Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Today Will Be a Quiet Day – Amy Hempel

It’s nearly impossible for me not to bring something of my own life into a story when the characters consist of a father, a son and a daughter. To draw me in deeper, when some of the action…or most of the story takes place in a car, I find myself drawing far too many parallels with my life as it was between the ages of 8 and 18.

My sister and I crammed alone time with our father into 5 or six hour blocks speeding up and down the east coast. I think we tried our hardest to make those five hours equal in quality the time that other children spent in the car with their father going to school, the store, the movies, the gas station…

I have a hard time remembering exactly what we discussed and what I thought about at that time. I’m sure though that whatever it was, any subject that my sister or I brought up, it would have to be of appropriate to discuss in front of the other sibling.

I wonder what my father thought of us. For his life, was interrupted when we re-entered it.

He had to plan events not just for himself in mind – but he had to make arrangements for us too.

And as I read these stories, my mind drifts once again to my father’s past behavior after the divorce.

Again, I’m trying now to imagine my father’s mind... as I am of the same age now, that he was when I was 10-11 years old.

Unfortunately, rather than having a nice pocket of memories to draw upon…yes there are a few…my most vivid memories are sad.

And most of these memories are related to my father an his inability to unplug from his work – and now I’ll relate a memory that for my sister and I was - “A Quiet Day”.

Even when we visited, my father still found it necessary to work…and work at a level that is/was unnecessary.

And these memories transition my thoughts towards summer weekends in center city Philadelphia.

My father couldn’t leave us at home when he pulled several all-nighters down in center city.

Our weekends would start early Friday mornings. We would ride into the city from Chestnut Hill with the novelty of a train ride cushioning our fall.

Walking through the dirty, dust hazy morning city streets from the train station to his office on the 7th floor we took a quick last look at the outside world.

Painted high gloss white cinderblock walls, polished linoleum floors and harsh florescent lighting. This would be our home for the next ? number of hours.

No windows.

During the day on Friday, there would be the normal activity of people moving through the hallways of an office building and they all looked the same to us in their green scrubs and white coats.

It was generally a safe building where we could go to the vending machines and grab a coke without his supervision as long as we told him that we were leaving the hall.

There was also a game room on the first floor that we spent some time in as well, but because we weren’t that skilled in video games, and my father had a limited amount of quarters he wanted to part with, the attraction and access soon faded.

As the day wore on, people left early for the weekend and the halls became even quieter than they normally were. Lights hummed, water swooshed through hidden pipes, vents blew cool breezes and strange echoes bounced through the halls.

During the day, we slunk around the halls, past curious eyes and found comfort in a spare office. We listened to the radio, drew pictures, wrote letters and read magazines. We typed on a typewriter and played with clay.

Sometimes lunch and dinner would allow us off the floor or a quick trip out into the loud smoggy city with dad.

Upon returning to the office, we’d find that my father’s floor was close to empty. Shoes and socks came off and the halls became our private race tracks.

Our bare feet would slap down on the hard polished floors with such a noise as we raced up and down the hallways causing an occasional visit by a security guard baffled by the strange sounds.

Time faded and we had no concept of the external world…day or night.

My father would emerge from his office and his fatherly duties would suddenly reappear and he would inform us that it was time to sleep.

We found our beds to be an industrial sofa and office carpet. We’d fall asleep to the whisper of cold (not cool) air conditioning passing through the vents above us.

Sleep was difficult as carpets are hard. We’d wake early in the morning and stumble into the hall –not knowing if we had slept 8 minutes or 8 hours.

Dad would be at his desk, kicked back papers all around…working.

We’d use the bathrooms – and have breakfast in the cafeteria. The day would be a replica of the previous day with the only difference being that there wouldn’t be the traffic of fellow office workers.

Saturdays were quiet and we had the hallways to ourselves once again…but to a child, the cold stale halls were…just not right.

We found relief mid afternoon or early evening as our dad felt that HE could go home.

Relief from our polished linoleum and white cinder world.

We’d squint at the headlights or at the last remaining rays of sun as we headed towards the train station bound for his little one room apartment.

****And now a small scene from our polished linoleum and white cinder world …recently related to me by my sister.

Now before you entered my father’s office hall, there would be two service elevators. I don’t think it occurred to my father to steer us away from riding those elevators. It just never occurred to him.

One day, my sister was riding on one of the elevators and a worker pushed a cart onto the elevator that had a cage with a dog…a beagle. My sister, being a child was fascinated with the scene of a dog on an elevator in an office building, but because we were who we were, she quietly hid her excitement. I don’t even remember her telling me at the time that she saw a dog. And perhaps because of what later happened, she never felt the need.

A few hours later, my sister found herself on that same elevator…perhaps on her way to a vending machine.

The elevator stops a few floors down from the seventh, and the same worker from earlier in the day pushes his cart onto the elevator. This time, the cart has an empty cage on the top, and below it, a black plastic bag. It takes only a few seconds for my sister to do the math and realize what was in the black plastic bag because the texture of fur could easily be seen pressed against the walls of the bag.

I never knew my sister witnessed this.

Here we are decades later, and what does my sister remember of a summer visit to my father’s?

A beagle in a trash bag.

Bad Company - Tess Gallagher

Gallagher and Carver

I suppose, sometime in the future, I will frequent cemeteries.

God – what an awful thought.

I don’t like to even imagine the scene.

Why would I be there? Not sure.

It seems that going there will bring plenty of heartache – the memories of the person that I will visit. Things I will say in my head to them, our conversations all taking place in my head.

Will I bring flowers? Momentos? Will there be a grave to tend to?

I’m too busy living to think about the dead…and I wish to be busy living for a long time.

I remember as a teenager thinking about my loved ones and how I would feel after they were dead.

In those days, I remember thinking that it would be so much better if I died before they did…so that I would not have to feel the pain of their death, and absence.

Pure selfishness.

Death is a difficult part of life. I’m not sure how I will react when death is a presence that becomes familiar to me.

Will I grow from death as I have often heard people do? Or will I shrink into a tight ball of black mass?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

New Yorker Fiction Database update

Not making as much progress as I would like.

Last entry – 7/7/2003 – John Updike - The Walk with Elizanne - Row 358. Of course, the entry will shift down as I add most recent to the top.

Roughly 8 years down, only 78 more years to enter.

Reading, writing, running and being a dad…are proving to be serious competition against getting work done on the project.

It’s O.K. though.

I’ll get there someday.

Communist – Richard Ford

Even before my son was born I thought about how my parents behaved in their life when I was an infant, a baby, a child and young boy.
In what I am beginning to realize now as what was the last true/honest lucid discussion between my father and I in a motel room back in 2003, – before Alzheimer’s kicked into a degree that we could all clearly recognize, I was able to get the last few details I needed to complete the picture of what my father’s life was like as a new father and husband.
It was enough detail to solidify the pissed-off disposition I carried towards him several years before the discussion, and continue to carry today.
I’m able to keep those feelings neatly compartmentalized and draw upon the emotions they stir when I need to…but I don’t see the necessity to live daily with them in my life.
I suppose that I’ll wrestle with the damage of the divorce for the rest of my life. I’ve accepted that…soooo I’ll deal with it.
During several of our long evening walks as M and I discussed the timing and possibilities of starting a family, I’d drag out into the conversation the almost disbelief I had at my father’s behavior when he was 33-38. Now I know there are two parties involved in a divorce, and in the past I’ve said pretty much nothing about the role that my mother played in that whole affair. She factors into the decision that they made…but if I were to break it out and assign percentages of blame, I’d say it was 90% him 10% her. That measly 10% is also probably why I hardly mention her in these posts…she of course was a huge influence in my upbringing but at this time is my writing…I cannot bring her into this space – not yet.
I like to think that M and I are making better decisions and have established a better relationship than my parents had when my sister and I were young.
The relationships that the main character has in this short with the adult characters drove me to think about the future with my son and wonder about our relationship. It caused me to wonder about the relationship he will have with his mother.
It made me think about what my mother felt as she worked hard to raise my sister and I as my father spent hours and hours away from home…working.
It made me think about my mother and I after the divorce – our relationship.
The weight she carried the responsibility to care for two young children – alone.

Gossip – Frank Conroy

Frank Conroy - January 15, 1936 – April 6, 2005

Another really good short.

As Carver promised…a story to show us what it was and is like out there.

This story covers several decades but there was a particular piece that I related to.

A section of this story deals with the main character as a professor. A female student of the character/professor is a victim of some gossip linking her romantically/sexually with the professor…and there we have the storyline that I can understand.

It was difficult during my time in Romania to keep the gossip about me under control. In fact, there was no controlling it. I was able to keep the gossip concerning my romantic affairs to a minimum. Just a minimum…not completely under control.

I worked hard to make sure that I was not seen in the company of girls or women. I was careful not to be alone in classrooms with female students. Lines would be drawn and assumptions made.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there were ample opportunities early in my time at the school where I could have established myself as man of many women…but I knew of the negative consequences associated with such a label.

Plus, I think I have a pretty realistic view of the world, and I know my place in it, and the reality of it is, that the fact that I was an American in the village only polished to a pretty decent shine what is underneath…a pretty average guy.

It was difficult for M and I to completely hide our relationship once we took that step, and we knew that tongues were wagging, but we worked our hardest to make our relationship look professional. Honestly, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure everyone knew.

Mid-summer of 2000, when the notice of our marriage appeared outside of the mayor’s office, everyone’s assumptions were proven true and our daily walks around town caused eyes to settle on us just a bit longer and the whispers and smiles to increase just a bit more.

Just as the student in this story felt the weight of the gossip, I’m sure that M and her family felt the weight of our relationship and marriage much more than I did or will probably ever know.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Star Food – Ethan Canin

Well, I suppose I should have expected that it would happen.

-Shit…I missed a story.

So here I am, plowing through 1986… coming across some really good stories, start to look up a little about the author and I’m getting pretty excited, because this is a great story and a great writer. I then read the short bio on the author in the back of The BASS and it mentions that the author had a story in the 1985 volume. Strange… I thought, I don’t remember the name, and I don’t remember looking him up several months ago when I would have written about him.

Shit…I missed one.

I skipped over a story in 1985. I’ll insert the story I missed as soon as I can find the time to red and think about it. I don’t suppose it’ll be the last time I miss a story.

One quick thing about Canin and Star Food.

I really enjoyed this story. It’s one that I am sure will kick around in my memory for a long time.


“It seemed you could never really know another person. I felt alone in the world, in the way that makes me aware of sound and temperature,…”

My son lies on his back, on our bed, furiously kicking his legs and I can feel his toes brushing across my chest as I lean over him with my ear pressed against his chest.

Between his sharp quick breaths I can make out the rapid beat of his heart and I swear that the swish I hear is the blood being pushed through that powerful little muscle.

He pauses for a moment, his feet pressed up against my chest, his breathing stopped, as I assign the thought to him, “Dad…what are you doing to me?”

The pause lasts about 2 seconds and the swift kicking and rapid breathing begins again and I support myself above him looking deep into his eyes…forcing him to look into my eyes.

I know the power I have to force him to return my stare will be over in a matter of months when he has the strength to flip onto his back and turn and twist away from me.

When he has the ability to crawl away from me, to walk away from me, to run away from me and finally to drive away from me.

M and I laugh at the swift almost constant kicking he does but we know that once he becomes vertical…

I look into my little sons eyes quite a bit. I know what I am doing. I am attempting to see into the future. I want to know what we will talk about in the future. Will we talk? Will he have questions? Will I have the answers to his questions?

When I read these stories in the BASS, stories of sons and fathers, stories of mothers and sons, stories of families…I can’t help but also think about how I would have received these stories two years ago when having a son wasn’t even on the table.

It’s stories like Star Food that really serve what this whole exercise is about for me.

Again…from Carver’s introduction:

I hope people will read these stories for pleasure and amusement, for solace, courage – for whatever reasons people turn to literature – and will find in them something that will not just show us how we live now (though a writer could do worse than set his sights on this goal), but something else as well: a sense of union maybe, an aesthetic feeling of correctness, nothing less, really, than beauty given form and made visible in the incomparable way only short stories can do. I hope readers will find themselves interested and maybe even moved from time to time by what they find herein. Because if short story writing, along with the reading of short stories, doesn’t have to do with any of these matters, then what is it we are all doing, what is it we are about, pray tell? And why are we gathered here?"

You see, here I find myself once again struggling to know it all…to know everything about my son…now and in the days that haven’t even arrived.

But Canin writes:

“It seemed you could never really know another person. I felt alone in the world, in the way that makes me aware of sound and temperature,…”

And I felt a bit of that as I pulled my ear away from my son’s chest. An act later analyzed by me as an attempt to learn and glimpse into his soul.

It's Official - I'm Crazy.

I have a strange need to gather and organize data.
As you can see on my sidebar I have a few databases which list the contents of The Best American Short Stories and Glimmer Train magazine.
Now, I have now initiated my largest and possibly longest project yet.
I'm going to tackle the fiction published in The New Yorker. I've done the math and this could take well over a year IF I am able to make 30 entries into the sheet a day.

I had to recalculate my completion date after I discovered that in earlier issues there is no table of contents AND there are several pieces of fiction per issue.

I am working backwards from 2011 and I have completed through January 2008. I've only been at it a few days so I am satisfied with my progress so far.

Here is a screen shot of my sheet - I don't plan on making this public on Google Docs until it is complete...and then I will ask for help in pointing out errors and missed stories.

You can click on the image to see a slightly larger picture.