Uno momento, por favor. Was the play ever published and produced?

Yes and yes.

No accounting for taste. A guy jerking off in a coffee shop is not my idea of updated Shakespearian sonnets.

If my parents had traded Shakespearean sonnets, who knows what I would have written. I took what I had, refashioned it, and made my parents famous.

I’m sure they were overjoyed.

Pretty sure they never saw it. Can I go on?

Fire away.

First, there was the Great Depression episode.

“I think our son is depressed,” my mother said to her husband, my father, about their eight-year-old son. We were sitting at the breakfast table. It was the breakfast table because at the time we were eating breakfast. At other

Times, it was the lunch or supper table. It also passed for the homework desk, the sewing room, and the card table.

It was a nice table; gray Formica with a design of flowers around its border and the American flag smack in the middle. My parents were patriotic. We were sitting on three of the four matching gray Naugahyde, tubular aluminum chairs. The fourth chair was empty because I was, and remain, an only child.

“Hankie doesn’t sleep at night and he looks sad. He should be seeing a therapist.”

“I don’t sleep either and I ain’t the happiest guy in the world, but you don’t see me schlepping to a therapist. It’s bullshit,” my father, my mother’s love object, her choice of partners some 30 years before, enlighteningly said. I think my father was upset because he was eating his breakfast and trying to read. I discovered early it best not to interrupt my father while he was eating his Fruit Loops and/or reading the cereal box. As you can now discern, cereal box reading at breakfast is a learned behavior. At such times, Dad could become quite grouchy. I later discovered there is a synergism between Fruit Loops and newsprint that puts unstable souls over the edge. Dad was a prime subject.

So my mother took me to see Mrs. Pavony, my first therapist. She was a stout old lady with gray hair tied in a bun at the top of her head, stout, sturdy shoes and a stout, sturdy double row of pearls. She understood the value of stout. She got down on the floor and played games with me and she always let me win. I knew that because she spent more time asking me dumb questions and searchingly staring into my eyes than paying attention to the board we were playing on. Man, I whipped her ass.

It was nice in her office. There were dozens of games to choose from once Mrs. Pavony set me loose. I was always allowed my choice, too. It was as if I was being given an open house at Macy’s Toy Department. I liked darts the best. The darts had nice shiny, sharp, points to throw and stick into stuffed animals or walls or Mrs. Pavony. I never had the guts to do the latter, but was sorely tempted once.

It was the time she inadvertently won a game of Shoots and Ladders. I know she was trying to lose, to throw it, but it was no good. She had good position and was about to wrap it up when I thought about the darts, but it was too late. Besides, how would I explain the blood.

Mrs. Pavony closed me out. I upset the game board and threatened to storm out. She made me feel better by giving me some candy. I’m easily bought. But, as it turns out, I shouldn’t have been overly concerned because we had reached an immediate understanding. I wanted the toys and she liked her pearls.

“So, Hank, your mother tells me you are depressed. Are you depressed?”

“Would I have to be in order for my mother to keep paying you so I can keep coming here to play the games?”

“That’s about it,” Mrs. Pavony said, smiling and fingering her stout double row of pearls.

“And you’d like for me to keep coming here, right, Mrs. Pavony?”

“I certainly would,” she said as she breathed on her diamond ring, then buffed it against her Scottish wool skirt.

“I think I’m suicidal.”

Suicide or not, the real problem with seeing Mrs. Pavony was that once on the floor to play games, the old lady couldn’t get up and I had to help her get up off the floor. It was okay that she let me beat her in every game ever created, every game we played, but dragging her to her feet was no picnic. Not only was she a Gertrude Stein lookalike, she felt funny. It was the first time I touched the skin of someone old. Her skin was clammy and flaccid and repellent. After three sessions, I refused to return, toys or not.

“She’s such a nice lady, she always lets you win, why don’t you want to go back?” my mother asked.

“She feels funny, and she makes my back hurt.”

“Your mother feels funny and makes my back hurt, but I keep coming home,” my father said laughing, but I wasn’t sure what was funny. My mother sneered at him, patted my head and put more food on my plate.

The next episode seemed innocent enough. I was about ten at the time.

“Murray, our son hasn’t enough friends. I think you should be his friend.”

“I don’t need any more friends. I got all the friends I can handle.”

At the time, we were sitting in the park. We did this on occasion. It was Sunday, Lucy wasn’t on TV, and so we went to the park to sit on a park bench. Other people were sitting on other benches also not doing anything. Across from me sat a four-year-old and his parents. Down the path, a woman pushed a stroller. And there I was (infantilized or castrated, pick one), with my mommy on one side and my daddy on the other. I realized something wasn’t right with this picture.

I recall looking around and spotting a flock of pigeons circling above us. It suddenly occurred to me that this was a miraculous achievement; that the pigeons could fly close enough for their wings to touch, and yet they never did. Each remained in its own circumscribed space, never interfering with or otherwise impeding any other pigeon. And they never, ever touched.

I thought about this as I quietly sat on that park bench while my parents jabbered in the background. I then noticed the same phenomenon with a flock of sparrows. No matter how rapidly the birds darted from limb to limb, they, too, never touched. My mind leapt to recall seeing schools of fish at the aquarium, herds of deer at the zoo, water fowl in their migrations.

They all had the same ability. It was this skill to operate on one’s own, yet belong to a group, to live in and among, yet never touch, to be seen as part of something, yet never be truly part of anything, that I saw as greatness. I saw this adeptness as a manifestation of perfection and it was toward this perfection that I then determined to strive.

To be part of, yet apart from. That was to be my holy grail. That I never found out how to achieve that goal was immaterial. The goal might never be reached, but the journey made it important to try.

In other words, you became a Taoist.

Seems that way, but at the time I just thought I was emulating my parents.

So which is it? Tao or identification with the aggressor?

A little of both. The struggle is twofold. There is the ambivalence to not lose my connection to my family while also distancing myself, and then there is the nearly romantic striving to vanquish being needy while also lusting for success as a writer.

Sounds like you could use some therapy.

“You don’t have any friends,” my mother pointed out to my father. The pigeons were flying overhead.

“Exactly right,” said my father in triumph. It was just my luck that all these pigeons were constipated.

So my mother took me to my next therapist-friend, Dr. Burp, who did not get down on the floor to play games with me. In fact, he barely moved. There he sat, in his three-piece suit, starched white collar, tie pushed into his Adam’s apple and highly polished wingtips, pencil and pad at the ready, waiting to take down my every utterance. I gave no utterance, not a sound, not linguistically nor gaseous, not grunt, a fart, or a belch for good Dr. Burp.

Instead, Burp and me, we essentially stared at each other for 45 minutes. Occasionally, I would glance at Burp’s diaphragm to make sure he was still breathing. I began working out schemes to get Burp to move. I wondered if setting fire to Burp would be potentially explosive. This advent into my arson fantasies lasted three sessions, and then I refused to return.

“But he’s such a nice, quiet man. Why don’t you want to go back?” my mother asked.

“There are times when he doesn’t move and I’m afraid he’s dead.”

“There are times when your mother doesn’t move and I sometimes think she’s dead, but I keep coming home,” my father said laughing, but I wasn’t sure what was funny.

One morning, as my mother was cleaning my room, she came upon my stash of Playboy, Penthouse, Oui, Bondage, Tits, Ass, Fecal Follies, Animal Friends, and National Geographic magazines. I had spent considerable time and expense forming my library and now it was about to be ruined.

A beaver works months erecting his home, having to gnaw on wood, rotten old trees, schlep them to the water, pound them together to build his dam, and then a huge rising tide blows it all to shit. The beaver struggles mightily to save his home, the fruit of his labor and occasionally succeeds at the rescue. But how much of a fight could a puny 15-year-old wage against the invincible mother.

“Murray, you have to talk to your son. He’s of that age, if you know what I mean.”

“I never know what you mean.”

“I mean I found a load of sex magazines in his room. Is that clear enough?”

We were sitting in the living room on the plastic furniture. The furniture wasn’t really plastic, just the covers. And not all the stuff was covered either. One chair, the tall side-winged number with the brass hobnails, was inexplicably left uncovered, and it was to this chair each family member darted when entering the room. Without the plastic cover, the chair felt real. My father made sure that no matter, he would be first to the chair.

The man was uncanny. No matter where in the apartment he was, as any of the rest of us began to converge on the living room to watch Lucy, or to watch candidates pledge to ferret out corruption, to watch a ball-game or Donna Reed, Dad would be there first ensconced in the uncovered, tall side winged chair, the one without the plastic cover.

“Well, maybe I should talk to him. I should tell him to take better care of his magazines. He’s not the only man in the house. The way he keeps them, I can’t ever find what I’m looking for. No organization. Maybe he should be sent to a librarian to learn the Dewey Decimal System. That way, he has to get organized. On the other hand, maybe it’s better if we send him to a therapist. Hank,” he said turning to me as I was turning away from him, “you’re going back into therapy.”

And so, at the age of 15, I went to see Dr. Klot, who, he was proud to tell me, was the inventor of the Klot shot. Dr. Klot had a basketball court built in the rear of his house and took every one of his patients one-on-one and beat their ass. Klot knew every angle of the court he built. He invented a shot he named for himself that took advantage of this knowledge. Klot would loft the ball so that it caromed off two walls and then the backboard before it nestled softly into the basket, barely rippling the net. I stopped going after three losses.

“But you like to play basketball, and he seems to like you, why do you want to stop?” my mother asked.

“Because he’s beating my brains out and making me feel like shit.”

At this, my father just laughed.

And then I sat with the sage Dr. Creel, my last shrink, who would sit nodding as if his head were on a string.

“What’s your plan, Hank? What do you want to do with the rest of your life?”

“Haven’t a clue.”

Such was the weekly conversation I had with both my parents and Dr. Creel.

“But surely you’ve given it some thought,” any of them might go on.

“Well, as I figure it, I’ve got three options: I can commit myself to a state hospital, I can kill myself, or I can continue to float along in the stream  called my life, which I sense is rapidly becoming a rivulet. Right now, I choose to float.”

“You can get a job,” any of them might say, trying to be helpful.

“That is not an option.”

So there was my wheel of life rolling aimlessly down the hill and obviously losing air at an alarming rate.

I am using these memories as a starting point to make a point. Being a writer began, and continues to be, like a fish swimming upstream fighting the current.

Before I get more deeply into my tale, I suppose I should explain why a story at all. This mostly falls on my wife, Rose. She piqued my ire by scoffing at the

notion of my being able to write anything a thousand words long, let alone eighty thousand. If you have never had your ire piqued, let me tell you it is not nothing. Then adding in her scoffing and it is a dumpster fire of emotion. Rose laughed at my wanting to be a novelist because, she said, I am a terrible liar and that is why I will never be able to write a decent novel, that because she could see right through me, so will everyone else; that I should consider writing history or biographies if I insist on wring anything.

I countered by trying to explain the difference between lying and creating. She, in turn, accused me of creating a distinction without a difference, to which I reacted by sulking.

“When are you going to grow up, move on, and get a real job,” Rose says.

I rejoined the fray with Lincoln’s sage comment that I can fool some of the people some of the time. Rose countered claiming Lincoln never said that and she will allow I might con five suckers to buy my book if it ever sees the light of day, which she doubts. I sarcastically thanked her for her support and show of confidence. She countered by rubbing my leg, grabbing my crouch, and leading me to the bed. I quickly (well, not too quickly) succumbed to her line of reasoning and concentrated on the task at hand, the Pulitzer put on hold.

Rose. Quiet, secretive, hermit-like, dutiful Rose. To witness this woman who one would assume to the exemplar of  Saint Teresa of Avila suddenly come alive between the sheet as if my dick was a cattle prod was a source of wonder and, to be honest, some alarm. I had never before witnessed this level of libidinal firepower. Not that I had much in the way of comparison, since I had no previous sexual experience to compare with this woman riding atop me as if I she was hell bent on breaking the spirit of a defiant stallion.

But interestingly, during and after, I mulled how to convert that sexual energy and abandoned behavior into literature.

Writing as a manifestation of sex? Interchangeable? I have always been squeamish writing about sex, but given the inciting incident (see below) for this tale, it is unavoidable. I will get into this issue later on. Remind me if I forget. But first the tale.


For all installments of “Portrait of the Artist as a Schliemel,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1