One-Minute Memoir

November 30, 2012

First Love

By Jim Sizemore

I arrived at her door nervous, like a teenager on his first date. It was my mother’s 72nd birthday. I was 42 then and had driven nearly six hundred miles from my home in Baltimore to our hometown in Virginia to take her to dinner. My plan was to retrace 40 miles on the Interstate to Lexington, a college town with a decent restaurant. She answered my knock wearing a simple house dress under a thin tan raincoat, her gray hair wrapped tightly in a flower-patterned dime-store scarf. The scarf material appeared to be cheesecloth. I pointed, “Must you wear that thing?” My mother looked at me as she often did, like I was crazy. “It’s clean,” she said, an answer that made no sense to me. Typical — our life together had been one long misunderstanding.

We headed back east to the restaurant, the sun setting behind us; I kept looking at the back-lit mountain ridges in the rear view mirror and the reflected light on the sloping hills ahead. When I mentioned the beauty all around us she shrugged, just sat there, scrunched down in her seat like the wrinkled shell of some creature you come across in the forest. My face had started to wrinkle, too, and I saw that the lines were forming into her patterns. It was eerie. I could look at her face and see my own, thirty years down the road.

At dinner all she did was complain. The place was too fancy, the meal too expensive, and anyway, that “pile of food” would just go to waste. Besides, she said, she didn’t like people to make a fuss over her. I made a mean joke about her “plantation mentality,” her inability to enjoy the good that came her way. We left the restaurant in silence and I drove her home, very fast. Outside the car window the black sky was background for a line of darker mountain ridges. The headlights illuminated flashes of broken white lane marker, and the dash instruments cast a dim, yellow light on my hands, tight on the wheel. I began throwing up curses from my gut, spitting them out in random combinations, alternately screaming and whispering every blasphemous oath I knew. It was an evil performance, variations on a filthy theme, a jazz riff of profanity, of streaming dark passion. The foul words had bulk and filled the dark cavity of my car. I had trouble breathing, seemed to be drowning in my own angry bile. “What does it take to move you?” I screamed, and the words echoed in the tight space.

No reply. I was sure she was smiling at my intensity in the dark. “You damn well should know what’s got me going like this! The sunset! That beautiful goddamn sunset!” After a long silence, I blurted, “What the hell does it take to move you?”

More silence. “Answer me!”

Her voice came back quiet, calm. “I never raised you to talk like that.”

I spit out my reply like another curse. “You didn’t raise me! You were gone by the time I was twelve!”

Not a peep from her, but I knew she was thinking how odd I was. She had always claimed I was different from her other sons, didn’t behave like a regular baby, didn’t cry much — that I was serious, like a “miniature man.” Then she said, “Well, it’s all done and over — the good times and the bad — your daddy and me — me and you. And from now on I’ll not let on like I’ve had all them babies, diapered ‘em, raised ‘em up ‘til they was teenagers or thereabouts, stayed up of a night when they was sick. Kept ‘em clean and fed.”

I took the first exit into town, heading for the Esso station on Main Street. I needed gas, but also wanted an excuse to leave the car before I started bawling. As the gas pumped and I cleaned the bug-plastered windshield from the trip down through the Shenandoah Valley, I tried to stay focused on my hand and the paper towel. But in the bright light of the gas island my eyes moved from the splattered glass to my mother’s face. There it was — that bemused smile on her thin lips, and I’m thinking: Damn, this is one cute woman!

Then a memory of her snaps into sharp focus: I’m a little kid, standing in my mother’s bedroom in the company shack where I was born, over by the paper mill where my father worked, and I can’t be more than three or four because I’m looking up at the window sill, looking up at it and watching dust motes dance in a shaft of light. The warm light is reflected from the floor onto the wall and ceiling and it looks like magic. She’s sitting at her round-mirrored dresser, her back to me, wearing only a full slip, brushing her beautiful auburn hair that looks with the morning light in it like a sunrise, patiently counting the strokes.

Copyright © 2012 Jim Sizemore.

Doodlemeister is looking for short memory pieces up to a thousand words, on any subject, in any style — as long as it happened to you. Whatever the subject, we have a bias for the lighthearted tone. And if need be we’ll help you to edit and/or cut your piece. If you’d like to submit a story, please contact us at jimscartoons@aol.com 


Wendy Wasserstein On Playwriting II

November 30, 2011

Adapted from: The Art of Theater No. 13

The Paris Review, Interviewed by Laurie Winer

My mother was walking down the street and she ran into the receptionist from the June Taylor School of Dance, where I went as a child. The receptionist asked, How’s Wendy? My mother said, Well, I don’t know. She’s not going to law school, she’s not dating a lawyer; now she’s writing plays. She’s cuckoo.

I thought writing a full-length play was something I didn’t want to do and didn’t know how to do. It seemed old fogyish. But I was on a committee to evaluate the Yale School of Drama, and there was this young woman, a directing student, who told me that what she wanted to do was explode text. I thought of Miss Julie exploding over the Yale School of Drama saying, There goes The Sea Gull! I thought, Well, before you explode it you should know how to do it. I thought, I would just like to try to do this. If in fact playwriting is like stained glass, if it becomes more and more this obscure craft, then it would be interesting to know how to do that craft.

When you write in an episodic mode, you know that the scene will be over. The hardest part, what’s really boring, is getting people on and off the stage. You can’t just bring the lights down and bring them up again. Someone has to say, I’m leaving now . . . . That’s very hard to do. I always think structurally. But for The Sisters Rosensweig it was very hard going. In that play there are four scenes in the first act and three in the second. I should have combined the first two scenes.

I was very sad when The Sisters Rosensweig opened the first time. People like Merv and Gorgeous are fun to write; they’re nice to have in your apartment. They’re really good company. So when you discover those people, they’re talking and you’re not talking anymore. I remember the day I wrote the line for Gorgeous about Benjamin Disraeli being a Jewish philanthropist: I started laughing because I thought, That’s Gorgeous, there you go. The character, not my sister. If you stay with the actual people in your real life, it won’t work. It’s too constraining.

I learn things from watching and listening to people. I’m not much of a reader; I’m slightly dyslexic. Take Merv—he is someone I knew when I was eight years old . . . I remember going to someone’s bar mitzvah in Brooklyn with my mother and young niece. And you know when they take the Torah out? My mother said to Samantha, Quick, kiss the Torah before the rabbi takes it out for cookies and lunch. It was such a crazy image to me.

My plays start with a feeling. The Sisters Rosensweig started when I was living in London writing The Heidi Chronicles. I thought about Americans abroad, and somebody said to me, You’re terribly Jewish, just like my brother-in-law. It was that same feeling I had at Mount Holyoke, a little bit uncomfortable with myself. Like wherever I went I was always wearing a tiara with chinchilla.

I always think of new plays when I’m finishing one . . . . This is a darker play than The Sisters Rosensweig. My plays tend to skip a generation; this one is closer to The Heidi Chronicles, though it is also darker than that play.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button. (This is the second of a three-part post adapted from the Wendy Wasserstein interview in Paris Review. Part three will post next Wednesday.)


Today’s Gag

June 13, 2011
Copyright © 2011 Jim Sizemore.

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Dead Freddie’s

August 18, 2010

When my oldest son was five or six (he turned 49 on August 13), we left the women—his mother and grandmother—in the cave and went to forage for lunch meat and hard rolls at Muller’s delicatessen on Harford Road, in Northeast Baltimore. (Muller’s still has the best German cold cuts and sandwich breads in the city.) Next door to Muller’s is a bar called “Dead Freddie’s.” It’s been there for as long as Muller’s has, but the name has long intrigued me for several reasons. For one thing, I can’t remember if “Dead” was part of its name back in the day. Was it just “Freddie’s” then  and, when Freddie (the owner?) died, rather than get rid of what is a fine example of a classic neon, the word “Dead” was added as a dark joke? Or was the word always part of the sign and I just didn’t notice? (If anyone out there knows the history of the bar and/or the sign, please set me straight in the comment section below.)

Anyway, to get to the point of my little story about that day of male bonding, either my son asked to go into the bar or I volunteered to take him. Either way, I thought it was a good idea, so in we went. Once inside I think I bought Shawn an orange soda, in much the same spirit my father used to buy them for me when he took me to bars to keep him company while he drank a few of his “Arrow” brand beers. (The sins of the father really are passed down.) And I clearly remember that I took the opportunity that day to demonstrate to Shawn how the pinball machine worked. In fact, I’m pretty sure he got to shoot a few balls himself. As you and I know, most boys love bright lights, fast-moving objects and noise, so of course he was delighted. And so was I, still being a kid at heart myself. That was it. We two happy guys finished our pinball game and headed back to the home cave with provisions for lunch.

But now comes the sad ending to my little narrative. (Here I feel it’s fair to  speak for Shawn, too, because I remember how boys think and feel when it comes to neon and pinball machines.) When we got home, still very excited about our wee adventure, we couldn’t wait to share our delight and  high spirits with my wife and her mother. Their reaction was not what we expected. Well, you know what comes next. My wife and her mother were shocked, shocked, that I had exposed the child to the dark and sordid interior of that bar. Their disapproval was clear in their words and the expressions on their faces. And here I won’t speak for Shawn, but personally I felt the morning’s fun feeling exit my soul in much the same way air instantly leaves a pricked balloon.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

Today’s Gag

July 7, 2010

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

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Just Shoot Me

January 18, 2010

Confessions of a Photographer’s Daughter
By Jacquie Roland

My career as a child model was short-lived but intense, and I hated every minute. I was the oldest of too many brothers and sisters, a motley crew that today may generously be called “rug-rats.” When I was a child in the 1950’s, Shirley Temple was still the rage. You couldn’t open a magazine without seeing pictures of adorable, curly-headed moppets smiling out at you, usually with tiny kittens or fuzzy ducklings as props. My father wanted to be a photographer, but he didn’t particularly want to photograph children, especially his own somewhat scruffy brood. “Art ” photography (read “naked ladies”) held his interest, but having so many free mini-models close at hand finally developed some appeal—but only after my mother put her foot down. ( Or, in a manner of speaking, “up” a certain part of his anatomy.)

Before my father’s photographic mania struck in the ’50’s, our magazine rack held titles such as Modern Romance, Hot Rod—and, perhaps, a tattered EC comic book or two. After Popular Photography became his bible—or should I say his porn—the coffee table soon overflowed with expensive subscriptions to Modern Photography and Camera 35, among others. He began taking pictures with a plain box camera. You know the one, black imitation leather and metal strips, a leather handle and strap, which you always kept around your neck. But while his kids wore hand-me downs and had too little to eat, my father’s camera bag slowly filled with bigger and better equipment—more expensive cameras, the latest and biggest lenses, tripods, light meters and various other esoteric photographic gee-gaws. Unlike his children, these gadgets were meticulously cared for. Meanwhile, the front room/bedroom/living room/temporary photo studio was also filling up with the occasional young twit of a “model” behind the now-closed door. These bimbos were each determined to become the next Marilyn Monroe—willing and eager to strip, giggling as my father adjusted his lights and other equipment. During these “shoots” as he called them, my mother and I, and the rest of the kids, sat as quietly as possible—as ordered—in the back room/kitchen of our tiny three room apartment. During those sessions there was pain my mother’s eyes, and a “god only knows what is going on in there” look on her face.

Later, we all got to see what was going on when our only bathroom, which doubled as my father’s darkroom, exhibited 8×10’s and 16×20’s of the naked ladies, with occasional close-ups of their anatomical bits. WOW. ( We weren’t supposed to look, but of course we did.) Large format black and white photos were laid out to dry on shiny rectangular dryers, the wet prints rolled slightly and held in place with something like a bungee cord. The photos, on their heavy matte paper, dried with a slight curve. Other finished prints and fresh negatives were clipped to a “clothesline” sort of arrangement over the tub. Three pans, for developer, fixer and a plain water rinse, lined the tub bottom. ( We kids washed up in the kitchen, at the sink.) Toilet paper was moved to make room for large brown bottles of smelly chemicals, and stacked plastic trays. Red and yellow bulbs in metal clip-on lamps were attached to where the curtain rod used to be, timers and tongs sat on the back of the tub. Interesting glass measuring jars marked in red increments topped the sink. Our three toothbrushes (his, hers, and the one for us kids) were moved to a cup on the floor, sharing space with a tangle of extension cords which covered the linoleum. Our tiny linen closet held black and yellow boxes of photographic paper and other supplies. (The family towels were now kept in the hall, rough dried and unfolded, in a laundry basket outside the door.) This made room for his enlarger, big and gray with an interesting bellows that sat in a corner, on wheels, rolled out of the way.

My father spent a lot of time in his darkroom. Locked on the inside, it was the one place with absolute privacy in the apartment. Sometimes he took one of his models in with him. He claimed that the “oohs” and “aahs” we heard must have meant that she was just appreciative of his work. Even at my tender age, I didn’t believe that for a minute. And god forbid any of us had to go to the bathroom while he was “working.” You either had to hold it or use the enameled slop jar kept in the middle room/ kids bedroom/storage area. I was proud that I could hold mine, but the younger kids often wet their pants. The only thing my mother held was her rage, and—knowing her temper—she kept it in check far longer than I would have expected. When the models began hanging out with my father in the living room with a beer, relaxing merrily after their shoot, while the rest of us were still banished to the kitchen, my mother decided that “art be damned!” (My words—hers were a LOT more colorful.) She had finally had more than enough. Later, after weeks of sturm and drang (blood and fisticuffs) and broken glass and spilled chemicals in the darkroom, the enlarger was repaired with black electrical tape, and my father’s “focus” finally took a turn. The naked ladies went elsewhere. That was when we kids became his models.

Now my father’s problem was—well, it was me. I was no Shirley Temple. And try as he might, threaten me as he did, he couldn’t turn me into her. The photo shown here, dated 1950, was taken just after he actually beat the bejesus out of me because I wouldn’t smile, and was wasting his film. The more he yelled, the more morose I became. Twisting my arm only got more of the same, plus tears. The cheap blue nylon party dress I was wearing rapidly lost it’s crispness as he just as rapidly lost his temper. My mother matched his nasty mood and in the fracas my dress got yanked out of shape and I lost one of the bows in my hair. My mother had to iron another dress, the one you see here ( it was in the basket with the towels) so that my father could finish out the roll with me wearing something, at least. She also ironed my hair because my long “sausage curls” had to be fixed. Because I wouldn’t hold still, she pushed the tip of the hot iron into my back and said, “NOW you’ll smile, won’t you?” Still I didn’t. Or couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. She finally gave up and wiped the tear stains off my face as I sat there in my ratty little homemade green dress with the stupid rick-rack, hating them both. But I despised the “photographer” most of all because he had made me wet myself. We finished the rest of the roll, damp little me sitting on a towel to keep from staining the sofa. My mother helpfully said that I was beginning to look like a zombie. The photo you see here was the best of the bunch, and ended up being my “before” shot. You wouldn’t have wanted to see the “after” one, or the smile from hell I learned to perform on cue. Later on that night, while I was on the floor, I found my missing hair bow, pee-stained, under the sofa with the dust bunnies.

My father entered photographs of my younger brothers and sisters in every contest he could find, and I had become old and ‘useless’ as a model at age seven. After a while—as much as I still hate to admit it—his photos got to be pretty good. Several were excellent. But as far as I know, my father didn’t win any contests, or make any earnings with his photography. Money was his criteria for success. But as I’ve learned, art has its own criteria, and the work itself is what drives us. Often, it’s the only reward. Some how—in spite of the fact he didn’t deserve to—the miserable bastard actually became a photographer. Here I’m remembering an incident where he beat me with his fists and a belt. No wonder I thought then that he didn’t deserve to live, let alone be successful at the one thing he loved. But he did live and was successful—at least in a creative way—and life isn’t fair. So just shoot me.

Copyright © 2010 Jacquie Roland.


Shock Jockeys

December 21, 2009

It’s rare for me to laugh out loud when reading e-mail messages, but last week I had one that broke me up, to put it mildly. After I wiped away the laugh tears I quickly asked the sender for permission to change the name of the little protagonist and write-up the tale as a blog post. The sender gave her consent and the story is herewith presented for your reading pleasure.

Recently the daughter of an old friend took her 3-year-old son—I’ll call him Freddie—to the doctor for a regular checkup. The doctor walked into the room and, after some small talk and the normal exam of the lad’s ears, throat, chest, etc., she slipped his pants off. The eyes of the mother and doctor widened when they noted a large bulge in the crotch of Freddie’s brief’s. “Could my little man be having an erection?” the mother wondered. As the doctor pulled Freddie’s briefs down, out sprang this large pink thing. Then another. And yet another—they popped out like those snakes-in-a-can novelties do when you take the lid off. When Freddie’s mom and the doctor recovered from their mild fright, they were surprised to find that he had hidden a selection of his mother’s pink sponge hair rollers in his pants. My friend’s e-mail about her grandson’s interesting horde ended this way: “We may never know why he did such a thing.”

As to why Freddie did what he did, I have a theory. It’s simple. That boy loves his mother. As Freud might have opined, what else could such delightfully funny-strange behavior symbolize?

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.