Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Congratulations 5/4 Readers!

The rising stars of Writopia NYC (ages 8-12) read excerpts from their completed, fabulous prose at Book Culture book store on May 4th!
And here is the rest of it. Read more!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Congratulations Isabel Udo, 14!

Writopia writer Isabel Udo (left, answering a question about her writing process at the NYPL) won a 2010 National Gold Medal for her eerie and provoking short story: The Devil's Tide. Please help her celebrate by reading her prose:

The Devil’s Tide
By Isabel Udo, 14

Manhattan, New York: Saturday, April 19th, Sometime in the Future

There was a little blonde boy jumping up and down in the stands like he needed to go to the bathroom. There was a violet-eyed girl on the shoulders of her friends, being paraded around the soccer field. There was an eagle-eyed mother comforting her spoiled brat of a daughter. There was a pale-faced boy of eight, too deep in his game of Mario to notice any of the commotion.

I laughed to myself, knowing that these people, this place, and the feeling in it would all be gone once my deal with the Devil was executed. I could hardly wait to see people crawling over each other for a thin thread of life, a thread that was all they had left.
A girl’s cell phone began to ring.

“Hi Mom! Won the game 4-noth-!”

I could not make out her mother’s reply, but she clearly had interrupted her daughter.

“No, no…that’s not possible…” the girl insisted.

As if the Devil and I cared. I enjoyed watching the shadow of fear cross her face.

“What’s the matter, Katie?” asked the freckled 5-year-old boy standing next to her, who was quite obviously her brother.

“C’mon Jasper, we need to get home NOW!” she snapped, dragging him across the green synthetic turf.

“Not yet. I want some pizza. You promised,” he declared, stomping his left foot.

His voice was so irritating and whiney that I couldn’t resist running my fingers across the back of his neck. His eyes welled up with unexplainable anguish, and I admired my work.

“I said NOW!” she shouted.

She slammed the gate behind her and ducked under the ladder of a construction site.

In four hours, they would both be dead.

* * *

Miami, Florida: Saturday, April 19th, Sometime in the Future

There was a real estate agent driving down the road in her brand new Mini. She was headed toward the house she was about to sell, a 5 thousand square foot villa on the water. As she drove, she thought to herself, The sale of this house will turn my life around. She had no idea how right she was. She was thinking, of course, that the killing she’d make from this deal would have her set for life. No more money problems. No more sad faces at Christmas. When the kids get back from California, they’ll be so happy!

I knew better though. I knew there wouldn’t even be any faces at Christmas, only a shared feeling of depression and doom.

She arrived at the house and stepped out of the car. She admired the house—for it really was a nice house—then turned when she heard the buyers’ Mercedes coming down the gravel road. Behind her, a shadow loomed up, consuming the sky. It moved quickly, far too quickly to be a cloud. This shadow was the shadow of disaster.

* * *

Acadia National Park, Maine: Saturday, April 19th, Sometime in the Future

“C’mon kids, we’re almost at the top!” encouraged the park ranger to the five 8-year-olds trudging along behind him, even though they weren’t even halfway there.

I don’t know why people expect children to believe any pleasant fabrication they are told. They are smarter than they look.

The children’s counselor looked at the park ranger with one eyebrow raised, but knew better than to comment. The kids were getting tired and the excitement of seeing the moose at the bottom of the mountain was wearing off.

“You’ll get to see the puffins sooner if you hurry!” the ranger grinned.

Suddenly, the bright noon sun disappeared and an enormous wall of water surged up and towered over them.

I felt euphoric hearing the screaming that resounded in the hills as panic filled the air. This was some of my best work. The Devil would be impressed. I released my full fury on the entire eastern coast of the United States. Everyone felt it, young and old, sick and strong; no one was spared.

* * *

Manhattan, New York: Saturday, April 19th, Sometime in the Future

Jasper and Katie rushed along the sidewalk. Everyone was racing in different directions. Every face was wrought with terror. Everyone was pushing and shoving as they went—as if their lives depended on it. Katie’s face was white as a sheet and Jasper’s was a sickening green.

Katie dragged her brother down the streets of the city, toward the house she had lived in her entire life. As the East River hi-rise came into view, she was struck by the overwhelming desire to feel the comfort of her home again. Then she heard the terrified screams around her.

Suddenly, her face contorted in horror as the East River began to recede. Treacherous sharp rocks, plastic milk jugs, and dilapidated boards of recycled wood were revealed. Her already pale face drained completely of color. Going to the house would be suicide. Her mind ceased to function as she turned and ran, her brother dragging behind, terrified. Katie’s mind began to work again, focusing on one task, and one task only: running for her life.

* * *

Miami, Florida: Saturday, April 19th, Sometime in the Future

The thought of a million dollar check with “Lucy Carmichael” spelled out on it no longer had sway over her. She could not think of the house. She was unable to contemplate Christmas. Her only thought, was to run. It was pure instinct. And so she ran, like she had never run before.

The running was over once she reached the car. She could feel the pounding in her chest. It was as if her heart would burst from her ribcage.

She was a perfect example of the effects of some of my most devastating creations.

Lucy started the car and shot up the road at full speed. She disregarded the 15 mph speed limit. Her only thought was escape and the word seemed to pulse to the rhythm of her heart, filling up her head and taking over her senses. Escape, escape, escape…

* * *

Acadia National Park, Maine: Saturday, April 19th, Sometime in the Future

It was after the first wave of the tsunami, and the only people left on the mountain were the counselor and a single child. They stood motionless, panting at the edge of a cliff. Horror-struck, they had watched the others being swept away by the rushing tides.

The child stood on the precipice leaning over and staring at the ground below as the ocean receded again. The rocks beneath his feet began to slip, and as they did, he fell. The counselor, senses acute with fear and grief, reached out, grasping the child’s hand and breaking his fall.

The counselor and the child grabbed each other tightly, tendons straining painfully.

“I won’t let go,” reassured the counselor in a firm but desperate voice.

The child gazed up with unquestioning trust, though terror was written on his ghostly white face.

The counselor’s obvious devotion to this child disgusted me. I watched as their hands slowly slipped apart, only infinitesimally, but the child was only moments away from death.

The counselor and the child gazed fiercely into each other’s eyes, as they held onto one another by the tips of their fingers.

“DON’T WORRY! I’M NOT GONNA LET GO!” the counselor cried. As the last words escaped her parted lips, she lost her grip, and the child plunged downward, shrieks echoing throughout the mountainside.

The counselor stood motionless. She stared over the edge of the cliff where the child had fallen, and the cold, grey rocks stared back up at her in accusation.

I killed him, I killed him, I killed him. It’s my fault. He’s dead now. It’s my fault. I killed him, it’s my fault. He’s dead, my fault, all my fault…I killed him…

At that moment she could feel her life shattered into a million pieces. She stood at the edge of the cliff -- and jumped.

* * *

Manhattan, New York: Saturday, April 19th, Sometime in the Future

Jasper and Katie flew down the streets of Manhattan. Terror filled their eyes and fear dripped down their faces. They were both hot and cold at once, feverish with dread. Shrieks cut through the air like knives, but no one had time to see where they were coming from.

Jasper had begun to slow down. At the age of five he didn’t have the strength to run so far or so quickly. Katie dragged him down the street, paying no heed to his exhaustion.

“Katie, slow down, I’m getting tired,” Jasper panted.

“No, you need to hurry up or we’ll die,” snapped Katie.

She said it with more venom than I thought possible for a 14-year-old. I liked the way she was beginning to think. At last I was witnessing the fruits of my labor.


“Don’t you get it?! We will DIE if you keep dragging your feet like that! HURRY UP!”

“I can’t Katie, I’m sorry,” he whimpered.

He’s slowing me down. We probably won’t survive moving at this rate…maybe I should leave him…It could be the only way for me to survive…

Just then, an enormous wave began to tower over the chaotic streets and imposing buildings of the island. As it did so, every face turned skyward, including Katie’s. Standing above them was a frothing monster of water and debris. All knew danger was closing in. All knew its imminence. All knew they would die.

* * *

Miami, Florida: Saturday, April 19th, Sometime in the Future

Lucy’s hands were in a vice-like grip around the steering wheel. Nico and Pearl , my dear children, I will be there. I need you and you need me. I love you Nico and Pearl, I love you more than you could possibly imagine. She was sweating from every pore and her eyes were focused on the road ahead. I need to get to Nico and Pearl! She looked in her rear-view mirror. She saw the house that only moments ago had been the epitome of her dreams. It was framed by dark water, water so menacing it was as if the Devil himself was inside it.

I was a bit insulted by this last remark about the Devil being in the wave; He had only asked me to commission the wave that was about to wipe out half the nation. I was the one who had created this monstrosity. And I wanted the credit.

Lucy looked back up the road. The end of it inched toward her, painfully slow. She started to cry. The type of crying that wracks your body violently, shaking you, but makes no sound. It blurred her vision, made her eyes burn, and her head split with pain. This can’t be happening. Nico and Pearl need me. She looked back, and through the tears she saw the waterside mansion she had planned to sell be crushed under the watery giant that came rolling across the land. I will survive. Nico and Pearl will see me again.

It is quite beyond me why people think that just because they want something to happen, it will. Don’t they realize that there are greater forces at work than their own minds?

The wave was now behind Lucy, not a foot away from the back of her car. Looking back made her dizzy with horror and fear. Time seemed to stand still. Her heart stopped; her mind would not function; she couldn’t scream, and even the wave that towered, colossal, above her, seemed to halt in its tracks. Then, all too quickly, everything came back to life and her car was crushed by the weight of the water. Lucy struggled for air, her lungs straining. She pounded the door, and when it finally opened, she was sucked into a swift current with swirling mud and rocks.

She became light headed for want of air.

Nico, Pearl, know that I love you more than anything in the world, more than myself. I would do anything for you. I realize that I will be leaving this world today. My only comfort is that you, so far away, you will live, you will survive.

She was pathetic. I mean she was dying. Couldn’t she be a little more upset? I had to do something…

Her head spinning in confusion, Lucy found herself suddenly wishing for her children more than ever, as if a cold hand had touched her heart and softened her resolve. Her lungs burned like fire. The salty water poured down her throat, making it raw and painful. Nico, Pearl, I need you! I need you more than I need air! If I could just give you one last hug, if I could just say goodbye… Her vision began to tunnel. Nico! Pearl! And with one last painful gulp, all went black.

* * *

Manhattan, New York: Saturday, April 19th, Sometime in the Future

Katie and Jasper ran toward the crowd of people pushing and shoving down the narrow alleyway. The police were directing them into a school, though they knew there was no chance of survival, no possible way to live. The wave that was nearing the coastline had condemned them all long ago, but the police did not want people to panic. Better to live your last moments, thinking everything would be okay, than to endure knowing that your death would be a painful one.

As the massive wave came toward them, Jasper collapsed in tears, sobbing in despair. Katie’s heart softened at the sight of this and knelt down beside him.

“Jasper, calm down. We’re going to be okay. We just have to get up and run really, really fast until we get to Mom and Dad.”

“But I’m so tired, Katie. I don’t think I can run anymore.”

“Jasper, you can do it. We can get back to Mom and Dad together.”



I knew this was a promise she would never be able to keep.

Katie helped Jasper up, and they ran. They reached a huge crowd that was screaming and shouting as the police tried to direct them through a narrow alley. Katie was shoved against a chain-link-fence as people pushed by her, scrambling toward the open doors of the school. She couldn’t see Jasper; he had been consumed by the crowd. The bodies piled against each other. Her chest was being crushed and she could feel herself slowly being pressed into the ground. The crowd was converging on the school like ants on a carcass. Jasper, though only a foot away, could not see his sister, and, like her, was being pummeled into the cement of the sidewalk.

“Jasper…” she could barely speak as she was being crushed against the fence. “Jasper…” she repeated, growing light-headed and dizzy.

“Katie…” Jasper’s vision grew dim. Brother and sister were choking, dying, and in a split second, their lives were snuffed out, like candles in the wind.

* * *

I stepped through the swirling, fiery gates of Hell and made my way to the Devil’s office. I arrived and rapped once on the door.

“Enter,” came his icy reply. The Devil was a cold man, despite the smoldering inferno he inhabited. I opened the door.

“Good evening, father” I said. “All has gone as planned and I hope my devastation was to your liking.”

“You have done well. I’ve never had a son do so well at seven years of age.” He hissed.

“Thank you, father,” I mumbled with a shiver.

“We will discuss plans for the future tomorrow. I have thousands of souls to burn now.”

“Yes, father” I said as I slipped out and closed the door behind me.

I skipped to the playground to play hopscotch with my friends, listening to the sound of tortured shrieks that echoed for miles around.
Read more!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Three Years Old!

No, silly, not Maxanne...Writopia Lab!! I just turned to Rebecca and reminded her that today is as close as we will ever know to a three-year anniversary of the day she created Writopia Lab.


You've made this a great place for kids, teachers, and the community. I can't wait to see this place in another three years. Read more!
Our Radiant Windows project is creating a buzz, says Time Out New York!
And here is the rest of it. Read more!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Multiple Congratulations to Dalia Wolfson!

Writopia writer Dalia Wolfson, 16, has enjoyed a spectacular 2010 so far! Six pieces of hers were honored by a variety of competitions and publications. Her short stories were recognized with four regional keys and two National Gold Medals from the Scholastic Awards. Dalia (left, reading her prose at a Writopia event at the NYPL) also won 1st place in Imagine's creative minds nonfiction contest, and received honorable mention in the same magazine's fiction contest. Last, Dalia was chosen as a finalist in the River of Words contest!

Please help Dalia celebrate her success by reading her newest work:

Those Men Who Carry Coffee Tables
By Dalia Wolfson, 16

On January 12th, 2010, the Bagel Corner was missing exactly one coffee table. Theoretically, the coffee table was stolen at exactly 2:14 AM, according to the construction worker who dozed nearby, under unfinished apartment building, beneatha long cement slab that was meant to be a lobby ceiling. When other locals were asked about the incident, drunken Fred claimed that he'd seen extra terrestrials in purple knickers with cup holders and nowhere to place them, but his testimony was nullified because of the reputation of its inebriated witness. Old lady Edna swore - by her cat Leopold's whiskers - that she had locked the place up by maximum nine o'clock, inserting the rusted bronze key into the padlock and twisting once, twice, thrice just in case because you could never be too sure these days, yes? "Yes," Officer Hearst replied, pushing back his police man's cap, and made further inquiries into the appearance of the table (copper body, a print by Alphonse Mucha of a woman with long, blond luxurious hair and vegetative matter, flattened by a glass surface, purchased at Mr.Gibb's Antique Furniture Store when The Bagel Corner first opened its doors). He was sweating profusely, because this was one of those days in the winter when the sun pushed out its rays so forcefully, you could have thought that some Power up on High had forgotten to fill in the poor solar star on details of seasonal weather. The sun, in fact, further illuminated the absence of the \coffee table, which - once removed - left a large anti-shadow on the floor, tiles suddenly exposed, their tea stains bared like birth marks on white skin.

Edna refused, though, to close the cafe because business was slow these days, and besides most of the stores on Riverdale Avenue had already closed and, by George, she'd be the last to go down that lane, eh, eh! So she hitched up her skirts (only to the knees, so that the spotted calves were exposed) and reached up to the padlock, unlocked it - one, two, three - and the work day began. It was already January 13th, 2010, you see, because the previous day Edna had closed down shop only because Morty's yarzheit fell on that date, and she could not miss a visit to the grave.

The sun- through a coffee filter, now, for morning was starting - trickled in, leaving its brighter dregs behind in the wax-paper clouds and falling upon the cafe. Already, the three steady employees were busying themselves behind the counter. Someone turned on a bit of smooth jazz CD one-oh-one point nine, pigeons began to collect in small gray huddles and the first few customers trickled in.

A lady, tall and dark with hair almost as purple as twilight entered, followed by a man in a leather jacket and distressed denim jeans. Bagel Corner readied itself for business.

Bagel Corner was founded by Morty Epstein in 1968 and Edna, his widow, now kept the store in order, as much as order can be maintained by a 70-year-old woman and as long as the orders themselves kept coming in for massive bagel catering by worried bar mitzvah moms. Bagel Corner, I must tell you now, is a corner cafe in all legitimate proportions - not like those small pretentious patissieres with french names that locate themselves off the side of the street and claim to own the label - no sir, Bagel Corner jutted out like a store thumb, all jagged edges and solicitous grannies with hairnets asking "Dearie, toasted or what?" (always toasted, because otherwise the bagel tasted cold in your mouth).

"Toasted Poppy, please, with Tofu Cream Cheese and Scallions, but not too toasted, I can't stand the burnt bits. Oh, and also a coffee, skim milk" (that's the lady at the counter now, leaning on her fingertips so that her spine arches out like a finely shaped bridge and the arcs of her eyebrows become birds on her face. Picture that. )

"And for you, sir?" Edna smiles encouragingly at the man, who has placed his own fingertips - coarser, with rivulets of whorls running within them - upon the top of the lady's bridge back, where it would rise to let ships pass, except there rest the smooth plates of cartilage, sliding in and out. She squirms under his touch.
"Whole Wheat with Butter, and a small English Breakfast, please." The man removes his fingers from the lady's spine and the bridge of her back collapses. It is not uncommon for Bagel Corner to witness breakfasts like this, though the hour is still early and these two first customers are stranger than usual, thinks Edna to herself as she spreads the cream cheese in ridges upon the naked underside of the bread. Having done the spreads, Edna walks to the sink. She turns on the water, which runs down upon her hands and she soaps them with Lavendar Patchouli gel, then washes off the cream cheese, which first dampens and then admits, confesses to removal - because spread are meant, ultimately to be removed, adhered, received. As she washes, Edna curls up her fingers and imagines that they are different limbs of her body. First her legs- stick them out, knees twirling, churning. Then her head- now she rotates the parts of her finger around the knuckle, like a neck on a hinge. Then her fingers become shoulders and she moves them backwards, forwards, beneath and below, a somatic stretch achieved through her hands. Because Edna has arthritis and the symptoms are heavy and her movement are limited, her body is hurting her and only these hands that she holds before her are mobile, fluttering things.

Edna then washes her hands- here is the ritual, the one that keeps her sane, confident, stable - three times on one, three times on the other, and eats her own bagel, sits down upon the stool behind the counter so she can breathe, for a second. The hands she is washing, she imagined then that she was immersing - for a second, a moment - herself, the body enveloped. But the taste of the bagel, now, in her mouth, reminds her that this isn't bathing, her hands are just hands and not feet, ears or eyes and this is bread, bread that's she's eating, on a corner of Riverdale Avenue.

So Bagel Corner, is yes, on a corner, not in an L-shape or U-shape or what have you, but in a septagon of sorts. If you a look at it with a drafting pencil in hand and an architect's intuition, you'll notice that the problem with the coffee tables here (sans the one in the corner, which at this point isn't) is that they don't fit against the straight lines of the walls, and there's a curvaceous half-hour glass between the wall and the table. Along the right-hand wall is the counter, where an elderly lady - sometimes Edna, though occasionally replaced by Phyllis, with the red hair and Southern accent (where did she get that tongue and the hair, is it dyed?) - where the lady staffs the counter. On the white surface is a packet of gloves, coffee stirrers, a selection of various Splenda imitations and a cash register that dings every time an employee needs to hand you three dimes, one nickel and a charred round penny. To the side is the glass display case where ceramic bowls glint dully, the same color as their trademark product - cream cheese, the whiteness mixed with the slightest wash of yellow because the Bagel Corner refuses to install fluorescent lightning because that, ladies and gentlemen, would leave you faces in green pallor and we just can't have that, now can we? So three ceramic bowls are chock-full o' cream cheese, and then the whole canon of flavors: Walnut Raisin, Smooth Tofu Cream Cheese, Olive Paste, Tuna Delight and some experimental things that seem to be popular with the new generation, like Honey Butter. The place of glory, however, is reserved for the Lox- glorious, fishy, resting in luxurious folds upon a large plate on a lettuce bed like a monarch of the Spreads; above the spreads but within them, crowned by beads of perspiration and soaking, basking in salmon splendor at $3.64, tax not included.

"Paying together?"

"Separate"- the lady intones. "No, Sara, together" - now the man keeps his hold on her elbow, and places the total - 6 dollars, 40 cents - on the counter. Edna unfolds the six bills as she does every day, undoing each and every of George Washington's wrinkles until his cheeks are as smooth as baby palms then puts each bill in a slot and bounces the four dimes into the change bin.

Behind her, in glass half-boxes, are the bagels themselves, a little bit stupid-looking compared to the spreads. They are piled one on top of another in clumsy disarray- Blueberry softly applying pressure on the dough of Pumpernickel. Sesame and Poppy battle for seniority rights on the side, while a solitary Garlic bagel sits and contemplates its smelly fate in the extreme right corner. In the center, the Everything bagels celebrate their dominion. They are never wastefully expended - a customer will never opt for, say, a Poppy seed bagel and, if handed an Everything, that customer wouldn't complain. But give him an Onion instead of an Everything and - oh, the horror! - the whole order is ruined, and there's a burning necessity to do Everything over again, because the customer knows best, even when he doesn't really, and Onion provides a more singular taste.

Nearer to the entrance you've got an assortment of muffins, bialys, croissants and some baked goods with unappealing names and stale exteriors, so pay those no heed. On the back wall some motivational phrase on a country-style sort of wooden sign helps employees stay their tempers, and in the far right hand corner (stage left) one of those hanging curtains, dirty plastic strips swaying slightly from that invisible ventilation that emerges from the harsh white light of any Bronx kitchen interior. Right next to the kitchen, Edna is finishing a phone conversation which sounds something like this (excuse the ellipses, Edna mumbles when confronted by the receiver, and my voyeurism is weaker than in years past):

"Yes...One coffee table, any design is noveau, sure, whatever this is...please, as soon as possible...Edna Epstein, 235th St and Netherland Avenue... You'll be here in 5 minutes? Great, great. Wonderful...what? Of course we're still in business, it's great...No, Morty isn't a-vail-able..he's been out for a while...Yes, thank you. See you soon" She had ordered a coffee table earlier, having bolted straight awake at 7:00 AM the day after the theft and realized how the coffee table's absence left a small circular mark, like a faded cent, on the imprint of her entrepreneurial consciousness. Edna felt uncomfortable with the idea of the circle of emptiness sitting in her cafe, so she called up the nearest antique dealer and today, yes, she was expecting a prompt delivery. Mr.Gibbs had promised to send two men early in the morning. They would be carrying the coffee tables, he claimed, on their shoulders.

At 9:05 AM, approximately 2 hours after Edna had opened up shop and seven minutes after Sara and the man had strolled in - they were now waiting, one foot apart, for their toasted bagels- two shadows moved step by step down the sidewalk, followed by the objects that created those shades of gray. The two men wore vests the color of dark grapes ripening, and their chins were adorned with trim beards that came to a point. They walked with a purpose, boots rising and landing on the street with intent. On the backs, in the strangest way, they carried a coffee table. A child with a disposable camera who was waiting at the florists while his father ordered tulips for a wife not his own took a picture, frozen, of the two carriers. It was an odd sight, because their bodies were not contorted, but you could feel the tension in their figures: elbows jutting forth like proud marble limbs, spheres into which were inserted the radia and ulna and so arranged that they made right angles. At the ends of the arm were the hands - in black, fingerless gloves - one man carried the circular base, the other lifted the larger circle of the table. The overall effect was of the impression that an unfinished sculpture had come alive from the heat of the sun and now, radiating, bronzed, muscles tense, was moving down the street, melting in the air. Upon arriving at the doorstep, the men lowered the coffee table and it balanced between them like a two-sided shield.

Edna rushed to the door in her lime-green slippers, floral apron flapping and making imaginary, air-filled folds on her stomach.

"You deliver the table, yes?"

"Yes, Brothers Moving and Delivery, Inc., our office received your order earlier today."

"Mr. Gibbs?"

"Mr. Gibbs, ma'am."

"Oooooh, great!" Edna rubbed her hands together expectantly, and suddenly her cheeks flowered before the four stoic male eyes. She glowed for a second, then her hands suddenly soared out of her dress sleeves and, with a jaunty lift of the leg, she yelled "Oleee- OHP!" and the table was in her hold again. "Didn't think a woman could manage it, eh? Well, you got another thing coming, boys!" She whooped again, throwing one arm in the air - the other was clutching the table, why would they need two of them to carry this paperweight? - and the arm flab wobbled underneath her bone like turkey chin flesh. Edna's hair net untangled itself from her round head -to be honest, these days there wasn't even that much hair for the hairnet to cover- and came to rest on a crack in the sidewalk.

"Well, kids, thank you very much for bringing me this table, I gotta say I've missed it like my great aunt Muriel's wedding handkerchief! You should have a nice day, no worries, and a marriage on the horizon, and we should merit to see your children helping you deliver coffee tables! Zai Gezunt!" Edna cried and banged the door shut, inserting in the last bit of Yiddish happily, almost indulgently because, in fact, most of her Yiddish had gone when she'd come to America. But this phrase she remembered, of course, because it was most relevant to her health (or lack thereof) - Edna had been diagnosed several years ago with skin cancer. No one pays attention to elderly cancer so much, partly due to the fact that instead of attacking the body, elderly cancer is as heavy-boned as the victim, walking through the membrane with a cane and trailing a long beard of defenseless white blood cells.

The two men walked away, their figures melting into that shimmering air that flushes out of the street corners when winter heat soaks the city.

Edna placed the coffee table down in the store, then moved the chairs just so the legs touched the slant of wall. Raising her gray head, she noticed that Sara and Philip - for the name had become clear when Phyllis had asked what label to put on the coffee cup- were approaching her grimly, silently. Sara, with the bagel (Toasted Poppy, please, with Tofu Cream Cheese and Scallions, but not too toasted, ) burnt bits collecting and falling, ashen, on the white tiles. Philip, standing now, with his whole wheat bagel and the bits of yellow, yellow butter emerging from the sides, sticking in misshapen curls to his hand and melting in dribbles. Edna turned to the two: “Everything all right? You enjoying your bagels?”

“Yes, of course,” Philip replied, licking his hand, for the yellowness had trickled down and now lent his fingers a bright sheen of oiliness.

“Alright, alright, good.” Edna muttered to herself, and slipped away, back behind the counter to call Mr. Gibbs and spread the good word of delivery and well, my how quickly those gentlemen carried that table.

Sara sat down, positioned herself cross-legged underneath the coffee table, which came up to just above her knees. Philip cleared off the daily newspaper and a smatter of crumbs from his chair, then fell into the poor plastic structure with a heaviness meant for cranes. They sat in silence. Sarah got up suddenly, then, to wash her hands in the basin where Edna had performed her absolutions several minutes ago.

Edna herself dialed Mr. Gibbs’ antique store.

“Yes, hello? Mr.Gibbs, oh, Mr. Gibbs!” Edna gushed, cupping the mouthpiece of the phone like a good glass of wine.

Sarah washed her hands, three times here, three times there, her lips pronouncing a blessing and- not finding a towel – she dried her fingers in the air, hands brushing against jazz notes, Edna’s accent and the oxygen being circulated from the weak, put-puttering ventilation system. Returning to her seat, she sat down and bit in, hard, into the bread while Philip watched her, the parenthesis of his lips turned upwards, completed the thought with the curvature of his words, the pronunciation of her name “Sara” which he utters, now, the loping first syllable and the descent of the second “a”.


“Philip, there’s very little left to say.”

“Oh, no, Sara, but you’re so wrong. Look at him, he’s absolutely content back in Germany. Let me show

you the pictures.”

“I’ve seen the pictures.”

“No, Sara’le, no you haven’t.” Philip reaches into his bag, extract one of those envelopes with orange and yellow bands of color that send one a 90’s- Kodak – moment feeling. The photos emerged. In them is an elderly man, his skin the color of toffee: that tint that one adopts with age upon sunbathing, the rays darkening and imprint themselves in stamp-like rows. The tan is uneven, naturally, because the skins folds on itself in places where the tension between cells has grown weak and ridges, hillocks have formed. So the elderly man is browned and – flip through the images now – appearing in various environments. He sits at the edge of a pool in purple flip flops or holds a neon yellow drink in his hand, toasting the world. In some he is lounging and in others, contorted with the pure concentration of swinging a gold club- but always a persistent smile. Philip holds the photos and turns them around, one by one, so that Sara can see.

“Don’t you see how happy he seems? I called him only a few days ago, and he was head over heels about Bingo Nacht.”

“Bingo Nacht?”

“That’s a joke. They don’t play bingo in Germany.”

“They played bang-bang in Germany.”

“Sara- it’s over. Forget it. There’s a new generation, they’re sorry, they won’t do it again. You like growing old in the shadow of death? Papa doesn’t. Let him live.”

“He’s dancing on the graves of his elders.”

“At least he’s dancing.”

Sara takes another bite of her bagel, then lift the plastic piece from her cup cover and pushes the flap down. When she drinks the coffee, a small cream mustache forms on her upper lip. On the phone, Edna continues to put-putter to Gibbs, asking after his daughters and arranging the croissants in a mountain of pastry air.

“I just don’t understand why he’d do it.”

“It’s his motherland, darling. They eat the same food, drink the same beer, speak the same languages and curse the same way. You expect me to know what motivates a man like Papa?”

“You, Philip, it’s you. You told him it would be alright. You talked him into it. Too old for a nursing home, too sick of the weather – let’s ship him to German resoirt! What sort of man builds a house on a cemetery?”

“Let him go. He’s happy, yes? He’s well-paid for, yes? Mama’s still alive and he calls her every night.” Philip settles back, beings putting the photos into his envelope. One of the photos, with a slippery edge, escapes his reach and Sara grabs it suddenly, violently.

“You think this is okay? You think it’s logical? This is ...”

“Crazy, my dear Gibbs, business is perfectly crazy!” Edna laughs into the receiver a little bit too loudly, because her hearing aids are working badly today and the tinnitus has been ringing in her ears since this morning. Her hearing is intact, yes, but she feels the need to compensate by yelling into the phone as one would yellow a favorite song into the showerhead- naked volume bathing in the perspiration of an attempt to release a voice wet and warm with emotion.

Sara looks at the last of the photos. Papa sits at a table, laughing. His beard is a half-circle of grayness and his eyes shine blue in the sunlight. He holds out his arm and embraces another grandpa with leathery tan skin. He once used to hide the numbers on his forearm with sleeves – she remembers the way he’d pull down the edge of his shirts to cover the beginning of the 6, would always refuse to wear cufflinks – but now the barcode lies contently on his skin like a flap of inky blotches that, by happenstance, form figures.

“He doesn’t hide the numbers anymore.”

“Exactly,” cries Philip, slapping his hand on the table as if everything is alright.

“Not exactly, not at all, Phil! What is this? It’s perverted, it’s disgusting. And Mom’s bed is cold in the evenings and I can’t call dad up because of the time difference and he’s dancing on his family’s graves!”

“Hey, Sara, let’s bury it, okay?” says Philip, and he becomes angry now, biting with ferocity, as much as one can do that with a silly, buttered bagel at hand.

Sara fidgets in her chair and remains silent. Philip – as is customary with him, the breadth of hands- shoves the photos to one side in a motion to collect them into a broad envelope. In the process, Sara’s cup shakes.

It quivers on the edge of the coffee table. Phyllis raises her eyes from her nail file; Edna, alert to the scene, accidentally tangles herself up in the telephone line; Sara and Philip watch. Sara has suspended her hands are resting in the air, as if the coffee table has just sunk inches into the ground. Philip allows himself the luxury of watching a fall object. They make no effort to stop the cup. It hovers above the air for the split of a second- uplifted by the tension of the matter – then descends, down down down, until it hits the ground with full force and makes the sound of hollowness. Phyllis returns to her bitten nails; Edna begins to unravel the telephone line.

“Thanks, Phil. What are you blaming the coffee for?”

“Only for the endless amount of energy that you seem to be channeling against Papa. Get it over with. I’m out of here, Sara, I’ve got things to do, a Mom to cheer up and a divorce to file. Call me when you think you’re saner” Philip rises from the table. He is grave but sarcastic, and leaves without saying goodbye, the napkin remains unaccounted for, still sprinkled with crumbs. The words are unapologetic, as are his strides when he whisks open the door and walks out of the Bagel Corner, around the sharp bend of the street and down, away from Riverdale Avenue.

Sarah sits and looks at her hands. She licks her thumbs, then takes a small prayer booklet from her bag, The Grace After Meals, which is said traditionally after one has consumed bread. Philip did not say it, but then he was never taught to do so. Only Sara has grown closer to whatever religion it is her father lost and her mother appeals to in lonely moments. And this is only a small gesture, contradicted perhaps in observance by the sharp pants, the almost painfully revealing tank top – oh, middle age does not flatter- and the tattoo of numbers she has chosen to emblazon, one by one, on her upper vertebrae. Yet she opens the Grace and pronounces the words, whispers them as she learned to in Hebrew School, the letters that always seemed so solid there, black like poppy seeds in formation on white paper.

Let me enlighten. There is a point in the Grace when one bangs on the table, blessing the Owner or owner, his wife and his children. Unless there is an explanatory note nearby (written in indecipherable script, make sure to get prescription lenses to read that section), one might fall into the pit of that reading, as does Sara now, for she has only recently begun reciting the Grace. She does not say that portion for Edna, she says it for herself – but Papa is in Germany (again), Mama is in Pelham Parkway, Philip is getting callous and cold. The only grace left is in the book and the light that filters through the windows of the Bagel Corner, fluttering upon surfaces with the delicacy of transparent white curtains – yes, the light is both microscopic cotton bits of curtain and waves, so why the dispute of science on its nature? Sara recites the Grace and pats her shoe into the coffee stain on the floor, producing a wet smacking sound.

Edna waits for Sara to leave, impatient to clean the stain slowly spreading under the shadow of the coffee table.

Sara finally gathers her things, shuts the Grace- a kiss of the lips upon laminated plastic- and walks out.

Edna watches her go, then gathers her scrubbing rag and liquid. She lets the blue soap collect on the tiles and washes thoroughly, therapeutically, until the last brown hues are extracted.

Edna knows these types of children, kids of the Holocaust survivors who are dead bent on G-d knows What. Parents that act erratic and gulp silence in lieu of air – that is a difficult occurrence and a harder experience to digest, goes painfully down the tracts until it emerges as the strain of living. When you approach nearest to death, you prefer to leave life to the children and push the stories of near-darkness to the side. There it is. The hardest of emotions, the inability to express ever fully. Sara with lack of understanding, Philip with lack of compassion, Mama lonely and Papa on vacation, again, from the nightmare of his mind. Edna sighs for them – a little commemorative gesture, in these domestic tasks she remembers larger events for the sake of the customer – a long, inventive sigh that releases carbon dioxide in a continuous stream. She wrings out the rage and the rag, the tension of these two strange people, and proceeds, because the bell has rung and the next couple people have entered.

So the day goes, and when we found Edna again she had shooed the workers away- let them retire early, heh, if she can’t do that herself!- and stood in the cafĂ©, doing a once-over. All was well: the sink sparkled like nobody’s business, the counters were fine, the bins were empty and a small alarm, newly installed, blinked its one red eye at her every two minutes.

Only she noticed, with sunset coming, that the coffee stain of that morning had not been entirely removed. Crawling under the coffee table, she once again leaned and scrubbed with renewed force. She lost balance, just looking at it, the menacing refrain of brown outline on the tile, repeating itself as she traced its shape from one side to the other. It wouldn’t come out.

Edna said, let it be the shadow for now. Any coffee table needs a shadow, I think, because we all need a little place for the worries to be shoved under, for the darkness to be kicked once in a while, to be wiped then forgotten then stared at again. A shadow for reminding us that something is embedded between the golden light and its bluer, deeper counterpart, so even when the shadow doesn’t fall- and times exist, when the object’s eclipse prevents it from being in space- there it is grounded. And when light disappears completely, still it remains in its spot, responsible for the object it illuminates.

Edna rose from under the table, peered at the stain almost lovingly.

She touched the table, lightly, with the palms of her hands, running along the cold metallic frame, so perfect in its circularity that she suddenly felt her own roundness reflected in the glass surface, the bulge of hips long gone and bosom expanded and the cheeks a multiplication of circles, a study in globes of fat and the thinness of the aging spirit inside. She mounted her palms onto the table’s smoothest exterior and sat in the air, balancing – for aren’t all tables meant for sitting at, and their very presence necessitates a stationary creature to descend? Some errant ventilation from the side of the wall blew her gray hair into a sculpted mass of speckled marble and levitated the crumbs in her wrinkles into a dance of leavened wonder. With the last bite of energy, Edna sat down now, on the table, gathering her skirts about her and joining the cycle. Morty was gone, so were the customers and those accustomed to the old woman waiting upon them and for them at the counter, counting her days. But evening was arriving and she felt it seeping in through the door. She sat on the table, guarding the last bagel-shaped, eternal possession.

Edna breathed thrice in, thrice out without stopping. Her heart would give itself away later that night but for now.

Everything was circular, and stars in the night outside were the color of cream cheese.
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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Writopia Writers' Work on Display!

The 2010 Radiant Windows Community Project has begun! Already, five pieces have been chosen -- and are on display -- in local stores and restaurants!
Congratulations Danielle Haas Freeman (Uno's Chicago Grill), Dan Ross (Amsterdam Gallery), Lena Beckenstein (Europan Cafe), Peter Cohen (T & R Pizza), Rebecca Shubert (T & R Pizza) and Jenan Jacobson (Kosty Hardware) for being the first to be picked!
          Radiant Windows is a city-wide community project launched by Writopia Lab in which young writers (ages 8-18) compose short vignettes and poems inspired by the hardware stores, cafes, pizza parlors, hair salons, and general scene on the streets of New York City. The Radiant Windows Community Project seeks to celebrate young writers’ work throughout the city and expose the public to the inspiring literature emerging from these dedicated and talented youth. We are accepting submissions from kids across the city for this project on an ongoing basis.  Email submissions to
          To the community: Thank you for taking part in in this exciting project. By displaying and celebrating a young writer's work, you are helping nurture her talents, and empowering her to pursue her dreams. Thank you for helping us build a literary youth community, thank you for recognizing the young writer whose work you are displaying, and thank you for making New York…New York.
And here is the rest of it. Read more!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lena Beckenstein: National Gold Medalist and Winner of the Creativity and Citizenship Award

Congratulations Lena Beckenstein, 16, (left, answering a question about her writing process at Barnes & Noble) for winning a 2010 National Gold Medal and The Scholastic Awards' Creativity and Citizenship Award for her script, "Threads," ( along with multiple regional keys for her short story, memoir, poetry, and script)! Her script is now being reviewed, and considered by the National Constitution Center for their Creativity and Citizenship Award. Please help her celebrate her success by reading her script:

Threads: A Play In One Act
By Lena Beckenstein, 16

Dee is fifteen. She speaks as if words are weapons and is constantly accusing. Her voice has incredible power and she does a lot with volume. Her breaks from her persona seem intrusively personal, but also very calculated. Her hair is bleached to almost white but her dark roots are heavy around her part. She has an eyebrow piercing and a nose piercing.

Molly is fifteen. She speaks slowly, loving that people are listening, and talks in a way that she thinks will interest others. She has very clear enunciation, which should sound slightly ridiculous when matched with what she's saying. Does not have a Valley Girl voice (her voice should be low-pitched), though has Valley Girl syntax. Her hair is orange and in two braids, which fall in front of her shoulders.

Petra is fifteen and very, very frustrated. She has a strong sense of [in]justice. Seemingly on the offensive but really trying to defend herself. Sometimes ends sentences with her voice going down instead of up (opposite of an up-talker). She never wears make-up and her hair is natural and left down.

Scene 1

In general, the three girls will each be on a different bed. When one is on a stool in the middle of the stage monologuing, the other two are frozen on their individual beds. All monologues are given sitting on the stool. After every monologue, the speaker goes back to her bed and freezes and the next ones takes center stage.

The stage is fully lit for the first scene. With each scene, lights on the stage dim eventually to black and a spotlight become increasingly bright on the speakers. The entire back wall is an imposing DO NOT DISTURB sign.

Dee's bed is made with black sheets. Dee is wearing a cut-off David Bowie shirt and jeans that have a hole in one knee (not by design). She wears heavy make-up, bracelets and necklaces, and her nose and eyebrow and ear piercings are in. She is barefoot.

Molly's bed has pink and orange sheets with happy flowers on them. A fat ratty teddy bear is on the bed. She is wearing pink sweatpants that say JUICY on the a** and a white shirt that's clearly meant to accentuate her breasts. She wears a little too much make-up in an attempt to be pretty.

Petra's bed has turquoise sheets. She wears a reasonably well-fitted grey t-shirt over jeans. She wears no make-up. She has no jewelry on except tiny fake diamond studs in her ears. She is striking.

The girls enter. Dee confidently goes straight to the stool while Molly and Petra go to their beds. Molly lies on her stomach with her head facing Dee and her head resting on her palms. Petra sits straight up and cross-legged and watches Dee.


At the risk of sounding like a pretentious b****, I've figured out the world. (Sardonically sweet) You're laughing at me. (Cutting, demanding) Stop it. (Rapidly) When I was in the sixth grade, I gave a presentation on the duty of American citizens in the world at large. But by the end of the presentation, every single kid in my class was laughing when I said 'duty.' It wasn't that funny at the beginning of class, but my sixth grade boyfriend told his future homecoming date to laugh and she told her soon to be ex best friend and then it kind of spread, like marshmallow fluff or Susan Creeton's legs at junior prom. (Galvanized) But my theory. I've never technically told anyone all of this, because I have a remarkable sense for boredom and it always tingles by the time I get to the parallels to Sisyphus and--(on the end of same breath) oh god you've already judged me. I mean, I am so not big on that whole 'don't judge me' thing, because the only people that say that are utterly snarky and get what they deserve. But I mean on some sort of deeper level. (honestly) I just--I know that look. You're all like, what is with this b****. You think I've got this collegiate intellect and the attitude of a ten-year-old middle child. Well, you're wrong, because I babysit a ten-year-old middle child and his attitude is nothing like mine. (really meaning it, almost asking) Trust me.

Dee goes to her bed and sits, legs spread to the sides. She watches Molly. Molly flounces to the stool.


(milks the time before starting, but doesn't drag out the sentence) I want to f*** Ben Stevens. Shocking, scandalous, sordid, I know. But I do. And I will. I'm flirtatious, willing, and a 34 C. He's tall, blonde, and only a year older then me which, btdubbs [bee tee dubs], is full-on legal in the state of New York. Also, my bestie Janie told me that he hasn't gotten any in over a year. Any. Like not even first base. And Ben Stevens? He's a dude. So really, my job shouldn't be that difficult. Yeah, I got competition. Everyone has wanted in Ben Stevens' pants since before we even knew what 'in Ben Stevens' pants' meant. But that doesn't even matter because I have a total advantage over everyone. (pause then grin) I'm shameless. Legit. When everyone else is giggling at the grinders during (air quotes) 'rec nights'--our school thinks that calling it a 'dance' will promote unprotected sex--I am out there on the floor, sticking my a** in some guy's crotch. Seriously, it's just grinding. Some of the most respectable people ever have ground. It was probably how half our parents met--on the dance floor in decades past, touching each other up to terrible techno. The good life. Point is, I've ground with the homecoming king. Scoring with Ben Stevens should be beyond a piece of cake.

Molly gives the audience a last flirtatious look and flounces back to her bed, where she freezes in a modified hurdler's stretch and watches Petra. Petra walks purposefully to the stool.


(after a pause, straight but with feeling) My global history teacher is an appalling malicious ignorant down-low moronic condescending c***. (more like just talking) Ugh. I'm not even a little allowed to say that. For one, he's my teacher. For two, he goes to my church. For three, last time I dropped the c-bomb I was grounded for like a month. (starting to get righteous) But f*** it, right? He is. God, it's so weird. I've seen him every Sunday for my entire life--shook his hand, wished him peace, prayed in the same pew--and then I get to school and I meet him and it's like wait what? You're a d*****bag? And trust me, I am not exaggerating. He is a total. F***ing. D*****. Let's put it this way: first day of school, right? We walk in and he wants to know who we want to vote for. Most of us say Obama because hell, we're sixteen and we want Danny Lu's sister out of Iraq and Sarah Palin is one creepy-a** b****. Anyway, he has the gall to look us right in the eye--well he didn't look at me, probably 'cause of the church thing, but Danny he says he was looking right at him--and said, (spitting the words) "You're all brainwashed sheep. Each and every one of you." (words in quotes said mockingly) Later, he claimed that he was 'kidding' and that we're too 'serious' and should 'calm down'--ugh, that one really pisses me off--but no, he was dead straight. He's so...God. And it only gets worse.

Petra goes to her bed and sits, one leg curled up and one hanging off the bed, and watches Dee.

Scene 2

Dee walks to the stool and sits. Her posture is magnificent.


(getting progressively scarier) Nothing happens when you die. That's pretty much the basis of my entire theory. Nothing. Did you get that? Nothing. Just think about that for a minute. I mean, what if you got hit by a bus on your way out of here. Not one of those wimpy TV bus crashes but really (hits this line) jammed, guts squished to the window, face splattered on those f***ing wheels. (more quietly) And then you died. (starts a slow rise in power, volume, and fearful desperation) Not right then, but after a few hours of pain that made you really wish you'd just gone because you felt your lung puncture with the side of that OMFG [oh em eff gee] ad campaign and you know that you have nothing no chance but they're trying, the paramedics, they are pumping you full of fresh fake air and you want to say stop I'm dead but you can't because you're not, you're just waiting and then there is the ambulance and it flashes and you moan and then the coma, you alone with your thoughts, lining up regrets like little clay pigeons, and then there is nothing. (quiet, breaking) Nothing. Zip zilch zero you are dead. Even that sentence is wrong because there is no you anymore. 'You' is gone. Never ever again will there be anything vaguely like what you were. Your sweetness, your nightmares, what goes on in the most buxom parts of your cerebrum--never. Gone. Gone. (pause) Heh. I scared you, didn't I?

Dee walks back to her bed, heels clacking, and lays down on her bed, flat, head on the pillow facing the ceiling, legs straight out, arms palm down next to her. Molly gets up and dances over to the stool, doing a little spin on the way.


(hold up one finger on one hand and makes a zero with the other as she says the numbers) Molly one, nonbelievers zero. B****es, you can suck it, because I totally got Ben Stevens' number. It happened like we were in a movie or in a dream or in Disneyland. Technically we were in chorus, but all of those other things are fantastic metaphors. Just ask my English teacher. Anyway, Ben Stevens and I were standing on the back riser because we are both like six feet tall. Well, he's like six feet tall and so is my bffl [biffle] Janie so she and me switched places. (appreciatively and confidently) She knows how much this means to me. It wasn't even awkward because her booty call Richard was on my row anyway and they wanted to play footsies during the Hallelujah chorus. So Ben Stevens and I were just kind of standing in the back, bored out of our minds because we are both up-and-coming stars in the music department and way above the thirds of Hallelujah and I was like you know what? I ran the mile in gym yesterday and my knees hurt like a mofo. I'm sitting the heck down. (smiles) It only took like six minutes for the chorus teacher to start yelling at the sopranos because it's true what they say, sopranos can't read and god bless them for that because--(pause, then screeches) Ben Stevens noticed me! He saw me sitting and raised his eyebrows like good idea! and then? He sat down too. So I was like fourteen inches away from Ben Stevens. Oh man.

Molly gets up and skips back to her bed. She jumps onto her bed and lands cross-legged. She watched Petra, who stands up and walks (verging on shuffles) to the stool.


I have this file in my favorites called SMITH. It's all the s*** I have to Google to prove that he's legally insane. Take today. In class, he said that our Secretary of Defense called him a terrorist. According to him, she said that all right-wing conservatives are terrorists and if we know nothing about Smith, we know that he was like cookie-cuttered from the WASPy dough of the GOP. For Jesus Christ's sake, he liked Bush. Not even my Republican friend liked Bush. Last week he was all like, (mocking) "Bush gave us tax cuts! I got a check for six hundred dollars in the mail after he took office! Six hundred! But no one talks about that now, do they?" (impassioned and indignant) Uh, no, Smith, we talk about the wars now. Like we care about those f***ing tax cuts when hundreds of thousands are f***ing dying. And Smith's just up there, gloating, preaching that Bush already did what Obama says he's gonna do and we're all too f***ing blind with f***ing hero worship to f***ing see it. Oh, f*** him! (questionably sardonic) Even better, damn him. God damn him to some circle of hell reserved for ignorance and intolerance, and damn him quickly, because his class is some sort of precollege purgatory and it is killing me. Oh, and the terrorism thing? I Googled it. Defense didn't say right-wing conservatives. They said right-wing extremists. (looking down, quietly) Christ.

Petra gets off the stool and walks with her head down to her bed, where she flops down and lays on her stomach, chin on the bed watching Dee.

Scene 3

Dee gets up, totally refreshed and back to herself, in control, and walks to the stool.


My mother once told me that you shouldn't lose your virginity, you should give it to someone. I told her to grow up. I lost mine to a friend of a friend on a playground in Rockland. His name was Gerald and he smelled like pepper. We met at a sweet sixteen, hooked up on the dance floor, and skipped. The party was gaudied up in boas and glitter, anyway. Who does that? So we walked to the nearest dark place and f***ed. No biggie. (as if debating) I mean, it's all part of my theory: namely, that sex in and of itself isn't important and that the stigma attached to it is residual Puritanism and isn't based in the actualities of fornication. Translated: sex isn't that exciting. Get over it. It's like they say on that awkward BBC dramedy: "Power is the most important force in the universe. Second is sex. So, sex plus power equals fun." I mean, they almost got it, but they failed to make the final most obvious connection. (sighs) Do I really have to explain this? Sex makes you powerful. It's controlling someone else--what they can do, what they can feel, what they can have. Knowing that you have total authority. That even dichotomously what you say--(rising in volume) yes, no, yes, no, yes, no, YES, NO--can force them to do whatever the f*** you want. People don't get it. Sex is power.

Dee gets up and goes to her bed. She sits cross-legged on top of her pillow and watches Molly. Molly walks up to the stool slowly, smiling.


(Savoring the upcoming reveal) And then. Let's see. Mr. Beckman balled out the tenors, the footballers dissed on our resident gay, and I stole Ben Stevens' phone. I stole Ben Stevens' phone. (understanding/ elation begins) It must have fallen when he flopped off the risers guffawing holy s***! I stole Ben Stevens' phone! It was that dude in that book in our summer homework. (imitating a jovial man's voice) ''Twasn't I, good sir, my hand snatched that book of its own accord!'. This is whack. I just... took it. I wanted it, and I took it. That just does not happen. I am like the poster girl of feminine empowerment right now. People are gonna be like, (enthusiastic) 'Oh my god! See that Molly chick? She stole Ben Stevens' phone! Uh huh, I know. You tap that, girl!' I'm gonna be...mildly recognized. Like Janie Durkin who got suspended for pot or Danny Lu whose sister died. There's gonna be like a secret society. A covenant of people who know what I did. Small, but sacred. Wild, but weary. Pristine, but powerful. (freshly excited) God, the frosh are gonna hate me! They are all so in love with him and they're going to be so f***ing jealous. Oh for f***'s sake, I'm so f***ing jealous! I mean, who does things like that? That takes balls. (a little surprised) Which I, apparently, have. (pleased) I have balls. F*** yeah.

Molly walks back to her bed head held high, shoulders thrown back. She cross-legged at the very foot of her bed, and watches Petra. Petra gets up and shuffles towards the stool, giving it kind of a loathing look combined with resignation.


I went to church on Sunday. (resigned yet biting) Surprised? Me, a liberal pinko NBC-watching humanist commie, in church, that censoring gay-bashing anti-feminist den of abstinence. (pause, serious) I hate that. That--perception. That somehow, church is--I don't know. Whatever. (getting back to acidic) Anyway, Smith was there. In the f***ing pew in front of me. He was so into it. We did Matthew seven twelve and he was all amen and hallelujah. (caustic) Oooo, do unto others! Yeah! Let's do unto them them by telling them how to run their own f***ing governments! (slight pause, then shakes head) He had his eyes closed the whole time. Like he was listening. Really f***ing listening. He...he actually swayed. I mean, it was embarrassing. Falling from side to side like some sort of drunken panhandler. His wife kept glancing up to the ceiling, all 'please make it stop,' but it didn't notice. He was too busy with the inside of his lids. I bet he thought he saw God. That's so him. Thinking he sees God. Like he's special. Like God, with all these possibilities, instead C.S. Lewis or Mary Lou Retton or Bono, would choose Benjamin Smith, tenth grade teacher, champion of prejudice and inequality. It's just ridiculous. As if. I mean... (pause, then strong) F*** him.

Petra gets off the stool and walks rapidly to her bed, where she flops down, face into the pillow, feet straight out behind her.

Scene 4

Dee walks to the stool confidently, almost arrogantly.


You know in high school English when they tell you every other word is symbolic and all male protagonists are Jesus Christ? Well, I've been forced to adopt their attitude for so long that it's seeped out into my real life. (condescendingly) That's my life outside of school. Anyway, I see symbols everywhere. I mean, if it rains, I'm in a bad mood. I'm the pathetic fallacy walking. So when those Somalian pirates got shot up, I thought, well, lookee here. World politics on a boat. I mean, what's the rest of the world see? Big bad America shooting up these p**** pirates. (slightly deflated) They'd never even killed anyone. Yeah, they had the guns pointed, but that doesn't mean they were gonna use them. It's like what Neeson says in Schindler's List. "Power is when we have every justification to kill, but we don't." (balance shifting to more real, less putting on a show) Not that the pirates were justified, but--they weren't gonna kill that captain. They just weren't. They had (pause) the ultimate in power. (slower, indignant) Just sitting there, gun to stranger's head, all the cards on their side. That's the type of power you have to try to f*** up. They didn't, either. F*** it up. If no one gave that command--(military, yelled, emphasized) "Go, f***in' shoot 'em, f***in' get 'em, f***in' kill 'em"--they'd be exactly as they were before. Powerful. Mighty. Righteous. (wanting it to) The world doesn't work like that, does it.

Almost confused, Dee walks quickly back to her bed, where she sits with her back to the stool, arms wrapped around her knees. Molly gets up and walks slowly to the stool, dragging her feet.


(shaky, broken) So. Ben Stevens talked to me. Awesome, huh? Awesome. (pause, raw) He... he yelled at me. Like I was ten and naughty. He yelled that I'm a freak and that I'm deranged and that I'll never have anyone. He yelled it and he meant it. I... He... I was wearing my favorite shirt. Argyle. Shows off my boobs. It's my lucky shirt, I just thought that... I cried. Not there, of course. Duh. At home. Under the covers. Hugging my teddy. I'm too big for that, but... (pause, switches tracks, straightforward) He f***ing hurt me. What gave him that right? Who went up to him and said, oh hey Ben Stevens. Today you can hurt people. You can't just do that, can't just go around making peoples' lives s***. It's wrong. Doesn't he know that? Doesn't he know that people can get hurt? (more importantly) Doesn't he care? (heavy breath) All I wanted to do is to get to know him. That's it. That's all. And for that, for trying to know another human being, what do I get? What do I get? I get tossed overboard, thrown to the lions, left for the bears. (pause, then, for the first time, with power) How dare he? I'm gonna make a law. Hurting people--a criminal charge. I'll be a new type of lawyer. The laws that people really need--my specialty. No hurting people, no screaming, no being mean. Then... then everything will be okay again.

Molly gets off the stool and, gasping for ragged breath, curls into a ball in the middle of her bed. Petra walks to the stool, shoulders slumped.


Five bucks if you can guess who made an a** of himself today with a blatant act of bigotry. (raises eyebrows) Shocker. (pause) I'm just never ready. I always plan on preparing, steeling myself for a good helping of horror, but every time. Every f***in' time. It's like having to lose your virginity whenever you have sex. Today, I said that outlawing gay marriage is wrong because that makes marriage separate but equal. And Smith? He said separate but equal is a-okay. (pause) What the f***. When I said Brown versus Board, he said the Court couldn't be trusted because they once supported slavery. When I said all men are created equal, he said the Constitution didn't say and should also have the same marriage laws. When I said bigotry he said will of the people. (loudly, and rising in passion) F***! I just can't win! He uses these arguments that are based on these assumptions that are either fallacious or wrong or idiotic and he expects me to just take it, to agree, to kneel down and submit, and then--(hissing quietly)--and then--he smiles. He f***ing smiles. Like he's the nicest guy in the world, Mr. f***ing Rogers, Abie f***ing Lincoln, and I hate it. I hate it. I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it. And you know what else? (afraid of it, but still going) I hate him. F*** it. F*** it, I do. I hate him as I have never hated anyone and I hate that I hate and I hate hate hate hate hate hate hate (scream).

Petra freezes, except face, then jumps up, runs to her bed, and goes into the fetal position.

Scene 5

Dee walks to the stool, flips her hair, and sits down.


The world works like it does because that is how the world works. Meta? Very. True? Completely. Though that's not to say that everything happens for a reason, because that is the most f***ed up rationalization I have ever had the misfortune to sneer at. It, like its equally idiotic counterpart of 'no regrets,' is only used to justify behavior that will end in a cesspool of hangovers and apologies. (with emphasis) The world continues to work because it can. It's only successful because it leaves room for random movement, people and particles bumping into each other just because they couldn't not, twenty dollar bills being rescued from the sidewalk, spaceships blowing up before they leave the ground. The world, I'm saying, is nothing. And so are we. So when the world does s***, it is not to us, or for us, or because of us, but in spite of us, because it does not care. People who need to find meaning? I pity them. They're looking for answers from old men in the sky when the answer is staring them right in the face. Mothers, philosophers, bankers and crack dealers, all searching for this... this secret, this revelation that will take them home, make them whole, set them free, and the answer--well it's right there.

Dee smiles, stands up, and goes back to her bed, where she sits up, knees resting over the foot board. Molly rises and walks plainly to the stool.


I'm fine. Obviously. For goodness god's sake, I am fifteen.. I'm just curious is all. How on earth did Ben Stevens know that I took his cellular? It's not like I broadcasted it. Oh, I'm not saying that I didn't want to, but honestly, who's that dumb? The only person I told was Janie, and she wouldn't spill. We're besties. That's like blood brothers but without the risk of HIV. (a little defensively) Anyway, Janie loves me. And she's not like Ben Stevens. She knows the law. She respects the law. She friggin' co-wrote the law. (coming to a realization that is was Janie who told the whole time) It's just... I would say my brother blogged about my diary again, but I've been keeping the key on my necklace. And I made a very specific pact with myself about Ben Stevens and facebook, so the only status that even sort of referenced him just said WIN. And I never, ever send a text to the wrong person, not after the Susan Creeton horror. If this was, like, last year, I'd suspect foul play and a Toys 'R' Us spy kit. But I'm eons above that now. There are just so many logical explanations, though, there--(pause, looks away, then looks back and, with a new tone) Look, people believe stuff. They believe in stuff. They believe in a lot of stuff, and that's okay, because they need to. Stuff is what keeps people going. And there's nothing wrong with that. So... you believe in whatever you need to. And so will I.

Molly gets up off the stool, and goes to her bed, where she sits cross-legged in the middle of her bed, staring off the side of the stage. Petra walks to her stool in total shock, almost afraid to speak. Her movements are tentative.


(weakly) Benjamin Smith is dead. Something burst in his heart while he was watching TV. His wife left to get him his dinner and when she came back, he was on the floor, and there was blood in his ear. I didn't know what to do. I went down by the river--to pick flowers, you know. I didn't. Didn't pick the flowers. I was too... I feel like. Like. Like, God. I feel like s***. (long pause, shift) S***. I feel fine. I keep telling myself that it hasn't hit yet, that it'll actually be really really horrible, but--I don't believe that. I hated him. I hated him. And now he's dead, and... and everything is the same. Except that now I don't shake when I go to history. And I don't go to sleep with my fists clenched. This is wrong. I know--trust me, I know--that I'm not the perfect Christian. I cuss and I lie and once I almost had sex, but I never thought that those things made me bad. But somewhere something went wrong, because he's dead, and I'm fine. That's not how it's supposed to work. I was the one that hated, not him. He said horrible things about a lot of people, but he didn't know any better. He was just uninformed. But the things I thought about him--I knew exactly what I was doing, thinking, feeling, and how wrong it was, but I couldn't stop it. I couldn't. It was just there, inside of me, and I let it be. If I tried harder--if I tried just a little bit harder--then... then... then maybe, things would be... different.

Petra, still shocked, goes to her bed. She sits clinically on the side, her back perfectly straight, her feet off the edge of the bed towards the wall.

Scene 6

Dee stands up and walks to the stool with the air of one who's making a presentation at a débutante affair.


So. Here it is. Moment of truth. The revelation of the Great Answer. Are you ready? (shakes head) Are you ready. Who am I kidding? No one's ever ready. Not to hear the thesis of my theory, the single connective thread that drags everything into one, that makes this impenetrably true. No one's ready to hear this. No one wants to. Not your teachers, not your boyfriend, not your mother. Because they don't want to have to deal with it. They don't want to have to know. 'Cause when they know, they can't pawn things off on ignorance. And who wants that? (smiles) Brace yourself. (pauses, then throws back head and screams to the ceiling) NOTHING MATTERS! (smiles, for the first time enjoying herself) That felt good, didn't it? I can only do that because it's true. It doesn't matter what you think of me. For Jesus God's sake, it doesn't matter what you think of anything. We're not here for a reason. We're here and that's it, and we have to get over that, because us disbelieving isn't going to change anything. (slight pause) You don't know how to handle that little revelation. You're sitting there, mouths all slack and brains ajar, wondering how the f*** you are going to deal. Here, let me give you a hand: you're going to live. Live, and live the f*** up. Say whatever the f*** you want; say whatever the f*** you mean. Cut off all your hair. Burn your parents' old vinyls. Make a pass at the German exchange student. Because you know what? You can.

Dee grins, gets off the stool, and tucks herself in. Molly walks up to the stool, still plainly, but with her shoulders thrown back.


I went over to Janie's house yesterday. We just chilled in her room. We hadn't done that in like eternity. (honestly) It was nice. It was really nice. She told me all about this wild amazing party she was at last weekend and how she kissed this boy that she'd crushed on all middle school and how she wants to get to know Danny Lu. Like, Biblically. Janie's so great and goofy. We can spend hours talking about the wackiest things, like how her kitten looks just like Petra Wilson when it's wet or how to know if your drug dealer's flirting with you. We can just sit together, you know? We don't have to be giggling or gossiping or chitchatting. We're that tight. When there's something that needs to get out, we don't even need to say it. Sometimes we just look each other in the eye and kind of nod and smile and I know that she knows exactly what I mean and who I am and it's just... perfect. (pause, casual) We didn't talk about Ben Stevens. It's like that quote we had to analyze from that book we're doing in English: "What's done is done." My analysis was like, when something happens, you deal with it, and then when it's done happening, you move on. Because if you don't... then you get stuck. And if you're stuck, you're unhappy. And if you're unhappy... well, where's the fun in that?

Molly smiles, gets off of the stool, and goes to her bed, where she tucks herself in. Petra stands up and walks to the stool, not overtly strong, but showing no signs of weakness.


Hi, Mr. Smith. Your funeral was today. I went. (smiles honestly, though not widely) I cried. I cried for you. (not as a joke, but without anger) You motherf***ing c***. I was sitting in the first row--it was reserved for your family, your dad and your sister and your nephews and your wife, but I sat in the final seat and no one had the heart to tell me to go away--and I was staring at the preacher, and I was wondering. (with a little bit of the Petra we see mainly at the beginning) What the f*** is he going to say? Because you were many things, Mr. Smith, but none of them were ones I'd want said at a funeral. I think that if he had said that you were a wonderful person, or that you were full of love, or that you served the Lord, I would have gotten up and screamed, just screamed in the middle of your funeral service, because it would have been a lie, and I would have known it. But--that's not how it happened. Because the preacher didn't say any of those things. (with the gravity of comprehension) The preacher said that you loved God. He said that you loved God with all your heart and soul, and everything you did was an effort to please Him. He said that every time he looked in your eyes, he saw God's light, because you cared so damn much, Mr. Smith, you cared so damn much about everything you did. And that's when I cried. (with utter honesty and, for the first time, dignity) Because Mr. Smith, it's a goddamn shame that you're dead.

Petra, head held high with honesty, walks back to her bed and tucks herself in. Soft lights rise on all the girls, asleep in their separate beds, breathing peacefully, eyes closed. Then, blackout.
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Friday, April 2, 2010

Congratulations Kal Victor!

Kal (far left, eating homemade smashed potatoes), wrote his second award-winning piece of fiction this past summer at a five-day intensive workshop. Please help him him celebrate his 2010 Silver Key by reading his prose:

Smashed Potatoes
By Kal Victor, 16

I look up at the ornate table, the gleaming silver and crystal glaring harshly in my eyes. I raise my head to address the table; nine fidgety, bespectacled guests and my son, wife, and brother. I read to them aloud: “The remarkable thing about memories is the fact that their very nature is defined by their place in time, yet as one is recollecting a past incident, time itself becomes extraneous. A scene that lasted hours when it occurred originally can be relived, in detail, in a matter of seconds. Yet memory is an imperfect mechanism; its defect lies in the fact that its creation is beyond the control of its owner. Memory is most always comprised of what others impart on us. Hence, the paradox of human memory establishes us as spectators in our own minds, but masters of the memories of others."
The whole table grunts in unison. I decide to interpret it as a contemplative grunt.

“Geoff, that was quite fascinating. Truly thought provoking. What chapter is it from?” calls out a soft, unidentifiable voice.
“Well,” I say, taking a breath, being so familiar with my soon-to-be-released book that the hesitation is merely for show. “It’s the exposition paragraph to chapter nine. The chapter is mainly going to discuss memory, so I reasoned that this introduction would put the thoughts in the chapter itself in a better perspective.” I pause again, this time for comedic effect. “Does it seem grant-worthy?” I ask rhetorically. Everybody laughs together, knowing that I have already received quite a hefty sum from the university. I walk away from the table briefly and place the galley proof back on top of the cherry wood armoire where it had been resting in preparation for the night’s listeners. I return to my seat to the accompaniment of nods and indecipherable monosyllables, most representing agreement with or pleasure in my recent words.
My plate must have been filled while I was away from the table; I look down to see a visibly over-cooked veal-chop perched atop wilted and oily string beans whose glossy liquids are being absorbed by a whitish-yellow pulpy mass.
“Dear,” I call out to my wife. “What excellent potato puree.” All present, twelve others, nod in agreement. She made the potatoes with butter and chives this evening, and I haven’t tasted them yet, but I know from sheer power of observation that they are fairly mediocre. I hope that the company will prove more interesting than the bland, gritty dollop in front of me; we have nearly one fifth of the psychology department as guests tonight. But hope is fleeting faster than I can imagine. In mere seconds after reading my excerpt to a silent, near drooling audience, I know the night will undoubtedly wind up a memory filled to the brim with the drivel spewed from their mouths.
Both the lackluster food and the droning company remind me uncannily of the dinners of my youth. I look to Graham, my son, to see his take on the situation, for parts of this evening will undoubtedly be engrained in his memory too, after all.
He seems to be enjoying the puree enough, though. His naked hand is heading for the bowl beside him. He looks detached, with unfocused eyes, but that doesn't stop him from completely submerging his grubby appendage up to the cuff of his navy, gold-button studded blazer. He leaves his hand entombed in the puree and I imagine he is sloshing his fingers to and fro, enjoying the pasty resistance, as the ends of his small lips curl upwards.
I know Graham looks like me. I cannot help but stare at the boy—I know there is something intangible that I am obligated to see is in his eyes. I am transfixed only by the surface of his face—his clueless, red little face.
* * * * *
I was seven, like my son, and the night's dinner looked extraordinarily delicious. The whole evening I fiddled nervously with my silken napkin, repeatedly crumpling it and letting it unfurl in my lap beneath the table. My body was plagued by an uncomfortable, prickly feeling.
There was an unwanted silence at the table, as the guests were collectively fixated on the potatoes that were being passed around in a colossal earthenware pot. I was last in the cycle, and the ancient-looking vessel was set by my side. For reasons unbeknownst to me, swiftly, I reached out and stuck my hand into the mashed potatoes and took a handful of them, separating a small glob from the rest of the emulsion. I had to touch them, to feel them. I took them in my hands and squeezed until worm-like strands of starchy paste oozed from between my fingers. The heavy, fruity musk of the olive oil and the subtle floral aroma of the thyme tingled in my nostrils, and a gluey residue matted the cuffs of my navy sports jacket, keeping my wrists in constant contact with the mush. I have no idea why I did it, but the satisfaction was sublime. I gazed at my hand, smiling like a young Bodhisattva.
“Geoffy-boy!” My father, Graham, called out the affectionate and obnoxious nickname to get my attention. He looked at me with a piercing, angry glint in his eyes. “Don’t use your hands to eat. Look over beside your plate. Your great grandfather left us some quite expensive silverware that may be less efficient, but sure as hell prettier to look at.” I scowled at him and he laughed with a wheeze, projecting his whoops towards every individual at the table in a clockwise pattern.
Upon my father’s rebuke, my mother, Elaina, offered him some more mashed potatoes, possibly to silence him, possibly to exhibit herself as the gracious matriarch she considered herself. He accepted, and she lifted up the bowl with poise, walked over and placed the colossal earthenware vessel by his plate, swiveling her hips delicately as she went to and from her seat. My uncle Carver, a Freudian scholar, shot me a wink from across the table as he noticed the direction of my gaze. My mother called out in her whiny head-voice. “Graham, you’ll just love the smashed potatoes. Thyme and olive oil.” She paused a bit and then added, “This time.” She giggled.
“Now, why must you always refer to them as ‘smashed potatoes?’” asked Odavacar from beside my uncle. He was a long time friend and frequent guest. “I find it rather morbid and violent. Not to mention extraordinarily misleading. They’re merely mashed potatoes incognito. The ‘S’ provides poor cover. Am I not mistaken?” He laughed heartily and then stroked his graying mustache. His face was a memorable one; rounded, with two chins—the first coated in fine silver stubble. He had unkempt eyebrows, and a fat, squashed nose, inside which a forest of hair was clearly visible, even from a distance. He knew my mother from the university. She taught a course called “Socialism and Sociology” and he taught a course on Richardsonian Romanesque architecture.
“By the way, I love that new vase,” Odavacar continued enthusiastically. “It really evokes that passion only found in double ‘R’ styled pieces.” He paused to mat his glistening forehead with a napkin. “It is very Richardsonian Romanesque in style, but I’m sure you knew that already,” he added thoughtfully.
“Thanks Ody. It wasn't cheap, you know.” It was situated in the breakfront next to a small, yet beautifully and vividly painted oil portrait of Lenin.
At this point, my father decided to chime in, still maintaining the look of perplexity on his face from the moment Odavacar had mentioned the potatoes. “You two understand, don’t you, Will and Irene?” He gestured towards a couple to his right, turning to them as he wiped some spittle from his lip with a checkered handkerchief, ignoring the silken napkin beneath his fork. “Mashed implies a certain—well—unsophisticated nature. It sounds pedestrian. Thyme is certainly not pedestrian. Besides, these potatoes are clearly smashed, not mashed. Look at the texture.” He stuck his spoon into the potatoes and began sloshing them about as if they were some inedible mortar-like substance. “This delightful hardiness is clearly the result of potatoes that have been smashed,” he said shoving the spoonful of the potatoes in the couple’s direction. “Not mashed.”
The couple nodded profusely with incredible synchronicity. They were both impressionist painters. He painted fruits and vegetables with human features; she painted biblical scenes with animals in place of our saints, prophets, and holy leaders. They were awful. The paintings, that is. The couple was tolerable.
“Oh, Graham! You’re such a kidder!” cried Nancy while laughing. She was an obese opera singer who wore enough makeup to make her look like Pagliacci. Her voice was a beautiful alto, yet it was evident that she was and would be alone for her whole life. Her brilliant and deafening rendition of The Flight of the Valkyries was often heard at our table, only when new guests were present, though. Luckily, this evening was the usual crowd. She whispered to her right, “I've never been a fan of anything smashed, you know?” She turned her head towards her neighbor, Teadoro, making a swatting motion with her hand right in the face of long-faced film critic.
Teadoro reviewed for the local paper. It was almost uncanny how you could see his nearly whimpering face as you read his pieces. The two might have suited each other as a couple, had not Teadoro been eighty pounds lighter than Nancy. And, of course, Teadoro forever professed his love to Fellini and Pasolini, and Nancy to Wagner and Mozart. Their undying devotion to their “partners” was not reciprocated in any way.
I suddenly came to a revelation, my first in seven years of life. One that was sure to turn heads and earn me respect. I shivered with glee and my knees vibrated beneath the table. All this talk about smashing and mashing, and everyone at the table had overlooked a key detail. Everyone but me. I miraculously repressed the powerful urge to raise my hand, as if in my 2nd grade classroom, for fear that the potatoes still crusted on my fingers would serve to reawaken my father’s contempt for me.
“Papa,” I looked up from my plate with the fantastic, rare feeling of relevancy. “How does somebody smash potatoes without mashing them at the same time?” I inquired with confidence, knowing how acute and intelligent I would seem in their eyes. Everybody at the table burst out in simultaneous laughter. My heart spurted into my stomach with each pounding beat. I began unconsciously slouching until the table hit my chin with a thud. My face was aflame with embarrassment as the laughter waxed louder.
All noise abruptly terminated due to my father’s decision to answer my question. His wild orange eyebrows’ were furrowed in deep contemplation while his chin rested on the backs of his interlocked fingers, as if his head were perched on a display-shelf. He had the poise of a god.
“Well, Geoffy-boy, I can tell you that the product—here the smashed potatoes—is more defined by our interpretation rather than by what actually occurs in its creation and development. As Nietzsche said in Nachlass, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’” His thin lips curled into a smile as he wiped his glasses with his checkered handkerchief. I nodded fervently, feeling extraordinarily proud to recognize Nietzsche’s name and prompt such an important and evocative answer.
My father was a teacher of 19th century Russian fiction at the university. Had his colleagues found him quoting Nietzsche, they would not have cared in the least. In fact, one of his fellows, Petya, present at the dinner, cared so little that he tried, with visible effort, to one-up my father by quoting Dostoyevsky, someone relevant. I don't recall Petya going one dinner without quoting the author. It was touchingly pitiable how he clung so forcefully to a man dead for over a century.
In a thick, languid Russian accent, he called out at my father through lips moist with veal fat, “You best be careful, my friend. Dostoyevsky once said, ‘The second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half.’ Your son will be cursed to forever deem all mashed potatoes, smashed potatoes. You are a strong influence in his life, in more ways then you could guess.” I looked up to see my father with eyes glazed over, frozen in his chair, with his perspiring face glistening in the light of the chandelier. He lifted up his right hand shakily and began groping for his handkerchief, only to knock his fork to the floor. He jerked in his seat, and quickly bent down and disappeared from view beneath the table. After what felt like minutes, he resurfaced, fork in hand, grinning widely. “Oh, I can guess. In fact, I’m certain.” He nodded, as if affirming his previous sentiment and then continued, “There’s no guessing involved in the least bit.” He chuckled along with his colleague.
The asparagus, after circulating the table finally reached me. I looked hard at the pinkish hand-blown glass asparagus platter. I smiled broadly as I took some asparagus, and to my relief, the conversation resurfaced and my nerves settled down. I was beginning to make an impression. I was elated.
A man at the end of the table, Strauss (I still don’t know his first name), opened his mouth to speak, but immediately stopped mid-breath to contemplate further his question. He gripped his chin in deep thought and, after thirty seconds’ pause finally said, “When potatoes were originally served in this… pudding-like, creamy fashion, were they deemed smashed or mashed potatoes?” He smiled confidently at his wife, Lillian. Strauss was in charge of medical ethics at the nearby hospital and always posed well-thought-out, sharp inquiries. He and Lillian had few friends, my father and mother included within the small selection. The reason for this was simple; Strauss had all the intelligence and insight of an academic, but none of the charm. By charm, I mean wit, quip, and charisma. In the case of the academic, these all stem from an undeserved sense of confidence, and that, of course stems from the undeserved sense of worldliness and wisdom treasured by their kind.
My father perked up, his delicately freckled face wide-eyed with relish. His features always seemed so bright. He answered the question with marvelous gusto. “Irrelevant!” he shouted. He then paused to wipe his glasses with his trusty checkered handkerchief. “Origins are meaningless,” he continued. “What the hell does it matter what the first bowl of creamy, pudding-like potatoes was deemed? The here and now are all that are pertinent to our lives. We are eating smashed potatoes, while others are eating mashed potatoes!” He pounded the table and I jumped as the silverware clattered dangerously close to its edge. My heart fluttered to even consider that I was the muse of this passion and brilliance.
Lillian took the side of her husband. She countered in a deep, masculine voice, “Ah, but can’t we further understand the difference between smashed potatoes and mashed potatoes if we understand the origins of each? What identity does either have if they have no starting point, no birth?”
“Their identity is defined by what they are at the present. If their beginnings have affected that present state, so be it. Otherwise, whether potatoes were first smashed or mashed is of no significance to what they are right now, in front of us.”
Lillian gasped. “What you are telling me derides evolution; it destroys the past and our roots! How can you say that human growth and change means nothing to a person’s identity? How can you disregard origins and history as worthless?”
I don’t really remember what my father responded.
* * * * *
I look down at my plate, so as to better sync myself with the current reality once more—so as to better realize I've been at the table all along. I pick up my fork to taste the food, hoping that further sensory stimulation will fully return me to the moment. But my fork clatters to the floor. I suddenly realize that I forgot something, something essential to the exposition of chapter nine in my book; the most integral point needed to frame the chapter. “Albeit memory is a paradox, within this strange, transcendent mechanism, we as human beings are left with an important task, a burden. Although we may never be masters of our own memory, we must use our influence on the memory of others to implant only good memories; to delicately nurture the memory of those we meet so that what they cannot control will not run rampant with negativity. We have this eternal responsibility, and our power cannot be abused.”
Is it too late? The galleys are finished; the release date is in two weeks. I can’t add it; they must have begun printing already. But it is quintessential to the reader’s understanding of memory. I can’t believe I’ve forgotten it.
I pick up my fork, and as I’m straightening up, I look to my son for some sort of retribution for my mistake. Maybe it’s not too late? He still looks so detached, his eyes glassed over, directed towards his brow.
He finally removes his grubby fingers from the puree. They are coated in a sickening yellow with flecks of green. He gazes at his hands, clinically squeezing until worm-like strands of starchy paste ooze from between his fingers. He holds them in front of his eyes, and then his dimples appear as he smiles. He’s acting like a fool. “Grahamy-boy, why don't you use that rather lovely silverware that we placed by your side? It may be less efficient, but it is most certainly prettier to look at.” He scowls back at me.
I know it’s too late.
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