants had always handled such petty details. I remembered the lovely Jaguar XKE that he totaled at Hampshire, skidding on some black ice, driving too fast one February night. The car had barely been towed away when an equally stunning 1964 Shelby Mustang appeared in the Merrill House parking lot.

After this life of anesthetizing privilege, he had the casual temerity to lecture Toby (who held down two jobs to support himself and the crazy dream of his little magazine) about a ‘free ride.’ Of course Toby let the comment strut past; you didn’t argue with David when you were pleading for his money.

“I understand that,” Toby said.

“It took you an extra year to pay me back last time,” David continued.

“I know. I’m sorry about that. It was just -- ”

“You’re talking again.”

“I – okay. Go on.”

“This is a relatively trivial issue. A magazine that no one really cares about, with the possible exception of you and my wife. But you may need money for some serious reason some day. You might find yourself with a real emergency on your hands. You might need medical attention. Or bail. Your credit is non-existent – I checked. In an actual crisis, you’d have nowhere else to turn. I’m your bank of last resort. So pay this money back on time, Toby. Every penny, including the low interest I’m charging so that I won’t have to pay a gift tax on my generosity.”

“I --”

“Because if you don’t, if you’re a day late or a penny shy, when that day comes you’ll get nothing from me. I’ll watch you go down and hope it teaches you a lesson.”

I tip-toed on to the bathroom, shaking my head in baffled wonderment: only David Barandes could turn a moment of generosity into a threat.

Or so I thought the time.

I’ve seen similar moments since, an experienced many of them myself. For example: the wealthy dowager (I’m talking about a personal fortune of close to fifty millions dollars, barely scathed by the recent financial crisis), blithely showing off some new extravagance to the niece who, with her sisters, was providing hospice care for their mother with no help from anyone. The work was exhausting, even traumatic, and the aunt could have provided round the clock nursing care just by dipping her gold-plated ladle into the limitless sea of money at her disposal. She wouldn’t even have noticed the expense. With literally no effort (her accounts could have handled the transaction), she could have made life bearable for her nieces and eased her sister’s dying immeasurably. But it never occurred to her. Instead she spent hundreds of thousand of dollars on some vain frivolity … and carelessly boasted about it to the sleepless, harrowed young woman who was working around the clock less than a mile away. This seemed impossibly cruel to me, but I was accustomed to this kind of behavior by then. The wealthy lawyer who contributes a pittance to his infirm mother’s living expenses (But never cancels a vacation); the billionaire who left his struggling kids nothing but a few sticks of furniture.

It all feels the same; the wealthy customers who assume everyone is trying to take advantage of them, the rich girlfriend who stuffed cash in my pockets before we went to dinner so that no one would suspect she was paying the tab. The guilt, paranoia and mendacity never seem to change.

So I started to wonder – is this nature or nurture? Do the rich people learn these defensive behaviors, this callous oblivion, from their parents? Or is it hard-wired into the lizard brain of the human species? Is it a mental illness, or an atavistic hangover from the cave-man days when an extra pelt hidden under a rock could mean the difference between life and death?

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a little of both. Old money and new money do have small variations in their behaviors. Generally old money people pretend they’re poor (“We’ve just been leveled by the taxes this year. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”) whereas new money people pretend you’re rich (“Come to Gstaad with us! We’ll have so much fun!). But the same strategy of dissimulation animates both tactics. The purpose is to conceal or elide the appalling gulf that separates them from the rest of the population. To admit their true status would be catastrophic. They would have to feel unbearable guilt or attempt unsustainable acts of generosity. They would be set upon by the jackals of the underclass and torn to pieces. Better to build walls and moats, live in gated communities, dress down and only speak the truth to other members of the tribe.

Much of this is learned behavior, and the exquisite tedium of their cocktail party conversations (A Nantucket fund-raiser sparkles with preening yacht comparisons, pompous wine recommendations and political hokum) testify to the fact that few of them have learned much else. The billionaire who made his brother-in-law split the tolls on the drive from New York to Connecticut, who called his party guests “free-loaders” because they were drinking his liquor, clearly learned that crass and small-minded parsimony at a parent’s knee. It might have been the same parent, in the same tight-fisted culture, that taught J. Paul Getty to install a pay phone in his house so that greedy guests wouldn’t run up his phone bill.

So perhaps there’s nothing inherent in us that drives this harsh and barbaric materialism. I was beginning to think so – and imagining new schools that would train the children of wealth to a new, open-hearted humanity – until I came into some money myself.

Actually, it’s better than that. I just thought I was coming into the money. I never actually saw a dime. The big deal fell through (Most Hollywood deals fall through –except the drug deals). But for a few weeks there, I had a vision--I finally saw the prospect of a windfall, a period of true a shining glimpse of authentic prosperity opening up on the horizon. No more debt! No more overdraft fees. No more punishing 60 hour work-weeks.

Instead: travel, freedom, peace of mind.

And what was the first thing I thought of? How to to hide my new fortune from my friends. How to protect it from my greedy ex-wife. How to use it without giving myself away, what story I could concoct to explain a new car or a flat screen TV (Small inheritance? customer cast off?).

I was acting exactly like all the rich people I hated – and I was still broke! Just he thought of money had poisoned my mind and kick-started all the same pathologies I’d been denouncing for years. Maybe those responses are actually instinctive. Or maybe I’m just another stingy jerk.

I can’t imagine how awful I’d be if I actually did get rich.But much as I hate to admit it, I’d really like to find out.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Scenes From a Divorce: Partisans

When I was younger I thought love was the great meal of life and friendship was just garnish – a nice chutney served with the shrimp curry.

Divorce changed all that.

Of course it taught me the volatility and fragility of love – it was more like a blown-glass Christmas ornament filled with nitro-glycerine. I was still shuffling through the burnt shards. But I also learned some lessons about friendship. My friends became my allies, my co-conspirators, my partisans … not to mention my patrons and my landlords. They offered moral support. I remember one them snooping my ex-wife’s house on his way out to a job in ‘Sconset. “It’s still a pig-sty in there,” he cackled. “She’s the slob, buddy! I even checked the basement. You can still see laundry mountain down there.”

One of them gave me not one but two places to live, both at impossibly low rents. I could never have stayed on the island without his generosity.

Then there was Byron Clark. I had seen him for years – at poetry readings, out surfing on big days, working on job sites. I hitched the occasional ride in his Cessna. But we only became friends after the divorce. He had just gone through his own, a much more harrowing separation than mine, complete with public tantrums and alcoholic blackouts. We went out to dinner and told our war stories (he could always top me); found me painting jobs, dragged me out in the ocean when he knew I needed it, gave me interesting new authors to read (Murakami, Bolano), loaned me small amounts of money when I was short.

When a customer went bankrupt owning me ten thousand dollars, Byron’s kindness was put to a more severe test.

I read about the bankruptcy in the local paper – the guy never even called. I had been checking my mailbox every day, measuring the time it would take the check to arrive and clear against the suffocating weight of my obligations. I had thought about calling him, but those phone calls were excruciating. I hated badgering people for money.

Well, now I wouldn’t have to.

But the obligations remained: car payment, rent, IRS, State tax, insurance, liability, workman’s comp., credit card bills, hospital bills from an emergency room visit … The ten thousand dollars would have barely covered it. I’d already sent the check to the State of Mass, crazily certain the check would arrive that day. But of course it didn’t. That one was going to bounce, there was nothing I could do about it. Over a thousand dollars was felony fraud in this state. I could wind up in jail.

I spent hours pawing through my circumstances, my jobs and customers, my family and friends, debts I could cash in, obligations I could stall, looking for a solution. It was like rummaging through the junk drawer in my kitchen for the car keys. The only real question was, how many times would you dump it out and sort through the putty knives and stamps and defunct cell-phone chargers before you accepted that the keys weren’t there? Still, the fact was, sometimes you did find them on the fourth or the tenth attempt, after looking everywhere else, after you’d already given up, doing it by rote, just to be doing something so you wouldn’t have to admit the truth and make the loss official. And there they were, under the stack of credit card offers and old shopping lists, behind the packing tape and the throwaway camera you never took in to get developed. There they were, somehow, as if someone was playing a trick on you, a practical joke they’d decided wasn’t funny anymore. There they were.

So I kept searching. An advance on the Keller job? But that wasn’t supposed to start until Spring. Or the Silverstein job? But they were living here and they’d expect me there every day. That was fine, but the money wasn’t enough. I’d have to start at least three jobs and lay off people at the same time. I couldn’t afford to pay anyone anything. I could conceivably get first checks from Foley and Landau but the Foleys were here all winter and the Landau’s caretaker would be checking up daily, and he’d be delighted to bust me with the owners if I wasn’t on the job.

Finally I got in the car and started driving, the trees on either side of Milestone Road tumbling by in a blur. I thought of Robin Hood, hiding in the forest. There was nowhere to hide here. What was I going to do? Live in a tent? I hated camping and I’d be busted the first night anyway. I thought of running away, just buying a boat ticket and driving west. But I’d thought that a million times and the answer was always the same. You couldn’t do it without money. You couldn’t start fresh somewhere with nothing. It was a child’s fantasy.

But I couldn’t make this work. I couldn’t be on all those jobs simultaneously, with just two guys. Still, I added it up: if I got all the checks this week, or next week at the latest, if I could convince the Kellers to let me start early, that would just cover my outstanding obligations. No, I’d still be about twenty-five hundred shy. And that was only until the first week’s wages were due; and then I’d have no more money from anyone until I got to the half-way mark on some job. Anyway, I was up to my limit on my charge at Marine; how was I supposed to buy the materials for three new jobs at once? That was around fifteen hundred bucks right there. I added it up. I needed six thousand dollars to survive this siege. Not even to survive it, just to get to the next onslaught. But if my crew would agree to wait for their checks until I got the next checks from the owners, and everyone agreed to let me start, and paid me quickly … no, no, no. No good, with the materials and the IRS and rent, you can’t forget about the rent, I was still at least a thousand dollars in the red. And I needed some money to live on – food and gas. Another grand? Would that do it? Say it would: that meant he had to find six thousand dollars -- by tomorrow.

I was all the way to ‘Sconset when the answer came to me, discovered like the keys in the junk drawer. It wasn’t even a surprise, as if some part of you knew they were there all along. There was only one place to go, only one person I could turn to at this moment.

I climbed into his car and started the long drive to Byron Clark’s house in Madaket.

Driving west, I remembered helping Byron clear out his parents’ house after they died. It was packed with thirty years’ accumulation of pack-rat trash: collections of animal skulls and fishing lures, mold-rotted books and antique jam jars, bales of twine and barbed wire, lobster pots and scallop boxes, check-books and unopened bills from the nineteen sixties, lampshades and chair cushions, broken radios, and unraveling wicker. After a week of ten hour days we were able to see the floor. When the Thomas Tompion grandfather clock and the Tony Sarg puzzles had been taken to the auction house and everything else had been carted to the dump, the cleaning had begun. The once-white walls were stained a toxic amber from decades of cigarette smoke; they were black from mold where the roof leaked. We wore vapor masks and rubber gloves and scrubbed the place for another week. Jack’s brother never volunteered to help; neither did anyone else.

It made sense: Byron and I were the real brothers. He’d probably already know about my situation, tonight – news moved across the island like strep throat through an elementary school.

I was rolling past the crowded subdivision of Tristram’s Landing, with its ugly houses packed tight together in concentric circles, cut by the creeks. I remembered when there was nothing but dune grass here. Change was always for the worse on Nantucket. The bulky shadows swept past. Most of the houses were dark. These were summer people, they showed up for a week or a month a year.

I had never borrowed this much money from Byron before. More importantly, I had never asked for a loan without knowing when I’d be able to pay it back. And I’d never been this desperate, driving too fast with rage and dread self-loathing climbing my throat as I took a turn too wide and the wheels shuddered against the jumbled dirty snow on the shoulder. These curves were deceptive. I eased back to forty miles an hour. Soon I was crossing Millie’s bridge, turning onto the ruts and craters of Vermont Avenue.

The lights were on in Byron’s beach shack. I parked and sat in the car, listening to the surf and the faint sound of Van Morrison from Byron’s house, carried on the wind. Blue Money; how appropriate. I had no idea what he was going to say, or how I was going to begin.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to say anything.

Byron came to the door in sweatpants and an old Toscana t-shirt. The wood stove was going and the little house was warm. There was a faint smell of varnish. Van was singing Cleaning Windows, now. Maybe it was a message; people always needed their windows cleaned.

Byron pulled me into a bear hug and said “Come in .Have a drink. Tell me how much you need.”

“No, look, I didn’t -- ”

He pulled me inside. “Hey, relax, check yourself out. It has to be money, unless you have something incurable, and I can’t help with that.” He kicked the door closed with his foot and stared at me. “You’re not sick?”

“No. I mean, I don’t know. I hope not.”

“Then I have an idea. Let’s get out of here. I’ve been working this bird feeder all night. I was just getting some sealer on it. If we move we can get to the Box before it closes.”

I explained the situation as we rode back to town. I was finishing as we turned away from the Stop& Shop into the Chicken Box parking lot: “So I need five thousand dollars and I have no idea when I’ll be able to pay it back.”

Byron laughed. “Don’t stop there – really sell me. Say you’ll gamble it all away at Mohegan Sun and then avoid me like I was contagious for the next five years.”

“No man, come on, you know there’s no way -- ”

Byron punched me on the arm, “I’m kidding. Relax. Gentleman’s rule: retain your sense of humor under duress.”

I let out a long breath. “Oh yeah – I remember those rules. Your Dad was great. Borderline psychotic – but great.”

“And he really was a gentleman, in his own way. He never broke his own rules. Don’t argue about politics. Pick up the tab. Notice small improvements. Remember birthdays. Call home. Walk the dog. “

“Help your friends.”

Byron nodded. “Treat them like family. Because they are.”

He leaned over and pulled his checkbook out of his pocket, pulled a pen from the ashtray, scribbled a check, tore it off, handed it over.

I was confused. “This is for seventy-five hundred dollars.”

“That was one of my Dad’s best rules: a gentleman never asks for as much as he needs.”

I felt a sudden surge of emotion burning my face, making my eyes prickle.

But that was another Clark rule: maintain your composure.

“Thank you,” I said

Byron cuffed me lightly on the head, “Come on. Let’s shoot some pool and have a beer. You’re buying.”

And so I survived another crisis; and I eventually paid Byron back. None of my old lovers would have been willing to help – most of them wouldn’t even have returned my phone call. But the friends stuck with me. Some helped with money, like Byron, some helped me move, some just listened -- and agreed with me.

“I always hated that bitch,” one of them said. “I thought you’d never get free.”

I didn’t point out that I’d been dumped; or that I felt more exiled than liberated. But it was good to have someone on my side. These were my allies, my unit, my comrades in arms, my partisans. Some well-meaning acquaintance told me “It takes a village to survive a divorce.”

And I thought to myself – keep your village.

I have a platoon.

The Home Care Diaries, Part One: The Prodigal Mom

Well, I did it.

My Mom is back on Nantucket, ensconsed in a new bed in our re-arranged dining room, settling in.

I'm happy, but I have to admit that my first response is to feel daunted and a little overwhelmed. Seeing my mother in tne assisted living home, and later on in the depressing skilled nursing facility, it was easy to say, “I’m busting her out of this place.” And in fact, it was fairly easy: just a matter of booking plane flights and hotel rooms and moving vans and boat reservations; buying suitcases and boxes and GPS units; and doing one long day worth of manual labor, broken up over four days of beach jaunts, restaurant meals and movies – almost a vacation. It was enjoyable working with my son, and we paced ourselves expertly. True the apocalyptic California sky – harsh cloudless blue tinged with forest fire smoke – made us uneasy, the streets of downtown long beach resembled a some police staute utopia in a bad science fiction movie, with cops everywhere (I saw one of them harassing an elderly gentleman waiting for a bus, as if he were a vagrant: “What are you doing here? Where are you heading? What’s your plan?”), and bizarre street signs posting a ten O’clock curfew for anyone under eighteen and forbidding a new crime called ‘cruising’, defined as driving by any spot in the city more than three times in four hours. But we ignored all that. We had a job to do and we did it.

The journey east was relatively easy, also, it turns out that there’s a use for all that politically correct, handicapped-friendly, wheelchair-accessible infrastructure. If you’re actually in a wheel chair, it makes life startlingly easy. A local clothing store had to install a wheel-chair elevator a few years ago after a fire, to meet our draconian building codes. It’s never been used. It always seemed absurd to me, before (especially since the second floor sells work clothes). But I’m starting to get the point. In fact, I may just walk Mom down there in her wheel chair, to give that elevator its maiden voyage.

Our flight was delayed by a tropical storm pushing up the North-East coast, so we wound up spending the night in the Logan Airport Hilton. The comfortable beds and flat-screen television smoothed over the convenience, and brought home to me with some force the very different world that rich people inhabit. The motel we stayed in during our time in Long Beach was a grim and utilitarian place by comparison. Walking down the dark, cement floored, cinder-block walled passageway to our room, I remarked to my son, “This is like Cabrini Green”. “But with no gang graffiti,” he pointed out. We were grateful for small favors.

For Mom and me,the Hilton was our last mooring: now we are launched on this unfamiliar sea. I’m getting my bearings quickly though. I knew we would need someone in the house during the day to take care of my Mom’s relatively minimal) needs – help getting to the bathroom, and reminders about her medication schedule. In case she needed me in the night, I put my cell on her speed dial. She had to go to the bathroom at 11:00, 1:30, 3:45 and 4:30. To call this grueling sleepless night a ‘wake up call’ seems both too obvious and wholly inadequate (there were four of them, after all). So now I know we need two shifts, if I’m going to be able to work and stay healthy while this adventure proceeds. The whole routine felt strangely familiar, and then thought occurred to me that this situation is in many ways like caring for a baby. You feel the same stress (Am I fucking this up?) the same lack of experience (You know people have done it before but it doesn’t seem that way), the same constriction of your life: any activity that leaves the person in your care alone has to be planned and organized well in advance. Life suddenly requires a lot more thought, as someone else’s needs take precedence over your own. Of course, the ‘baby’ in this case is a brilliant, entertaining and charming woman to whom I own an incalculable debt, which makes the comparison seem petty and petulant. But it maintains its traction, anyway.

I’ve spent the morning interviewing potential helpers, making initial doctor’s appointments and trying to get someone to fix our dryer -- swamped with details, trying to keep track of first impressions and phone numbers, while Mom chatted with the applicants for the job. She was very frank with them and she said something a few minutes ago that helped put the whole process in perspective:

“I’m happier here than I’ve been in weeks –in months. Years maybe, I don’t know. It’s just so good to be home.”

Well, that’s the point, that’s was why we did it, and that’s makes the whole extraordinary journey worthwhile.

Inglourious Basterds: Tarantino's triumph

I’ve just seen Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and maybe it has to do with the fact that I haven’t seen an actual movie in a real movie theatre for far too long (Our one Nantucket theatre, the Starlight – formerly the Gaslight – has long been known by locals as “The Flashlight” for its primitive technology and general ineptitude); maybe it has to do with my unabashed love for Tarantino’s movies (Yes, I loved both parts of Kill Bill, though for purposes of full disclosure and credibility, I have to say that I was bored silly by his half of Grindhouse); but I thought the new one was just great. I love it. I’m still in a kind of cineaste’s swoon from it.

It was everything you expect a Tarantino film to be – over the top, movie-besotted, violent, hilariously funny, full of brilliant dialog with a lethal subtext and jammed with amazing actors you either never knew, had long forgotten about or totally written off.

But this film has a few things you might not expect – real emotional power and some almost psychotic imagery that will stay with you for a long, long time. The image of Shosanna Dreyfus’s big screen face – on the clip she cut into the Nazi propaganda film the entire High Command is watching at her theatre -- consumed by flame from the volatile nitrate film that her lover has just ignited, laughing, cackling, howling her pleasure as the men directly and indirectly responsible for the murder of he family are burned alive … it’s memorable. I’ll remember it. I’ll also remember Melanie Laurent, who plays the part, along with Michel Fassbender who does an impeccable Sean Connery as an undercover OSS agent and then dazzles us with his perfect German … and of course Christoph Waltz who basically steals the move as the fascinating, hilarious, malignant, two (or is it three) faced Nazi “Jew Hunter.”

Where did Tarantino find these people?

And how did he get such sublime performances from Brad Pitt (Whom I had basically written off after the snore-fest of Benjamin Button) and Diane Kruger, who’s most famous for being the eye-candy in the contrived and tedious National Treasure films?

Who knows? That’s just what he does. He did it for Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Jackie Brown; he did it for David Carradine and Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill. Most famously, he did it for John Travolta, in the career reviving Pulp Fiction.

The way he does it here has to do with a very disciplined approach to plot. That’s right – the plot makes sense. All the threads tie together, and if they don’t conform to actual history, even if the film is more of a wish-fulfillment alternate-universe dream than a realistic document, so what? It works. There are plot points based in details of cultural differences between Germany and England, that you can almost hear Tarantino jumping up and down howling with victorious glee when he found out about them (anybody would – they’re narrative gold). But the way he leverages those details, drawing out a scene -- like a ninth inning duel, with man after man loading the bases as the almost unendurable tension builds, finally shattered by a game winning home run – is spectacular, invigorating, masterful …and just plain extravagant movie theatre entertainment.

Tarantino has been working on this film for decades and it shows. Every scene lights up like a fireworks display, but leads into the next assault like an artillery barrage. The final convulsive climax delivers everything you hoped for and more. Parts of the movie recalls the horrific shoot-out of Reservoir Dogs and the superimposed visual exposition of Pulp Fiction, along with its excruciatingly tense un-spooling conversations at the brink of violence. But this movie is all its own, delirious and delightful, appalling and absurd and audacious.

This movie makes it clear: not so much that Tarantino is back, but that he never left, that he was and remains one of our greatest filmmakers, a video-store movie-fan who transcends his magpie, film-geek obsessions and melts his influences into an alloy that remains stubbornly original, crazily eccentric, and spectacularly, stubbornly fun.

You sit there thinking – how did anyone let him make this nutty movie? After the by-the-numbers, explosions-on-demand, heartless soulless summer of G.I. Joe and Transfomers, you watch this bloody violent film, this furious maniacal love letter to movies and movie-making, you can only feel grateful.You know it as you watch, despite all the mercenary, mediocre evidence to the contrary: movies are alive.

And Quentin Tarantino is making them.

Scenes From a Divorce: Love and Literature

Things were going well when I met Annie. The machinery of divorce had been tooled to a frictionless precision. The kids didn’t like moving from house to house, and I often wound up sleeping on the couch when they were with me so they could have the privacy of separate bedrooms, but that was fine; I can sleep anywhere. I took care of Lisa’s dogs when she went off-island, helped the kids with their English homework and struggled with eighth grade arithmetic, a hell I had thought I would never have to revisit. Finally we found a tutor. Lisa was making good money, in those days. She paid for the lessons; I drove the kids and picked them up. We struck up an elegant and organic division of labor. Lisa cooked healthy vegetarian food and made the Halloween costumes, counseled Caroline on her first period while I handled pizza night and Laundromat runs, along with Tom’s puberty problems, bullies and puppy loves

Lisa and I never trash-talked each other, though both of were sorely temped and I know the kids caught the occasional sigh or raised eye-brow from me when Lisa bought another couch or contrived another dramatic break-up with the Hoosier; or from her, when I broke another dish or forgot another appointment.

I lived alone and I liked that too. I’d dreaded solitude at the beginning but it’s a kind of drug and I was getting addicted. I arranged the furniture and stocked the fridge just the way I liked, listened to the music I preferred, and took full control of the television remote. When I talked to myself, no one answered. When I read a book in bed at night, no one had to stay up. I dealt with no one but myself, and I got along with myself flawlessly, without a single argument or misunderstanding. Sometimes I would slip into the silence of my little apartment like a hot bath and just soak there.

It was a hermit’s utopia.

Why had I not seen this before? The way to achieve a perfect social order is to junk the ‘social’ part. People were the problem in a ‘people’s republic’ . I preferred the Kingdom of Steve.

Solo flights – that was my kind of flying. Solo cups – that was my kind of cup! Han Solo, that was my kind of corny outer space smuggler with a heart of gold! O Solo Mio – that was my kind of Mio.

And “An Army of One” was my kind of army: one where you don’t take orders.

Or so I told myself. In fact I was lonely and miserable. Like most narcotics, the drug of solitude loses its potency over time, etches its grooves into the nervous system only so deep, leaving you craving more. But what could that excess consist of? A lone world cruise on a sailboat? I get sea-sick on the ferry. A trek through the Hindu Kush? I never even make it to the ocean when I walk at Sanford Farm. No, the real solution was to go cold turkey. I needed to shower and shave and get out into the world and meet people. I needed to look into a woman’s eyes and make her laugh; I needed to hear an answer that surprised me. I needed to feel nervous and awkward and scared again.

I needed a night I couldn’t predict. You can’t live on cheap frozen food, expensive wine and bad TV forever. Even Han Solo wound up cranking the Millenium Falcon into a U-turn and pitching in with the Rebel Alliance. Not to mention planting one on the Princess.

About a week after I arrived at this embarrassingly obvious revelation, an opportunity to socialize appeared, like a boat out of the fog.

Emily Grimshaw was holding a reading at her cramped little apartment on Orange Street; or, as she liked to think of it, convening her salon. A few times a year, local writers and musicians gathered among the piles of books and shelves of trinkets, to perform their work. On the occasions when Emily was speaking to me (her bizarre feuds and imaginary grudges were legendary), I enjoyed these sessions. Even the bad writing was entertaining in its own way: squintingly intense, endearingly awful odes to someone’s embattled womb(“O, sacred source of life, pillaged for the pleasure of the patriarch)” or unappeasable father. (:“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, why are your eyes so silent, why does your mouth refuse me, why are your broken hands fisted with grief?”) Anyway, I enjoyed reading my stuff aloud, a habit Lisa had always hated. She often quoted Heinlein on the subject: “Poets who read their verse aloud may have other nasty habits.” Maybe, but It was a nasty habit with a purpose – you could always tell when an audience was losing interest, if you paid attention, and I was always able to trim and sharpen things after one of those performances. When they went well, it was a nice ego boost. Of course the bar was set fairly low. The real danger was tripping over it.

I liked the Bohemian atmosphere in the cramped atelier, the congenial mess, the smell of incense. Emilymade excellent hors d’oevres, and served good wine. She was proud of her little salon and always had a few young writers around that she was mentoring; most of them strapping twenty-year-old boys. They adored Emily and did most of the heavy work, moving furniture and setting up the little apartment for the art installations and readings

Several of them were hauling the big lectern to the arched opening between the bedroom and the living room when I pushed inside. Emily, bulky and intense, was talking to a slim blonde woman I recognized from a few years before – her erratic boyfriend had acted with me in a local theatre production. He couldn’t remember his lines and tended to improvise. I remembered one moment vividly. She had brought him to the theatre just in time for a shouting match with the director.

When I turned the corner the boyfriend was shouting “Why don’t you take over the Part then?”

“No, I have a much better idea. Why don’t you take over the part! You’re supposed to be the professional actor!”

The woman had intervened. “Leave him alone,” she said. “This isn’t helping.”

“That’s my decision, Annie. I directed this play.”

“No. You blocked it. And you gave line readings to the amateurs. That’s not directing. A real director would be long gone by now.”

She had been fierce. I remembered that; and I admired it, though I was irritated with her boyfriend myself.

She was alone tonight. Apparently the boyfriend was long-gone.

“I expect a real poem to change my life,” Emily was saying to her now. She stepped back from the door. “Oh, hello Steven – You’re late, as usual. We’re just about to start. Shut the door after you and introduce yourself. There are some new people here tonight. I’m going to open some more wine.”

Then she was gone.

“Something had better change her life,” I said. “The sooner the better.”

Annie smiled. “I like her. Until Emily, I’d never met anyone who wore black as a life-style before.”

“There must be more to her life-style than that.”

“You’re right. I’m being unfair. I shouldn’t leave out the self-help seminars, the nuisance law suits and the continuous low-grade nervous breakdown. She feels the pain of the world -- which makes her better than you. Just ask her. She calls it Weltshmertz, basically because things sound smarter when you say them in German. She’s in court with her ex over custody of their Siamese cat. That’s been going on for six months. Last year she announced that she was the bride of Jesus. But apparently that marriage didn’t work out either.”

I shrugged, closing the door behind me. “Jesus, huh?,” I said, “Well, it makes sense. Another Nantucket carpenter with father issues.”

She laughed. This was what I came out for.

“Are you reading tonight?” I asked her.

“maye. If I have enough to drink first.”

“Are you nervous?”

“No, I just hate reading my stuff aloud. If there’s one person yawning or looking bored or something I just feel, you know – what’s the point, they all hate it. Which is pretty distracting. I guess I get distracted too easily. A drink or two helps. When I’m drunk I don’t care what anyone thinks. I get sort of hostile, in fact. I think stuff like, you know – oh, boy, they thought they were bored before! Wait until they hear this!”

“I bet no one is actually bored, though. Most people yawn because they’re tired. Especially around here. Most of these people worked a ten hour day today.”

“I guess. I shouldn’t pay attention to them, anyway.”

I didn’t see Annie again until she was picking her way through the people sitting on Emily’s floor towards the antique lectern. To say Annie was casually dressed somehow missed the point. It seemed to me that she had turned utter indifference to her appearance into a kind of high style that you’d have to work hard to copy effectively. Her jeans were a little too big on her; so was the loose white long-sleeved t-shirt. It was as if she’d recently lost a lot of weight and hadn’t bothered with a new wardrobe, though she told me at some point later that she’d worn the same sizes since high school. The clothes contrived to look as if they might just fall off her body at any moment. She slouched a little, as if she wanted to disappear into them. It was only when she stretched her back and squared her shoulders, preparing to read, that I noticed she wasn’t wearing a bra. The four buttons that descended from the crew neck were unbuttoned but once again, it seemed negligent rather than intentionally provocative: she was too busy and distracted to bother with them.

It was an old money look – I thought of Katherine Hepburn in baggy sweats tooling around New York on her bicycle. Later I found out that Annie’s family had burned through their money a long time before. But a certain residual elegance remained. It was the way she held her head, her hand gestures – there were generations of gracious hostesses lurking in there somewhere. She looked frail but he could tell from her handshake that she was strong, and her very awkwardness constituted a kind of self-effacing, light-footed physical grace.

I had never seen anyone quite like her before and I was glad to have the chance to just study her as she read her story aloud. She knew how to wait for people’s attention. There was complete silence in the room when she finally began. Here’s a snippet from the story (it was later published in The Chariton Review), to give you a sense of what caught my interest:

Sometimes it was more luxurious to have the offer of sex than the actual sex itself. Like money in the bank, you could spend it later or keep on hoarding, building up a larder of lust, gilding the peaked archways of desire, spinning gold from simple restraint.

“Maybe tomorrow?” she said, backtracking a little.

. “Nope, can’t make it tomorrow honey, but maybe I’ll see you over the week-end though.” He kept his voice friendly and firmly in neutral, but she heard the slight pick-up of anticipation in his breath, the liar’s rise in register at the end of the sentence.

What a fucking deadbeat he was really. What a loser.

Alison knew a loser when she saw one. Creep-allure: she’d always had it. First there had been Rasta-boy Rick. Fuzzy blond dreds and roller blades instead of feet. The guy didn’t even have a car. He lived in a tent and owned a wolf. He fixed computers for a living, but only when he felt like it. He attached flashlights to his skates for better night vision. He said he was a genius.

On deck there was Toby, a foreign car mechanic by day, a compulsive Keno addict by night. He was a beer-guzzling, chain-smoking, number-obsessed mess. But he knew a lot of funny jokes and he had a seductive five o’clock shadow and a lazy, criminal smile.

There were of course, after that, a string of unimportant others. Guys not worth mentioning. Guys with quirks and tics whose m.o.’s were a paragraph or two right out of Abnormal Psychology.

And then, just as she thought the situation was getting chronic, he showed up: the hall of famer. The one she’d put on the long white dress for. The first guy she could ever actually introduce to her parents. Bill.

The name said it all, because she was still paying for it.

When she was done she received what was obviously an excruciating round of applause, and then she faded back into the crowd. A little later I read some poems about Sophie. The essential quatrain:

This is tragic

This is why I rant –

I want words to do magic

And they can’t.

I slipped into the kitchen for a beer while some kid droned through a nightmarishly bad story about a fishing trip with his father (“He never let me bait a hook”). Annie was there ahead of me. She raised her eye brows in Grouch-like disdain.

“You were great,” she said.

“So were you.”

“Everyone hated it. I told you.”

“No – you told me you’d think that everyone hated it. Even if they didn’t. And they didn’t.”

She took a swig of her beer. “How about that girl talking about building fairy cloud bridges to the stars with her stories? What was that about?”

“I have no idea. I try to build actual bridges with mine. Something solid that takes you somewhere. With, like – rebar and cables. Interesting characters. A plot hat makes sense. Stuff like that.”

“Ugh. Sounds like work.”

“Exactly. What a drag.”

I grabbed the bottle opener off the counter and popped my beer. Emily would never stock twist-off cap, non-artisan brews.

“It’s different for me,” Annie said. “I feel like I’m building a bird’s nest. A twig from here, a leaf from there. Just bits and pieces really.”

“Well, they come together nicely. You make an excellent nest.”

“Come on.”


“You’re just saying that because of Melanie.” It was true I had briefly dated a friend of hers; but that particular debacle was long-concluded.

“Melanie? You’re really reaching for it. You might try, I don’t know … taking a compliment some time? It’s easy. Just say thanks.”

“I can do that.”

“OK. You look gorgeous tonight.”

“I certainly do not! That’s ridiculous. I – Oh.”

“Thank you?”

“Thank you. That was very nice.”

We both drank. Someone else slipped out of the main room – a burly carpenter I knew by sight.

“Great reading, Annie,” he said.

She glanced over at me. “Thanks. I’m glad you like it.”

I shrugged, palms up in the air, as if to say “See? I told you.”

Two women, friends of Emily’s from off-island, cornered her and I drifted away for a piece of prosciutto and melon.

Annie found me a few minutes later. “This is fun. It’s too bad Emily doesn’t do it more often.”

I said the thought aloud without thinking: “We should do it ourselves. We could have our own private literary salon. You know … drink wine eat a little dinner, read each other stuff. I really do want to hear more of your work.” *

She narrowed her eyes. “Really?”

“Maybe we could help each other. Like a critique group.”

“Okay. I have wine. You bring a picnic. 286 Polpis Road – the cottage in the back.”

“Friday night?”

“Seven O’Clock?”


She extended her hand and I shook it – small and cool, delicate fingers with a strong grip. She sensed my surprise.

“Years of landscaping,” she said.

“So you’re one of those cute landscaper girls I see all the time.”

“I used to be. Now I just have the callouses.”

We were still holding hands. I let go, but the touch stayed with me.

I thought about Friday night as I walked home along the lively summer streets. Was this going to be a date? Or a seminar? Or a little of both? I wasn’t sure what was happening. But I felt giddy, light-footed and caffeine wired, though I I hadn’t had a cup of coffee for hours. I even smiled at the tourists and refrained from saying “Walk in any direction” when one of them asked for directions to the beach.

I look back at that night now and smile.

The big relationship had found me: w ithout fanfare or forseshadowing, the big love had arrived.

I just didn’t know it yet.

* If anyone feels the same way, Annie has a story in Lost Magazine on-line, called The Feast Of Stephen. Just go to and click on the archives for the April issue. It was the lead fiction that month.