Monday, October 31, 2011

From the Private and Personal Diary of Lotus Louise Klapper

Entry #1
National Lotus Day
I, Lotus Louise Klapper, do hereby declare myself a Sovereign Nation, under me, dedicated and devoted to me, ruled by me, for me, and all about me, so help me, me.
As High Priestess, President Suprema and Empress Extraordinaire I pronounce this, the first day of my nationhood, as National Lotus Day.
On this day I will do no chores, eat nothing made out of soy, listen to no one who says anything I don’t want to hear, and read nothing that I don’t choose to read with my own free will. 

My parents will be like specks of dust beneath my feet. Ricky Carlton, next door, will be lower than the lowliest worm. Fiona Feingold will be banished from my kingdom for the rest of her natural born life which, if I have anything to say about it — and I do — will be short and painful. And Kenny Bergermeister will find he can’t stop thinking about me, in a very good way, even though he doesn’t know me — yet. 

Before going to bed I will allow my parents to become specks of dust who actually speak, so they can say “good night, most majestic Majesty.” But after that they will return to being the regular kind of silent specks of dust.
I am Lotus Louise Klapper the Great. I am Cruel. But sometimes I am Merciful.

To be continued . . . 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Please Don't Make Me Be a Hat

Please don’t make me be an Easter bonnet with all those yellows and pinks. I can’t wear yellow or pink, I never could. And not an Australian macho hat, or a floppy-brimmed thing with plastic cherries, or anything with fur or feathers or a veil. If I have to be a hat, why not a beret. Black of course, what else?
Please don’t make me be a plant in my own house. You know how I am with plants, how the African violet has shrunk down to nothing, how the Wandering Jew is stopped dead in its tracks. If I have to be a plant, ship me off to Kay’s in Boston, she’s good with plants, plus she’s a vegetarian and a swing dancer and she likes turtles. I think I’d have a chance if you gave me to Kay. Sure, I’ll give you her address, I could do that.
Please don’t make me be a bell on a red ribbon on that crazy woman’s ankle. I’ve heard her clanking across the street, everybody stares, I would hate that. If I have to be a bell could you put me in a kindergarten class where all the kids could come up and ring me, or maybe on a string of rope with other bells at the back door of a house where a kind, quiet poet lives. Or else could you give me to the Tibetan monks? Come to think of it, that would be best. I would really like to go to the monks.
Please don’t make me be Monopoly. I never liked Monopoly. You know I’m bad with money. Not jacks, either, or pick-up-sticks, or jump rope or anything with a ball and a bat. Solitaire? Are you kidding? I’d be so lonely. I’ve got a choice between solitaire or jacks, that’s it? Can you give me a minute? I’ll get back to you, okay?
Please don’t make me be America. I’ve had it with America. And not Poland or Brazil or Guatemala or France. I’m terrible with languages. Or any place too north or too south. I don’t do well with extremes. Thanks, but no thanks. England? Well yeah, sure, England would be great. I didn’t realize that was an option. Definitely, make me England. If I’m England I’ll take solitaire. No, I don’t need any more time to consider. Really, you thought I’d pick jacks? I guess you don’t know me that well, do you? 
Please don’t make me be six a.m. Or midnight. Or noon, either. How about 8:20? Either a.m. or p.m., it really doesn’t matter. No, I don’t care, a.m. or p.m., they’re both okay with me. Oh, alright then, a.m. No, wait, p.m. No, a.m. Yes, I’m certain, a.m. I said already: a.m.
Please make me something chocolate. I don’t care what — a cake, a malted, a mousse, a donut, a pudding — anything. But not an Easter bunny. I know I just said I didn’t care what, but I really do. Easter bonnets, Easter bunnies, they’re just not me.  
You think I’m too demanding? Me? I thought you wanted my input. Oh. You were just humoring me. Sorry, I didn’t understand the rules. Okay, I take it all back, I’ll just leave it up to you. I suppose you know what you’re doing? You do, don’t you? Fine then, whatever you think is best. For all of it, the whole thing, not just the chocolate. I leave it in your hands. Entirely. I trust you. 

Yes, I do. 

Yes, already, how many times do I have to say it?

Monday, October 24, 2011

So Many Berries

Blueberry picking at high noon. The radio said expect a breeze but I never felt one. It was so hot, with only my baseball cap for a slice of shade. And me in a pale gray silk blouse, how silly, but still it was lightweight. Picking first from one bush and then another, not wanting any one spot to grow too bare, always moving, slow, but moving. Bees buzzing nearby, dragonflies mating, then whizzing off. Careful not to separate families: these 3 berries look like sisters, take them all so no one’s lonely; a mom, a pop, 6 little babies — plop, plop, plop, plop, plop, plop, plop, plop, into the bucket. Well, you can call it crazy if you like but I don’t think that’s very nice. Filled that bucket up to the brim, took my time, I had lots of time. Later, after weighing the berries, there was lemonade, cold and sweet and only 50 cents. And on the way home, eating those berries, so many berries, my fingers never turned blue, and my tongue didn’t turn blue, not even my teeth. It was a perfect afternoon. And no bears came, either. 
sweet berries
salt-slick with
ignore the mating dragonflies  
though they 
are not shy  

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Little Bit Zippy

Everyone says green tea is good for you. That it puts extra oomph in your day and, in general, improves almost every aspect of your life, both physical and psychological. Except maybe there’s nothing in it to stop you from worrying. But I don’t expect that from a tea. I’ve taken to drinking a cup of green tea every morning. If I make it too strong I get jumpy instead of just a little bit zippy. 

So I make it weak. I put the tea bag in a mug, fill the mug half-way with boiling water and leave the tea bag in for exactly one minute. If I count slowly to ten, seven times, it's one minute. Then I fill the cup to the brim with cold water so I won’t burn my tongue. I’m not the sort of person who lets a cup of tea cool on its own. That’s just not my way. 

On the few occasions when I forgot to drink my green tea in the morning I had a headache by noon. This seems a lot like an addiction to me. Which doesn’t make me happy. But it’s a price I’m willing to pay for all the other great things the green tea is doing for me.

This morning, as usual, I was working hard at being relaxed, counting to myself: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. Waiting for the water to boil. Tearing open the little paper pouch that houses the tea bag. Placing the bag in the mug. Still waiting for the water to boil. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. Now lifting the kettle and pouring the boiling water into the mug. 1-2-3-4 — WAIT. What is that? 

A hissing sound from the stove-top. I turn my head quickly to the right, just in time to see a tiny bead dancing on top of the burner. A slightly-yellowed pearl, exactly the same size as the Chinese pills I take to help me think better. The pills I call my orange pills because they come out of a bottle with an orange label. Even though they are really brown pills. This bead is spinning like mad right there in the very center of the burner. And then it explodes. 

Or maybe evaporates is a more accurate description. But it wasn’t a quiet occurrence, the way you’d think evaporation would be. It was definitely more like a silent explosion. 

Afterwards, nothing was left but a minuscule speck of black dust. You could say it was a bead of water that rolled off the tea kettle. Or you could say it was magic. I am inclined towards magic. It was a beautiful sight. When the explosion happened I went Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh. 

And then I counted some more: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. Until it was time to pluck my tea bag from the mug. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Vikings: a fictional piece starring someone like my dad

My father likes to claim kinship with the Vikings. According to Dad, if Erik the Red had veered off course, just a tiny bit, he could easily have been an ancestor of ours. If you scoff, he’ll drag you off to look at the map, point in the general direction of Iceland and then in the general direction of Latvia. “Only a few inches apart,” he’ll say. “On the open seas, what would that be, a day’s journey? It could easily have happened.” If you still don’t look convinced, he pulls out the big guns, his indisputable evidence: “Jews eat herring, no?” He’s proven his point. 
Dad likes the Vikings. Sometime in his boyhood, when he was still wearing short pants and playing stickball in the street, he heard about, or read about, those intrepid sailors, and it’s stuck in his mind. Whenever he’s feeling nostalgic for his good old days, he tells the story of how some lone Viking ship could have pulled up anchor outside the walls of a Jewish ghetto in Eastern Europe. I don't know why, but it seems to make him feel better.
But my father takes even more pleasure in talking about subjects that make him feel worse. “Don’t talk to me about the lone gunman,” he’ll say, apropos of absolutely nothing, because nobody has been talking about the lone gunman for a long, long time. But to my father, President Kennedy’s assassination could just as well have happened yesterday. 

“I’ll tell you something,” he goes on, “we’re not going to learn the truth in my lifetime. Not in your lifetime, either. Not in your children’s lifetime.” 

He looks me in the eye as he says this. He knows I have no children, I’m not going to have any children. It doesn’t matter. It troubles him that my non-existent children will never know the truth. 

It’s better not to say anything at all in response. Dad doesn’t like discussions, they make him nervous. He prefers to simply tell you things, and in case you don’t believe him he has experts to quote. His experts are the people who host call-in radio programs. Woe unto you if you criticize any of these guys. My father is less fond of criticism than he is of discussion. 
“You should listen to these shows once in a while before you go voicing an opinion you know nothing about,” he tells me.  “You and your commie pinko friends, shut off your NPR and listen to something unbiased for a change.” 
My father’s latest obsession is with life on other planets. More specifically, the presence of that life on this planet. The world as we know it is just too much for him. Better to think of other worlds. When I saw him last, he was telling me about alien abductions and I made a major tactical error. I said “You don’t really believe that, do you Dad?”
“You think you’re so smart,” he said. “Just because it didn’t happen to you, you think it couldn’t happen to anyone else.”
“Did it happen to you?” I was thinking: maybe that explains it. Could aliens have taken over my father’s body? But no, that would be too simple an explanation.
“It didn’t happen to me,” he conceded, “but I know plenty of people — plenty — who have been tampered with, and it’s not a pretty picture.”
I turned toward my mother for confirmation. She shook her head and signaled I should change the subject.
Later, Mom took me aside and explained that my father doesn’t actually know any people who’ve spent time in a spaceship. “It’s those damn radio shows,” she said. “He gets very involved. They’re all a bunch of crackpots but your father is devoted to them. He listens late at night when he can’t sleep. I think that’s why he can’t sleep. He’s got his ear up to the radio and he’s very impressionable. When he’s in that state of mind things sink in and he can’t shake them out again.”
“Oh, Ma,” I said, “this is sort of awful.”
“Sort of? It’s completely awful. Your father’s brain is a big sponge. Any cockamamie idea that’s going around eventually lands on it. But I don’t want you to worry. Put it out of your head. Don’t give it a second thought.”
Naturally, I haven’t been able to put it out of my head. I have this image of my father’s brain as a Venus Flytrap — open, eager, inviting. Ready to latch on to every paranoid conspiracy theory that comes floating down the pike.
Once my father gets a hold of an idea, it’s his for life. The same goes for words. Words that, for some inexplicable reason, he cannot pronounce.
Years ago, my parents were invited to have brunch with their friends Mindy and Sol. I say friends, but my father hated them. He hated Mindy a little, but he hated Sol a lot. Sol wore turtle neck sweaters and khakis. Nothing irritates my father more than a man in a turtleneck sweater.
Anyway, Mindy was being adventurous in the kitchen. She made a quiche. My father didn’t like the sound of that. “French?” he sneered, “who needs anything from the French. A bunch of Nazi collaborators, every one of them. The so-called Resistance was a hoax. There’s documented facts to back me up.” 
“Shut up and eat your food,” my mother said, or words to that effect. Dad took a bite. “It’s an omelette, nothing but a glorified omelette. Why don’t you just call it an omelette and be done with it?”
Sol piped up: “Actually, I’m very fond of this dish.”
Need I tell you? Dad detests the word actually. “Oh you are, are you? You’re very fond of kweesh . . . actually.”
My mother told me this story. She said he pronounced it kweesh and no one corrected him. They thought he was being sarcastic. But the thing is, ever since then, he’s always pronounced it kweesh, and he doesn’t seem to know it’s wrong. 

He can’t say millennium, either. Throw your mind back to the year 1999. Every other word out of everybody’s mouth was millennium. My father couldn’t say it. He wasn’t embarrassed. He just talked about the upcoming manillium — with great authority. He said it like he was right.
This is what it means to be a white man in America. A big man, an intimidating man. A man who looks, when he’s dressed up in a suit and tie, like he could be your congressman. Even though he mistrusts all politicians. 
But it’s not about what he thinks, or even about what he says. It’s about the way he says it. With confidence. With vim and vigor. Without leaving the slightest room for doubt. 
We could be related to the Vikings, kids.
Don’t even thinking about bringing a God-damned kweesh into my house.
If you happen to see a UFO parked on the street, walk the other way . . . as fast as you can.
Life in the new manillium is even worse than life in the old one.
Can’t you just hear him?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Long and Happy Life: a dream memory

An old woman is giving me advice about how to take a proper bath. She instructs me to get into the tub and let the water come in on the gentlest cycle. There are two cycles, she explains, gentle and hard, and I can adjust them by the way I turn on the faucets. She says the water can be as hot or as cold as I like, temperature doesn’t matter; the important thing to remember is to use the gentle cycle. When the water is as high as it can go without spilling out of the tub, I should shut the faucets off, hold my breath, and sink down into the water until I am totally submerged. I can stay under for as long as I like. When I’m ready, I should just come back up and breathe. I can repeat this — sinking under, coming up, breathing — over and over again. The woman assures me these directions come with a guarantee: if I follow them, I will live a long and happy life.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Watch Your Step, Cowboy

Listen carefully: enough with the letters. Fifty love letters in two weeks is too much. Even if you loved me. Which you don’t. Or if I loved you. Which I don’t.

I only saw you off at the train station so I wouldn’t seem rude. After all, you were skipping town, I could afford to be generous. So I waved. “So long, so long,” I called, with all the other flotsam and jetsam hanging around the platform. But inside I was hissing sayonara chump, good-bye and good riddance, bon-voy-jovi-age.
Who knew you were gonna turn out to be such a clinger? A couple hours after your train left town and already — from some God forsaken hamlet in Pennsyltucky — you’re sending me a letter. What did you do, bribe a ticket-seller to mail it for you? Charm some kindly grandma type, who not only mailed it but paid for the stamp and gave you an orange, too? 
Oh excuse me, do I sound bitter? I am trying to maintain a neutral tone here. It’s just that when I said “keep in touch” it was merely a figure of speech. What I really meant was Keep on truckin’, Bud; ride off into that sunset, Shane; Lassie, don’t come home.
I was halfway through repainting my bedroom — it took five coats to wipe out that psychedelic chartreuse you insisted on — when your first letter arrived. I put it down on the radiator. It got a little bit messed up. Ask me if I care. But okay, a couple hours later I broke down. I was wondering what you had to say that was so important you couldn’t even wait until you got to home-on-the-range Montanaville. What was so earth-shattering you had to tell it to me from Pennsylvania, you couldn’t hold out until, I don’t know, Indiana, maybe. So okay, I’ll admit it, I was curious. I opened the envelope, I read your letter.
Can I ask you something? Who taught you how to write? When you were in elementary school getting started with those ABCs somebody should have been a whole lot stricter with you. If I’d known you then I would have slapped you, hard. Now it’s too late, you are so far beyond help. “Illegible” is ten times better than what you produce.
Dear Mushroom? Dear Manhattan? So who are you addressing, sonny boy? Could it possibly be moi? You wish you'd been kinder or you're eating fish for dinner? You’re crying or you’re lying? (Well, I know the answer to that one!) Singularly yours? You wish. 

I wasn’t put on this earth to get eyestrain.  But okay, I figured you were having residual trauma, you know, how even after something is over you don’t quite know it’s over? I was willing to give you a little bit of an allowance for that reason. Even though I already told you, in all three languages you don’t speak, that it was finito between us the second you put your foot on that Amtrak. 
And then came your next letter.
The postmark was smudged but I’m guessing you sent it from Iowa. I’ll never know if the sunsets were lovely from the train or if someone named Samantha was lonely in the rain, and guess what? I don’t care. I let your letter fall on the table under the potato peels. It was an improvement.
By the time I got your twentieth pitiful message of heartbreak (good, let it break, break harder) I was thinking of papering the bathroom wall with letters from you. By the time your 50th arrived, I just had enough.
This is harassment boy-oh. This is terrorist-type behavior. This is a one way ticket to Stop Messing With Me Land. I am not going to allow you to pollute my nest any longer.
So tonight I took your letters over to the corner, you know the place, where the junkies and the winos hang out 24 hours a day by the garbage cans, warming their hands in the gasoline fires, smoking their weed and what-not. I walked right up to the first can and I smiled sweetly at the men and they made their suck-suck-suck noises through their teeth (just imagine how much I enjoyed that) and I said, “Gentlemen, if you would be so kind as to step aside, I am about to fuel your little flame with a pile of unadulterated horseshit.” They went crazy. More suck-suck-sucking. I got offered two swigs and three tokes. 
They wanted to know who was sending me horseshit. I told them “Some dude who goes by the name of Missoula Max.” One of them said “You mean that little runt was always trotting along at your heels?” I thought that was particularly perceptive of him so I gave him a kiss on his smelly old lips. Got me a swig and a toke for my efforts. I’d say the men on the corner had them a mighty fine bonfire tonight. And they think of me as their new best friend.
You still there, Max old friend, old buddy, old got-to-get-back-to-my-roots-and-find-out-who-I-really-am? Hear me now and listen to me always: Send me one more miserable scrawl of a letter, you shitheel, and it will be the last thing you ever do on this planet. The trains still run from east to west, you know, so watch your step, cowboy. I’ve got me a posse now and I’m ready to sic ‘em on you. And believe me, they’re just itching to whup your ass. 

These merry men of mine wouldn’t waste a belch on a man who thinks “luv” spells anything.  

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Try Harder

I got off on the wrong foot with my downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Kirk. I should say, the wrong feet. I wore clogs back then. Really heavy, wooden ones. Very Hans Brinkerish. Clompity clomp. And of course there were no rugs in my apartment. And I did live on the second floor. And she was elderly and didn’t sleep well. And yes, I should have known better. My only excuse was my age. But also, she should have known better. Her only excuse was her age. And I guess that’s why she phoned our landlady and accused me of operating a whore house.

A slight misunderstanding. I was able to clear it up by explaining to the landlady that there was merely an unfortunate, though easily remedied, proximity between the window lamp and the red burlap curtains. A decorating faux-pas. But certainly not a reason to assume I was a prostitute, advertising my own little red light district at 311 Auburn Street. My landlady agreed not to throw me out on my keister. But she did urge me to try harder to get along with my neighbor.
So I bought Mrs. Kirk a pumpkin. I assumed that was the sort of neighborly thing people in Ithaca did for one another. Although in the Bronx apartment buildings where I grew up, it was considered the height of civility to just mind your own business. 
Still, I wanted to do right by my neighbor. I would have carved it for her, but I was afraid of sharp objects. Making a Jack O’Lantern required a certain familiarity with knives that I neither had, nor wished, to acquire. Which is why I simply left the pumpkin, uncut, at her front door. With a note: “Greetings from your upstairs neighbor.” Apparently, this caused offense. Mrs. Kirk called our landlady once again. She claimed I was harassing her. 
The landlady phoned me up immediately. “Are you some kind of a nut?” she demanded. I didn’t know how to answer that but I promised I would try harder. I agreed to wear slippers in my apartment instead of clogs. I agreed to take the garbage bins, both mine and Mrs. Kirk’s, from the back shed to the curb and from the curb to the back shed, every week. I agreed to have no visitors after nine p.m. and to play no music after eight. I swore I would not make a peep on Sundays. 

I felt especially noble and virtuous. I was doing my bit. And all Mrs. Kirk had to do, for her part, was to refrain from hissing at me whenever our paths crossed.
I messed up. I forgot to lug the trash cans out one week. A short while later I had some friends over for Meatloaf Surprise. (Nobody actually knew what it was; that was the surprise.) They stayed until nearly eleven and when they left, they did not leave quietly. And one Sunday morning I danced around my living room in ecstatic communion with Carole King, thus breaking three good-neighbor commandments all at once: no loud music, no dancing, no nothing on Sunday mornings.
But, most grievous of all: I got a kitten.
This was a mistake on so many levels. I should have known my limitations, from the countless dead goldfish and turtles of my childhood. But anyway, I got a kitten. 
I named her Anais, for the writer Anais Nin, whose diaries I was consuming at a feverish pace, but whose name I didn’t know how to pronounce. I called her Anus. Mrs. Kirk could hear every sound I uttered in my apartment. She did not appreciate hearing me call “Anus, Anus,” all day long.
And there is something else. But I really don’t want to tell you. However, I feel I must: I didn’t know that I was supposed to set up a litter box. Poor Anais. Luckily, she was quickly rescued by a friend of mine who gave her a comfortable and appropriate home and changed her name to Lucas. (As it turned out, Anais was a boy.) 
Mrs. Kirk was forced to endure my presence for seven more months. When spring arrived, my parents presented me a round-trip ticket to London as my college graduation present. I was meant to stay three weeks but once there, I knew I could never return to Auburn Street and I ended up living in London for the next two years.
My father and sister drove up to Ithaca to give away all my things. Mrs. Kirk took an immediate liking to my father. I would not have believed this was possible but my sister swore it was true.
Dad gave Mrs. Kirk my cutting board and singing tea kettle and five mis-matched mugs. He said she came very close to giving him a hug.
My sister couldn’t understand what I had against my downstairs neighbor. “She’s charming,” Laura told me, during our one and only trans-Atlantic phone call. “Your perceptions about people are not always accurate, you know. Try not to alienate every single person you meet in England."
I had to admit, that was good advice.

So when one new friend asked if I had read the diaries of Anais Nin, I lied and said that I never even heard that name before, but I would look for the books in our local library. She said I was refreshingly open-minded and curious, for an American.

I smiled, humbly. I was determined to try harder.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Best Friends For Life

Once my best friend Sheila Silverstone’s uncle was visiting her and he went into the kitchen and got down on all fours and started eating dog food out of the dog’s dish. Sheila’s dog, a boxer named Murray, didn’t like it, so he bit Sheila’s uncle on the nose. I heard that her uncle’s nose fell off but Sheila told me no, it didn’t, it just got smooshy.
This made me scared of Murray and after that I always asked Sheila to come to my apartment instead of us going upstairs to hers. But one weekend when her parents went to Atlantic City and her older sister, Blanche, was going to babysit, Sheila invited me to sleep over. A real live slumber party! It was too exciting to pass up, Murray or no Murray. My mother packed an overnight bag for me in one of her big old pocketbooks: toothbrush, hair brush, and a brand new nightgown that looked just like a fancy lady’s dress-up dress.  
The very first thing we did was go into Sheila’s bedroom to make crank phone calls to Michael Cutter and Michael Stein, the most popular boys in our class. Sheila was in love with Michael C. and I was in love with Michael S. When the phone rang in the Cutter house some woman answered, she went “Yeah? Yeah?” It was probably Michael’s mother. We hung up right away. 
But Michael Stein answered the phone himself and Sheila said “Mi-chael.... Mi-chael.... Is that you, Michael? I’m your long-lost-dead ancestor calling you from the grave of beyond” and then she gave me the phone and I just went “whooooooooo, whooooooooo,” like a ghost who’d been dead for a long time. Then I hung up. 
Sheila’s sister, Blanche, was in the living room polishing her toenails. She said we could use the polish on our fingers but not our toes, and if we spilled any on the rug she would have to kill us. We tried hard to keep the polish on our nails and not on the skin around our nails. This was not easy; it took a lot of concentration, and I forgot all about Blanche until she jumped up from the couch and said she heard funny noises coming from the apartment next door. I stopped polishing and listened, but all I could hear was Murray in the kitchen, and I hoped he wasn’t planning to chomp on any more noses. Blanche was upset. She said the voices were getting louder, the people next door were yelling, but it sounded like she said the people in the wall were yelling, and then she got so angry at us, she said “Don’t you hear them, you snot-heads, don’t you hear that yelling?” I shook my head, no.  Sheila just sat there, frozen, staring at her fingernails. 
I could still hear Murray scrabbling around on the kitchen linoleum, but nothing else, nothing from next door and nothing from the wall. Then Blanche said she was going to her room to get away from us and we better not get into any trouble. “You cow-breaths better not screw things up,” was how she put it.
I kept waiting for Sheila to say something but she didn’t. She just put the caps back on the nail polish bottles, slowly, like she was handling chemicals in a science experiment and something might explode. Then we went into her room and put on our nighties. We didn’t make any more crank calls, we didn’t even brush our teeth; we just went to sleep. Sheila never said a word about my new nightgown, the one that was like a grown-up lady’s dress. I don’t think she even noticed it. 
A couple weeks later, Sheila and I weren’t best friends anymore. She was best friends with a girl named Rachel Klein. They were both in love with George Chakiris, the leader of the Sharks in West Side Story. They got together every day after school so they could cut his picture out of magazines and glue the pictures into their scrapbooks. I didn’t think George Chakiris was even cute. I went looking for a new best friend. 
Her name was Judy MacArthur and she lived just around the corner. I loved to go to her apartment. She didn’t have a dog. Judy’s father worked for a company that made hula hoops. She had them in every color, some even had stripes on them, racing stripes, so they would go faster. I could keep four hoops spinning at the same time. Judy could do eight but that’s only because she had them all in her apartment and could practice any time she wanted.
We told each other secrets. Ultra-private, top-secret-secrets — “You’re-my-best-friend-for-life” secrets. Judy told me how once in assembly, when she was chosen for the color guard, she was standing up there on the auditorium stage in front of the whole school, and she let out a fart. A quiet one. But a stinker. After the pledge of allegiance and “The Star Bangled Banner,” the color guard went into the little backstage closet to put away the flags, and Judy said “Who made that fart?” The other kids said “Not me, Not me,” but Judy looked over at Carol Brenner, so then everyone figured it must have been Carol, and the more she said it wasn’t her the more it seemed like it was. 
And I told Judy how once I asked Mrs. Gutterman to let me be excused from gym because I had killer cramps, only I didn’t really have my period. I hadn’t had it yet, not once, but that was ropes day, everybody was supposed to climb up, practically to the gymnasium ceiling, and the thought of that gave me such a pain, it was almost like a period cramp. Mrs.Gutterman let me sit in the library until gym class was over. 
I told Judy about the crank calls Sheila and I made to the two Michaels, and she told me about her cousin, Francine, who had to get married right away because she French-kissed a boy and now she was going to have a baby.
That spring I caught the flu and had to stay home for a week, and when I went back to school Amy Woodrow, who sat in the seat in front of me, turned all the way around in her chair and said in that voice of hers, “Did you finally get your period?” And I knew exactly what happened while I was absent. Judy MacArthur told Rhonda Sapperstein my most secret-secret. And Rhonda told Loretta Landeau and Loretta told Amy. So then I knew that Judy MacArthur and I were no longer best-friends-for-life. We were nothing to each other. We were less than nothing. I wouldn’t even recognize her if I tripped over her.
In the summer, Marsha Gable came to stay with her Grandma, Mrs. G., who lived in our building, while her parents were in Europe for a month. My mother said I should be friendly because Mrs. G. was a good neighbor, and Marsha didn’t have any other friends, and even though she didn’t come right out and say it, it was almost like my mother thought I didn’t have any friends either. Which would have made me really mad, except it was true. 
Marsha and I hung out together in the courtyard in front of the apartment building. We played jacks, though we didn’t really like that game, we kept losing the little rubber ball. And we played “A My Name Is Alice,” and hopscotch, and gin rummy with Mrs. G’s deck of cards. We didn’t talk much, though. I was not about to tell Marsha Gable a single, solitary secret. I did not consider her my best friend.
One day my father took Marsha and me to Palisades Amusement Park. He wouldn't let us go on the roller coaster, he said my mother would slit his throat if he did. So we went on The Spin Devil, instead. Marsha sat next to me in a little box with a greasy handrail we had to hold onto or else the ride man would throw us off. It spun around so fast we thought our guts would fall out. We couldn't stop screaming, we loved it so much. When the ride came to an end we climbed out of the little box and we were still screaming. 
That’s when Marsha Gable threw up on me. All over my bermuda shorts and down my leg. That made me scream even more. 
My father told me and Marsha to stay where we were — “Don’t move an inch” — while he went to get something to wipe up the mess. We stood there, neither one of us saying a word. I was waiting for her to say she was sorry and then I’d tell her that I forgave her. But she didn’t apologize, so I didn’t say “I forgive you.” 

The longer the silence went on the harder it was to say anything. I knew she was going home soon, her parents would come back from Europe and pick her up from her grandmother’s. I probably wouldn’t ever see her again. It’s not like we were best friends. So I didn’t really have to forgive her for throwing up on me. I just stood there, waiting for my father to come back, and I kept my mouth shut. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Poems for Our Cat, Haiku

These poems about our cat were written over the years. Her name was Haiku. Yesterday her body left this earth. Her joyous, playful spirit will always remain with us.

I feel shy in the tub —
the cat's eyes unblinking

after my bath
the cat takes 
her bath
lullabye —
sung by my cat or my grandmother?
this sweet dream

one purple berry
on the vine —
the cat stares for hours

somewhere a cat
becomes a shadow

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Thelma Doesn't Live Here

Thelma Wykofski lived in apartment 5-4, fifth floor, rear.
Her neighbors called her Toby. They thought that was her name. She told them it was her name. She had a thing about the truth — she avoided it, on principle.
Toby White worked at Zuckerman's Shoes in the East Village. Not a trendy store. It was farther east than that, and south too. Nobody called that neighborhood the East Village except Toby. 
It was a family store, had been around for three generations. They got a lot of children, a lot of grandmas, they sold good solid shoes at fair prices. It said so right there in the front window. The owner printed the sign himself. 
He was a not-so-bad man, Ira Zuckerman, grandson of the original Mr. Z who opened the store back in 1968. He gave Toby a raise even before she asked for one. He wanted to marry her. But this he kept to himself. He was already a married man and he knew he shouldn't be greedy. 
In Toby’s apartment building, nobody knew she sold shoes. If they had known, maybe they would have dragged themselves over to Zuckerman’s once, twice a year, for a good fit. In the chain-stores, in the boutiques, there’s no one can help you, you’re on your own. This was Mrs. Blaustein’s opinion. 
She would have taken the subway to Zuckerman’s. Or she’d have taken a bus, gotten a transfer, waited for another bus, and walked half a block. She liked Toby. She would have trusted her to touch her bunioned feet. If she’d only known Toby worked there. But she didn’t know. “Toby works for a doctor,” Mrs. Blaustein would tell you if you asked. She doesn’t remember how she knows this, but she knows.
Across the hall, in apartment 5-1, Rudy Del Veccio is under the impression that Toby is a doctor. “A dentist,” Mr. Del Veccio would say, and he’d tap his buffed pointer finger against his dentures, making a little clicking sound. “She looks too young, I know,” he’d tell you, “but she’s that smart. Fast through college, fast through dental school. Best tooth doctor in the city of New York. I’d go to her myself if I still had my own teeth.” And if you were smart, this is where you’d leave, before he took out his dentures to show you.
Down at Zuckerman’s Shoes, they thought Toby lived uptown. Her co-worker, Candy Cooke, saw Toby (or someone who looked like Toby, from the back, from a block away) get into a yellow cab one night. 
“Must be heading to her grandmother’s penthouse,” Candy thought, chewing on a strand of magenta hair. Candy was under the impression, false though it was, that Toby’s grandmother was a millionaire. 
“A millionairess,” she’d have said, “and Toby is her favorite grandchild. But the grandmother is old-fashioned. Before she’ll let Toby get the millions, she wants her to learn the value of a single dollar.” 
Candy loved old movies and Toby was her real-life Audrey Hepburn.
She knew Toby wouldn’t forget her; that after Toby left Zuckerman’s Shoes to take her rightful place with the rest of the city’s millionaires, she’d do right by her. Cold, hard cash or jewelry or a world cruise. Candy would lull herself to sleep at night, imagining the possibilities.
Ira Zuckerman lived with a different picture in his head. Toby and her invalid mother and her weak-in-the-head father and her three younger siblings living in a two-room walk-up near the Cloisters. Toby schlepping more than an hour underground each day to work at Zuckerman’s because: a) she was a good daughter, a good older sister, and she knew the importance of work and family; and b) she wanted to be near him, Ira. 
When the detective came around to the apartment building, Mrs. Blaustein wouldn’t let him in her door. Not before he showed her his badge. “What is this?” she wanted to know, “why are you asking me these questions? I don’t know a Thelma Wykofski.” 
“The girl in 54, you don’t know her?” 
“Five-four,” Mrs. Blaustein said, “not 54. This is 5-2. There’s a very nice person in 5-4. Toby White. A lovely girl, works for a doctor. An optometrist, I think. Go bother somebody else.”
A couple minutes later, when he knocked on Mr. Del Veccio’s door, it was the same thing. “Who?” Rudy Del Veccio wanted to know. “Thelma? I don’t know no Thelma. There’s no Thelma living here. I can’t talk to you now, I’m in the middle of something important.” Mr. Del Veccio closed the door and went back to doing his crossword puzzle.
Nobody on the fifth floor, nobody in the entire apartment building, had any idea what had happened, just around the corner, less than 24 hours earlier: how Geneva Feathers was robbed, her basement apartment broken into, her 87 salt and pepper shakers (174 individual shakers in all) stolen, and with them $2,000, give or take, taken from her desk drawer.
Later, when Mrs. Blaustein heard about it, she was not sympathetic. “What foolishness. She should have put her money in a Maxwell House coffee can, then nothing bad would have happened to her.” 

Mr.  Del Veccio was confused. “What does she do with all those salt shakers?”   
At Zuckerman’s Shoes, it was not a good day. They were busy with the back-to-school rush, everybody was overworked, in a bad mood; it was very noisy. 
“Look, Detective, I’m telling you, I don’t know any Thelma Wykofski,” Ira Zuckerman was saying. “Candy, you ever hear of a Thelma Wykofski? There, you see, we don’t know her. Please, I’ve got to get back to work, we’re short-staffed today, my best worker couldn’t come in, her mother’s dying. What size shoe you wear? I could fix you up with something if you wait for it to clear out a bit.”
Before long, they rented out apartment 5-4 to a young man, a film student at NYU. Mrs. Blaustein and Rudy Del Veccio never saw him. He kept late hours, just dropped by the apartment to sleep and shower.
Candy quit Zuckerman’s and went to work for Kinko's. “I meet a nicer clientele there,” she told her mother.
Ira Zuckerman and his wife, Arlene, took a vacation in Nassau in December. They had a surprisingly good time. Ira discovered he could relax if he really put his mind to it. Now Mrs. Z is expecting their first child.
The detective, whose name was Ferdinand, (known as Nano to his friends, Freddie to his wife, Daddy to his daughter Abigail, and Detective to everyone else), had been considering taking early retirement. But in the course of his investigation he changed his mind. Mrs. Blaustein and Rudy Del Veccio frightened him. 

“I’m staying on the job,” he told his wife, “I’m not ready to decompose.” 

His wife just nodded her head. She’d been telling him much the same thing ever since he started with this retirement nonsense.

Six years later, though, Detective Ferdinand did retire. By that time, the aggravation from his unsolved cases had given him a bleeding ulcer. His own daughter, Abigail, might have provided a helpful clue or two. She and Toby, née Thelma, had gone to high school together. 
But since her father never talked to her about anything important, she didn't even know her old friend was on the lam. 

As for Toby/Thelma, she's doing fine. But between you and me, she uses too much salt.