Pronoun Musicby Richard Cohen
Short Fiction. These stories of Richard Cohen illuminate family life with a realism large enough to accommodate illusion. Most of these stories are about children and their parents. Some of the children are grownups taking care of their elders; others are chronologically juvenile. At the turning point of youth to age, of singleness to marriage, they fight their
Short Fiction. These stories of Richard Cohen illuminate family life with a realism large enough to accommodate illusion. Most of these stories are about children and their parents. Some of the children are grownups taking care of their elders; others are chronologically juvenile. At the turning point of youth to age, of singleness to marriage, they fight their way out of the webs of family and self with a degree of success equal finally to their gift for belief. Sheila Weller of The New York Times has commented about Richard Cohen's first novel Domestic Tranquility that it is built on observation so minutely and constantly intelligent that one feels as intellectually engaged by it as emotionally seized. Richard Cohen lives with his family in Austin, Texas.
- Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.41(w) x 8.41(h) x 0.82(d)
Read an Excerpt
Theme from a Summer Place
On an August night some thirty-five or forty years ago, the outskirts of New York City lay ambivalently awaiting annihilation. Missiles in Siberia were aimed directly at themat them, who never even went into the city to shop anymore! The missiles were governed by crude Russian systems that were almost guaranteed to go haywire, to mistake a flock of geese for an American attack or simply to let loose at the command of a loony, embittered general who had drunk too much vodka. The outer boroughs, the suburbs, and the scrubby hills and dairy towns that were called "the country" tossed their blankets and sweated their sheets in anticipation of their demon lover. They had seen On the Beach, where a star-studded cast huddled in the last uncontaminated corner of Australia to beg another week or two from the fallout winds. They could scare themselves bolt upright at will by remembering the ending of Fail-Safe, a montage of New York scenesperhaps even one's own neighborhoodwhere people play stickball and people carry groceries and pigeons flap skyward, and then the screen whites out, the bomb has fallen, and none of the ballplayers or grocery carriers or pigeons even knows that they have been instantaneously vaporized.
Cheryl Sadowsky, who hated her name and could hardly wait to change it to Ariel or Ariadne or something, had just scared herself bolt upright like that. She sat listening for the drone of MIG bombers coming in low across the drab grandeur of Canadian forests toward this obscure little bungalow colonyin the Catskills. The steel frame of her cot quivered under her. She was a hundred and four miles north of the city, and she had read that you were in danger within a hundred miles. The first twenty miles, say all of Manhattan and the Bronx, were of course ground zero, they'd be obliterated in the first explosion, and the suburbs, up to fifty miles away, in the firestorm immediately afterward. It was the next ring, the outer suburbs and the lingering old-fashioned little towns, that would be most unfairly treated: they would die retching, hair falling out and skin blotched purple, within weeks. But could you really be safe at a hundred and four miles? She'd doubted it ever since this morning, when she'd first glimpsed the saggy screens and mossy walls of the cabins and caught the scent from the dining hall of meatballs braised with garlic and paprika.
Her parents, a brittle and arthritic pair, had picked their way down the gravel hill to the rental office without offering each other an arm, her father fuming pedantically, "If you don't want to stay here, we'll go." And her mother, "Go where? Who's going to have a vacancy on a Friday afternoona chicken coop?" And, as they'd been doing for at least as long as she'd known them, they ended up having planned themselves into a misery they couldn't back out of.
They were still at it tonight. Above the crickets, on the warm breeze that carried a Petula Clark song from the casino, she heard it:
"It's exactly like I've always said, one drink and you start getting hostile."
"Drop dead," her father told her mother. "Leave me alone."
Everyone at this colony is hearing this, Cheryl thought. Wafting through their open windows on our first night here, like the clarinet in "Stranger on the Shore." Tomorrow at breakfast I'll know what's behind the nods, the smiles. Just like at all the other summer places we haven't visited a second time.
Strap-heeled sandals slapped wooden stairs. "Ow, these goddamn mosquitoes...."
"Will you lower your voice?"
"I will not lower my voice after the way you were speaking to me"
"How?" her father said. "Speaking to you how? Not angelically like you speak to me?"
"in front of a casino full of people we're going to be spending the next two weeks with"
"Yes, which you might keep in mind."
"And you can drop dead too, with your sarcastic interruptions, you haven't let me express a complete thought"
"Then we can both drop dead."
"That's the one thing we agree on. Why don't you drive us off a bridge like you threatened to yesterday? Why don't they drop the bomb, at least? Why doesn't the bomb fall tonight, it would be less painful, I swear, than being called an idiot in front of a casino full of people I've just met."
What about me, Cheryl thought, do you want the bomb to fall on me too? Well, but I can escape. This far north, we'd have at least half an hour's warning, maybe an hour. I'll take the car keys from his pants pocket and head for the Adirondacks, learning to drive as I go. Should I give them a ride with me? Please, don't let me be so sentimental that I take them with me.
"Look at you," her mother was saying. "The man who was born the same day as Kennedy. Why didn't you die the same day as Kennedy? Why did they kill him and not you?"
"Because I'm not worth killing."
Should she shout at them: Quiet down, don't you know you have a thirteen-year-old daughter trying to sleep? But with practiced timing, they stopped short of the brink, short of involving hershort of hearing her. Somehow they remembered how to creak open the screen door and shuffle to their shared bedroom. Somehow they never forgot how to march through the days as required. From sheer stubbornness they stopped answering each other, and from sheer fatigue began to snore.
Next morning, her mother was sitting at the formica table in the dining alcove doing nothing: no cards, no magazine, just her perpetual look of suspecting she'd been been left behind. She was a small, gaunt, olive-skinned woman with cracked lips and a wrinkled forehead, who wore the absence of makeup like a badge of honesty, of life's realities that you could do nothing about. Anxiously she ran stiff, short fingers through long, wavy, unpinned chestnut hair that had often been called beautiful, her best feature; and intermittently she stopped and glared in distaste at the tented-out strands, as if wondering when they would fail her. She had a repertoire of sour, grim, angry, and resentful expressions which she brought out unprovoked for the smallest occasionsordering at a restaurant, paying a cashierand of which she was certainly unaware, for if she had been aware of them, she would have been ashamed. When she noticed Cheryl watching, she dropped the hair from her fingers as if she'd done something wrong and didn't know how to explain it.
"Your father's trying out the pool. If you go down there, give him his cigarette lighter, he forgot it. To give him such a pleasure I'm not going down there myself."
Why did she assume that the first thing Cheryl longed to do when she woke up in the morning was see her father? She acted as if Cheryl was on her father's side, even though Cheryl kept telling her it wasn't so. She tried not to take any side, ever. But whenever she tried to tell her that, her mother took it as an attack.
As Cheryl started for the screen door, her mother pointed an instructing finger. "Listen to me. I know you don't want to hear it, but I'm your mother and I'm telling you, if the time ever comes when you want to get married, don't do it because when he was away you missed him. How do you feel when he's there, that's the important thing. Don't let someone talk you into thinking you love each other. And don't be too impressed if he's nice at first. After a few months it's a whole different story."
"Okay," she said, and hurried down the porch steps.
It took her several moments to feel shaken by her mother's lecture, and the feeling only lasted a second as she went on to explore the day. She strolled uphill through the resort, checking the facilities, ascertaining her coordinates. A pretty summer daycheck. Cottages strung in a semicircle around a rocky, unmown commoncheck. Tennis court up here, swimming pool audible downslopecheck. Main buildingsoffice, rec roomcheck. Dirt path leading probably to a woods or a pondno time to check that.
No time to check it, because walking downhill toward her from his own parents' cottage was the being whom she had already come to think of, since last night, as That Boy. She and That Boy had stared at each other all evening, not boldly but with horrified embarrassed powerlessness to stop, as he watched the Republican convention on television and she, at the other end of the room, beat the adults at Scrabble. Now they were staring at each other as they approachedno, they dropped their eyesno, they stared againwell, which was it to be? He was widening his path, but then, just as he was about to skirt around her, he turned and looked at her, not quite as if to ask, Who are you and what are you doing here? No, that commonplace and fumbling inquiry was shoved aside by something urgentwas her blouse on inside out? He gawked at her, bugeyed, in a way that seemed weirdly to have nothing to do with her. He was black-haired, tall, ascetically skinny, but wide-boned and knobby-wristed, his face a long, thin triangle that ended in incongruously puffy lips and a pointy chin. In his silence, he seemed to hold back till the last possible moment some trembling secret; he seemed about to burst with some atrocious boyish pride. And then, hoarse-voiced from the overgrown adam's apple, it came out:
"I give you Barry Morris Goldwater, ladies and gentlemen, the next President of the United States!"
He blinked his bulging eyes. He wasn't handsome or cute but he had clear skin, no braces on his teeth, and a well-trained glossy haircut, although big ears. His fat lips gave him a kind of pouting formality, but his consonants splatted forth negligently like smudged horn notes.
"I'm one of the few people our age who realizes the historic importance of it," he said, and held his hand out to be shook. "I'm Gary Grabell," he said, accenting the second syllable and, somehow, implying unmistakably that it was a name to remember.
"Cheryl Sadowsky," she slipped in parenthetically.
"Think that's a good name for a senator or a cabinet member?" he asked, obviously referring to his own name. "I'm one of the most active volunteers at the Republican Club of Mt. Vernon. Sometimes they let me use the microphone in the sound truckwhen we go around reminding people to vote?because I sound like an adult. Have you been following the convention?"
"Why should I, it's just the Republicans. I mean, I'm sorry, I don't mean."
"That's all right, you're just echoing your parents' political views."
Like too many of the things people said, this made Cheryl wonder about herself. Not that she was wrong to be a Democrat, but wasn't there some truth in what he said about why she was? But how could she ever manage to find a position of her own, a life without copying? Weren't all the positions already filled?
"I'm a conservative," Gary bragged, "because I'm an independent thinker. I believe in rational thinking. People are so irrational. Like, look how everyone's making a fuss about what he said about extremism. `Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.' That's true! And people are acting like it was fascist or something. Freedom and justice are the most important things. We have to fight to keep from losing them. Everyone knows that, but when he says it, people act like he's going to bomb Moscow or something."
"Right," he glared. "They're the enemy, and they will be bombed." He seemed to be waiting for a reaction. "Well? You're probably a socialist and you'd rather have America bombed than Vietnam."
Her first impulse was to laugh in his face, but then it occurred to her: This kid is going to grow up someday and actually be one of our leaders. The weirdness of the thought led her to take a tactful step downhill.
"Where are you going?" he said, and laughed, "Gotta go to a Party meeting?"
It peeved her to be called something she wasn't, but she accepted it because she knew she needed practice at boy-girl conversations. "How's the pool here?" she asked. "You feel like going swimming, maybe later?"
That led to normal subjects like, Where do you live, and What are the kids like there, and Have you ever been at this resort before?
"My little sister's at camp," Cheryl said, "but I went to that camp last year, I didn't like it. I don't do well in groups," she suddenly found herself confessing. (She had dreamed of someone to whom she could confess herself, confess everything. Was he the one?) "I mean, I do very well in school, but I like doing things on my own, so I'm going on vacation with my parents."
There was something about that last part that wasn't consistent, she knew. And she didn't know what to do about it.
"I'm kind of quiet too," Gary said, and when she looked at him, he added, "I used to be. I'm learning how not to be, at the Republican Club. Hey, did your school let you out early when Kennedy was killed? Ours did."
"No, they made us stay till three and they didn't announce it or anything. Our ratfink principal thought we were too delicate to hear the news."
Gary had flinched at her use of current slang, which she had only thrown in to try to sound cool. Mistakes, she was always making mistakes!
Gary said, "Don't get me wrong, I'm a Republican, but I was very sad too."
"Thanks. That's okay," she said, as if someone had consoled her for a death in the family. And she went into the ritual recitation of whereabouts: "It was a Friday, it was sunny, and I walked home instead of taking the bus, because I was going to visit my grandparents. And on the way I kept thinking, There's something strange going on, even though I couldn't tell what it was. There weren't enough people on the streets; there wasn't enough noise." She shook herself as if waking from a nightmare. "I was thinking, I'll get to my grandparents' and it'll turn out there was nothing strange. But I got there and turned on the TV...."
"Yeah." He was nodding over and over.
"It was like being in an episode of The Twilight Zone, where you walk along the street and nothing looks different, but you find out Martians have landed or you're on a planet where everyone is deformed."
"In fact," Gary said, picking up another thread entirely, "I was still a liberal last November twenty-two. I've changed a lot since then."
It was her turn to nod understandingly. "Yeah."
"Hey, Twilight Zone's on tonight. Want to watch it? It'll just be a rerun, but...."
"I probably haven't seen it anyway," she rushed. "Yeah, yeah, we'll watch Twilight Zone, great. Yeah, great, well, see you tonight...."
And having made an arrangement, they had to flee till the time for its fulfillment. Was it a date? Was this all that esoteric mystery boiled down to, cramming yourselves into a broken-springed, scratchy couch in front of a TV whose picture wobbled like an aquarium, your thighs neither too far from nor close to his?
A ping-pong ball echoed from the far end of the big pine-paneled room. Moths flew around the yellow overhead bulbs, which were netted with heavy wire just like in her old elementary school. From the newer, carpeted addition next door, where adults played cards or mah-jongg, you heard now and then a bursting laugh, sounding like it had been stored up for a long time. This was the night, regardless of her having dreaded and anticipated and planned and replanned it all day.
The Twilight Zone episode was one of the handful she'd seen, but she liked it anyway. It was the one about a little lost colony of Earthlings who'd crashed years before on an uncharted rock, and were waiting for the chance that a passing spaceship might rescue them. An old man, the actor James Whitmore, kept the young people's spirits up by telling them stories of home. "The Earth is green, Joey," he told the boy who followed worshipfully at his side. He told of meadows and mountains, of cities and harbors and stores and family reunions, of two dozen flavors of ice cream and a library full of books.... And after the commercial, a ship does find them, and the marooned ones go aboard all except the old man. Panicking, he refuses to leave his asteroid home: "It's a trick, don't believe them, you'll get aboard and they'll sell you into slavery." They try to force him on, but he runs and hides in the rocky caves of his thin-aired hills. Finally the ship has to gothere's something about a deadline, one of these TV plot devices, the rescue craft has only so many minutes to rejoin its mother ship or what-have-youand the old man, from his hill cave, looks up to watch the bottom of the craft rise into the atmosphere above him. And he sees his folly but it's too late, like words of hate that can't be unsaid, missiles that can't be called back. Why did he do it? Was he afraid of the reality he'd told stories about, or did he just want to be begged a little more, the one who'd held the colony together all those years? But the ship has lifted off and it's not going to make a separate trip for him. He runs out: "Wait, come back, take me with you!" He collapses on the alien ground; the camera viewpoint recedes above him. Looking smaller and smaller, really marooned now, he begins to talk to himself: "The Earth is green, Joey...."
"Oh, God," Cheryl said, to think of someone wanting something for so long that when it came, he ran from it. "How terrible."
"Yeah, isn't that a great one?" Gary said. And excitedy he began telling her or quizzing her about all his other favorite episodesHave you seen this one? Have you seen that one?and from there he went on to other television series, you couldn't stop at The Twilight Zone but had to compare it to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and compare that to The Defenders and on and on.... Each time he mentioned a new show, his leg pressed closer to hers and he glanced up to see if anyone was watching. Then he switched to rock groups and put his arm around her. When he mentioned the Beatles, his hand rested lightly on her shoulder. Advancing to the Dave Clark Five, he let his hand slip a little further down. The Zombies, the Kinkshis almost touchless finger tingled her collarbone to life. Conservatism, she began to think, must be some stage of hipness beyond where everyone else was. He knew all the groupseven knew, from reading British fan magazines which he got at a special Manhattan shop known only to him, about English groups that hadn't reached America yet but were waiting to, as if they were in line at the airport with their baggage. The Who (his finger strolled down her sternum), Them (between her breasts), the Pretty Things....
He jerked his head up as the screen door slammed and clattered. The ping-pong players on the other side of the room had finally left. His nose brushed the top of her ear. He murmured suavely in a James Bond accent, "Now it's our turn to play...."
They were tongue-kissing: she had a boy and was actually doing this with him. He knew the protocols, when to start and how fast to flick and how to vary his mouth movements in and out, side to side, in order to maintain a high level of interest. Except that he pressed too hard for comfort and a couple of times his teeth nipped her lip and she had to murmur through shreds of tenderness, "Ow, don't bite me."
She wished she could take over and tell him exactly what her body was telling her it wanted, but she told herself that wouldn't be cool. The cool way was to let the boy do whatever he wanted till he reached some invisible line you'd drawn on your bodybut where was that line, for her? She'd never thought highly of all those conversations among her friends about Would you let him do this? and Would you let him do that? She'd lingered at the margins, throwing in a wry comment about how she didn't expect it to happen in this century. And now the test was here and she felt unprepared.
His fingers slid beneath her bra cup, and the main thing she felt wasn't the electricity of awakened skin, which was pleasant but after all mild, nor was it a feeling of doing anything improper or excessive, not at all. It was more a matter of trying to guess whether he was enjoying it enough: would he be satisfied by what he found there? Did she measure up to what he was used toand how much was he used to, anyway?
He must have felt that he had paid enough attention to one breast, then to the other, and then to switching back and forth. The rules had been agreed upon, the terms had been drafted. A pause, and they came to a silent decisionnot made the decision but came to it, as if they had been traveling toward where it already stood waiting for thema shared decision that she would let him take her somewhere. Bumping hips, they walked out of the rec room, around behind the building, through a short trail in the woods to the baseball field.
Gary sat her down beside him in the moonshadow of the chain-link backstop. They helped each other down to grass level. He rubbed the whole length of her, and took her hand and showed her where to rub him.
Then he got very active and started moaning. She wanted to kiss more, but apparently that was a retarded, mawkish thing to want: he broke away from her mouth and fastened his teeth on her shoulder, gripping her arms tight and kicking spastically, with a clattering of bones and keys and coins and a belt unbuckling and sliding to his knees, a ballpoint pen falling from his pants pocket, until he knocked against her thighs and cried out in ecstasy, "Congressman William E. Miller of New York, the next Vice-President of the United States!"
He dropped onto her with all his weight. Like a tambourine, his clattering subsided, and his shoe tips, scraping a groove into the dirt, slowed like a roulette wheel. He fell away from her, onto his back, to whine a sigh at the Catskill stars.
She was trying to imagine what might be the appropriate thing to say, when he interrupted her thoughts.
"Oh, God, I'm all wet. I'm sorry, I made a mistake. Please don't tell anyone"
"What's the matter, were they too flat for you?" she asked, glancing down at her chest.
"No, no, it's nothing about you. You're fineit's gauche to overemphasize breastsit's just, lookI shouldn't be doing this with anyone but Elissa. My girlfriend at home."
He sat up and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and began swabbing inside his pants. "Elissa and I told each other we wouldn't be seeing anyone else this summer. And morality is important to me," he added vehemently, as if she'd accused him otherwise. "Conservatism isn't just politics, it's values we should live by. I believe in love; I don't believe in free love."
"Oh, is that your campaign slogan?" Buttoning her blouse in the dark, she looked up just in time for a glimpse of him desperately wiping his underwear as he stood and ran away. "I hope she finds out," she called after him, but soft enough to sound muddled in his ears.
She stayed behind, thinking, Well, here I am. On a deserted ballfield at night, the kind of place that would have felt alien to her even in the daytime. So didn't this seem like the perfect moment to be rescued? Yes, an unlit rural ballfield would be the place extraterrestrials would choose to land, descending from the Big Dipper to tell people to stop their madness. They would choose her as their go-between to the governments of Earth, because teenagers were the only ones who really understood things, and because of all teenagers she was the least corrupted without being unusably innocent. The saucer would spin downward, flattening the grass, churning up a whirlwind that would whip her oily hair into her eyes, and when the slender, beautiful bipeds tripped down the ramp on long, elastic limbs, she would give them a quick survey course on human history and then be off to Washington where she'd preach into a bank of microphones, "Destroy all nuclear weapons or you will be destroyed...."
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