Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Taxing Day

My mother prepared our income taxes--and it was not ever a day I wanted to be in the house.  She would assemble all our records, disappear into the study, close the door, and our dad would remind my brothers and me that we had to be quiet--all day.  Totally quiet.  To help out, he would sometimes pile us in the car and drive us over to the A&W Root Beer drive-in in Ravenna.  Then it was back to the Cave of Silence.

When Mother emerged for meals that day, it was not wise to speak much with her.  Doing so sometimes invited edged words to emerge from her mouth, words that sliced, diced, and generally drew blood.  It was not funny, Tax Day, not in our house.

In my own adulthood I've never found it too amusing, either.  Before I married, I just usually did the short form.  Mailed it in.  Paid the piper.

Later, married, I watched helplessly as our taxes grew more complicated--grad school, child, home ownership.  I found myself behaving like my mother.  Joyce and little Steve would disappear while I snapped, snarled, and roared at piles of paper on the dining room table.  I hope they enjoyed their A&W.

The past, oh, twenty years or so I've been going to an accountant.  But even that is a problem.  I have to assemble everything, get it chronological, put it in categories.  Just this week--Tuesday--I was with him for two hours while we went through all my printouts and receipts. This occurring, of course, after a chunk of hours I'd already spent sorting and snarling. I emerged from our meeting, as usual, feeling somewhat diminished as a human being.

I also emerged--as I do every year--bedazzled by the complexity of our tax code.  When will we find the political courage to simplify the dumb thing?

Not soon, I would guess.  And so more folks like my mother and me and countless others will be sequestering (bad word) themselves for the day, growling, biting, barking, writing big checks.

I don't know yet if we're going to get a refund or not.  I was afraid to ask.  And since he didn't tell me--or even hint--I've got a pretty good idea what he's going to say when that phone eventually rings.  I'm going to hear the words, "Bring your checkbook."

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 22

The game went on for a little while, with questions about the sixth largest lake in the world, the sixth month of the year (and why does it have the name “June”?), the sixth longest river in the world, a question I decided to answer because I was just plain sick of playing dumb: the Yellow River of China.  But by that time, most of the others were bored and ready for cake anyhow.  And really ready to get out of there and go home.
So Aunt Claire took us to the dining room.  Where everybody ate cake and ice cream and didn’t say much.  And then Jane called her mom to come get them all, and Blue Boyle, without a word, just got up and left, walked out of the house, down the driveway, and off to wherever he lived.
And here’s the oddest thing.  The minute he stepped outside, rain whooshed in as if it had just been waiting for him.  This was no gentle shower.  It was a hard downpour, a real southern Ohio thunderstorm.  Lightning split and colored the clouds; thunder rattled the windows.  Father called out to Blue Boyle to come back and wait inside.
He just kept walking, his same brisk pace, off into the dark, no hint at all in his body language that he was in a rainstorm.  He was out of sight by the time the hailstones began rattling on the roof.  But I didn’t imagine he paid much attention to them, either, as they bounced off his bare head.

A few minutes later, the storm softened, and Jane’s mother arrived.  Jane and Elena and Matilda chirped their thanks and, flocked under an umbrella, fluttered off to the car.  Leaving Harriet, Aunt Claire, Father, and me to clean up.  Father was happy, I think.  And that was the most important thing for me.  I wanted him to really believe that it had been a really good party.
But I also hoped he’d never to do it again.
Harriet stayed until most of the work was done.  Aunt Claire stayed until it was all done.   And then they both came into the living room where I was reading.  I looked up and saw they both had presents in their hands.
“We hope you had fun today,” said Father.
“Oh, thanks, Father.  It was really fun,” I lied.
“Your little friends seemed nice,” he said.  Then paused and added, “And Blue Boyle?  He’s a big one for his age.”
“He’s really growing fast,” I said.
“Too bad about the storm—and that Boyle boy in the middle of it,” said Aunt Claire.  I looked at her.  She was smiling.
“He didn’t seem to mind,” I said.
“No, and I didn’t either,” said Aunt Claire.  She was smiling.  As if she knew something.
“We have a couple of little things for you, said Father.  They both put their gifts on the table near me.  Their shapes gave them away.  Books.  But that was fine with me—more than fine; it was perfect.
I unwrapped Aunt Claire’s first.  It was an old book by a woman named Frances Trollope.  Domestic Manners of the Americans.  I looked quizzically at Aunt Claire. 
“It’s the story of a woman,” she said, “an English woman who came to America in the 1820s and then lived in Cincinnati for a while.  It’s a book about her impressions of Americans—and life on the Ohio River.”  She looked at me.  “And she was friends with Mary Shelley.”  I looked back at Aunt Claire’s unusual smile.
“Now open this one,” said Father, who handed me the other book.  I unwrapped it.  Sketches and Stories of the Lake Erie Islands, by Lydia J. Ryall.  I flipped through the old book, saw that it was published in 1913.  “And you know why I gave you that book?” Father questioned.
Of course I did.  As you’ll see a little later…

In a few minutes, Aunt Claire left for home.  Father went off to work a bit in his study.  And I went to the living room, found Frankenstein, and, just for curiosity’s sake, looked at Chapter 6.  It begins with a letter Victor receives from his father.  It contains terrible news.  His little brother, William, has been murdered.  And the murderer, of course, was the creature that Victor created.  But the authorities, not knowing of the monster’s existence, have charged Justine, an innocent family servant, with the crime.
Victor returns home for his brother’s funeral.  He’s been in Germany, studying—and creating the creature that has done this horrible thing.  And as Victor enters his family home, he realizes: Six years had elapsed since he had last been home.
Six years.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Some months ago I did a series of posts here about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that has held me since I first sat in my fourth-grade classroom in 1953 and listened to my wonderful teacher, Mrs. Rockwell--her first name was Stella ... perfect--read the novel aloud to us after recess (if we were "good").  I mentioned earlier that I subsequently learned that Mrs. Rockwell had been ... judicious about her reading, leaving out the shooting of Buck Grangerford, the Royal Nonesuch, and other upsetting or naughty moments.

In the summer of 1960, when I was about to begin my junior year in high school, a new film version of the novel appeared--The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, directed by Michael Curtiz, who'd directed Casablanca and Mildred Pierce and White Christmas and The Will Rogers Story and King Creole and...  He had quite a career.

But his Huck Finn film is a mess.  I recently watched it (via Netflix) for the first time since 1960 (when it appeared at the Hiram College Cinema one Sunday night), and all resemblances to Twain's novel are purely accidental.

The casting was a series of mistakes.  Little Eddie Hodges played Huck as if he were a little bouncy suburbanite in need of some Ritalin.  Poor Archie Moore, a boxing champion (near retirement), played Jim.  It must have grated him, saying those inane lines.  I hope they paid him a lot.

The King was Tony Randall, well-known comic actor at the time, who conveyed none of the menace the part demanded but who--as per the script--played kissy-face with Mary Jane Wilkes and was clearly pushing for even more.  (A horny King?  There's a first.)  I was looking forward to seeing silent-film star Buster Keaton, 65 at the time, who had a minor role as a lion-tamer.  (I know ... where's that in the novel?)  But Keaton didn't get to do much--except move far more gracefully than anyone else in the frame, including the lion, which appeared to be either heavily sedated--Ritalin?--or bored.

How about a list of things I found surprising/annoying?

  • Pap (the nasty Neville Brand plays him) does not chase Huck around with a knife--though he does take him off to the cabin.
  • Tom Sawyer is not in the film at all.
  • The Grangerford-Shepherdson feud--appearing out of order--lasts about four minutes.  No Emmeline, though.  No Buck.
  • Huck and Jim join the circus.  They try to pass Jim off as an African king.  The rubes buy it--until the other King blows their cover.
  • Huck wants to work on a riverboat.  At the end of the film he does not "light out for the territory" but for a boat--while Jim is left "free" near Cairo, Illinois.  (Fugitive Slave Act anyone?)
  • No Royal Nonesuch.  No tarring and feathering of the King and Duke.
  • No moment of moral crisis when Huck must decide if he's going to turn in runaway Jim.
  • Huck does help Jim escape--but not from the Phelpses' farm--and not in the cruel way Tom Sawyer arranges it in the book.
  • No shooting of the drunk, Old Boggs, by Col. Sherburn.
  • Events are out of order.
  • No cemetery coffin-opening in the swindling of the Wilkeses.  Huck is caught hiding the money in the house.
  • I could go on, but I'm getting depressed.
Every now and then you read some horror story about some sicko who slashes a painting in an art gallery (Link)--or takes a hammer to a sculpture (Link).  I read in this second link that Laszlo Toth, who attacked Michelangelo's Pietà in 1972, got a couple of years in a mental institution.  Other art-defilers have gone to prison.

But not filmmakers.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 21

The truck didn’t wait another second.  Out it backed and away it roared.  And Blue Boyle stood there in the driveway staring at us.  While we stared at him.  I almost laughed out loud.  He was wearing a suit—a dress-up suit with white shirt and tie. He looked large and uncomfortable in the clothes which seemed a size or two too small for him.
 His hair was slicked back with some kind of mousse.  His black dress shoes looked shiny.  He held his two hands before him—with a wrapped gift, something no one was supposed to bring.  It had said not to, right on the invitation.  Just as it had said that he should dress casual.  And be there at twelve.
But Blue Boyle had never been good about following directions, not in the time I’d known him.  And he was still standing there, silent.  And we were all still staring at him, silent.
Aunt Claire to the rescue!
She hurried over to him, jabbering away the way she can do, fussing and fidgeting.  She took his gift from him and took his arm and escorted him over to Father.  Not one of us had spoken.  Aunt Claire said, “Mr. Stone, this is Blue Boyle.”
“Nice to meet you, Blue,” said Father.
Blue Boyle mumbled something.  I’m not sure it involved real words.
And then Aunt Claire brought him over to the picnic table, where—remember?—there was no seat but on my side.  “Girls,” said Aunt Claire, “here’s your friend Blue.”
Who sat.  Grabbed a fistful of chips.  And spoke: “When’s the meat ready?”

Blue Boyle did not say another word the entire meal.  And what a meal he ate.  Hamburgers, hotdogs—everything in sight.  He never looked up, except to get more food.  And just ate and ate and ate and ate until there was just about nothing left.  He shocked me when he picked up the jar of mustard, inserted his plastic spoon, and ate the rest of the contents.  It seemed to me that he had eaten so much that he actually grown during the meal.
Blue Boyle wasn’t the only one who didn’t talk.  Just about all of the conversation, the little that there was, was between Father and Aunt Claire.  Occasionally, one of them would try to coax some words out of one of us with some kind of question—like “How’s the corn?”  Or “Those burgers turned out pretty well, didn’t they?” Or “Save some room for dessert.”
But the most that ever came back was a wordless mumble—or the fewest words possible.  And the sounds of Blue Boyle’s teeth tearing meat and grinding corn.  It was like trying to eat at a table with a tiger.

It was all over pretty quickly, I guess, though it seemed that the meal took the entire afternoon.  I was shocked, carrying things inside, when I saw the kitchen clock.  It was only 12:45.  Everyone has been here less than an hour!
Father asked us all to go into the living room for the surprises.  Maybe this will go quickly too, I thought.  Hoped.   Father came in the room last, and he was holding some kind of file folder.
We all gathered there and spread out as best we could.  I could see Elena and Jane looking at the shelves, and I was betting they there thinking the same thing I was: Would it be too impolite to just grab a book and ignore everything else?
And Father said, “And now, Vickie, you’re probably wondering why I wanted there to be just six children here today …” 
Actually, I was not wondering that.  It was obvious.  I was six years old.
But Father didn’t wait for me to reply.  “Because you’re six!” he cried.  The other children clapped—well, all but Blue Boyle who sat there in his chair like an unhappy stump.  “But that’s not all,” Father continued.  “Did you notice what time the party started?”
“Twelve,” said Harriet.
“Yes!” chirped Father again.  “And twelve is …?”
“Two sixes,” I said, trying to sound at least a little enthusiastic so I wouldn’t embarrass or disappoint him.  He had obviously thought a lot about this.  “And now,” he said, “we have some more surprises about the Number 6.”  He opened the folder he’d brought and removed some printed sheets of paper.  He and Aunt Claire passed them out to all the other kids—not me.
“This is kind of a quiz,” Father said.  “Each of the children will read a question for you.  You go first.”  He was looking at Elena.
She looked at her paper and read aloud: “What is the sixth planet from the sun?”
“Saturn,” I said quickly.  “Why, that’s right, Vickie,” said Father.  Everyone looked at me with surprise.  Even something like wonder briefly visited the dim eyes of Blue Boyle.
  But Father had sounded a little disappointed.  So I decided I would play dumb for the rest of the quiz.  Sometimes it’s good to know things, sometimes not.  And this was definitely a not.
“Let’s try another.”  Now it was Jane’s turn.
“According to the Bible,” she said, “what happened on the sixth day of creation?”
“Umm,” I said, trying to convince everyone I didn’t know.  “God created the stars and planets?”
“No!” cried Jane.  And she read from her sheet: “God created all the animals.  Then He created man and woman.”
And, oddly, I was thinking: And how many centuries would go by before someone else—Victor Frankenstein—made a man, too?
Meanwhile, everyone was clapping at my mistake.
Matilda was next: “Who was the sixth president of the United States?”
“Thomas Jefferson?”
Matilda just looked sad.  “No,” she sighed.  “It was John Qu—”—she wasn’t sure how to pronounce this name.
“John Quincy Adams,” I said quietly.  “The son of John Adams, the second president.”
They were all looking at me.  And again I immediately regretted showing that I knew too much.
Next was Harriet’s turn.  “What was the sixth state to join the union?”
“No!  Massachusetts!”  More clapping.  They were once again loving it, me being dumb.
Father looked at Blue Boyle, who was staring at his sheet.  He looked up and read in a voice that sounded as if it belonged to someone much older.  “What is the sixth of the Ten Commandments?”
“That shalt not steal?”
           “Thou shalt not kill,” said Blue Boyle.  His tiger smile split his face.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Insidious Silence of the Disease

I'm not going to write about prostate cancer all the time--not even often.  But it is, of course, on my mind, so, now and then, I will have something to say.  Like today ...

No one talked about prostate cancer when I was growing up.  I'm not sure why.  In our house it was probably due to some Puritanical proscriptions against conversations having anything to do with the human body.  My "sex education" comprised very little: (1) my parents left lying around a book called Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers, 1950, by Evelyn Millis Duvall, which told me virtually nothing about what I wanted to know; (2) my equally clueless coevals shared "intelligence" gathered mostly from their imaginations and fantasies.

So ... a conversation about prostate problems in my boyhood home?  Not possible.

I'm not even sure when I first learned about the disease, but it was much, much later--when I was well into adulthood.  And then the things I heard made the disease sound not so serious.  It was "slow-growing"; it rarely killed; it was treatable; most men, if they live long enough, eventually get it--all of which are only partially true and very often false.

Physicians diagnosed my father with the disease in 1999, but by then poor Dad was already near death because of some strokes, congestive heart failure, various other issues.  So the doctors did not even treat him for the disease.  It would not be what killed him--and it wasn't.

Because of my pervasive ignorance about prostate cancer, I recall with great shame how I behaved about ten years ago when I learned that a colleague had cancer.  I spoke with him briefly in the faculty room, asking him what type of cancer he had.  And when he said, "Prostate," I virtually snorted with derision.  "Oh, you're going to be fine!" I declared with all the confidence of the ignorant.  "My dad had that ... no big deal."  And I strode out of the faculty room, confident that I'd just cheered up a friend.

Only two words for me: dumb ass.

For much of the course of the disease, the suffering is principally psychological.  As my oncologist has told me over and over, if it weren't for the PSA blood test, we wouldn't even know there was anything wrong with me.  (One of the truths about prostate cancer is this: If you wait till you're symptomatic, it's pretty much too late.)  Yes, I had some bad pain after the surgery (it went away); I've had other changes in the nether regions that have been an ... adjustment.  (Are you uncomfortable yet?)  But--overall--I have not suffered physically from the disease.  Just with corrosive worry that assails me whenever my mind drifts that way.  So I try to keep my mind distracted with reading and writing and memorizing poems and anything that will prevent the red word cancer from appearing on its screen.

When I was taking my daily radiation treatments in 2009, I was deeply humbled in the waiting room.  There, I saw folks of all ages--from toddlers to old, old men and women--suffering physically in ways I cannot even imagine.  I was able to get up out of my seat, walk briskly back to my machine, lie down on it, allow it to zap me.  Then I could get up and walk to the parking lot, drive home, and pretend nothing was really wrong with me.  Because, you see, I didn't feel sick.

But so many others in that waiting room were lying on gurneys, or slumping over in wheelchairs.  Patently, desperately ill.  Helpless.  Hanging on.  Dying.  I felt like an interloper.  A sightseer.  I told my radiation oncologist I felt incredibly fortunate; he said he felt the same way every time he walked through that waiting room.  So, I know: I have been lucky, so far.  I've been able to keep doing the things I love--from reading to exercising to going to the movies to writing to whatever.

I know, too, that other people--many other people--have lived for a long, long time with prostate cancer.  (Though it did kill Robert Frost and Langston Hughes and countless others.)

But hearing stories about other people's success with the disease means absolutely nothing to someone dealing with it.  It's like this: A guy being crucified looks down from his cross when he hears a friend's voice: "Don't worry," says his friend.  "I heard one guy came back alive afterwards."

In my own case, my initial biopsy late in 2004 yielded a "Gleason score" (the rating, 1-10, for the severity of the cancer) of 5--a "low-grade" cancer.  Thus, no rush to operate.  (I waited till mid-June.)  But the post-op biopsy revealed something far different--a 9: "hi-grade cancer."  Not the sort of high grades I'd ever wanted ...

Yes, I've met men who had the surgery years ago.  No problems.  And men who had radiation.  No problems.  Even men who've taken hormones.  No problems.  But I am not those men.  All cases are different because, of course, all bodies are different.  My own surgery failed; my radiation treatments failed.  They were my best shots at a cure.  What's left are basically stalling tactics.  Smoke and mirrors.

And, of course, hope.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

THE Writing Process?

Not long before I retired from Harmon (Middle) School in January 1997, the English-teaching world was aswim in a new sea--the sea of The Writing Process.  Somewhere--somehow--some way--someone had figured out that writers use a process when they write (!) and that all we have to do is strip that process down to its essentials, teach it to kids, then sit back and watch the scores on standardized writing tests roar off like rockets.

I've repressed most of it, I think, but I know The Writing Process involved steps like these: Prewriting-Drafting-Revising-Preparing for Publication (i.e., turning it in to the teacher, reading it aloud, submitting it to the judges in Stockholm, whatever).

And so we teachers dutifully set down to business--giving kids some time in class to "prewrite" and "draft," then sending them home to finish (where, of course, they would "revise" and "prepare for publication").  Or maybe we had kids do the whole thing in class--while we drifted around and consulted, put out brush fires, asked Billy where his paper was, found a pencil for Susie (who'd lost hers), figured out what to do with Simon (whose writing hand was broken), dealt with Norman (who didn't feel like writing that day), asked Darrell why his prewriting was on his hand, weighed requests to go to the bathroom, mediated an argument between Boyd and Betty (who were debating who said what to whom and why at lunch yesterday),  ...

And guess what?  The Writing Process worked for some kids--for those kids who thought and worked well in a linear fashion.  But The Writing Process failed miserably for other kids, those who had perfectly sensible ways of doing their writing assignments, perfectly sensible ways that did not exactly align with The Writing Process.

I remembered the feeling.  A number of my own junior high and high school English teachers required us to submit an outline with our essays in school.  I know that I was not the only one who wrote the paper first, the outline second.  (It always struck me as bizarre that you were supposed to know what you were going to write before you wrote it.  Writing for me--for many--is figuring out what you're going to say as you're writing; revision establishes some order and grace.)  But for a long time I thought there was something wrong with me: Why can't I just do an outline first?

Later this spring a book is coming out describing how scores of famous writers, painters, choreographers, and composers went/go about their work (some are no longer with us--like Dickens).

And should we be surprised by what the writer found?

They were all different.  What worked for A failed for B.  Some had rigid schedules every day; some worked only when the inspiration hit; some worked it all out in their heads, then wrote; some (fewer than you would think) used notes and plans ; some (Dickens) went for long walks every day, figuring it out; some drank, used speed; some wrote late at night, some early in the morning, some in the middle of the day.  And on and on and on.

I'm getting ready to review a memoir by one of the most successful American artists of the past thirty years.  Here's what he says about his work: "I never started a painting with a vision of what it would ultlimately look like or a definite idea of what it was about.  ... Every painting of mine is a search for meaning."

And Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin (novelist, philosopher, playwright, writer of children's books), once wrote that he didn't know what he was going to say until he'd said it, didn't know what he thought until he had written.

I need go no farther than my own house for more more evidence.  Joyce figures out things by writing.  She writes endless drafts until she figures out what she's doing, then puts it all together.  She can also write all day and into the night with no diminished capacity.

Not I.  I work things out in my head--take some notes (not much)--and generally know where I'm headed by the time I sit in front of the screen--though I am always surprised by what emerges from my fingers, too.  My revision is mostly shaping and polishing.  I can write only a few hours a day before I lose it.

Teaching everyone a single way of doing something is often a bad idea--though not always (think: driver education).  I figured out (after many decades) that the best thing I could do as a teacher was to help kids figure out what kind of writers they were--help them figure out what worked for them.  Individually.  I think we were all a lot happier with the results.

The best writing process, really, is whatever works for you--even when you hand is broken or you're annoyed with Boyd for that snotty thing he said out at lunch ...

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 20

As the day of the party drew closer, Father and Aunt Claire became very quiet—even secretive—about what was going to happen.  I’d told them what I wanted for food.  No surprises there—yellow cake with chocolate frosting, red Kool-Aid, fresh sweet corn, hamburgers and hot dogs grilled outside (one of Father’s great skills), potato salad.  As you can see, I’ve sort of listed things in the order of liking, not in the order of eating.
The party was not going to be on my actual birthday—30 August—because it was on Wednesday that year, and we had already started school.  Instead, Father had planned it for Saturday, 2 September.  At noon.  I didn’t realize until later the significance of the time.

Jane, Matilda, and Elena arrived together, just a few minutes after lunch.  I heard someone’s mother at the front door talking with Aunt Claire, who then brought the three girls into the living room. They looked nervous.  And I knew why: I’d basically never spoken much to any of them.  (I wasn’t rude, just not too talkative.)  Not one of them had ever been in our house—in fact, I was surprised they even knew where I lived.  I had no idea where their houses were.
They were dressed casually—as Harriet and I were.  (She’d been at my house most of the morning, helping out, sneaking fingertips of chocolate icing from the bowl and beaters.)  All of us would probably run around outside for a while, something that never interested me too much.  But I knew: This is a party.  So … get ready to run around …
Father must have heard the arrivals, for he came into the room. I introduced the girls to him, and they all called him “Mr. Stone,” very politely, smiling all the while like … well, like six-year-old girls who don’t know what to do.
“Why don’t you all just wait in here,” suggested my father, “until the food’s ready?”  He seemed uncertain what to do a little kids’ party.  Which is exactly how I felt.  I was starting to wish that I had the mumps.  Right now.  I reached up to feel my neck … no, no swelling.
When he left, the girls and I stared at one another for a month before they started looking around at all the books. They were surprised at how many we had, the way most adult visitors are, too.  The three of them went over to the shelves and began fingering and handling the books as if they were museum artifacts or something.  Elena turned to me.  “Do you have any about horses?”
We did.  Father had books about most everything because you never knew, he said, when you had to write about something in the newspaper.  I showed her The Encyclopedia of the Horse, which she carried over to a chair, where she sat happily, ignoring the rest of us, paging through the book.[i]  I was starting to like Elena.
Jane was looking at books, too, and finally found a world atlas, a heavy book that she hauled over to another chair to examine.  “You probably won’t find Franconia in there,” I told her.  Then wondered immediately why I would say something like that.  Something discouraging.
“Oh, I know,” she said.  “I just like looking at other countries.  And the oceans.”  I did too, actually.  And was starting to like Jane now, too.
Harriet was a big help with Matilda, who read books at school only when she absolutely had to, and soon she and Harriet were chattering away like a couple of frisky birds on a branch.  I was grateful.
And I was also grateful that, so far, there was no sign of Blue Boyle.  Maybe Harriet was right.  Maybe he wouldn’t show up.  I knew when I’d seen him at school during the week that he must have gotten the invitation that Father had mailed to his house.  But he showed no sign of it.  Nothing.
He did nothing but ignore me.  Which was the way I liked it.  Harriet told me he hadn’t said anything to her, either.
After some slow minutes crept by, Father came back.  “Why don’t we head outside now?” he suggested.  “It’s about time to start grilling.”
Elena and Jane looked sad.  But they both their books down carefully.  Harriet and Matilda ran on ahead, eager to get out, like escaping prisoners.  But I walked out with Elena and Jane.  “Good books?” I asked.
“The best,” said Elena.  “The very best.”  And Jane added an “Ummmmm.”
I wasn’t really sure what that meant.

Outside, Father had set up a picnic table, and Aunt Claire was there, trying to make sure none of the paper plates and napkins blew away in the gusting breeze.  She put dishes and glasses and jars of mustard and ketchup on them the keep them from flying off.  It was a nice day, warm and humid, so humid that I was pretty sure it would rain later.  Maybe it would storm.  Maybe everyone would have to go home early.  That sweet possibility sat in my mind like a chocolate chip in a cookie.
Father had started the grill a bit earlier, and it was ready to go, its smoke drifting off down the street.  He lifted the lid and plopped on the hot dogs and burgers, which sizzled immediately and sweetened the smoke.  The girls, led by Harriet, had fistfuls of potato chips and sat all on one side of the table, leaving no room for me.
I sat down on the other side and looked at them, wondering what in the world we could talk about.  Father, partly hidden by swirls of smoke over by the grill, was useless.  But Aunt Claire swopped in to help out.  She got the girls to say their names.  To talk about their families.  About what they liked to do.  I was in awe.
And then—just at the moment Father was crying out, “The food is ready!”—a pickup truck pulled in the driveway.  All heads turned that way.  The sun’s glare on the windshield kept us from seeing who it was.  The truck just sat there a minute, idling loudly, smoke boiling out from the tailpipe in foul clouds.
And then the passenger door opened.  Someone got out, walked around the front of the truck.
Blue Boyle.

            [i] An actual book by Elwyn Hartley Edwards, 1977.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

At the Movies

I've loved the movies since the first frame I ever saw.

That's probably an exaggeration. If my parents ever took me to a movie when I was a Babe in Arms, I, of course, don't remember.  My parents never were big movie-goers, though, mostly because money was so tight for them (teaching in the 1940s and 1950s was not exactly a sinecure), and both of them came from fairly conservative Christian homes, and the movies had about them a whiff of sin.  Better not to inhale.

But, later, I remember Dad telling me about films he'd enjoyed--how he and my mom's brother laughed themselves mad while watching that Laurel and Hardy film The Music Box, the one about the two doofuses moving a piano up a long set of stairs set in a hill, only to discover, of course, at the top: a driveway. (I used to show it to my middle school students now and then.)  He also said I'd never see a scarier film than The Cat and the Canary,1927 (there are earlier and later versions of it, too), a film about relatives gathered in the spooky mansion of a recently deceased old man.  I saw the film not long ago ... scary?  Let's just say (so as not to insult my father), "Times change."

When I was a boy in Enid, Oklahoma, there were four movie (single-screen) theaters in town (the Chief, Esquire, Cherokee, Sooner) and two drive-ins (the Trail, and the Enid).  All the theater buildings still stand--but house other businesses now.  The last time I was there, the Chief was a community theater, and the Trail Drive-In stood in ruins, like the statue of Ozymandias, south of town.

I remember a few films I saw in Enid with my parents: that old Disney cartoon The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (which I showed to my classes for decades--right up until my final year), Brigadoon (my parents loved musicals), and those Disney documentaries--The Living Desert and Bear Country (both 1953) and The Vanishing Prairie (1954).  Bears were big in our family.  I still give my younger a brother a bear calendar for Christmas--when I can find one.

Saturday mornings--both in Enid and for our two years in Amarillo (when I was in second and third grade)--there were programs for kids at the theaters.  (I remember two Amarillo theaters--the Rialto and the Paramount.)  Here was the line-up: newsreel-serial (Don Winslow of the Navy, Flash Gordon)-cartoon(s!), a double-feature, usually a cowboy film (my favorite) with another kind of adventure film (Tarzan).  Afterwards--hours later--we would stagger out into the hot Southwestern sun, which was busy destroying our visual purple and reminding us why air-conditioning was better than Gulf air in August.

When I became an irresponsible pre-pubescent (fifth and sixth grade), my parents--unwisely--let me go with my rowdy friends to the movies in downtown Enid.  We would ride the bus (10 cents), hop off in the square (the four theaters were there), and resolutely pick the film we knew our parents did not want us to see.  There were no ratings in those days, just those in Parents' Magazine, which my parents consulted before sanctioning my Saturdays at the movies.  But because they were not there to make sure I entered the Chief, say, to see Davy Crockett, I would instead enter the Esquire and see Rock Around the Clock with Bill Haley & the Comets.

In that movie is the first smutty movie joke I didn't get--but had to pretend to and then try to subtly elicit its meaning from my more sophisticated 11-year-old corruptors.  Here's what happened in the movie: The bass player says he'll be ready to leave as soon as he changes clothes--and as soon as his bass "puts on her G-string."  Lots of laughter in the theater--including mine, a few beats too late.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 19

In August 1989, just after first grade started —the first year of “real school”—I would turn six.  Father and Aunt Claire decided I should have a party, and that I should invite more friends than just Harriet.  They never told me this, Father and Aunt Claire, but I knew.  They were perfectly happy with Harriet—were genuinely pleased to see her when she came over (you can tell when adults are faking their feelings), were genuinely pleased to have me go over to Harriet’s after school.  Or on weekends.
Still … I knew that they would have been even more happy to hear some other voice in the house, to hear me cry as I banged out the screen door, “I’m going over to whoever’s [not Harriet’s] house!”
So a few weeks before my birthday, Father, over supper, asked me if I’d like a party.  He had his reporter’s notepad and a pencil on the table.  He was going to take notes on this.
So when he heard my eager assent, he next asked: “Whom should we invite?”  (Notice the whom?  Father always used precise grammar—especially when he spoke to or near me.  Always a good example.)
“Harriet,” I chirped, then chomped on a fresh ear of sweet corn.
Father waited a minute.  And when I suggested no other names, asked, “How about the others?”
“What others?” I managed through a mouthful of corn.
“I mean,” stumbled Father, “aren’t there other children you’d like to invite?”
I stopped chewing and looked at him.  Chewed some more.  Swallowed.  Spoke.  “No,” I said.  “Harriet’s fine.”  Having her in the house was party enough for me.
Now Father wore that flustered look that kind, generous parents wear when their kids say or do something they want to disagree with but aren’t sure how.
Just Harriet?”
“Just Harriet.”
Father drew doodles on his notepad.  “I was thinking,” he said slowly (the way adults do when they’ve already done their thinking and have made up their minds), “that because this is such a special year—first grade and all—you would like to invite some of your good friends from kindergarten?”
“Harriet is my good friend from kindergarten,” I said, though I could now see where this conversation was heading—and how it would turn out.  So I knew I was starting to sound a little defensive.
“But what about the others?” asked Father.
Now I was in a bind.  If I told the truth (there are no others), I was going to sound like some kind of social outcast.  Which I was, I guess—but didn’t care.
So I decided not to prolong this awkward conversation.  “Sure, Father,” I said.  “How many were you thinking of?”
“Four,” he said.  “Four in addition to Harriet.”
“Exactly four?”
“Yes,” he said.  “Exactly four.”

Later, I called Harriet and told her we had to come up with four names for the party—exactly four.  Harriet, of course, had more friends at school than I did—a lot more.  She spent most of her after-school time with me, but I knew, seeing her in class and at lunchtime, that she just was more of a social person than I am.
“Leave it to me,” she said.  “I’ll bring over a list tomorrow morning.  See what you think.”

After Father left for work, Harriet bounded in the house, not even bothering to knock.  With each other, we were long past that kind of thing.  I barged into her house, she into ours.  No problem.  She headed straight for the living room, where she probably knew she’d find me reading.  She was right.  I was—a book on numerology, the idea that the numbers in our lives (our birthdates and so on) have great significance.  I wasn’t buying any of it.  But it was interesting.
Harriet saw the book in my hand.  “Your Days Are Numbered,” she read.  She gestured; I handed the book to her.  And she read the subtitle: “A Manual of …”  She looked at me.
Numerology,” I said.
“You read the craziest things,” she said, handing the book back.
She was more right than she could possibly know.[i]
“I’ve got a list!” she announced. “Four perfect names for your birthday party.”
I looked at it quickly.  The first three I had no real problems with:  Jane Maurice, a quiet girl who also liked to read.  Matilda Peacock, a bouncy but harmless girl with one of the oddest names in town.  Elena Marcliffe,[ii] a girl who drew horses all the time on scrap paper and always checked out library books on horses.  I’d seen her talking with Harriet many times at school.  She seemed all right.  And then I came to the fourth name.  The one that caused me to wonder if Harriet had suffered an attack of mental illness.
Blue Boyle

“Blue Boyle!” I cried.  “Why on—?”
“I know,” said Harriet.  “He doesn’t really fit in.”
I snorted.  “That’s for sure.  He fits about as well as you fit Aunt Claire’s clothes!”
Harriet laughed.  “I’d like to see that,” she said.  “I really would.”  Then both of us were laughing about Harriet in Aunt Claire’s clothes.
“But Harriet—” I began again as soon as we’d settled down.
“Just listen,” she interrupted.  “Here’s what I’m thinking.  He bothers us both at school, right?”
“Yes.”  Though, truthfully, he hadn’t bothered me so much since his Halloween embarrassment last year.  Maybe he was planning his revenge.  Or maybe he was just a little afraid of me.  I didn’t know.  I was just relieved that he pretty much left me alone.
“So,” Harriet went one, “maybe if we invite him, he’ll see it as, you know, a sign that we like him.”
“We don’t like him.”
“I know!” said Harriet.  “I hate him.  But let’s make him think we like him.  Then maybe he’ll leave us alone.”
“Or maybe start inviting us to his house!” I countered.  “Or cave!
And we both started laughing again, picturing ourselves at a Blue Boyle party, where they probably ate cooked kittens and poached puppies and played badminton using actual little yellow chicks for birdies.
“But see,” continued Harriet,  “he won’t even come to your party.  Why would he?   That’s the best thing about inviting him.  He won’t come!

But, of course, he did.

            [i] Florence Campbell’s Your Days Are Numbered, first published in 1932, has been through numerous editions since then.
            [ii] Ed. note: These names are all names of some significance to Mary Shelley.  A good friend was Jane Williams.  Maurice was the title of one of her books—as was Matilda; a family friend was Thomas Love Peacock; Elena was the name of one of her husband’s children; Theophilus Marcliffe was one of the pen-names that her father, William Godwin, used on books he wrote for a children.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Visit

Taussig Cancer Center
Cleveland Clinic
Today was one of those days.  A visit with my oncologist at Cleveland Clinic.  Late in 2004, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  I took the surgical option, and on 19 June 2005, I underwent a prostatectomy (removal of the gland).  The disease went away.

And then it came back, a little.  And then ... more than a little.

So in January 2009, I began seven weeks of daily radiation treatments up at the Clinic.  (I listened to Middlemarch, going and returning.) The disease, perhaps daunted (or shamed?) by the beauty of George Eliot's prose, went away.

And then it came back, a little.  And then ... more than a little.

Every three months I go over to Twinsburg's Clinic branch for a blood draw.  A PSA test.  "Prostate Specific Antigen."  I should not have any measurable PSA (I have no prostate gland), but I do.  And the number is rising.  What this means: Some cancer cells escaped the surgeon, escaped the radiation oncologist.  And now they are duplicating.  But where?  No one knows, not yet.  The most likely location?  The bones.

I've undergone a couple of bone scans in the past six months--and, despite some oddities (one rib lights up)--nothing seems to be growing.  Not visibly.

On Friday--my most recent PSA test.  Result?  It had doubled since my last test three months ago. Not good.

So, this morning, down to the Clinic again to the Taussig Cancer Center.  I know the corridors so well I have no need for signs.  Joyce was with me; son Steve met us there.  (Could any man wish more?)

The next treatment?  Hormone therapy.  Not a pleasant prospect.  I will get an injection--and from that day forth I will be a different person.

My physician is cautious--does not want to start too soon.  He talks about "quality of life."  I agree. Hormone therapy is not a cure.  It confounds the cancer cells for a while.  But they eventually figure it out (a year? two years?), and then they're back in business.  Other, newer, therapies lie beyond.  No cure, though.  Time is my ally, though: The longer I can hang on here, the closer to a cure they come.

Today, the news: He wants to wait--a little longer.  In six weeks I will go in for another full-body bone scan, a CT scan of my abdomen (just in case it's nesting elsewhere).  And then we'll see what's next.

So, today, the news is all right.  I have six more weeks of being ... well, whatever/whoever I am.  Then ... more tests.

And then we'll see.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 18

Later, my father told me that Miss Blood had called him at the newspaper and wondered why he had tried to frighten all the little boys and girls.  He didn’t know what she was talking about because he had not seen my drawing.  But he couldn’t convince Miss Blood of that.  She was absolutely positive that he, not I, had drawn it.
That day after school, instead of going straight home, I walked down to the newspaper—the Franconia Free Times—and showed it to him not ten  minutes after Miss Blood had called him.[i]
I was surprised when I walked in the building.  I saw Harriet’s mother sitting behind a desk, talking on the telephone.  I walked over to her.
“Mrs. Eastbrook?  What are you doing here?”
She looked up, smiled, held her index finger in the air—she wanted me to wait a minute—finished her call, hung up the phone.  “Vickie!  It’s wonderful to see you.  Your dad is right back—”  Then she realized.  “Oh, of course you know where his desk is.  You’ve been here a lot more than I have!”  She laughed with a sort of rolling, bubbling sound.  I loved it—and had not heard it very often.
“Anyway,” she said, “I’ve started working here, too.  Your dad helped me get a job.  I worked on my college newspaper—and they were looking for someone to cover the local news now that your dad is going to be writing a column.”
“A column?”
“Yes.  It’s a real honor.  Four times a week he gets to write about whatever he wants to.  It’s just a wonderful thing for him—and for the paper.”
“Vickie—over here,” I heard my father call.  So I said good-bye to Mrs. Eastbrook and went over to his desk.
“Father, I just heard about your column,” I said.
“Yes.  It’s going to be fun,” he said.  But his face was showing something very different.  “First of all,” he said, “I don’t like it when you don’t go straight home—not without telling me.  I’ll have to call Aunt Claire and let her know you won’t be on the bus.”
I was sorry.  I hadn’t thought …
“And then”—my father was looking very serious now—“just a few minutes ago, Miss Blood called me here.”
“She said something about a horrible picture you showed the class?”
“I didn’t think it was horrible, Father.  I thought it was funny.”
“Do you have it with you?”
I did.  I took it from my things and showed it to him.  I could tell, watching his face, that he was trying to decide if he should laugh.  He didn’t.  But when he spoke next, his eyes were moist—the same way they got when he thought something was funny.
Finally, he said, “That’s quite a picture, Vickie.”
 “Thank you, Father.”
 “Where did you, uh, get the idea for it?”
 “I don’t know,” I said truthfully.  “I just started drawing.  And this is what happened.”
 “Have you ever seen a creature like this?” he asked me.
 “Really?  You mean, have I really seen something like this?”
 “In my head, Father.  Just in my head.”
 “Does it scare you, Vickie?  These things you see?”
 “No, I like what I see.”
And I really did like it, when I was in kindergarten.  And I still do like it.
 “It’s probably better if you don’t always show other people these things, Vickie,” he continued.
 “Why, Father?  Did I do something wrong?”
 “Not at all.  It’s just that, well, not everyone understands your talents the way I do.”
 “Is that bad?”
 “Is what bad?”
 “Is it bad that other people don’t understand?”
 “Yes, Vickie.  It can be.  Because when people don’t understand something, they sometimes do cruel things.  Sometimes it makes them angry.  Sometimes they may even  try to hurt you.”
I thought about that.  About people not understanding, getting angry, hurting other people.  And I knew then—even as a five-year-old—that my father was right.

And so on dress-up day for Halloween at school, I didn’t go as Victor Frankenstein—or as the creature.  Instead, I dressed as Cinderella, the one in the old Walt Disney cartoon.  Miss Blood said I looked cute.

            [i] I found no newspaper with such a name in Ohio.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


Because I drive a slow, fuel-efficient car, I see a lot of rear bumper stickers--and window decals.  At stoplights, I get some reading done, staring at those stickers and decals.  And yesterday, seeing a decal that apparently aligned the occupants with an athletic team at nearby Stow-Munroe Falls High School, I was reminded of a book from a few years ago called Tribes.  I can't remember who wrote it, and Amazon is no help (too many choices: tribe and tribes are very popular words in book titles, it seems).

As I recall, Tribes dealt with our human need to associate ourselves with groups of others--smaller groups (the family) radiating outward (the planet).  I don't know/remember if the author said this, but it's likely that the strength of our allegiances weakens as we move outward: We are far more devoted (most of us) to our families, say, than to Mother Earth, who, many seem to think, can take care of Herself.

We wear the clothing--the uniforms--of our tribes, too.  Remember the scene in that recent film, that masterwork 21 Jump Street.  Two young cops--Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum--go back to high school, undercover.  Their first day of school, Tatum, walking through the parking lot, quickly identifies groups of kids standing around--entirely by their clothing and appearance: nerds, Goths, jocks, whatever.

Jeffrey Hammond, writer
The rest of us aren't too hard to identify, either.  Our hair, make-up (or not), clothing, verbal and nonverbal behavior--all link us to groups, groups, for the most part, that we elect to be with.  Our tribes.  I had to laugh once at an author appearance at Hiram College on 6 October 2003.  The writer was Jeffrey Hammond, whose excellent book of essays, Ohio States, had brought him for a visit.  I was laughing because he and I and David Anderson (a wonderful Hiram English professor) were wearing the same "uniform": informal blazer, beards flecked with white (okay, mine is washed with white), glasses (not contacts), looking a little ... rumpled, etc.  Tribesmen.

We of course abandon tribes and join other ones throughout our lives.  My fierce fealty to the Hiram High School Huskies has dissipated for a number of reasons. For one, that school has been gone since the mid-1960s (consolidation, then, later, razing); for another, I graduated fifty years ago, and my allegiances have shifted--not to another high school (impossible!) but to other groups.

Over the years, I've abandoned a number of my tribes.  Schools (I've mentioned one), athletic teams (Browns, Cavs ... just not interested anymore), political parties (I was a Republican until I was nearly 20), friendships (the school bands of brothers/sisters disintegrate after a bit--though reunions remain fun), lovers (some, I confess, abandoned my wee tribe), colleagues (I'm still in touch with only a small handful of people I used to work with), clubs and organizations, churches.

It seems to me, though, that we're not comfortable if we're not with at least one tribe.  Family--religious group--team--school--whatever.  I just finished a remarkable book by journalist Monte Reel--The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon (Simon & Schuster, 2010).  He tells the story of the efforts to make contact with a single man--a man who belonged to no tribe that anyone could identify--who was living quite contentedly, it seems, in the jungle. He built shelters, hunted with bow and arrows, observed some simple rituals that no one could really decipher.  And rejected all attempts by others to communicate with him--and when he realized his camp had been spotted, he moved elsewhere. This went on for years.  (Once, he nearly killed one of the insistent visitors with an arrow in the chest.)

Eventually, the group (scientists and aid workers) trying to contact him just plain gave up and realized that he was not like the rest of us.  He didn't need others, did not seem to want others.  The aid workers now just go out periodically to see if he's still alive.  And they leave him alone.  This human anomaly.

But for the rest of us?  We seem to need our uniforms, our teams, our families, our friends, our clubs, our colleagues, our neighborhoods, towns, states, countries ...  Without them we're not sure exactly who we are.  Unlike that lone man in the Amazon rain forest.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Pizza History

Yesterday was our grandson Logan's eighth birthday, and we showed up to surprise him at a Pizza Hut in North Canton.  They were already eating, Logan and his family (need a better illustration than this sentence for the importance of commas?), when we arrived, and the remains of large pizzas were displayed around the table.  A few pieces were left.  I was tempted--but I'd already eaten, so I knew I'd better not.  And so I didn't.

But I wanted to.

And I've wanted to eat pizza for more than a half-century.  No, more than "wanted."  Needed?  Craved? I love the stuff.

But not at first.  When I was a boy, even a young adolescent, I'd never seen pizza--never heard of pizza.  It was not the ubiquitous comfort-food that it has become today.  It was not until I was in high school (perhaps a sophomore? 1960-1961?) that I first encountered the food at a party one night (after a game? a play production?) at the home of a girl a year ahead of me in school, Beatrice Zeleznik.  Until that night, I'd been strictly a candy/potato-chip/cake-and-ice-cream kind of guy--even pretzels seemed a little weird to me (all twisted up: what's the point?).

But Bea offered me some pizza.  I looked at what she was holding.  A mess of red and cheese and crust.  I declined.  I hate tomatoes--always have, always will.  (I tried one a few years ago--just to see if I'd ... matured.  I hadn't.)  And so my initial experience with pizza was no experience.  Looking around me, I couldn't believe all the people I saw shoving it in their pimply faces.  Yuk!

I have no clear memory, though, of when I finally did deign to taste a bite (college?), but once I did, the war was over with the first shot (bite).  I loved it.  Still love it.  Will always love it.

Some pizza memories (in no particular order) ...

  • When our son, Steve, was little, he didn't like the crusts.  Daddy did.  Steve would leave the crust on his plate; Daddy would eat them.  (Last night, though, Steve, now in his 40s, ate his own crusts, to my dismay.)
  • When we were impecunious grad students, we sometimes ate at Parasson's in Stow (good Italian food--and cheap); I would get a small sausage pizza, always.  Four pieces.  Gone in a heartbeat.
  • When we were first married (1969), we were even more impecunious.  Living at 214 South Willow in Kent, we were only doors away from a pizza place on the corner of Willow and College called Singing Sam's.  (Little Caesar's took it over later--now, I think, it's a residence.)  For $2 we could get a small plain pizza.  Four slices.  Sometimes, it took piles of pennies and nickles.  Or we wrote a $2 check to Singing Sam's--hoped it wouldn't bounce.  We would sit on our living room floor, box open between us, munching happily--and Joyce was often (though not always!) kind enough to share a bite or two of hers.  Depended on (a) how hungry she was, (b) how jerky I'd been lately.
  • Once I got into sourdough baking (the mid-1980s), I started making sourdough pizza quite often.  Sometimes I would have students over to try it.  Only once (so far) has the pie stuck to the slip as I was sliding the pie onto the baking stone.  Many bad words ensued.
  • For a year or so we went to Zeppe's in Hudson every Friday night.  Pizza night.  But we haven't done that in a long time.
  • Joyce grew up in Akron, so we often went to one of the Italian places she'd liked as a girl--Dontino's (North Akron), Luigi's (under the bridge downtown).  We still go to those places now and then--not nearly as often as I'd like.
  • When Cleveland's Little Italy had a movie theater--the New Mayfield--we used to like to go down there to see an old movie (their specialty), then find pizza somewhere afterwards.
  • We usually order deliveries from Papa John's--though we haven't done that in years.
  • For years, I was a conservative, sausage-pizza guy (no mushrooms or other junk).  Pepperoni if necessary.  But then ... rising cholesterol numbers started to alarm me, so I started ... modifying.  Joyce was already eating veggie pizzas (there are some things about her I will never understand!), but I knew I could never do that (green peppers, mushrooms, other odd things that supposedly had once been alive).  My homemade crusts were already chol-free (olive oil--no egg), but now I started using low-chol mozzarella and Parmesan--and using strips of chicken breast and chunks of pineapple for the substance of the thing.  Tasted pretty good, if I do say so.  Still, there's something about Italian sausage ...
  • Since I've retired from teaching, I haven't baked pizzas very often.  Only a couple of times a year, maybe.  When our son and grandsons are here.  When I get lonely for the old days when I could eat any damn thing I wanted and never rue the consequences.
  • Even now, on an evening when we've been to a movie in Kent or Akron, driving back into Hudson from the south on Route 91, we glide by Zeppe's.  "Wanna pizza?" I'll often joke to Joyce.  Who knows--who well knows--that I an not joking.  Not at all.
PS--Feeling stupid at age 68.  I just ran spell-check, and it told me to capitalize Parmesan.  I checked.  Yes.  Because the word (you stupid old man!) means of or from Parma, in northern Italy.  DUH!

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 17

It was a week before Halloween, 1988.  All of us in the class were sitting in a circle on a little piece of carpet in the room of our teacher, Miss Everina Blood.  And yes, that was her real name.[i]  She was a very, very old woman, so she never got down on the floor with us.  She always sat in one of our little chairs.  She was so thin and frail and small that the chair actually seemed the right size for her.
Miss Blood always wore black—with long sleeves.  Even on the hottest days in September while we were running around the playground at lunch, she would stand there in the sun in her long sleeves—sometimes wearing a thick black sweater—checking her watch, nibbling at an apple, not perspiring in the slightest.  It was weird.
 “Class,” said Miss Blood that morning, “what holiday is coming up soon?”
“Halloween!” a dozen voices chirped in unison.
“That’s right, boys and girls,” she said.  “And what do we do during Halloween?”
 “We trick or treat!”
 “Right again!  And what else do we do?”
 “We wear costumes!”
Then Miss Blood went around the room asking everybody what they were going to be for Halloween.
“A pirate!”
“A princess!”
“A witch!”
“A ghost!”
 “A skeleton!”
 “Victor Frankenstein!”
Everyone stopped the shouting and looked at me.  For I was the one who had said “Victor Frankenstein.”
Miss Blood was staring at me with surprise.  “Victor Frankenstein?” she asked.
 “Yes,” I said.  “Victor Frankenstein.”
“I didn’t know Frankenstein had a first name!” blurted out some kid.  “I thought his name was just Frankenstein.”
 “It is!” announced a chubby boy named Blue Boyle who settled every argument by sitting on you.  “And I’ll sit on anyone who says it ain’t.”  He looked darkly around the room to see if anyone wanted to be sat on.  No one did.
Except Miss Blood, I guess, for she said: “Blue … class … you forget one thing.”
 “Frankenstein was not the creature’s name, was it, Vickie?”
 “No, Miss Blood.  It was the name of the man who made the creature.  And his first name was Victor.”
 “That’s stupid!” announced Boyle.  But he didn’t say it too loud.  Miss Blood was looking at him with her Death Face, the one she wore when she wanted everyone to do exactly what she said.
Miss Blood went on: “All right, if the scientist’s name was Frankenstein, does anyone know what the creature’s name was?”
 “Frankenstein!” declared Boyle.
 “BLUE BOYLE!” yelled Miss Blood.  “Are you looking for trouble!  Because if you are”—she paused for just a minute while we all held our breath—“then … I will”—another  long, long pause—“SIT on you!
And everyone started giggling like crazy, even Boyle, as we tried to picture what it would look like, Miss Blood sitting on him.
After we all settled down, Miss Blood continued.  “Vickie, do you know the creature’s name?’
“He didn’t have one, Miss Blood.”
“That’s exactly right, Vickie.  Frankenstein never gave his creature a name.  Isn’t that sad, class?”
“Maybe he just forgot,” said Lucy, a girl who cracked her gum all the time.  “Sometimes people forget.”
“He didn’t forget,” I said.  “He didn’t think the creature deserved a name.  At least, that’s what I think.”
“I think you’re right,” said Miss Blood.  And everyone seemed to think about that for a moment … about how that might feel, not deserving a name.
 “Now, class,” Miss Blood said, “since Halloween is coming up, tonight, for a little homework project, I want you all to draw something scary.  Tomorrow morning, when it’s still a little dark outside, we’ll take turns showing the class our scary drawings.”  Everyone got excited; we all liked Miss Blood’s idea.
Next morning, sure enough, it was pretty dark.  The season was turning, and the sun did not rise until nearly eight o’clock.  And it was also very, very cloudy—it almost looked as if it might rain … or maybe even snow.  Before class started, a lot of the other kids ran around the room showing their drawings to one another.  Not me, though.  I kept mine—which I had drawn on a large piece of poster board—rolled up.  I wanted it to be a surprise.
It was.
In the classroom, Miss Blood—wearing black as usual—had us all sit on the circle on the little piece of carpet while she pulled the blinds and turned off the lights.  She lit a little candle, and that was the only light in the room.  It was spooky.   While we weren’t looking, she put on a pointed witch’s hat and cackled so loudly that Harriet and some of the other kids screamed.  And that made her laugh a great screeching witch’s laugh.  And then we saw that she had blacked out some of her teeth, too.  More kids screamed.  And then she laughed her normal Miss Blood laugh, and we all relaxed.  A little bit, anyway.
 “Boys and girls,” she croaked in her witch’s voice, “who would like to be first to show a scary picture?”
 “I will!” brayed Boyle, standing and holding his up by the candle.  It showed something black that covered almost an entire sheet of paper.  But it wasn’t scary at all.  In fact, I couldn’t even tell what it was.  No one else could, either, because the questions were coming fast and furious:
 “What’s that, Boyle?” asked Harriet.
 “Didn’t you finish your drawing, Boyle?”  asked someone else.  And …
 “Is yours a secret, Boyle?” asked another.
 “Boys and girls!” shrieked Miss Blood-witch.  “Let Blue tell us what it is!”
 “It’s a witch,” snarled Boyle.  “Anyone can see that!”  He looked threateningly around the room.  “And anyone who says it ain’t a witch ….”  But there were no takers.  To me, though, it looked like a black shoeprint.
Then other people took turns.  Harriet had drawn a ghost.  (I didn’t tell her that it looked like a pillowcase.)  Someone else, an old haunted house.  Someone else, a jack-o’-lantern.  Most of them weren’t very good—but then what would you expect?  This was kindergarten, after all.
And then it was my turn
When I unrolled it and held it up in the candlelight in front of the class, I didn’t need to explain anything.  It was perfectly clear what I had drawn.
            Covering practically the entire poster was a drawing of the face of Frankenstein’s creature.  His rotting yellow flesh was stitched together; blood oozed from the fresh stitches.  His fiery eyes gleamed an angry orange and red.  His mouth was wide open, and blood gushed from the sides.  Sitting on each huge spiked tooth was a different kid from our class (I had room for almost all of them), all looking so much like themselves that there was no doubt who each one was.  The figure of Boyle was saying something.  I’d put his words in a little cartoon balloon over his head: “Don’t bite me, Frankie, or I’ll sit on you!”  But there was a sharp tooth right through him, and Boyle’s insides—colorful and slippery—were spilling out in wet coils.  It was gross.  And scary.  Kids screamed when they saw it.  And screaming the loudest was Boyle.

            [i] Ed. note: The records of the Ohio State Department of Education show that an Everina Blood obtained a certificate to teach kindergarten in 1945.   Everina, incidentally, was the name of one of Mary Shelley’s aunts.  And Mary’s mother was very friendly with a family named Blood.