A journal of narrative writing.
Happy New Year

“In the software work of writing, the information is cleverly packed…the difference between scenes (in time) and rooms (in space)” – is – “Many temporal scenes can be programmed to fit in a given narrative room. Many spatial rooms may be entered at a given moment of narrative time.” (NYTimes Book Review, p. 27…”The Muse in the Machine: Or, The Poetics of Zork,” Robert Pinsky, March 19, 1995)


“No, Dan,” she said.

“But I love you.”

“I don’t want to.”

“You don’t think you should. It’s not the same thing.”

They lay on cold sand under the Long Beach boardwalk. Their down jackets were as big as life preservers and as prophylactic. The high tide sent briny gusts to mix with the scent of snow. Clouds blotted the sky black, but they couldn’t see the sky beneath the boardwalk anyway. Their ceiling was the wood planks chinked by streetlamp light, straight lines instead of stars. There was no sound of gulls, only their breath, visible, and the light in their eyes.

* * *

New Year’s Day, 1995, was Ruth’s 95th birthday. She was first cousin to Daniel’s great grandfather. She was telling him how his great grandparents had met. They were both telegraphers on Wall Street during the Depression.

“He insulted your great grandmother,” Ruth told Daniel at her birthday party, “over the telegraph wire. He was sending her numbers, and when she sent them back to verify, he sent her back curses for making a mistake, but then when he checked what he had sent, he saw it was his mistake, so he apologized by inviting her to meet him for a drink after work. When she walked into the saloon, he was shocked because he had no idea she was a woman.”

“My girlfriend asked me to interview you on tape for her English class,” Daniel said.

* * *

They had the same English teacher. Lynne was in 9th grade, and Daniel was a senior. He was reading Godot and R & G Are Dead. Lynne was reading Inherit the Wind. On the same day in December, the English teacher told the AP class and the 9Honors class the same story of another 9th grader, in a slower section. When they had been reading about the firmament in Genesis 1:7, as they had in Lynne’s class, their teacher had asked, “What is beyond the firmament? Beyond the sky?”

“Spain,” a girl answered.

“Spain?” their teacher said, not sure about his hearing.

“Spain,” the girl repeated.

“What do you think Spain is?” he had asked.

“A planet,” she said.

* * *

At the birthday/New Year’s Day party on Long Island, they sat in the windowed den of Daniel’s mother’s cousin’s house. Baby and toddler cousins’ plastic toys and stuffed animals were piled in a corner by a bookcase being used as a bar. Older cousins and aunts and uncles filled the room with talk and the smell of drinks. Daniel’s stepfather and younger half-brother Mark stepped down into the den.

“Have you seen your mother?”

“She was here a minute ago,” Daniel said.

“What’re y’doin’?” Mark asked.

“Come, join us,” said Ruth, patting the couch.

“Do you dye your hair?” Another blurt from half-brother.

Ruth touched her thin black and white hair, massed and barely held up into something like a bun. Daniel thought of Einstein’s disobedient head.

“No,” Ruth said, “I never had to dye it. I’m quite vain about it.”

Daniel was glad he’d gotten that on tape. At 95, she had absolutely nothing to be vain about, and yet she was. Her loose and soft body filled a maroon crocheted sweater and skirt; she resembled one of the dressed stuffed bears in the toy corner except for the mottled skin on her skull face. She was a reliquary, a talking bone.

“What do you remember about the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925?” Daniel asked, redirecting Ruth’s attention to the tape recorder.

His mother stepped down into the den. She was holding a plastic flute of champagne.

“Everyone brought you a magnum,” she said, lifting the glass in a toast to Ruth, “and you’re not drinking any.”

“I’m doing an interview, Mom,” Daniel said.

“Excuse me,” his mother imitated Steve Martin and retreated.

“When I was 25,” Ruth resumed, “I came down to New York from Utica. I lived in the Y overlooking the East River on 79th Street. The Scopes trial?”

Daniel watched her watery gray eyes look back into the past. Accessing, he thought, comparing the speed of his Mac to her aged brain.

“You can’t imagine how far away Mississippi seemed then,” Ruth said.


“Oh, Tennessee,” Ruth agreed. “There are other trials I remember better – the Lindbergh baby, the Rosenbergs –“

* * *

Daniel and Lynne had met in the World Interest Club. They had just returned from an international competition at Duke University, where their school delegation had won First Prize. Daniel and Lynne had also won Firsts for the countries they represented.

“I read Pozzo in Godot, and now I’m the Player in R & G Are Dead,” Daniel said. “It’s essentially the same part. It’s Irony. We read Frye. You’ve got to be in his class again when you’re a senior so you can read Frye.”

“I’m reading the Clarence Darrow part in Inherit.

“You would have to,” Daniel had said. “You want to go out for New Year’s Eve? There’s a party and we can walk on the beach.”

“It’ll be too cold,” Lynne said.

“We don’t have to walk on the beach.”

* * *

“—but of course I was occupied with my own new independence in New York in the summer of 1925,” Ruth said.

Daniel listened to the tape hum. He knew Cousin Ruth well enough to know that he could just leave it running and let someone else take his place sitting beside her. She’d go on and on like a talking history book, a really heavy one, disjointedly telling story after story with indecipherable, narcoleptic genealogies. It hadn’t snowed after all, just those few flurries that had burned his mouth when they had climbed back up onto the boardwalk. This New Year’s Day was full of sunshine. Now in the den, the sun burned on his cut lip. His mother’s abandoned champagne glass was on a table within his reach. The slightly fizzy wine also burned the bloodied crack in his lip that he’d explained that morning as excessive winter dryness. (His mother recommended Chapstik.) He emptied the glass.

Ruth looked at him through her bottle-thick glasses.

“Of course I can’t see very well anymore,” she said, “but it looks like you just sucked a lemon.”

Now that would be on the damned tape.

“Tell me about the July when you were 25,” Daniel said, “maybe you’ll remember something you don’t even know you remember.”

* * *

He sat in AP English.

“What’s your first memory?”

“When was the first time you realized that death was something that would happen to you?”

“What’s missing in Ironic lives? In the lives of R & G and Vladimir and Estragon and Pozzo and Lucky?”

“Why is Lucky named Lucky?”

“Why is Rosencrantz puzzled by the actor dressed like him? Have you ever looked into a mirror and not recognized yourself?”

“What lines recur in Godot and R & G?”

Daniel answered, “Every time they try to remember what they’re doing, Vladimir says, ‘We’re waiting for Godot,’ and Estragon says, ‘Ah.’ R & G keep reminding themselves they were called for. That’s the first thing they can remember.”

“When were you called for? When were you born? Then which month’s egg were you? It’s no good looking for the sperm, there were a million of ‘em. But out of the 400 eggs to ripen from your mother’s approximately 30,000, which lucky egg were you?”

* * *

There was sand everywhere, in his hands, under his shirt, in her hair, in his mouth. It made her mouth feel and taste like an oyster. He was smiling as he was kissing her.

“What?” she said, pulling away.

“An oyster,” he said, as if she’d been hearing his thoughts.

“It’s her 95th birthday tomorrow?” Lynne asked. “Could you interview her?”

“C’mon,” he said.

“No. I don’t want to.”

“You don’t think you should. It’s not the same thing.”

“You really said you were called into being by two drunks at a New Year’s Eve party in 1976? Right in class? What did Mr.—“

“He said it was a cold answer.”

“But you’re not cold now.”

“I’m not drunk,” Daniel said, “or unprepared.”

* * *

Ruth had accepted a piece of marzipan shaped like a strawberry because she couldn’t resist it.

“We used to travel all the way uptown for the marzipan in Yorkville. It was called Germantown then. Before and during the war, the Bund marched on 86th Street -- ”