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Friday, February 29, 2008
Thursday, February 28, 2008
I'll let you know.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Monday, February 25, 2008
"Our panel of Peer Review Bloggers has made frequent visits to your site, hopeful of pinpointing some trend either in your use of graphics or language or a combination of both that would allow them to offer you specific, positive suggestions for increasing your traffic.
One of our panel of Peer Review Bloggers, upon returning from your site, left his work area and we have not heard from her since. Two others fell asleep as a consequence of visiting your site, and yet another simply refused to talk about the experience: he simply said "I don't want to talk about it." Of those remaining Peer Reviewers, one is now being treated for amnesia and another is in the Blogger dot com anger management program.
The only clue we found that might address the source of your problem seemed embedded in the subtitle of your blog site, which purports to be in some way about the process of writing. Our demographic studies lead us to conclude that readers do not have any interest in problems or discussions related to writing. They would rather have information on something more specific such as which fish bite at which bait, where to get the best prices on sushi, and which persons in a specific neighborhood may have been married more than three times, which in many states is simply too much.
....We try our best to help bloggers, but not all of us have the temperament or indeed the talent for blogging. If you visit us at the Blogger dot com site and click on the menu choice Help, you will be directed to our Recovery Group Online Sessions, which can help you move beyond not having the make-up for blogging and introduce you to the challenging world of online games."
*Courtesy of the Individual Voice.
Sunday, February 24, 2008
- There's a creepy 27-point general defense of rejection at The Willesden Herald Blog, which I assume is due to the recent Zadie Smith debacle.
- Eliot--A Literary Blog has an interesting article entitled "The Power of Push: Motivating Yourself to Write"
- The Ranting Room Blog follows the rejection and publication history of a work in several parts.
- PutaRuffleonIt Blog posts about encountering rejection editors in person, plus links to other posts about rejection.
- Children's book author Eloise Greenfield is interviewed about rejection and other literary matters over at the Brown Bookshelf Blog. She says: "My road to publication was long, and not surprisingly, filled with rejections. These were the low points, but not too low-- I was optimistic (although I did shed a few tears)."
Saturday, February 23, 2008
Friday, February 22, 2008
I always feel a little sad when a good literary magazine goes under.
Dear Writer (complaining about missing published books sent in with submission):
Assistant to Nina Collins
Hawaii Nursing Jobs Travel Nurses - Top Pay & Benefits Free Private Housing - Apply Now! www.americantraveler.com
Hi [name of agent],
Thank you for giving me an exclusive on this; I really appreciate it. I wish I could say that I just fell in love with it, but I didn't feel connected to the characters. I certainly see the potential, but in this tough climate enthusiasm has to be high, especially for fiction. Good luck, and thanks again. I hope you find a nice home for [name of author]. And I hope you'll try me again soon--for nonfiction as well fiction.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
2) If you are an editor or agent who reads this blog, why not send in your favorite rejection story anonymously? Surely some crazy writer once stalked you, cried at you, later became famous and proved you wrong?
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Seems a little unseemly to me. What do you guys think -- legit or lame?
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Notably, the rejection was for Pym's book An Unsuitable Attachment which was the first of her novels to be rejected by publishers after she'd become established as a published author. The book was considered too "old fashioned." It was published in 1982 after her death.
Monday, February 18, 2008
Sunday, February 17, 2008
The old writer, like all of the people in the world, had got, during his long life, a great many notions in his head. He had once been quite handsome and a number of women had been in love with him. And then, of course, he had known people, many people, known them in a peculiarly intimate way that was different from the way in which you and I know people. At least that is what the writer thought and the thought pleased him. Why quarrel with an old man concerning his thoughts?
In the bed the writer had a dream that was not a dream. As he grew somewhat sleepy but was still conscious, figures began to appear before his eyes. He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes.
You see the interest in all this lies in the figures that went before the eyes of the writer. They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques.
The grotesques were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness. When she passed he made a noise like a small dog whimpering. Had you come into the room you might have supposed the old man had unpleasant dreams or perhaps indigestion. For an hour the procession of grotesques passed before the eyes of the old man, and then, although it was a painful thing to do, he crept out of bed and began to write. Some one of the grotesques had made a deep impression on his mind and he wanted to describe it.
At his desk the writer worked for an hour. In the end he wrote a book which he called 'The Book of the Grotesque.' It was never published, but I saw it once and it made an indelible impression on my mind. The book had one central thought that is very strange and has always remained with me. By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before. The thought was involved but a simple statement of it would be something like this:
That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.
The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.
And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
This is a moment:"
- Eliot--A Literary Blog posted an interesting article about remaining committed and letting go, rejection and unpublished novel, and marathon sneakers. The article is called 26.2 Marathons. It's a good read.
- Some advice for writers who would actually consider trying to argue agents out of rejections at Rachelle Gardner's blog.
- Grisham's 15 reported rejections at A Barbaric Yawp
Friday, February 15, 2008
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
- The New York Observer reports this week that O.J. Simpson's former sports agent is publishing a book entitled How I Helped O.J. Get Away with Murder. I guess it's no wonder you can't get your book published. Media Bistro's GalleyCat covers the item with an article called "Because We Really Need Another O.J. Book."
- In other news, The New York Times reports that novelist Richard Ford is leaving Knopf after 17-years to join HarperCollins. His agent, the equally famous Binky Urban, said, “It was a long and fruitful relationship with Knopf, and regrettably we couldn’t come to terms.” You have to wonder how many millions she was bucking for, right?
- I finished my novel....again.
Monday, February 11, 2008
February 10, 2008
We really appreciate your past entry in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, and we hope your recent writing has brought you creative satisfaction and an increased knowledge of the unique, magnetically appealing (and sometimes maddening) craft of writing. Please consider this your invitation to submit your work to our 2008 competition.
Our final deadline remains May 15, as in past years, and our prizes remain the same as well: $1,000 cash to the first-place winner, $500 apiece to the second- and third-place winners, and honorable mentions to other promising writers.
You may have seen notices in literary publications about our 2007 winner. Bruce Overby, a part-time technical communications consultant and graduate student from Los Altos, California, earned the $1,000 first prize for "Bookmarks." Chosen from among 905 submissions, "Bookmarks" is about a well-educated alcoholic man whose love of poetry brings him solace and eventual redemption after his sister's death. The story impressed Lorian and her judges for its subtle power, tightly controlled phrasing and flawless prose.
This past year, Lorian has spoken about the competition and the quality of its entrants' work in numerous national and international print and television interviews. She continues to work on her new book and may even showcase a small portion of it during the July literary readings held in conjunction with the short story awards.
For more information about the competition, we encourage you to visit our website at www.shortstorycompetition.com. There you'll find more information and some top stories from previous years. We rotate the stories regularly, so please keep checking back to the site.
To be eligible for our 2008 competition, stories must be original, unpublished, typed and double-spaced, and 3,000 words or less. There are no theme restrictions, but only works of fiction will be considered. Your name should not appear on the stories, manuscripts are not returned, and you retain all rights to your work. (Please note that we can't accept e-mailed entries.) Entries from non-U.S. writers are welcome.
Since the contest is dedicated to recognizing emerging writers, it is open only to those whose fiction hasn't appeared in a nationally distributed publication with a circulation of 5,000 or more. First-place winners from previous years are not eligible to enter.
Each story should be accompanied by a cover sheet with your name, complete address, e-mail address, phone number, title of the piece and word count.
For the first time since 1981, we have slightly increased our entry fee. The fee is now $12 for each story postmarked by May 1, 2008, and $17 for each story postmarked from May 2 through May 15. Entries postmarked after May 15 will not be accepted. All manuscripts and fees should be sent to the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, P.O. Box 993, Key West, FL 33041.
Winners will be announced in late July in Key West, and all entrants will receive a letter from Lorian (via snail mail or e-mail) and a list of winners by October 1.
We hope to find a new piece from you among this year's entries. Most of all, we hope you continue to find joy in developing your voice as a writer.
We'll be contacting our writers now and then with e-mail updates. If you don't want to receive them, please reply to this e-mail with "LHSS remove" in your response's subject line, and we will remove your name from our e-mail list.
All the best,
Carol Shaughnessy and Joanne Denning
Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Friday, February 8, 2008
The Online Journalism Review has an article about a unique site for writers called reportist.com. It's kind of like an ebay for journalists:
"Imagine a place where journalists could pitch stories as soon as they hit 'save.' Where editors could snap them up just as quickly for printing in tomorrow's paper. Imagine a reporting network built on trust, where both editors and journalists could accrete bodies of work tagged with endorsements and feedback. Is an eBay of news viable? And ultimately, will it deliver news to readers more quickly and more cheaply?"
Presto. No rejections. Your pitch is either snapped up or it languishes. Now if only someone would think up a place like this for the literary arts. To read more about the site go to the Reporterist Blog.
Thursday, February 7, 2008
I got the following note today, so I thought I'd post it, but I have to say, I find it ironic that now literary mags are writing to me for help. Maybe I can interest The L Mag (not The L-Word) in publishing one of our two brave rejected writers who put their work up on this site for all to judge. Wouldn't that be cool?
Here's the note, for what it's worth:
Dear Writer, Rejected:
I wanted to alert you and your readers to a new opportunity to have their work rejected. (Or not?) The L's Magazine's fourth annual Literary Upstart: The Search for Pocket Fiction competition — writers submit to be invited to read at one of our events in front of a panel of judges including the New Yorker's Ben Greenman as well as agents and editors, and to have their work published in the L — is now taking submissions. We believe Lit Up is a fine showcase for and celebration of the true talent lurking amid New York City's teeming creative underclass, and a very fine excuse to get drunk.
Our official Announcement, guidelines, and Call for Submissions is pasted below and included as an attached Word Doc; it's also online at thelmagazine.com/lmag_blog/blog/post__02050801.cfm
Call for Submissions: The L Magazine Wants Your Short Fiction
Following the enormous success of our first three competitions, The L Magazine is proud to announce the fourth annual Literary Upstart, The Search for Pocket Fiction.
Writers are encouraged to submit their best short fiction (maximum of 1,500 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. Semi-finalists will be asked to participate in one of three live readings at a dark and writerly NYC tavern, where they’ll square off in front of a live audience and a panel of judges that’s composed entirely of members of the local literati, including our Distinguished Spokesjudge, the New Yorker‘s Ben Greenman (previous judges have come from Random House/Doubleday and the Curtis Brown Agency).
Three semi-finalists will advance to our final reading in June, where they’ll have the opportunity to win a cash prize, gift certificates from various sponsors, and, of course, the admiration of his/her peers. The three semi-finalists will also be published in The L Magazine’s annual Summer Fiction Issue, which has previously featured stories by Jonathan Ames, Darin Strauss, Ned Vizzini and others.
Submission deadlines are on a rolling basis for the three semifinal readings, which will be held in the spring and early summer.
Entries (please limit yourself to two submissions) should be polished little labors of love of no more than 1,500 previously un-published words. Content, style, subject, et cetera is at the discretion of the writer.
Kindly email submissions as an attached Word document in a standard, 12-point font to: email@example.com.
You can also send a hard copy of your story (please include your email address) via post to:
The L Magazine
20 Jay Street, Ste. 207
Brooklyn, NY 11201
While curlicues and bubble fonts make us blush, they also make our poor eyes bleed, so please keep it simple and please double space. Please include your name, the title of your story, and your email address, at least on the first page your story and perhaps even on subsequent pages.
Last, but not least, please remember that the live readings are a major component of this competition, so if you're not living in the NYC area or cannot arrange to be here for a reading or two between March and June, you may wish to reconsider submitting your work.
The L Magazine
Here's another much-rejected story that's been slightly disguised by the author (plus title withheld) for your consideration. Does it merit publishing?
Sandra and Janice sat on the bed, memorizing what they could of Marion, who, now dying, seemed nothing like the woman who’d given them life. The days slipped by quickly, and yet it all seemed absurdly slow. Weeks of the same; slack jaw and fever with no movement whatsoever, so that even hoping for something––progress in either direction––seemed cruel. Time threaded apart and added confusion. They might as well still have been little girls, perched on the bed frame, waiting for their mother to wake and make them breakfast, take them swimming. They sat on the bottom half of a pilly hospital blanket, ankles tucked under, knees splayed. They were all grown up, and yet, now, presiding over their mother's dying body, it didn’t seem so.
"What about a priest?" Sandra finally said. "Maybe Mother would want one?”
“Mrs. Robertson,” Janice said, speaking loudly into her mother’s ear. “Do you want a priest?”
It took most of Marion’s energy to reach the surface of consciousness, what was left of it—life was so fragile now—but she managed to wave off the suggestion. She wanted nothing of religion. Not any more, not now. She made the gesture again, bony arm barely lifting off the bed, fingers flicked decisively and suspended in air. How lovely, Marion thought; communication with her daughters should always have been so clear, so well executed.
“Take it easy, Mrs. Robertson,” Janice said, still very loud. “It’s not your fault."
Marion hadn't spoken for days; the sound of her voice, strained and sickly, came as a surprise. “Of course it’s not my fault.”
Janice touched her sister’s arm, as if in the act of reaching out for their mother she'd somehow missed the mark. “It’s okay, Mrs. Robertson. We're here."
“Yes, here,” Marion said, or maybe just thought. “But not going very well.”
Sandra jumped to her feet. “Should we call for the doctor?”
These revivals were alarming, although they’d been warned that the process of dying was anything but linear. Some people get very lucid just before they go, Dr. Alberts had said. Janice hated his euphemisms –– just before they go –– “Go where?” she'd wanted to say. Sandra, on the other hand, hated everything but these comforting bits of wisdom from the doctors. There was so much to hate: the slow decline, the hushed conversations, the way her mother's wardrobe underwent a metamorphosis. Bulky gold amulets, jaunty knit slack suits –– usually navy blue or lime green –– and something like soft leather hiking boots. Who but their mother would treat cancer as an excuse for a make-over? And yet there she was acting as if it were a minor inconvenience that warranted immediate updating of clothes and attitude. She insisted on being dropped off at her Chemo treatments, rather than accompanied? “Wait in the car,” she demanded, as if she were only running into the deli to get a loaf of bread. “It'll just take a few minute.”
Now in the bed, Marion flapped her eyes at the ceiling.
Sandra, about to enter her second trimester of pregnancy with twins, looked around frightened. “What should we do?”
“It’s just a little burst of energy,” Janice said. “Isn’t that right, Mrs. Robertson?”
Marion’s voice was like fine grade sandpaper. “Why is everyone yelling?”
“Extremes,” Janice said in a normal voice. “It’s what we’ve come to.”
Later, when they'd all gone home for the night, Marion thought it over. Her family came often, stayed late, said little –– a sure sign. And here it was, unexpectedly, a moment alone.
“What's not my fault?” Marion said aloud. She was thinking about the fact that once she had loved another man as much, if not more, than she loved her husband Richard.
The night nurse sighed deeply and took Marion's temperature. “None of it is your fault, dear. Really, not a thing.”
Sandra didn’t want the babies’ names to rhyme.
“Of course not, sweetheart,” her father said on the way back to the hospital after an emergency appointment with the obstetrician when it seemed like something might be wrong. “Why would you?”
Outside, the weather was mild, Indian summer. Good for business, Sandra's husband, Paul, had said. Paul Pirot Construction did its best work in dry weather, and timing was everything. Paul wanted to work as much as possible, so he could be around when the twins were born. Still, Sandra felt bad about prevailing upon her father for transportation, especially now, of all times, when her mother was so ill. But there was bleeding, and an appointment was made early in the day.
“A couple of stitches to the cervix,” the obstetrician had said cheerfully, “and those babies will stay right in place!”
Seated across from an educational model of little matching fetuses, Sandra’s father seemed pale and tired.
In the car Sandra said, “Daddy, they're going to sew me up like a sack of flour.”
He patted her hand. “Don't worry, Princess. Everything will be fine.”
Sandra could feel the babies moving under her ribs, heartburn wearing tennis shoes. She missed being thin and light on her feet. Missed her elastic figure and the appearance of youth, though she was 34 and beginning to wrinkle around the eyes. She missed spin class and making love with Paul on Saturday morning, because now she was too nervous. Her skin felt tight as football leather, which seemed to prompt her new favorite phrase, which she uttered all the time, even when no one was around: If you touch me I’ll pop.
Her father turned expertly against traffic into the hospital lot. He pulled into a parking spot several yards from the entrance. “Put the seat back and lie flat. I just want to check on your mother.”
“I'm starving,” Sandra said.
“Cafeteria?” her father offered brightly. “One toasted cheese and chocolate shake coming up!”
Sandra watched her father traverse the neat black pavement, heading toward Emergency, a short cut Janice had discovered after their mother’s first terrible surgery, which ended when they sewed her back up without even attempting to remove any tumors. When at last Sandra’s father seemed a safe distance, Sandra took from her purse a pack of Marlboro Lights and a can of Lysol. It was a soft day late in September, unusually pleasant. The parking lot was surprisingly busy.
Opening the car door wide, Sandra lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, reviewing the facts. On the ninth floor of the mammoth brick building, which had come to feel familiar now, her mother was dying, which had given her sister a reason to pull herself together emotionally. As usual, the crisis had become yet another excuse for the two of them (Janice and her mother) to gang up on Sandra, to all but obliterate the otherwise happy news that she was giving birth to twins. Her mother had always wanted babies.
Sandra let the realization drift into smoke.
When it came to family dynamics, Sandra was always the one who got the short end of the stick. For instance, when their mother carried on like a teenager with the junior high school principal, who at a tender age was employed to act as cover? Who turned a blind eye, sated with secret ice-cream sundaes and long afternoons at the movie or mall? All that subterfuge turned Sandra, the baby of the family, bitter at an early age. When things went downhill with Principal Howe, and their mother was secretly broken hearted, who acted as confidant, keeping it all under raps, so Daddy wouldn’t find out?
Sandra sighed, remembering how Janice had escaped the entire sordid mess by being a moody teenager, a normal high school girl with love interests of her own and friends who drove cars that could take her away. A matter of timing, or just plain luck.
Even as adults, Sandra carried the brunt of the responsibility. For instance, when Janice suffered from nervous exhaustion after her divorce, sleeping on Mother’s sofa and heading straight for a nervous breakdown, who suggested she see a shrink, someone unrelated entirely to Janice’s ex, a man she married after years of seeing him as an analyst? And did Sandra ever criticize or say I told you so, while Janice ran around the house, straightening the bedspreads and aligning the fringe on Mother’s throw rugs? Instead she kindly suggested medication. But was there ever any room for her in her mother or her sister’s life? Did they ever offer her constructive criticism, or God forbid, a helping hand?
And now there was this ––– her mother’s discovery of cancer exactly coinciding with Sandra’s first happy moments of double gestation.
“Jesus,” she said to herself in the empty car. “I really can’t catch a break.”
All in all, pregnancy was worse than expected. The stress and gas made Sandra feel like drinking again. Not real drinking, like when she was in college and used to wake up with naked people she didn’t even know: cab drivers, professors, and once a woman from town. Not like after college, when she used to drive the car to Connecticut and wake up in jail. This was different; she longed for the pleasure of a lovely red wine, something mellow to calm the nerves. A glass of Merlot would be good. She’d heard the Australians had perfected the art sometime after she’d gotten sober. Why not? Sandra thought. People do it all the time. She didn’t tell Paul because he’d only worry. They’d met each other at AA, after all, a fact that Sandra tried to downplay around her family because she could just imagine the kind of conversation her parents would pursue:
“Sandra and Paul go to AA together, Richard," her mother, all whispery and conspiratorial. “You know alcoholics anonymous.”
“I’ll drink to that!” Her father lifting his scotch glass cheerfully.
Her mother, bemused: “Alcoholics don’t have a sense of humor, darling. Let’s just keep this little tidbit entrez nous.”
Sandra could also picture her mother’s distress in conjuring up all sorts of terrible images: a smoky little circle of alcoholics in the basement of the local church, confession about a lousy childhood, a lousy life. Her mother had somehow managed to twist Sandra’s teenage drinking into an accusation, as if Sandra had manufactured some irrefutable proof of early neglect or emotional abuse. Anyway, she wasn’t really going to drink, and no one knew about the smoking.
Paul would be horrified to know. He wanted to elope: “I think the twins should have parents who are married.”
The generic reference to their babies as ‘the twins’ irked her. “Loving parents is all any human being needs.”
Sandra stepped outside the car for a moment, although the doctor told her not to stand up at all until after the procedure. “They might just fall right out of there,” the nurse had joked in a way Sandra didn’t appreciate. She stubbed out her cigarette on her father's tire and flicked the nub across a Subaru Wagon parked to her left. She hadn’t seen the driver approaching on foot, loaded down by a huge black purse the size of a suitcase. The woman was small and dressed in a red coat with incongruent white running shoes.
“Oh sorry,” Sandra said.
The woman gave her a dirty look.
“What? You’ve never seen somebody expecting twins before?” She sprayed Lysol directly into the air near her father’s car.
The woman looked stunned. She was younger than Sandra, despite the matronly outfit. “It’s cruel, you know,” the woman said, trembling. “Some people would give anything.”
Sandra slammed the car door and felt bad. Some people, she thought, jamming a stick of Double Mint into her mouth.
When Marion woke again it was dark. Richard was there, sitting by the bed, reading aloud from the paper. Leave it to Richard to think of the New York Times at a moment like this, and yet the more she listened, floating in and out of wars and crimes, political scandals –– even bridal announcements! –– the happier she was knowing that there were people around to carry on. Someone had to be responsible. The others, Marion thought, unable to stop herself from wondering about God. She’d been expecting this kind of reasoning to surface; it was predictable, drivel that brings comfort to the unquestioning: her daughter Sandra, for instance. Well, certainly she didn’t begrudge her daughter a faith in the higher power or whatever it is she believed in these days.
But no, Marion didn’t want God.
She hadn’t needed Him while giving birth to her girls (Life! after all Creation!), or while going through the battering ram of every day life. She wouldn’t need him now. Besides, who was to say who God was? Maybe she was God. Or Gerald Howe, Principal at Westchester Middle School, and in truth the only man she’d ever desired with every inch of her mature body. They’d made passionate love on the living room sofa, where they were caught in the act one afternoon by Sandra, a mere child, at the time, disguised as a budding teenager. Maybe God was the look of awe and disgust on a teenager’s face. Or the pain Marion felt when Gerald broke things off. Or maybe God is Richard, the patience nad loyalty of a humble man, Marion thought, listening to Richard drone on now about the stock market, as if she were perfectly well and able to chat with him over evening cocktails. Sweet predictable Richard. There it was before her now: the delicate shape of his skull showing through thinning hair. There were his nostril hairs stirring gently as he dozed off at the end of the paragraph about the downfall of Internet companies. He'd been so patient with her through the years. Richard! His ears protruding comically and wrinkling slightly at the lobe. She knew those ears better than she knew herself, and maybe that –– that exact feeling of knowing –– maybe that was God.
Marion tried to fend off the undertow of morphine.
In her cloudy mind, a memory floated up, phone message playing quietly, Sandra’s voice: Not your little girl anymore, Daddy.
“I should say not,” Marion had said, standing by the answering machine after her second round of Chemo. “Hell of a way to announce the future.”
“She’s eloping?” Richard looked stunned, hurt. He replayed the message twice more. It clearly stated that Sandra was running off to marry Paul and that no one in the family was invited.
In those days, Marion could clock the hours before she started feeling ill; she still had a little more time. “I suppose a private affair is better in her condition.”
“We’re really not invited?” Richard didn’t have much of a poker face. He paced around the room silently, mulling the insult, before giving in completely. He sighed deeply and muttered something about saving a bundle.
Marion patted his back. “That's the spirit, dear.”
Now, she lay in the hospital bed, dreaming of Gerald Howe, who’d broken things off so completely 17 years ago that it still took her breath away to call up the pain he had caused her. She remembered the sad sweet words he’d spoken during their last phone conversation: Darling, did you really think we could go on like this forever? He loved his wife; he’d taken a vow. By constitution, he was no habitual liar. Besides, they both had children and marriages to protect. It was absurd, and yet somehow completely forgivable that in fact Marion did believe that they could on forever, couldn’t help it, really. Yes, she’d said. Why not? No one ever has to know. Besides, if anyone could pull it off, we can.
Good-bye, Darling, he’d whispered with conviction. Don’t call here again.
In her most recent dream, Gerald arrived for lunch, as if no years had passed, and Marion tried not to focus on the obvious questions: What was she doing there, riddled with cancer? Could she possibly sit in a restaurant with Gerald Howe with tumors spreading like beach pebbles along the banks of her colon? Could she order wine and laugh about the good old days, which maybe (now that she’s had some years to think about it) weren't so good after all? In the dream, she carried on gracefully, ordering chicken Picatta, smiling over a white tablecloth and a setting of decent China. When her meal came, she ate silently, relishing the food, which had been served on a platter by Sandra wearing a black tuxedo –– two small pieces of chicken stuffed inside two tiny wooden boxes, shaped like little coffins.
Most everything seemed pointless now. The aids came by anyway to make Marion choke down a few driblets of applesauce and mashed potato. Squatting like sheep at the gate of her bed, they counted and measured every drop that went in, and, mortifyingly, every drop that came out. On the morning of whatever day came next, Marion brought up the soft substance in a mess on her gown, and suddenly remembered her father, now long dead. Once he'd taken her ice skating, long ago, it must have been, though she could see him kneeling at the foot of the bed to help her tie up her boots, a grown woman wearing Peggy Flemming powder-pink skates. This is what they want from you, Marion thought angrily, realizing her mistake. A Lifetime TV version of dying. Her father cared very little for her; that's what she should remember. The present, not the past; that's what she should catalog.
She tore the I.V. out of her arm and threw it in the air.
“Now, now, dear,” said the private day nurse Richard had hired. She was blonde and young, but had little patience for disturbances.
“Yes, I know,” Marion screamed. “Now! Now!”
Later, when the sedative wore off, Marion managed to identify the exact indignant feeling: It's an insult.
“We know, Mrs. Robertson,” Janice said, as if she could read minds. “No one likes it very much.”
Janice had taken on the role as family spokesperson, making grand pronouncements over afternoon milkshakes from the cafeteria and hurried dinners of Chinese take-out. I don't think Mrs. Robertson would want anyone giving up. And, We really ought to take turns rubbing her back and holding her feet. It was just like Janice to assume leadership, Marion thought proudly, ignoring as best she could her quirks. She’d been calling her Mrs. Robertson since the fifth grade. Affectionately, of course, Marion reminded herself, aware of the early signs of mental illness. Still Janice had come a long way since the divorce and her most recent nervous breakdown. She was even talking about moving back out on her own again and dating, always a positive step under any circumstances.
She hadn't meant that the insult was the cancer, or the cancer treatments. It wasn't even the cold certainty of dying, but the insufferable act of a lazy mind producing some sentimentalized idea about what was happening. (Is this happening? She thought, Oh my God.) She tried to concentrate: What is this like? What is the experience of dying like minus the violins?
“What do you think it means, Daddy?” Sandra said, leaning in and observing her mother's grimace.
Sandra’s husband Paul was the one who answered. “I think she’s smiling.”
Sandra leaned her head on Paul's shoulder. He was so gentle, even when he was wrong. He patted her burgeoning stomach timidly, as if to say, How are my twins? It was nice to be able to read someone’s mind. The stitches had worked; the babies were fine. She whispered in his ear: “Do you know what the last thing my mother said to me was?”
Paul shook his head.
She leaned in to whisper again, and this time smelled the familiar fragrance of his hair: sweat and soap. “She told me: Love hard, baby.”
“Love's hard?” Paul crinkled his nose.
“No,” Sandra laughed. “It was a command.”
“Oh,” Paul said, still looking confused.
Janice checked the morphine drip, and looked at Paul and Sandra. “What are you two whispering about?”
Sandra shook her head, returning her gaze to the bed. There lay her mother, completely unembellished, bald. She seemed to disappear into the white hospital sheets. It was more of what Sandra had expected from the start, and there was a certain comfort in having the moment finally arrive. In fact, during the months of chemotherapy, Sandra had hated how normal it all seemed, how misleading. Her mother fully dressed, sitting up and chatting with a nurse, as if she were getting her nails done. Tuesday had been her regular treatment day; funny that Sandra should think of that now. (Today was Tuesday, she realized.) Before long, her mother had known everyone by name and diagnosis. Having won the fight to accompany her inside, Janice and Sandra trailed her through the waiting room, each with a cup of chocolatey coffee from Starbucks.
Behind a white curtain, Marion motioned to the cup of coffee in Sandra's hand. “That stuff's going to kill you.” But before Sandra got a chance to pretend it was Decaf, Janice butted in. She motioned to the clear bag of 5FU hanging on a silver post above Marion's head. “Ditto to you, too, Mrs. R.”
Marion smiled. “You always were the witty one, Janice.”
“I'm serious, Mrs. Robertson. Why don't you try something alternative: acupuncture or Chinese herbs? That stuff's going to kill you before it stops any tumors.”
“This is just the Benadryl,” Marion said. “The toxic stuff comes next.”
Janice felt her mother's arm in the splint. “It's so cold.”
Everyone at the treatment center loved Marion, and praised her for being brave. The other patients stopped in behind Marion's curtain, patting Sandra sympathetically and asking questions, eyes lighting up at the mention of twins, as if the treatment room were one big family room. Cancer reunion, Sandra thought, where some relatives die chatting about weather. The only grim proof of reality was the tube dripping poison into her mother’s arm. Even though Sandra had started to warm toward her mother during those final weeks of chemo, she sometimes just wanted the whole thing to end.
Do something, Sandra thought, hold her hand, tell her a secret––anything!
Finally she managed a confession: “Paul wants to name the babies Daniel and Anabel.”
“Danny and Annie?” Marion snorted.
Janice looked alarmed. “Don't do that horrible rhyming thing, Sandra. You'll totally regret it.”
Sandra shrugged. “I'm not going to. But do you have any ideas?”
“Well now, let's see,” Marion said.
In the silence, Sandra cleared her throat.
Janice sighed; her divorce had gone through and she was sliding down a slippery slope. Marion leaned forward, wistfully patting Janice's hand. “Oh buck up, Sweetheart. All men are shits.”
“Perhaps you might have mentioned that earlier," Janice said. “Like before I got married.”
Sandra spread her hand out over her lap and looked at the beautiful antique diamond ring from Paul's dead grandmother. She saw the sweet-faced old woman from the photograph on Paul's piano beaming out at her and felt comforted.
Her mother smiled. “Never too late to become a lesbian, dear.”
A passing nurse chuckled.
Sandra looked up, suddenly panicked. “You don't mean Daddy, though, do you? Daddy's not a shit.”
“No, no, not Daddy,” said both Janice and Marion at the same time.
“Of course Daddy is a little absent at times,” Marion said, as an afterthought.
“Yeah,” Janice added. “Like when you really need him.”
Sandra's eyes filled with tears, which she knew had to do with the hormones of the pregnancy. Nothing else happened until the oncologist came by, stepping behind the white curtain to deliver yet more bad news.
Later, when the residents came around with tubes to thread down Marion’s throat, she realized that dying was a lot like living, except there were fewer obligations. Death was like life but without banking, dishes and radio stations. No Q-tips, Marion reasoned, though she wouldn't miss them –– not now.
“Is she trying to say something?” Janice asked.
“Maybe we should take dinner out to the hall?” That was Sandra, ever timid.
“Nonsense,” said Richard. The only word he'd spoken in days.
Marion knew that Richard thought all this was somehow his fault. Just this afternoon he'd ordered another day on the feeding tube; he couldn't figure out how to let go. (At least she could still discern that this was an act of love; that must be a good sign.) Richard, she thought, Oh, Richard. Where have you been? He was only now just catching up with her, a race he'd been losing since they'd had the children. Now that it was finally just the two of them, it was unfair of her to leave. A part of her wished she could confess and be forgiven. It was possible that Richard really was wonderful after all. These many years, standing at her side. Maybe. And so maybe she did understand something about love. Maybe just then, at that precise moment, finally. Love and pain—and the space in between ––Richard and Sandra, Janice, and Principal Howe. Maybe she understood in the way that needed no explaining, the way that was beyond all the words she had ever spoken, or ever needed to speak.
Marion's family gathered around the hospital bed, trying to read her lips.
“It must be important,” Sandra said.
“She’s saying she loves her family,” Paul said, assuredly. He held Sandra’s wrist in one hand and a carton of broccoli with garlic sauce in the other, unaware that he sounded sentimental, unconcerned that he knew Marion not at all. “Maybe she just wants you to know.”
“That’s not it,” Sandra answered in her softest correcting tone. “Not our Mother.”
“Sandra’s right,” Janice said. “Daddy, I think she’s saying your name.”
Richard stood: “It’s okay, darling. I’m right here.”
“No, wait,” Janice said, “it looks like something else.”
Even now, Marion was a commanding presence; they could feel her desire to communicate at last. They could see it in the way she thrashed her head with a sort of fevered Anne Sexton appeal. She let her hand remain lifted in air, for no apparent reason, pinky slightly extended. She was still raw, still sexy, even in death; anyone could see it. When she shifted in the bed, opening her eyes suddenly, it looked as if she'd had a revelation. Janice was still clutching a pair of plastic chopsticks; Paul still glancing down at the carton of Chinese. No one said a word. Sandra watched silently along with the others, as Marion's mouth opened and closed, parched and searching, lips puckering noisily, once and again, as if she were blowing kisses good-bye.
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Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Your story is a philosophical allegory, and an excellent one. While it is very well written, it lacks the realism that typifies stories accepted under the present editorial policies. The results stemming from the change in window dressing illustrate a principle rather than a realistic sequence of events. Therefore, while your story is imaginative and compelling, its problem is that it is not suitable for the journal's present needs."
I regret that the Arkansas Review is unable to publish your story. Thank you for your interest in our journal. I wish you success in your writing."
2. I think it could benefit from more developed characters/narrator, and the various aspects of the window dressing transformation (youth and age, excess and [word unintelligible], economics vs spirituality) could be more carefully developed and related. How do the beautiful clothes relate to real beauty? Clearly, there's some specificity in the townspeople's search for beauty (for bodies, drinking, sex) but your narrator is a little too ambiguous, I think, on whether he celebrates or condemns the summertime prosperity. (And what might this ambivalence mean?) Also, there must be a valid reason for the town to be punished, and that is missing.
3. I felt the character of the window dresser would be better served being fleshed out and integrated into the story more.
4. I didn't believe it. The story seems not (sic) have a compelling reason for things to happen as they do. In life this is more than possible. In art it is not possible.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
What do you think? Good enough for publication, or back to the drawing board?
A Change of Season
Howie stood inside his father’s clothing store, brooding about the absence of romance in his life, when a battered Chevy station wagon came to a stop on a street bordering the park. Its color was obscured by a layer of dirt, with only the arcs made by the windshield wipers clear. The young man who got out appeared heavyset inside loose and rumpled clothing. His hair was the same pale shade as his skin, so there was no definite line of demarcation on his skull. He crossed the street to the shops that faced the park, coming to a halt in front of Howard’s Mens and Boys Wear, and began to gaze at the window display.
This in itself was odd, something no one did, and Howard Jr. (known as Howie in the town where he had grown up) watched with suspicion. What was there to see? The display had been the same last summer, when Howie had last stood leaning against a counter of his father’s store, earning his college tuition. Actually, the display was older than a year; it had attained the status of invisibility. It had been created by his father — it was he who had pulled the clothes onto the mannequin’s plastic limbs. Although, thought Howie, “created” was surely not the word to use in reference to the sad assembly in the window.
Or maybe — here a slight smile came to Howie’s lips — the display did reveal a talent. After thirty years of owning the store, maybe that scene was his father’s artistic summing up.
As the stranger moved to another spot on the sidewalk, to get a new perspective, Howie observed the tableau from within, from memory. There were really two displays, one on each side of the entrance. In both, the male mannequins — the boys simply smaller in size than the men, but with the same vacant adult stares — posed in plain and dusty clothes. In some cases these clothes didn’t fit; a socket where wrist hinged to arm was exposed, the cuffs of work pants were gathered in stumpy folds around shoes. No scene was depicted; no story brought these figures together. They stood amid a scattering of props — a four-step ladder, sheet-draped crates — upon which were displayed shirts, pajamas, socks, underwear, all in cellophane wrappers, all covered by dust. Dead flies littered the bare plywood floor.
Howie, his smile fading to a wry twist of contemplation, concluded that, yes, his father had effectively portrayed the desolation of this small town — its stagnation, its emptiness. Plainness, devoid of drama. Its lack, really, of those things Howie had been dreaming of when the station wagon drove up.
The young man entered the store. Howie pushed away from the counter.
“Can I help you?”
“See the owner?”
It seemed an odd economy of words, with only the slightest rise in inflection making it a question. Howie turned, walked to the rear of the store, and went through a door that led to the back rooms. It was where his father often was, carrying on a Sisyphus-like struggle that involved the rearrangement of stock. The closest thing to a vice that Howie had discovered in his father was that he overbought. This weakness was evident in the boxes that had accumulated over many years; the back rooms were dim labyrinths of narrow aisles, with shelves packed to the ceiling. Even in the rest room there was a path to the toilet, and the boxes on both sides revealed, to the seated Howie’s desultory perusal, labels that predated his birth.
Howie located his father by the sounds he emitted. Howard was stuffing a box into an opening over his head. One heel was hooked onto a lower shelf on the opposite aisle, and he grunted with each push.
“Dad, someone to see you.”
Sweating, his shirt sleeves rolled up, Howard preceded his son into the light.
The waiting young man made his offer without overture.
“Do your window for you.”
“What?” asked Howard.
The proposition became clear in the next minute. For the sum of one hundred dollars, the young man would create a new window display.
Howard declined the service.
The young man persisted.
“You give a guarantee?”
Ben Waverly, a sales clerk for fifteen years, shambled up. Even with a customer Ben seldom spoke, as if the ever-present toothpick between his lips limited that function.
“Bring in four-fold,” said the young man.
“Four-fold? Let’s see. I take in five hundred on a good week. That would be two thousand bucks.” Howard turned to his audience, eyebrows raised. “Gentlemen, we’ll soon be on Easy Street.” He looked back at the impassive young man. “What say we do this. You do the window display, I do the business, then I pay you out of the profits.” He again turned to his audience and winked.
The young man shook his head.
“Gone tomorrow and not back till the weather changes. Back for the fall.”
Howard shrugged. “Well, then, it’s no deal. You see, this operation doesn’t bring in enough money to warrant the outlay of a hundred bucks.”
“Because of the window now.”
The itinerant artist’s eyes were the color of clouds, when they are thin wisps.
“No. You don’t understand. The business isn’t there. People around here . . . Look, my sales are mostly underwear and socks.”
“If they knew.”
The young man remained silent. Howard waited, then seemed wearied by the exchange. He shook his head.
“Sorry. It’s just too much.”
He turned and trudged back to his task. The young man stood under the gazes of Howie and Ben for a time, before exiting. He paused outside to again look into the window, then he went across the street and sat on a rusty iron bench in the park.
The park had a bandstand which had never, in Howie’s life, been used for a concert. Its paint was peeling, and the lattice that came into contact with the ground was black and soft with wood rot.
When Howie went out for lunch he paused by the Chevy station wagon and peered into its rear window. Through the heavy layer of dirt he couldn’t see anything distinctly — only a crowded jumble, with human limbs jutting out at odd angles.
The young man sat on the bench all afternoon. Just before six o’clock he got up and walked into the store. He stood by the counter, where Howard was closing out the cash register.
“For fifty, then.”
Howard grinned, showing his teeth.
“You want this job bad, don’t you?” His voice rose, with something close to abandon. In his hand he held the cash profits for the day. He turned to Howie. “Fifty-two dollars.” He waved his handful of money. “I’d say that’s too much of a coincidence to ignore.” He looked at the young man, then thrust all the bills across the counter. “So do it,” he said. “Go ahead and do it.”
The young man pulled his car in front of the store and began carrying in mannequins swathed in sheets, large boxes, rolls of variously-colored material. He was still piling it inside the entrance when Howie left.
Howard arrived home later, but after dinner he returned to his store, to check out the progress. When he got back he paced the living room floor.
“That’s one silent bastard,” he said, querulously. “I asked him when he’d be finished, he says one word: Dawn. I couldn’t see a thing of what he’s done so far — he had sheets tacked up, front and back.” Howard jiggled the car keys in his pocket. “What the hell, I don’t guess there’s anything worth stealing in the store.
Nothing worth the risk and effort.”
When Howie awoke early the next morning his father had already left.
Howie swung his car alongside the park, noting that the station wagon was nowhere to be seen. Walking toward the store he saw, from a block away, that there were no sheets over the window. The air was soft and fragrant, birds sang their greeting to a new day.
Howie gazed into the window for a long time.
Eventually he came to think that it must be a trick of perspective that could cause the display before him to recede into the distance. There was the sense that the scene went on and on, much farther than the eye could see.
In one window the men and boys were gathered on a playing field, with a blue line of water rimming the horizon. They were dressed for tennis and yachting, though the world of business was implied. The money had been made — now it was time to savor the fruits. Isn’t that what life was about? The figures asked that question, in poses both arrogant and inviting.
After a long while Howie moved to the other window. There it was night. A man, in a jacket a lighter blue than that of his shirt and pants, stood in an arbor, a drink in his hand. He was turned to the side, looking behind him. Howie also looked into that velvety darkness. In time he came to feel that he was waiting for what was his to emerge and come to him.
When he finally shook himself from his reverie and entered the store, Howie found the floor strewn with boxes that had been dragged from the back. Howard was crouched over one, his hands inside the open flaps; he looked at Howie.
As if scooping rubies and diamonds from a chest, he held up silk shirts of multi-
“Look, son. Look.”
The shirts slid through his hands. Howard bounded to another box, drew out cashmere sweaters.
“Look, son. Some of this stuff I bought when I wasn't much older than you. And later, too, I kept on even when I knew no one wanted it.”
Howie stared. He had not expected such riches. So this was his father’s vice: clothes too beautiful for this plain town. Howie suddenly realized that his father was not unlike him. The unopened boxes contained dreams.
“And there’s more,” Howard said. “Come.”
They went through the door to the back rooms and dragged boxes out into the light, ripped them open. Many yielded nothing remarkable. In some were dark, heavy items fit only for protection against wintery blasts — clothes, Howie thought, ordered in the blackest of moods. These they quickly pushed aside. But when a shining treasure was revealed they would call out, and father and son would come together over it, their shoulders touching.
That morning, still well before nine AM opening time, Howard called Millie’s Alterations. Breathing hard into the phone, he proposed to hire her and anyone else she could round up who could handle an iron.
Howie watched men gather outside the store. They looked at the scenes in the windows. They drifted away after a time, but when the store opened they returned, and once inside they wandered among the clothes displayed on the counters, draped over boxes, on hangers hooked over every door frame. They sometimes felt the lapel of a suit, held the sleeve of a shirt, caressed the silk of a tie, but no one spoke.
Howie recalled the window dresser’s words: “If they knew.” But what, wondered Howie, were these muted men now aware of? Was it their lost lives? If the previous window had confirmed their drab existence, this new one suggested worlds they had never experienced.
No one purchased anything until Sydney Beuhler, the attorney, broke the spell. He reached for a maroon corduroy pullover, its V-neck trimmed in leather; then, jostling some other men aside, he snatched up a houndstooth shirt. With the clothes over an arm, he strode to the counter. Everyone watched; he spoke to Howard in a voice that was defiant. “And those coats back there” — he pointed to a rack of light summer jackets in madras patterns — “Fit me into one of them.”
As if in a variation of musical chairs, every man in the store reached out to grab an item of clothing near him.
That day Howard and Howie and Ben sweated like laborers.
Long after the regular closing time, in a moment when he found the store empty, Howard locked the door, then leaned with his back against it.
As his father counted the day’s cash, checks and credit card receipts, a new group of watchers gathered at the window, waiting for tomorrow.
Howard’s muttering over numbers ceased. When he spoke to Howie and Ben his voice was oddly flat.
“Did he say a four-fold increase? He did say that, didn’t he? Well, that guarantee seems to be a bit on the conservative side, gentlemen. Because we took in almost $2200 today.” Howard held up the curling paper from the adding machine and waved it slowly, like a banner.
Howie and his father packed their cars with wrinkled clothes and made several runs to Millie’s house, where she and three other women leaned over creaking ironing boards.
Ed Murchison, the contractor, was at the store a few mornings later, before opening time. Howie noted a brisk decisiveness in his father’s manner. First he stipulated that all work be done on evenings and Sundays. Then he ordered a central air unit, the best. He began moving through the store, pointing, and Ed scribbled in a spiral notebook. More racks for suits along this wall. Another dressing room over there. A three way mirror, on a raised platform. Take out all these display cases, put in new ones in mahogany. A cabinetmaker? Well, call him, get him over here. What about one of those canvas awnings that crank open and closed? Paint samples and carpet swatches. And a wooden sign that hangs over the street: Howard and Son Clothier. And . . .
Two months later Howie sat in the cool confines of Howard and Son Clothier, slumped in a soft leather armchair. He gazed out the window, past the figures gathered on the playing field, and contemplated writing a book. In it he would describe the internal workings of a renaissance. Surely his position, at the epicenter of the upheaval that had transformed this town, gave him a unique perspective. All change, he knew, had radiated out from the window display fifteen feet from where his suede loafers rested on a carpet patterned in sedate blocks of blue and gray.
It had begun with the men wanting to be like those romantic dummies in the window. (In his book Howie would give meaning to the old saw, “Life imitates Art”). So they bought clothes to correspond to the image they desired. That night, in their homes, they stood about in white ducks and checkered barn coats and polo shirts. Their wives and daughters — well, for them it was the fulfillment of their most ardent dreams. The women hardly needed urging upon this new path. The next morning they were at Fran’s Ladies Wear, buzzing like angry bees at what wasn’t there.
Howie could see Fran’s from where he sat. In keeping with a Town and Country look, her shop had added a wooden overhang with an ornate trim, painted in rainbow hues. On each side of her entrance rustic planters burst with begonias. Quite a nice touch. Yes, Fran had risen to the occasion — as had everyone in the town. Take their own Ben Waverly. Howie shifted in his seat so that he could observe Ben, in the back with a customer. Who would have imagined? The toothpick was gone. Ben had exchanged his wash and wear for conservative suits — today, Howie noted, a gray double-breasted pinstripe — and spoke knowledgeably about the break in a trouser line, the pitfalls of mixing patterns, the effects achieved by various styles of shirt collars. He combined the proper element of deference with just a hint of arrogance.
At this moment Howie could hear the murmur of his voice as he assisted a customer in the selection of ties. With a conjurer’s motion, Ben produced a perfect Windsor knot and draped the tie over his extended arm.
Howie turned back to his view of the street. His father dressed conservatively too. Howie, on the other hand, opted for the casual look. Today he wore a beige linen sport jacket over a dark blue denim shirt. A pair of pale yellow pants. His tie was a wide silk one, a series of large and colorful clocks. Loud, yes, but his clientele were young men with similarly flamboyant tastes. Often they’d join Howie in the store, just to talk — about last night’s party, last night’s girl — and when Howard Senior would return from one of his many excursions about town, he’d find three laughing young men lined up in his armchairs. He’d look down at them, shaking his head ruefully, and make a comment in which the word “ne’er-do-wells” appeared. But it was a mock sternness, behind which a paternal affection for his son and his carefree young friends was obvious — for the breezy freshness of their paisley ties, blue blazers, argyle socks. Anyway, Howie’s sales figures for June and July were quite respectable.
His father was due to return soon from his morning shave at Henri’s. His jowls would be red from the hot towels and stinging aftershave. At one o’clock he’d leave again, to have a long lunch at Sebastian’s, the restaurant that had opened in the old railroad depot. His father liked to be out and about, moving briskly down the streets he had created. The founding father.
Looking out at those streets, so altered from a month ago, Howie made an effort to refocus his scattered thoughts. Back to his book. On economics. How far had he gotten in tracing the town’s renaissance? Not far, just to the women joining in. Yes, the women. And how they had joined in. Not just the clothes, but what went into those clothes. There was another metamorphosis that took place, one achieved in privacy. Diet and exercise regimes were begun and were not abandoned. Every day, from his chair, Howie enjoyed the results. This very moment Suzie Hendricks strolled by, wearing a sun dress; she gave him a little wave. He waggled his fingers in reply, wondering who was more desirable, Suzie or her seventeen-year-old daughter.
The men, too, Howie had to admit, had become sleekly virile — like the waiting figure in the arbor. In his book, in showing the interconnectedness of things, could he extend his study into the town’s bedrooms? He grinned. Not wise. It would be prudent to steer well clear of what people were up to lately, to stick with the dismal science of economics. Where he had only proceeded as far as the clothes. Which, of course, included shoes; the Bootery stocked the latest Italian styles. Next came hairdos. Beauty parlors became salons, adding facials, manicures, pedicures. And then there was Henry Procter, the formerly taciturn town barber, who had given Howie a butch haircut almost twenty years ago, becoming Henri almost overnight. His image floated before Howie — the short-cropped black beard and dramatic gestures. If he didn’t have six kids, you would almost wonder. . . .
Howie made himself sit up, like a school child called back to task. Back to his book. He had reached the part about the beauty businesses prospering; now the great leap was about to take place. It came when all the recently-transformed people looked at their homes, inside and out, and found them — well, drab. Certainly not in keeping with their new image. Not a place they’d want to throw a party. So in residential streets, from dawn to dusk, hammers flashed in the sun, painters climbed ladders, rolls of carpet were dragged through doorways, banks of shrubs were planted. Evenings Howie drove about a town that was approaching an ideal: gleaming homes in a manicured setting. And every workman — every carpenter, plumber, painter, roofer, landscaper (formerly yard man), electrician — was reaping the benefits. Providers of material, from lumber to lamps to lavatories to linen, were also doing a land office business. And these newly-prosperous folks spent their money too, spreading the wealth into every nook and cranny of society. Who did not share in this complex chain of reciprocity? Dentists straightened teeth, dance instructors had more little ballerinas, pet groomers sheared and bathed their wriggling clients, car dealers rolled out the newest dream machines.
Newness was everywhere. On the four blocks bordering the park Howie looked out at two businesses that had opened in shops that had formerly been vacant. One was a gourmet market, for the parties that took place nightly. Besides an extensive selection of wines, it stocked fresh portabello mushrooms, cans of peeled asparagus, forty types of cheeses, baked hams glazed in harlequin designs. The sales people were young, and wore aprons. The other shop sold fashions for children, blue and white sailor suits and dresses with petticoats. Actually, above this shop there was a third business. In rooms which had once been a dingy apartment, Millie had relocated. Millie, the seamstress, who had been the first benefactor of the renaissance, on that night when she had ironed stacks of wrinkled clothes.
Which brings us full circle, thought Howie, satisfied at the symmetry of his ruminations. He could end his book with Millie, narrowing the focus to one person.
But . . . No. Howie preferred to end with a wide lens, encompassing the whole town. And he realized that the scene for that ending was right before his eyes: the park, where last night a band concert had taken place. He would infuse this gathering in the heart of the town with a symbolic importance.
The town government, its coffers full of tax revenue, had restored the park. The rotten wood on the bandstand had been torn out and sound new wood pounded into place. It had been painted in pastels and was now as bright and fresh as the flowering shrubs planted on each side of the winding gravel paths. The high school band had practiced in their gym every afternoon, with a sense of purpose, and last night, dressed in starched new uniforms, they sat in the bandstand as the whole town gathered around them. It was twilight. The conductor raised his arms and a jaunty Sousa march burst forth. Surrounding the bandstand was a grassy area; over it hung paper lanterns, glowing. The overarching trees were strung with tiny colored lights. The band played on, as darkness fell and then deepened. Children romped in the open space, but gradually they tired, came to lie upon blankets spread on the ground, to dream. The music mellowed, and couples rose to dance, to move in each other’s arms. . . .
Howie remembered how Allison Buchanan had felt in his arms, all softness and perfume.
She, or someone else, would be in his arms again tonight. And so — here Howie ended his ruminations with a shrug — when would there be time to write a book? He could not see himself spending one precious evening of this summer on any manner of drudgery. College resumed in mid September. He had only a month left to play. Like a happy cricket, he would rub his chirping wings together. He would grant himself the right to squander every moment in wasteful pleasure.
The days passed like calendar pages flipped by a careless breeze, until September appeared. Then the breeze turned decidedly chill. Some mornings Howie was awakened from his slumber to find, with bewildered annoyance, that the room was cold.
One day, as his father stood at the cash register, Howie saw the station wagon come to a stop alongside the park. He watched the young man get out of his car, walk directly to the store and open the door without one glance at the window display.
So, thought Howie, the itinerant window dresser has returned, as promised. To change the display. Howie felt chill air come in through the briefly-opened door.
The young man stopped in front of the cash register. Howard worked on, murmuring figures, oblivious. When he looked up he seemed at first startled, then his expression brightened, becoming almost avid. But the face before him retained its impassiveness. The young man didn’t speak, as if his presence this time needed no words of explanation.
“Ah,” exclaimed Howard. “You said you’d be back in the fall. In time for fall fashions. A new window. That old one — well, summer’s over, isn’t it? We need a new beginning.” He rubbed his hands together as if trying to generate heat for a fire.
The young man stood bland and neutral, neither confirming nor denying the hopeful role assigned him.
“How much this time?” Howard asked. “Whatever you say. . . .”
Howard seemed startled by the price. When he spoke his voice shook a little.
“Why . . . Why so cheap this time?” he asked.
“Well, that’s . . . Maybe that’s the right idea. To take a step back, get things settled on track again. On a sound basis. Then everything will be . . .”
The voice trailed off. Howie noticed that his father’s hand, reaching into the open register, was trembling. He drew out a bill. But before passing it across the counter he could not resist speaking again. His tone was plaintive and cajoling.
“Guaranteed? Like last time?”
“Nothing to guarantee. Not in winter.”
The young man took the bill and walked out to his car. At six o’clock it was almost dark, and the street lights had switched on. He began unloading boxes.
The next morning Howie stood in front of the window display. Before him was a scene of blunt simplicity.
Men and boys stood with their backs to the wind, isolated figures looking down at their patch of barren ground. They all wore heavy, black overcoats. The coats did not vary in any way. They were shapeless, extending almost to the snow. The collars were turned up, and the hunched figures had their hands thrust deep into the pockets. The material was indeed cheap; it would stink when wet.
Howie turned away and entered the store. Not seeing his father, he moved through the door leading to the back rooms. He remembered how, months ago, they had searched there for treasures. They had come across such dark items as those black overcoats, shoving them quickly aside.
Howie turned a corner and found his father, kneeling. When he saw his son Howard hurriedly closed the flaps of a box he had been looking into and struggled to his feet. He pushed past Howie without a word and moved rapidly out of the back rooms, Howie following. In the front of the store, his father proceeded directly to the edge of the display, as if he were about to clamber onto that platform and dismantle the joyless tableau. But he stopped on the brink and merely stood there, seeming suddenly small, slumped. Those figures in the window were immovable, capable of resisting any puny attempts to remove them.
On that day, and the following, people did not pause to look at the window display. Those on the street passed it with heads averted. The weather was not yet so bad.
The people of the town continued to wear their summery garb even when goose bumps stood out on bare arms. The glibness of summer was gone, as if the chill had numbed their tongues. They retreated inside, from a sky that was often gray, with clouds that scudded along purposefully, like troops headed to the front. The day came when the back yards were empty, where once had been tables laden with pitchers of drinks to refresh the sun-parched gathering. The only remnant of that time was a woman’s wide-brimmed hat that had blown under some bushes, snagged by brambles.
At work, Howie looked around a store that was void of customers; he realized, with a belated awareness, that customers had been dwindling to this nothingness for many weeks, even before the window dresser came. Day after day his father stood at the register, lips moving with profit and loss; he would occasionally glance up at the sound of the wind rattling the windows, his eyes widening.
On a Saturday, a day to end a week in which not one sale was made, Ben was let go; he accepted the dismissal silently, merely fishing a toothpick from the pocket of his shirt and placing it between his lips.
It was with trepidation that Howie finally brought up the subject of college. His father looked at his son with a gaze that tried to be stern. But behind that expression was a plea. He opened a drawer under the cash register and held up a fistful of its contents.
“Look, son. Look at this. Don’t you know that it’s just paper? For months, it’s been empty promises. Look at these charge account receipts. Just paper. And these checks.
If I wrote you one for tuition, it would be as worthless as these.”
Howie turned, without a word, and went to the restroom. In the back the boxes were thinned; they could have floated off, as insubstantial as all dreams. He sat on the toilet, head in his hands.
He would find consolation at a party that night. They still continued. Nightly the townspeople drained their glasses, raised their voices to raucous heights. Howie’s voice rang out among them, his laughter as desperate as any. People danced wildly, arms and legs flailing.
After one such party Howie wandered alone, shivering, through the back yards. He was in search of his car; maybe it was in a driveway a few houses away. In the distance he heard the sound of tires spinning on gravel, like harsh words of recrimination being exchanged by the couple inside. A cigarette hung from his lower lip; sometimes he staggered. There was a throbbing pain behind his eyes and the acrid taste of bile on his tongue. This night he had knelt before a toilet bowl, praying. His common place of worship lately.
He staggered against a tree, careened off it, and suddenly he saw himself, as if from on high: him in his polka dot bow tie and blue and yellow sweater vest — a suitable outfit for such a ridiculous and contemptible fellow. He tried to clasp his hands over his face, but the cigarette was in the way. He spit it out and threw back his head and howled.
The next day Howie leaned against the counter in his father's store. In the late afternoon his head was still throbbing. He was remembering the howl, which seemed to well up from some vast empty place inside the curve of his ribs.
Howie gazed past the dark figures in the window, out at the street. The scene before him had achieved desolation. Some days all that moved along the sidewalk was trash — scraps of paper, leaves — swirling in eddies, ending up huddled in doorways. The store selling children’s wear had closed weeks ago; its front glass had been smashed one night — the wandering gangs of booted teenagers, probably — and a sheet of plywood nailed up. The windows of the rooms above it were dark; Millie’s white curtains were gone. The gourmet shop still survived, or a much-altered form of it. The shelves were almost bare, with only odds and ends of leftover canned goods remaining. The lone proprietor did his business in the lower-priced wines now, and sold pint bottles of vodka and whiskey from under the front counter.
The store Howie stood in was also a shell of what it had been. The leather armchairs were gone; Howie stood not on thick carpeting but on bare concrete. Ed Murchison had come by one afternoon, unpaid bills in hand. He demanded the rest of his money, all of it — his truck was about to be repossessed. Howard, holding out open palms, muttered that there was no blood in a turnip. Ed ran a hand through his thinning hair, then vowed to be back, to rip out all he’d put in. But before driving off he backed his truck onto the sidewalk and, climbing into the bed with a hammer in his hand, yanked down the sign proclaiming the existence of Howard and Son Clothier. Now two chains swung in the wind.
Yes, Howie thought, a new phase in the economic history of this community had asserted itself. He knew that he was viewing, on the street before him, the aftermath of surfeit. But he had no interest in a book on economics anymore; no interest in ornate overhangs or styles of shirt collars. It was spiritual barrenness that concerned him.
He remembered the laughter of the summer days, among which his own donkey’s bray had been prominent. Laughter as empty as the promises they had made. Such preening idiots, pursuing nothing more than pleasure-sodden lives. Fashion plates! No wonder he had howled, in disgust and shame. They deserved punishment. He looked forward to the snow, the excoriating winds. The townspeople would stand stupidly in the teeth of it, unprotected in their light blazers and white ducks.
He smiled grimly — he took pride in an unflinching grimness he had discovered in himself
And though he had accepted the loss of college with stoicism, Howie spent much of his afternoons thinking about returning. If he could somehow — in some way! — get the tuition money, he would take as many philosophy courses as he could. He would study deep into the night. He pictured himself in an attic room crowded with books. It would be cold, but he welcomed the harshness. He dreamed of immersing himself in the truth.
And if the truth were dreadful? If it offered no solace for the winter of the soul?
He stared out the window.
So be it, he muttered.
Winter began savaging the town when his father finally dragged out the boxes of overcoats, heaped them in piles. The men came to buy, silently handing over cash. This time it was payment in full. They put the overcoats on, then disappeared out the door, heads bowed. Howie, too, shrugged on a shapeless black coat. It was so heavy that his shoulders sagged under the weight.
Nighttime, a month later.
Howie stood in the darkness of the park, his hands thrust into the pockets of the overcoat. He heard a restless banging from the bandstand — a loose board in the wind. There was no one about.
He looked up at the one lighted window on the street. It was on the second floor, where Millie’s had been. Now it was occupied by the old woman. She had come with the winter, had set up her pawnshop there. She had her living quarters there too. She did good business, from the misery of others. Every day Howie watched, from his spot by the counter, as people disappeared into the alley where the entrance to her stairway was. He had once gone up that narrow stairwell himself, his shoulder bumping against the wall. He had a watch to pawn. He rang the bell; the door opened a crack and one eye appeared, almost colorless, scrutinizing him. She unchained the door when he dangled the watch in the opening. She took it with greedy haste. He looked at her bowed head. Her gray hair was parted in the middle, dividing her skull in two parts; he looked away. Through a door he saw a bed, a chest of drawers. . . .
Howie turned and began moving along one of the park’s winding paths.
He recalled the querulous sound of her voice: a worthless watch. Why did people bother her with such trifles? Howie had been told that she gave only a pittance, and indeed she offered him next to nothing. Take it or leave it, she said; it’s not you who sets the price, my fine young man. She exuded a malignancy that was palpable.
And yet it was she who prospered. Why? thought Howie. What value, seen in the balance of existence, did this evil woman have? No more than the life of a louse, of a black beetle.
She had gone into the bedroom to get the money for his watch, closing the door behind her. The money was in there, somewhere. A small fortune, it was rumored. It was further rumored that in her will she had left it all to a convent, in exchange for prayers to be said into perpetuity. So that her soul would repose forever in heaven.
Thus she would escape God’s judgement. But man’s?
Howie’s lips twisted into a smile. Looking down at his heavy boots crunching the brittle snow, he was struck by a sense of inevitability. One step simply led to another. In the pocket of his overcoat he fingered a silver cigarette case.