Frances Lefkowitz

Frances Lefkowitz is the author of To Have Not, named one of five “Best Memoirs of 2010″ by SheKnows.com. She has been nom­i­nat­ed for twice for the Pushcart Prize, once forBest American Essays, and once for the James Beard Award for Food Writing, among oth­er near-awards. She is at home here.

Author pho­to by Richard Cohen

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The Man with the Bottle and the Nerve

Oh, the police, they can be mys­ti­cal, pro­tect­ing con­stant­ly some unread book of infrac­tions with sec­tions and sub-sec­tions scorched into law. How do they remem­ber all that is wrong to do, from loi­ter­ing to reek­ing? And why is it that the­se two glib sins are only ille­gal when done on the street cor­ner but not in the pri­va­cy of one’s own home, if one had a home to call one’s own? The cop arrives, the gath­ered wrig­gle away like rat­tlesnakes. His jack­et is a plas­tic form of leather, shiny as soot. Some hors­es have coats that same col­or and sheen, but when you look closer, their black is brown, auburn, even cin­na­mon. In nature no col­or is exact­ly what it seems, and so much depends on the light, which is to say the angle of the sun, moon, and earth, that tri­an­gle that keeps us aloft and keeps us going and keeps us mov­ing even when we think we are stand­ing still. But on the cor­ner, if a globe can be said to have a cor­ner, the col­ors are stark and immutable: soot, neon, bleached. One man does not scat­ter with the oth­ers. He tips his bot­tle, sheathed mod­est­ly in a bag, into his mouth. He knows with­out read­ing it, with­out read­ing any­thing at all, that this is an infrac­tion in that gov­ern­ing book. But he also knows that this drain­ing of the bot­tle out­side, with oth­ers, is part of what makes him human. To loosen your col­lar, spank your nor­mal drift good­bye: so much worse to do the­se inside and alone. The cop stands frozen, one hand on his stick, the oth­er on the rings dan­gling from his belt, keep­ing them silent, main­tain­ing the church of the moment even as cars and radios and yelling paint the air around him. The skin on the cop is caramel; on the man with the bot­tle and the nerve, it is dark­er, as if water­logged by night. Despite the noise, the loud­est is breath. One of the­se men knows the his­to­ry of his species, even if that knowl­edge is encased in a cell bob­bing in his blood­stream. The oth­er man is mid­way between remem­ber­ing and for­get­ting and doesn’t know which way to go. There were oth­er laws once, he knows sud­den­ly but cer­tain­ly.

 

Some Kind of Welfare

I don’t know if it was that her moth­er didn’t hug her or that her father was a junkie, but that girl—even at 25, she is a girl, with Keds and obstinance—can only wran­gle, not cod­dle, plants. This after­noon from my win­dow, I saw her prun­ing a tree by bend­ing and twist­ing its limbs till they shat­tered, leav­ing the tree in shock, but leav­ing her with a bat­tle won, exhil­a­rat­ed, ready to fix more things. My chin on the pais­ley table­cloth, my sand­wich pushed aside, I watched like you’d watch a car wreck or a real­i­ty TV show, form­ing com­ments that may nev­er be stat­ed. The land­lord looked at her as if she were his own daugh­ter and hired her for odd jobs she is not suit­ed for. The first thing she did was trim the wil­low with a chain saw, hold­ing the vibrat­ing knife in one arm, like a rifle, like an arrow aim­ing toward Orion. The bright green frills came pour­ing down around her. She was an angel in a ver­dant snow storm, and she was obliv­i­ous to how lucky she was. Then she straight­ened up and stomped her black boots, glu­ing her demand­ing gaze on the next vic­tim: the let­tuce, which she clear cut, so none will come again; the gar­lic, which she tore up from the soil too young, but kept tear­ing up nonethe­less. Finally I had to inter­vene. Pick just a few leaves at a time, I told her, in a voice for a Kindergartner, then again in a voice for a high school­er, and final­ly in a voice salt­ed for a parolee. She looked at me as if I wore den­tures, her big-boned body and fair, fair skin, with pierc­ings, squar­ing up to me. I had heard this about her, that she didn’t take direc­tion or expla­na­tion, despite, or because of the fact that she had spent her whole life on some kind of wel­fare. But the memo did not com­pute. I thought I had a trib­al con­nec­tion, could insin­u­ate myself in with good inten­tions. But she was a refrig­er­a­tor, a wall, all solemn. The sun was going down, the wind was com­ing up, she was dec­i­mat­ing the let­tuces, the red ones and the green ones, the spot­ted, the frilly, the ones called deer tongue, the ones called oak. I had to choose between two weak inno­cents, and I guess I chose the let­tuce. On the ranch next door, five foals are learn­ing how to be hors­es, their bul­bous knees not yet able to bend them down to the grass which they don’t know how to chew any­way. Any chance they get they yearn their already mus­cu­lar necks under their moth­ers, search­ing for milk, the easy, best thing. The girl passed her vacant glance over there but did not stop to pon­der or delight. She lacked a fun­da­men­tal curios­i­ty. I could not imag­ine her in scuba gear, fol­low­ing fish sim­ply to see where they would lead. And that is why I will not show her the nest in the jas­mine bush out­side my bed­room win­dow, even though it might be the thing that cures her. She wields tools, clip­pers, she wrestles with the bush­es, tears and chops and pulls and snaps, does every­thing but work with, makes every motion but with the grain. But she has over­looked the nest. Yesterday and the day before it held tiny blue-spot­ted eggs. Today the eggs are gone, replaced by gray squirm­ing fuzz. A cat, a hawk, a rat snake or an obliv­i­ous wall of a girl would kill to know about this stash. But I hold my tongue, cross my fin­gers.

 

Sharks

When you are pad­dling out to a wave on this north­ern coast, your hair will start out dry then end up wet, and even­tu­al­ly cause you to shiv­er, but you don’t care because for about eight sec­onds every four­teen min­utes you are glid­ing down hills of water. Your fin­ger­nails, along with every oth­er part of you except the face, will be cov­ered in black insu­la­tion, weigh­ing you down, mak­ing you look like a seal. Sharks eat seals. Consequently, surfers make all sorts of deals to avoid being mis­tak­en for a seals. One guy I know does not eat fish in the hopes that fish will rec­i­p­ro­cate. Some Southern Californians will not surf Northern, where the Great White cuts through the waters with that lone tri­an­gle fraz­zling every­thing that spots it. My own strat­e­gy is to nev­er be the surfer fur­thest out, though I have only yel­low con­fi­dence that sharks see close and far with the same lamp that I do. It may have some­thing to do with the fact that I grew up in earth­quake coun­try, but I do not fear sharks. My fears are about pianos not get­ting played and oak trees not get­ting climbed despite low­er­ing their stur­dy gnarled shoul­ders close to the gold grass. My fears are actu­al­ly regrets, for the things I did not do, the things I will not do. The sole loon in the drain­ing tide of the Bay of Fundy that I did not lis­ten to long enough, that I will not see or hear as it twirls and dives and hoots again tomor­row or may­be is even doing right now. I take that back. I lis­tened plen­ty to that loon. What I did not do was sit in the cab of a truck pop­ping ben­nies and stop­ping for pie on my way across the coun­try. It is no treat to have desire and imag­i­na­tion unless you also have means. I was a Brownie for about five min­utes, the only uni­form I was ever issued. Our meet­ings involved no glid­ing, so I went AWOL. This was before pim­ples, but I was already striv­ing for peaks and val­leys, avoid­ing buns in the oven, try­ing to escape regret. I did not want to smell like fear, so I cov­ered it up with pep­per­mint, with rose­mary, with euca­lyp­tus: scents with the pow­er to erad­i­cate timid­i­ty.

 

She Forgot the Place

I make gyp­sy waf­fles for break­fast, ragged and lacy, but my son has no sense of humor. He blinks,  hop­ing every­thing will be undone when his eyes reopen: we won’t be in Mexico, his moth­er won’t be gone, motels won’t be a part of his one and only child­hood. He refus­es to eat unless it is pie. So I have learned to cut white short­en­ing into white flour, criss-cross­ing two knives till the mix­ture resem­bles peb­bles. The heat here ham­pers me, threat­ens to melt those peb­bles into pools. But on this one plea­sure, my son is not iron. I fill it with sausage and corn, with green chiles and white cheese, with man­go and pepi­tas. As long as it is tucked neat­ly into a crust, that smell of fat beg­ging from the oven, the fin­ger-pinched edges stitch­ing it togeth­er, he will eat it. He won’t open his eyes for a long time, but he will eat it.

His moth­er, of course, made pie. With blue­ber­ries, peach­es. Marina bought the crusts frozen and the fruit in cans. “That’s why they say ‘easy as pie,’” she’d say, toss­ing her charred hair out of her eyes, lick­ing pur­ple syrup from the jagged met­al edge. My pie is bet­ter than hers, but my son will nev­er know it. He will nev­er know the extent of my guilt either. To fall in love with a crazy beau­ti­ful wom­an is the pride of every man; I was only doing my duty with her. But to make a baby: that is hubris. And then to do it twice, as if the sec­ond one would cement the log­ic of the first; that is the body swip­ing at hope.

When Marina left the first time, she took our daugh­ter with her. Nine days lat­er, she was drum­ming at the door, alone. They had been sleep­ing in the van. Temperature is so basic, and she’d lived her whole life in New England. But still she got it wrong. She for­got the mon­th, which was February. Or she for­got the place, which was Massachusetts. Or she for­got the physics and chem­istry she had nev­er learned. “Babies are so warm,” she said, her eyes rust­ing with tears. She looked so allur­ing in her con­fu­sion that I pulled her into my chest, swamped her with my arms. That night we made anoth­er, to make up for the loss. The blame goes on me, for fol­low­ing that trail of hubris, car­ry­ing no lantern, run­ning in the dark, eyes closed.

She parked her­self with us for as long as she could stand it, then hopped a train in the form of anoth­er city with anoth­er man who could still see sparkle where I saw ash. Once I came home to find her propped up in the coat he’d bought her—fake fur, almost a joke—outside our apart­ment door. Her gaze was hun­gry for her child, any child of hers. But I would not invite her in and cook her up a pan of eggs; I would not per­mit her charm with­in the vicin­i­ty of my son, who had turned five and was already ide­al­iz­ing pie. My duty was to him, now. So we went warm, where we could sleep in the van with­out wor­ries, no mat­ter the mon­th. I slathered him in bug spray and any oth­er form of pro­tec­tion I could find: sun block, vit­a­mins, seat belts. We saun­tered in and out of lob­bies with a steady pace, a mod­el of  legit­i­ma­cy, attract­ing no atten­tion. Just hold on till we cross the bor­der, I plead­ed. Instead of squirm­ing, my son went slug, mak­ing me car­ry him. He lis­tened bet­ter when I whis­pered, so I kept my voice low all the way south, describ­ing the new life wait­ing for us, a life I had nev­er seen: mon­keys, cac­tus, sand. I offered bribes and told lies, also called sto­ries, to keep him com­pla­cent. Among oth­er things, I  promised to buy him a canoe so he could mean­der down a stream with a fish­ing pole like the bad­ger in one of his pic­ture books. And I intend to keep my promise, as soon as the physics and chem­istry of water fig­ure out how not to sap the breath or low­er the tem­per­a­ture or car­ry some­one away.

 

Inhaling the Future

Don’t wipe the path clear. See how it winds? It does that on pur­pose. Better said: it does that in reac­tion. Things do indeed hap­pen for a rea­son, but noth­ing mys­ti­cal. One occur­rence has an effect, trig­gers anoth­er. Options exist, but often we don’t see them till we’re already on the train head­ing down a track we thought was the only one. The chair scrapes away from the table, the man goes to join the wom­an in the gar­den where she is plant­i­ng gar­lic. He wants to see her in the dirt with that fierce seren­i­ty sur­round­ing her; he wants to touch her cloud, know her secret, per­haps join her, though he has nev­er sug­gest­ed it in all their years. On his way out the door, his hip hits the table where they keep mail, keys, purse, knock­ing over a stack of unpaid bills. That he could ignore, but then the lamp comes crash­ing down frac­tur­ing not only itself but all of the opti­mism he’d con­jured up just a min­ute ear­lier. Because he can­not sob, he mut­ters. But he does not clean up his mess, he con­tin­ues onward.

Outside, past the straw­ber­ries, she hears a hint of the frac­ture, won­ders if she should put on her mask, add syrup, bor­row moth­er­ing once again to sop up the spill. That is what she would do in ordi­nary times. But today, sud­den­ly, they are almost old and she has no patience for the cine­plex­es they have con­jured over the years to dis­guise them­selves from each oth­er, thus hid­ing them­selves from fire as well as ice. If they had had chil­dren, they would have two decades on the couch togeth­er, releas­ing fears and desires, dis­cussing shots, schools, gro­ceries, often while yawn­ing some­times while argu­ing. She sits back down on her knees. She digs a hole. She cracks a clove from a head, buries it, sniffs the juice on her fin­gers, a smell that repels vam­pires, a smell that will not wash out for days, despite lemon, soap, vine­gar.

Then the phys­i­cal world inter­ve­nes once again. The mod­est porch trips him up in the lazi­est way pos­si­ble: a miss­ing nail has allowed the tip of a gray­ing board to rise up. This one he makes sure she hears, bor­row­ing a vocab­u­lary, blast­ing it to all paths in the vicin­i­ty, includ­ing, espe­cial­ly the one lead­ing to the wom­an in the gar­lic patch who always comes to his res­cue but always arrives with­hold­ing.

Again she starts to rise, then sits back in the dirt. She will force the issue. She will not act the bird, nei­ther the spar­row nor the hawk nor the crow. If she does not bend to the world, will it bend to her? She has nev­er want­ed any­thing fan­cy, but this instant, a lit­tle shrimp and cham­pag­ne in front of an oval pool the col­or of the Mediterranean sounds not so fatu­ous after all. She puts the trow­el down and crawls from the gar­lic to the straw­ber­ries. It is too ear­ly in the year for fruit, even for buds, but the sun is warm, and she  snug­gles up to the fronds, inhal­ing their future.

That is where he finds her, three brisk mishaps lat­er: her body a rep­tile in the slen­der path between berries that have not yet arrived, hat off, hands down her pants, off on anoth­er cloud of her own. His first instinct is to watch, then the deep­er one, to join, pulls him past all his pains. But he can­not fit in the slen­der trough between plants; he would smash their leaves, upend their roots. He strug­gles, between instincts, between prac­ti­cal­i­ties, between habits. He thinks of the mess­es he has left in his wake, papers on the floor, shards of bro­ken lamp, freck­les of blood, a whole board pried up in frus­tra­tion, leav­ing a gap big enough to trap a fawn. All because his sperm had nowhere to go?  He punch­es that old myth good­bye. Sometimes myth means ancient sto­ry res­o­nant with truth, and some­times it means lie. True or not, this one has been slow to give up its grip. He crush­es the straw­ber­ry leaves, releas­es their roots. He licks her gar­lic fin­gers. He for­gives them­selves. He will not hire out. She will let him in. They are past chil­dren but they are not past the urge for them and all the tying togeth­er they trig­ger.

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Interview with Frances Lefkowitz

Meg Pograss
You’ve writ­ten MOSTLY non-fic­tion and mem­oir. How does it feel to be writ­ing fic­tion now?

I start­ed out writ­ing short sto­ries, then got way­laid into mak­ing a liv­ing writ­ing prac­ti­cal arti­cles for com­mer­cial mag­a­zi­nes, and writ­ing per­son­al essays that even­tu­al­ly became my mem­oir, To Have Not. So return­ing to fic­tion feels like com­ing home. It feels like home­com­ing and adven­tur­ing at the same time, because it is so free­ing to be able to make things up rather than stick to the facts.

What tricks do you have up your sleeve for when you encoun­ter writer’s block?

My writ­ing blocks have a lot to do with con­fi­dence, with how con­vinced I am that what I’m writ­ing mat­ters. Sometimes the way to muster up that con­vic­tion is to go do some­thing real­ly phys­i­cal and con­crete, like tak­ing a long hard bike ride; or some­thing that inar­guably serves a pur­pose, like weed­ing the veg­etable gar­den. These activ­i­ties make me feel mighty, use­ful, and con­nect­ed, and they help mit­i­gate that “why am I even doing this?” pan­ic that some­times comes when I enter the open, airy world of writ­ing and the imag­i­na­tion.

Do you have/did you ever have/ a men­tor? Do you believe hav­ing mentor(s) in writ­ing and in life is impor­tant?

Never have had a men­tor, though I imag­ine it would be/would have been incred­i­bly help­ful to have some­one cham­pi­on me and advise me and push and cajole and con­nect and intro­duce me and buy me nice pens and give me dead­li­nes and tell me that what I’m writ­ing mat­ters. That’s what men­tors do, right?  I would be like Superwoman if I had a men­tor; I would have pub­lished a dozen books by now, may­be even invent­ed a few new gen­res of writ­ing. Instead, I spent a lot of time try­ing to cham­pi­on, push, and advise myself.

How does your envi­ron­ment effect your moods/your desire to write?

Weather plays a role. Rainy makes me want to be in bed; sun­ny wind­less days make me want to be out­side. My best fore­cast for writ­ing is sun­ny but cool, mixed clouds, temps between 45 and 65.

How does cre­at­ing fic­tion (exper­i­men­tal and non-lin­ear writ­ing) allow us to talk about our deep­est hopes, fears, dream, wants … if it does? As writ­ers, can we talk about emo­tions direct­ly?  Describe this process, if you will.

Writing exper­i­men­tal, non-lin­ear or what­ev­er-you-want-to-call-it fic­tion can make both the writer and the read­er short-cut the ratio­nal mind and plug direct­ly into images, thoughts, and emo­tions that we may not under­stand but that make their own kind of sense if you let them come out and assem­ble them­selves. The process hinges on trust­ing the body of knowl­edge, expe­ri­ences, obser­va­tions, ques­tions, fears, desires, regrets that you have stored in you, and fol­low­ing the lead of what­ev­er image or idea comes to mind, know­ing that it’s come for a rea­son. I think this is the process of mak­ing any kind of fic­tion, any kind of lit­er­a­ture or art. In the edit­ing stage, I put a dif­fer­ent hat on, try to under­stand what I’ve writ­ten, and then guide the sto­ry toward its goal in a more con­scious way.

Talk about the process of free writ­ing to a list of prompt words.

Freewriting from a list of word prompts has been the way back to writ­ing fic­tion for me. The awe­some, gen­er­ous, tal­ent­ed writer who goes by the alias Megz Pokrass on Facebook posts words, and I use them to cre­ate a sto­ry. It makes writ­ing more like a game than like work, and it invites a loose, play­ful atti­tude toward lan­guage and sto­ry.

What themes tend to emerge in your fic­tion?  Why do you feel they do, if they … tend to re-emerge?

Apparently I am fas­ci­nat­ed with how things start­ed and evolved, with the ori­gins and evo­lu­tion of the species, human cul­ture, the earth and uni­verse, plants and ani­mals, seas and moun­tains. The thing is, I was an anthro­pol­o­gy major in col­lege and I worked in geol­o­gy and arche­ol­o­gy labs for a few years after grad­u­a­tion. And here I am, twen­ty-some­thing years lat­er, final­ly using my col­lege edu­ca­tion for some­thing again. I find it reas­sur­ing that I’m still inter­est­ed in the same gen­er­al ques­tions, about how and why we got here and how things came to be. My recent sto­ries include mus­ings about hunter-gath­er­ers, the ancient human need for intox­i­ca­tion, the aver­sion of babies to bit­ter­ness. But in my fic­tion, as opposed to my lab and field work, I get to incor­po­rate poet­ry, metaphor, hyper­bole, and mag­ic into the facts.