You can skip this first section if you like. I am merely beginning somewhere, "writing
myself into a story." I don’t know what this is going to be about
yet. This is fiction without a net.
Here I am in print, skating the thin ice of ridicule. Confronted with
another challenge of white space, I wonder if Yuri Gagarin felt like this
in 1961, when he became the first man to orbit the earth. Our Hebrew school
teacher told us not to be upset because Gagarin was a Russian: going into
space, he said, was a great accomplishment for all mankind and would ultimately
solve all our problems. Our Hebrew school teacher said that one of us would
be teaching Hebrew school on the moon one day. As far as I know, nobody’s
done it yet.
Or maybe I should tell you something helpful, something that will help
you live in this, Yuri Gagarin’s, universe. (Do you remember that he died
in a plane crash? Have you forgotten Yuri Gagarin already?) Here goes:
in the summer, put a bunch of grapes in the freezer and serve them to kids;
they’re more nutritious than sugar ices, and they taste so good you’ll
want them for yourself. See? Does Joyce Carol Oates tell you things like
that in her stories?
A week ago last Tuesday, when I was denied unemployment insurance by the
New York State Department of Labor and when I was told there would be no
courses for me to teach this summer and when my mother told me I’d better
do something to make money and when I threw a bottle of milk at her, screaming
that I would rather die than work in a Burger King and what other job could
I get, I held the contents of an entire bottle of Tuinals in my hand for
An hour and a half after that I was in the Kings Plaza Shopping Center,
three blocks from my house, ordering a cheeseburger with sautéed
onions and an iced tea at Bun ‘n’ Burger. When the waitress gave me the
sugar for the iced tea I refused it, telling her, "That stuff’s bad
The indomitable human spirit.
Last night at my girlfriend’s house we were sitting on her bedroom floor
taking apart the Sunday New York Times. Julie wants to work on a small-town
paper some day. I tell her that newspapers are dying all over the country,
that the Times has gone to cold type, laying off hundreds of linotypers,
that in most cities there is a newspaper monopoly, that eventually people
will subscribe to a newspaper service that comes over the cathode-ray tube
of their home computer terminal, and besides, reporters don’t make much
Julie countered or didn’t counter by reading an "Author’s Query" from
the Book Review section. Somebody, it seems, wants to do an autobiography
of William Ernest Henley.
"I bet you any amount of money it’ll be called His Unconquerable
Soul," I told Julie.
She just smiled. She would make a beautiful reporter for a small-town
newspaper. Julie’s image is now competent but with panache. She projects
In ninth grade we had to memorize "Invictus" and recite it before
Mrs. Sanjour’s English class. She told me I was too melodramatic. We also
had to recite a soliloquy from Julius Caesar that year: I chose one of
Brutus’, when he was debating whether or not to join the conspiracy. I
got a 98 on that recitation. They don’t recite things anymore in school;
that all went out with the 1960’s a decade I vaguely remember. Of course
in 1965, when Julie and I were in Mrs. Sanjour’s English class in Meyer
Levin Junior High School 285 in Brooklyn, we didn’t know we were in the
1960’s, if you know what I mean. Julie and I keep saying we got the last
good education in the public schools of New York.
Meyer Levin Junior High was not named after the novelist but the World
War II hero, an airplane fighter pilot who had lived in the neighborhood.
Meyer Levin’s mother used to come to every graduation; she didn’t look
as though the school compensated her for the loss of her son. When I was
little, I used to think the school was called "My Eleven." It
was an excellent school, especially if you were in the SP program as Julie
and I were. In Mrs. Sanjour’s class we also read The Odyssey and
had to write our own epic; we read Poe and Swinburne and Edward Arlington
Robinson; we wrote short stories (Mrs. Sanjour ridiculed mine in front
of the class: "Richard’s ‘The Bus Ride’–oh, that was a thrill a minute")
and learned to read every section of the Sunday Times. We were quizzed
on it Mondays.
Today Mrs. Sanjour teaches remedial reading. The school is mostly bilingual
and 90% of the students are Haitians or Puerto Ricans. Mrs. Sanjour tells
me her students are mostly comatose; and she likes them that way–it’s
better than violence. Mrs. Sanjour’s teaching days are over, she says;
now she baby-sits. She says she can’t remember the short story that I wrote
that she made fun of, but I do, vaguely: it had to do with a prejudiced
woman talking against blacks on a bus. In the story I made it obvious that
the woman was evil and banal.
That was a long time ago. I think–or would like to think–that my stories
have been getting better. They’re less obvious, though.
For example, is this story about anything? Is it a story at all?
I don’t know. I don’t know.
Maybe after I finish writing it and then I read it, maybe then I’ll know.
I’d better work the title in sooner or later, so here goes.
Remember graffiti in the 1960’s and the one that said MY MOTHER MADE ME
A HOMOSEXUAL and the response under it, IF I GET HER THE WOOL, WILL SHE
MAKE ME ONE, TOO?
When I was fifteen I wrote a play called, "If I Get Her the Wool,
Will She Make Me One, Too?" You figure it out.
And Julie liked the graffito that said BROOKLYN BOYS LIKE GRILS. Naturally
someone crossed out the word GRILS and substituted GIRLS. And just as naturally
someone (me, I think) wrote underneath that BUT WHAT ABOUT US GRILS?
Have you figured it out yet? Three seconds I give you.
Good. I’m glad you got it.
Another friend and former classmate at P.S. 203, Meyer Levin Junior High,
Midwood High and Brooklyn College is Harriet. That’s where Julie and I
were last night, at Harriet’s apartment in Greenwich Village.
Harriet is an editor at a women’s magazine and was telling Julie and me
about a story she had read. The story was submitted to her magazine and
it was by Joyce Carol Oates and the manuscript looked like Joyce Carol
Oates’ agent had sent it everywhere. It was controversial because it was
59 pages long and kind of strong for Harriet’s magazine. Harriet’s managing
editor knowing how much Harriet hates fiction (except mine, and that’s
only out of friendship) asked Harriet to make the final decision on the
story. Surprisingly, Harriet loved it. But the managing editor decided
not to use it anyway.
The moral of this story is that even good stories by Joyce Carol Oates
get rejected for one reason or another.
The moral of this story is that final decisions are not always final.
The moral of this story is that Harriet talks a better story than I write.
One of these, anyway.
So what about us grils?
(Counterpoint; repetition; irony)
A 15-year-old boy is laughing so he gets shot in the head. The 13-year-old
boy who killed him didn’t like the sound of laughter. The Governor of New
York State and the Republican candidate for his job call for life sentences
for 13-year-old murderers. I myself, a gentle person, favor capital punishment.
What about us grils? Can’t we laugh either?
(Gentle rhythmic thoughtfulness)
This has nothing to do with anything, but then again, probably it does.
When my father was at his draft physical, one of them anyway, during World
War II, he had to sleep overnight with hundreds of men in Grand Central
Station. They had sleeping bags on the floor. At about one o’clock in the
morning everyone heard an enormous fart from one side of the terminal.
Then a loud voice announced:
"That came to you courtesy of Norman Greenstein!"
That is a true story, and mildly amusing. But my father makes it worse
by fictionalizing the ending and telling us: "In the morning I offered
him my conflatulations." Sometimes I do similar things with my stories.
In suicide prevention circles, there is a cliche: "You can always
kill yourself tomorrow." Even us grils can do that.
"Pop, you’re going to get better," said Julie’s grandfather
Julie’s great-grandfather looked at him from the bed. He threw the covers
off, revealing bare spindly legs. "With these matchsticks I’m going
to get better?"
Julie’s grandfather said nothing. Then Julie’s great-grandfather spoke:
"I’ve loved life . . . but I’ve had to spend the last three months
sleeping sitting up and the pain is unbelievable . . ."
"Pop . . . " said Julie’s grandfather.
(To show I can write straightforward narration. Don’t worry, I won’t add
Next to Julie’s great-grandfather, in the Workmen’s Circle section of
Mount Lebanon Cemetery, is buried a woman whose tombstone reads BLANCHE "SPONGECAKE" BERNSTEIN.
Just one of us grils.
With these matchsticks this story is going to get better? If you gave
me some wool, could I write a better story?
When Harriet confesses that she will not pick up black hitchhikers, do
you have to admire her honesty?
When Mrs. Sanjour admits that she thinks about taking the gas now and
then, do you have to feel sorry for her?
When Julie complains that graffiti depresses her, does she look as pretty
or as competent as she did the moment before?
When my father tells a nice old story and ruins it with a bad pun, do
I love him any the less? Any the more?
When Joyce Carol Oates writes a story, do you have to accept it? Or can
you just think it’s wonderful and say that’s enough?
When I write myself into a corner, as I have done once more, do you have
to give me credit for trying?
Answers to the above:
No. I don’t know.
When Yuri Gagarin was in junior high school graffiti didn’t exist. Because
he never saw it, that’s why.
But neither did Yuri Gagarin exist in those days. At least not the Yuri
Gagarin that I know.
When Julie’s great-grandfather was 18, back in Russia, he made a set of
wings because he figured he was stronger than the birds. He jumped off
the roof of a barn. He never got to flap his wings once. Luckily his sister
had put straw where he fell. Julie’s great-grandfather didn’t hurt anything
but his pride. The old folks called him a crazy boy after that.
People, including my father and Julie and Harriet, call me crazy at times.
Sometimes it hurts and sometimes it doesn’t. There are always Tuinals.
I have to conclude the story here. I’m running out of ideas and Ko-Rec-Type.
"Ko-Rec-Type for Life," Harriet said last night to me and Julie. "Wouldn’t
that be wonderful?"
So I think this story has been about not committing suicide or something.
I guess it’s more complicated than that, but my mother just came in my
room with my laundry to put away, so I can’t bother thinking anymore. Or
Just remember the frozen grapes. You’ll really like them. Give them to
your grils. They’ll appreciate it. I know.