far too much writing, far too many photos

The first chapter of a novel in progress (© 2002, 2004 by runswithscissors):

I woke to traffic noise and exhaust fumes, my lips chapped, my mouth dry. A confused moment, then one eyelid dragged itself open to reveal the picture: me in the Square against a brick wall, butt parked uncomfortably on cold cement. I saw people’s lower halves moving by in both directions, beyond them a row of taxis, further beyond other vehicles crisscrossing through the scene. Legs extended out from the bottom of my field of vision. My legs, I guessed, sporting decent black jeans and work boots.

A hand pressed up against the right side of my face, briefly closing that eye — my hand, I realized. A rusty-sounding yawn ballooned out from my mouth, my second eye unclosed so that the panorama of my situation became clear: me in Harvard Square, waking up. Not part of my normal routine.

A four- or five-year-old girl passed, hand in hand with a fashionably dressed Cambridge 30-something I figured to be her mother. Young walnut-brown eyes shyly checked me out. I returned her glance, mustering a pathetic smile. When she slowed, curious, the parental hand jerked her back up to passing speed and they moved on.

I noticed I had on a decent down coat — a tad soiled, yes, but otherwise in good shape. Good enough to keep me alive during a snooze out in the elements.

Which begged the question: Where was my bedroom? What was going on? (Fine, two questions.) And at some point I stopped observing the scenery and began to wonder. There had to be a good reason — events of this sort don’t happen randomly.

My body decided it wanted to get up and commenced the process, me watching with interest until I found myself on my feet looking around, getting my morning legs — normally an operation that takes place in the privacy of my little two-bedroom tenement, though attempted on this particular morning under the gaze of whoever felt like gazing. Not very dignified, but what the hell. I kept it short and stumbled off toward Church Street as soon as I could mobilize the legwork.

I have to say in my defense here that I am not a derelict. I have a job, I have a life, such as it is. Not that someone can’t have a job and a life and still go through the wringer, but you get my drift. I’m not generally the kind of individual you’d expect to find coming to on the sidewalk after a hard night. I might have the occasional hard night, but I’d find a more appropriate berth to sleep it off, you know what I’m saying?

I found it important to reassure myself of that as I made my way down Church Street, Sunday morning church and/or brunch-goers giving me the goggle-eye as I weaved by. Like they’ve never overdone it. Like they’ve never partied a little too hearty. Cambridge. Please.

I was muttering distractedly in that vein when I heard Boo call my name. There’s no mistaking Boo when she pipes up. The years’ built-up strata of smoker’s phlegm and catarrh give her voice a quality that could shake the paint off window shutters, so when she calls out a greeting it pretty much cuts through anything that stands in the way with the scary efficiency of a dull but determined buzzsaw. You can’t always be sure what she’s saying, but you know who’s saying it.

I spotted her steaming in my direction, slowed and waited for her to catch up. Once she’d shuffled through the Cambridge folk and reached my side, it took her a couple of minutes to catch her breath. A three-pack-a-day habit of European cigarettes will do that. Gaspers she calls them, affecting some old keltic thing. What the hell. In Cambridge, everyone’s affecting some dress or personality or conversational tic. Colorful, that’s us.

“I saw you nappin’ before,” Boo started out, “but diddin wanna wake you.” She paused in case I wanted to acknowledge her thoughtfulness, forged ahead when I didn’t. “Long night?”

“No longer than any other night.”

“The show cloze las’ night, diddinit.”

Show? “Uh-huh,” I said through a yawn, covering cluelessness with cavernous mouth gyrations.

“Big strike party?”

The strike party. Right. I’d done a clean memory wipe. Couldn’t let Boo know, of course. “Yeah. Laid it to rest, said the long good-byes.”

She looked over at me for a second, brown rheumy eyes giving me the quick x-ray, me trying to appear casually knackered, innocent as sleepy puppies and kittens. She looked ahead, erupted into a series of hacking throat-clearings that nearly made passing Harvard Squareniks drop their Crate and Barrel bags. (What is it with this epidemic of blank-and-blank store names? Crate and Barrel, Bowl and Board, Bed and Bath, Boob and Table. Man, enough’s enough.)

We arrived at the corner of Church and Brattle Streets. I didn’t know where I was going, so I paused and looked around purposefully, as if that could somehow pull me together. Boo stopped her forward shamble when she noticed me stop, hauled out a pack of gaspers, politely offered me one. Whatever else one might say about her, she is the soul of manners when she wants to be.

When I declined she lit up, sucking in the first drag like it was the substance of life. I noticed she looked pretty good, which is to say less crusty and mud-spattered than usual, and tried to spot why. First thing I saw were the pants.

“Hey,” I said, “new bell-bottoms.”

She squinted over, favoring me with a flirty grimace of a smile. “You like ‘em?”

“Yeah, they’re okay.” She’d been wearing bellbottoms for the last 25 or so years, and by that I don’t merely mean she refused to follow fashionable trends. I mean at some point in the dim, distant past she stocked up on used bellbottoms and brought them out at the rate of about one pair a year, wearing them continuously until they disintegrated and were replaced by another pair. These actually looked nearly new, so now that bells had come back in again maybe she’d begun stocking up for the next 25 years.

Which brings me to the question of how old Boo is. It’s hard to tell. Some days she seems positively ageless, other days she looks like one of those wrinkly apple-faced dolls, like a Russian peasant woman in from the steppes to the colleges ‘n’ coffee bars of Cambridge. I suppose I could ask her, but the thought of that somehow feels uncouth, improper. She’s old enough that somewhere circa 1968 she discovered bellbottoms and never looked back. You figure it out. I think I’d rather not.

She adjusted the current pair of bells, rooting around under her coat to persuade them to fit more comfortably, completely unselfconscious as far as the image she presented to the world, or so preoccupied with her task that she was simply not aware of the figure she cut.

I moved slightly upwind of her and waved to Steve, who approached along Brattle Street.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” I replied.

Boo waved in greeting as she put her other hand over her mouth and worked some phlegm loose with a series of hair-raising vocalizations. Steve hardly winced at all, showing his familiarity with the whole routine.

In contrast to the sad ambience Boo and I brought to the Square, Steve wore a clean, nicely-pressed, office-casual style outfit. Thin, standing just over six feet, well-groomed, he looked dishearteningly healthy and clear-headed. He was young, though, so I could accept it all without too much self-loathing. Let’s see how he looks after the odometer has accumulated some mileage.

“What’s new?” he asked.

“Dennis slep’ outside last night,” Boo volunteered through a cloud of cigarette smoke. I’m Dennis, by the way. Dennis Marlowe.

Steve raised an eyebrow in my direction, I shrugged. “It’s never happened before,” I said defensively, whining just the teeniest bit.

“You need to get cleaned up,” he observed, ignoring my humiliation.

“Yes, I know.”

“What’s going on? I’ve never seen you looking quite so…”

He paused to search for the right word. “Earthy?” I suggested. “Seasoned? Experienced?”

“…dissolute,” he finished.

I shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m not sure.”

“Not sure?”

“No, not sure. I don’t remember. I’m drawing a blank, all right?”

A chortle from Steve. “All right, Dennis. Brain cell death. Cerebrocide.”

I noted Boo studying me from the corner of her eye. “You don’ remember whad happen’ las’ night?” she asked.

“I could have sworn that’s what I just said.”

Her sideways gaze lingered, slid away, returned. “You know, you go drinkin’ an’ don’ remember whad happen’, some people mi’ call thadda blackout.”

If you have any sense, you don’t want to find yourself on the receiving end of this kind of thing. In the first place, how do you defend yourself? You can’t. There’s no point in even trying. It’s open season, psychobabblewise, and the best you can hope to manage is a fast change of subject. In addition, though Boo may not appear to be the sharpest tool in the shed, she is actually fairly acute and not someone to wrangle with. She has the knack of delivering pointed observations, lacing them with unexpected quotes — i.e., “If we concede that human life can be governed by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed.” Leo Tolstoy. What are you supposed to do with that?

The solution: remove yourself from the line of fire. In my case, that meant mumbling something about needing sleep, assuring both parties I’d see them later and escaping to the red line, where I discovered I didn’t have the cash for a fare and did the old pull-the-turnstile-backward-until-you-can-squeeze-through maneuver before hopping a train.

The furnace had been turned on in my building a week earlier, when I got home I found that building management had set the heat to bake. After pulling my coat off and heaving some windows open, I headed toward the kitchen to grab a bottle of pop from the refrigerator. Which is when I re-encountered the box.

The box.

A day earlier, I’d received a slip from the post office asking me to pick up a package. When I showed, they presented me with a 2′ x 2′ carton wrapped in brown paper, from a return address in Oberlin, Ohio I didn’t recognize. A mystery, as they used to say in parochial school. I carted it home and unwrapped it, finding crumpled newspaper padding on top of which lay a letter, written on flowery stationery in the delicate handwriting of an elderly person. It read as follows:

Dear Mr. Marlowe,

I’m sorry this package is being sent out of the blue like this.

I know you and your father were not in touch. I have no way of knowing your feelings toward him — for what it’s worth, he regretted deeply leaving you and your mother as he did. In fact, your father felt remorse for many of the choices he made in his life. He was terribly unhappy in his last years and seemed unable to find the will to take steps that would change that.

At the end, your father’s health took a sudden downturn. He’d done a lot of hard living and his heart, lungs and liver all seemed to give out at the same time. He went into a hospital very suddenly in late 1990, then was transferred to a nursing home. He lost consciousness within 48 hours of arriving and died shortly thereafter, alone except for his friendship with my husband, Bernie, and myself. There was some question about his age, but I believe he was 84 years old.

His Will left all of his possessions to Bernie. That didn’t amount to much after debts and healthcare costs. All that remained were old clothes along with some keepsakes and personal effects he had with him in the nursing home. As far as I know, this box represents the last of his worldly goods.

In his Will, your father asked that Bernie hold on to these things for remembrance’s sake, and asked further that upon Bernie’s death these articles be forwarded to you, to be kept or disposed of as you wish. My husband passed on two months ago, and I have only now been able to take care of this. I hope you will forgive the delay.

If you have any questions, please call or write. I’m not sure how much help I would be, but I will do what I can.

Yours sincerely,

Edith Ohls

I read all that, my forehead and eyebrows knit from concentration, then read it again, wondering what I should be feeling. What’s a person supposed to do with a moment like this? Maybe, I reasoned tentatively, it would be all right to have no feelings in particular. After all, I couldn’t say I ever knew the man.

One of my hands dug into the box, rummaging through wadded paper until my fingers gripped something solid and pulled it up into view. A wallet, black leather, tired and worn from use. It fell open, displaying a small, faded picture of my mother, young and pretty, smiling as if her life lay before her, stretching off into a future of better days.

I don’t have many memories of my parents. My father, the great detective, bagged out on the marriage a year and some months after my birth, fleeing west across the Atlantic in a long, fast beeline to Los Angeles. Or so I’m told. They’d been living in Paris when they had me. My mother convinced him to leave Southern California behind, let go of detective work and move with her to the City of Light. I guess a life of relative ease and happiness didn’t cut it for him. After he bailed, Paris lost its magic for my mother, a year or two later she returned to the States with me. She declined to head back out west, her family having essentially disowned her, and we touched down in New York City. She somehow found work on Long Island, we migrated out there, landing in Massapequa, on the south shore. Quality of life, I remember her saying. She had a job, we had a roomy apartment, things seemed to be looking up. She liked Massapequa. She met a nice man, they dated some. My fourth and fifth birthdays passed, a tranquil time.

One spring afternoon, my mother and I crossed a busy street together, my hand firmly in hers. I remember how clear and sharp everything looked — people walking, cars going by. The innocent, sunlit bustle of everyday life. And then a produce truck swung around the corner, running the light. One moment, me and my mother walked together; the next moment, a blur of metal and noise passed directly in front of me. Then I’m alone, my hand grasping air where her hand had been. I watched the truck careen down the block, my mother’s skirt a ripple of blue off the side of the front bumper, until the vehicle slammed into parked cars and came to a halt, fruits and vegetables spilling out the rear hatch in cascades of color. A crowd collected, police showed up, an old Cadillac hearse-style ambulance eventually arrived and took my mother away. The whole time I remained where I was, unable to move. No one noticed me. I stood there until the truck and the damaged cars had been towed off, leaving only broken glass and liberated produce to evidence what had happened. Then I wandered home.

I remember the apartment was unlocked — who knows why — so that I could go inside. I closed the door behind me, went to a chair by a window and climbed up into it. On a table by that chair sat a radio, I turned it on. A top-40 tune played, and its carefree sound felt so good that, I swear, for a moment I forgot about what I’d just gone through. I sat there staring out the window, my feet moving in time to the music until the police called. The spasm of fear that gripped me when the phone rang emptied my bladder, squeezing out urine that ran down my thighs to soak into the seat cushion, warm then quickly cold on my skin.

My grandmother always believed I was prescient in that moment, that I knew my mother was dead in a tragic, miraculous psychic flash. I never told a soul I’d been with her when it happened, sure her death was somehow my fault and that if anyone found out I’d been there I’d get in terrible trouble. I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone that I might have been with her and not said anything about it, though they wondered why I was home by myself.

Not many people thought to connect my last name with my father’s — I mean, honestly: me? Offspring of an icon? It just didn’t happen. And I mostly didn’t think about it. Mostly. Once in a while I wondered where he was, if he was alive. In dark/lonely/self-pitying moments, I might wonder why I’d never heard from him. He could have tracked me down if he wanted to. He was a detective, for crissake. Finding people would be his meat and potatoes.

And now, years later, contact had finally been made.

I gradually remembered where I was, felt the floor under my feet, the wallet in my hand. Idly, aware of the feel of old, smooth leather, warmed from my touch. I wondered if some residual essence of my father lay in the wallet. Don’t psychics get hits off people’s possessions, something they carry around with them all of the time, keys or whatnot?

I’m discussing psychics. Someone pass the sedatives.

I looked at the box on the table. One little billfold unlocked all those thoughts, all the memories. One item from one goddamn box. Who knew what else lurked in there? There was no telling, and right then I didn’t want to find out. I winged the wallet back into the crumpled newsprint, grabbed my coat and beat feet.

It was late enough in the day that I didn’t have much time to kill before being due at the theater, so I headed over Mass. Ave. way to scare up a little pre-performance chow. The air had some snap to it, the kind that clears my head and reminds me I’m alive. I liked it. I made my way down the Avenue to the Three Aces pizza joint, noticing en route a new tea shop that had recently taken root. I bitch about Cambridge but, you know, you can dine blue collar, you can dine college style, you can dine ethnic, you can dine effete and rarified. You can pretty much find whatever you want. Bloated self-image aside, this burg has its good points.

I scanned the tea shop from the front window. A group of academics sat around one table, blabbing. Near them, a scruffy-looking couple gazed into each other’s eyes over a pot of tea. Singles hunched over books at two or three other tables. It looked okay, but as far as I could make out from scanning the menu, what I would pay here for a pot of tea and a muffin would just about get me an entire eggplant sub down the street. I continued on my way, thoughts turning to the impending closing night.

I’m what some might call a semi-pro actor. I work in the smaller theaters around town. Not community theatre, but not union work either. It’s not a hobby — it’s what I do. My day job covers rent, groceries, child-support; acting keeps me alive. I’m okay at it, have done it long enough here that people now call to offer me parts, so that I rarely have to suffer through the audition grind any more. And though this is not union work, the theaters sometimes try to provide financial compensation. Not much, just a stipend — $100, $150 for a run, maybe a little more. Enough that I can categorize myself as a theatrical type for the IRS, take a few deductions.

I’ve been doing this on and off since graduating college with a B.A. in theatre (talk about useless degrees). For a number of years I moved around, following theatre work or a general feeling of restlessness, before arriving here in the mid-80’s. And here I’ve remained. There was, during the second half of that decade, a growing local theatre scene, genuinely promising, sometimes truly dynamic. Who knows what happened after that. Some contend that a small clique of theatre critics leveled it off, three or four pasty-faced putzboys trying to compensate for low self-worth by shitting on most everything they reviewed. Others take a more philosophical tack, believing the scene had a good run but lost steam as quality people headed off to New York or L.A. Whatever. Mid-level theatre in Boston had gone through a long fallow period.

So why, one might ask, do I remain where I am? I did shows in union houses a couple of times and, when given the opportunity to turn pro, chose to turn it down. I told myself I did it because going union meant I’d be shut out of the small- to medium-sized houses around town, the non-union places I mostly worked in. Which was true, but I think nowhere near the entire truth. Why would one deliberately limit how far they could advance in their field? (How about we don’t probe that thought right now?)

After gobbling down some satisfyingly greasy food, I made tracks to the theater and hung out as other cast members trickled in, going over lines for the last time and observing this small group of wackos on their final evening together.

I like sitting out in the house before a show. There’s something soothing about it, something calming about seeing the little world of the stage from that bit of distance, removed from the closed loop of the performance. I sit out there a lot.

Reggie, our rasta-style technical mon, entered the theater. I raised a hand in greeting, he nodded and slouched over, tossing himself into a seat one row in front of me.

“What do you say?” I asked.

He glanced over, sideways like. “Nothin’ much,” he answered, then looked away, one hand fiddling with his full head of little dreadlocks. Nothing much. His manner said otherwise, I waited to see what was up. The theater’s box office person came in, waved, walked through to the dressing room. Voices in conversation could be heard back there. Someone presented someone else with a closing-night present, provoking hilarity.

Reggie’s gaze slid in my direction again. “I saw Sheila yesterday.”

“Oh, yeah?” Sheila: my ex and the mother of my son Colin, our only child. Not on great terms, she and I. Rarely were, really. Last year she decided she genuinely didn’t care for me and for a few stormy months tried to keep me from seeing Colin. A judge finally ordered her to stick to the agreed-upon shared custody arrangements, things had run relatively smoothly since then. No real warmth, but also no armed struggle.

Reggie knew us from when we were together, remained on decent terms with both. His lips pursed with thought, hand still worrying his minidreads.

“Look like she was movin’,” he commented, very casual.

“She was what?”

He looked over at me. “Movin’. You didn’t know?”

“No, I didn’t know. She can’t move.” His eyes met mine, I repeated, “She can’t move!”

He shrugged. “She had a movin’ truck out front, a couple guys piling her shit into the back. Sure looked like she movin’.”

“Did you see her?”

“Yeah, with the little guy.”

“What?” I yelped. “With Colin?”


Loud, overheated thoughts boiled up inside my head. I’d spoken with her yesterday morning and gotten no sense of anything being off. She’d previously asked to have Colin this weekend instead of me — now I knew why — I’d wanted to confirm my having him more next week to make up. Looking back on it, the process had been unusually free of difficulty. Almost friendly. Not to mix my clichés, but I was asleep at the switch and she slipped right under my radar.

I paused for a breath before speaking again, quieter, more intense.

“You sure about this? Did you talk with her or see her talking with the moving guys or anything?”

“She was talkin’ with them. She saw me, waved, went back in the building real quick.”

“She can’t do that!”

“Hey,” Reggie said, getting up, “maybe I shouldna opened my mouth, but I figured a big change like this, I hadn’t heard you say nothin’ about it.”

“No, no,” I assured him. “You did right.”

A head poked in the doorway to the theater, attached to a member of the general public. Reggie called out, “Can I help you?” and shambled over to deal with them. I sat for a few seconds, then leaped up and ran out the door past Reggie and the customer, ducked into the pizza shop two storefronts down, pulled change from my pocket, managed to fumble some of it into the pay phone. Tremulous fingers punched in Sheila’s number, me thinking more about the last time I’d spoken with her. Only a day and a half earlier. She hadn’t given me a clue.

One ring, two rings, then a recording telling me the number had been disconnected. I hung up, got no money back, briefly wrestled with the thing (unsuccessfully), then hurried back to the theater.

There wasn’t enough time to hurtle over to Sheila’s apartment before the show so I stayed put, anxious and fretting big time, sweat popping out and soaking my clothes. All of which did a number on my concentration, though for once I had more than enough intensity.

Post-performance, we were all going to get out of costume and strike the set, but as soon as the house cleared I grabbed my coat and streaked out the door before anyone could say, “Whaaa…?” It was a sizeable slog from Inman Square over through Harvard Square to Huron Avenue, and I ran as much of it as I could, panting, futilely hoping a bus would come by. I made it door to door in 23 miserable minutes, noting no lights, no curtains in Sheila’s 3rd floor corner, big-windowed, high-ceilinged, heat-included-but-still-WAY-too-wanking-expensive apartment. The label with her name had been removed from the slot by her buzzer button, jabbing my finger at the buzzer produced no results. I hit a couple of others until some occupant rewarded me with the humming click of the lobby door opening, allowing me to slip in. I thanked them silently for their negligence as I scooted up the stairs.

Sheila had the flat at the end of the hall. As I approached, I could hear television noise reverberating hollowly from one apartment I passed, voices from another. My feet stopped in front of my ex’s entranceway and for a moment I stood, catching my breath, hearing nothing from her place as life went on behind the closed doors of the other hidey-holes. Something that felt suspiciously like despair rose up in me and I countered, straightening my shoulders and rapping on the door. Nothing. I knocked again, longer, louder. No answer. TV cops yelled, TV gunshots sounded from the apartment down the hall. I looked around, wondering what came next. The coop had clearly been flown. My boy was gone and I had no idea what to do.

The return slog to the theater passed in a long, slow funk, Saturday night in Cambridge proceeding around me heedless of my life’s unraveling. Cars passed filled with people enjoying themselves; couples walked hand in hand, obnoxiously content with their lot. By the time I rejoined the merry theatre folk, the strike was nearly complete. The set had been pulled apart and broken down, no one seemed to care too much that I’d taken off except Reggie who cocked an eyebrow of inquiry in my direction. I responded with an unhappy shrug, accepted a beer from the show’s leading lady and proceeded to get trashed. At some point, we all headed out to a restaurant where the serious drinking got underway — the last thing I remember is sitting in the back seat of someone’s car on the way to a cast member’s apartment, my head resting on the director’s shoulder.

You know the rest: morning in Harvard Square, etc., me back in my apartment. With the box.

Oh, hell. Whatever you might think of my night in Harvard Square, the fact is that in taking a long, nasty snorkel in the deep end of the alcoholic pool I achieved my superobjective for the evening: temporary destruction of all memories of a wretched day. When I made it back to my apartmental hovel — noting how comfy and homelike the dirty hallways felt, peeling paint, stale cigarette aroma and all — I managed to find my keys, managed to get the right one in the lock, wrestled with it the way I always had to until it yielded to my firm, loving insistence, and entered my overheated living space. After pulling my coat off and throwing some windows open, I went toward the kitchen to grab a bottle of pop. Which is when I re-encountered the goddamn box.

Two by two. By two. Eight cubic feet of cardboard, paper and assorted items once owned by a dead man who also happened to be the sperm donor responsible for my extended cameo on this mortal coil. Why should that throw such a scare into me? Cardboard, paper and the effluvia of a life with scant connection to mine. Not much effluvia, at that.

I tried to talk myself into some courage, tried to cajole my backbone into stiffening. I tried to convince myself that the sweat creeping out of me indicated overactive radiators, not fear of a box. (Pathetic, I admit it.) I tried to talk some sense into myself, but I wouldn’t listen. I hate being ignored, especially by me, and it pissed me off. Which finally brought me to life, galvanizing me to close up the carton, hump it out into the hall and shove it into the closet, way in the back. Behind coats, shoes, household dreck.

I shut the closet door — slammed it, actually — the noise ringing in the foyer hallway around me. A moment of staring at nothing, breathing hard, then I turned away and left my father’s shit to gather dust for a spell while I attended to more pressing sources of anxiety.

[see entries of 6/15/02, 8/13/02, 8/22/02 and 12/28/02 for further excerpts, or see links in this page's right-hand column]

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