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The Couch: A Short Story

I awoke with0cd5c6215a7a4b76c64f030823c1efc5--chinese-boat-chinese-style cramped muscles from sharing my narrow couch with Lenny. As I watched the dust motes lazily circling through the light around his curly hair I thought, “I gotta get rid of this guy.”

I blinked in self-astonishment, jumped up and put on the coffee. Get rid of Lenny?  The thought was preposterous—in just one month with him I’d acquired a taste for Far Eastern cooking, experienced the magic of midnight ferry rides, learned to play chess, and had been introduced to Zen Buddhism, bird watching, and camping in the woods. His pile of possessions neatly stacked in a corner of my studio apartment was small price to pay. I sipped my coffee and watched him sleep, his slender form framed by the elegant lines of the Japanese style sofa. It was about eight feet long, and just wide enough to accommodate one average-sized body. Graceful black and gray leaf shapes swirled against a backdrop of off-white linen; the back and arms were a rich, deep ebony. Lenny’s porcelain skin pulled taut over finely sculpted bones were the perfect adornment for my furniture. Still, I did not want to continue sleeping with his feet in my face.

No, the couch would have to go, to be replaced with sleeping accommodations for two, and good riddance to its memories. It was outrageously decadent anyway, unsuited to my new lifestyle. Perhaps I had once found it beautiful, but now it seemed an affront, a reminder of the room from whence it came, an orange room decorated in suburban Japanese. The room in turn reminded me of the sprawling ranch house it had been part of, and the life that house had sheltered. My ex-husband and I had made love on the couch, first covering it with a clean sheet…yes, the couch must go. Definitely. Today.

Lenny stirred and threw an arm over his eyes to deny morning. I knelt by his side and embraced his face with my eyes. I never tired of looking at that face: the high fine cheekbones, the haunted haunting eyes, the full lips revealing the faintest droop of disillusionment. An old man had once described Lenny as aristocratic.

“Aristocratic orphan,” I murmured, brushing the hair from his forehead.

“Huh?”  Lenny put his arm down to look at me. He always looked at me as if he couldn’t quite believe I was real.

“Lenny, listen,” I began, eager to spring into action, “I have a great idea. Let’s get rid of this couch and buy a big foam mattress.”

“Oho!”  He sat up and pulled on his threadbare trousers.

“Why oho?”

He looked sideways at me. “Janbaby, you are as transparent as cellophane. Let’s get rid of the couch!  Ha ha!”

I stared at him, genuinely puzzled.

He reached over and rumpled my hair with affection. “So, you can’t stand the memories anymore, huh?  Time to clear the room of old ghosts?  It’s okay, babe, I can dig it.”

I smiled uncertainly; he was partly right, but I resented his quick analysis, that way he had of  pinpointing  and defining my emotions. “Actually, the main reason is my muscles hurt from sleeping in such a tight space.”

“Whatever you say, baby. You say the couch gotta go, it goes.”

I barely managed to restrain myself from saying, “Of course — it’s my couch!”

 

One of the outstanding features of this couch was that it did not fit in the building’s elevator. Three moving men had labored three sweaty hours maneuvering it up and around the narrow stairwell twelve flights to its destination. My ex-husband had been on hand, presumably to ease my transition into urban singlehood.

“Jan,” he reprimanded me as if the whole thing was my fault, “these guys scratched the finish on the couch.”

“David, cut it out. Look what they’re going through with it.”

“I think you oughtta take $20.00 off their bill.”

“How can I complain about a few scratches when these guys nearly killed themselves moving it?”

“That’s so typical of you—you’re always being taken. I don’t know how you’re gonna survive without me.”

“I’ll do just fine, don’t you worry.”

“Yeah, I can just see you a month from now. Some bum will come along, find out about your inheritance and use you as a meal ticket.”
“David, please, I would like you to leave my apartment. Now.”

“If it hadn’t been for my dumb mother leaving you half her estate, you wouldn’t even have this apartment.”

“Your mother wasn’t dumb—she knew you were unbearable and she felt guilty towards me, so she gave me a ticket out.”

Angry, David reached the door as the moving men staggered in with the last of my possessions. “You guys oughtta make good for the scratches on the couch,” he said, before disappearing down the hall. They glared at him.

“Don’t pay any attention to him,” I said, handing each one a hefty tip to compensate.

Considering the moving hassles a prospective buyer would face, I decided to ask only $500 for the couch even though I’d paid $3000 for it just two years ago. I placed an ad in the Village Voice.

 

She said her name was Margaret Smith, and with a perfunctory glance at the couch seated herself upon it. She then proceeded to confess bits and pieces of her jagged life. I yawned, annoyed by Lenny’s interest in her story. After she’d gone through two abortions and numerous lovers, I asked, “Do you want the couch?”

“What?  Oh, yes, the couch. Well, of course.”

“Jan’s a little anxious,” Lenny told her, embarrassed by my businesslike manner. “She can’t stand the sight of her ex-husband anymore.”

I glared at him. Margaret Smith gave him a knowing smile, then turned to me. “I know what it’s like, but you really should talk about it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of—we all have exes.”

“It doesn’t fit,” I said.

“What doesn’t fit?”

“The couch. It doesn’t fit in the elevator. It has to be carried down–you’ll need a few guys to help you.”

“Oh, that’s no problem. My two boyfriends will do it. It”s just marvelous how well they get along. I’m so much better off with the arrangement I have now.”

She talked about her life for another l5 minutes. Finally she left, saying she’d come for the couch on Saturday.

“Boring!” I exploded, banging the door shut behind her.

“Janbaby, why are you so afraid of opening up to people?  She was a  beautiful chick, honest and up front with everything.”

“Is that really what you think?”

He turned to me, his face free of guile. “Sure. That’s how people should be—trusting. She knew she could trust us.”

“But why?  Why should she trust us?”

“Why not?  No, seriously, Jan, listen to me: you and me, we’re good people. And this is a New Age. You gotta start accepting and believing in your own goodness.”

He stared at me intently, willing me to accept what he so fervently believed. Suddenly I was ashamed of my cynicism; Margaret Smith was probably a fine human being. I walked into Lenny’s open arms and wept in confusion while he, not for the first or last time, comforted me.

 

On Saturday morning we left the door ajar while eating breakfast. I was savoring the first cigarette and coffee when a gargantuan man walked in.

“You the people selling a couch?”

“Are you buying it?”

Margaret Smith suddenly emerged from behind the Promethean figure. “This is Bo. Bo, this is Lenny, and—I’m sorry, I forgot your name.”

“Janice.”

Bo bowed his head formally. “Pleased to meet you, Janice. Leonard.”

Lenny turned into Super Host, transferring the contents of the refrigerator onto the table, pulling off lids, putting out dishes and silverware.”Bo, baby, try some of this cheese. Can I get you a beer?  Coffee?”

“Where’s…” I began, looking around for Margaret’s other boyfriend. She quickly cut me off.

“Now, I’m sure there won’t be any trouble moving this couch. You look like a big strong fella.”  She looked coyly at Lenny; if she secretly thought her chosen adjective incongruous, she didn’t show it. What a fool, I thought, for I knew that Lenny really was a “big strong fella.” I’d seen him split wood with those delicate hands, had felt his hard body on top of mine. I decided to sit back and watch the day’s drama unfold. It was anyhow beyond my control.

My strong fella looked at me, his eyes twinkling. “I knew I’d get roped into this!” he said with a good-natured laugh.

“Let’s stop this partying and get to work,” Margaret ordered. “I’ve been thinking about the situation. It seems to me that with a little ingenuity we could get this couch into the elevator.”

“Watch out for her,” Bo warned with a belly laugh.

“Bo!  You promised to cooperate.”

“It doesn’t fit,” I said.

“We will make it fit. Now, Bo, just examine this couch and see what you can do. I need a cup of coffee.”  Bo stood, looking awkwardly helpless, while Lenny took out a tape measure and crawled behind the couch. Then he dashed out to the elevator with his tape. “Nope,” he reported cheerily when he returned, “it doesn’t fit.”

“What if you took off the legs?” Margaret suggested.

Lenny crawled underneath the couch and emerged covered with dust, a sight that just a few short months ago would have mortified me. “We’ll need a Phillips head screwdriver. Come on, Janbaby, walk me to the car.”

“Lenny,” I told him on the way to the car, “these people were supposed to move the couch by themselves. That’s why I’m selling it so cheap.”

“Yeah, I know — this Bo is a rip. But what the hell, what else do we have to do today?”

When we returned to the apartment music was blasting from the stereo and Bo sat cross-legged in a corner reading my yoga book.

“Are you two into yoga?”

“Oh, yeah, sure.” Lenny nodded gravely.

This was news to me; I practiced nearly every morning, but I’d never seen Lenny take so much as a deep breath, much less invert his body in a shoulder or head stand.

“Come on, boys,” Margaret barked, clapping her hands. Let’s get this show on the road.”  Lenny took off the sofa legs, losing maybe three inches of its height. He and Bo dragged it into the hall and rang for the elevator.

First they shoved it in straight. Then they stood it on end. Then they tried various diagonal positions. In every case, the couch wouldn’t clear the elevator doors. Finally, huffing and puffing, Lenny announced, “It doesn’t fit.”

“It doesn’t fit,” Bo repeated.

“I told you so.”

“Now that we all agree,” said Margaret, “let us proceed to the stairwell.”

Bo took up the rear while Lenny carried most of the weight up front. I navigated. Margaret Smith remained upstairs.

Lenny labored under the weight of the couch, his face flushed and hair damp with sweat, while Bo cooly held up his end, more or less pushing it onto Lenny’s back. I trailed behind, in case they needed me to open a door or something. When we finally reached the lobby, Bo went back upstairs to get Margaret, who brought her car around to the front of the building. With heavy twine Lenny did a Boy Scout quality job of tying the couch to the roof of the car.

“I left a check on the table,” Margaret called as they drove off with my couch. I’d been so captivated by the day’s mini-drama, I’d forgotten about the money. I raced upstairs and was relieved to find she had indeed left a check.

 

On Monday I deposited the check. On Tuesday I received the following letter:

    Dear Janice, Unfortunately the couch broke in half as we were driving it home due to the slipshod way in which it had been tied to the roof of the car. I cannot afford to pay for something I do not have, and so I am stopping payment on my check. Yours, Margaret Smith.”

Against Lenny’s protests I went to Small Claims Court and issued a summons. It was returned marked “Addressee Unknown.”

 

For nearly a week we slept on the floor. Lenny, accustomed to far worse accommodations, didn’t mind, but I was sore and grumpy. We finally went down to 14th  Street, where we purchased a lightweight mattress, rolled it up and tied it with string and took it home on the subway. We put it down in a corner and threw a madras bedspread on top. Now we had plenty of room, and I slept soundly—until, a few nights later, when I awoke screaming from a nightmare in which my pocketbook and identification had been stolen from me.

“Wake up, Jan, it’s only a dream.” Lenny turned on the light.

I stared at him. His features appeared distorted, almost wolfish. I screamed louder.

“What is it, baby?  Tell me.”

“I want my couch back.”

“You sold it.”

“I didn’t sell it, I threw it away. And you helped me.”

“Janbaby, take it easy. What’s this really about?”

“I want my couch back!”

“Jan, you can’t go back.”
“Can the jargon, Len. This isn’t about ‘going back’ or any deep psychological illness. I’m buying a new couch tomorrow exactly like the old one, if I have to search the whole city to find it.”

“Fine. You want a new couch, we buy a new couch.”

“What is this ‘we’?” I spat out. “It’s my money.”

This was a simple statement of fact, but the viciousness behind it said volumes about the feelings beneath.  Suspicion and resentment of Lenny dripped from my lips; his facial muscles twitched as if hit.  A tense silence enveloped us as he lowered his head. When he raised it again his lips were drooped and tears swam in his hazel eyes. He didn’t have to say a word; I was filled with remorse for having wounded him over a material possession. Over money, that thing we swore was the root of all evil.

I put my arms around him. “It’s okay, Lennybaby, it’s okay. I didn’t mean it, about the money. It’s all right, baby, everything’s all right.”

I cradled his head close to my breast and gently rocked him to sleep. When dawn broke we were still in that position, my body shielding Lenny’s eyes from the glare of the morning sun.

 

 

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Everything I know I Learned From Art

 

Having just watched No God No Master, a 2012 film about the Palmer Raids of the 1920s and, peripherally, the railroading and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, it occurs to me that everything I know about history I have gleaned from movies, novels, and song lyrics. Before seeing

Sacco & Vanzetti (Photo: Wikipedia)

Sacco & Vanzetti
(Photo: Wikipedia)

this movie, I did not know that Emma Goldman was deported from the US, never to return. I had no idea what the Palmer Raids were, and though I knew about Sacco and Vanzetti, I was fuzzy on the details (though I knew a bit from Holly Near‘s song Two Good Arms.)

This is not the history they teach in American schools—at least, it’s not anything I was taught.

Thanks to Doris Lessing I know something about colonialism in Africa. I learned about the French Revolution from Marge City of DarknessPiercy‘s City of Darkness, City of Light. I know the history of India from dozens of novels by Indian writers, most notably A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and, to a lesser extent, the film Gandhi. Recently I’ve gotten a dose of Nigerian history from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Lest anyone think I’m swallowing works of fiction or Hollywood productions whole, I almost always look up the facts online afterwards; even before the Internet, I did my homework, especially when writing book reviews: I compared Piercy’s details in the abovementioned book to those of historians Will and Ariel Durant—Piercy, who does exhaustive research for her novels, was remarkably faithful to the facts.

When I was in my teens, my twenties, and beyond, I read so many books and saw so many movies about the holocaust and slavery that they no longer fascinated but enraged and depressed me, until I finally swore them off; besides, I could probably write up a syllabus for each. Recently I added domestic violence to the list; having worked in a battered women’s shelter some years ago, I don’t need anymore painful education in that department either.

I don’t listen to music, read literature, or watch movies in order to learn, but because it’s what I love to do. Still, it makes me furious that I wasn’t taught important historical events in school, where they just threw dates of wars and generals at us, not to mention lies about our country. It just goes to show that in the end, as Virginia Woolf noted, it’s the artists who’ll save us.

 

Laika In Lisan: New Book

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Laika in LisanFirst : Immediate and Full Disclosure: I worked with Maron Anrow, this book’s author, editing Laika in Lisan. It’s because I liked the book so much that I’m posting it on my blog as a publicity shot. This is something I’ve never done with a book I’ve worked on: that’s how much I liked it.

Laika in Lisan is classified as “fantasy,” a genre I previously thought meant dungeons and dragons or monsters shooting one another with laser beams up in the sky—but this novel could have taken place in our world, in a repressive country like North Korea; in fact, Lisan is very much like that country, with its citizens forced to worship their leader; all resources diverted to the military and those in power while the workers starve; and extreme isolation from other nations.

My favorite part is the relationship between Laika and Rodya, an anti-government radical she meets in the woods after her journey into the capitol, where she’s been invited as a visiting scholar, is waylaid by violence. Their interactions, dialog, and progression of their relationship are unlike any other I’ve read, and it provides a welcome relief from the intensity of everything else that occurs. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy everything else; this book is replete with the kind of suspense that had me sitting on the edge of my chair the first time I read it, furiously clicking through my Kindle to see what happens next: in other words, it’s a real page turner—or screen clicker.

And now for a moment on my soapbox: Laika in Lisan is one of thousands? millions? of books that are part of the independent publishing movement, growing bigger every day. Some of these books are so crappy they make this movement look lousy, but I’ve found just as many genuinely good books as bad ones in the mix. This movement has the potential to remove the mega-sized publishing corporations as gatekeepers of what reaches the reading public, and to put writers in control of our work. For this to happen, however, indie authors must put as much careful precision into their final products as they would if they were working for a publisher, particularly one who’s paid them an advance. Laika in Lisan is one book, believe me, that’s gotten that kind of precise authorial attention. Climbing off soapbox.

Click over to Amazon and check it out; the book is now available for the Kindle; in a few weeks the print version will be ready. And it’s already garnered two

Maron Anrow

Maron Anrow

reviews, both of them positive!

Oops…I almost forgot to mention that Laika in Lisan is Anrow’s first novel, a fact I include because you’d never guess it’s by someone without more experience. I’m proud to have been a part of this literary endeavor.

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The Goldfinch: Book Review

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Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser Goldfinch (Photo credit: Images by John ‘K’)

 

The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt
Winner, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2014

Spoilers ahead.

 

“To write a novel this large and dense…is equivalent to sailing from America to Ireland in a rowboat, a job both lonely and exhausting…—Stephen King, reviewing The Goldfinch in The Guardian

If reading fiction is an escape from reality, I’m having trouble with re-entry. It’s been over a week since I finished The Goldfinch, yet it’s still one of the first things I think of in the morning and return to several times during the day. Somewhere around page two or three hundred I took up residence in the world created by Donna Tartt, and I’ve yet to move out. (“…with very great paintings it’s possible to know them deeply, inhabit them almost…” —from The Goldfinch.)

The Goldfinch however, is no escape: it thrusts us into the awareness, always just beneath the surface, that the only way out of our troubled lives is death, a truth most of us tend to avoid. When forced to face it, our reactions can range from depression to terror to thoughts of suicide (as in might as well get it over with). I don’t know if this was Tartt’s intention, but it was, at least for me, the novel’s ultimate statement. Not that she doesn’t offer glimmers of joy and hope along the way, particularly in her long summary-like ending: but the dark side decidedly overpowers the light.

A plot-driven novel, The Goldfinch is full of twists and turns and moments of heightened suspense. Unlike most plot-driven books (see John Grisham, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, et al), in which the action is fueled by stereotypical cardboard characters, The Goldfinch is populated by multi-dimensional  human beings: Theo, the narrator around whom all others spin; Boris, his chief sidekick, dragged all over the world by his abusive businessman father; Pippa, the girl Theo falls in love with moments before a bomb goes off in the New York Metropolitan Museum, setting the plot in motion; and dozens more. I can still vividly picture every one of these characters, though Tartt, thankfully, allows readers to fill in most of our own visuals—which is odd, considering she’s so heavy on other kinds of description.

As both a reader and writer I’ve never been that interested in description, whether of city streets or country roads, lavish mansions or run-down hovels. Thus, Tartt’s long, elaborate word paintings of whatever’s going on while what’s really going on goes on annoyed the hell out of me—that is, for the first hundred pages or so, until I fully surrendered.The plot is so engaging that I’d impatiently scan the page (or rather Kindle screen), my nerves twitching with the feeling of Come on, get to the story already! For instance, just as Boris is about to tell Theo (and us) what’s become of the treasured painting at the center of the plot, Tartt leaves the conversation momentarily to let us know what’s showing on the TV set in the bar. She’s also big on that famous plot device, the flashback: after the explosion, when Theo crawls through a collapsed passageway seeking an exit, Tartt flashes back to a time when he was stuck in another tight space. Sometimes she even writes a flashback within a flashback.

At such moments I became distracted and annoyed, and read as quickly as possible to get past what I saw as “extra”s…but then a funny thing happened on my way back to “the story”: I began to notice that my impatience was similar to what happens during suspenseful passages; Tartt’s long flights of description left me literally suspended. I was desperate to know what would happen next: I had to turn the pages. Eureka! Are these literary devices—the descriptions, the flashbacks—purposeful techniques employed precisely to create suspense? Is her deftness with these methods partly what makes the book so compelling? Perhaps. No, more than perhaps: probably. It’s worth noting that The Goldfinch is only Donna Tartt’s third published novel, and that she spent eleven years writing it. At a time when would-be authors attend workshops on “How to Write A Bestseller in a Weekend” and toss off a book in six months’ time, Donna Tartt is holding down the fort of literary excellence.

 

 

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All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki: Book Review

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AllOverCreation

All Over Creation isn’t Ruth Ozeki‘s most recent book — that’s A Tale for The Time Being — but one of my blog followers gave me this one as a donation gift, and it’s the second Ozeki novel I’ve read. The first—also her first—was My Year of Meats, a book that knocked me out completely; to this day I mention it, along with Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, any time talk turns to whether a book can actually affect some aspect of life as we know it. Like MYOM, All Over Creation’s  message is artfully woven into a story I inhaled like oxygen, peopled with characters I felt I knew. All of them are wildly different, and come from various walks of life, with opposing philosophies and politics, yet they come together and respect one another. So complex was the development of the story and the characters’ interactions, I couldn’t help but face the certainty that I could never write a book like this. I couldn’t. I don’t know how Ozeki did.

With the exception of Eliot, a history teacher-turned-corporate pimp—that is, PR man for a pesticide company—who was an enigma to me, everyone in AOC resembled people I’ve known for real. If I identified with anyone it was Yumi, a woman so full of contradictions she’s constantly being pulled in six directions at once. Yumi was and still is My Year of Meatsregarded as scandalous to the good folk of Liberty Falls, Idaho, many of whom interpret her behavior as classic signs of a “Bad Mother.” In fact Yumi is passionately crazy for her kids—it’s just that she also insists on having a life of her own; she isn’t someone who, like her best friend Cass, can devote herself to hearth and home only. Sure, she’s selfish and self-indulgent, and yes, she makes some bad decisions—but she isn’t unkind and she isn’t a “Bad Mother.”  Still, Yumi’s contradictions are torture to live with, and invariably lead her to trouble, inflicting a mess of collateral damage in her wake.

Ruth Ozeki - A Tale For The Time Being

Ruth Ozeki (Photo credit: Kris Krug)

As for the rich, twisting and somewhat twisted plot: Yumi’s father Lloyd, a lifelong potato farmer, is dying when Cass tracks her down in Hawaii. Yumi comes home, not having seen her parents since she ran away at 14. She arrives with three racially mixed fatherless kids in tow, and bumbles through her unique version of caretaking. Meanwhile, on the highways of America the Seeds of Resistance, a group of food activists, are roaming the country staging protests in supermarkets and food corporations, fueling their Winnebago with McDonald’s used french fry oil. They happen to see a seed brochure put out by Lloyd and his wife Momoko, who’s been cultivating her stuff for decades, organic seeds worlds apart from the genetically engineered crap coming out of the labs of Eliot’s employer, Cynaco (cyanide anyone?). Along with seed descriptions Lloyd pens his raving religious philosophy, which somehow coincides with the beliefs of the Seeds of Resistance, and voila! It’s a match made in heaven.

I’ve already given away too many potential spoilers, so that’s all I’ll say about the plot. What’s more important, I couldn’t tear

Ozekimyself away from this book, and I fell in love with every one of Ozeki’s people. I’m now gearing up to read her latest book. Ozeki is a wonderful writer. Read her!

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