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Thread: Auntie's Anti-fiction

  1. #31
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    Thanks for the lesson dear Aunty...

    I cannot disagree with your references.

    I botches my reply.

    Sorry.

    I was drunk.

    HH

  2. #32
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    I cannot disagree with your reference.

    I botched my reply.

    I was 30% drunk.

    HH

  3. #33
    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hayseed Huck View Post
    That first sentence kills the story-- too long.

    Hypotactic too.

    Hypotaxis thwarts the narrative by dependence upon the
    subordinate clause.

    Shouldn't be that way.

    HH
    Her first sentence: "The grounds crew was taking its sweet time rolling up the tarp." That's too long? And what subordinate clause?

    Quote Originally Posted by Hayseed Huck View Post
    This story ...

    I didn't mean to say a subordinate clause can be
    found in this paragraph.

    I failed to write clearly.

    In fact this pragraph is more paratactic than hypo-
    tactic.

    But there is a stall.

    The relative functions as a subordinate without the forn
    of a subordinate. It certainly is a confused construction.

    Other notes--

    'various amounts' is a pleonasm. 'Amounts' is sufficient.

    'containers of various amounts.-- containers are not
    'of' amounts. Not scattered about, but sitting upon
    a counter or table.

    Scattered about the tiny office were containers of various amounts of liquid, which at one time could be called “coffee,” stacks of print-outs describing incident reports from the wild and inter-department memos from the Commissioner’s office, as well as spoor samples encased in plastic sandwich bags and fragments of diverse specimens of flora and fauna from nearly every region in the state which should have never been removed from the lab in the first place.

    The last 'which' placed late.

    'the lab' no reference of a lab. Can't write 'the' lab.

    'diverse specimens' is also a pleonasm.

    'diverse' is one of those elegant but meaningless words.

    HH

    HH
    This is all gibberish.


    Thanks for the lesson dear Aunty...

    I cannot disagree with your references.

    I botches my reply.

    Sorry.

    I was drunk.

    HH
    Well, that explains it.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

    "Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

    My literature blog: http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/

  4. #34
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    Dear Virgil,

    I don't know why I care.

    I'm 76 years old-- had my day.

    But I want to know why you find my reply
    gibberish-- my mild inebriation notwith-
    standing.

    ... and I seek no confortation.

    By the way-- is the Aeneid predominte hypotactic
    or paratactic?

    Please show me how 'various amounts' is not a
    pleonasm.

    Show me the article 'the' is incorrect.

    Sentence too long? The first story in the
    collection.

    Show how the hypotactic does not stall action
    in a story.

    Teach me about the correct uses of 'which.'

    Improve my language skills-- I wish not to
    write gibberish.

    Often my writing is dense, but I hope never
    gibberish.

    Please tell me your credentials that you make
    this claim.

    I find as I grow older I am more possessive of
    my eighth-grade education. I guard it-- along
    with the Irish whiskey in my right desk drawer.

    I will make mistakes, many-- maybe answering is
    one of them.
    **

    Subject forever closed.

    No ned to reply.

    It's not my life and it's not my wife.

    HH

  5. #35
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    Hi Auntie,

    I interpret this tale as a vision of purgatory, the sly, incidental reference to the lack of spectators below middle age indicating that perhaps everyone is dead and in their own personal torment.

    I’m sorry to say that my knowledge of Baseball and its customs is sadly limited, so I may be missing out on some of the fun you are undoubtedly having. Your description of the big hit was very inventive. Your use of the word parsec in this context is creative, some readers may not be aware that a parsec is actually a measure of distance, (a parallel second, or 3.26 light years) but the meaning in context is clear and expressive.

    I confess to having been utterly confused by some of the comments but I consider your response to have been both courteous and informative and exercised with admirable restraint.

    As always Auntie I enjoy your strands and look forward to reading your next offering.

    Regards, H

  6. #36
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    Thank you Prince, Virgil, and Hawkman for coming to my rescue.

    And Hawkman, as far as the theme of the story goes, you hit the proverbial nail on the head. It could be Purgatory that Ernbacher's in or perhaps some place hotter. The story can be interpreted as an allegory of eternity.

    The inspiration, if you call it that, came from two events in the current baseball season which began in early April. Recently an umpire (one of four referees per particular baseball game) complained quite rightly that some of the Major League Games drag on much too long. This umpire, Joe West, was referring especially to the games played by
    the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. But since Boston and New York are such fierce rivals and both cities are highly populated, their games do seem protracted. My long-suffering spouse, Uncle Shecky, who is a life-long Red Sox fan, thinks the reason for this is to cram more commercials into their televised games. The other event that inspired me to write the story was a game last weekend between two National League teams, the New York Mets and the St. Louis (birthplace of T.S. Eliot) Cardinals. A regulation game is supposed to last only 9 innings, but because of a tie, it went to "extra innings, in this particular game, 20. It started at 4 p.m. and didn't end until a little after 11. As a life-long Mets fan, I was glad the Mets eventually won, but gawd, was it long!

    And thanks for citing the use of the word "parsec." I used it because it sounded futuristic. Actually, on these shores we do tend to measure distance in terms of time, as in "Visit the Country Mall -- it's only 30 minutes away!"
    Last edited by AuntShecky; 04-23-2010 at 02:28 PM.

  7. #37
    Cat Person DickZ's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    {Author's Note: This particular story appeared once before as an entry in the LitNet's Short Story Competition.
    It must have been quite some time ago, as the typeface in the original file typeface was different from the font I've been using for the past year or two. In any event, I'm re-posting this thing in the fond hope it might generate some replies. If there are any replies, there are two issues or problems I have with the story which I'll 'fess up to if anyone posts a comment. Then maybe you and I can fix 'em. In any event, here 'tis --}


    The Myth of Generations

    It was risky for the boys to be in the alleyway behind Krause’s Butcher Shop. . . . .

    But that story about the dump – the time he found the baby in a box - he told us only once.
    I remember that story from the competition very well, and voted for it. In fact, I'm pretty sure it was the last story I voted for. I could tell immediately that it was written by our very own Auntie, whose fingerprints were all over it. We weren't able to comment on it during the competition, so I'm glad we can do so now. This is one great story.

    I'm curious as to what the problems you mention might be.

  8. #38
    Cat Person DickZ's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    “I Don't Care If I Never Get Back”

    The grounds crew was taking its sweet time rolling up the tarp. . . .

    Bottom of the first, the World Champion Mid-Atlantic Oceanics had a lead-off walk, a strike-out, a foul ball caught by the third baseman, and with the star player grounding out to second, an inning-ending double-play. . . .
    I regret to say that you lost me early on this one, Auntie. How can you ground into a double play when there are already two outs? I think this is the first time I've ever stopped reading one of your magnificent stories before reaching the end.

    Maybe I'll try again later, when the shock wears off.
    Last edited by DickZ; 04-27-2010 at 07:45 AM.

  9. #39
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    And my technical advisor (Uncle Shecky) didn't catch it!
    I'll fix it. Thanks!

  10. #40
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    Three Septembers

    [The following rule-breaking piece of anti-fiction is a long short story or short novella. The three parts have been posted here consecutively. The author will be grateful to all of those who have enough patience to plow through the entire thing and to post their comments.]



    Three Septembers

    1.

    It was the second Saturday in September, but nobody told the weather, just as sticky as it had been in mid-July. Christine --the lucky stiff!-- was now out of school and working. She got to sleep late on weekend mornings, so the job of referee passed down to me. So there I was sweating in the back seat of the Dad’s second-hand Plymouth, with the ugly, scratchy upholstery.

    “Ewwww! Mom! Dwight broke the wind!”

    “No, you did. He who smelt it dealt it!”

    Each twin reached across me to swat or poke the other, for what must've been the fortieth time since we'd left the house.

    My mother turned around. “Laura! What’s the matter with you? Can't you keep them quiet?” (As if they'd listen to me!)

    “You stink!”

    “No, you stink, Dwight –ooooo.”

    The high-pitched bickering suddenly ceased, lasting for the two minutes or so it took to cross the bridge, strangely paved with thin, metal ridges that not only made a comical sound as our car drove over it, but also set off bizarre vibrations that tickled us inside.

    During the all-too-temporary truce while Davy and Dwight reveled in the physical sensations of the bridge, I tried to look out the window at the river. Sometimes you could see a couple of gulls sweeping slightly above the surface, or if you happened to have hit the right time, a tugboat or a barge moving slowly downstream. I had to crane my neck like a periscope in the attempt to glance over the top of Davy’s crew-cut, but even more difficult was seeing anything between the closely-set vertical girders of the bridge. I thought I had a fleeting glimpse of the slim ribbon of water, but by that time the funny noise and the tickling had stopped, we were back on conventional macadam, and the brats had resumed their flailing and slapping.

    We headed north on Broadway to a department store nicknamed “Monkey Ward,” our second trip there in a week, when we had made the annual trip to buy “back-to-school” outfits. This subsequent trip had a two-fold purpose. My mother held an unshakable faith that her eight-year-old twins were absolutely “identical,” yet despite her efforts to reinforce that notion by rearing, feeding, and dressing them alike, reality often superseded her deeply-held --almost religious -- belief. To everyone except my mother, Dwight was a taller, fatter copy of his twin. Both new pairs of pants only fit Davy, none fit Dwight, so one pair of the week-old corduroys had to be exchanged for an exact replica in a larger size. For the time being, the unusable pants with the tags intact and the receipt still in the flimsy, blonde-colored paper bag remained for the time being on my lap.

    More pressing was to purchase a replacement for an end-table lamp broken that morning by one or both of the boys. Neither would confess to the crime nor finger the other, thus collectively escaping punishment, at least for a while. Normally, my parents, staunch devotees of the “make do” philosophy, would have postponed buying another lamp, but in this case, putting it off wasn't an option. That evening the living room had to look presentable, because we were expecting “Company.”

    Once more the calendar had turned round to the time of one our family’s traditions, watching the country’s biggest beauty pageant on my father’s beloved Crosley. According to custom, we expected my mother’s brother, sister, and her husband to join us.

    In the past couple of years we had all crammed ourselves into the living room to view this spectacle, which inexplicably captivated the adults. Early in the proceedings they'd pick their favorite to win the tiara, and if our state’s representative failed to make the cut in the semi-finals, they'd switch allegiance to a gal whose midriff-crossing banner indicated the name of a state geographically closest to ours. Such devotion baffled Christine and me. Two hours of sheer corniness could only be survived through irony, a term neither of us would have recognized at the time. Yet we'd roll our eyes and whisper mocking comments to each other over how the contestants, between the ages of late teens and early twenties, were gussied up to look like thirty-year-old women who'd already been around the block at least once. In the “swimsuit” competition we pondered whose bright idea it was to have the gals wear incongruous high heels that would sink deep down into actual beach sand, while the “swimsuits” themselves made them resemble trussed poultry. The misnamed “talent” segment was a treasure trove to strip-mine for laughs, from nasally-delivered aria to ventriloquism acts during which we'd crack up over which performer was the dummy.

    “Christine,” I'd hiss, “what’s a ‘dramatic monologue’?”

    “It means ‘She left her cheerleader’s baton on the bus.’ ”

    To me the strangest part of the show was always the finale, with its phony suspense, overblown dramatics, and especially the lack of logic in which the third place finisher, the “second runner-up,” received special recognition and her own round of applause, while in the feverish rush to announce the new, the one in the middle, the real “Runner-up,” received barely an acknowledgment. This year, however, now that Christine had reached the age when she could openly slip out on a Saturday night, there would be no one to joke with. I'd have to suffer alone.

    Of course, our typical family get-together invariably involved food in massive quantities. This particular occasion called for my mother’s famous golumpkis as well as her special dessert concocted with a can of crushed pineapple and an envelope of Knox unflavored gelatin, then allowed to “set,” like a prisoner doing time in a cold cell. Once sprung from the refrigerator, the spongy loaf was inverted onto a plate and ceremoniously crowned with copious squirts of ersatz whipped cream from an aerosol can. Aunt Margaret customarily brought the side dish, occasionally macaroni and cheese with tomatoes, or her home-made potato salad with its “secret” ingredient which everyone knew was mayonnaise laced with ketchup. None of these dishes appealed to me, (though I would have enjoyed the macaroni and stewed tomatoes served separately) but I'd pretend to ingest a little of each dish, more to avoid the inevitable reprimands than to be polite.

    Needless to say, I wasn't looking forward to that evening’s events, but first we had to get the Monkey Ward business out of the way. My father never wanted anything to do with shopping and often said he wouldn't put one foot into the A & P even if they were giving away free T-bone steaks. He was always willing to drive us to wherever we were going, but otherwise, we were on our own. Dad would stay in the Plymouth and stare out the windshield as he smoked one Lucky Strike after another. He didn’t even look as we hiked across the parking lot and climbed the huge flight of steps up the massive grey building.

    With the scene the twins had caused the previous Saturday still painfully fresh in my mother’s mind, this time she announced an emergency procedure for maneuvering through the revolving door. “All right, Laura, you have Davy go ahead of you and as soon as you get inside, grab his hand. Then wait,“ adding, “and don't lose that bag.” The momentary relief from the heat was short-lived, as the interior temperature was undoubtedly just a few degrees lower than that of the heat-absorbing asphalt outside. The only perceptible difference was that the air was a tad less still, coaxed to move around by grudging ceiling fans.

    We marched through the store like enemy invaders who'd captured two diminutive prisoners. Although my mother’s oversized pocketbook intermittently banged against her hip with her every step, she seemed to be handling Dwight better than I was. “You're holding my hand too tight!” Davy whined, and to underscore his point, it felt like he was pulling my arm out of its socket. At any moment I knew the flimsy bag I held in my other hand would crumble to sheds and the pants would tumble to the floor, to be trampled beyond any hope of an even exchange.

    First stop, Home Furnishings. The pieces of furniture were set up as they might be seen in a hypothetical “home,” except every bed was completely made and none had piles of folded laundry, newspapers, or toys on top of it. The dining room chairs all matched their corresponding tables, some of which were covered not with flannel-backed oilcloth but real linen. The dinner plates on each table were the same size and pattern, and not one piece of silverware was missing. While I admired the elegance and remarkable consistency, my stomach sank a couple of feet the very moment I caught sight of a ring of shimmering crystal goblets adorning one of the tables. Only a skilled magician, perhaps, could have yanked that tablecloth and have the glassware land intact. Introduce a couple of rambunctious eight-year-old boys into the scene and next thing you know the Governor is calling in the National Guard.

    Real panic set in when I momentarily lost my mother. With a protesting Dwight still in tow, she had somehow drifted over to the housewares section, where shelf after shelf over shimmering cookware and ingenious kitchen gadgets had lured her into wistful rapture.

    “Mom? The lamp?”

    Without a word, she pulled herself and Dwight away as the four of us backtracked across the entire sales floor. Unlike the furniture “suites” arranged with a quasi-artistic flair, the various merchandise was grouped according to an efficient pragmatism, like with like. The space in front of an entire wall was devoted to bathroom fixtures, including a phalanx of bone-dry toilets lined up like soldiers, their lids in full salute, a sight that sent the boys into an extended giggling fit. A long line of automatic washers, front-loaders segregated from top-loaders, flanked a corresponding row of dryers. The inventory was subject a subtle hierarchy designed to separate the well-heeled prospective customers from those whose circumstances kept them within the confines of the euphemistically-termed “budget.” Each appliance bore one of three tags indicating its relative status: “Good,” “Better,” or “Best.”

    When we finally arrived at the section reserved for table lamps, I hoped that my mother wouldn't get that tell-tale browsing gleam in her eye and prayed that she'd find what we'd come for quickly. This was just about the last place on earth to bring Dwight and Davy, given their recent history.

    Then, at last: “Christine–Laura, I mean– look at this. Isn't this the spittin’ image of the one that –“ sotto voce “– broke?” She was right, of course, the lamp could have been the twin brother of the one whose ceramic pieces and tangled wires had been laid to rest in the dustbin on our back porch.

    “Yeah, you're right, Mom. Let’s buy it and get out of here–“

    “Well, we don't want to have to lug it all the way to the boys’ section, do we?” she said.

    “Tell you what. I'll bring Dwightie down to try on the pants, then we'll meet you and Davy back here.”

    The words had scarcely left my mother’s mouth when Davy’s jaw dropped in exquisite indignation. “What? Why can't I go too? You're gonna buy Dwight somethin’ and not me? It’s not fair!”

    Both my mother and I tried to explain that no, Dwight wasn't going to get something new, that we were just getting a different size of pants that they both already had.

    “I don't care. It’s not fair! I'm not staying here. I'm coming with you.” Davy stomped his feet so hard that the lamps wobbled, and I was sure the vibrations even threatened the glassware on the fancy tables way back on the other side of the floor.

    Meanwhile Dwight had joined the fracas. “Why does he have to tag along?” he whined. “I'm sick of him going everywhere I go!”

    “Quiet, boys! Please don't make a scene–“ My mother’s reprimand did nothing to defuse the trouble. If anything, the noise escalated a few decibels. Then, through gritted teeth yet over-enunciating every syllable: “Listen, you ungrateful brats– we're going to go to the boys’ section and exchange these lousy pants or on the First Day of School Dwight will be wearing nothing but his underwear!”

    Such a possibility plunged Davy into a seizure of giggles, just as loud, though as his screams had been. “Oh, you think it’s funny, do you? Well, you'll be wearing the very same thing!” Now both boys were stunned into silence, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

    All this time my father had been waiting out there inside the sweltering Plymouth. Besides that we had to get home with sufficient time to tidy up the flat and finish cooking. My mother made her trademark noise of disgust: clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth: “Tsk! ”

    The surrender surprised me. Usually she hated “giving in” to the boys’ demands and often bragged to her friends about her “strictness” as a disciplinarian. I took Davy’s hand.

    “What're you doing? I'll take both boys. You stay here and keep an eye on the lamp. Don't let anybody else buy it.”

    “Ma, it’s ninety degrees. Nobody’s going to come out and–“

    “You heard me.” With that she grabbed the pants peeking out of the split bag and tucked it under her arm. I watched the trio make their way to the elevators.

    Left to my own devices, I wandered around the lamp department for a while. It didn't take me long to realize that if you've seen one lamp, you've seen them all. One old-fashioned model, though, which had a metal tier in the middle to which a circle of prisms had been attached with tiny little hooks. To amuse myself I idly flicked one of the hanging glass points with my index finger and watched the chain reaction, each slim pyramid hitting the other and tinkling, until the swaying gradually slowed to a stop. I was hot, tired, and painfully bored, with the upcoming evening promising more of the same.

    It wasn't so much that my mother’s relatives were bores, it was just that each visit was so predictable. At the arrival there would be a multilateral frenzy of greeting in the same loud voice which my father used during long-distance phone calls. The first sentence out of my Uncle Bob would always involve a detailed description of the traffic coming down on the Thruway. In a bellowing voice which he'd tell interminable jokes whose tardy punch lines never failed to escape my understanding. The adults, however, roared in delight, even Aunt Margaret who had no doubt heard him tell the same endless story a million times before. Early on, Uncle Art would quip with his signature line about being the “odd man out” or the “fifth wheel.” In his absence my mother sounded nearly apologetic when she'd refer to her brother as a “confirmed bachelor.” A family folklore had it that years ago Uncle Art had been deeply in love with the hometown beauty, that she had strung him along up to the point at which he was about to propose only to jilt him to elope with a vacuum cleaner salesman. Though we were forbidden under pain of death ever to mention our uncle’s “broken heart,” there was a slim chance the subject would ever come up. Because of his natural reticence, he was not a man with which a kid could comfortably converse, but Uncle Art was pleasant enough. Put a beer in his hand, and for the entire evening he was happy. Once in a great while, he would pat one of heads and remark, “What a nice crop o’ kids,” or when no other adults were looking, reach into his pocket and each of us a quarter.

    Aunt Margaret would go down the line for hugs, and I would feel her fleshy cheek pressing against our faces and her scent, a mixture of powder and perfume, would linger in my nostrils long after she had sat, with a theatrical flourish, on the end cushion of my mother’s freshly-vacuumed davenport. Aunt Margaret would tell the twins that she couldn't believe how much they've grown, despite the fact she’d seen everyone scarcely two months previously.

    Last year, after reminding Christine was “becoming quite the beauty queen,” she remarked on what a “tall girl” I was. I'm sure she meant it kindly, but I took it the opposite way. My height made me look older than everyone else in the class, as if I had been kept back a couple of grades. It made me feel dumb. Giving me a look more serious than the topic warranted, Aunt Margaret asked, “How’s your love life?” (“Love life?” I hadn't started high school yet!) Then she made fun of my blushing. “What’s the matter, Laura? Cat got your tongue?” This of course, only deepened the red in my face. A well-timed important segment of the televised pageant got me off the hook.

    The MC was announcing the winner of the friendliest contestant. Christine and I always believed that this consolation prize was a back-handed compliment, like a description of a blind date: “Well, she’s not much on looks but she’s got a great personality.” My mother and her sister questioned the judges’ choice in this category. “Look at that one,” Aunt Margaret snapped. “Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.” With the prospect of enduring that again this year, I'd almost prefer wrestling an alligator.

    At that point I endured the torture of a secular Limbo: with no great desire to be home, but hanging around the lamp department was no fun, either. Still, over and over I sent my mother a telepathic message that almost was a prayer: “Come on, Ma. Hurry up.” Once more I wandered through the aisles and looked at the same lamps for the fifteenth time. Then I saw something I hadn't noticed before – a pole lamp as nearly as tall as I was. Here at last was a piece of merchandise that interested me. It would look really nice behind a comfortable chair with smooth upholstery with an adjustable footrest. I'd sit in the chair with a stack of library books by my side and read to my heart’s content, while a good-natured cat silently snoozed in front of a warm fire. We didn't own such a chair, our lease forbade pets, and of course, our flat did not have a fireplace. (Every Christmas Eve the twins would tape their stockings to my mother’s china closet. “Don't worry,” my father would assure them. “Santa will know where to find them.”)

    Even though I knew the pole lamp would never be mine, I reached up and turned the switch. It worked! When I turned the switch again, the light didn't go off, but got brighter, and brighter still the next time. A three-way bulb! “Bright, brighter, brightest.” Idly playing with the switch and watching the wattage increasingly improve itself mesmerized me. “Good. Better. Best.”

    I felt someone tug on my ponytail. Turning around, I saw a middle-aged salesclerk in a short sleeve shirt and a clip-on bow tie. “May I help you?” I gave him the standard answer. “No, thank you, I'm just looking.”

    “Well, I beg to differ with you, young lady. I've been watching you and I know you're not ‘just looking’– you're tampering with my stock.”

    My stomach descended as if on the elevator down to the bargain basement. “No, no, I'm not – No, really, I'm sorry, I didn't mean –“

    “This is just as bad as shoplifting! I'm going to report you to the Manager! What is your name?”

    “This is just a misunderstanding. My mother–“

    “ Name?”

    “Uh, uh-- Julie Nixon!” I was just about to make a break for it when I heard two unmistakable, screechy voices. Then I saw the twins and my mother making their way through the small appliance section.

    Evidently the never-ending argument was still going on, though the topic had changed.“I told you. You're not getting anything school until the teacher tells you what you need. That’s final.” The sternness of her face softened ever so slightly when she spotted me. “ There you are. And the lamp’s still here, I see.”

    The look on the clerk’s face was a mixture of relief and confusion. “Oh! I'm terribly sorry, ma'am. I didn't know you were interested in making a purchase.” He put his hand on the pole lamp. “This is a floor model. I'll just check the lot number and get you one that’s boxed up.”

    “Not this one,” my mother said, then pointed across the aisle. “That one.”

    By the time he rang up the sale, the clerk’s attitude had brightened considerably. “Nice boys,” he said. “Are they twins?” If I were my mother, I'd have been sick of the question by the time they were toddlers. But she just smiled and nodded. “There you go, ma'am. Thank you for shopping at Montgomery Wards.” The cellophane-wrapped shade was bulky, but I managed to grip by its narrower top. The clerk thrust the oblong box under my other arm. “And nice meeting you, Julie.”

    Davy wrinkled his brow. “Mom, that man called Laura by the wrong name.” Because my hands were completely full, I gave him a swift kick in the shins. It did the trick.



    [Parts two and three continue below.]
    Last edited by AuntShecky; 09-07-2010 at 02:53 PM. Reason: couple of typos

  11. #41
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    3 Septembers, Part 2

    2.

    Three Septembers –Part 2


    The door to Room 207 in Van Vranken Hall was locked, with nobody with any authority in sight. Students, some looking already bored, milled around the corridor. Others intermittently checked their watches, while a few more kept referring to the “PSC”-- personal scheduling cards. There must've been some administrative snafu, mistakenly listing the wrong time or day of the week, which the professor knew about and the students had not yet been informed.

    A couple of minor glitches and mix-ups had to be expected, especially in the beginning of a brand-new semester. Laura could have vouched for that probability from the day she set foot on campus. After driving for hours on a miserably rainy day, all the way teasing her with nicknames like “College Girl” and “Betty Co-ed” all the way, her father helped unload the aged Plymouth and lug a pair of suitcases, three large cardboard boxes, a portable typewriter, and a desk lamp up to her assigned “dorm room.” The number on Laura’s “POC” –“Personal Orientation Card” -- completely matched the number of the door of a utility closet, which was, incidentally, also locked.

    A fearless soul in the group finally broke the ice. “Excuse me? Anybody know how long we're supposed to wait?”

    A fashionably-dressed girl with professionally-styled hair volunteered the information. “The College Handbook says fifteen minutes.”

    “You actually read the handbook?” Everyone broke into laughter, loud enough for the prof in a nearby classroom to open the door and glare at the group. Evidently his class had started on time.

    The undergrad who'd asked the original question pointed to his watch. “Eight more minutes.”

    The collective groan surprised Laura. Why the rush to “get out of” the very first meeting of a class? Why weren't they all eager, even excited, to start learning about this subject? Granted, the freshman course was a --new term – “prerequisite” for most liberal arts majors, but Laura would have gladly chosen it as – another college term – “elective.” Even the course title: “Philo. 101: Introduction to Western Thought” sounded classy. If folks back home were to ask her what she was studying, she could say “Philosophy,” and right away they'd think that they were talking to someone who must be smart. At least, that was Laura’s first impression upon reading the course catalogue back in May.

    “ It’s so typical of Wiseman to be late,” a bespectacled student said.

    Another student seconded him. “Damn straight. My suite-mate’s a sophomore, and he took this class last year. He told me that Wiseman took the whole class down to the Rathskeller, bought a bunch of pitchers, and threw them loaded questions. That was the final exam.”

    “ You're putting us on!”

    “ You'd better believe it!” said the kid in the glasses. “ One year he made them all stand on a street corner and told ‘em: ‘See that bus coming up the street? By the time that bus arrives at this stop, give me three reasons why I shouldn't throw myself under it.’ The kids who could come up with some fast answers passed the course.”

    The girls shuddered, and the boys laughed. With the window for gossip wide open, more insidious rumors snuck in. Laura was at least savvy enough to know that these “tales told out of school” were more or less hearsay, but even so, brought more distress.

    For each of the past dozen years she had anticipated going “Back to School” with heady confidence. She'd have all her supplies: a brand-new loose-leaf binder covered with pristine blue cloth, packed with lined filler paper with three, unripped holes on each page and a pack of #2 pencils, their erasers clean, smooth, and perfectly square, their virginal leads never having known a point, their hexagonal bodies unspoiled by teeth marks and stubbiness. There was comfort in fresh scholastic stationery ready to be filled with numbers, words, facts, and by extension, a young mind, reassured that progress was generally unobstructed and occurred along straight lines. But this! All she had was a printed catalogue of textbooks available at the campus bookstore, and contradictory instructions coming in from all sides. The path to college had begun like an entrance to a maze, so roundabout, three baby steps forward and four giant steps back.

    The know-it-all in the glasses still wasn't finished. “Most of us could leave before he shows up, and he'd never know the difference, ya know? Never checked a class roster in his life. Never bothers learning anybody’s name.”

    The earnest fashion model type looked stricken. “But how could he do that? I mean, like a third of our grade is supposed to be based on classroom participation. It’s college policy!”

    “That’s just Wiseman’s way. He spends the whole period just asking questions and never tells you if your answer is right or not. You know, the Socratic method.”

    Not quite sure of the meaning of that comment, Laura’s face burned. Was she about to drown in intellectual water a hundred fathoms over her head? Would she endure another disaster, just like her very first college assignment had been graded and returned that morning? For the first session of English Rhetoric and Composition, the students had written a personal essay in class, forbidden by the T. A., a jaded graduate student with a mean streak, to use any form of the verb, “to be.” Unwittingly Laura had failed to meet that stipulation by the second word of her first sentence, boldly circled in red, on the paper returned to her in the second session of the class earlier this morning. On top of the loose-leaf page the “F” looked as if it had been written in blood, at least as painful. Certainly, it “was.”

    Leaning against the wall, a guy in a faded T-shirt and cut-off denim shorts apparently had waited long enough. He ground his cigarette into the tile floor, despite the presence of a sand-filled ashtray on the stairwell landing not four feet away. Then, flinging his dilapidated backpack over his shoulder, he exited without comment. For a fleeting moment, Laura considered following his lead. Maybe she shouldn't have come here. Maybe it was foolish even to think she was cut out for college.

    Months ago her mother had tried talked Laura out of applying. She reached across the kitchen table and gripped both of Laura’s hands, perhaps a bit more tightly than the situation warranted. “You sure want to do this? Sooner or later, you'll probably get married, and all that studying and tuition would be a waste.”

    It was difficult for Laura to stifle her laugh. It wasn't as if scores of suitors with engagement rings in their pockets were breaking down the front door, but even if she were involved in an exclusive “serious” relationship, what difference would it make? Why was settling down and pursuing a college education mutually exclusive?

    “Look at Christine,” her mother continued. “She never went to college, and she’s got a nice job with the State. Making good money, too.”

    She knew what her mother was implying. Every week Laura’s sister kicked in a few bucks from her paycheck for room and board. For a brief moment, Laura considered countering her mother’s argument by mentioning the increased salary a degree potentially might bring, but truthfully, that would be a lie, since Laura had never seriously factored in future earning power as a significant part of her plan.

    “For God’s sake, Ma! It’s not like I'm asking you and Dad to pay for–“

    “What’s the matter, we're not good enough for you?” Laura’s mother dramatically shot her hands up into the air and made her trademark noise of disgust. “Tsk! Aw, we can't tell you nothin’! No matter what we say, you'll just do what you want. ”

    The student with the watch made an announcement. “Two minute warning, guys! We're coming down to the wire.”

    Laura was prepared to wait the entire grace period. It would take more than a tardy teacher to make her give up this soon, not after the scraping and patching together of partial scholarships and grants, each a paltry sum on its own but helpful in the aggregate, as well as low-interest but still risky student loans which her father had co-signed despite his wife’s protest. Her mother had wanted Laura to “go to work,” and indeed she had, part time for minimum wage at the Brunswick Shopping Center after school, weekends, and every day of this recently-ended summer “vacation.”

    Then, without anyone noticing, the professor finally “showed,” not particularly out-of-breath, nor offering any excuses (bumper-to-bumper traffic, no vacant spaces in the faculty parking lot), nor even a mumbled “Sorry” as he unlocked the door, yet stood holding it open and waiting until every student shuffled inside. He didn't look especially professorial; unlike most faculty members who seemed to have a boxy briefcase surgically attached to their hands, this guy didn't even carry a textbook. Despite his disheveled appearance, he looked a bit too straitlaced to get his students loaded on beer. Even if the story were true, at least he'd check their dates of birth to ascertain that they were all over eighteen. This faculty member could have passed for an undergrad, except for the tell-tale bald spot, a pink oval the size of an extra large egg on the back of his head.

    “Sit anywhere,” he announced, with a casual wave of his hand. “First thing you want to do is look at your PSC. If it doesn't say ‘Philo. 101,' you're in the wrong place.”

    From the back of the classroom someone shouted a mild expletive. Though it was much too late to hide his blunder, the red-faced kid tip-toed out the door. “Of course, you're always welcome to stay. . .” the professor said to a couple of slivers of ice-breaking laughter.

    “The next thing you want to do is to take out a piece of paper and a pen--”

    A hand shot up. “I forgot my pen. Is it okay to use a pencil ?”

    The prof shrugged. “Pens, crayons, quills dipped in blood. So take a piece of paper and uh, a writing implement and compose a one-page essay titled ‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation.’ “ A rustling sound waved across the room as nearly every class member began to do just that. “No, no, I'm kidding. Just pulling your leg.”

    Laura had been among those who'd taken the teacher’s mock assignment at face value, so the revelation that it was just a joke slapped Laura with an embarrassing sting. She was nevertheless relieved that she didn't have to recap every single tedious day from late June through Labor Day at her menial job, such a contrast from the previous summers in her life, in retrospect not unpleasant at all.

    For as long as she could remember, every Fourth of July Laura’s family would head to her Uncle Bob and Aunt Margaret’s “camp,” actually a modest cabin, on Caroga Lake. Typically the adults occupied themselves with conversation while ceremoniously preparing an al fresco feast on a grill, or-- as was the case of the last couple of years-- a dozen clambakes in netted bags simmering in a huge rented pot made of black porcelain spotted with white flecks. The mingled aromas of the namesake shellfish, half-chickens, “salt” potatoes, and early ears of corn would gradually increase in intensity over the course of the seeming eternity of the midsummer afternoon. Starting on the wrong foot with a bout of taunts or an altercation nearly coming to blows, the twins would make or renew transitory friendships with their counterparts from neighboring cabins. Laura and her sister would fake an aura of sophistication at the same time that they'd steal romantic glances at nearby boys in their approximate age range. Swimming or merely splashing, the children would stay in the water until their fingertips and toes crinkled, and their lips turned blue. Later, they'd romp on dry land where the adults would join the kids in comically inept rounds of softball or horseshoes, ostensibly to “work off”-- as it was said- the endless onslaught of crunchy snacks and the community meal, and the endlessly flowing carbonated streams of beer and soda, still bubbling inside stomachs.

    In the cooler air of dusk, with their still-damp hair and dry sweatshirts over their bathing suits, Christine and Laura would sit at the end of the little wooden dock and wistfully dangle their legs into the water. When evening eventually fell, they'd look up at the quietly emerging stars and the lights from far-off cabins flickering on, one by one, encircling the lake like gems in a tiara. The combined fragrances of lake water, evergreen, and newly-brewed coffee would linger in Laura’s nostrils throughout the long ride back. Customarily arriving home late, they'd all be tired, especially the young twins, exhausted from an eventful day spiked with their characteristic mischief. Memorably, the year when the twins were about eight years old, the adults had to breakup a “sword fight” which the boys had waged with a spent sparkler and a sharpened stick earlier used to roast a marshmallow. That particular Fourth of July was one of several outings after which their mother swore she'd nearly “died of mortification.” But on that early morning in the glow of the streetlight in front of their two-family house, the sleeping boys were two identical angels, as each parent gently carried one boy apiece up to his respective bed.

    This year Laura’s parents brought only the twins--under protest, since they were about to enter their teens-- and apologies that their daughters couldn't make it. Christine – the lucky stiff!– had been spending that week in Cape Cod with her fiancé and future parents-in-law, while Laura was left to scrounge for a ride to the shopping center, where she spent the entire holiday in the stuffy information kiosk while directing shoppers to the escalators or the lower level restrooms. Not even a Nobel Laureate in Literature could make an interesting composition out of that.


    “Now what you want to do is write down on the paper one sentence answering the question: ‘Why should we study philosophy?’ That’s simple enough, right?”

    Simple? One sentence? What was with these college teachers and their insistence on brevity? For all Laura knew, next time she'd have to explain the meaning in life in a single word.

    Some students eyed the ceiling and others shot perplexed or indignant stares at their professor, who looked back at the class with barely-concealed amusement. Then, a dozen heads descended desk-ward as their writing implements scratched across the page. After a reasonable interval, he asked, “All done? Okay, the question was ‘Why should we study philosophy?’ How many of you wrote ‘Because we need the course to graduate?’ “

    A few students sank in their seats, and a mere two or three tentatively but bravely raised their hands. “Oh, I see we have a couple of pragmatists in our group. And how many said ‘Of all the academic subjects, philosophy is the most important, or noble – or insert your own superlative here’ – or words to that effect?”

    More hands shot up, this time eagerly.

    “Ah! Optimism, the hallmark of the young! Ladies and gentlemen, meet the idealists among your peers. Well, I guess we're getting the idea that the original question has a multitude of answers. How ‘bout just one more?”

    He turned to the blackboard behind him and neatly printed:
    “THE UNEXAMINED LIFE IS NOT WORTH LIVING.”
    He had scarcely finished writing the sentence before a dozen students had written it down in their spotless notebooks. Rubbing his hands together to remove the chalk dust, the teacher turned around and said, “Who was the first to say that?” Do you know?” In a gesture that bordered on the theatrical, he looked around the classroom. “Anybody?” Then after a frustrated sigh he answered his own question. “The guy who first said that was named Socrates.” (The professor pronounced it with the accent on the second syllable.) “He was a bit of an eccentric–a character with his head in clouds, who wandered around spouting wisdom – or nonsense-- depending on whom in Athens you talked to. You can learn more about him, if you're so inclined –“

    Uh-oh, here it comes, Laura thought.

    “–by reading the first three chapters of the textbook including the Preface, the Pre-Socratics, and the Introduction to Socrates-“

    Somebody interrupted to inquire how to obtain a copy. Someone else said he'd already purchased one down at the campus bookstore, and another said that he bought it from a student who had taken the course last year. Still another asked if the textbooks was available from the College Library.

    “Yeah, but this course has seven sections,” a good-looking guy said, “so chances are they've already been checked out. “

    The expert on the College Handbook looked at him intently. She flipped her hair and lowered her gaze. Laura immediately pegged her as the kind of female student she'd often heard about – the girls not so much in pursuit of a B.A. but a “MRS.” degree. And true to type, the girl held her admiring gaze as her new crush continued. “And you prob’ly couldn't keep it out for the entire semester. You'd have to read the whole thing in two weeks.”

    The digression threatened to get out of hand, but there was no indication that it had annoyed the professor. If anything, he had completely ignored the whole interruption and plowed on. “Now, you and I might still ask ‘why?’ How could a remark from some kook who lived two thousand four hundred years ago still be relevant today? And how different is our world from that of Greece in the 4th century B.C.?

    “In so many ways the Greeks were just like us. They wanted to live in peace and prosperity as opposed to poverty and war. They had wars, we have wars, but the difference is their ancient weapons were primitive compared to ours, which could wipe mankind off the face of the earth in a matter of minutes. If that’s the case, maybe you might think what’s the use of studying philosophy, of studying anything for that matter, if we're all doomed. How many of you think that’s true?”

    Not one student raised his hand. “Hmm. Not a nihilist in the bunch. Let me ask you this: even without the shadow of nuclear weapons, has modern life really progressed beyond the nasty, brutal, and short existence of early man? It’s only a matter of luck that we live in a so-called democracy – which Socrates disdained by the way. We just as easily could be living under a totalitarian regime. Apart from oppressive governments, what if individuals had no value in society other than as nameless, expendable units of labor in an materialistic system? And even if you achieve personal satisfaction, even fulfillment, it may be short-lived-- you still have plenty to worry about – economic depressions, overpopulation, crime, cancer and all manner of debilitating diseases, natural disasters, man-made destruction of the earth’s resources by industrial pollution, and so on. And don't forget Number One on your Hit Parade--Death. By every account life really is ‘absurd,’ as the Existentialists say. Does human life mean anything at all? What would make it –“ he pointed to the quotation on the chalkboard -- “worth living?”

    The smart aleck in the glasses shouted out, “ ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger!’ “

    “Oooh, a quoter! Let me throw another one at you: ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing.’ But you're on the right track, in a way. In the midst of suffering man has a tendency to look outward for comfort – to religion, to 19th century German philosophers, a slogans from a Day-Glo poster on your roommate’s wall. Ultimately, though, where would you have to look? Within? Which is no guarantee that you'll find an answer. But you still have to keep looking because . . .” He turned to the board, picked up the chalk, and underlined what he had written.

    “That still won't give us all the answers, though. We want guidance, we want specifics. Philosophy is by nature academic, ethereal, with its head in the clouds. Oh, it’s real, all right, but it’s no something you can see or smell or hold in your hand. The Love of Wisdom. So, back to that original question: ‘Why should we study philosophy? Why bother thinking about thinking? Of what practical purpose should is pure thought?” He waited for a second or two. “ Anybody?”

    The big mouths who believed they had the professor’s number when they had gossiped about him in the hall raised their hands. Others quickly assumed a low profile. Disregarding both factions, the teacher pointed to the area of the classroom where Laura was sitting. There was an audible gasp – he was actually calling on someone! “The young lady right there.”

    Raising her eyebrows, Laura pointed her own index finger to her chest as if asking, “Me?”

    “Yes. You.” The professor leaned forward, fully expecting an answer.

    “Well, um, hmm. I don't know, Sir. I mean I can't really say for sure, but–“

    “But?”

    “In high school I complained about having to study intermediate algebra. I thought it was stupid. I mean, when was I ever going to use that in real life? Same with Latin. I had no plans to become a doctor, but they made me take biology. Well, um, I went to class, did my homework, and uh, managed to pass the exams. But even though I'll probably never have to solve an equation again or dissect a frog, I think I know now why we had to take those courses. “

    Somebody in the back of the room yelled, “Cause you needed ‘em to graduate!”

    “Yeah, that, too, but I think we were supposed to use our brains. Develop our minds, I guess. But even if it’s only like you said ‘pure thought,’ maybe there’s something more important than how to apply it in real life. Maybe it’s not even the knowledge itself but the way of getting it, the process.”

    After her breathy and nervous response, Laura she thought she saw the corners of the professor’s mouth turn upward just a little bit. “What was that last word you said?”

    “Um-- ‘process’?”

    “ ‘Process,’ “ the professor repeated, without further comment.

    [The third and final part appears below.]

  12. #42
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    [PLEASE NOTE: This is the third and final part of "Three Septembers," the first two parts appearing in Reply #40 and #41 above.]


    3.

    My eyes won't open. It’s as if both lids have minds of their own, stubbornly refusing to allow me a glimpse of the pre-autumn sun slanting through the windows.

    The hearing seems okay, though. Over in the next room a televised day game is on, but I just can't make out what kind of sport it is. Did the announcer say “line drive” or “30-yard line”? It’s either late-season baseball or early season football. Wonder if my neighbor shares the same circumstances. If so, it would be horrible if his team loses.

    The voices of the nurses and nuns are coming in, not loudly but clearly. I recognize their matter-of-fact tone, conscientiously devoid of a false cheeriness but not overly somber either. Except the times when they see David and out comes the upper register chirpiness. I want to yell: “He’s not a child! And he’s not deaf.” They're nurses. They should know better.

    I wonder if they've made The Call. Then it’s just a matter of time when –“Immediate Family Only!”-- will tiptoe in, each secretly relieved that he or she isn't “too late,” that they've been allowed an opportunity to be here when it happens. Whit, who’s here more than he’s home, would arrive first, with David in tow. And Sharon –wait, if she comes over, who'll stay with the kids? That was Grandma’s job!

    Ow. Ow. OW! That was a rough one. If that sharp spasm below my waist had been an earthquake, the seismometer would have gone right off the chart. More to come? A large, bridge-busting tremor or just a wimp of an aftershock? Should I ring for meds? Whit’s always saying, “For Chrissakes, don't be such a martyr! Push the call button!” At the moment, though,I can't reach it. Not quite sure I can lift my arm. The dope doesn't work that great to begin with, but it always makes me feel floaty, out of it, not in full command of my senses, such as they are. So maybe it’s just as well. But I still need a little help here, if only to wipe my face, run a brush through my hair. Would it kill them to put my dentures back in?

    Later with the Arrangements all in place, it will be Show Time, suitable for a larger audience to join the core, the nucleus, “the survivors” – as if they'd all gone down with the Titanic. The up-front seats in the joint would be reserved for the spouse and children: a son named after a heroic uncle he'd never met, a daughter who’s “between husbands” and whose eyes are wide open for a possible successor, even as the mascara liquefied by tears runs down her cheeks. Maybe Dwight will make it. Poor guy. First he’s got to humiliate himself through the airport security, then sit for the long, long flight from Seattle. And for what? Christine’s trip will be much shorter, and if previous similar experiences are any indication, she'll take pride in taking charge, in going out of her way to be of assistance, serve as a bulwark of strength, until -- she sees her niece and nephew and her surviving male sibling and the white knuckles of her widowed brother-in-law stoically gripping the pew. At that point she'll break down into convulsive sobs, the decibel level rivaling that of professional Irish keeners, and those she had intended to console will instead be comforting her.

    Of course, that’s presumptuous. Expecting to be the inspiration of teeth-gnashing, garment-rending grief is a symptom of the incurably conceited. Not every vain person has this trait, though, for vain people also think they're immortal. It’s a dubious distinction when a human being is given first-hand knowledge that his days are literally numbered.

    The day I found out, the specialist seemed young enough to have been barely past his residency, probably lacking enough experience under his belt to finesse his way through a dismal prognosis. He looked stricken, more upset than I was, when he choked out the answer to how many months I had left.

    “Well, at least that gives me enough time to finish my novel,” I said.

    His eyebrows jumped up. “Oh? You're writing a novel?”

    “No. Reading one.”

    The cloud completely vanished from his face, the sun fully out. So glad to be let off the hook as a bearer of bad news. “In that case you'll definitely have enough time.” Then his foot went right back into his mouth when he added, “Maybe you ought to write your memoirs.”

    Right. A Memoir. How trendy! The medium of choice for this nakedly public, tell-all age. Once I cranked out a little piece about going shopping with my mother and the twins way back in the day. With all the putrid water having churned its way under the bridge over the years, I can't imagine writing anything now. Merely the act of thinking saps all the energy reserves.

    Lately too much is sprinting through my life too quickly. Yet its inevitable end is dragging its feet. “It’s all for the best, “ the fam will undoubtedly will say, consoling one another. Still a rung up from those New Age-y airheads pontificating about a “natural phase of life,” part of the “eternal cycle of the universe,” and all that garbage. That stuff is usually spewed by somebody whose framed portrait is titled “Health”. They're rhapsodizing about some formless idea in the abstract, light years away from actually feeling the hot, blood-smelling breath of a real beast panting down the back of my neck.

    “It’s all for the best, “ the fam will undoubtedly will say, consoling one another. “She was suffering so much. Now she’s in a better place.” Right at this moment I can think of places I'd rather be. Sitting on the topmost crest of one of the Green Mountains and watching the sky turn hundreds of shades of pink. Or serenely surveying the width of Caroga Lake from the end of a rustic dock. Or supine and tricked-out on a barge, flaming Viking-style as floats down the river, miraculously clean and blue. Nowhere like the human equivalent of an elephant graveyard. Anywhere but here.

    Wasn't settled in this room for more than an hour when the resident priest popped in with the welcome, the set piece dripping with consolation and the last-minute soft-sell. Evidently the good father hadn't gotten the young doc’s memo-- re: the memoir-- for the set-piece included the line, “Now is not the time for regrets and self-recrimination.”

    I've got plenty of both. In an instant I could call up a thousand gaffes that are decades-old but still had the power to light my face on fire. So many sins it would take a week to confess. Then again, like nearly every human being that has ever drawn breath, more sinned against than sinning, with too much one’s plate, more than a fair share of slings, arrows, and clichés, too many tough rows to hoe, too much of the sorrow and the pity, too much, not enough.

    Too many tired expressions proving to be true. Not the one that says a dying man never says “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” Not the one about a woman sacrificing a career for her family.” Could have been completely alone and the career still might never have materialized. The country’s economy –up and down through the decades-- no effect on us whatsoever, not with a never-ending personal recession, no real career for either of us, just scatter-shot jobs, patched together, taking turns, one working days, the other nights. It never was enough. No, I can't look back. But I have to look back. The griefs experienced too early, the crushing disappointments of middle-age, even, yes, even now with this unprecedented physical anguish and terrifying angst, all of them put together are nothing next to lifelong poverty. Sorry, you nostalgic memoirists with your rose-colored hindsight, but there’s nothing “genteel” about poverty. It’s life-defining, life-denying. It limits you, throws its ugly shadow over everything, has a big say in every decision, dictates what you can eat and what you can wear and what kind of medical care you can obtain, tells you where you can live and where you can go and what you can do, it steals your freedom, your ego, your ambition, your hope. Just about the only good thing it does for you is show you who your friends are.

    Good parts, there must have been some good spots -- savory evenings, sweet days, precious for their rarity. The blessing of a daughter and then, the late-in-life surprise, with the immeasurable height of joy tinged with the bottomless depth of heartache, his tenuous well-being left in our dubious care, the task of tending to his needs becoming a career in itself, the hell with the lack of dough, the debts, the lack of a career– he became our career- maybe it wasn't enough–we'll leave the business about sacrifice to you, Father. We did what we could, we gave what we had.

    “Now is the time,” the priest said, “for gratitude and peaceful reflection.”

    Ah, the ol’ fashioned Examination of Conscience in New Age terms. Maybe not so new, as in “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Where did I hear that first? When? Must have been in college days, in a year deep in the past, some long-ago September.

    My God, that was so long ago. I can't remember the SAT or the GRE scores, not even the names of the courses I took, or even my G.P.A. Only a handful of the profs. That wacko philosophy guy – what was his name? Started with a “W.” “Warner?” “Werner?” Last day of the course he handed out blank index cards. “Here you go,” he said. “Write down your final grade for the semester.”

    Right away everybody thinks: hey, this is great. Your ultimate gut course. I'll be honest and give myself a “C.” No, a “B” – that will be better. What the hell – make it an “A,” that’s the best!

    He had our number, that one. “Before all of you blithely jot down an ‘A,’ “ he said, “perhaps you'll want to think about it first. You might ask, ‘What if he’s testing us? What if he’s being perverse?’ For all you know, I might say, ‘This student doesn't take this seriously enough. He deserves a C or a –shudder!- D.’ On the other hand, I may be giving you the benefit of the doubt, and your grade will be exactly what you put down on this card. For all you know, the minute you leave this classroom I might take this bunch of cards and dump them into the trash without looking at any of them. The point is – you don't know what’s going to happen. You're going to have to think like high rollers in Vegas – all you can do is take a risk.”

    I can't believe I remember that. Don't remember what I wrote on the card or even my final grade in that class. But I'll remember the devilish grin on that man’s face until the day I – Well, I was no different from the other students who ran up to him and gushed, “Oh, Doctor What’s-your-name, I really learned a lot in this class.” Though, in the end, philosophy can only go so far, the ultimate puzzle of existence remains unsolved. There’s all kinds of speculation of what really happens at the Big Moment, nobody can say for sure. I'd be lying if I said that it hasn't crossed my mind that afterward there is only nothing. Literally. But even if it really is oblivion, there won't be any part of me left, no trace of consciousness to know the difference. Really, what’s to hurt?

    Still, my inner self, feeble as it is and “all too human” --who said that? Nietzsche?-- wants to cling to an idea of something afterward. If that’s true, where do we all go? Where are all the people whose “remains” as they're called I saw lowered into the ground? Would they be exactly the same as the last time I saw them, seeing the tangible things of this world, breathing real air? My mother and father, aunt and uncles, are they still belching cabbage rolls and platitudes? And my dear Davy, with one strike, his twin suddenly made singular -- would I find him dressed in jungle fatigues, the never-used weapon still slung over his shoulder? Would they all be the same age as they were when they –oh, that bloodless euphemism –“passed” or would they get older and older through eternity. For what it’s worth, I suspect our eternal “age” is the one we think ourselves to be, forever on the cusp between childhood innocence and adult knowledge, just around the age I was way back on a Saturday night in September, so long ago:

    “. . .And so the priest says to the Divil, ’ Sure and why didn't ya tell me, now? You'll be wantin’ the First Presbyterian, two doors down the street!”

    At my uncle’s punch line, the adults burst into eye-wiping laughter. “Ha, ha, ha! That’s a good one, Bob!” As ever, I didn't get it. Their attention gradually shifted back to the beauty pageant on the television, until a commercial for a home permanent interrupted the suspense. At that point, Aunt Margaret put one arm around each twin and asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.

    “I want to be a fireman!” Davy said, an answer to which Dwight immediately took issue.

    “That’s not fair! You can't be a fireman! That’s what I want to be!”

    My mother looked as if she were about to die of embarrassment (again), until Uncle Art defused the situation. “Nothing to worry about, Boys. There’s no law that says only one fireman per family,” he said, throwing me a surreptitious wink.

    “You mean it, Uncle Art?”

    “Oh, absolutely! Besides, you'll probably be stationed in different firehouses – on opposite ends of the city, I imagine.”

    With the next World War diplomatically avoided, I fully expected Aunt Margaret to pose the very same question to me. I stood looking, even staring at her, and smiling as if to say, “come on, ask me, ask me.” She probably thought I would say something traditional, such as wife and mother. That would be a good answer. A better one would be a conventional female occupation like a teacher or a nurse. I wasn't thinking along the lines of a profession or even a career. The response I had in mind was the best possible answer anybody could ever give, one that would be perfect because it would be true.

    But the tv ad ended and the pageant came back on with the crucial point where the finalists express their desire to help people and to promote world peace. This part of the show always mesmerized my mother and especially Aunt Margaret, who forgot about her question, and she never asked.

  13. #43
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    Hi Auntie

    Well, I have dutifully read every word of your magnum opus, the existence of which must go some way towards explaining your recent, apparent absence, from my habitually frequented threads. If I may, I’d like to give a broad stroke impression on its entirety.

    Firstly, I was somewhat disappointed not to be regaled by your trademark humour. I very much enjoy your biting satirical wit, and the minutia of the detail describing the mundane occurrence of a trip to the shops in part one, I found, did not make up for its lack. It’s not that I consider any of the writing to be bad, merely that the subject is not one which holds my interest. While it may resonate with American womanhood, even women world wide, to an unreconstructed, British, conservatively, middle-aged male, the delicately penned portrait of the familial outing, seems to be included merely as a point of reference to a casual remark in part three, which is by far and away the best of the three sections.

    Whereas there seems to be little time elapsing between part 1 and part 2, only a few years perhaps, the impression given is that there is a lifetime between part 2 and part 3. There was a point early in the narrative of the third section that made me think it might refer to childbirth, but this was quickly superseded by the description of the terminal diagnosis. Part two, though, was quite interesting as a discussion on the relevance of the pursuit of philosophy, but again, its purpose seems to have been to provide an overly detailed point of reference to a casual thought evinced by the narrator in part three. The avoidance of a conclusive ending to part two, which is echoed in part three, though, I found to be delightfully mischievous. It gave the impression of reading the ultimate shaggy dog story.

    So, dear Auntie, the primary reaction of this reader is that the piece is much too long. The meat of the piece is in the last section, and the vast detail provided by the preceding two, could be easily condensed and segued into part three as flash-back reminiscences. I fully understand and appreciate that you were deliberately not conforming to traditional narrative style, but I can’t help feeling that not to do so does not enhance the reading experience on this occasion.

    Lastly, there is an alarming habit in the readership of the forum to assume that everything they read is autobiographical. Well, maybe some of it is, but I prefer to hope that there is sufficient imagination in the writings of our authors for this not to be the case on every occasion. I therefore hope you are in the pink and ruling your roost with a rod of iron, fully decked out in your high heels fright-wig and chain male, declaring to Uncle Shecky, “Well, mister raggedy-man, ain’t we a pair!”

    Live long and prosper, Hawk.

  14. #44
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    I have also just finished reading this (every word - I swear) and I'll admit I found the third segment a bit of a letdown. Since I generally prefer the starter and main course to the sweet, this would not normally be a disappointment, but I suppose I was expecting a more powerful conclusion.

    Part 1 with its humorous observations on characters, the humdrum of family life and the wonder of televised beauty pageants was brilliantly observed and I would gladly have spent time reading more about this phase of Laura's life.

    Part 2 introduced a little more reality - our heroine now having to stand on her own two feet, and those freshman collywobbles were only too real. But by now Laura was also becoming perhaps a little too self-conscious which made the lighter observations less natural.

    Then Part 3 - this took me a while to get my bearings as it was altogether different. Was it still Laura? How much time had passed - surely not a 'lifetime'? I can see it was an attempt by Laura to capture the moments in her life that crystallised who she believed she was and what parts of her she felt mattered most clearly - those two preceding Septembers. It's a shame she had no other Septembers to reminisce about - I would have liked to get to know her better.

    So, although it left me feeling a little short-changed, in terms of enjoyment and food for thought one could not ask for more.

    H

  15. #45
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    An interesting piece, Aunty, but having enjoyed so much of your writing in the past, I know you could make it much better. I don’t know if this is just a first draft that you’ve tossed out for comments so you can continue working on it, or if you have already spent lots of time completing several iterations. I tend to believe it’s probably the former, because I’ve seen enough of your writing to know that you always polish things up very well before posting them, and I don’t see that same polish here.

    My first observation is somewhat trivial, but still important. I found it confusing to see Parts 1 and 3 written in the first person, while Part 2 is in the third person. Was that intentional? If so, I am curious as to the reason. I find things like this to be unnecessary distractions because when I stumble over them, I have to wonder about why it’s done in such a manner, and probably miss much of the story while I’m doing all that wondering. Distractions don’t help the reader, and only make for confusion.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Hawkman in that Parts 1 and 2 are just a few years apart, and then Part 3 comes along a whole lifetime later. Surely it would have been better to convert Part 3 into Part 6, and insert a few intermediate milestones. Something noteworthy must have happened between Laura’s first year in college and her last few minutes of life, unless she died before reaching her 25th birthday. Since you mention dentures in Part 3, it's unlikely that she died that young. It’s almost as if you got tired out and wanted to get this finished in a hurry, so you prematurely jumped ahead to the end.

    You did a wonderful job in capturing what goes on in one's life, such as the squabbling of the children and the downside of family get-togethers, observations that come only through enduring life's experiences, but there could and should have been so much more of this. That ability to capture life so vividly is the hallmark of your writing, but you stopped short here.

    As you already know, but I should repeat it here after all this carping, I admire your writing a great deal. Maybe I missed something here, but I tend to believe you could improve this quite a lot with some more work.
    Last edited by DickZ; 09-06-2010 at 06:38 PM.

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