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Half-Life

By Howie Good

Poem

1
One
moment
he was

leaning
on a wall.
The next

he was
wondering
why

a wall,
and not

a tree.

2
He always introduced her
only by her first name.

Similarly, in the park,
she received shy glances

from the statues
of lesser known heroes.

3
Is suicide a solution?
inquired the fly,
goose-stepping
through the burning ruins
of a French village.

4
He used a camera
like a typewriter,
the page in front of him
covered with blood.

5
They fell asleep side by side
on a bed of curled pencil shavings.
For long moments at a time,
the bicycle wheel ceased to stammer.

6
You see her sometimes
on the boulevard

of strip malls
and chain motels

dressed all in black
like a crow

or a sad country.

7
The troops burst from the trenches.
The audience applauded,
her last name of no concern to anyone.



It was in a diner on a Saturday
When I decided it was over.
I’ve all this shit going on, I told Cindy.
I really think we’re better off as friends.

Cindy was on my side because she always is
Which is why I tell her everything.
That makes sense, she said,
He’ll understand that.  How could he not understand that?

I didn’t want to go with Lyle anymore.
But you know how he is, I said.
Cindy nodded gravely.
Really, I never told her the truth.

Lyle always got fatal over break-ups.
It was always about soul mates and my loss
And how fuck-ing stupid I was being.
And why did I always have to cry?

What do you think he’ll do? Cindy said.
Her eyes were round and watery,
like a pair of eggs
Shocked to find themselves sunny side up.

I tried to imagine him, doing something.
I pictured his eyes, lids hung at half-mast,
A disgusted look on his face.
Maybe he’d yell something generic.

He’ll probably threaten suicide again, I said,
Like I’d called a real high-rolling bluff
And won.
He’ll go crazy.

He’s such an asshole, Cindy said,
I mean, he can be.  Her voice softened.  Oh.
I know, I said to Cindy.
I huffed and pretended I couldn’t eat.

Lyle is out with his buddies tonight.
He’ll call me later and tell me he scored some smack.
He’ll tell me to relax, he’s not gonna die tonight.
He’ll tell me to hold on while he pukes.

And I will.
I’ll hold on.


I confused Victoria Patterson with a friend of mine, who I hadn’t seen in years when I wrote my first review of Drift, and I proofed the post countless times and I never saw the mistake (Ms. Patterson pointed it out).  I’ve since gone on to read this fantastic collection of linked short stories that defy the common thinking that “short stories don’t sell”, or that no agent will buy them.  These stories will remind you of Carver, Cheever and Updike, and I’m not using those comparisons lightly. I went through a period where I was reading Ms. Patterson’s stories right along with Cheever and Updike, and I really feel like they are as good as those legends.  Here is her version of “When I Fell In Love”…

Homage to John Updike’s Rabbit, Run by Victoria Patterson

At the encouragement of my born again Christian father—who had been unable to alleviate my doubts and was anxious for me to accept Jesus—I spoke with his pastor, voiced my reservations.  This was in the mid-eighties, in Newport Beach, California.  I was fifteen years old and church was mandatory.  How, I asked, can you believe that people born in India, how can they be going to hell?  Isn’t religion an accident of birth?  What if I were born a Muslim?

Unable to answer my questions—or at least not to my satisfaction—the pastor subsequently avoided me, and I took up the hobby of scowling at him.  As a distraction, I read John Updike’s Rabbit, Run in church, camouflaged it inside a Bible.  I had found the book in my mother’s bookshelf next to a biography of Lauren Bacall, and I was intrigued by the title, which seemed like a kid’s book akin to Peter Rabbit, even though I knew it was for adults.

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom pierced through me—with his hunger for meaning, his desperation, his restlessness, and his desire to flee.  Like Rabbit, I was selfish and impulsive; but, also like Rabbit, I was sensitive and empathetic, a seeker, and I felt trapped (“You get the feeling,” he says, “you’re in your coffin before they’ve taken the blood out”).  Rabbit rebelled against people “advertising their belief that the world arches over a pit, that death is final, that the wandering thread of his feelings lead nowhere.”

Although the church sermons weren’t meant to be controversial or provocative, they troubled me, for that very same reason.  In my teenage view, the more complex and controversial the subject matter, the less anyone seemed able or willing to discuss it.  Instead of straying from complex topics—infidelity, sex, death, religion—Updike plunged in.  And his characters, like the people around me (including myself) were hugely flawed.  Jack Eccles, the Episcopalian minister, was suffering from a lack of faith, and he liked to golf and hang out with teenagers for the vicarious thrill of their sexual banter.  Rabbit’s old basketball coach, Marty Tothero, was limp and defeated, and I loved him.  Janice, Rabbit’s wife, found comfort in television and alcohol.  And Ruth, Rabbit’s lover, was a former prostitute.

The subject matter, the stream of consciousness feel of the prose, the brisk present-tense pace, the sad humor, and the bold declaration of sexuality as an uncanny force, made me want to write:  What magic—to be John Updike.  To make someone—me—feel less alone.  Like Rabbit, I wanted to, “Wake up with the stars above perfectly spaced,” in alignment with life, with some kind of certainty and meaning, even if my heart was heavy with anger and confusion.  I was bursting only with the certainty of uncertainty, and instead of tidy conclusions and bromides, Rabbit, Run offered me respect for ambiguity: for its mystery and its music, both within life and within a book.

Author Ben Loory reads a short story called “The Book.” Produced by Aaron M. Snyder and Megan DiLullo. Questions or comments about our podcasts? Please email us.

The first funeral. It was achingly hot. The crushed sand and shells that covered the drive of the funeral home glinted and sparkled in the sun and made soft squeaking noises beneath the feet of the mourners who filed into the open air chapel. I am hyper aware of my white undershirt beneath the blouse of my Girl Scout uniform. I don’t yet have anything sufficient to warrant wearing a bra so my mother still insisted on the undershirt even though I was twelve years old. The cotton was saturated with sweat and stuck to my back between my shoulder blades where I couldn’t reach to peel it off even if I tried. The stiff green polyester blend of the uniform shirt rubbed my skin raw beneath my arms and around my waist where it was tucked into the skirt.

We had come here together in a station wagon as a troop driven by someone else’s mother. We are minus one and our leader. I hadn’t even wanted to be a Girl Scout. I would have stopped at being a Brownie. But before we left New York I had walked over that bridge, looked into the reflecting pond and pledged to be someone better and that person became a Girl Scout. When we moved to Florida, my mother filled out the paperwork I reluctantly carried home from school. She thought it would help me make friends in a new town and it only served to make me incompetent. If there had been a badge for spending all your free time in the library reading books, I would have twenty. So far the only badges I had sewn on my sash were the ones we had earned as a troop. The other girls all had individual badges they had completed or were working on. Amy had accomplished the most of all of us, individually, although I imagined, unless there were Girl Scouts in Heaven, she wouldn’t be advancing much further.

In the car on the way over Jeannie, a girl who smelled like tuna fish every single day, had shared the way, way, back with me and she had whispered into my ear as we crouched in the open trunk that she had heard Amy was buried in her scout uniform. It made me want to rip mine off my body and hurl it out the window but instead I said nothing and concentrated on breathing through my mouth until we filed into the funeral home and took our seats in the row reserved for us, as if we were special guests or dignitaries, behind Amy’s large family.

When we were seated Amy’s mother, our troop leader, turned to us assembled neatly in a row. She smiled but didn’t really look at us individually. Her face was tracked with tiny cuts made darker and deeper by threads of dried blood that had already begun to scab. Glistening over the cuts was a layer of tears, the collar of her shirt was darker than the rest from the water that ran off her face and on the floppy lapel I saw the glint of her Girl Scout Leader pin. She would lead her daughter to Heaven, I supposed, if she could.

I was so taken by her face that it took me a moment to focus beyond Amy’s family, her four brothers, three steps below her and one above and her father, who owned the Snack Shack down at the town dock. He recognized all of us scouts in Amy’s troop and always gave a mound of chips with the hot dogs or free French fries if he had extra. Today he kept his face focused forward and he wore a short sleeve white dress shirt that strained across his back. His sweat stains echoed my own and the sight of them made me sit slightly off the back of the pew, leaning forward so that whatever air the fans pushed out above my head would circulate around my body.

That was when I saw the glossy white casket. Its lid was closed and on top was a framed picture of Amy. Her school picture, I guessed. Since it looked just like the one my mother had of me sitting on the shelf above the television. Amy smiled out at us, her blond hair waved around her face and disappearing way past her shoulders. Her chin was tiny and pointed and her eyes were a pale green that echoed the color of our uniforms.

There were flowers everywhere that had already begun to wilt from the heat, which just made them look like they had given up. Tulips, roses, and carnations the ruffled edges dipped in green, spread atop the casket and around Amy’s picture.

I squeezed my eyes shut tight when Amy’s mother began to cry. Her sobs quieted the entire congregation of mourners. Even the priest who was standing at the head of Amy’s casket seemed to know that God could offer no comfort at the sound of a mother’s anguished cries. Before I closed my eyes I saw Amy’s older brother look agitatedly around the chapel. His gaze angry, embarrassed, bewildered. His father put a hand on his shoulder to calm him and he not so much jerked as slid away from his father’s attempted embrace and sat as close to the aisle as possible – one foot ready poised for escape.

I knew more about the accident than most, but I kept it to myself. My mother was a nurse and a good friend was on the emergency crew first to get to the scene. I knew something was wrong right away when I came home from the library and found my mother and Paul huddled close together in the driveway of our house. My mother was still in her uniform even though her shift had ended at three and it was nearly five. Paul, also a fisherman, had brought a bucket of crabs for dinner and it was between them on the ground baking in the hot sun. I dropped my bike, not bothering with the kickstand, as my mother reached out to me. She pulled me to her side as I stared down into the crab bucket. I watched the bodies move listlessly as she told me the details of the accident.

Amy’s mother had been driving way out on Pine Ridge Road, a well-traveled trucking route from the Sugar Cane fields, to pick up one of the boys, when they were hit. The impact forced Amy through the windshield. Her body hung there, suspended by shards of glass, and her mother panicked. Maybe, had she not pulled Amy through the window, onto the hood of the old station wagon, Amy might have lived. By the time Paul got to the scene Amy had lost too much blood. They didn’t tell me this but I pictured it: Amy’s mother covered in her daughter’s blood as she held her in her arms and told her it would be alright. Although from our Red Cross and CPR badges she probably knew that Amy wouldn’t make it. Before the priest finds his voice, before Amy’s parents realize what has occurred, her older brother stands up and runs down the aisle. His fists are shoved into his pockets, his head is bowed, and his shoulders are moving up and down. His grief is so electric it is terrifying and no one, not even his parents’, move to go after him.

 

Four years later. Another white casket. Mounds of flowers. At sixteen, mourning was something I clung to, stroked and feted like a beloved pet. For days I have barely slept, or eaten and only today have I showered and dressed in a white eyelet sundress to say goodbye to my beloved friend. In my fist I clutch a ball of tissues that have become slick with snot, but I am unable to contract the muscles in my hand to part with them. Had I gone with my friends as we had planned I would have been in the car that killed one of them and left the rest in the hospital, still so broken they are unable to attend the funeral. Instead of my friends I chose a boy who I won’t even allow to share in my grief. I blame him although he has nothing to do with it. I had been waiting a long time for him to notice me and when he finally did, I chose him. I. Chose. Him. I felt sick at the thought of what I was doing when she died. Of what, shamefully, I still want to do although I will not allow myself. His hands were all over my skin and I welcomed them. His mouth hot against my ear, my neck, the two of us twisted together on a blanket on the beach. I can still feel him all over me when there should be nothing left to feel.

When her mother and father see me they draw me to them and close their arms around me. They moan low and soft and we sway as a group before her casket. My dress swishes around my bare legs and brushes up against the metal stand. There is no air in our closed circle but I don’t struggle to get out. I deserve this, I think, turning their tragedy into mine. I have a hard time believing she is gone. I am swollen and sodden with grief and anger. I feel leaden, untouchable, as her mother whispers in my ear that she tucked all of our pictures into the casket. When I am able she wants me to come to their house to pick something out of Terri’s to remember her by. Even then I know it is something I will never bring myself to do.

 

When I extricate myself I look across the room crowded with teenagers in all states of distress. In the far corner I see him standing there. Unlike the first time he is not poised for escape. He knows what to expect. He has been here before. He has lost everything once and it is not impossible to imagine it won’t happen again. Our eyes meet across the room. He doesn’t need to say a word as he slowly begins to pick his way through the crowd to where I am standing. He knows all to well what happens next.

 

 

 

 

TNB TV 
TNB Poetry Editor Milo Martin reads a piece entitled “”The Strenuous Conditions of Dealing With a Milk Spot at the Bottom of a Highball Glass” at The Nervous Breakdown’s Literary Experience in Hollywood, California in September 2009.

When the police arrive at my Bat Mitzvah, I know the whole special day thing is kind of a wash.

It seems the “Marks,” as in Feingold and Lubell, had taken the personalized soda glasses filled with jellybeans, that my mother and I had so diligently prepared, and decided it was a good idea to sneak out onto an unused balcony at the hotel with said jellybeans and pummel arriving guests. I stand there with the gnawing knowledge this could not be good for me socially and watch as the boys in blue saunter into the Sheraton’s banquet parlor. This is my first adult life lesson as a newly anointed woman. Just when you think things can’t get any worse…

It starts out promising enough. Young girl on the brink of womanhood embarks on a religious tradition that will educate her about her culture and past, energize and bond her family, and set a path for a monumental and well-prepared future. It had all the makings of special.

Hebrew school isn’t anything my mother ever pushed. It is just the two of us, us two girls, since my father died. We are independent, worldly, and quite sophisticated, most recently having returned from a whirlwind trip through the Greek Isles, from Knossos to Santorini. Demanding I have a knowledge of Ashkenazi versus Sephardic is a little too traditional for my mother at the time. We are the reformed of the Reform, which means we live on the Upper West Side and enjoy Annie Hall.

My mother grew up in quite an observant home, lighting candles every Shabbat, being married in a synagogue, eating brisket weekly. But when it came time for her daughter’s religious upbringing, choice was what mattered most. And what matters most to me is I think lighting Hanukah candles with pot holders on our heads is a little silly. Not my thing.

But then Laura Silverstone had to go and sign up at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. I know we can walk to and from Hebrew school every Monday and Wednesday. I like Laura a lot, ever since we were at Seder together and I stumbled across a word I did not know while reading aloud from the Haggadah and we conferred and together decided it was pronounced syn-o-goo-gy. She is cool, so it must be cool, and besides, she said, at our Bat Mitzvahs, we’d probably get a lot of money.

So I am in. I learn a whole new alphabet and pretty soon don’t need vowels. Our rabbi goes on Live at Five and debates with Mayor Koch or Al Sharpton. Our teacher was in the Israeli army. She would wax poetic about the art of holding an Uzi. And wouldn’t you know it, Hebrew school turns out to be cool.

I find myself wandering through the halls of the temple, awed by its beauty, feeling a sense of belonging and a strange pride. As I do, I smile, knowing I carry a biblical name. Rachel. Sister of Leah. Wife of Jacob. Mother of Joseph. Died in childbirth. Tragedy. That should have been a clue.

It is decided that following my Bat Mitzvah ceremony, immediate family will be invited to traipse across the street from the temple to lunch at Tavern on the Green, followed by a big party for kids with a D.J. and all the fixings later that night. This requires two outfits. I decide on a cream-colored Esprit sweater dress for day and a bright, white lace dress with a little swish to it for the night. It is to be a very simple affair, despite Tavern on the Green on the roster.

But throughout all of it, we try not to let the celebration take center stage over the serious reasons for the ritual. At our temple we are encouraged to participate in twinning, a process where we are jointly Bat or Bar Mitzvahed for a Russian Jew, since, in those days, they weren’t allowed to practice their religion. I write my twin Maria often, chronicling the planning of the party, the classes to prepare, and the rowdy Spin-the-Bottle parties that are taking place. But my letters are always returned to me. No matter. I know and God knows.

And then the invitations are sent. This is where the trouble begins.

My Aunt Debbie and Uncle David are at the top of the guest list. Debbie works at Bloomingdale’s as a buyer. Because of her I got to model in some of their fashion shows. Under flashing lights and pounding music I made my way down the runway in a blue blazer and matching kilt, a red beret, and Mary Janes. I hit my mark, all eyes on me, held my head up high and turned perfectly on cue. Rumor had it Bette Davis was in the audience that night, though I didn’t know who she was, but I heard she was famous, so that’s cool. The whole thing had been a blast and that shining moment up on stage – “All About Rachel” – was how I always felt when Debbie was around.

Her husband, David, my mother’s brother, is also all neon and highlighted for me. David plays the guitar and is really good at it, and is driving a cab until he gets to be a rock star. Each November the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving he wakes me up at two in the morning and drags me all groggy and sleepy to 77th and Columbus where they prepare the balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This is our annual ritual. He manages in those wee hours to make me feel as if we are the only two people in all of New York City to have ever seen such a thing. The night, the holiday, Central Park, the Museum of Natural History, even the Big Bird balloon – it is all ours. Our little secret.

Debbie and David, I adore them both. Problem is, they don’t adore each other anymore. They decide to divorce right before my Bat Mitzvah, and my mother and I make the unwise decision of inviting Debbie without clearing it with David.

Oy.

Somewhere in here aliens must snatch my mother and uncle’s appropriate genes and the flood gates open for a battle. All sibling issues never dealt with for many decades come pouring out and vomit all over my Bat Mitzvah. They stomp their feet. They whisper behind each other’s backs. They shout in each other’s faces. They rehash old wounds and carve out new ones. All conversations deal with how wretched the other is and my mother must only see little David heads everywhere she looks for how often even the simplest activity turns into a diatribe against ungrateful, not-as-accomplished, must-be-crazy-with-jealousy-younger-brothers!

When I dare to inquire about something else, say a photographer for my special day, my mother mumbles something about, “Why don’t we ask David?” Defeated with the weight of all unhappy thirteen-year-olds on my shoulders, I answer a simple, “Never mind.” Subsequently, I have no photographs of my Bat Mitzvah other than a few pictures of me in my sweater and lace dresses standing against a bare wall in my living room.

My grandmother sits at our dining room table too sad to control her battling children. My mother “loses” her glasses, which are actually on her head, for the third time that day. She is also about to accuse someone, anyone, of eating her bagel, which she herself has just finished. I sit there across from my grandmother as if I am watching a show – in cahoots with her as the only normal people left in the world.

How I wish I were my Russian twin! Standing in the snow barefoot, wearing a babushka, waiting hours for bread would probably be easier than this. I wonder then if I could ship my family off to Siberia as opposed to listening to them squabble over who gets to lunch at Tavern on the Green.

In my head I am a hysterical mess equaling my mother’s antics of screaming and shouting. Hello! Thirteen-year-old girl here! Brink of womanhood, not just there yet. Still a child. No breasts, nothing! Here we are planning my becoming-an-adult event and there’s not one among us! You’re my role models? You’re my blueprint for the future? I’ve searched far and wide and the answer to all of this mishigas is for you all to keep it from me. Keep me sheltered! I know it’s not very cosmopolitan, but LIE!!!!

And they do.

On the day of the Bat-Mitzvah they are all happy faces and smiles for everyone else’s benefit. This is the day everyone acts all gracious and friendly. This is the day they protect me from the ills of family battles. This is the day, but not the six months leading up to it.

David and Debbie are even late to lunch, since they’d run off giggling after the ceremony to get me a gift together. So now I am monumentally confused, momentarily thrilled, and most likely permanently scarred.

So I try to go with it and enjoy the day. Maybe this is my gift from God for being such a good girl through the whole ordeal. But then the D.J. at the party that night has to go and play some “dance games.” He instructs us all that “the Bat Mitzvah girl” (that’s me) will dance solo with the guy/guys of her choice. Every time the music stops I have to pick someone new to dance with. Has the D.J. no concept of 13? Can he not see the this-is-my-side, that-is-their-side dynamics of the room?

I start off easily enough with my stepfather, and, when the music stops, and all eyes are on my next choice, I miraculously find myself next to Laura’s dad, Mr. Silverstone. He and I cut a rug as I worry about the dwindling adult male population I have to choose from. Then, like the parting of the seas, I spot my grandmother’s boyfriend, who is literally named Moses, and I feel safe, for I know David is out there somewhere, too.

There is no way I am asking a boy from my school to dance. Not after I followed Mark Lubell around at last month’s Friday night school fling reminding him that he said he’d dance with me, only to hear another song start and end and only to see him continue to duck me. I grow worried for I am about to reenter stepfather territory and the D.J. is making waves about the rules of the game and all eyes are on me and then there seems to be a hubbub on the other side of the room. And that’s when the heat shows up.

I close my eyes in the middle of the dance floor to escape from the mess of the hall. I take a deep breath, not wanting to watch the police scold my mother for the jellybean hail making its debut in midtown, and quietly pray to myself that everyone will just go home and we can start all over again tomorrow.

Dear God,

If by chance a freak time zone accident shall occur and the early-to-mid part of 1985 needs to be rewound and therefore redone, please know this is what I would like to happen. Take notes and pay careful attention.

There will be no fighting; in fact no such word even exists. I will sing my haftorah portion with a voice that is a combination of Barbra Streisand, Marni Nixon and Madonna. Maria and her family in Russia can worship as they please. Everyone at school, camp, and the neighborhood will want to come, for I am the most popular girl for miles, and they will all want to dance with me. The New York Times will start a new Bat Mitzvah announcement section due to my popularity and I will be the first to grace its pages. McDonald’s fries and Burger King burgers, cotton candy, and Lucky Charms will be served and my mother will not complain about it. There will be pictures taken. Lots of them. The D.J. will not speak, not once. He will only spin records.

And God, if none of that is quite doable or requires too much planning, I’ll just take that my mom and uncle still like each other and also that my uncle and aunt like each other, too. And if that’s not possible and I can only ask for one thing, I’ll take that my father is there. (I know that requires rewinding all the way back to 1975, but I’m up for it.)

Anyway, thank you God for listening. Looking forward to getting to know you better. All the best, newly adulted and hoping to do you proud, Rachel. Sister of no one. Daughter of Jeff and Eileen. Wife and mother of as yet to be determined.

P.S. No jellybeans.


TNB Hall of Fame
In an essay entitled “Walking Around Naked With Thousands of Other Naked People Is Totally Fine Until You’re One of the Last Searching for His Clothes”, TNB Associate Editor Greg Boose remembers posing naked with 2,753 other people on the edge of Cleveland, Ohio. “Cleveland was to be [photographer Spencer] Tunick’s first legal shoot in the United States,” he writes. “He had been arrested five times in New York City for doing his thing. At the time, the artist had gotten naked masses to not smile for the camera in Spain and Australia and in a half-dozen other countries around the world. His picture in Montreal, where over 2,500 people staved off fiery Cheetos or the dill pickled-flavored version of them that I hope are available up there, set a record for the most nude persons together in North America.”


Whenever I begin to feel bad about the sorry state of my memory, I like to consider the Borges story “Funes the Memorious.” The titular character, Ireneo Funes, “suffers” from having an outlandishly excellent memory–so good he has to hide himself away in a dark room, so all the intricate detail of his own experience won’t haunt him forever.

In the story, Funes essentially loses the ability to understand abstraction and generalization, because he’s so mired in the particular. He becomes a kind of monster, inhuman. Truly, it’s a redeeming story for those of us with sieves for a mind. Memory can be a disability.

It is an interesting story because it’s a Borges story, of course, but it’s always been of particular interest to me because my memory has always been so terrible. I’ll often forget a certain word–even quite common words–or name, and in the process of trying to remember, forget even those word clusters around it that should be helping me remember. It’s as though my forgetfulness is a metastasizing tumor that feeds on my will to recall. The harder I try, the more I forget.

So, as anyone with any self-esteem would do, I’ve sought to find a silver lining, something about my forgetfulness that will save me from feeling like an absolute failure. My solution–whether reasonable or not–has been to associate forgetfulness with fiction. More specifically, to associate the capacity to forget, with the ability to create. Nice trick, huh? (Of course, as a teen, this impulse also resulted in a whole lot of lying, but that’s a different post.)

I wonder how many other fiction writers suffer from bad memories.

Please explain what just happened.

Right before I opened this document, a rerun of Cold Case started on TNT HD and my chihuahua climbed up on my shoulders and wrapped herself around my neck to nap.