Disjointed Fictions (1)
A DISJOINTED FICTION
The anarchist’s bomb that killed Czar Alexander II in St. Petersburg in 1881 led to the Russian pogroms and the anti-Semitic May Laws of 1882. To these events we Americans owe countless things: the comedy of Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce; the popularity of psychoanalysis; the vaccine against polio; the radical movement on America’s campuses; the novels of Nathanael West and Philip Roth; the entrance of the noun “chutzpah” into The Random House Dictionary of the English Language; Al Jolson’s rendition of “Mammy” in blackface; seven gold medals won by the United States Olympic swimming team in 1972 in Munich; the Ziegfeld Follies; a certain kind of suburban vulgarity typified by the town of Woodmere, Long Island; the establishment of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and that of Murder, Incorporated; Father Coughlin’s radio broadcasts; Sunday brunches featuring bagels and lox; the condominium culture of southern Florida; the fact that it is no longer considered good form to use the word “Jew” as a verb meaning “to bargain.”
Furthermore and more importantly, these events in Russia a century ago led indirectly to my being here in the United States, to my becoming a fiction writer, to my writing of this story, and ultimately to your reading of it.
So if you have any complaints about the rest of this story, address them to the anarchist whose bomb snuffed out the life of the Czar. I take no responsibility for this whatsoever.
(For the original model on which the first paragraph of this story is based, see Borges, Jorge Luis, “The Dread Redeemer Lazarus Morell,” A Universal History of Infamy, translated by N.T. di Giovanni, New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1972.)
(For more background about me, see the paper by my former psychotherapist, Butler, Pamela, “The Treatment of Severe Agoraphobia by Employing Induced Anger as an Anxiety Inhibitor: A Case Study,” Journal of Behavior Therapy, December 1973, Volume VI, pages 327-329.)
Look Ma, I’m Writing
I am having dinner in the East Side apartment of Hilary Cosell, daughter of the sportscaster Howard, and a beautiful, intelligent, industrious woman in her own right.
“Do you like zucchini? You don’t, do you?” Hilary calls from the kitchen.
I grow exasperated. It is the third time Hilary has asked me if I liked something on the menu and then answered her own question in the negative before I had a chance to respond.
“You’re nearly as neurotic as me,” I tell her.
“I’m not neurotic. I’m just a paranoid hostess,” she calls out.
I saunter into the kitchenette, rest my eyes on sizzling zucchini. “I like that,” I say. “’The Paranoid Hostess.’ A great title for a story. I kind of see it as the lead story in a collection: The Paranoid Hostess and Other Stories.”
Hilary smiles. “If you use my name, I’ll sue you for every Lincoln penny you’ve got.”
We eat our dinner by liquid candlelight. Hilary hates overhead lighting. I am shorter than she, so I sit propped up on two of her books: Bed/Time/Story by Jill Robinson and Haywire by Brooke Hayward. They are about real people.
I don’t touch my zucchini because in fact I do hate it.
After dinner we go into Hilary’s bedroom to watch The Pallisers. Hilary plays with her doggie, Tory – short for Victoria and not an indication of political sentiment – who is afraid of all men except Howard Cosell. Tory won’t come near me.
We are watching Susan Hampshire acting the part of the Duchess of Omnium. She is very good.
“Do you this was all written by a Trollope?” I ask Hilary. An old joke, but she laughs. I love her for that.
She goes out of the room to answer the telephone. It must be an old boyfriend. While she is out of the room I leaf through TV Guide. I notice that it is possible to watch, all on this one day, episodes of I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, CBS Salutes 25 Years of Lucy, and the late movie, The Long Trailer, starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
I flick the dial. On Channel 47 the Three Stooges are on in Spanish. I realize how much we English speakers lose in translation. I flick the dial back to Channel 7 and I see Hilary’s father doing Monday Night Baseball. I switch back to The Pallisers before Hilary can come back into the room.
She is hugging her doggie. Next to her on the bed is a copy of The Forsyte Saga.
“Are you reading that now?” I ask her.
“I can’t get into it,” she tells me. “I’ve been stuck in one of Old Jolyon’s thought patterns for three days now.”
Hilary would not have that problem with my fiction. She is a wonderful person, and I say that because I’m still a little afraid she might sue me.
Abe Goldstein comes into my office at the college.
“What’s doing?” he asks me.
“You look like you’re high.”
“I’m writing a story,” I tell him. “I’m in a frenzy of creation.”
“Oh,” Abe says. He looks down at the paper. “I see it’s about Hilary.”
I nod. “You know, Abe, you could be like that visitor from Porlock who interrupted Coleridge when he was writing ‘Kubla Khan.’ What if I don’t remember the rest of my story after you leave?”
“Gee,” Abe says, “I’d better get out of here. That’s too much responsibility for me to bear…Have a nice weekend.”
Abe’s specialty is Chaucer.
I am awakened by the phone in the middle of the night. It is Hilary. She knows that I have put her into one of my stories.
“Until this moment, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness,” Hilary is saying into my ear.
“Little did I dream that you could be so cruel or so reckless.”
Hilary’s words sound strangely familiar.
“If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so,” Hilary tells my ear.
Then I realize: She is quoting the lawyer Welch in his famous confrontation with Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.).
“Have you no sense of decency left, sire? At long last, have you no sense of decency at all?”
We are all children of television. My first word was Boraxo.
“If there is a God in Heaven,” Hilary is saying, “this will do neither you nor your cause any good.”
Whom is Kidding Whom?
Theodore Roosevelt was born in New York City, just like me. He was a delicate boy and so was I. But like myself, Teddy was determined to overcome his physical weakness and to strengthen himself for a strenuous life.
He was graduated from Harvard College just like my next-door neighbor and the following year he married a Boston girl, a great-grand-aunt of my friend Caaron. He studied law at Columbia, where I once attended a lecture by Margaret Mead. He was elected to the New York State Assembly (my assemblyman, Dave Greenberg, was once one of those “Super-Cops” they called Batman and Robin). Roosevelt’s wife died in childbirth just like my cousin Sydelle.
Roosevelt ran for mayor of New York on the Republican ticket, as John Lindsay was to do many years later with my help. Defeated, he became police commissioner and then assistant secretary of the navy. When the Spanish-American War broke out (I did a term paper on it once), Roosevelt organized the Rough Riders, who led a successful cavalry charge at San Juan Hill in Cuba, where my parents honeymooned.
A national hero like my fellow Brooklynite Barbra Streisand, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York and then vice-president. The only vice-president I have ever seen was Lyndon Johnson, and I only saw him presiding over the Senate from the gallery. (Misplaced modifier?)
President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, where I once saw a Don McLean concert, and Roosevelt became President of the United States just two years before my Grandma Sylvia was born.
Roosevelt believed in conservation, just like a girl I once went out with who worked at a recycling center in her spare time. He thought everyone was entitled to a “square deal,” including my eye doctor’s family who lived in Delaware at the time.
After his reelection, Roosevelt led the fight for the Panama Canal, located near my friend Jose’s parents’ estate, which I was invited to one Christmas. He won the Nobel Prize for ending the Russo-Japanese War, a war my great-grandfather wanted to avoid fighting in so badly that he knocked out all of his own teeth to stop the Russians from drafting him.
At the end of his second term Roosevelt went to Africa, scene of several of my dreams. He ran for President again in 1912, forty years before my birth, but was defeated. Roosevelt devoted the rest of his life to conservation, politics and writing, although I have to admit I don’t think he paid as much attention to his writing as he should have. I’m involved in my writing twenty-six hours a day. Of course Roosevelt was too involved with himself to buckle down and work like I do.
While riding the IRT to see my literary agent I am trying to ignore the amputee with the steel drum, the Black Muslim collecting for the Lamar 37X Breakfast Program, the junkie trying to sell his four-year-old daughter, and the shopping bag lady with the Shavian talent for insults.
My eye catches an unauthorized advertisement scrawled on the subway map across from my seat:
FOR A GOOD LAY CALL 969-9970
It’s bad enough that this is my sister’s phone number, but what really hurts is that the handwriting is unmistakably my father’s.
Note: Any nutjob out there attempting to dial my sister’s number will get a busy signal. This is because I cleverly changed her number to a fictional one. The suffix 9970 when preceded by any three digits will always produce a busy signal. A useful thing to know, especially if you’re a fiction writer.
Running out of Gas
This is such a disjointed fiction. It is a mess.
There are two kinds of fastidious people: those who recoil from messes and those who stay to clean them up. Put me in the latter category. I’m going to stick around till the bitter end.
Besides, I have no place to go. There is a terrible energy shortage and I do not wish to waste gasoline. It’s so expensive anyway.
I wish I could write well-constructed stories like my friend Sally, my loose Sally of the mind. But I can’t. Leave us face it.
Faced with what I have written, I feel like Adlai Stevenson when he felt like the little boy who stubbed his toe – too old to laugh and hurting too much to cry.
I feel as though I am disgracing my whole family. And my ancestors too. Maybe I should write under a pen name the way Emily Bronte did. She called herself Ellis Bell. I could call myself Ellis Ireland.
A famous little critic tells me I can do much better than these disjointed fictions. I ask that man: How, Irving, how?
Let’s blow dis joint.
INSIDE BARBARA WALTERS
When Barbara Walters was in second grade, the teacher’s name was Miss Gura. One day Miss Gura got engaged and went up and down the aisles showing all of the second graders her diamond engagement ring. Each of the students had to say something about the ring, like “Ooh” or “It’s nice” or “Very pretty.”
On Friday, Miss Gura told the boys and girls not to forget that Monday was Hobby Day and that they all must bring something from their hobbies to show the class. As soon as she got home from school, Barbara put her stamp album in the downstairs closet. But on Monday morning she was rushed and forgot it was Hobby Day. She didn’t remember until she was on the bus and saw the other children with their stuffed animals and kites and coin collections. Barbara got a sharp pain in her stomach and wondered how she would get out of the situation. Hen she remembered that she had a book with her: Curious George Goes to the Circus. She had taken it along to get Miss Gura’s permission to do a book report on it.
When Miss Gura called Barbara up to the front of the room to show off her hobby, Barbara brought the Curious George book with her.
“My hobby is reading,” said Barbara, and she went into a three-minute impromptu speech about reading and how much she liked doing it. Miss Gura was very interested and no one ever guessed that Barbara had forgotten her stamp album at home.
Years later, Barbara brought a Curious George doll home to her daughter. Barbara liked to say things in a funny screechy voice and pretend that her words were coming out of Curious George. Her daughter would laugh till she cried.
On Today, Barbara was interviewing Senator McGovern.
I’m curious, George,” she said. “How does it feel to be so overwhelmingly rejected by the American electorate.”?
“Not so hot,” Senator McGovern told her.
“To what do you attribute your crushing defeat?”
“I think it happened because I wasn’t as well-read as President Nixon. You know, former President Eisenhower always admired Nixon’s reading skills. That’s why he picked him as his running mate in the first place. And I have to admit it: I just couldn’t keep up with Nixon in the reading department. Nobody can. Why, the President could tell you the author of any book – even the old Curious George ones we used to read when we were kids.”
Denise Gura Kirmedjian, who had become a professor of Communication Studies after her children were born and her husband died, once graded a student’s term paper. The term paper was titled “The One-of-a-Kind Barbara Walters and Her Effect Upon Other People.” It was a bad term paper, rambling, disorganized, filled with comma splices and run-ons and fragments. Professor Kirmedjian gave it an F. She debated whether to write “I knew her when” wit the rest of her comments on the bibliography page.
“President Nixon,” Barbara asked, “what is the biggest problem facing your administration today?” This was in 1973.
“Well,” said the President. “I think we would have to say it was poor reading skills. Recent studies have indicated that one out of every five Americans is functionally illiterate. This means that they cannot write an effective paragraph or do simple sums or read even juvenile books like Curious George, not to mention adult books like my own Six Crises or General Eisenhower’s At Ease: Stories I Tell My Friends. Old Ike was such a good story-teller, you know, and it’s a damned shame many people can’t appreciate his stuff today.”
Barbara nodded her head in agreement and thought: This man is broadminded, shrewd, modest and kindly. We are lucky he reads so well.
“I’m afraid your daughter is failing English,” said Ms. Ruga to Barbara Walters.
“How can that be?” said Barbara, totally mystified.
Ms. Ruga smiled. “Don’t be so alarmed, Ms. Walters. It is unbecoming in so famous a television personality. No, what I meant to say, what I should have said, is that your daughter lacks the necessary skills. It is no reflection on her upbringing, I assure you. But she just cannot read or write. She is a very good television viewer, however. She did an excellent report – oral, of course – on that new children’s series on CBS…you know, the one with the monkey.”
Barbara frowned. “Yes, I let her watch it. It’s the first situation comedy featuring a single character, only one, week in and week out. No other sitcom before it, no matter how realistic or bold or relevant or controversial, ever showed an individual isolated, alone, atomized….”
“Yes,” said Ms. Ruga. “Other programs depend on a large cast of supporting characters, a family. I find this incongruous considering the current abominable state of family life in America. You are divorced like myself, I understand.”
“This is true,” commented Barbara.
Barbara Walters’s daughter could not get used to seeing her mother in person. Mostly she watched her on television. It was hard to get used to seeing her mother without problems in color adjustment, without the contrast too low and the brightness too high, without ghosts in the reception, without the distortion of the rounded cathode-ray tube – without, above all, the essential 525 alternating lines of tiny electrons that formed the familiar picture of Barbara Walters.
The little girl was more than a little confused.
“Look at this,” Harry Reasoner said, showing Barbara a news item he had just ripped off the UPI ticker.
It was about a school principal who had been discovered to be functionally illiterate. The man’s name was Dr. Georg Kyrios.
“Why, that’s my own daughter’s principal,” Barbara exclaimed. “This man has written things like ‘This student was suppose to get there language instruction without delay’s.’ Can you imagine that, Harry?”
“No, I can’t,” said her co-anchorperson.
On television Barbara was interviewing a panel of scientists. These are some of the questions she asked them:
“What is matter?”
“In what way did the universe come into being?”
“How does evolution work?”
Copyright © 2001 Richard Grayson