Recent Work By J.S. Breukelaar

After a whistle stop tour of my hometowns of LA, San Diego and NYC, I’m back in my other home, Petersham, NSW, back teaching, writing. The dog, cat and kids. My office in the upstairs hallway. My beloved is here, and an indispensable best friend, family both there and here, my livelihood (for the present) is here, but my characters, my soul-mates, are there.

Not as horny a dilemma as you think. I drive on the left but glance to the right. I watch SBS News, but hear CBS 8. I eavesdrop on the conversation behind me on the train (a couple of call center managers talking about ‘escalations’ and ‘dehiring’) and give a SoCal edge to their antipodean jive. As the train winds out into the suburbs I see the two story timber homes of Brooklyn rather than the single-story brick bungalows so prevalent here. The boarded up bookstores are the same everywhere, as are the basement dildo stores and thrift shops and Laundromats and pawn stores, but instead of VIP Lounges I see gun stores, and smell Mexican instead of Thai, slices instead of pies and great vats of undrinkable swill instead of aromatic shots of espresso. And water water everywhere. I imagine the azure Southern Pacific washing up on the silver sands of southern California and see frozen lakes instead of mangrove swamps.

It’s a little scary, a little schizo, and I wonder what I’m missing. I think about Flaubert and Faulkner, neither of whom were entirely where they wanted to be and I also think of Stephen King who transformed Flatline, Maine into a febrile field of dreams and whose words stare back at me from a post-it on my monitor.

YOU CAN DO THIS.


Unable to face the word count needed for today I head up to the local café. I hitch the dog to a post. Enter. Faces look up. I head for the counter only to find that it’s not my usual barista-the-writer. But the waiter-who-paints is there, so I give him my order. I count out some change. We share a joke about a centenary coin celebrating the anniversary of the Australian Taxation Office. It’s a twenty-cent piece. I stand to one side and wait for my coffee. I pretend not to notice a man at a wall table staring at me. His grin is ironic and toxically cool. I hide behind smeared glasses.  The man stands up and comes to pay. Points to my necklace and says loudly something I don’t follow. It’s too early for this. The café is already packed and noisy and besides, my ears are blocked from the waxy plugs I have to stuff in them at home to block out the building noise next door. A cross and a gun, the man says louder still, pointing at my necklace. Ignoring the Tiffany heart dangling there somewhere. I’m totally disorientated. I don’t have the personality to deal with this. Not first thing in the morning. Not ever. I feel logey from that extra dose of valerian I took last night. And the wine. I will never make today’s word count. What is it? Two thousand. Three? I defensively finger the cross. Religion? He yells. Rock n roll, I want to shout but don’t. Why should I? It’s not like he cares.

I cover my panic with a helpless smirk. Rest one hand on the counter to steady myself. Undaunted and in my face, he points  to the little silver gun. What is he on? You planning to shoot someone, he says, haha. Clamping his hand over mine.

Faaaaaaark.

The warm blood of a total stranger. Nails me to the spot. I look around but no one is finding this as menacingly banal as I am.  Mushrooms on sour dough toast, lattes, cell phones. Outside the plate glass, the dog lifts his muzzle and narrows his eyes at a very so-so new day. Trucks roar past. The stranger’s hand is sweaty on mine. His eyes are spinning in his head. From caffeine? Intoxicating indifference? Loneliness? His hand on mine, clamping us both to the counter. He says, I’m backing away slowly. Goofy smile, pivoting in cartoon fashion around our joint hands. Don’t shoot.

This dance of dunces. I am cowering, so determinedly devoid of personality that in the end, he stops. I feel sorry for him. I’m not the only one who didn’t need this. Whatever he wanted, I wasn’t it. Cool? Count me out. A good-sported foil for his two-dimensional japery? Come on. What writer worth her salt is a good sport? He removes his hand. Which unleashes something in me. Pity, maybe. My daughter gave it to me, I offer. Your dog? He says, a flash of irritation—or self-knowledge—surfacing in his empty eyes. But even that retreats. The cross, I said, not caring to compete with the clatter. He’s rifling through his wallet. And the gun? he asked, stifling a yawn. My hand flies to it, flashback to the untellable moment of acquiring it. The Browning? I say. And because he’s already turned away, I add, I gave that to myself.

It’s that time of the year again. When thoughts turn to the dread VISA Card statement, office Christmas parties, and Uncle Creepy’s eggnog (what is that secret ingredient). As an antidote to these and other horrors, I’ve assembled a few of my favorite monsters. A Christmas card from where the wild things are to my fellow nervous breakdowners. Wishing you all a truly festive season.

I love my office. It calls to me. The sleepy glow of the computer is a beacon as I go about my household chores. It’s in a hallway and yes I can think of better locations. But for now it’s an okay space.  Tempting to put down my basket of laundry to check my email or jot down an idea, to sneak away from the family, glass of wine in hand, to reread a passage.

The fact that my office is in a hallway may have something to do with why I also like to work in cafes. I love the anonymous crawl space at the edge of a crowd, the kind of concentration possible in chaos. But not if the music is rubbish, not if it’s one of those places that specializes in babyccinos or 423 varieties of muffin holes.  I have my favorite joints based on the pure grunt of the joe, the quality of the music and/or whether or not they are friendly to dogs. There’s a place up the road called Scrambled, where the lesbians churn out nothing but pitch-perfect espresso, brilliant breakfasts and non-stop tunes. And another, a slightly longer walk away, where there are tables outside and a big bowl of water for the dog.

But in the end, and hallway or not, it’s my office that calls to me. I love that first kiss of my fingers on keyboard. Don Quixote cheers me on from a small set of drawers I picked up at a garage sale. The Don is a present from my kids and is one of my most precious possessions. My prized collection of City Lights Pocket Books—Kerouac, Ginsberg— is stacked on a shelf above him. Oh there is a cactus, and my speakers, and CDs and pictures and maps.  A pile of papers I shuffle from a pile labeled ‘In’ to a pile labeled ‘File’ and back again. A grape vine that snakes its way past my windows. I can step outside onto the back steps and look up at the clock tower of the Petersham Town Hall, where Baz Luhrmann filmed Strictly Ballroom. And at my feet, the dog.

Across three continents and over a dozen years, I remember all my offices. In San Diego it was a tiny patch of space off the end of my daughter’s change table. She was in the car with me when I drove to deliver the first piece of writing I was ever paid for. In Christchurch, a cold corner room I shared with my husband. In Sydney, a fabulous sunroom I had all to myself in the bowels of a sprawling Victorian pile on the harbor foreshore. And now this cluttered little passageway that is stifling in summer and too cold in winter and from which I can hear my son on his bass and my daughter on the phone and the neighbors playing Mahjong and through which my better half may wonder at any time, oh, looking for his reciprocating saw or trumpet mute… a space which I can and do make into a room of my very own.

Okay, let’s talk about rejections.

War wounds and badges of dishonor. I’ll see your bruised pride and raise you a broken spirit.

One of my favorite rejections to date came from an editor who knocked back my submission but told me by way of consolation that one of my colleagues—an enviable Irish wunderkind—got in instead, and how proud I must be. The editor went on to say that my story (which has since been published elsewhere) was ‘a little too dry, a little airless.’

‘She talking about your story,’ said a supportive friend, ‘or her vag?’

But the strangest rejection experience I ever had was sitting at an editorial table like a ghost, anonymous and invisible, while the editors tore my story, and me, to shreds. And this isn’t really a story about that story, or the editors, or me. It’s about the fifth editor. A lone voice and a goddess, who, like the others, had no idea that the story was mine but who knew what she liked and who had the guts to champion it. This is her story.

I had applied to join the editorial team of a prestigious university anthology. I applied out of loneliness. Had  just returned to Australia, finished my degree, and knew no other writers. I had been downsized from the best job I had ever had, a staff writing gig at a big cable TV conglomerate where I had worked for seven years. Then the absentee corporate owners of our home had returned with soiled white collars and kicked us out. It was best place we ever lived in and we’d been there for seven years too. I had lost all hope, all faith in myself. I had no idea what to do now, where to turn. The unpaid editorial gig came up and I went for it. I was interviewed by two of the country’s better-known authors who teach in the writing department of one of the state’s best universities. The anthology has been going for several decades and is traditionally launched at a major writers’ festival and has kick-started several writing and editing careers.When the nod came I was over the moon. I had visions of late-night editorial sessions, drunken book chat, racing off to meetings in the winter wind, working with up-and-coming writers.

Apart from the last one, none of this was going to happen and it took roughly two meetings for me to know it. It took roughly two minutes to know that I was anything but among friends. Unlike the previous editorial team, this one was all women. And perhaps like many teams, the Alpha and her Acolyte anointed themselves thus in short shrift. This is how it’s going to be, they all but intoned. We don’t read science fiction and we hate horror. Or experimental. Cult, schmult. And as for that muscular American macho shite, forget it. Give us cancer stories, farm animals and abused kids. Any ideals I had about putting together a diverse collection of fiction representing the best emerging writers in the country shrivelled as I stumbled away from meetings in the winter wind.

In addition to myself and Alpha and Alpha-lyte, the editorial team consisted of a darling but heavily pregnant editor whose thoughts were elsewhere, a teenaged writing student who was the designated Excel jockey (my God, I hear her relentless key strokes in my dreams) and a blue-eyed goddess with a wicked sense of humor.

Goddess and I hit it off like naughty kids in the back of the class. But our joint bid for diversity, for thinking outside the Bermuda triangle of cancer-bushfires-motherless children, went unheard. Submissions to the anthology were anonymous. We got over three hundred submissions. Our job was to cull these down to sixty, then thirty five, then the final cut of thirty, with two spares just in case.

Editors were allowed to submit. Anonymously as per instructions. The story I had submitted was not about mastectomies, drought or Child Services. It was about a bunch of materialistic Xers not coping with the GFC and it was called Sex and Death. Yet for some reason it made the long list. Then the short list. The final cut meeting arrived and there it was sitting at number thirty-three on that damn spreadsheet and there was nothing I could do about it. One of the Alphas, or maybe it was Excel, had designed a flawed ranking system from 0 to 10. The flaw was in allowing both 0 and 10 as ranks, when in fact they worked as wild cards, to skew the results toward a single vision. You could, for instance rank all the stories you wanted in a 10, and all those you wanted out, a zero. And that’s exactly what happened. I brought a bottle of wine to the final meeting. Goddess and I slurped from it while Alpha and Alpha-lyte dispensed with submissions 35 and 34. Then mine came up.

It was the oddest feeling and one that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It was out of body, hilarious in a nightmarish kind of way. Having to sit there and be asked my honest opinion on a story that I could not admit to having written but which apparently sucked asses. Alpha began with the pregnant editor. She said she’d read it but had forgotten what it was about. Abstain. Excel jockey was next. She said ‘eh’, got the stink-eye from Alpha and gave it a 3. ‘What about you,’ Alpha asked Lyte. Lyte said I’ll give it whatever you give it. Alpha gave it a 2. ‘What kind of hateful drivel is this?’ she said. ‘The characters are all so materialistic—(that’s the point, I wheedled). ‘I hate all the brand names,’ put in Lyte. ‘They really annoy me.’ (They’re meant to, I whimpered. By now I was sucking my thumb).

‘Goddess?’ They said. ‘What do you think?’

Goddess’s blue eyes blazed. Her porcelain skin flushed.

‘What do I think?’ She said. ‘What do I think? I think that this is the best fucking story of the whole lot. I fucking love it. It’s slick and professional and hilarious. I fucking cacked myself. I give it a ten.’

My vision had begun to tunnel; my pulse was all over the shop. I was having a full-blown panic attack. I was next.

‘What about you?’ They said.

If I gave my own story a 10, I’d be crucified when they found out. The system is fucked, I thought. How’d it get this far? At this stage I had grave misgivings about even being included in an anthology full of bleating lambs and tumors, yet if I panned my story, what kind of a self-sabotaging loser was I? And what kind of traitor to the Goddess, a lone voice in this wilderness of whining wimmin?

I gave it a seven. Goddess’s face fell. I hated myself.

Alpha shook her head. ‘No no no,’ she said. ‘I really don’t want this one to get in. I just don’t like it. You don’t either,’ she said to Lite, who vigorously shook her head and nodded at the same time. ‘You?’ she said to Jockey, who shrugged. We all looked at the Breeder, staring dreamily into space. ‘I’m going to have to give it a zero,’ said Alpha. ‘I want it out’.

‘Come on,’ said Goddess, looking beseechingly at me. Remember she had no idea it was mine. ‘It’s great. Anyone?’

‘Yeah,’ I said weakly, my skin burning with shame. ‘I like it too, but there’s something I should tell you—‘

‘How can you?’ said Alpha. ‘The characters are horrible. What’s its point? I don’t even know what’s happening half the time. And what’s with that masturbating scene at the end?’

Lyte tittered.

Crunch, went the numbers, and my story fell down dead at our feet.

That night I gave Goddess her usual lift home and she was ropable. Despairing. I tried to laugh it off, but between us lay the fact that I hadn’t come out swinging in support of the story she’d championed. I felt like a traitor, but how could I explain? She’d be embarrassed and I’d be humiliated and what kind of a basis is that for a friendship? Much better to found it on a lie. Mmmm. I was finding it difficult to concentrate on the road. I felt like a wreck waiting to happen. There was, or had been, a real if tenuous connection between us and I could feel it being strained to breaking point.

‘Doesn’t she get it?’ Goddess was saying. ‘It was the only decent story in the whole fucking lot. And what was that line about masturbation? Fuck me. If she thinks that’s masturbating, she’s doing it all wrong!’

That was it. She had me at that. I pulled over and we sat there in my car in the dark cracking up and then I came out with it. The truth. A stunned silence ensued. Then howls. Real-women howls. She-wolves in the night.

Goddess and I have been friends ever since. And I like to think we always will be.


***

 

Postscript 1: A cautionary note. Before the five of us took over, the outgoing editorial team briefed us on procedure. They warned us of the pitfalls in this kind of group decision-making. Blood will flow, they said. You’ll agree on one thing only, that most of the submissions stink. But when it comes to the shortlist you’ll be at each other’s bits. Just remember this. The more divisive a story is, the more consideration it deserves. The stories that divide the team, that cause the most heated debate, are the ones that are going to lift the collection. They’re the ones that need to get in. That’s what art is all about.

Postscript 2: I have not yet resubmitted Sex and Death. I will. One day.

Postscript 3: Calls for submissions to the anthology came out again last year. Goddess wrote and sent me a damn good story. I edited it. She submitted it to the new team. It made the cut.

‘Hey Vernon,’ I say with a smile. ‘What’s going on?’

My bus stop is next. Vernon’s is the one after that, about five miles down the road, maybe more. He swings around in the aisle and regards me furiously with his one good eye.

‘Why’n’t you just bend down over and suck,’ he says. Then he kangaroo kicks me in the stomach. His Keds against my gut. Hard. I buckle, suck in air or try to, images searing my eleven-year-old brain. Bend down over and—oh, the horror! He stands aside, fists clenched, and somehow I make it past him and the hulking albino driver that we call Shorty and off the bus, half falling on to the snow.

Bend down over and what? Genitals, in our sixth grade imaginations, were the elephaunt in the room. We were in denial. Give us ghosts, poachers, rabies, teen pregnancies—even the devil himself, who was kind of big in those days—but genitals. Oh my god. Noooooooh! Rumors abounded of the sucking and bending down variety but we knew they weren’t true. Except when they were. Janet-who-lived-by-the-tracks not Janet-who-lived-on-a-farm-and-had-horses had shown us pictures. She’d swiped them from her step-brother. They were frankly unbelievable. And now here Vernon Sweeting had painted me in the same light: unbelievable. A fiction. Bending down and sucking. On myself. Impossible! But Vernon said so (it was an insult, not an invitation. That much was clear). He’d carved this word picture on my psyche where it would be etched forever. From now on that’s how I’d see myself, eternally bent down over and sucking. And that’s what really hurt.

Because I did really want to love Vernon (not hate him) but most of all I wanted him to love (not hate) me. I would have taken another kick in the guts, anything except those world-changing words. They ruined everything, I thought sinking deeper into the snow. What a hero I could have been, instead of the self-sucking loser I clearly was. A hero: loftily reaching out to Vernon Sweeting, the second baddest boy in the whole damn school. Big bad sad half-blind Vernon, with those taped-up bottle-top glasses, one eye a wary blue, the other masked by a thick yellow cataract like a torn blind on a haunted house. Lived in a trailer outside of town, dwarfed by tire mountains and engine blocks and rusty tractors. A black dog chained to a shed. A mama I never saw and a daddy who walked with a gimp. I was then as I am now, a girl who likes to get a rise out of a boy, but I hadn’t been trying to get a rise out of Vernon. I’d only been trying to do good, at least that’s what I told myself. Because of her.

Mrs T. My sixth grade teacher. I idolized her with the grave, fierce devotion of the acolyte. She’d turned me on to writing with her daily journal exercise and I was hooked. Fifteen minutes every school morning that made everything in between seem like a dream. Mrs T was young and slim with coarse dark hair and coal-black eyes and a scrubbed, sculpted face that could have been Irish or Mohawk or both. She’d responded to the pedagogical call with a rare combination of passion and compassion, guts and brains. She had faith in us, all of us. We were the future. We all loved her, we all rose to her challenge, clamored for the torch she took it upon herself to pass on. It couldn’t have been easy. There were a lot of Vernons in my school, an incendiary mix of kicks and townies and migrant workers. The staff was told not to smile until Christmas but I remember Mrs T’s four-seasons grin. She smiled at the Muhaneys who all lived in a single room with no hot water and came to school barefoot until one of the little girls died and they all moved away, and she smiled at Dougie Burns, who was Vernon’s arch enemy and lived in a trailer too. Dougie was the first worst kid in the school and had a mean shifty way about him, but Mrs T had faith in him too.

Vernon, though, wasn’t mean and he became her special project. One day he brought a garter snake to school in a shoe box and she rustled up a tank and helped him set it up. She got him to research snakes and to present the research and the snake to the class for Science. The snake lived with us in room 6T and everyone knew it was Vernon’s and that Mrs T had given it her blessing which elevated it to a kind of god-like status in our minds. The Snake God of room 6 T. Vernon loved it fiercely and fed it every day and shoved his desk up next to it, and Mrs T let him. She encouraged us to ask him if we could have a turn feeding it. Vernon took some time to think about and then to frame his answer. It wasn’t like he was used to having anything anyone else would want, let alone being asked for it politely. Because of the glasses and the cataract and his poverty and his slurred mumble and god knows what else, Vernon had been teased and humiliated to the point of becoming, not a bully himself like Dougie, but a fortress nonetheless. But Mrs T was patient. She taught us to be patient, too. He’d mutter yeah or no without looking you in the eye and that was just fine. What Vernon gave Vernon could take away. Mrs T said so. And she said so not by saying, but by doing. It was in this way—by doing, or trying to do as she did—that we came to understood that Vernon deserved respect and that beneath all that hurt and fear and neglect was a rare species of soul and one that had to be handled with care.

I understood so hard it hurt.

One day I went to the classroom during lunch for some reason but got only as far as the door. Vernon and Mrs T were beside the tank and Vernon was crying. Not sobbing or anything. Not covering his face with his hands. Just standing on one side of the tank with his glasses off and his face streaked and red and she was sitting on a stool opposite him not smiling a bit. Something told me now would not be a good time to go into the room, but it was only as I began to walk away down the hall that I saw what I was meant to see.

The tank was empty.

When the lunch bell rang we gathered around the classroom door but it was closed and Mrs T was standing outside it. She’d been crying too, we could tell. We joined the other sixth grade class for part of the afternoon. When we went back to our own room, Mrs T was back at her desk but Vernon was not at his and Dougie Burns was not at his. Mrs T told us that someone had gotten into the tank and stolen Vernon’s snake. She told us this in such a way as to break our hearts, many of us for the first time. She didn’t have to ask if anyone knew anything about who would do such a thing because we all knew it backwards.

Dougie Burns and Vernon Sweeting and Mrs T seemed to spend a fair bit of time out of the classroom that week. Spies and runners confirmed seeing one or more of them—including Dougie’s mom and Vernon’s dad, in or around Principal Snyder’s office. Importantly, the empty tank disappeared. It was there one day and gone the next. In its place nothing until someone shoved the globe along a bit so it filled the space. I wonder now if Mrs T got into trouble, maybe for going out too far on a limb for Vernon. Did his father blame her for what happened, for taking it upon herself to save his son? If Vernon’s dad knew what hubris meant, did he throw the word at her? Did he tell her to bend down over and suck?

Mrs T taught me that to write was one way to change the world. She taught Vernon that to love was another. Maybe she got into trouble for her trouble, for her care. But if Principal Snyder kicked her in the guts, Mrs T had guts to spare and came back swinging. And smiling. I remember the smile she shot Vernon when he finally showed up to class one morning. Shuffled past Dougie and where the tank had been, sat down at his desk and took out his journal.

‘Okay,’ she smiled and turned around to slot the tape in the recorder. Some mornings she played music for us to write to and it was one of those mornings.

So that afternoon I just sat there in the snow, my ass getting numb trying not to think about what it would be like to suck on my own genitals. Sometimes I wonder about Vernon and think that anyone with access to that kind of language will do all right for himself. I hope so, because his kick wasn’t worth a pinch of shit. But back then I was mad and humiliated and all that genital stuff made me feel like hurting someone. I lived in one of the last houses in town. Across the street was the Mobil station where the older kids would gather in a few hours to smoke and drink beer. The highway stretched out in a cold hard line beneath the snow-whitened sky. I pushed myself to my feet, beating snow off my tights. I would tell her—I would write tomorrow in my journal about what Vernon said and how much it hurt and look what a mean venomous snake was her pet Vernon.

But the story, when I started writing it in my journal the next day, came out as something entirely different.

Note to iSelf

By J.S. Breukelaar

Salute

Must update the nano. All my music’s on my classic, but you can’t run with a classic, so the nano has my running playlist on it. Also, it seems, last year’s Halloween Party list, and I’m sorry, but “Monster Mash” just won’t get me off today. Neither, for some reason will Pantera’s “Cowboys from hell.” Must be all the glittering water and sunlight. ‘High noon, your doom’ just doesn’t feel right.

It’s that time of the week, time for me and my beat-up ASICS to hit the road. Not the track or the treadmill, just some good old asphalt. The Sydney Bay run is a short, hard run and you don’t want to over-think it. The terrain is basically flat apart from a two-story flight of steps leading up to the nasty Iron Cove Bridge.

I have a new boss. Her name is Pam. Pam emails us and we reply. Pam never replies to our replies. I hadn’t heard of Pam until this semester. But there she is in the staff directory, listed as a Course Coordinator.

“Where the hell is Pam?” asks my colleague after yet another crisis. And Franz, the Co-coordinator is going nuts. He has to find a replacement for the lecture on Coetzee because the professor scheduled to give it has been embroiled in a scandal. Or has had an accident. Pam isn’t clear on that.

Pam is reportedly based at the Other campus (we have three).  However, the big red-haired administrator tells me that Pamela works right here. At This campus.

The administrator has a sheet of paper taped to the filing cabinet in her office. It says in caps:

A LACK OF ORGANIZATIONAL
SKILLS ON YOUR PART
DOES NOT CONSTITUTE
AN EMERGENCY ON MINE.

“What’s she like, this Pam?” I ask. The administrator looks at me askance. I’d almost face-planted running for the train that morning and caught the fall with my hands, which are dripping blood all over the carpet.

“Pam?” says the administrator. “Pam’s an older woman. Favors scarves.”

But someone else describes her as Not Old. Keep an eye out for a pink cardigan and ankle boots, they say. Her office is in Building 5. Room 10. Level G.

That’s my office.

Pam, like Elvis, has been sighted at any number of conflicting locales. Sitting in front of someone on the bus or disappearing across the parking lot. The situation is rare but not unusual. Many graduates and teaching assistants describe their superiors as immaterial. Sightings of the Head Librarian, Associate Dean or one’s Doctoral Adviser abound, and are the stuff of campus legend.

Franz emails my colleague and asks her to fill in the Coetzee spot. Pam also emails my colleague and asks her to be the new co-coordinator.

“That really bugs me,” says Franz. He looks like he is about to cry.

My contract goes missing.

“You can’t be working without a contract,” says the administrator.

“I sent a copy to Pam,” I say.

“Leave it with me,” she says. “I’ll get onto Pam straight away.”

“Thanks,” I say doubtfully.

“This conversation never happened,” says the administrator.

I wait a week after the conversation that never happened. I keep an eye out for Pam in my office. Finally I go to see the administrator who cobbles me up a new contract.

“So have you seen her?” I say.

“Who?” says the administrator.

“Pam,” I say. “For the love of God—!”

“Oh,” she says, swiveling around from her desk. Rolls a tic tac on her tongue.  “You’ve just missed her.”

The latest from Pam is a mass email announcing her resignation and a ten percent pay raise.

“Believe it when you see it,” says my friend, a Bronte scholar who moonlights as a nanny to make ends meet.

But there it is in my next pay check. I don’t know who, or even if Pam is. All I know is that she’s gone, down into the murk below the inexact surface of our so-called reality. Today I created this digital dream to cover the tracks she left. It’s the least I can do.

I haven’t been to New York for a few too many years.  When my son was a baby we took the redeye from LA to visit my grandparents, Ella and Al, on East 72nd Drive, Forest Hills—a block east of Queens Boulevard. They seemed pleased enough to see us, but there was a sense of unpreparedness to their greeting that took me aback. It wasn’t like Ella to let anyone see her in her housecoat, let alone without her girdle. Coiffed and trussed and with her pocket book at the ready—I’d never known her to face the world any other way. It was only later that I found out what she’d been going through with Al—bearing the burden of his advancing dementia in silence and alone, most of their generation dead and the rest of us blown to the four points. I was shocked at how bony he’d become, and in his watery old-man eyes, not so much blankness as blank panic. But within an hour of our arrival, Ella, at least, was her old self again; busy loading the table with bagels and cream cheese, lox and grape jelly and pound cake and coffee cake and oatmeal and stewed prunes and juice and scrambled eggs with American cheese. And good strong coffee in the old Corning Ware pot that I have in my kitchen now.  And then, slowly, Al began to come around. He began to pay attention, especially to my son, and a light came on in his eyes. It was dim but it was there, as if our visit had opened some door he would do his damndest to keep ajar for as long as he could. A smart, fighting man, my Grandpa Al.

They both fell hard for the kid, a relationship that would sustain them for the last few years of their lives and would continue in San Diego where the whole family would finally converge. I don’t why the three of them—a one-year old and a couple of octogenarians—hit it off the way they did. In one of those strange generational skipping stones, my son got Al’s enormous ears. Maybe that was it—ears like satellite dishes. Whatever it was, the love-fest began in those crystalline moments at the old table in Forest Hills with Al shoveling in prunes and Ella flapping around in her house coat and the baby cruising the one-bedroom flat just as his mom and her sisters and cousins had. Except that none of our generation got our heads stuck underneath the TV cabinet—leave that to my kid.  One minute we’re all sitting around the table and I’m translating my husband’s vowels for the old folks, the next there’s a muffled howl from the living room. Followed by a thin and continuous scream. Ella was first on the scene—tugging at the kid’s legs while her old man looked down with brightening eyes. Who knows what he was thinking. Maybe it was about those big old ears—get you into a world of trouble. Or maybe just that there, writ small, was an extension of his own adventurous spirit, a wanderlust that impelled him to cross the Atlantic back in his own distant boyhood, alone and crowded into steerage on the Holland American Lines Noordam, to start a new life in a new world.

Listed on the ship’s manifest as Aaron, Al got his American name and a shot at the dream at Ellis Island on July 16, 1912. He was fourteen. He was naturalized in 1923, one of the proudest and most memorable days of his life. He used to say he was 200% American, and he wasn’t kidding.  His first home was on the lower East Side. He moved to Hoboken NJ when he got a job at a Hungarian language newspaper and saved up enough to get his mother and father and the rest of the family to New York, living with them in Harlem and then the Bronx and finally— when Al remade himself into a successful American businessman—into an apartment in Forest Hills with rolling grounds and a doorman even. Quite a journey.  And that wasn’t the last stop. Many many years later, in a San Diego nursing home, when his dementia was at its height, he and my little boy ran off together. A manhunt ensued. We finally found them, lost in an elaborate game of hide and seek among a forest of forgotten filing cabinets. Al was rarely compos again after that, but he knew the boy until the end.

The push to get Ella and Al out of New York had been going on for some time before I made that final visit to Forest Hills. Life in the Bad Apple was becoming increasingly untenable for folks like them. Ella had been mugged on the subway steps, a gold chain ripped from her neck. The cleaning lady was stealing from them. They were alone, trapped in the apartment. We were in Australia. My aunt, uncle and cousins were in San Diego and my aunt had found some gorgeous senior digs for them and her mom near Solana Beach. My cousins flew to New York to try and talk them into leaving. Al had very little say by that time. The pure truth of it was that everything that Ella loved about living in New York, and especially Forest Hills, was not much good to her any more. Not without Al. So she sold up, keeping only those things that they’d acquired together—the menorah, which was the first thing they bought after they were married, a few old kitchen knives with bottle corks serving as handles, a yellow and white Limoges china set and a Wear-Ever aluminum fry pan and serving tray. I have them both in my kitchen now, as good as new. And on my office bulletin board is the luggage tag that Al attached to the faux-leather suitcase that had been a gift from the bank (he loved those freebies, had a drawer full of shoehorns). The tag says Final Destination San Diego.

At the time of that last visit to New York, my husband and I were in the fashion business—schmatte, Al grunted into his coffee. There wasn’t much you could put over this old guy, even in his decline. Over the course of our visit, he became more and more definitely and defiantly Al. He and my husband got into this thing about shaving—Al had noticed the nineties-era stubble, and had always been big on good grooming. I remember he’d had been mortified when my cousins went to get on the plane back to college unshaven. ‘You look like terrorists,’ he’d said. ‘I wouldn’t be seen on Queens Boulevard with either of you.’ Anyway, so my husband was complaining about having to shave every day, and Al wasn’t having a bar of it. What’s to complain, he said, with these newfangled disposables? Had my husband heard of them? Come here, he said, dragging the six foot three fella who talked funny off to the tiny green and black-tiled head. He showed him a pristine Gillette Blue, demonstrated his rinsing and tapping techniques. Disposable, dishmosable, Al said. He’d had this baby for two years.

By mid morning Al was back in the game and I wasn’t going to miss a New York minute of it.  My husband headed downtown on business, and I took time to retread the old haunts. I headed down to Austin Street, where my mom and aunt—back then just girls themselves—would take us shopping and where Ella and Al would grab a slice at A&J’s joint. Life on the buzzy strip had slowed down a little since the time I remembered as a kid, the smell of strawberry oil and ganga thick in the air and mushroom candles stacked in baskets. The mushroom candles were all gone but I bought myself a little black dress on sale in a tiny boutique, and a slice of pie from A&J’s. Ella loved the fact that great shops and delis were within safe walking distance of their apartment. For them it was a real neighborhood until the mugging, and the family said enough already.

Later that day, or maybe it was the next one, Grandpa took the baby and me on Grand Tour—a ritual he’d insisted on whenever any of the grand-kids came to stay. Grandma didn’t stop him—smart woman. He managed fine. We didn’t talk much, didn’t need to. I knew him and he knew me and we’d been here before—I was his oldest grandchild and always would be.  I pushed the stroller and we ambled past the apartment buildings and across to the grassy knoll overlooking Grand Central parkway and walked along Willow Lake.  When we were kids he’d take us the longer route, west past the big Catholic Church and sometimes to the Fire Station. But we always ended up along the lake. He’d pick the crab apples and tell us to take them home to Grandma so she could make sauce. He’d grown up the son of an employee on a big estate in a village in what is now the Ukraine, and, city-savvy as he was, he’d always had a thing for the open land. He’d spend his final days with views over the Pacific, but back then he considered himself fortunate to be living in a city neighborhood with parks and a real lake and apple trees, even. Maybe they reminded him of where he was born and how far he’d come. My cousins, sisters and I bought the ‘home-made’ apple sauce deal, hook, line, and sinker— even though Ella would come out of the kitchen and serve it up minutes after we got home. Good old Motts.

Al especially liked the big occasions—the holidays or a birthday or anniversary—when both his sons and their families would be crowded into that apartment and he’d sit at the head of the table and love was literally in the air, in the smell of Grandma’s brisket and my aunt’s perfume, and the faraway grind of the city below like the sound of a dream. All five cousins in the one place. Al could sometimes be a little withdrawn, a little serious among adults, including his own sons.  But with his grandchildren, he’d let down his guard and we loved it.  There was that slow smile, and big ears, and teasing games that never got old, and he’d have us crawling all over him.  Still, for Al life was a serious business and he was, in the end, a serious man. Grandma would eventually call us off and he’d retreat to the no-go zone of the lawn chair he kept by the window (don’t ask) in the plastic-covered splendor of their living room.  Get out the Times and that was it. We didn’t mind. There was always the tiny kitchen with its window overlooking the tree-lined street, and Ella moving from table to refrigerator to stove and back again, slicing bagels in thirds with a cork-handled knife, fishing for a pickle, unscrewing a jar of Motts.  As a girl, she had been an accomplished secretary helping to support her parents, earning $30 a week in the Depression. According to my uncle, when they decided to get married, her folks resisted and his parents said that, because of her prematurely white hair, she was too old for him. Both sides blew it. Al took over taking care of the old folks and Ella never worked another day in her life for a paycheck. My uncle likes to say that both he and my dad were work enough and she was grossly underpaid. Anyway that was the deal and for Ella there were plenty of compensations. Limoges dinner sets, Venetian glass knickknacks, and eventually a black fur coat that she’d proudly wear out to Hunan Chinese on Northern Blvd. With her white coiffure, generous bosom and well-turned ankles, my tiny grandma in that coat was something to behold.

I grew up in Aurora, a few hundred miles up state. But at the time of our last New York visit I had been living for some time in Sydney, and Grandpa’s Grand Tour had taken on epic proportions in my memory. As had the green and black tiled bathroom where my cousins famously smoked weed on vacation from college, first having to pry open the tiny window that which had not been opened in fifty years, if ever. I remembered the annual visits to Radio City with Grandma, the shoe sales and Alexanders with my aunt, or Chinatown with my mother and years later, cruising the Village with my sister, a couple of teenagers lost in the city.

I didn’t have time to do all that the last time in New York. But I’m glad I was there, with them in the apartment one last time. A few years later, in 2001, I was in charge of running the American table for the International Food Fair held annually at my kids’ school here in Sydney. In the early hours of that September morning, I watched the towers burn and felt, like expats everywhere, unable to breathe. It was mostly grief, but partly guilt. I should be there, I kept telling myself. How can I stay? How can I run an American food table—what’s relevant about that? But stay I did.  The International Food Fair went ahead with all flags at half mast. I kept the decorations in the box—the bunting and the flags. There were tables from every nation but the American food table was mobbed, quietly and respectfully. I stood between my daughter and my mom—we cooked the wieners and poured lemonade until it was gone and the brownies were all sold out. I kept thinking what Grandma had said to me back in San Diego when I was heartbroken about having to move again. Stand by them, she’d said, by your man and your children. It’s your job. I never saw her alive again. She died in 1995, four years after Grandpa. She was ninety-three. I flew back, wore the dress I bought on Austin Street to her funeral. My cousins and I watched her being laid to rest beside Al, the F-14s from the Miramar Air Station roaring overhead. Final Destination San Diego. How far they’d come. It never seemed to matter where they were, or how far from home, as long as they were together.

I don’t know why I never went back to New York. After our fashion gig went bust there was a lack of money, I guess. A lack of guts. I go back to California because that’s where the family is now. No ghosts in California. But I have a new family of fellow writers and artists forming in New York, where my first novel is being sold. So I’ll be back soon. I’ll be a ghost on 72nd Drive, get a slice of pie on Austin Street and look for crab apple trees in Flushing Meadows Park. They say you remember smells but for me New York is sounds. Lying there at night high above the city in my grandparents’ room listening to New York sing her siren song. This time I’ll follow her call. Hit the shuttered streets. Take in some basement jazz, go dancing, maybe stop at an all-night diner. This time I’ll be an adult.