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
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.
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.
Interview with Frances Lefkowitz
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.