Here are a poem and two short fictions that have reached me by snail mail the past few days. Please read, enjoy, and share.
How did this hamlet get the same name
As a state? It’s confusing: whenever I say
And say “Up?” After all, Maryland is south
Or “down” from New York City, so I have to say
It’s a hamlet upstate, near Oneonta,
And most New Yorkers have a vague idea
Where Oneonta is, somewhere in the middle
Of the state, somewhere around Cooperstown,
Somewhere the green hills roll and summer fields
Wave corn and milk cows graze and barns
Sag and cave in the broiling sun
And the withering economy, and now
Maryland, pop. 200, might lose
its post office, the heart of a hamlet
with no business district, no main street,
no traffic light, but with the name of a state.
Verse Wisconsin 110 (October 2012)
I decided I needed a style of my own. Like Hemingway. Everyone could recognize his style. That is, everyone who read literature. That is, only a few people. But I would create a recognizable style of my own. Minimalism was in the air, so I thought I would adopt a minimalist style. I wanted to keep narrative to a minimum. That was also the advice of my creative writing instructor, Dr. Regina Lemon.
Dr. Lemon had been published in all the cool zines: Sawd Off, Minimalist Review, Spite ’n’ Devil, and Parsimony. She also had a paperback book out. It was called Screwy. The title was sort of a pun: she was eccentric and got laid a lot. She also liked to screw screws into her skin with a screwdriver. Her book was all the rage among Goths and Punkers. It contained ads for S & M, B& D, and creative-writing outfits. That was her original way of increasing profits. Some other writers dissed her for prostituting her narrative. Others wish they had thought of ads first.
In our workshops the instructor smoked joints and told us about her sex life. She said she was just encouraging us to open up. She said the trouble with most novices was that they were repressed. “Open up” was her mantra. If you read a piece out loud and she thought it was too guarded, she would yell, “Open up!” Then she would call on the next reader.
To read without interruption, the workshoppers competed to write the most outrageous narratives. One girl wrote about the many ways her father initiated her into sex, another wrote about the thrill of bulimia, and a guy wrote about ways he’d try to enlarge his penis. The instructor said, “Wow!” “How open!” and “Far out!”
I wrote about how my uncle kept trying to get me to give him a blowjob when I was thirteen. He would tell me he had a beautiful dick that I would like to see and suck. He told me that he would give me a fifty for my efforts. He told me that he would write a letter to Oberlin to admit me to college. But I didn’t want to go to Oberlin. I did want a fifty, but I didn’t want to see, much less suck, his dick.
My instructor said that I needed to open up. She told me my story would work better if I changed my uncle to my father, and if I sucked him off. “That’s Oedipal,” she said.
I didn’t tell her that the story was really about my father.
Then I wrote a piece in which I listed all the girls in the workshop and the various shapes of their breasts. I got the idea from the list poem, which was a staple of my poetry workshop. Karen’s breasts are pear-shaped, I wrote, Debra’s breasts are like cantaloupes, Annie’s breasts are like raisins on a breadboard, and so forth. I finished my list with “Dr. Lemon’s tits are like Jennifer Aniston’s.”
My instructor smiled and said, “Make that like Angelina Jolie’s.”
That was my last workshop. Since then, I’ve been working on my style alone. Is it
I-70 Review, Summer/Fall 2012
Star and Bit
Herman Kennedy was a bit actor who played Uncle Emil in three episodes of the popular television series The Five Sisters. Like Herman, Emil is a German name and that helped him feel comfortable in the role. The five sisters were named Gretel, Gudrun, Gertrude, Gretchen, and Grace. Herman was particularly fond of Grace, the youngest and the only child of their father’s second wife, Colleen; after all, Kennedy is an Irish name.
Herman’s bit concerned Uncle Emil’s visit to the girls’ family for Grace’s Sweet Sixteen birthday party, to which the 30-minute sitcom devoted three episodes, like the rising action, climax, and falling action in classical drama. Herman, 45, played a man in his early 50’s, while Peggy Faust, who starred as Grace, was 21 and “playing down” to a sixteen-year-old. Peggy was also half-German and half-Irish, so Herman took a special interest in her.
Peggy Faust was a natural redheaded beauty from Ridgewood, Queens, where German-Irish marriages are not unknown. A drama major at Queens College, she had been discovered by Iris Kwirn, the Broadway director who taught in the drama department. Herman had seen Peggy play the roommate of Kimberly Smith on the college-campus sitcom Kimberly and liked her spirit and her body.
In his first episode, Uncle Emil has an avuncular chat with Grace in the Hartmann-family kitchen. Rehearsal time for a sitcom being limited, Herman and Peggy
decided to meet before their first rehearsal in order to practice their lines together and build rapport for their TV relationship. Herman had attended St. John’s University, just down the Long Island Expressway from Queens College, so he mentioned that up-front when he phoned Peggy to set up their meeting at La Tartine, a little storefront bistro in the heart of the West Village.
Herman arrived early and took the table in the glassed-in corner of the restaurant, facing the door. When Peggy walked in and looked at him, it was desire at first sight for Herman. For her it was just a chance to size up another actor who at best might become an occasional cast member, in this case a man twice her age, though he looked pretty youthful in his black leather jacket and khakis. His receding hairline had enlarged his forehead, he wore a fashionably scruffy beard, and he had a slight bulge above the beltline. She imagined him made up with gray at the temples, bifocals, and a corduroy jacket—a perfectly serviceable Uncle Emil.
Herman acted friendly, constraining the physical attraction he felt for this lively young actress. She was almost as tall as his six feet and had a trace of Queens in her professionally trained voice. After they’d ordered, they both looked around the restaurant, at the original tin ceiling and the water colors of maritime Brittany on the walls, then out the window at the flow of pedestrians.
“You know,” Herman said, “we’re only about two blocks from the brownstone where Carrie lived in Sex and the City. Lots of tourists, mostly women from the ’burbs, take photos there every day.”
“Yes, and then there’s Magnolia Bakery, just down the street from Tartine, where they go for the cupcakes.”
“A while back, people used to visit the Village to see where E. E. Cummings lived.”
“And Edna St. Vincent Millay.”
“So you know the nabe?”
“A bit. Last summer I took classes at H B Studios, a few blocks from here. I walked around with a guidebook. I’d love to be able to afford a place in this area.”
“From the way your career is going, it won’t be long.”
“O, Herman, you’re sweet to say that. Where would you like to live?”
Herman fell silent. He already felt that his career would never take him to the level of success that Peggy would likely attain. To live in the West Village would be a pipe dream for him. He started to wish that Tartine served alcohol.
“I’m just happy to have a roof over my head. Right now that’s in Flatbush.”
Flatbush, she knew, was a neighborhood in transition, demographically challenged on one end and gentrifying on the other. She placed Herman about midway.
“It must be so cool to see a place, like, changing month by month,” she said.
“Sometimes cool, sometimes depressing, and sometimes year by year.”
“That’s a pretty good line, Herman. Have you ever been a writer?”
“Only when I’m auditioning for my sitcom partner.”
Maybe this guy is more interesting than a bit player, she thought as she lifted a forkful of quiche Provençal to her mouth. But I wish he wouldn’t look at me so intently.
Maybe I should stick to our script, Herman thought as he chewed his saucisson. I’ll never get anywhere with this star, but, man, she’s a looker.
“So, Peggy, how do you see this Uncle Emil of yours?”
“Well, of course, he’s Dad’s brother, and there’s sort of like a sibling rivalry between them. Dad wants me to be a conventional sixteen-year-old, smiley and a little wild about boys but, you know, dutiful to her parents all the same. Uncle Emil never had kids, was a plainclothes detective who took early retirement and now sort of, like, butts in to his brother’s family’s life. He gets invited to my birthday party just because, like, he’s family and lives close by.”
“A detective, eh? Is he kind of suspicious about you, like a snoop? I see that he’s always asking questions.”
“Yes, it’s like he’s conducting an interrogation and the laughs are supposed to come from the insinuating way he asks them and, like, the way I react to them. I get to do a lot of eye-rolling and ‘O Uncle Emil’s!’”
“So should we play it like a parody of Law and Order? Like when the detectives are questioning a suspect or like a trial scene?”
“You better ask Stan, the director, about that. I’m not sure parody is, like, what attracts the audience for The Five Sisters.”
“Or the makers of SaniLax. . . . Okay, how about I play Uncle Emil like Columbo’s younger brother—sort of a wack-job who means well but can’t stop insinuating that his niece is headed for trouble?”
Peggy smiled, and Herman realized she might not even know who Columbo was. I’d better edit my references more carefully, he thought, or I’ll emphasize the age-gap.
Man, I wish she was a few years older and I was younger. Still, maybe I have a shot.
That night Herman practiced his lines with unusual rigor. He imagined Peggy before him as he read her lines and then spoke his lines with increasingly less reference to the script as he memorized his part. He finished just before midnight. Buoyed by a sense of accomplishment, he allowed himself a shot of Jameson’s, and then another, though he knew he should stay on the wagon. After Letterman, he went to bed, but thoughts of Peggy made him restless. Sleep came fitfully, and then brought him a dream: a beautiful orange-haired young woman beckoned to him from the stage of an empty auditorium, but try as he might to leave his back-row seat, he was held in place by a seatbelt for which there was no mechanism he could unfasten.
When Herman played Uncle Emil, the bit went well, though the sound track gave most of the laughs to Grace’s eye-rolling and “O Uncle Emil’s.” In the second of his episodes, Uncle Emil attends the birthday party and gets to dance very briefly with Grace, looking a little foolish trying to match her spontaneity. Herman relaxes and just lets Emil’s struggle between his inner devil and his detective’s controlled demeanor play freely. Then he’s on the fringe, giving a few approving nods when Grace kicks up a storm dancing with a teenaged boyfriend. Somehow his bit wins plaudits, and Stan Intaglio, the director, talks to Herman about extending his role beyond a third episode.
As Herman left the studio, he ran into Peggy at the door.
“Hey, Peggy, you were awesome!”
“Thanks. You were pretty good yourself.”
“How about a drink?”
Her cheerfulness changed to wariness for a moment, and then she smiled and said,
“No, thanks. I’ve got a date.”
“How about tomorrow? Lunch in the Village again? I’ve got some good news to tell you.”
She paused and then said, “Let’s make it a cup of coffee. How about Donegal about an hour before we shoot tomorrow?”
“Cool. See you then.”
Peggy’s reserve made Herman’s elation over Stan’s words leave him like the air from a punctured tire. He knew he should have dropped the idea of meeting with Peggy as soon as she’d said she had a date, but his hunger for her gnawed at him. And the Donegal, a dingy Irish pub down the street from their studio—what she’d proposed made him feel defeated. He headed to the Donegal alone and knocked back a couple of boilermakers. He liked the buzz he felt on the way to the subway and on the trip home to Flatbush.
That night he learned his lines with a vengeance. In the third of Herman’s turns, Uncle Emil joins the family to clean up the morning after the party. He’s disheveled and hung over, his condition making him the butt of jokes from his brother and sister-in-law.
Grace briefly sticks up for him, but when he tries to hug her, she makes a face that indicates he stinks and should stay away from her. The laugh-track mocks his untoward behavior and unkempt appearance. He then sheepishly makes his exit.
“Jesus!” Herman said after he’d finished learning his lines. “If I don’t play this bit like gangbusters, there’s no way Uncle Emil will be welcome on the show again. Maybe Stan has already changed his mind about me. No, I’ve still got a shot.”
At the Donegal an hour before shooting Uncle Emil’s third episode, Herman felt anxious. He’d fought his whiskey thirst at home, knowing it would be best to be sober when meeting Peggy. At a table away from the bar, they ordered coffee. How Herman wished he could pour a shot of whiskey into his cup, but he concentrated on Peggy. She looked so young and vital, and she was just across the table from him.
“You said you had some good news to tell me,” she said.
“Yeah . . . did Stan say anything to you?”
“About bringing me back for other episodes. Cool, eh?”
“Oh, yes. That is good news for you.”
“I figure if I hit it out of the park today, he’ll offer me a new contract. So let’s make sure we score during the clean-up scene.”
He raised an imaginary liquor glass as if to click it against her imaginary glass, and then he lowered his hand on hers.
She felt his clammy fingers on the back of her hand and stifled an impulse to
withdraw it in revulsion. She smiled vaguely and said, “Look, Herman, you’re a good guy and an awesome actor, but, like, I’m at a point in my life when I’m not looking for complications. . . .” They both knew that “especially with an older, less successful man” was the implied conclusion to her sentence.
He knew he’d blundered. Shrugging, he replied, “Sorry. My enthusiasm for playing Uncle Emil got the better of me. I’ll behave.” And then he smiled at her in a way that hardly reassured her.
The scene went reasonably well, but Peggy seemed uncharacteristically stiff as Grace, and Herman felt all too much like he was Uncle Emil. After the shoot was over, Stan left the set and went to his office. Herman followed, fearing the worst, and knocked on Stan’s door.
“Oh, Herman, I’m glad you came,” Stan said. “I just wanted to thank you again for all you’ve added to The Five Sisters. Our ratings with Uncle Emil have been good. If we can work you in again, I’ll be in touch with your agent.”
“Thanks, Stan. Isn’t there anything definite you can offer me?”
“Not right now. Sorry. And I’ve got to get out of here right away to meet the wife.”
Stan turned back to his desk to gather papers to put in his briefcase, a sign for Herman to leave, and he did. He wasn’t stupid. He knew that Peggy must have told Stan
that he’d tried to come on to her and that she didn’t want him around anymore. The star
must be served. The bit player had lost her approval and lost his job.
When he hit the street outside the studio, Herman needed a drink. He reached the dingy Donegal but passed it by. He didn’t want to run into anyone from the cast of The Five Sisters. He’d already met one sister too many in there. He struggled to put the vision of Peggy Faust out of his mind until he’d replaced it with the bottle of Jameson’s waiting for him faithfully in Flatbush.