An Interview with Rosellen Brown
Interviewer: Can you tell us about your background, your family, and early influences?
Brown: I think my beginnings as a writer were not unlike those of a good many others. I was feeling particularly cast out at a certain point. I was nine, and the writing was a comfort. We had just moved from one coast to the other and I was very lonely in a new school, so I started taking along a secretarial notebook in which I didn’t so much confide as create friends for myself, and play with language, right out there on the playground where I thought at the time I was being ignored by the real kids. I’ll bet that endeared me to them, this girl sitting under a tree writing conspicuously in her little notebook. Interestingly this was the same year I felt it necessary to re-name myself. I was being called Rose Brown by a teacher too inattentive to notice that my name was actually Rose Ellen. So I began writing it as Rosellen, which has led, instead, to a lifetime of mispronunciation—but that’s another story. My sense of who I was or wanted to be was up for grabs, clearly, in this new place, and I can see now that I did an unprecedented, and unrepeated, job of self-creation. A thorough makeover.
Interviewer: Would you subscribe to the “writer-as-outsider” theory?
Brown: It’s always been pretty clear to me that most writers are slightly mismatched to their surroundings. Nothing original in that; it’s the sand-in-the-oyster theory. Whether the discomfort is that of personality, class, family situation, sexuality, whatever, very few seem a perfect fit. So writing begins, very often, defensively. It fills a void. I was a pretty decent artist when I was a kid, and a good musician, with an older brother who became a jazz drummer. Why the writing stuck I can’t say. To be honest, I often wish I’d become a musician. I’d rather be doing something nonverbal, something for which you didn’t have to be smart so much of the time. My intuition is better than my intellect.
Interviewer: But in the end you chose writing over music.
Brown: The thing that fascinates me about writing in my own life is that I don’t tend to think of myself as very daring or aggressive or even ambitious about anything else. Yet obviously it takes not only a sort of public boldness but a private, deeply held conviction of one’s talent and of the world’s need or desire to hear your particular voice to make you persevere against so many odds and so much silence. It is my single anomaly, this conviction that I must and would write, and that I would make myself heard. Just think of—oh, I don’t know, choose anybody—Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Muriel Spark, Donald Barthelme—I’m intentionally naming very mixed company. It isn’t hard to account for the certainty of their calling and the endlessly opinionated vigor of their writing: those are all people full of convictions. But my own fascination with the voices of others, and the pleasure I take in making them up and delivering them before live audiences, are mysteries. I sometimes think it’s just that I so enjoyed reading, early on. Although you don’t exhaust a book by consuming it, I still thought I needed to try to replenish the well a little with my own words. I’ll never understand this uncharacteristic self-assertion any better than that.
Interviewer: What kind of reception did your first books receive?
Brown: I remember that the editor for my book of stories sent me some yellow tulips on publication day. As a friend said recently, I didn’t know enough to realize they were the book’s funeral flowers! I had a two-book contract. My first advance was $5,000 for the two, and I was delighted with it. I had been a poet and it never occurred to me that I’d make any money at all.
Interviewer: What was the process that brought your first novel, The Autobiography of My Mother, into print?
Brown: It was a pretty typical deal: Doubleday would do my collection of stories, Street Games, if I’d commit myself to write a novel. It happened that I wanted to write one, so this was not an unwelcome form of coercion. If anything, it got me organized and kept me going when I felt like throwing in the towel. I suppose I could have reneged on the novel. It never occurred to me.
Interviewer: Were you surprised at the good critical response to that novel?
Brown: I’ll never forget receiving a telegram from my editor saying, “Congratulations, this is a wonderful book.” People think I’m exaggerating but believe me, I can hardly reconstruct my utter amazement. If I’d actually been aware of how little I knew, I’d have been even more astonished and grateful! Then the critics went on to educate me about what the book was about. It was beautifully reviewed by everyone but Anatole Broyard, who had also disliked my stories. But he was the only one who went into ‘print about it. It won the Great Lakes Colleges Association prize for the best first novel of the year. Of everything I’ve ever written, this was the book I knew least about and was most in need of help with, but the help came after the fact. It restored my faith, in a funny way. It assured me that I could write even on automatic pilot. True, pure writing in the dark. Such innocence! It will never happen that way for me again.
Interviewer: You say the help you needed with Autobiography came after the fact. Did you have help before that, with your poems and stories?
Brown: I had a couple of mentors. In college, the poet Robert Pack taught me a lot of things, the most important of which was to sit back down and write it again. And again. And again. When I finally found the right word, I knew I’d never have done that on my own. And the late George P. Elliott, a very dear man and an undervalued writer, had a good deal to say about compassion, about not judging one’s characters, about treasuring patience and neutrality. It’s cause for concern that, gender politics having become the abiding preoccupation it has, many women these days will only value instruction they get from other women. Yet the two men I’ve just mentioned, and another who was my journalism teacher in high school, took me and my talent very seriously and taught me lessons that transcended gender. Of the three teachers who most affected me in my hope to be a writer, only one was a woman, my freshman English teacher. What she did was simply to ask me if I intended to teach college. Since neither of my parents had gone to high school, it had never crossed my mind that such a thing might be possible for me, so that was an extraordinary encouragement.
Interviewer: You’ve worked in a variety of genres—fiction, poetry, essays. Have you ever written drama?
Brown: I’ve actually had a little experience with drama. The first theater piece I did was in 1983. A children’s theater in New Hampshire, where we lived for eleven years, until ’82, commissioned a musical, and a composer friend and I adapted that beloved classic The Secret Garden. We couldn’t market the play because of some unexpected copyright problems, and in the meantime Marsha Norman came up with her six-million-dollar Broadway version. Ours cost something like $250 to stage, and we did get our money’s worth! I’ve never had such a good time. Having collaborators—especially, I suspect, if you’re not working on your own book but on an adaptation of someone else’s—is an extraordinary experience for a writer who’s lived in that terrible isolation of her own mind for so long. To have set builders, costumers, a director and earnest, hard-working actors all putting their art into what you’re used to thinking of as your own fantasy is sheer pleasure. After The Secret Garden, my husband and I collaborated on a sort of documentary drama, featuring Isaac Babel as narrator, which gathered together testimony about anti-Semitism in Russia starting in the tenth century. The play, “Dear Irina,” was produced in Houston, where I live. I learned a few things about theater from it, but it was more agitprop than art, and intended to be so.
Interviewer: Not all fiction writers can write drama. Henry James is the classic example of a great novelist whose plays flopped. In your mind, how different are the two genres?
Brown: My most recent novel, Before and After, actually began as a play. I had an idea that felt too easy, too familiar, to render as a novel, and that coincided with my curiosity about whether I could write a decent original script. So I wrote an act of it, just enough to get into the meat of the story but not out the other end. I’d sent it to a director friend to ask if it had any promise and he entered it in his theater’s works-in-progress competition and it won! So more or less by accident I got to see my one act, my half-play, in a semi-staged reading and get a sense of how it worked as theater. There I discovered, as I had even with the children’s play, that the popular idea that writing good conversation has anything to do with creating viable theater is resoundingly wrong. Making visible equivalencies to what’s on the page—finding dramatic climaxes, tangible symbols—all that makes theater very different from fiction.
Interviewer: How did the play metamorphose into Before and After?
Brown: It happened that I had just put a failing novel away so that I could get a little perspective on it, and I was hungry to have another large project going. So I took the play and sort of wrote around it—transformed it into narrative. To be honest I think the novel begins much more cleanly than it would have had I begun it in my usual wordy way; you might say it “cuts to the chase” a lot faster than it would have. A few reviewers called the book “cinematic,” some as a compliment, some to give voice to their suspicion that, since the galley copy advertising had given out the word that the movie rights were already assured, I must have been thinking of it as a film all along. Not true, but I was seeing it as a play initially, so things move cleanly early on, uncluttered by too much authorial expansion.
Interviewer: What are you working on now?
Brown: I’ve gone back to writing poetry, not only to clear my head but to announce, to anyone who cares to notice, that I’m going about my business doing whatever presents itself as needing to be done. My favorite of all my books is a sort of novel-in-the-form-of-eighty-four-poems called Cora Fry that I published in 1977. I wrote that after The Autobiography of My Mother, literally to restore silence in my mind. Now I’ve gone back to visit Cora fifteen years later, to see how she’s doing in middle age.
Interviewer: How did the first book of poems about Cora “restore silence” for you?
Brown: Actually, silence was only half of it. In fact, I saw it spatially. After the very gray pages of the long mother/daughter argument that constitutes Autobiography, I needed spare, laconic, controlled speech, with a lot of empty white space around tiny little utterances. And that’s what I gave myself: the poems in Cora Fry are syllabic, tightly measured out. Cora is New Hampshire born and bred. I wanted a kind of analog to the rigorous speech of a native New Englander.
Interviewer: How does the sequel differ from the first book?
Brown: This time, having established Cora’s personality and her family and situation way back then, the challenge is in finding a new voice that’s still recognizably hers, yet shows the inevitable changes that have taken place. The problems and their solutions are as much technical as they are spiritual or emotional: no more syllabics, a looser, more variable line, a more expansive kind of prosody. I’m having a fine time doing these poems, which I hope will succeed because I love the character and many readers have been wonderfully devoted to her over the years. Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing the two books together next year.
Interviewer: You just called Cora Fry a “novel-in-the-form-of-poems.” Even when you work in other genres, you seem to have a novelistic sensibility. Is it a natural form for you?
Brown: I may or may not have begun with a “novelistic sensibility,” but I’ll say that in my experience, after you’ve written a couple of them you develop a novelist’s muscles—by which’ I don’t mean strong, I mean stretched! It’s gotten very hard for me to go back to small forms, which now tend to feel puny to me. As a reader I really prefer the short story to the novel, and a good story or poem already achieved doesn’t feel at all slight. I’m only talking about what it feels like to embark on the writing of one. The long forms are so spacious and the speed with which details accrete is so leisurely compared to the story, that it takes real discipline, and more flexibility than I think I have, to meet the demands of both genres simultaneously. Yet, I love the outcome of that discipline far more than the novel, which can and must accommodate so many imperfect choices. I appreciate the compression of stories and poems. A good story is like a jack-in-the-box: open it and be prepared for something surprising to leap out!
Interviewer: Your story collection, Street Games, could also be described as “novelistic.” The stories are linked through setting and characters.
Brown: The suite—the collection of interrelated stories or poems—is one of the wonderful compromises available to us. You can be the architect of something larger than its parts: The cumulative effect makes the payoff far more satisfying than the individual small work. I think a lot of short story writers who’d like to write a novel but haven’t much interest in, or skill at, the creation of plot have found that the way to make their work cast a larger shadow is to build it in small increments that, taken together, weigh more than they would individually. There needn’t be a long, intricate arc of plot, only the kind of path you can make out of modest mosaics. This is, to overstate it a bit, Chekhov’s answer to Tolstoy—a very contemporary pleasure.
Interviewer: How deliberate was the decision to link the stories in Street Games?
Brown: I had already written about half the stories when it occurred to me to join them into a kind of confederation. This was at a time when there weren’t a lot of those linked story collections out there. By virtue of my concentration on the neighborhood I was living in, I had been unintentionally painting a kind of portrait of the place. Once I had the concept, I was able to fiddle around the edges of a few stories to make those people seem like plausible neighbors, and then I generated such an endless list of other characters and emotional and sociological situations that I could have written a book twice as long before I exhausted it. The same is happening to me now with the “update” to Cora Fry. Every day I sit down to my notebook wondering what Cora has to tell me today. I have a list of possible—what should I call them?—complications.
Interviewer: What kind of complications?
Brown: Complications with implications. Wrinkles in the fabric of her life. At the rate they’ve been leading from one into another, I can see that I could probably write a poem every day forever. The momentum is thrillingly liberating. Out of it certain directions take shape, just as they do in fiction: To create a character we can understand and sympathize with, I have to find actions to elicit her re-actions, and that’s essentially a fiction writer’s strategy; this is a hybrid form. I can indulge my desire to make large gestures at the same time that I have the pleasures of extreme condensation, the pressure I can put on the word, the line, the stanza.
Interviewer: Do you have a sense of message, of purpose, as you write?
Brown: A lot of my fiction, and my poetry too, has been fueled by a sort of displaced political energy. My first book of poems, Some Deaths in the Delta, and my novel Civil Wars concern themselves with civil rights era Mississippi. Street Games, my short story collection, is about the diverse group of people who live on one block of Brooklyn, a very mixed block racially and economically. That, too, engages political questions, some head-on, some obliquely. Cora Fry is the voice of a woman very tentatively finding herself. And my most recent novel, Before and After, turns out to be far more political in its implications than I had originally expected it to be. A “safely” middle-class boy murders his small-town, working-class girlfriend, and many questions inevitably follow, not only about morality in general but about class and small-town chauvinism.
Interviewer: Where did the political energy originally come from?
Brown: I grew up in a somewhat left-leaning family, though no one had done much besides vote for Henry Wallace back when he seemed a wild radical to many, and send angry telegrams against the execution of the Rosenbergs. My mother used to tell us proudly that she was what was called a YPSL back in the twenties—that’s the Young People’s Socialist League. But I suspect hers was more idealistic, and social, than active participation. We were a rather typical family of a sort that included a majority of Jewish New Yorkers who were always liberal and committed to what we’d have called “progressive” political ideals. Voting Republican would have been as foreign as interterrestrial travel.
Interviewer: Civil Wars is probably your most political novel. Where did the material for that book come from?
Brown: In 1964, just at the point when my husband was finishing his graduate degree, I received an invitation from the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship people who had paid my way through my master’s degree, to teach in a “disadvantaged” college in a program they had just begun. The colleges were mostly in the South, mostly, though not solely, black. I remember we looked at each other and said, “How can we not?” This was just before the summer of ’64 and there was an urgency to the call that we couldn’t ignore. We were eager to do our bit in what we thought was the relatively protected setting of a college rather than a Freedom House; we hadn’t really intended to walk right into the heart of the action. But when we were given a choice of postings, we ended up in Mississippi and, there in our first jobs, at the college and in the early poverty program, we had our lives turned around. My husband, who had just gotten his Ph.D. in clinical psychology, never became a practicing psychologist, but pursued more community-related work. And I found not only the subject matter for two of my books, but got what I think of as an initiation into the realities of American political life. People are lucky, sometimes, to be swept up by interesting times—though under a cruel star they can be ruined by them. We didn’t have to go looking hard for an experience that gave us heroes and heroines, ideals and some of the means of addressing them.
Interviewer: Do you consider yourself an activist?
Brown: I’ve spent a lot of time wishing I were of the turn of mind that makes for activism. I admire Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen and dozens of others tremendously, but I have no talent for public life, either organizationally or emotionally. So I’ve resigned myself, not without a searing sense of guilt, to chronicling some of the inner landscape that’s shaped by political realities. I felt least momentarily exonerated when an anonymous reviewer in New Republic took me to task for saying somewhat defensively on the back of my first book of poems, Some Deaths in the Delta, that “poems are not action nor action’s substitute.” Someone told me the writer was Robert Coles, whom I unabashedly admire. Whoever it was, he or she said that good poems are events, and that their utility perhaps lasts longer than many of the acts that could be done by any one of a thousand soldiers for change. I know what the reviewer meant, but I still wish I were a more flexible and efficient person so that I didn’t feel I continually have to make a choice between a life in the world and a life at my desk.
Interviewer: How deliberate is your choice of political themes?
Brown: Much of what I’ve written has more than incidental political implications, and all the way back to the time when I lived in Mississippi in the mid ’60s I’ve felt that the activism I wasn’t very competent at could be sublimated in my writing. But I have to search for those subjects; they don’t seize me and demand to be
given voice. I work at figuring out how to embody other people’s voices, not all of them aggrieved. I find myself wishing I didn’t have to feel defensive about starting, not with an agenda, but with that elite-sounding motivation, a love of words; or, pardon the expression, “art.”
Interviewer: Would it be fair to say, though, that political themes contribute to the success of your work?
Brown: I think they do. I don’t know if people read me as political, with the possible exception of Civil Wars. But I’ll tell you that from the Mississippi and Brooklyn poems in my first book, to questions about history and about personal versus public duty in The Autobiography of My Mother, to many of the stories in Street Games and on into the present so-called family novel, I’ve thought my work political, though not with any didactic intention. I don’t have a particular constituency—race, gender, whatever—on whose behalf I write. I also tend to raise more questions than I want to answer, so I think it wouldn’t occur to some to think of me that way.
Interviewer: Would you agree with the notion that all art is political?
Brown: Yes, all art is political. Thinking it’s not is a political stance in itself. It was very strange and disquieting that one of the approaches taken by a lot of interviewers when Before and After came out last year was to invoke “family values” as a background against which to talk about my book. At best, after I’d disposed of the right of any political party to appropriate such values and to assume it represented the only “truly American” ones, it gave me a chance to talk about the question that lies somewhere near the heart of that novel: are we obligated to love, that is, to protect, other people’s children as well as our own? The family is a tribe, and if we are ever going to get beyond the most primitive concern only for “our own,” then we need to see our responses as political even if they don’t seem on the surface to have any ramifications beyond the “home and hearth.” This of course can be extended to neighborhood, to ethnic group, to nationality and race.
Interviewer: While we’re still on the subject of politics, you sometimes come down hard on a certain kind of liberal. Sarah and Michael Rappaport, for example, indulge in “fashionable mercies” and “knee jerk charity.” Do you see such characters as symptomatic of a larger impulse?
Brown: I suppose I find attractive—I wouldn’t call them “targets,” exactly, but “tokens” of certain kinds of contemporary earnestness—in characters like Sarah and Michael, though I tried not to caricature them. They are decent, concerned, the “best kind” of liberals out there, doing the best they can from their comfortable place in the scheme of things. I’m not unsympathetic; in fact I’m similar in some respects, except that I may see myself more clearly, and thus more harshly, than they do. At the far distant end of the same spectrum I have made characters like Gerda Stein in The Autobiography of My Mother and Teddy in Civil Wars, who are so passionately involved in their political and ideological pursuits that they lack many “merely human” and domestic virtues—common sense for one. That’s clearly a stance I don’t recommend, either, so I don’t know that I challenge the pious simplifications of my “liberal” characters so much as I try to show that, viewed from the perspective of anyone who’s radically troubled, their pleasant solutions are simply inadequate—wishful thinking.
Interviewer: One of your more impressive characterizations is Jacob Reiser in Before and After. Can you talk a little bit about how that character developed?
Brown: Readers are always curious about how characters develop. I have to admit that I display the same somewhat naive curiosity about the books I like. But how does anything in a book develop? How do we combine the things we “know” with the things we “guess” or “intuit,” and how do the demands of a particular work shape our knowing? The answers are all extremely specific. In Before and After, for example, I had to make Jacob into what I needed for the circumstances. Disappointingly mechanical as this might sound, he was a “what” before he was a “who.” The situation was simple at the outset: What stimulated me to write the book was a murder case, an intriguing component of a case, here in Houston. A seventeen-year-old boy was accused of a terrible murder and when it came time for his parents to give their testimony to the grand jury, they refused, on the grounds that the same privilege should extend to parents that protects spouses from having to bear witness. They went to jail rather than give evidence against their son.
Interviewer: How close is your story to the actual case?
Brown: The details bear no relation to the ones I ultimately invented. I began with the absolutely un-fleshed out premise that if a boy were accused of murder, his whole household would be thrown into wretched disarray. This is a family crisis—the catastrophe would befall all of them. Period. The first thing I thought of was to move the action to a small town. Someone else might have seen this as a quintessential big city story but I knew that I didn’t want to write that story. Here I was driven by my own obsessions, which in this case include not only my knowledge and love of small-town New England life, but also the sense that the effects of such a crime would cast a firmer shadow, full of social and psychological implication, across a village of five thousand than a city the size of Houston. Then I started building backwards, in a sense: What kind of family might this be, to precipitate the greatest dramatic conflict?
Interviewer: Jacob, the teenage murderer, is amazingly convincing—especially considering you’re the mother of two girls. Would you say he’s a normal kid?
Brown: I wanted him to seem a more or less regular kid with a few kinky, inexplicable habits. I have two older brothers but I can’t say they were really my models. After all, they were teenagers in a different generation. Living in the world, you sop up a lot of things you don’t even realize you’ve taken in. My husband teaches high school kids; some of our friends have boys—teenagers—who slouch and mumble and terrify their parents into wondering if they’re pathological or normal. I remember Anne Tyler saying once that she was grateful for all the pop culture her daughters dragged in across the doormat. A lot of those details aren’t as gender-bound as you might think. So the little fragments of Jacob’s life were cobbled together without much difficulty. As for his soul, his offstage inner life—it’s kind of up for grabs, isn’t it? I don’t see him as terribly disturbed. I wanted him to live on a continuum not too far from where boys live, with better luck, who don’t fall into the pit of their own worst possibilities. Where my real concentration lay was in the construction of the parents’ sense of loss as their children grew up and began their hidden lives. Any parent could write those scenes, provide his or her own sad and happy little details. Really, all I wanted to do was try to build a more or less ordinary family life and then make it run askew, but not so askew that my readers wouldn’t see themselves watching their children’s lives as they recede into privacy and mystery.
Interviewer: You say you don’t see Jacob as terribly disturbed, yet you make a lot of his “kinky inexplicable habits,” and of his temper.
Brown: Jacob’s temper is his father’s, visited upon him out of Ben’s unresolved problems. But even Carolyn is finally compassionate about Ben’s anger. She says to their lawyer, what is a person to do with problems he’s tried his best to solve? Ben’s had therapy, he’s done as well as he could. But, she says, “Children taste what their parents swallow.” Try though one might, children will feel those effects, but what is to be done? Should we give our children up? Should we be prevented from having them until we’re perfect?
Interviewer: The scene in which Jacob stones a dog is especially disturbing. Why did you choose that action?
Brown: I’m not sure I should have chosen anything quite so alarming as the stoning of that dog. I’ve given it a lot of thought since I’ve published the book and heard how many readers are practically ready to have Jacob committed for this act of random cruelty. What I was really trying to do—and it might not have been calibrated quite perfectly—was to show a boy still unformed, trying out his capacity to give pain. At one point his mother thinks of how she’s watched him trying to look a little sinister in his black and red and yellow parka. He’s a boy on the edge of manhood, uncertain of what constitutes masculinity. In fact, though it turns out that she suffers violence at his hands—an act of passion, not of intention-he has been very decent to his girlfriend, Martha. He has not been brutal. He’s even been careful and thoughtful in their sexual relationship, about making sure she doesn’t get pregnant. And she accuses him of being a wimp, because she has another boyfriend, the one who has made her pregnant, who wasn’t as controlled and mature. She uses this against Jacob.
Interviewer: A fair amount of Before and After revolves around the workings of the criminal justice system. What role does research play in your work?
Brown: Most books take some kind of research. Even when you’re in an arena you know well, there are always specifics you need to learn. That’s one of the pleasures of trying to go far afield from your personal experience. Most writers don’t know enough about other kinds of work. It does us good to turn our attention outward, away from the subjectivity we invest in our characters. The major danger of research is that you don’t want to stop to begin the writing. I did a lot of talking to lawyers to help me straighten out procedures, not to mention legal attitudes, for Before and After. One of my terrors was that somebody like Scott Turow would embarrass me in public—in a Times review, say—for making some egregious legal error. It was a great relief to get a note from him telling me that he envied me my book! I also got a note from Perri Klass, who’s a pediatrician and a writer. She seemed to find my pediatrician sufficiently convincing. You breathe a real sigh of relief when you hear that from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, especially because, unlike Tom Clancy who learns all about tanks, or Michener who has a staff of researchers, you want your research to be discreet. You want to keep it in perspective and not let it get the upper hand.
Interviewer: What about Tender Mercies? What research about quadriplegics did you do to create Laura?
Brown: For Tender Mercies I had some wonderful cooperation from a woman I realized, when I was about a third of the way through the book, I’d read about in an old Ms. magazine. She sounded very much like my character. Both were quadriplegics, and their similarity sprang from their particular brand of irony that’s not surprising under the circumstances. I searched her out, and she talked with me quite candidly and let me watch certain procedures when the “handlers” in her nursing home came to take care of her. She was able to do that without embarrassment because people whose bodies have become objects have buried their sense of self. Watching her helped me locate what was left to my character, Laura, and her husband Dan. As the body becomes a burden, no longer a pleasure, one seeks elsewhere for the soul.
Interviewer: Would you recommend a writing career to your children?
Brown: I do happen to have a daughter who’s pursuing the writing life, but she never asked me what I thought of the idea. I don’t think anybody can give useful advice about becoming a writer. It’s one of those things, like dancing or acting or any number of chancy, expressive things about which vocational counseling will not avail. If you’re not passionate about it, the question will soon enough answer itself. The one thing I do say to people who think they want to do this is that they probably ought to major in something other than English in college. Even now, with a very congenial teaching schedule, I wish I were doing something else besides the endless dissection of other people’s head-work. But by now I’m stuck with it—though this isn’t to say I don’t enjoy it a lot of the time.
Interviewer: What would you tell a young writer about the financial unpredictability of the profession?
Brown: It’s gotten hard for this generation to live with the uncertain financial situation that writers have put up with in the past. There are too many well-worn paths to fellowships, teaching jobs. If others have them, why not themselves? Understandable enough: it’s hard to go barefoot when everybody else is wearing good shoes. I’m saddened, often, to see our students graduate and stop writing because they think they need to maintain a certain standard of living that might be more negotiable than they dare imagine. They’ve grown up without much patience for penury. For the children of the middle class it feels outdated. I hate to sound self-righteous about this, but the fact is that early on, my husband and I lived mighty close to the bone because I didn’t have a paying job. I was home writing; that was my apprenticeship. Would-be writers need to recognize how many of what they think are rock-bottom needs are really choices, within their control.
Interviewer: What effect have the opinions of others and the pressures of the marketplace had on your choices of subjects and genres?
Brown: I don’t think I’ve been much influenced by others’ expectations in choosing, or letting myself be chosen by, genres, subjects, level of accessibility. Partly this comes of starting out as a poet, with no expectations of commercial success. And of being a poet, and then a fledgling short story writer, at a much more innocent time. Though I didn’t write in a vacuum, I was pretty isolated from any group of knowledgeable writers. For a little while in New York I used to get together with Erica Jong and Norma Klein, old college friends, to look at each other’s work—we were quite near the beginnings of our publishing careers—and talk about this cottage industry of ours. Then I moved to New Hampshire, where I didn’t really know many writers. What I remember is that I had pretty modest ambitions: I wanted to publish in the little magazines. Of course I wanted a book, but unlike my graduate students these days I had no idea what any of that actually meant or what I might dare demand. They are jealous very early of other people’s publications, advances, reviews, visibility. In my innocence, I truly didn’t have a clue that any of that might be mine—I just wrote, sort of dumbly. Now I work with students who’ve taken the pulse of every writer out there. The poets, especially, are avid analysts of career, reputation, rising and falling stars. I’m not sure I could have withstood this competitiveness—this sense of writing as a profession with a job description and salary demands, and a timetable.
Interviewer: You’ve made it in the profession now—you’ve written a best-seller. What demands are made on the author of a commercial success like Before and After?
Brown: Well, I have to say I think of it as a pretty stingy success: lots of praise, a place on the best-seller list, a dream set of reviews, many other fantastic, unimaginable commercial things happening to it, but none of it enough to make me exactly a household name. Before this, no one had much bothered to market anything of mine as far as I could see. In the case of Before and After, I finally had an invitation to the dance—the exhausting, exhilarating, frequently preposterous business of the book tour, the endless readings, the tedious, earnest questions—for which I’m not ungrateful. That’s what you get, or rather give, when you finally have an audience.
Interviewer: Would you say it was a valuable experience?
Brown: I learned a lot about marketing this year. It’s very interesting, but it’s in the hands of the publicity department at your publisher and you’re pretty passive if you’re willing to play the game. I will say that being available for all the self-promotion takes a lot of time. I don’t know how people manage to rise to it book after book. It’s a great way to keep you from writing for months at a time. But once in a lifetime—it was a terrific ride!
Interviewer: Now that you have gone back to poetry, do you worry about losing your new audience?
Brown: I’m sure that the next thing I publish, which will be as uncommercial as my other seven books, will disappoint my new readers, but I consider the “marketability” of Before and After a happy coincidence of subject, marketing and luck. I don’t expect to repeat it, nor do I even want to try. The only reason you keep your audience in mind when you write is to help your work make the best possible sense it can make, on its own terms. The charge you give yourself is self-fulfilling, self-delighting. You are shaping the best story or novel or poem possible. Part of that imperative might demand a certain lucidity, or a certain mood, or a certain playfulness. The point is that the command comes from within the work. Hack writers aren’t writing for themselves, they’re cutting their fabric to a pre-existent pattern that they know is selling well that season. All serious writers are their own audiences, with all the books of the past looking over their shoulders. If our readers’ pleasure coincides with our own, that’s all the better.
Poetry Feature: Maureen Seaton
Winner of the 1993 Editors’ Prize for Poetry
Featuring the poems:
- Theories of Illusion
- After Sinead O’Connor Appears on “Saturday Night Live,” the Pope
- Eggshell Seas
Settled on the Cranberry Coast
Winner of the 1993 Editors’ Prize for Fiction
This story is available via the PDF link below.
Our lives in this town are slowly improving. When Trudi grew up, in the old reservation houses, the roads were dirt and the crab factory still wheezed along, ugly and reeking. In early summer the factory stayed open all night, and the damp dirty smell of the crab cooking in its steel vats blew off the ocean, all the way to Aberdeen, even beyond, for all I knew.
This essay is not currently available online.
Almost twenty years ago on an early spring day in Missouri, I was outside with the children, wrestling Jack into his infant carrier in the front seat of the car while Stephen waited to climb into the back.
The Province of the Bearded Fathers
This story is not currently available online.
On a bench in the sun at the side of a playground in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Willow is tall, but heavyset, and her real name is Esther; she changed it way back in college and has felt silly about it almost ever since, but still secretly likes the sound.
Poetry Feature: Walt McDonald
Featuring the poems:
- After the Random Tornado
- Farms at Auction
- Scanning the Range for Strays
- But it was Water
- Uncle Carl and the Art of Taxidermy
- After Fifty
- The Invention of Courage
- The Songs of Country Girls
The Behavior of the Hawkweeds
This story is currently not available online.
For thirty years, until he retired, my husband stood each fall in front of his sophomore genetics class and passed out copies of Gregor Mendel’s famous paper on the hybridization of edible peas.
This story not currently available online.
When Henry Teeter first arrived in Santa Monica the only thing he wanted to do was sit on the seawall at the very end of Wilshire Boulevard and watch the sunset. At several times during his pilgrimage he thought he might never get to the West Coast, and so, once there, was content merely to sit quietry for a time. After seven days of heading due west from North Carolina he had truned south at Needles on the advice of a filling station attendant who thought that Henry’s old Chevrolet might have an easier go of it approaching the Pacific coast from the southeast.
Halfway between our farm and town, on county Highway 15, the Creston place was a study in regal flatness. The fields, ten thousand acres of the most productive wheat ground, were planted in rows as straight as the land was flat. There were no weeds as far as the eye could see, not even in the road ditches, which the Crestons farmed right up to the edge. Whenever we drove past the house, we would slow down just to gape and wonder. Steep-roofed and gabled, red bricked and huge as a church, and with a miniature brick dog house to match, the mansion sat far back from the road on a twenty-acre lawn of mowed buffalo grass. At precise intervals along the drive, solitary evergreens accentuated the pale expanse. There were never any thistles wedged in their lower branches or in those of the cedar windbreak, behind which battalions of plows, sweeps, discs, harrows, rods and drills waited at loyal attention. Beyond the house, in two silver Quonsets the size of airplane hangars, lurked the biggest and shiniest combines and tractors.
In their Swiss efficiency and their wealth, the Crestons set the standard in the county, spoiling everything for everybody. They were impossible to keep up with. I suppose I’ve always laid a little too much at the Creston’s feet, blaming them for more than their share of my misery as a teenager, but then I had the misfortune of being in high school with the Creston kids.
There were two boys and a girl in the branch of the family that lived in the mansion. They were middling smart, but not particularly attractive. The boys and their cousins, whose brick house on the south edge of town was big and new, but not nearly as palatial, were short and wore glasses. It dawned on me only gradually, as we went from grade school to junior high, then on into high school, that these ordinary boys were actually aristocracy. Their money made them shine with a patina of good haircuts, madras shirts, shiny loafers without socks, white denim jeans, and cars. Brent, in my class, drove a gold Dodge Charger. His cousins, Larry and Kirk, drove matching black GTO’s.
The boys, although they weren’t outstanding athletes, dated cheerleaders. Their girlfriends bestowed authenticity on them, and vice-versa. Oh, those black cheer-leading sweaters with the white-and-gold megaphones! Those short, black skirts, their pleats lined with gold! They were the stamp of glamour, showcasing real hips, real breasts. The couples had the radiance of movie stars. The rest of us four-hundred high schoolers became satellites, orbiting around the Crestons and their attendant couples — sons and daughters of bankers, lawyers, and implement dealers.
In the summer, the Creston boys got their fathers to hire their friends, and they drove giant four-wheel-drive tractors together. Those lumbering tractors rolled over the perfectly flat wheat ground as regally as yachts in Connecticut harbors. Lilian drove one too, baffling me. As the eldest, she had stature in her family.
She was the Creston who enthralled me the most. A senior when I was a sophomore, she was celestial anyway, but being a Creston put her at the absolute center of the galaxy. She wasn’t pretty. She was robust, with a stately chest and erect carriage, a square chin, and short, tawny hair. She dated the quarterback, a boy who made all-state and whose talent is still reminisced over today. They were homecoming queen and king. She drove a Corvette.
Sometimes, at night, I dreamed I was invited to parties at the Creston mansion. I’d never been inside it, but in my dreams, it contained fireplaces and lots of gleaming wood -real hardwood floors, not the fake wood grain linoleum we’d had in the farmhouse, and a wide stairway with banisters. The living room had a vaulted ceiling, like the Lutheran church, and the windows, though clear, were leaded, the glass sparkling. Lilian’s room was the locus, the radiant inner chamber fitting a queen, not a princess. I don’t remember any physical details from that room. I don’t think there were any. There was just the knowledge that all stairs, all halls led to it, that it was at the house’s powerful center, not at all ephemeral or girlish, but solid in its splendor.
Every high school has its Crestons, those for whom adolescence is actually fun. Our aristocrats enjoyed themselves unselfconsciously, within a few feet of the rest of us, who were deeply engaged in pretending to have equal amounts of fun, in the school hallways, at the mixers, in the parking lot of Gill’s Drive-In.
The Crestons ate the giant pork tenderloin sandwiches and sipped the frosted root beers and cherry juleps just like everybody else. They weren’t stuck up. They didn’t have to be. They moved about Grainville with the immunity of royalty, knowing that humility would keep the plebeians from accosting them with awkward friendship. More likely, it was cowardice that held us back. I’m sure there were many others like me who imagined themselves equals, whose parents, we liked to think, were also rich, but just too conservative to make a more overt show of wealth.
Weekend nights, Main Street’s lights shimmered off the Creston’s gold, black, and ruby red cars. Like exotic fish, they swam the slow circuit from the fairgrounds to Gill’s Drive-In, where they circled back again. The scene rarely altered. When the Crestons passed me on Main Street, their heads didn’t even turn. I could have been my mother driving to the IGA food store. My senior year, I inherited my brother Keith’s red-and-white Fairlane, a sporty car with bucket seats and a “four on the floor”. He’d had his license taken away and was hoofing it at K-State in Manhattan, Kansas, where he was supposed to be studying botany. I thought the car, like our new house, would get me some attention, but it fetched only a glance from Brent Creston, then, after he recognized me, nothing more.
On a moonless May night in 1967, the week after my eighteenth birthday, which coincided with my graduation, a silver ’56 T-Bird convertible swam into town. I was riding in the back seat of a Volkswagen belonging to Bradley, one of my brother’s friends who was home from school at Washburn U, in Topeka. Bradley had been expecting a friend of his from Topeka to arrive that night. He honked his horn as the T-Bird approached. “There he is,” he said, then shouted, “Keith!”
My heart lurched on hearing my brother’s name. He wasn’t due home for another week. I peered hard at the T-Bird. Bradley stuck his arm out the window, drew a circle in the air with his delicate finger and pointed east. The stranger gave a savvy nod and flipped a u-ie.
Kendra turned around and winked. “He’s handsome,” she said.
“His name is Keith?” I said.
We pulled up to the curb on Center Street, and the T-Bird slid in behind us. This mysterious boy with my brother’s name stepped out. He was swarthy and manlike, a well-oiled machine of a boy right out of the nighttime town scenes in the beach movies. Bradley, scrawny, and with his thick glasses, utterly unsexy, got out and pulled the seat forward. “Keith, Julie,” he said. “Julie, Keith. Step right in.”
We bobbed down Main in the bubble. “Oh man,” Keith said, “Four hundred miles. I ought to be in California by now.” I was fascinated by his eyes. They were very light blue under dark brows. They were not lecherous, like some other older boys’ I knew, but reflected something deeper, more distant.
“Except,” Bradley said, “you’d have gone over some bumps. You know, the Rocky Mountains.”
“Then the Sierra Nevada,” I added. “It’s twelve hundred miles from here to San Francisco.”
“They’re calling this the ‘Summer of Love,'” Keith said. “I’m heading out there in the fall.”
Every issue of Look and Newsweek for the past several months had brought pictures of West Coast hippies, and I’d been watching the anti-war protests and love-ins on the network newscasts. The most exotic place I was headed for was summer school at KU. At least it was on the other end of the state, as far away as you could get from Grainville and still be in Kansas. Keith lifted a hard box pack of Kools from his pocket, opened it and took out a misshapen cigarette, like the ones our hired man Hank used to roll. “Wanna smoke a J?”
“That’s my man,” Bradley said, and his right hand shot into the back seat. He flicked his slender cigarette lighter.
“Ladies first,” Keith said, and I took the proffered joint and leaned into the flame. I smoked it like a cigarette and had the requisite coughing fit. Keith put his hand on my shoulder and asked, sincerely, “Are you okay? Don’t take so much.” He took the joint from me and demonstrated with a shallow toke, then spoke again in a pinched voice, without breathing out. “Then you hold it. See?”
Soon we were back at the T-Bird, and I was sitting in it. The top of my head tingled, exposed to the sky. Keith seemed to glide as he walked around to his door. The T-Bird glided too, right past the GTO’s. Keith offered me a Kool, but I lit up one of my own, a Winston. I held it between my thumb and finger and rested my elbow on the sill. I felt more powerful and sublime than at any previous moment in my lifetime. How far was KU from Topeka, I wondered?
The door handles, arm rests and dash knobs of Keith’s car were all missing. “I repainted the exterior, but haven’t gotten around to the interior yet,” he explained. “When I get back to Topeka I’m gonna have it sandblasted.” Brent Creston drove by with Cinda Sheehan, the blondest in that year’s crop of cheerleaders. His head turned, and he actually honked. I flicked the ash of my cigarette. Bradley had told me that Keith was rich. His family, in Minnesota, owned factories, a mansion on a bluff over the Mississippi, and vacation homes. Suddenly, I was steps above the Crestons, looking down. They were no more inspired than their featureless friends.
We just did one loop on Main, then turned onto a side street on the west end. I couldn’t believe how paltry and dismal all the little frame houses looked. Some of them had composition siding, others asbestos. Porches leaned; screens dangled from one hinge; many yards were nothing but packed dirt and sticker weeds around rusted propane tanks. I wanted to explain to Keith that this wasn’t the real town. Except maybe it was. Riding beside Keith gave me an outsider’s perspective. I was one of the lucky ones; most kids couldn’t even aspire to compete with the Crestons.
Keith’s car hit one of the dips that Grainville’s city engineers had put at intersections in order to channel rain into the gutters. “Jesus!” he said.
“We call ’em kid killers,” I said.
“They should put up warning signs. ‘Grand Canyon Ahead.'”
Suddenly the pavement of Second Street ended, and we were driving on gravel in the country. Ahead of us dangled the star-tipped stinger on the constellation Scorpio. I held onto my hair, fine and bleached blonde and in danger of tangling so badly that I’d lose half of it getting a comb through it. Up a little rise, which is all we had for hills in Grainville, Keith pulled over and turned off the car. “This a good place to stop?” he asked.
“Good as any,” I said. I opened the door and got out. I tried to shut it gently, but it banged, then when I walked over the gravel in my white sandals, I noticed the earth had lost gravity. My knees rose as if I was stepping over pillows. I leaned against the trunk and hugged myself even though it wasn’t chilly. It wasn’t yet cricket weather though, and the wheat, still green, breathed sweet coolness all around us. It smelled sweet. In the east, the airport beacon spun round like it had always done, green to white, except this time my head spun with it. Five-thousand people lived in Grainville, but tonight it was nothing more than a clump of fragile shelters huddled together beneath grain elevators and six-billion stars.
Keith got out and crossed the grader ditch. His shirt was a yellow oxford button-down, a light patch in the darkness. He returned with a stalk of wheat. “What’s this?”
It was like asking me what dirt was. “You really don’t know? It’s wheat.” I took the sprig from him, pulled the head out and bit the stem. “Taste it,” I said and handed it back.
“Mmm,” he said. “They grow a lot of that in Kansas?”
“The eastern part of the state is a lot hillier. Maybe they don’t grow so much back there.”
“Course,” he said, “I haven’t gotten out very often. All I saw for most of the last two years was the hospital compound. Cottages and lawn, lawn and cottages.” Keith leaned on the car beside me. “It was very soothing,” he said sarcastically.
“Where were you?” I asked.
“Menninger’s Psychiatric Hospital. Bradley didn’t tell you?”
“It wasn’t a bad place. Did me some good. The doctors were wise, actually. More than I can say for my parents.” Keith’s voice had taken on a note of bitterness. His forehead and high, prominent cheeks were all I could see well in the darkness.
“That sounds awful,” I said, trying to make it clear in my voice that I suspected nothing weird about him, only his parents. “Why did they do that?”
“They wanted a robot made in Dad’s image, but without any messy ideas of its own. They tried military school first. Ha! That backfired.”
“So did this work?”
He put his arm around me. His shirt felt good and confident and had its own integrity, separate from Grainville. “What do you think?” he said.
“Well, you’re not going back to Minnesota, are you?”
I scanned the lights of Grainville, which lay before us now, a flat, iron grid that was due to be history in three weeks. “And I’m not comin’ back here,” I said.
Keith gave my shoulder a squeeze. “So Bradley didn’t tell you, huh? Well, don’t worry.” He stood back from me and put his elbows out, letting his hands dangle. He crossed his eyes. “I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy,” he said, jerking his head to the side. “No siree.”
He leaned back on the car, and I kissed his cheek. It was rough, like my father’s, but who he really reminded me of was Black Rose, a pet rabbit I’d once owned. Keith’s hair was clean, smooth and black like that bunny’s, and he had a furry animal comfort about him. His presence was a compliment, as if I’d been given entry to a parallel but benevolent universe, a place where animals might actually talk, where there was no cynicism, at least none aimed at me, where a boy of means-named Keith!-not only seemed to like me, but even needed my understanding.
The distance between KU and Topeka turned out to be only forty miles. I rode on the back of Keith’s motorcycle, a 250cc Harley Sprint, or in his car, trying to control my hair. I dyed it black as soon as I went away to college, fully emulating Joan Baez now instead of Sandra Dee. We made love in his bedroom, a second floor sun porch of an old apartment in inner Topeka. It was the year of the birth control pill. You just walked into Student Health at KU and told them you wanted them, and they gave them to you, free samples.
Keith didn’t seem to notice or mind my lack of passion, probably because I faked it, along with my orgasms. The only time I’d ever felt genuinely aroused when kissing had been in my aunt’s basement family room in Boulder. The boy was a football player, wide at the shoulders, and his arms had been sinewy and strong. His hairline was already receding, but that just made him sexier somehow. His tongue was wet and more demanding than any boy’s before or since. If he had begun to undress me, I would have been helpless to stop him. It didn’t occur to me to hold out for another boy who made me feel queasy and delectably frightened.
At sixteen, I had my first sex with Chad, who drove a ’59 Impala and used too much hair oil. The main thing was to be wanted by the boy. It didn’t occur to me until many years later that desire on my part was a valid expectation. Although it seemed necessary to consider myself in love, I had actually endured sex in exchange for what felt like adulation, and to have an escort, down Main and to the movie.
I dated Keith and the poet in the freshman honors program all that summer. Then Keith left for San Francisco in September. The poet got a new, steady girlfriend, and Keith’s absence penetrated. I told my roommate, “Keith’s gone. I want Keith.” I had no address. Had he dropped clean out of my life?
I felt like I did when I was a kid and lost my dog, a German shepherd, who had a habit of killing sheep. My parents must have thought that I understood that his running away was just a necessary lie. Then one night, two weeks after he disappeared, I sat up in bed and started screaming, “I want my dog! You shot my dog!”
“Oh Julene,” Mom said. “You never even noticed he was gone. Why do you start in now?”
My attachment to Keith was no less fickle, and no less passionate. In October, there was a tap on my door. “Julie,” sang one of the girls from the dorm room next to mine. “You’ve got a phone call. Person to person.”
The receiver on the pay phone in the hallway dangled evocatively.
“How, dee.” he said.
“Oh wow, Keith! So what’s it like out there?”
“You’d love it. You’ve got to come out.”
“But I can’t.”
“Well, I can’t just go out there. My parents would flip out.”
“How about if you got married first?”
“Well,” I said, hardly daring to breathe. “That’d be different.”
Keith said, “So let’s do it, then.”
A week later a letter came requesting my sizes, head to foot, then two weeks after that, a large package arrived with an envelope attached that said “READ ME FIRST.” I was to get completely naked, then unwrap a series of numbered packages and put on their contents. (1) hot pink hoop earrings, (2) a pair of black bikini underwear, (3) pink tights, (4) a lacy black padded bra, (5) a hot pink rayon mini-length shift, (6) a silver net overdress, (7) silver shoes, (8) a pink glass and silver necklace, (9) a large diamond set in “white” gold.
To their credit, my parents did try to stop me. They phoned me prior to Thanksgiving vacation and insisted I come home. I started in a snow storm, but stopped near Topeka, when the visibility began getting bad. I called them from a gas station. Mom told me that they suspected Keith was “on dope.”
That was the whole reason — not that I was too young, not that other men would come along, not that I should value myself more. I told her that a friend of Keith’s had died from an overdose, and he wouldn’t touch the stuff. I didn’t bother to differentiate between grass, the psychedelics and heroin. I knew my mother was more comfortable not hearing about such things, or knowing that I was aware of the distinctions between them.
My dad got on the phone. “Graduate first,” he said. “You never know what might happen.”
“That’s four years, Dad! I can’t wait that long.” I wiggled my ring finger. The sparkle was transcendent, promising delivery from these low-class surroundings–the muddy-glassed phone booth, the red-eared attendant wearing farmer’s insulated coveralls who was running the squeegee over my Fairlane’s windshield. The diamond’s glamour was weightless but of equal mass, somehow, to my father. It made us equals. “Besides, I’ll finish anyway, in California.”
“Sure you will,” he said, disgusted. He didn’t waste any more of his breath on me. I’d already turned down a boy from a neighboring town, whom Dad had figured on having take over the farm. One guy who didn’t farm was the same as the next one to Dad.
At Thanksgiving, Keith greeted me at the airport in St. Paul. Wearing an amber wool plaid jacket and pleated skirt, its hem line mid-thigh over yellow tights, I rode beside him in the plush interior of his mother’s Continental. His father, Keith told me, owned a matching car. Then we were entering the doorway of a rectangular three-story mansion, and four women swooped forward to greet us. Two were maids; one was Keith’s grandmother, “Nana”; and the most imposing one of all was his mother, a buxom, heavily made-up woman in an aqua suit dress and spike-heeled matching shoes. She was short even in these, but still very formidable. She kissed me, a stranger. We didn’t hug in my family, let alone kiss.
I got married for money, at eighteen–too young to be judged harshly for it, too young to know any better. Parents can’t win. It was probably their frugality that made me worship money so. At the same time I identified with the Sixties protesters, I longed to buy my hip-huggers and jean jackets from Cunningham’s, Grainville’s swank clothing store, instead of J.C. Penney’s, across the street. In my soul, I wanted current fashion, plush comfort and security. I wanted Lilian Creston’s bedroom. In St. Paul, glades of old trees swelled and dipped over the hills, an occasional spire of a Catholic college or cathedral rising above them. I relished the old brick, the slate roofs, and, in Keith’s house, carpeting so thick it showed our footprints. There were poodles–live ones as well as brass replicas. Marble night stands. Firm mattresses in tall beds. Crystal ashtrays. A cherry wood study with dark books. A large, gleaming desk with a leather blotter. A regulation pool table, in the den, under, of course, a Tiffany shade. Five bathrooms with brass and porcelain faucets, white clay tile and thick, monogrammed towels. Billowing gray winter trees and forest pine elegance out every window. Splendor. Permanence. Wealth.
Our Thanksgiving visit proceeded in warm rounds of embraces from maids, ex-nannies, and female relatives; brief encounters with Keith’s aloof businessman father, tall and balding and swank; furtive joints with Keith’s brother and girlfriend in the out-of-use third story; a formal dinner where our engagement was announced and toasted. The flatware and wine goblets were gold plated, robustly elegant, like the huge turkey. Keith was paid the great honor of carving, which he did with aplomb, but I sensed somehow unsatisfactorily. There was an air in the house of disappointment in this son who never lived up to expectations. I realized that I was his means of escape as well.
He confided in me, telling me that any money from his parents would come with strings. It would be better if we made it on our own in San Francisco. This decision seemed honorable and righteous, and I agreed enthusiastically. Deep down, I was elated to be marrying into wealth.
I thought of myself as a radical, but I was really a pretty conventional thinker. Dreamer might be a better word. Girl. I was a conventional girl. This was going to mean happiness ever after. I was escaping the dullness of my life up until then, as well as my social failure, and the limiting notions of my parents, who had always held only three options open to me: nursing, teaching, or marrying a farmer. In marrying Keith, I could have security, but none of the drab circumstances that my father had always insisted must accompany it.
I had to suppress every doubt, even if enormous and obvious. There was that argument we had in January, for instance, one week before our wedding.
We were in my parents’ basement, sitting on the tan vinyl quilted couch, the ugliest, most uncomfortable couch in the world. Keith was trying to explain the concept of free love. “Let me demonstrate,” he said. He reached above his head and switched off the pole lamp. “It’s like electricity.” He turned the lamp on again. “When I open the switch, electricity flows out to the light and brightens the whole room. Love is like that. It’s either on or off. When it’s on, it flows. The switch is open in San Francisco.”
“Oh Keith,” I complained, unable to argue in the vacuum of his logic.
He took hold of my hands. “Julie, I wouldn’t hurt you, believe me. But you’ll want this too, once you’re out there. You’ll see. Love is free, if it’s real. It doesn’t make sense to say you love one person. It’s like the light.”
I shrieked in exasperation and, ripping my hands out of his, got up and backed away, clutching my elbows and bending forward to shout at him. “How can you say that? How can you say you love me, that you want to marry me, and now tell me this? How can you?”
My father appeared, form the doorway to the stairs. His thick eyebrows were a V, like the inverted cone of a volcano, his finger a caveman’s spear as he pointed at Keith. “You let up on that girl.”
I pointed back at him. “Get out!” I screamed, my voice cracking with volume. “This is our business!”
Keith stood up and put his hand on my shoulder. “Julie,” he said, quieting me. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said to my dad.
“It’s none of his business,” I said, and turning my ferocity on Dad again, shouted, “Let us alone!”
These were the messes I’d never seen before in this household. Mom and Dad fighting. I said to myself, Dad knows nothing, absolutely nothing. He left silently and impotently, his brown eyes clouding with their third big defeat. First my brothers refused to farm, rejecting him in the process, and now I was gone as well.
I sobbed on Keith’s shoulder. “It’s none of his business,” I said.
“He’s your father,” Keith said.
“I don’t care.”
“You should care. He loves you.”
“So do you, you say.”
Keith lifted wet strands of my hair and placed them behind my ears. “When you get out there, you’ll see what I mean.”
“Just promise me,” I begged, through tearful heaves. “You won’t do it unless I agree.”
“You know, have . . . go to bed with someone else.”
I backed up and looked in his eyes, a foreigner’s blue, magnetic. “And I’m more important to you than anything.”
He squeezed me reassuringly. “You know it.”
Trading Off: A Memoir
Winner of the 1993 Editors’ Prize for Essay
“Only a child expects justice.”
Jack Kerchman, my old high school baseball coach, was a classic ball-buster, a lot like those Marine D.L’s you see in old World War II movies. A Jew himself, “Mr. K” had a reputation for hazing the Jewish players that he thought were too soft. One of them was me.
I started hearing stories about Mr. K in the mid-fifties, when I was in junior high. In three years at the high school, his football teams won Queens (borough) championships, and the baseball team got as far as the city championship semi-finals. People in the Rockaways—neighborhood kids, parents, local merchants—began to take notice. Winning teams and wars have a way of galvanizing a neighborhood, especially in New York, where everything is measured and articulated in terms of “turf.”
According to the buzz on the playgrounds Mr. K was an obsessed man. Max Weinstein, a tight end on the football team, told us about the impassioned locker room speeches. Before each new season, Kerchman would gather the team around him in the boys’ shower and reminisce about his old college days at Syracuse, where he was a one-hundred-sixty-pound offensive guard and defensive nose tackle for coach Biggie Munn. He proudly revealed how after the war he’d had a tryout with the New York Giants and had made it to the last cut. He always finished up by saying that he did it all “on a little talent, a big heart, and a whole lot of guts.”
A Jew from the roughest part of the lower East Side, Mr. K believed that young Jewish boys, especially those from my suburban neighborhood, were “candy-asses” and quitters. At football tryouts he talked about the time he liberated a concentration camp at the end of World War II, and of how important it was for the next generation of Jews to “toughen up.” So at the first scrimmage of each new season, he made the Jewish boys play without equipment. And if you were Jewish and you wanted to pitch for the baseball team, you had to show him you could brush hitters back by throwing at their heads.
The rumors were enough to convince Ritchie Zeitler and Bobby Brower, the two best athletes in our neighborhood, to transfer to a local prep school. The stories frightened and fascinated me. But I knew I’d be trying out for the high school baseball team next year and I wanted to see this Kerchman character in action, so in September of my last year in junior high, I collared Mike Rubin and Barry Aronowsky, two of my summer league baseball buddies, and off we went to the first Saturday home football game. outside the high school field, the street hawkers sold hot dogs and popcorn, along with Rockaway High pennants, pom-poms, and trinkets. In the bleachers, students and parents chanted, “Let’s go Seahorses! Seahorses, let’s go!” The cheerleaders bounced up and down in their red-and-blue sweaters and short, pleated skirts, as the football team ran out on the field. Most of the players were only a few years older than me, but in their scarlet helmets and full gear they looked like Roman gladiators.
As I scanned the field, I saw the pitcher’s mound to the right of the south goalposts. For a long, slow moment, I floated free of the razzmatazz while I imagined myself standing on that mound in a Rockaway baseball uniform. My parents, kid brother, and friends were all in the stands, and the cheerleaders were chanting my name as I went into my wind-up and got ready to snap off a sharp, dipping curve ball.
Then I spotted Kerchman standing in front of the team bench. He was in his late thirties, maybe five eight, heavyset, wearing a chocolate-brown porkpie hat and rumpled tweed topcoat. You could hear him yelling above the crowd noise. Sometimes he’d hurl his hat to the ground and scream obscenities at a player who screwed up. He reacted to missed blocks, fumbles, broken plays—whatever derailed the game plan he’d engineered in his head. A couple of times I saw him hold offending players by the shoulder pads and shake them back and forth; and once when he was really angry, he grabbed Stuie Schneider, a Jewish kid from my neighborhood, by the jersey and tattooed him with vicious open-handed helmet slaps. His temper tantrums frightened and fascinated me; I wondered why anyone, Jewish or not, would want to play for such an animal. Then that image of me on the mound would kick back in.
My two friends had seen enough, so I went back alone to the rest of the football games that season. When I announced I was going to try out for baseball next year they told me I was crazy to even think about it.
They didn’t understand. It wasn’t a matter of merely wanting to play; I had to play. My dad, an old semi-pro infielder, had taught me how to play ball when I was eight. After dinner, out in the backyard, he’d hit me ground balls and pop flies until the sun dipped below the Union Carbide tank near the bay. On Sundays, he took me to Riss Park to watch him play fast-pitch softball double-headers with a bunch of other middle-aged jocks. By the time I turned nine, I wanted to be a ballplayer like him.
As soon as the weather turned mild, I’d scale the schoolyard fence, or be out on the street with my friends playing punchball or stickball. On weekends we’d trek twenty blocks up to Riis Park for marathon choose-up baseball games on the grass and dirt fields. Even when we went to the beach, the first thing we’d do was carve out a patch of sand near the water’s edge and get up a diamond ball game.
After school, I’d grab a broomstick and run down to Casey’s Lot, a weed-choked, rock-infested vacant field on the corner of 129th Street and Beach Channel Drive. There I’d pretend I was Duke Snider or Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, and I’d swat stones across the road into Jamaica Bay until my palms sprouted blood blisters. At night, my brother and I would grab a pink “Spauldeen” high-bouncer and play stoop baseball till the streetlights flickered on.
As much as I loved to play, though, I knew I’d never be one of the top jocks. I was what coaches called a “shlepper,” a slightly ungraceful athlete who somehow managed to get the job done. Whatever the sport, I would work hard at it, no matter what the costs—and there was always a cost. At thirteen, I was cut from the local Police Athletic League (P.A.L.) squad. Coach Bluetrich told me that I didn’t have the quick reflexes needed to play shortstop. Not playing was unthinkable, so I made up a lie. I told Bluetrich I could pitch. There isn’t a coach in his right mind who wouldn’t take on an extra batting practice pitcher. The next day he gave me an old torn uniform two sizes too big, and told me to concentrate on throwing strikes to the hitters.
That summer I taught myself how to pitch. I cut a twelve-inch hole in a bedsheet, and at night in my backyard I threw hundreds of rubber-covered baseballs at the target. I got the balls by trading my Topp’s bubble gum cards with a friend who worked at the local batting range. Under the pretense of teaching my kid brother how to bat, I pitched shaved tennis balls to him for hours. By shaving the fuzz, you could make the ball curve and dip crazily.
I didn’t throw hard enough to have what coaches call a “live arm.” In fact, my ex-teammate Andy Makrides still likes to remind me, “You had three speeds, Mike, slow, slower, slowest. And your sinker was just a dying quail. You were lucky that the pitcher’s mound was sixty feet, six inches, because if someone ever moved it back a half a foot, all your pitches would bounce before they got to the plate.”
But I worked at it. I read how-to books on pitching and studied the strengths and weaknesses of professional hitters on TV. All summer I taught myself how to throw curve balls, sliders, knuckle balls, and sinkers. I kept honing my control, and by mid-July, I could throw four out of every five pitches through the bedsheet hole.
My improvement took Bluetrich by surprise. By the end of the summer I was the team’s second starter. In the borough championship game, Bluetrich started me ahead of Lee Adnepos. Lee was my best friend and team captain, and up until then, the team’s ace pitcher. We lost the game 3-2, and Lee was so upset that he didn’t speak to me for two months.
I was happy I got to pitch the big game, but I knew Lee had worked as hard as I did. So by age thirteen, I was already vaguely sensing where all this was headed. Character and hard work didn’t have a whole lot to do with who played and who sat. It was a simple trade-off: coaches used you if they thought you could help them win games, and you put up with them because you wanted to play.
Knowing this gave me even more incentive. I improved so much that the next summer, I convinced myself that I had a chance to make the high school baseball team. A lot of others had the same illusion, though. Three hundred dreamers came out for football and another two hundred for baseball. With a student body of over three thousand, Far Rockaway was the only high school in the entire district and Mr. K had his pick of all the best jocks on the Rockaway peninsula.
As tryouts approached I knew I needed an “in.” My dad, a traveling salesman, always preached to us, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” Well, I knew Gail Sloane, my parents’ friend from across the street. Gail was an attractive woman who worked in the central office at the junior high where Kerchman taught Hygiene and Guidance, of all things. The summer before I started high school, I asked Gail to put in a word for me.
It was early September, my first day of high school. Baseball tryouts were in February, so I figured I had plenty of time before I had to worry about Kerchman. In first period homeroom, though, the teacher handed me a note: “Be at my office 3 o’clock sharp.” It was signed by Mr. K. By three, my stomach was in knots.
Kerchman’s “office” was across from the boiler room, deep in the bowels of the ancient brick building. To get there, you had to walk past the showers and through the boys’ locker room. Opening the stairwell door, I inhaled the steam from the shower, and above the hum and buzz of locker-room banter and casual small talk, I heard the clackety-clack-clack of aluminum cleats hitting the cement floor. An entire bank of lockers was reserved for Angelo Labrizzi, Mickey Imbrianni, and Leon Cholakis, the veterans I’d been watching for the past year. I’d seen them around school and at the State Diner jock table, but here in their domain they had the undeniable aura of a prestigious, exclusive club.
Though football would never be my sport, playing varsity baseball offered many of the same privileges. I’d already witnessed it for myself: Adults—your own parents—and your friends, actually paid money to watch you play; cheerleaders chanted your name (“Steinberg, Steinberg, he’s our man. If he can’t do it, no one can!”), and they kicked their bare legs so high you could see their red silk panties. After school, you sat at the jock table in the State Diner; you got to wear a tan leather jacket with a big blue-and-red “R” across the left breast, and your girlfriend wore your letter sweater to school. Maybe the biggest ego-trip of all was everybody watching with envy when you left sixth-period Econ to go on road trips.
I tried to push those thoughts out of my mind as I timidly knocked on Kerchman’s door. “It’s open,” he rasped in a deep, gravelly voice. The room was a ten-foot-square box, a glorified cubbyhole smelling of wintergreen, Merthiolate, and stale sweat socks. The brown cement floor was coated with dust and rotted-out orange peels, and on all four sides were makeshift two-by-four equipment bays, overflowing with old scuffed helmets, broken shoulder pads, torn jerseys and pants, muddy cleats, and deflated footballs, all randomly piled on top of one another. Mr. K stood under a bare light bulb wearing a baseball hat, white socks, and a jockstrap. He was holding his sweatpants and chewing a plug of tobacco. “You’re Steinberg, right?” He said my name, “Stein-berg,” slowly, enunciating and stretching out both syllables.
“I don’t beat around the bush, Stein-berg. You’re here for one reason and one reason only. Because Gail Sloane told me you were a reliable kid. What I’m looking for, Stein-berg, is an assistant football manager. I’m willing to take a chance on you.”
I wanted to run out of the room and find a place to cry. Assistant football managers were glorified water boys; they did all the “shitwork,” everything from being stretcher bearers to toting the equipment. He sensed my disappointment and waited a beat while I composed myself.
“Gail also tells me you’re a pitcher,” he muttered, as he slipped into his sweatpants.
Another tense beat. Finally he said, “In February, you’ll get your chance to show me what you’ve got.” To make certain there was no misunderstanding between us, he added, “Just like everyone else.”
Then he said, “So what’s it going to be, Stein-berg?”
It had all happened too fast. I couldn’t think straight. In a trembling, uncertain voice, I told him I’d think about it and let him know tomorrow.
My parents told me to make up my own mind. Anticipating his own embarrassment, my brother advised me to tell the coach to “shove it.” That night I lay awake, endlessly debating: “Let’s say I take the offer. Will it diminish me in Kerchman’s eyes? Will he write me off as a pitcher? Suppose I take this job and don t complain? Will it give me an edge at baseball tryouts?”
The next day in sixth-period Math, I convinced myself I had to take it. Later, when I told Kerchman the news, his only comment was, “Good, we’ve got that settled. Report to Krause, the head manager, right away. Get some sweats and cleats, and as soon as practice ends, clean up this room. Get everything stacked up in the right bins, mop the floor, and get this place shaped up.”
On his way out the door, he said, “And make sure we’ve got enough Merthiolate, cotton swabs, gauze and tape. First game’s in a week and when we step out on that field, I want us looking sharp and ready. We set the example, Stein-berg. If we do our job, the players will do theirs. You understand me, son?”
Before I could open my mouth, he said “Let us hope, Stein-berg, that you’re not one of those candy-ass Jewish quitters.”
I wanted so badly to tell him to take the job and shove it. But I told myself, “He’s testing you, trying to see how much you can take. Just hang in there.”
Along with doing the coach’s dirty work, I had to put up with a lot of crap from the other student managers and star players. Moose Imbrianni sent me on a fool’s errand for a bucket of steam; I searched for a rabbit’s foot for Leon Cholakis and came up with a pair of luck dice for Angelo Labrizzi. Before games I taped ankles, treated minor injuries and sprains, and inflated the footballs. At half-time I cut the lemons and oranges. During games I’d scrape mud off cleats, carry the water buckets and equipment, and help injured players off the field. After the games ended, I had to stay and clean out the locker room.
The worst jobs, though, were water boy and stretcher bearer. It was bad enough that I had to run out there in front of thousands of people during the time-outs. But it was humiliating to have to listen to the taunts and jeers of my friends. Whenever I heard “Hey water boy, I’m thirsty, bring the bucket over here!” or “Man down on the fifty, medic; get the stretcher!” I wanted to run off the field and just keep going. Away from practice, I avoided my friends. As often as I could, I took the public bus to school, and I stayed away from dances and neighborhood parties. I thought constantly about quitting, but I was already in too deep. If I quit now, I could kiss my baseball dreams goodbye.
Much as I hated those menial jobs, watching Kerchman in action still intrigued me. In his pre-game pep-talks, he invoked the names of past Far Rockaway football heroes, and gave impassioned sermons on the value of courage, character, loyalty, and team play. His practice scrimmages were grueling tests of stamina and fortitude. If players didn’t execute according to his expectations, he’d single them out for public ridicule. His favorite victim was poor Stuie Schneider.
One mid-season practice, it was getting late and everyone was whipped. On a drop-back pass play, Stuie gently brush-blocked Harold Zimmerman, the oncoming defensive tackle. Harold and Stuie were friends and neither one wanted to hurt the other, especially in a meaningless scrimmage. But as soon as Kerchman smelled it, he stopped the scrimmage and gave them the “Jews are chickenshits” routine. Then without warning, it turned into a scene right out of High Noon.
“Let’s see what you’re made of, Schneider,” he said. Without pads or a helmet, the coach took a three-point stance on the defensive line and came charging right at Stuie. As scared as he was to hit the coach, Stuie knew what the stakes were, so he knocked Kerchman right on his butt. Everyone looked down at the ground and pawed the dirt with their cleats, waiting to see what the coach would do. Just as Harold shot Stuie an “Oh shit” look, Mr. K got up and brushed himself off. Then he clapped Stuie warmly on his shoulder pads, stuck out his jaw and spat out a wad of brown tobacco juice. “That’s the right way to hit,” he said to the rest of the squad. “You make the man pay.”
It didn’t take me long to understand what Kerchman was trying to teach the Jewish players. In an early season game against St. Francis Prep, Stevie Berman, our star quarterback, was picking the St. Francis secondary apart with his passing game. When we lined up offensively, their guys tried to unnerve Stevie, calling him “dirty Jew,” and “kike,” and yelling, “The Jews killed Christ.” We’d heard it all before—at our own practices. All it did was make our linemen block harder. By the end of the first quarter, we were ahead by three touchdowns, and everyone could sense a fight coming. On the next offensive series, their nose tackle deliberately broke Stevie’s leg as he lay pinned at the bottom of a pileup. It’s an easy trick: you just grab a guy’s leg and twist. As we carried Stevie off on a stretcher, Mr. K grabbed his hand and said, “Don’t you worry pal, they’ll pay for this.”
Leon Cholakis, our 275-pound All-City tackle, lived for moments like this. All game, he’d been waiting for Coach K to turn him loose. Sure enough, on the next offensive series, Cholakis hurled himself full force on their prone quarterback and fractured the guy’s collarbone. Even on the sidelines, you could hear the bone snap. It made me nauseous, yet a piece of me felt like cheering Kerchman for protecting his players.
At the season-ending awards banquet, Kerchman surprised me again by giving me a varsity letter. When I stepped up to the podium, he shook my hand and said, “Nice job, son, see you in the spring.” It would have been a breach of decorum for a student manager to wear his letter; still, the gesture flattered me and my hopes shot up.
On February 15th, over two hundred jittery hopefuls gathered for baseball tryouts in the high school gym. Kerchman announced that he had only ten spots to fill and that four of them would be pitchers. Then he began the tryouts. Standing twenty yards away, he swatted rubber-covered baseballs at the would-be fielders. When he ripped a hard grounder at a player, the rubber ball would skip off the basketball court’s wood surface and spin crazily across the floor. If the fielder missed the ball, it would rocket into the gymnasium’s brick wall with a loud “thwack,” then ricochet back. The terrified rookies watched from the oval running track above the gym while those veterans who’d already survived this ritual stood confidently behind the coach, horsing around and heckling the newcomers.
The last to try out were the new pitchers. To make this ordeal more unsettling, Kerchman placed seven or eight pitchers in a line across the width of the basketball floor. We each had our own catcher, and one hitter to.pitch to. No nets or batting cages. Kerchman stood up on the running track, and when he blew his whistle all the pitchers threw to the hitters. It was rough enough trying to concentrate on throwing strikes to varsity hitters, but as soon as you let go with a pitch, line drives and ground balls went whizzing past you. It was a scene right out of a Keystone Kops movie.
We did this drill for three consecutive days before I was able to screen out all the distractions and dangers. By the last day, my arm ached every time I threw a pitch. I was sure I would never make the cut. Two days later, Kerchman posted the final squad list. One spot was sure to go to Mike Saperstein, a cocky, Jewish left-hander from my neighborhood. I disliked him, yet envied his arrogance. A rich kid with a chip on his shoulder, he was handsome, a good athlete, a ladies’ man, and an honors student. Saperstein kissed no one’s ass. Like Kerchman, you either came to him on his terms or Sap simply ignored you.
As I scanned the alphabetically listed names, right below “Saperstein” was “Steinberg.” At first I thought there must be another Steinberg, but when I read my first name, I was so happy I wanted to phone everyone I knew. When I went to the equipment cage, though, the student manager informed me that “batting practice pitchers don’t get uniforms.” Nor, as I learned, did they travel to road games with the rest of the team. Then came the kicker. “At home games,” he said, “your job is to stand at the home plate entrance and retrieve the foul balls that are hit out of the park.”
My gut burned; I wanted to march right into Kerchman’s office and ask him why. But I already knew what he’d say. He’d cut at least three or four pitchers who were far more talented than I was. When I calmed down, I reminded myself that at least I’d made the team. I remembered my P.A.L. days and how surprised Bluetrich was by my progress. Maybe if I worked hard enough and improved, Mr. K would give me a chance to pitch.
When I began throwing batting practice, Kerchman was observant enough to see that I could throw strikes. But I was cannon fodder, just what Mr. K and the hitters wanted. In the beginning, most of the veterans teased me because I couldn’t throw very hard. “Hey water boy, toss that watermelon up here,” Imbrianni kidded. This time the hazing didn’t bother me. Two years of summer league had taught me that big, free-swinging sluggers like Imbrianni were usually too impatient. They wanted to crank everything out of the park. When I threw off-speed sliders and curves, most of the time the big hitters overswung and popped the ball up. I got a real kick out of that. I also enjoyed it when I got to pitch a few intrasquad game innings with the varsity fielders behind me. I had a good sinker and when it was working, the best a batter could do was to hit a hard grounder, a piece of cake for a good infielder.
I wasn’t doing too badly for a flunkey, but when I looked to Mr. K for some kind of acknowledgment, he’d say things to the hitters like, “What’s with you guys? If you let a little piss-ant like Steinberg here make you look like a monkey, what’s gonna happen when you face a really good pitcher?”
Then there were days when I’d have to stay late to pitch batting practice to the scrubs. The worst times were those Saturday mornings in March when the stiff ocean breezes blew winter’s last snow flurries across the frozen diamond, and the rest of the team sat huddled in parkas while Henry Koslan, another scrubbie, and I threw batting practice. Another painful indignity was having to listen to the varsity players complain about how hard Mr. K was driving them. Those guys didn’t know how good they had it.
By mid-season I was feeling so down that I had to do a psych job on myself just to get to practice. The team was good, I rationalized, on the way to winning the league championship. Imbrianni was leading the city in hitting. Stevie Berman and Jack Gartner, both still juniors, were two of the best pitchers in New York. Even Mr. K’s protégé, Mike Saperstein, only got to pitch the last few innings of a blow-out. It was only my first year, I kept reminding myself. I just had to wait my turn. But chasing those damn foul balls while my friends in the stands ragged on me was too much like the humiliation I’d felt as a freshman football manager. By season’s end I was just putting in time. We won our last five games and cruised into the playoffs. Just when it seemed that we might go all the way, Berman had his only off game of the season, and we were eliminated in the borough finals.
The long season ended, as always, with the traditional awards banquet. The local media, school bigwigs, and our families all attended. I got a minor letter and enviously watched each member of the “big team” receive his varsity letter. It came as no surprise that Imbrianni won the John Kelly Award, the gold medal that traditionally went to the team’s inspirational leader and most valuable player. Next year it would be my turn: I’d prove to that S.O.B. I could pitch for him.
Over the summer, I grew a couple of inches and put on twenty pounds. I worked in a factory lifting heavy boxes, ran two miles a day, and worked out with weights. On those nights when we didn’t play a summer league game, I went over to Al Seidman’s to work on new pitches and strategies. Al was a friend of my dad’s and a former minor-league pitcher. Three nights a week in his backyard, he made me concentrate on pitching to specific spots. Al also showed me how to throw the curve ball at three different speeds, and in post-workout conversations he doped out strategies for out-thinking hitters. When I went to the Dodger games on Saturday, I sat behind home plate and kept detailed notes; I charted the good hitters’ tendencies, and scrutinized: the best pitcher’s mechanics.
That fall I wasn’t planning on being an assistant football manager again. On the first day of practice, though, Mr. K cornered me in the boy’s john, and told me this year I’d be the liaison between the football players and the head manager. “Look at this as a promotion, Stein-berg,” he said, while I stood at the latrine fumbling with my zipper. It later occurred to me that this was the first time Kerchman had ever sought me out for anything. There was no way I could turn him down.
That season, I had a much easier time of it. Mostly I worked with Krause, delegating my old chores to the junior managers. On game days, I stood behind the bench, keeping the stats, and after the games I wrote up the results for the newspapers. At the banquet I got another varsity letter that I couldn’t wear. The one I wanted I was determined to earn this spring. By early January, I’d already begun working on it, throwing indoors with Bob Milner, the team’s second-string catcher.
This time at tryouts I practiced with the veterans, made the cut, and got a uniform. I knew I had to wait my turn behind Berman, Gartner, and Saperstein, but I hadn’t counted on Andy Makrides and Steve Coan. Both were a year younger than me, and both were big and strong and threw hard. I sensed I was being passed over, but I pitched batting practice and took studious notes on opposing hitters. It was hard, but I kept my mouth shut and waited my turn. Just as I was ready to confront Kerchman, he gave me three innings in the last pre-season game. The man knew just how far he could go with me.
I knew if I didn’t show him something special right then, I might never get another chance. I started out tight, my concentration was off. I walked the first man, got the next on a force play, then gave up a hard-hit double, and walked another man. I remembered Al Seidman’s advice, “Keep the ball low and change your speeds,” and I got through that inning and the next two without giving up a run. Even doing less than my best convinced me I could pitch at this level. What mattered was that Kerchman believed it; and I knew I’d have to wait to find that out.
I got my answer when the league season began. We had another strong team. Berman and Gartner pitched the important games, Saperstein got an occasional start, and was first man out of the bullpen. In the blowouts, Makrides and Coan always got to finish. I never even got a call to warm-up. During the bus trips home and in the locker room, everyone partied. I felt invisible. To avoid having to deal with teammates, I’d linger in the shower and wait for the cliques to leave. Then I’d dress alone, and take the bus home by myself. The few times I hung out at the State Diner with the rest of the team, I had to watch the guys preen for the cheerleaders and hold court for the crowd. And when I read the write-ups in the newspapers about our great team, I was sure I was missing out on something special, something that might never happen again. What if we won the city championship and I never got to play?
During the games I found myself silently rooting against my own team. I sat on the bench or in the bullpen and prayed that we’d get blown out, just so he’d give me a few innings. At night I dreamed up scenarios where Mr. K would be up at bat and I’d hit him in the head with a pitch. Or, I’d be at bat and I’d rip a line drive right at his nuts. There were so many days when I was mad enough to walk into his office and confront him, but I was sure that he’d order me to turn in my uniform. If I quit, I wanted it to be on my terms. With three games left, the team clinched the Queens championship. Everyone got crazy on the bus ride home, and when we arrived back at school, the cheerleaders and a crowd of screaming boosters greeted us. I slipped away as fast as I could.
Some guys can handle sitting on the bench, wearing a uniform and boasting to envious friends that they’re on a winning team. Henry Koslan, the other batting-practice pitcher, had that kind of disposition. Henry went to practice every day, never got in a game, and never complained. The Koslans of the world are blessed: somehow they’ve learned to accept their destiny without questioning it.
Not me, though. Every time I sat and watched, I ached to participate, to contribute; I needed to be acknowledged, especially by this coach, this hard-nosed Jewish street-fighter, this man whose ethic puzzled and repulsed me. I wanted Kerchman’s respect and naively I believed that if I did what Mr. K asked of me, and didn’t complain or quit, eventually I’d earn his approval. Too absorbed in self-pity, I’d forgotten what I’d learned from Joe Bluetrich three years ago. Hard work didn’t matter, character didn’t matter, respect and approval didn’t matter. In coaches’ minds, the only thing that counts is winning games. But you couldn’t win games if you didn’t pitch. There was still enough time to earn the letter. Surely Kerchman owed me that much, didn’t he?
The next game was at home and we were playing Richmond Hill, a weak team. It was a perfect opportunity for him to make it all up to me. But in front of the home crowd, in front of my friends and family, Kerchman started Henry Koslan. I was stunned, but I figured I’d get my innings later on. Before he even got an out, Koslan gave up six runs. I kept waiting for Kerchman to tell me to head for the bullpen and warm up. Instead he brought in Saperstein, then Coan, then Makrides. How could he pass me up? What was he thinking?
I sat on the bench and brooded,. counting the put-outs until the game would end. In the last inning we were two runs down when he told me to warm up. I wanted to scream, “What took you so fucking long?” Instead, I threw listlessly, waiting for the end. But with two outs, we loaded the bases. A single would tie the game. Suddenly I saw myself out there pitching with the game on the line. That got my adrenaline going and I started throwing harder. I prayed for a banjo hit, a blooper, a dying quail, a nubber with eyes—anything to get me in there. But Hausig’s fly ball ended the game and my dream. Next thing I knew I was standing in Kerchman’s office, screaming wildly at him, tears running down my face.
He stood there in his jockstrap and undershirt and didn’t say a word. When I wound down, he shook his head and said, “Not bad. I didn’t think you had the balls for this.” Then he let me have it.
He began to lecture me about the importance of momentum to a winning team, about morale and confidence, and how the team couldn’t afford a losing streak right before the playoff. I wanted to say, “What about my goddamn morale, how about my confidence?” But in a voice I didn’t recognize, I blurted out, “You don’t even have to pitch me, coach. Put me in the outfield, let me bat just one time. I just want my letter.”
As soon as I got the words out I knew I’d said the wrong thing. “I decide who plays and who doesn’t,” he snapped. And then, as if he knew he’d gone too far, he backed off. “Your day in the sun will come.” His eyes narrowed and he spat out, “And you better be good and goddamn ready when it does.”
I walked home in a daze, thinking about how life would be without Kerchman. No more five-hour practices and sitting on the bench, no more getting home at nine o’clock too tired to even do my homework or to hang out at Irv’s candy store with the guys. Now was the perfect time to tell him to take the uniform and stick it up his ass. But I waffled. There was only one more week to get through. Not wanting to give him the satisfaction, I told myself to stick it out until the end of the season, then put it all behind me.
I went to the last two games pretending not to care what happened. But Kerchman had one trick left. He called me in to pitch the last two innings of a tune-up game. We were winning by six runs, so there was nothing at stake. Too surprised to be nervous, I packed two seasons of frustration and rage into those innings. I bore down and concentrated like it was the last game of the World Series. I threw curve balls and sinkers, I changed speeds and mixed locations. I got all six hitters in a row, easy outs. It felt so exhilarating to be out there that I wanted those two innings to last forever. When they were over, I was so high I wanted the varsity letter more than ever. Once I got it, I could walk away from the whole thing. Clean break, nothing more to prove to him—or to myself.
As it turned out we were eliminated again in the borough finals, by the same team and same pitcher that had beat us last year. For the first time since I’d known him, Kerchman didn’t yell on the trip home or make a locker-room speech. He just went into his office and shut the door. I was relieved and elated that this painful season was over; I couldn’t wait to turn in my uniform and get the hell out of there. But when I passed by his office, Mr. K was still sitting in his uniform staring at the wall. I realized that it was more than just a play-off loss to him. He was losing two All-City pitchers and two All-Queens seniors from a squad that had won three straight borough championships. Next year, he’d be starting from scratch. My first impulse was to feel sorry for him.
At the banquet, the mood was subdued. Still, it was a prestigious event. Kerchman had invited the past years’ Kelly Award winners to make the customary inspirational speeches. When I listened to them deliver the old rah-rah, I remembered how good it had felt to pitch those last few innings. Stevie Berman and Jack Gartner shared the Kelly Award, and Mike Hausig won The Long Island Press M.V.P. trophy. Next year, those guys would be gone. No matter, I’d made up my mind to pack it in.
Then Koslan received his varsity letter. That sealed it. I knew I had to be next. When Kerchman shook my hand and handed me a minor letter instead, my stomach turned over and I had to bite my lower lip hard. I don’t recall a single detail from the rest of the evening. I didn’t even wait for my dad or brother to take me home. For hours I wandered around the neighborhood, playing the same tape over and over in my head: “How could I have let him do this to me? Why didn’t I quit when I had the chance? Why didn’t I throw the letter back in his face?”
When I came out of it, I was wandering barefoot on the beach, my suit pants rolled up to my knees. I took the letter out of my jacket and scaled it like a seashell out to sea. I felt some relief when it disappeared into the black water, but that night and for three nights after that, I didn’t sleep for more than a few hours at a time.
The last week of school I avoided my teammates and friends, and cut out as soon as the three o’clock bell rang. When school ended, there was no question that I was through with Kerchman.
With the pressure off, that summer I pitched better than ever and I beat Makrides for the league championship and was a starter on an American Legion team that went all the way to the state finals. Yet every time I thought about Kerchman and the baseball banquet, the sting was still there.
The first week of the next school year I was chosen sports editor of the paper, and given my own monthly column—headshot, byline, the whole works. When the New York Times and Herald Tribune sports desks assigned me to write up the high school football games for them, I said to myself, who needed baseball? Who needed to put up with Kerchman’s horseshit?
A week after football practice started, I was working late at the paper when Kerchman phoned. “Where the goddamned hell have you been?” he rasped. “You’re my head football manager. Get your ass down here!” What chutzpah the man had! I stammered that I’d made other commitments this year and I wouldn’t be coming back; then I braced myself for the fall-out. All he said was, “I see,” and hung up. Instead of feeling vindicated, relieved, I felt guilty, like somehow I’d undermined him. It was all I could do to fight off the impulse to call him back.
Two days later, Andy Makrides called and dropped the news on me that Henry Koslan had died of Leukemia. Kerchman had known about Koslan’s condition for almost a year, but he’d promised the family he wouldn’t tell anybody. Makrides said that the baseball team would be attending a memorial service the next day and Kerchman wanted me there.
Mr. K’s backhanded gesture didn’t compensate for what he’d done to me for two years, but it did explain a few things. After the service, I told him I’d take the job, but only if I got time off to write my column. I deliberately made no mention of baseball.
The next day Mr. K held a special squad meeting. “If any of you gives Steinberg any flak,” he told the troops, “you’ll answer to me.” It was the first time he’d pronounced my name with the right emphasis. Momentarily I was flattered—he’d never said anything like that about Krause or any of the other student managers—but I decided to reserve my judgment.
As his second in command, I delegated all the menial jobs to the new assistants. During the season, I became a kind of silent confidant to this obsessed coach. When the other managers scurried around servicing the players, I stood next to him taking notes on a clipboard while he muttered complicated strategies to me. Though I felt a secret pride at being taken into his confidence, I was angry with myself for feeling so beholden to him.
In the early practice sessions, I noticed a change in Mr. K. He still threw temper tantrums when we lost games we should have won, and he still inflicted public punishments on players who screwed up, but I never heard him make one cruel or derogatory remark about Jews being quitters or “candy-asses.” With so many of his veterans graduated, Kerchman had resigned himself to rebuilding the team. Several times that season in fact, he caught me off-guard by sending me to counsel some of the more troubled players. I wondered what he had up his sleeve.
At the banquet, he gave me the customary “See you in a few months” line, as he handed me my third useless letter. This time I wasn’t going to get my hopes up. I wasn’t even sure I’d try out for baseball.
Two weeks before tryouts, I was working late on my sports column when I came across an article in the Long Island Press sports section. It quoted Kerchman as saying, “The mainstays of my pitching staff in this rebuilding season will be my two seniors, Mike Saperstein and Mike Steinberg. Juniors Andy Makrides and Steve Coan will be the number-two and -three starters.” About Mike Steinberg, he went on to say that “the right-hander will be the first man out of the bullpen, as well as an occasional starter. He has excellent control and an effective sinker, both important weapons for a relief pitcher.” I read the interview over again before it finally sunk in. Two more articles spotlighting me and Saperstein soon appeared, one of them in the school paper, written by my own sports reporter. It was just too seductive. How could I pass it up? I had to at least call his hand on this one. Didn’t I?
From minute one of the new season practices were like a day at the beach. Because I was part of Kerchman’s inner sanctum, all of the new players looked up to me, strangers in my classes—even some of my teachers—treated me with a respect I’d never experienced. When I sat at the State Diner jock table, girls fawned all over us. I loved it, yet part of me was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
In the pre-season games, Mr. K made sure I got to throw a few innings in every game. By the time we opened our league season, I couldn’t wait to get out there and show him what I could do. In the first home game, against Wilson Vocational, Kerchman brought me in to relieve Saperstein. It was the last inning of a scoreless game, and Mike had pitched beautifully. Everyone on the bench saw he was getting tired, but when Mr. K came out to the mound, Sap did something I’d never seen before. In front of the team, fans, and school officials, he screamed, “I’m throwing a shutout here! The scouts came to see me pitch, not Steinberg!” Normally, Mr. K would can a player’s ass for a lot less than that, but Sap was our best pitcher, and Kerchman needed him. Bringing me in was his only way of keeping his hot-headed ace in line.
Maybe it was because Sap’s outburst had shaken me up, or because my parents, brother, and girlfriend were watching—maybe I was tight because this was my first league game. Whatever the reasons, I froze up. I threw my warm-ups in a daze. My first pitch to Fletcher Thompson, Wilson’s best hitter, was a gut shot, a letter-high fast ball that he jacked out of the park. As I watched the ball disappear, I was sure Saperstein would come charging out to the mound and strangle me. That is, if Kerchman didn’t beat him to it.
My cheeks burned and my shirt was soaked with flop sweat. How could I have thrown him a fast ball when I didn’t even have a fast ball? Thinking about it tightened me up even more, and I walked the next two men on eight pitches. I looked to the bench, then to the bullpen for help. Nobody was throwing. Kerchman was going to leave me in to take a beating or to pitch my way through it. Just knowing that somehow settled me down, and I started concentrating on what I knew how to do best. Keeping the ball low and mixing my pitches, I got the next three outs.
In the bottom half of the inning our first baseman, Dickie Webb, hit a home run off Thompson. The game ended in a tie, called on account of darkness. I should have been relieved at getting off the hook so easily, but it ate away at me that I’d almost blown the game. The hardest part was knowing that if I didn’t get another chance to redeem myself, I’d carry my failure and shame for the rest of the season—and for who knows how much longer after that.
The next game was away, at Jamaica High. Right away, we got off to a five-run lead. But Makrides lasted only four innings before they tied it up. I looked over at Kerchman, but he’d already signaled for Coan to warm up. No surprise there; still, it felt like a razor nick. We went ahead again, but Coan couldn’t hold the lead. It’s a terrible thing to have to root against your own teammate, but I did, and when Jamaica got within a run of us, I began to feel a flicker of hope. In the Jamaica half of the fifth, with the score tied and the bases loaded, Kerchman motioned at me to warm up. Just before he put me in he said, “Show me you’ve got the guts I think you have.” Then he handed me the ball. It was all I needed to hear.
Right from the start, I held my concentration and made sure I kept the ball down and away. By forcing the batters to hit ground balls, I got my three outs without giving up a run. We scored four more times and won the game, 10-6. When it was over, I’d pitched three scoreless, hitless innings. The full impact didn’t register until the bus ride home, when for the first time, I joined in as we yelled and whistled and hooted out the window at the girls on the street. We loudly sang along as Dion and the Belmonts harmonized, “I Wonder Why” on the bus radio. Everyone on the team—except Saperstein—signed the winning game ball for me. That night as I walked home in the dark, it began to rain. I slid the baseball under my jacket pocket and clutched it to my chest. When I got to my block, I was soaking wet, crying hysterically, and singing “I Wonder Why” at the top of my voice.
Like most coaches who find a winning combination, Kerchman went with the same formula almost every game. He’d start Saperstein, Makrides or Coan, and in the fifth or sixth inning of close games, he’d come in with me. Usually I got my outs, but the one time I blew a lead I couldn’t study or sleep until I pitched again.
All spring it felt strange to read my name in the newspaper write-ups, sign autographs for neighborhood kids, and listen to the cheerleaders chant “Steinberg! Steinberg!” My new problem, of course, was Mike Saperstein. He hated sharing the limelight, especially’ with a former scrubbie. Every time I came in to relieve him, Sap took it as a personal insult. “You better not blow my game, peckerhead,” he said one time. And on another occasion, “Keep it low, jerk-off. I don’t want my E.R.A. getting screwed up because you can’t keep the fuckin’ ball in the park.” But after two years of Mr. K’s hazing, Mike couldn’t rattle me. I was pitching well and I knew it.
With a week left, our rag-tag team was in a four-way tie for first place. The whole season came down to consecutive road games against the three other leaders. In the re-match against Wilson Vocational; Saperstein threw eleven innings of one-hit ball before he walked two men and gave up a sacrifice bunt. At that point, Kerchman brought me in. We had a 1-0 lead and they had the tying run on third, the winning run on second. With everything on the line, I had to pitch to Fletcher Thompson again. From the bench, Saperstein screamed, “Walk him, asshole!” This time, Sap was right—with first base open, it was the obvious strategy—but Mr. K didn’t agree. He came out to the mound and ordered me to pitch to him.
I knew Thompson would be salivating to get another crack at me. Tease him, I told myself. Keep the ball low and away, out of his kitchen. Walk him if you have to, but don’t give him anything fat to hit. On a two and one slider that was deliberately low and outside, he reached out and uppercut a soft fly ball to left field. Ira Heid dove and caught it on his shoe tops. When the runner at third tagged and headed home, Ira bounced up and threw him out at the plate. Bang-bang play. The game was over; we were still alive. When I got to the bench, Saperstein was livid, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t blame him. He’d pitched an almost perfect game for twelve innings; I just threw just four pitches and got the game ball—and the next day’s headline.
Against Andrew Jackson High, Kerchman put me in again in the last inning of a 5-4 game. Coan was pitching with a one-run lead and they had the bases loaded and no outs. At bat was Otto Agostinelli, a six-four free-swinger who led the league in home runs and strikeouts. My favorite kind of hitter. For reasons I’ll never understand, Kerchman waited until Coan went all the way down to 3-0 on Agostinelli before he yanked him and brought me in. It was an impossible situation.
“You’ve got a run to give, but that’s all.” He spat a plug of tobacco juice and slapped the ball into my glove. “Get me out of this with a tie. I just want one more at-bat.”
I was sure that with a 3-0 count, even Otto would be under orders to take the first two pitches. So I threw him two strikes, both gut shots with nothing on them. I saw him grimace on the second one. He wanted that pitch back. With the count full, I had a chance. He’d seen my first two pitches and he’d be looking for another cripple right down the middle. On the 3-2 pitch, I gambled and jammed him with a sinker that should have been ball four. He swung, thank God, and tapped a weak ground ball to me. Easy force-play at home plate. One gone.
A kind of seesaw psych game goes on between a pitcher and opposing hitters. At first you’ve got to prove yourself to them; they’re all over you, yelling stuff like “Come on cream puff, show me what you got!” But once you get that first out, the pressure shifts, and the hitters start to tighten up. And that’s just what happened. The last two outs were almost too easy. A soft line drive to second base, a grounder to third, and that was the game.
On the bus trip home I wanted to sink back in my seat and enjoy what I had just accomplished, but I didn’t have that luxury. We still had to beat Van Buren. Their pitcher, Joe Sabbaritto, was the top prospect in the city, and their three and four.hitters, Bill McNab and Al Schumacher, were leading the borough in hitting.
For the first three innings of the Van Buren game, Sabbaritto was throwing over ninety miles an hour. But he couldn’t find the plate, and when he did, his catcher couldn’t hold onto the ball. Kerchman knew that when this guy got his rhythm back, we’d never hit the ball in fair territory again. So we scratched out five runs on walks, passed balls, bunts, errors, and stolen bases. In the third inning, Sabbaritto found the groove and then he shut us down, striking out eight of the next nine hitters. He was throwing so hard his fast ball looked like an aspirin tablet as it buzzed past.
Meanwhile, Van Buren kept pecking away at the lead, and when I relieved Makrides in the sixth inning we were ahead 5-4. With two out and two men on, McNab hit a hard single to tie the score. I knew we were in trouble.
From the sixth inning on, there was a strange sense of inevitability about the game. We all felt it. There was no chatter on the bench. Even Mr. K was subdued, almost as if he, too, was hypnotized by what Sabbaritto was doing out there. We were in a tie game with the league title on the line, yet it felt like our team was ten runs down. It was weird going out there every inning and knowing that unless Sabbaritto had another sudden wild streak, we wouldn’t score again. It didn’t look like that was going to happen, so I decided to take it one batter at a time. I created my own private little game-within-a-game just to see how long I could make the real game last.
Mainly on adrenaline and fear, I got through six more scoreless innings. But in the bottom of the thirteenth McNab got to third on a misplayed fly ball, and on a 2-2 count, Schumacher punched a weak-ass sinker past the shortstop for the winning hit. For the last six innings I’d known it had to end this way—we all did. On the bus ride home no one said a word. One minute I was empty and sad because I’d lost the season’s biggest game; the next minute I was elated because I’d pitched the seven best innings of my life.
A few days later I realized that we’d gone way beyond even Kerchman’s expectations. He knew it too. So much so that at the banquet, he gave everyone a varsity letter. While I was chewing on that injustice, Mr. K began to recite the customary platitudes before giving out the Kelly Award. I’d heard the speech so many times that I tuned most of it out. Besides, Louie Stroller, the student manager, had leaked it to several of us that the Kelly already had Saperstein’s name engraved on it.
Mike was a jerk, but he’d had a great season. We all knew he deserved the award. I looked over at him and I could read his mind: with one hand he was slipping the medal around some pretty cheerleader’s neck; with his free hand he was reaching down her blouse to cop a feel. So when Kerchman announced my name and said to that roomful of people, “Mike Steinberg is a kid who’s made the most out of a little bit of talent, a big heart, and a whole lot of guts,” I was too stunned to move. Before I could even stand up, Sap yelled, “I don’t fucking believe this!” and stormed out of the restaurant, kicking over tables and chairs as he went. I hated Sap for upstaging me again, but I admired his chutzpah. A year earlier in that same room, I’d wanted to stand up and tell Kerchman to stick it. Instead I let him sweettalk me into playing. And now this.
I can’t recall how I got to the dais, but I remember standing next to him—my thoughts scrambled, my throat so dry I couldn’t swallow. Kerchman had his arm draped around my shoulder, flashbulbs were popping all around me, and everyone was standing and applauding. I squinted through tears, frantically searching the crowd for a glimpse of my dad and brother.
Last year while rummaging through an old trunk, I found the Kelly Award and a memoir my brother had written about his own high school baseball days. In his locker room speeches, Alan wrote, Mr. K talked about this little Jewish relief pitcher whose uniform didn’t fit and who didn’t have a whole lot of talent. But the boy, he said, always seemed to be at his best under extreme pressure. In fact he’d bring this kid into impossible situations—tie game, bases loaded no outs, that kind of thing—and he’d say to him, “Son, I want you to get me two ground balls and a pop fly.” And that pitcher, my brother Mike, would somehow figure out a way to get the other team to hit two ground balls and a pop fly.
As I scanned the passage my first response was: “A typical Kerchman speech; the old psych job for the benefit of the rookies.” But I was also moved by what I’d read. Some part of me knew that in his own perverse way Mr. K had given me what I had been asking for all along: a nod of acceptance from one kind of Jew to another.