Archive for old friends

Publication Day, No Stopping Train

Posted in Moments of Clarity, Upcoming Events with tags , , , , , on 10/14/2014 by Janet Fitch

It’s been a full year since my friend, the writer Les Plesko died. That night, I watched his YouTube station, over and over again, and wrote the poem On Watching Your YouTube Channel Late at Night.

At the time, I wrote that his magnum opus, the brilliant No Stopping Train, “set in the Hungary of his birth and circulated privately among his friends” had never been published. Now, a year later, that book is entering the world. Prospects look good. So many emotions crowd in on me tonight.  I did a long email interview yesterday with David Ulin, the book critic from the L.A. Times, which ran in short form on the Times literary blog Jacket Copy, and at full length on the Les Plesko website Pleskoism.  But the thinking, and remembering, has brought me to the place of–as a student of his posted, “very glass half full.”  I don’t know if the glass is half full or empty or completely overflowing or downright broken.  All of the above. He wanted that book to be published so much, published well, appreciated.  And here it is. And he is not.  I want to celebrate, and I know I will, but tonight I just feel bereft.

Your book born today

Into the arms of old friends

How like you it looks.

Tomorrow, an interview on KCRW, our local NPR station, with Lisa Napoli, on its ‘journey to publication.’  That torturous path. Can I get my chin off my knees? It is such a beautiful book, a rigorous book, a real barn-burner. If I think about the book and not the ‘journey to publication’, I feel so incredibly happy.  So glad such a thing has come into the world, and is being greeted properly. One of the questions Ulin asked me was whether there was a hierarchy between his books, did he value some over others.  I said that he’d worked so very hard on this novel, there was such beauty, such labor, such rigor, he really wanted to see it — as an old friend put it— “walk down the aisle in a white dress.”

Now here it is, and he’s not there.  And it’s so beautiful in that dress, its shining veil.

An excerpt was from No Stopping Train was published in The Nervous Breakdown this week.  Read it–it’s everything I teach, everything I value in prose–the lyricism, the word choice, the rhythms, the tightness of the dialogue, the moodiness and texture of the landscape, the poetic devices–assonance and alliteration and rhyme. Such music.  The bigger issues interlocked with the human ones, love and betrayal, honor and affinity.  All honed to a glinting edge.

On Sunday, October 19, 6 p.m. in the Charles Young Salon at UCLA, where he taught so many students, for so many years, we, his old friends and students, will walk his book down the aisle. If you’re in town, please come.  For more information, click here.

The Artificial Heart

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , on 05/02/2014 by Janet Fitch

The Word: BILL

What led him to open the mail that day? He normally didn’t do mail, that was Carolyn’s province. The bills, the house, the painters and plumbers, taxes and whatnot. She was presiding angel. He made the money, she spent it. That was their joke. But he’d come home from work early, he’d had a breakthrough towards the silicone armature for the artificial heart. He deserved the afternoon off.

On the hall table among the other mail was a card, clearly a birthday card for him, from his old college friend Kathy Setzer, now heading her own lab at MIT. Kathy always remembered birthdays. Funny old Kathy. Carolyn had met her once at a John Hopkins reunion–his beautiful new wife had looked like a peacock in a barnyard. He never realized how plain the scientists were before. Carolyn had taken one look at Kathy and whispered, “She’s a full professor, for god’s sake, does she really have to shop at Penney’s?” Well, Kathy was a scientist, and Carolyn was a designer– recommended by the realtor when he’d bought the La Jolla house after he’d made his first five million.  She’d just swept him up. Beautiful, organized, decisive. Saved his life, really.

The card from Kathy was so sweet. A Sierra club photo of people kayaking on Chesapeake Bay. Kathy had always been game for the outdoors, hiking, backpacking… That made him laugh—Carolyn’s idea of the outdoors was white wine on the patio looking out at the sunset. These days he went kayaking alone. He propped the card on the table, knowing his wife would have something tart to say about Kathy. His friends bored her. She preferred the money crowd of La Jolla, people she met through the museum.

Oh, what did he  care who they had dinner with, at fundraisers and so on. He had her, he had his work. She took care of him in a way Kathy or a woman like her would never be able to.

Which was how he came to open the envelope.

It was just a bill. An Amex bill or something. He glanced over it, still thinking of kayaking Chesepeake. The old Hopkins days with Kathy Setzer.

The name on the bill stopped him. It wasn’t his, or even theirs. It was Carolyn’s brother Frankie’s. This address, but Frank Norman. For $12,586.35. Thank you for your last payment of $7,452. He stood looking at the bill, blinking. Why was he getting Frankie’s bill? And who in the world would have given Frankie Norman an Amex card? Let alone let him rack up a tab like that? Frankie Norman was a nice enough guy, but basically a surf bum—this was almost $20 grand worth of what? Carlsbad Mercedes, lease payment, $523. Frankie didn’t even drive a Mercedes… or did he? Some kind of sports car, yes… though honestly, he couldn’t remember the last time he saw Frankie.

David could feel a shocked redness creeping up from the collar of his polo shirt, up his neck and into his face. Thank you for your last payment… Car payment, restaurants… Bessell Custom Surfboards. Airline tickets for two, LAN airlines, to  SCL. LAN?  SCL? He was about to Google it on his cellphone when the mystery of the acronym resolved itself a moment later–Hotel Grand Hyatt, Santiago, Chile. Grand Hotel Gervasoni, Valparaiso, Chile. Two weeks at the Gervasoni, Valparaiso, Chile. A suite.

Frankie couldn’t have gotten an Amex card. He began to search through the fat wad of mail. Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus, Another Amex, this one for Carolyn’s mother, living in a retirement community in Vero Beach. He gutted it.  $3,267. About the same the month before.  Well, at least the old lady wasn’t so greedy.

His head was bursting. His heart… he couldn’t afford a heart attack—RepliCorp’s artificial heart was years away. He couldn’t afford this.

 Citi Card. Carolyn N. Stein. He ripped it open with such fumbling hands that he tore the bill as well. $88,273.67. Even as his senses reeled, the computational wheels spun in his head. He’d always been good at numbers. Words he distrusted, but numbers… Thank you for your last payment, $47,928. He couldn’t help adding it up. So far he’d seen a two month outlay of $160 grand and change. A year– that was almost $700,000. He hesitated to multiply by 24 days in a month that mail arrived. It was close to the end of the month, maybe this was the bulk of it. God knew what was on the other cards.

He thought of all those afternoons he’d come home and see her leafing through the mail. Anything for me?

He thought he might vomit.

His love, his beautiful wife. Carolyn, what have you done? But his eye kept scanning the bill. DeMolay Jeweler’s–$71,495.   He pulled out his phone, frantically punched in the phone number that was conveniently listed with the entry on his bill, misdialed, had to start again.  “Yes, DeMolay? This is Dr. David Stein. I wanted to ask you about a bill—yes, I’ll wait.”

The billing office came on. “Yes Dr. Stein?” A smooth woman’s voice.

“My wife was in there last month, she bought something from you, I just got the bill. What was that item, please?”

He could hear clicking. Of course DeMolay Jewelers was completely computerized, they could certainly afford it. “Yes, Mr. Stein? I see it, but I’m not sure, it might be a gift…”

He felt a twinge. What if she had bought a gift for him? But, she had not bought two weeks at the Grand Hotel Gervasoni for him. Or six Hermes scarves. “What was it?”

“A watch, sir. A Patek.”

“A man’s watch?”

“Yes, sir.”

He hung up and slipped the phone back in his pocket. He couldn’t breathe. He opened the sliding doors to the patio, went outside into the clean, cool afternoon, sat heavily in a patio chair, always scrubbed and ready for use. He sucked great lungfuls of ocean air. Out in the water, down at the edge of the Pacific glinting in the lowering sun, surfers rode the bluegreen waves. Frankie, on his custom Bessell surfboard.

But maybe it was a birthday gift for him… Maybe—

He saw her, in her white tennis dress, racket over her shoulder…

Did he have any money left at all? Was this all just a dream? His daughter, his wife… Should he wait for his birthday, to see if maybe–?

But he was no fool.

Then he stopped himself in mid-thought. Ha–of course he had been. A fool was exactly what he was, what he’d always been. A perfect fool. Was that how she’d seen him? As she discussed carpet and couches and lamps? A fool who owned a biotech company and ten major patents.

He looked down his list of contacts on his phone, and rang the lab at MIT. “Hi, Kathy?”

Her voice, so familiar, a bit nasal. “Dave! So cool, you called. How’s life in the big leagues

“Kind of crazy. Look, just wanted to thank you for the card,” he said. Someone caught a wave, riding it towards shore. “I mean really. It means a lot.”

“Hey, no problem. Hey, Dave–you okay?”

He was crying. Took off his glasses and wiped his eyes on the back of his hand. The trendy glasses Carolyn had insisted he buy. Sprucing him up. “No. Yeah. Probably. You know.” What was the chance that Kathy, running her lab at MIT, would understand any of this, have any idea. $70K for a fucking watch. What did Carolyn do with all the stuff? Sell it on Ebay? She was an Ebay nut—he knew that, but he never….

He had to get his shit together. He couldn’t fall apart now. He had to be very clear now.  “I have to go now.  Just wanted to say… thanks.”

“You coming out for the reunion?”

“Maybe.  If I can afford it.”

“Funny,” she said. “How’s your glamorous spouse?”

“Ever more glamorous,” he said, and rang off.

He glanced at his watch. His old Timex. His father gave it to him when he graduated from high school.  Carolyn would be home any time now. He had to get ready. He had to clear his mind.  He wouldn’t open any more of the envelopes.  No, he wanted to watch her leafing through that stack of mail with that same calm, bland look on her face. Anything interesting honey? No, not really. He wanted to see that look, one last time.


Part of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: FRAME`



The Age of Elegance

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , on 10/20/2013 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Cape

I was cleaning out my closet. Piles of clothes that didn’t fit anymore, piles that didn’t fit into my quote unquote lifestyle anymore. My old friend Trina sat on the bed, giving clothes thumbs up or thumbs down. I’d been divorced for a year, and my latest so-called boyfriend, a professor in the economics department, had just dumped me after a six week affaire. Now Trina had put her foot down. “You’re not going to get an interesting man looking like Marian the Librarian.”  Anything that a librarian could wear, I was to eject.   Anything my ex-mother-in-law would wear, my mother, or that looked like I was going to a PTA meeting.  “And all that tired vintage. It’s not interesting anymore, it just looks old.”

Out went the sweater sets, so convenient for teaching, faculty meetings and long hours in the library—it was always so cold in the stacks. The wool pants.  The khaki trousers. Even  the old jeans and sweats I used for chores.  “How many pairs of ugly pants do you need?” Trina said.  “When was the last time you painted anything?  One pair, that’s it.”

We’d been friends since junior high, but now Trina was in the movie business. Her jeans were tight and expensive and fit into her $800 boots just so. She wore a chunky gold chain with a clever ring for her glasses.  “Think chic.  Small shoulders, fitted jackets.  Little black dress. No suits. No matchy matchy.”

Out went every one of my button down shirts Trina  said didn’t fit. But how could you fit both the shoulders and the bust if you were small shouldered and busty?  You’d think at 53, I would have solved that mystery. I can compose sestinas, villanelles, ghazals, but I still hadn’t mastered the fit of a cotton shirt.

“You are not a Large, Emmy. Get that out of your head. Shoulders first, then if the bust fits, you buy,” Trina said.

Were they really so terrible?  I gazed into the mirror on the closet door, looking at the blue oxford shirt, the sleeves rolled up.  Too big, and my gray-threaded hair unfashionably long, in a braid over my shoulder, my pale face.

“Fifty is the age of elegance,” Trina said, running a manicured hand through her glossy, well-cut hair. “You used to wear makeup, and cool jewelry. What happened to that?”

Fifty. What a horrible year that had been, divorced and fifty. Yes, I used to try harder.  Now I just tried to be serviceable.

The pile was growing, and empty hangers dangled from the clothing rod.  The savage pruning was heading to the back of my closet, treasured articles I had saved for some thirty years. The black velvet coat that had been my grandmother’s, and oh, the green cape.

“My god, you still have that?”  said Trina. “Out with it.  Out!”

The soft green, with its big hood. I’d worn it all through college, my early years in San Francisco.  It had made me feel  like Anais Nin, Georgia O’Keefe. Louise Nevelson. Soft boots, and a skirt to my calves, and the cape. It made me feel like a poet.  My hair in a twisted chignon. A romantic figure. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Catherine Earnshaw. Anna Akhmatova.

I wrapped it around my shoulders. Its cashmere, soft as eiderdown. And what I saw in the mirror was a woman I’d forgotten. A poet. A romantic. Not a professor, not a librarian, not someone who dated economics professors who played tennis.  Now I saw where I had gone wrong.   The cape didn’t go with those sweater sets now piled on the bed, and the  button down shirts, the khaki pants from L.L.Bean.  Nor would it have gone with TRina’s little black dresses and leather miniskirts.  This was who I had always been.  Not really a serviceable person at all. What had I been doing with ill-fitting, button-down shirts, trying to make that work? Button-down. The essence of wrongness.

I had forgotten who I was. But the cape remembered.

“No,” Trina said.  “Do you hear me Emma?”

I turned to the left and the right, admiring myself, my silvery hair now beautiful against the soft wool,  my pale face with its gray, slightly crinkly eyes, the softness of my contours.  And the shoulders fit just right.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

 Next week’s word is: BURN


Carmen, Still

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , on 11/21/2012 by Janet Fitch

The Word: FOIL

Yes, I’m her foil, her heterosexual Alice B. Toklas, her dogsbody, her step n’ fetchit man.  Companion was the term they used in the dear old days back when we met at Mills, that during the War. Carmen and Addy. Who was the comic who put us into the same room. Both from Southern California, poor dear. They must have supposed we knew each other. Or at least traveled in the same circles.  That we’d take comfort in one another, being so far from home.

But Carmen was from Bel Air, and I was from Whittier. Her father was a big man in the studios, while mine edited a small town newspaper. (No one ever asked what the mothers ‘did,’ but for the record, hers collected art, and mine went to church and grew a Victory garden.)

Sixty-some years ago.

Who would have put money on us?

Carmen still glittered, I’ll give  her that much.  Even as a college girl she had. I’ll never forget how a car came for us, to take us to the Opera in the City. Girls spied on us from the windows of the dorm.  I’d needed a formal gown, I remember.  I made mine, pale yellow with a jewel neck, a color I thought looked well with my pale hair, and my blue eyes and my freckles. But I disappeared next to Carmen, with her luxuriant black hair and olive green dress with the plunging back.

I don’t mean to sound envious. Who would want to be Carmen? It would be like wanting to be a hurricane. Tearing through the world, knocking down trees, drowning everything in her path.  Ruin in every direction, ruin of your own creation.

Girls didn’t like her. Women,.  She had to wait until she was so famous, everyone admired her–and took her peculiarities as part of the package. But back then, they expected you to be just another nice girl from a good family, which meant–behave. She scandalized them by being both nouveau riche, and–they didn’t have to say it–Jewish.

But I was dazzled by her.  And I was her friend.

Tonight, the hair was silver and wound in a thick chignon I knew was half purchased, her bony arm bore six inches of jeweled bangles, the dress was scarlet. Oscar de La Renta. At eighty, she was still the most daring thing in the room. And I was myself, as ever. Gray hair bobbed,  black pants elastic-waisted, wearing a silk kimono bought on a trip to Hong Kong in the ‘seventies.

“Addy! Take this, dear.” She thrust a half-eaten strawberry into my hand, a balled up napkin, turning to smile at the photographer, arms around two young glittering friends.

Yes, that was me, there to hold her sweater or a wet glass when the photographers came around,  The gooey feeling of the strawberry in my hand. I wanted to throw it at her.  People said, yes Carmen’s a handful, but it must have had its moments–a girl from Whittier, you’ve stayed at the Dorchester, you’ve met Picasso, You fly first class, there’s a a car and driver in every city.

But I’ve  been well-paid– in wet glasses and half-eaten strawberries.

I drifted back to the catering kitchen–there was a personal one and a larger one for parties–where black-and-white-clad boys and girls smoked and gossiped as they cleaned up.  I liked they didn’t stop when I came in.  I dumped the strawberry into the trash, and wiped my hand, asked a young man for a cigarette–my once a year treat.

I have been her shadow for sixty years.  Good old Addy. Through all seven of her marriages, one more disastrous than the next.  I wear the same dress to them all now–it seems ridiculous to buy new ones.

I remembered the gown she wore for my sole trip to the altar. Schaparelli pink. For a Methodist wedding in Whittier. Ha. My mother was appalled, but I should have  known. She just couldn’t bear to be in anyone’s shadow. Not even on my wedding day.

But when Jim lay dying, in the bed at Cedars with all his tubes, she brought us pastrami and pickles and scotch. Her then-husband couldn’t bear the sight of the dying–he was, as she would say, a piece of work. Number six, the designer. But Carmen stayed with us, night after night, playing gin rummy, running to the nurse’s station to bawl them out, she snapped at their heels like a border collie. She’d invited me to come live with her after the funeral.

“I can’t live under the same roof as that,” I said. The husband, Danny somebody, waiting by the Bentley.

“It’s not the same roof,” Carmen said.  “It’s the carriage house. There’s a huge lawn between you.”

Then Danny was gone, and the one after that.  But I’m still here.

So funny, who proves the most important person in your life.  I poured myself some scotch. I could hear her out there laughing, she had a big braying laugh, the girls at Mills used to mock it, but she’s known for it now.  And I toasted her. For she was my foil as well.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: DARK