The other day, I “finished” my second novel. I use the scare quotes because I’ve finished this novel about a dozen times already. Even the pitch that tells what the book’s about has been endlessly revised, but here’s the latest version:
Through the 1960’s and 70’s and until his death in 1985, Hyman Winik commuted five days out of seven to his office at Brookhaven Textiles, located on the 10th floor of 1412 Broadway in Manhattan, at the northeast corner of 39th Street, where the phone number was 212-695-0510, chanted continually by the switchboard operators in the lobby as they plugged and unplugged the trunk lines. “Oh-five-one-oh, may I help you? Oh-five-one-oh, may I help you? Oh-five-one — shoot, lost ‘em.”
Once upon a time there was a little boy with hazel eyes, a dimpled chin, and freckles scattered across his wide cheeks. His parents split up when he was three and his dad went to live on a farm in Seven Valleys, Pennsylvania, where the boy and his sister got to visit him on weekends. The sister, four years older with wild dark brown hair, thick eyebrows, and a very high IQ, constantly teased the boy, making fun of his chipmunk cheeks. Yet he was her slave nonetheless.
I just devoured an advance copy of Ann Patchett’s forthcoming novel, Commonwealth, which deals with the topic of blended family. Though I’m not up on all the details of Patchett’s history, I do know she’s from a family that emerged from divorce and remarriage with a slew of step-siblings. Though a work of fiction, Commonwealth deals with the connections (and aversions) that arise in the kludged-together clan that results from such a situation.
When so many ancillary players are dragged into the drama of two people’s attraction, nobody gets out easily, or at all.
Author’s note: My favorite travel story of all time is Hunter S. Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. If you’ve never read it, you should. It really puts things in perspective.
Because my son Vincie the Wonder Poodle (don’t you wish I was your mom so you could have a nickname like this?) will soon be moving to NYC for graduate school, I cooked up a reason to make one last pilgrimage to visit him down in New Orleans: the 26th birthday of his longtime girlfriend, Shannon, who lives here in Baltimore, in April. So the traveling party was me, Shannon, and bringing up the rear, Vince’s sister Jane, a fifteen-year-old trying gamely to overcome dark memories of indigestion gone very wrong during a New Orleans visit of her childhood. (Believe it or not, the culprit was K-Pauls, otherwise a very good restaurant.)
When my 27-year-old son Hayes called a couple of months ago to confide that he was in the market for a diamond ring, I wasn’t surprised. He and his brother Vince seem to go to a wedding every couple of weeks. Their demographic has begun the march to the altar, and Hayes and Maria have been together since junior year of college.
Does this ever happen to you?
You are sitting at a red light in morning traffic, half-listening to the news on the radio, half-trying to decide how to juggle the elements of an ordinary day: the meetings, the appointments, the overscheduled children, the dirty house, the dreaded phone calls: the insurance company, the plumber, the cable provider. Which to do first, which second, which can be put off, which to axe entirely — oh wait, you need some cash, and there’s an ATM in the next block, should you stop now or get cash at the grocery store later —
and click, something shifts.
At the beginning and end of each day, the judge implored us not to discuss the case with anyone. But when he finally dismissed us from the dusty climes of the Mitchell Courthouse back into our lives, he lifted the ban. In fact, he urged us to tell our friends, neighbors, and families what we had done, because we had performed an essential and noble duty of citizenship.
But what had we done, after all? Nothing to brag about, I’m afraid.
I heard over the holidays that my college advisor, a Russian History professor named Abbott Gleason, known as Tom, died on Christmas Day after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. The fact that I took even a single history course in college, much less ended up a history major, was completely this man’s doing.
As we enter the season of untrammeled purchasing, which some have embraced for months as others grimly postpone as long as possible, I would like to offer a little parable. It’s a bit of a shaggy fish story but there are lessons in there somewhere. I think.