Wreck in Progress


Yes, I’m coining a new phrase.  WIP now stands for “wreck in progress”.

I pulled out the file for a story I put aside last summer.  Its appalling state of confusion prompted me to label it a WIP.

Still, my distance from the project gave me some perspective on what can stay and what needs to be put down as mercifully as possible.

This will involve rum. Lots of it.

She Did Her Best

I like old cemeteries.  I like to stroll through and read the headstones.  Old headstones tell us something about the person resting below.  At the very least, we get a full name and dates of birth and death. We know if the person was married and if they had children. I found one very old headstone that said the deceased had been murdered and even named his murderer.

Today’s headstones are not as generous.  Too often, they’re just big granite slabs with a last name carved onto them.  They tell us nothing about the life of the person.  All we know about them is that they died.  In that sense, modern cemeteries are peopled by corpses, while old cemeteries are peopled by people.

Infant mortality rates were high a hundred and more years ago, so an old cemetery will have an unsettling number of tiny headstones marking the graves of little ones who never made it past the age of two.  I wonder at the small size of the headstones, as if they feared that a standard headstone would overwhelm the tiny grave.  These small headstones are usually the first to disappear, taken over by sod and weeds.

One of the saddest headstones I’ve found marked the grave of a woman who was married and had many children.  Beneath the basic information were the words, “She did her best.”

I’ve often wondered about that woman. With her husband and so many children to raise, what happened in her life that made her family put those words on her headstone?  To say that someone did their best implies that, despite their best efforts, they failed.  This grave was more than 100 years old, so it isn’t likely she failed at business, or law, or at being a doctor.  She was likely a housewife in that age when women didn’t have career options.  She did her best, they said.

I wish I could speak to her.  I wish I knew what the words on the headstone meant.

As I get older, I’m more conscious of the fact that I probably have more years behind me than I do ahead of me.  I wonder if my struggle to write and sell my stories will ever bear fruit.  I wonder how much the selling part matters.  I don’t want the words, “She did her best,” written on my headstone.

I want it to say, “She wrote.”

There’s a Spider in the Bathroom

I noticed it this morning before my shower.  It’s sitting up by the ceiling, above the medicine cabinet.  About the side of a nickel (counting the legs).

It’s a white spider, which my mother-in-law claims is the sign of a clean house.  Join me in a guffaw.

Let’s get something clear.  I don’t pick up dead spiders.  I will squish one with a shoe and leave it there until my husband gets home to clean up the carnage.  He no longer bothers to ask me why there is a random shoe sitting in a random spot.  He knows to grab a tissue and clean up what’s under the shoe.

That’s our system.

I can’t use a shoe on this spider because I can’t think of a way to make the shoe adhere to the wall in a way that won’t damage the paint.  Duct tape is out of the question, as is gorilla glue.

The weird thing is that the spider will probably still be there in the same spot when my husband gets home this afternoon, which leads me to the inescapable conclusion that spiders are, by their very nature, suicidal.

Maybe being one of the ickiest creatures on planet earth triggers their self-loathing, I’ll-just-sit-here-until-John-gets-home-so-he-can-squash-me attitude.

I can think of no other logical explanation.

I had a writing point. What was it?

Oh, yeah.

If I sit on a story while waiting six months for a publisher to get around to rejecting it, I start to feel like that suicidal spider.  Just sitting there.  Not moving.  Not looking for an alternative.  Knowing full well that if I don’t hear from them in three weeks it’s not going to end well.  Waiting for the publisher to whip out a shoe and squash me.

I’m not cleaning that up.

Now THAT’s a Playground


That, boys and girls, is the courtyard of the apartment building in which I grew up.  Second story on the right. The current occupant has an air conditioner in the kitchen window, which I find puzzling. My cousin Irene took this picture a few years ago.  When I first saw it, I thought something was missing but couldn’t put my finger on it.  Then it came to me.  No clotheslines!  When I was a kid, the entire courtyard was crisscrossed with clotheslines running between the two buildings. I guess everyone has a dryer now.  No more pulling frozen blue jeans off the line and standing them in a corner to thaw out.

When we were very small, the landlady would attach a hose to her kitchen sink and feed it out of the ground floor window, second down on the right, so we could cool off in the summer.  We put on our bathing suits and enjoyed that treat just as if we were at Coney Island.

Looks pretty bare, doesn’t it?  Oh, but what adventures we had back there.  Back in the seventies, the landlord had a brilliant idea (no doubt fueled by copious amounts of ethanol).  He would bust up the concrete and plant grass.  Instant playground!  We were thrilled, as you can well imagine.  The nearest park was about a quarter of a mile away and not safe for children to be in without an adult.  One summer day, they took a jackhammer to the concrete, starting just about at the line in the foreground of the picture, leaving big chunks of busted concrete where the jackhammer broke them.

And that was that.  For reasons never explained to the kids in the apartments, the broken concrete was never removed.  No grass was planted.  Which was just friggin’ awesome.

Broken slabs of concrete can be used in so many ways.  We created forts for our GI Joes (the ones with lifelike hair and beard, not regulation in any way).  We dared one another to run across the rubble as fast as possible without falling and suffering countless gashes.  We drew pictures with chalk. One day, we tried to build an animal trap, though I don’t really know what we expected to catch back there.  We found a nice round slab about two feet in diameter.  As we rolled it along, we noticed a bunch of nasty-looking bugs clinging to the bottom.  Not the cockroaches we knew so well but alien things you don’t generally see in the concrete jungle.  Screams erupted and we all jumped away.  Except for my sister. Betrayed by her reflexes, she stayed in place just long enough for the slab to land on her foot.  She spent most of the summer in a cast.

Good times.

The courtyard is shaped like the E on an eye chart.  You’re looking at the center leg.  Along the spine, there’s a chain link fence and about a four-foot drop into the neighboring courtyard.  A thin ledge runs along the opposite side of the fence.  Walking its length was a test of bravery we each had to pass.  The truly brave could climb onto the flat roof of a garage whose back faced the courtyard at the far left end.  The heroic could leap from the roof and land without breaking any bones.  I made the jump many times.

My brother buried his turtle back there in an area where the concrete had crumbled long before the jackhammer incident.  Not allowed to have a dog or a cat, I named every alley cat back there and sometimes snuck them food. I worried about them when it got cold. When one died, I grieved alone.

We buried treasure and made pirate maps for the others to follow.  We told ghost stories.  We imagined.

The picture shows that somewhere along the line, they repaved the courtyard.  They paved over forts. They paved over buried treasure.  They paved over a world no adult ever saw.