The Shoes

The Shoes


Over dinner Lisel realized that her father did not love her mother.  The idea moved perfectly into place––like a key into a lock, like a ring onto a finger.  The place it took was the head of the table, between Lisel and her mother, and over a plate of steaming green beans, from the can or frozen––like wax they were––a mound of tepid apple sauce, the chewy, black jelly of cold caviar substitute.  The place was her father’s chair, and her father was not in it, but an invisible man was, an invisible man who was everything her father was not, an anti-father, with sleeves of air and a stovepipe hat, and an appetite that was big and unabashed.  He looked like a cross between Papa Noel and the illustrations of Jewish bankers she saw on posters when she was a little, little girl.

She would remember well the tick-tock of the soft-spoken clock and the occasional flutter of her mother turning a page in a book she was reading.  She would remember well the silence between them, a famine of words––it could have been any other night of the week  right down to the makeshift assortment of foods on the plate, even the portions the same, the fifth, no, the fourth, or perhaps sixth, seventh, eighth night, was it?––Lisel had started to keep a calendar in her bedside table, just a simple one she had torn out of a school reader, the kind with no illustrations from month to month, just ordinary lines and numbers keeping ordinary time, and on this calendar she marked off the days with a big, black, pencilled-in X, and, if she missed a day, she would wake up suddenly in the night clutching her pencil, a cramp in her wrist, the pencil point there over the day, and she would hurriedly draw it in such a way that she could recognize the regular Xs from the somnambular Xs, and the other Xs, the ones where she could forget, for three or four days at a time, about the calendar and, while it did not make her panic, she had a feeling that the calendar was false, that it was stupid, that it was immature, that it was now, that it had always been, that it always would be, the same sleepy November, the same chill in the air, the same stiffness in the fingers, the same cherry-tipped noses; the same eaves dripping in the afternoons with melted water, dripping from the same fangs of ice along the eaves of houses, the same patchworks of white snow filling in the zig-zag  terra cotta patterns of rooftops, the same gutters running with brownish-green snow, that which was once white and pure, but now like rivers of snot all flowing to the same detestable sea; the same bombed out streets, the same gray, flaky snow that wasn’t snow at all but a sort of ashen precipitation Lisel had never heard or read of before, the same craters where the ground had been exploded  again and again, each time the rubble getting finer and finer, harder to breathe, the debris getting more and more anonymous, everyone moving  away to safer zones––and always, it had been this eternal November, a time for keeping the windows hung with thick, black cloth, and a cemetery full of brown, humpbacked graves of those who had not got out in time, twenty nine turned to two hundred, and a time of food that had no taste, that was only a mush of a certain temperature which, if held long enough in the mouth, would start to taste like bile, like the deep, acidic burp that used to come after a big meal.  So Lisel tried to swallow as she imagined baby birds would swallow, quick and meaningless and in lumps.  This way she could be completely detached from her food, in a way that wouldn’t maker her long for things she only knew about in dreams, like the word butter, a sweet, salty salve that may or may not have existed in the world or may have been like the dreams crazy people get just before they have to be taken away somewhere and kept under lock and key.  Yes, she was pretty sure that it was November, that it had always been November, that it would always be, and that her father did not love her mother.

After a while, her mother left the table to turn on the radio.   A beautiful and lonely tune was playing, an oboe was professing its love, its secret, doomed, unrequited love, for a chorus of female voices––Oh, Mozart, your father does not love you and has gone to where you ultimately cannot please him, cannot find him––and Lisel wished the Mozart, with all its strange intricacies, with all its demands to be heard, would just go away.  She felt that otherwise she might cry, and so, be sent to bed early and without a light.  She wished her mother would have turned on anything but the music, anthems or speeches in German would do; it must have been one of the illegal channels from France or England or America, where they not only played Mozart or Beethoven and Chopin and Liszt and Debussy but also, on some channels, swing or degenerate music.  That always got switched past so fast that Lisel only ever heard fragments of drumbeats and mad trumpet blasts in between raging static and foreign voices.  Sometimes the radio would just lapse into static all by itself in the middle of reports on the Allies ‘beating back’ the German army, the chop-up of English sentences drifting off into the timeless, spaceless, overwhelming chaos of static, leaving bits and pieces of information in the wake, the battle was…the damage done was…the number killed was…the number of Germans taken prisoner was…Static.  Murmur.  Rage.  Chaos.  Mozart emergent.

Lisel crept into the kitchen to get a knife and fork.  The radio persisted in emitting the lonely, sad tune for some time before the bizarre spritzing of noise took over and it became just another empty channel.  She waited until she thought her food was cold enough before taking small, furtive bites out of hunger, not appetite, and
even then her mother grimaced.  If Lisel ate her food now, it meant that her father would not get home until very, very late, after she had already gone to bed.  If she ate her food now, it would mean that her father would not be able to have second helpings of things because she had eaten all her rations before he even got a chance.  She only narrowed her eyes a bit, but it was what her mother meant and said out loud not so many nights before.  If Lisel would only just be patient, and not a greedy, gobblety, fat little girl, her father would come home and they could eat together again, her mother had said, ‘like a real family,’ and Lisel wondered if they were a ‘pretend’ family and, if they were, why no one had told her before the game started what the rules were.

In the empty chair, the anti-father sat and moved and lifted his sinister knuckles in the air, his fat, invisible index finger and pointed to her plate and made a gesture of his face, a furrowing expression, as if to say, “If you don’t mind, my dear, pass me your green beans and apple sauce and caviar, uhmm, yes, that’s nice of you” and the anti-father was only getting fatter, fat like the old Jewish bosses, fat in a way that her real father was not, and behind the invisible fat man the pattern on the wallpaper had tobacco stains––a yellow, dingy sort of visible sigh in places where her parents usually sat and smoked and read the paper.  The stains were superimposed over the dusky roses arranged in dainty diagonals so as to form diamonds at the same time and, without which, it seemed to Lisel, the walls would crash down around them with a big, sweeping whoosh of air, taking mother, father, and child, swiftly out of reality.

The tick-tock, the extreme silence, the requiem, the static, the anti-father, the straight-backed empty chair, the forbidden food, the cold pit of her stomach, the once-pristine rose pattern now graying so fast––everything was making a strange growling feeling in her, making the hair on her arms stand up on end, was giving her a deja vu she did not want to have, was keeping her all locked up in the moment, when her mother said, automatically, “I’m sure he will be home soon.”

Her mother had a habit of saying things without emphasis on any word or syllable.  The way that most people counted, her mother would say these short, random sentences, as if to generate conversation, and then she would sink back into her book, the same as before, no  expression, no reply sought, the words suspended and floating in air––the anti-father, however, he caught them, like a frog catching flies, with his long, pink tongue and pulled the words into his fat, smacking mouth, one by one, until it was just as if they had never been suspended there at all.  Unless Lisel were to say something too, but something clever, something nice, something clever and nice and quickly, too.  But it was impossible.  Her mother spoke to her in French.  A language like the swishing taffeta of a party dress.  And Lisel was fast forgetting it along with her memories of before the war, which she now did not comprehend as memories at all, but as the memories of dreams, the scope of sunshine, the depth of snow, houses with foundations, shop windows in which was possible to see one’s whole self held aloft, booted and with a tiny muffler, by a smiling woman with strong arms, the nonsensical and natural order of all things.  So she said nothing because every time she spoke French it made her sneeze and stutter and to reply in her German was like a rhinoceros at tea, giant, pawing at delicate, tinkling things, was like a fat woman sitting in a too tight skirt, her thighs bulging and the fabric rending.  That was not what her mother wanted to hear.

Her mother turned a page without peering up and murmured again, a high whispy whine without breakage, “I’m sure he will be home soon.  This promotion is keeping him longer nights.  Haven’t you noticed?”


Her mother slowly tilted her head up from her book and leveled her eyes with Lisel’s face, as if to say, Who are you?  She stared at Lisel for a long time as if she did not recognize her own daughter, then she slowly, calmly reached across and swatted Lisel’s right hand and lowered the hand itself until Lisel was obliged to let go of the fork and fold both hands precisely in her lap.  It looked as if there were a secret treasure––a piece of candy, a lipstick, a butterfly, an opal earring, a whistle, a doll’s head, a piece of tinfoil, a chocolate, a drawing pencil, a heart cut out of felt––anything hidden inside, but Lisel knew that if she collapsed that demure mound of little fingers, there would be nothing but tablecloth beneath.  So she kept her hands folded politely in her lap and her braids laid straightly over her shoulder and collarbones––she hated it when there was a bulge in one, or when the ends curled unevenly up instead of pointing downward––and fixed her eyes on her hands.  This is how she would want her hands to look, she decided, if they were in an oil painting in a museum.

And then Lisel added, “How long will this promotion last?”

Her mother moved to the window seat and wedged her slender torso up against the small rectangles of light formed by the wrought-iron glass panes.  Beyond this the dying fuschia of sunset streaked across the sky.  It should have reminded her to cover it, but she only left the window exposed.  She let the ugly, inert, pitch black curtains hang in their slim, daytime columns.  She was wearing a powder blue blouse, with a shimmer to it and a peter pan collar, three sweetheart buttons close beneath it, and a long, floral skirt.  Both the blouse and the skirt appeared too thin, too light, too pretty for this time of year, and she had taken to wearing lipstick in a gaudy shade of red that devastated her pale complexion, a tell-tale O that drained the color and youthfulness from her cheeks, a round, red stain on a white flag of surrender.  She sucked on the butt of a cigarette, the burning red tip help perilously close to her fingertips, making a nervous, reflexive ascent to the rounded lips, a squeaky, sucking sound, up, down again.  The double red dot ran up and down the length of the reflection like a ladybug, but when she spoke, the smoke slithered out and around each work.  The sun collapsed outside.

“Whatever do you mean…Lisel…?”  Her voice trailed off the way a small child will sometimes get lost, hip-high in a crowd of adults.  She snuffed the cigarette out on the sole of her shoe and tucked it hurriedly under the cushion.

Lisel saw her father’s figure swim through the glass and blackness beyond.  He mounted the steps, shivering as he came, his coat hanging over the back of his shoulders, a black and formless afterthought, his arms let loose from the empty sleeves.  Tucked under one arm, he held a brown paper parcel, oblong, a shoe box.  He kept his head down and his eyes level with the ground.  He moved so rapidly over the treacherous patches of invisible, black ice that it was as if he weren’t walking at all, but floating upwards into view.  He looked to Lisel, who was trying to judge his hidden facial expression, as though his only reason for coming inside was to get in out of the cold.  Shortly, there was a jingle of keys in the door, the metallic click and turn and with it the dissolution of that anti-father, that feeling brushing up against her arm, the way gooseflesh fades in the familiar embrace of one who is known and warm.

He said in the foyer, “Good evening, Kathryne.”  A kiss for each raised cheek.

Lisel leaned over in her chair and saw her mother kiss his mouth, openly and widely.  Her lips covered his own.  Her father really was quite tall and lanky.  Even in her heels, she had to stand on the bottom most stair.  She slid the coat off his shoulders and draped it on the rack beside her.

He said, “A drink, a drink!  Please, and then gifts for each of my two leading ladies.”  He propped himself up in the door frame of the dining room and winked at Lisel.  She smiled as her mother’s hand drifted up from behind and settled on his shoulder.

She said, “”Do I taste funny?  I probably do.  Like an ashtray, I found a fag under the settee, and, I can’t believe I’m telling you this, it’s so nasty a thing to do, but I smoked it just before you came.  Did you notice that?  Did you taste it?”  Her voice, when she spoke to her father, was high and chirpy, like the birds in fairy tales when a snake came into the tree and neared the nest of bald, faceless eggs.

Her father eyed the room suspiciously, said nothing, crossed to the radio and poured himself a brandy from the bottle sitting out. He sniffed the air around Lisel’s head.  “Well, I’ve just come in from outside.  Everyone’s chimneys.  It’s awfully cold in here.  Anyone else cold?”  A swig from the snifter.

He switched the radio knob.  A singsong boy’s choir usurped the music, and then the triumphal blast that always preceded an announcement of the War Ministry.  He cut it off and told Lisel’s mother to draw the curtains.  Together, they dimmed the lights.  They had kerosene lamps they used in the winter.  The greasy, uncontainable smell of the fuel burning would forever after be in Lisel’s mind the special stamp of war.  It was impossible to think the word without smelling the smell and vice versa.  And with these actions, Lisel felt the pendulum of evening swing heavily against her eyelids and forehead.  Her mother had been searching the lining of her father’s coat, deftly plucking a pack of cigarettes from the black folds.  Lisel yawned and felt how heavy her arms were with the weight of smoke and air and lamp flame as they hung listless against the seat of the chair and as she watched the last curtain draw the room into softness.   The distance between the three of them seemed to diminish.  It seemed as though tomorrow and all the days after were only a blink and a yawn away.  And in that blink and yawn the whole abyss of night, thick, uninterrupted by air raid sirens and subterranean refuge.

“I brought you a present,” her father said.  He handed her the brown box, and she nudged it openly gently, as she would have picked apart the flaky layers of a strudel––how long had it been…?––and taking great care not to tear the paper.   It was indeed a shoe box, and it contained a pair of odd-looking girls’ shoes, camel-colored leather, saddle shoe type, with a high, fashionable heel.  But a scuff showed on the side of one, and the tongue of the other was stretched and wagging.  Neither shoe had laces.

“Presents come in pretty paper with bows.  You have brought me some other girl’s shoes,” she teased.  She wanted to express her curiosity and her disdain for wearing shoes that were clearly some other girl’s before becoming hers.  All this she wanted to express delicately without offending her father.

“Here, try them on.  I think you are big enough to wear them.”

Lisel liked the shoes more once they were actually on her feet.  She hadn’t known just how small the shoes she had been wearing were until she tried these shoes on.  Her toes weren’t crunched up inside of them, fighting for room.  They only gently hugged her flat, wide feet.  And even if they were not particularly lovely, the leather was a durable kind that they could not normally afford to buy.

“She’s bigger now than all the children in her grade, I was noticing,” her mother interjected from the kitchen.  It was that voice again, that lying voice, Lisel noticed.

She came into the dining room and withdrew Lisel’s plate from before her and the plate that was intended for her father.  She took both plates into the kitchen and returned with one replenished plate for her father.   He sank into his chair and shoveled the food around on his plate, arranging it in half-eaten heaps, methodically, without much interest.  Since he had been promoted the lines on his face had deepened.  His cheekbones had grown ferret-like and fierce.  His eyes treaded backward in his face.  He wore the expression of a man at a police interrogation.  He didn’t wear it on the street or at public gatherings, but only here to wife and child and warm food and his hovel of glass and stone.  He usually read the Reichsbanner or had a drink during the meal.  Some evenings he did not come to the table at all.

“Perfect!”  He clapped his hands and took out a match.  With a flourish he drug it across the bottom of his shoe and the head came up flaming.   He lit a cigarette and began twirling it with his camel-like lips on one side of his face.  Ashes fell in haphazard clumps wherever he turned his head.

Lisel’s mother came out of the kitchen and looked at the shoes.

“That’s…nice…Where did you get those?”

“From a man who makes shoes.”

From a a man who makes shoes.  And with what did you pay him, Karl?  Credit?  Trust in the German army?”

Her father made a mock-wounded face.  “Are you accusing me of thievery?”

“I am accusing you of nothing!  I’m just asking you where…”  Sometimes when her mother was upset she lost her breath and her voice became a wheeze like the slow squeals and degradations a train suffered at the last destination.  She paused a while and leaned on the edge of the table.  “How did you get those shoes?”

Her mother made her take the shoes off.  Then she lifted one, examined it carefully.

“Sarah Hannah Goldstein,” she said, reading the fine imprint along the inside lip.  “Really, Karl!––Did you think I would not notice?  Did you think I would tolerate it for our daughter to walk around in the hand-me-downs of a Jew?  You of all people, you who had me go three blocks out of my way to an Aryan butcher.  In Hanover, you’d boycott when it suited your purposes, and I suppose you’re a father when the mood strikes you!”

She grabbed the other shoe and thrust them out at arm’s length.  Her arms were straight as rods and thin as window panes.  “Here take them back where you lifted them from.  She doesn’t like them.  You can take them back with you to work tomorrow.”

“She likes them.  She needs them.  I have them.  They’re no use to anyone else.  That’s all that matters.  Don’t make it complex, Kathryne.  I know how you spend your days holed up in here with your cigarettes and your nerve medications, with your boring lecture notes and your translations of tedious, dead intellects and your morbid fascination with banned books.  I know Natasha has to dress her and feed her and read to her.  No, I won’t.  I won’t.  I won’t take them back unless my girl tells me, and tells me plainly,  ‘Daddy, Daddy, I cannot wear those shoes.  I just cannot.’”  The way her father impersonated a little girl’s voice was really quite funny, even if it was poking fun at her own voice, which Lisel considered, along with her diminutive age and height, the bane of her existence.

Now was the point at which Lisel must decide.  The choice, but not the options, were all oppressively her own.  To wear the shoes or to not wear the shoes.  To please her father or to please her mother.  They both looked at her, apparently not aware of their ultimatum, of their perpetual unfairness, and yet, Lisel realized, they were aware somehow, perfectly aware, for if nothing else this was what it meant to be an adult, to be aware of one’s actions and the consequences.  And yet it was always easier to defer to a child life’s most symbolic decisions.  Their faces, the faces from which she derived her own, were as water to her, rippling with a selfishness she could not control or conceal.  It moved like goldfish in a shallow, courtyard pond, beneath their plaster brows and frowns, clear and precise and fanning out in all directions from its fattening red center, out of which bubbled up all these bloated, worded nuances.

“I have lessons to do.  May I be dismissed?”  Her tiny voice spoke for her.

“Oh really?”  Her father said to her, but really to her mother.  “What did you do at school today.  Is Frauline Schrodel treating you well?  Is she a good teacher, I mean?  I care a lot, you know, that you get a good education, if anyone can anymore.  A better one than I had.

“It’s not Frauline Schrodel anymore, Papa, it’s a new one.  Her name is Frauline Hoss.  She smells like men’s cologne and wears her hair to here––”

“Good.  What did you do today?”

“There was no school today because––”

“Good.  What did you do yesterday then, Lisel?”

“We wrote poems.”

“Poems!––Did you hear, Kathryne?  Lisel’s class is writing poetry!––What did you write about?  I’m sure yours was the best.”

“All the poems were about the same thing.”

“And what was that?”

“Write a poem about the Fatherland, or, if we didn’t want to write about that, the Fuhrer.”

“The Fatherland!  Whatever happened to artistic license?”

Her mother snorted.  “Karl, would you shut up?  Go ahead Lisel tell us your poem.”

“I can’t remember.”  This was a lie.  Lisel had doodled and dug little holes in her desk with her pencil until time to leave which meant that she would have to write her poem for homework tonight, for school tomorrow, if there was school tomorrow, if…everything depended on these crude ifs, these lights in the sky, as if the stars were moving, burning, swooping closer to the earth, and reducing everything in life to these quibbling contingencies, if this, then that, if the sky is clear, write a poem, if not, eat canned olives in a damp cellar while old men played cards and everyone sat on their haunches and pretended to do something when really no one was doing anything but waiting for another if…It was Frauline’s idea to write these poems.  Then she would gather them all and keep them in a capsule in the school’s basement.  That way, Frauline had said, at least their work, their expression, would always be preserved from harm, and for this reason they would write about what was most dear to their hearts––just in case Frauline always picked the subjects.

“Well, then go get it from your satchel.  Your father and I will wait.”

“I can’t Frauline kept it.  She said––”

“Good.  It must have been very good for her to keep yours then.”  Her father examined the plate before him.  He furrowed his brow, struggling to find ample words for his disgust. Lisel thought she saw him strain, thought she saw little beads of sweat form along his temples, impossible little beads, impossible because the room was, now that he had mentioned it, indeed cold, even in the close confines of a house lined with curtains and black paper, even in a house prepared to exist in complicity with blackout ordinances for as long as Lisel’s small memory served her, there was never, in the only winters she remembered, these same winters called ‘war winter’ by her elders, never enough warmth to go around.

Her father buried his food in salt and shoved it forward.  He did this rather too rapidly and the plate caught on the ripples in the tablecloth and sank with a loud, startling clank.  Childish, Lisel thought, and even in this initial revulsion she felt at once an ally and a role model in her father.  In the secret lapses of affection which took place between Lisel and her father when her mother was elsewhere or asleep, she felt important, important because she was the childlike embodiment of all her father’s naughty behavior.  They had this in common, she and her father, and someday when she was big and grown and had a house of her own, Lisel would finally be free to exhibit so much childishness.

“How do you expect us to eat this slop eight nights in a row?  Even Natasha can cook better than this and she is but a girl of fourteen,” was his ordained reply.  It didn’t make sense in the context of the conversation, Lisel thought, they had been talking about shoes not food, but in the context of her father and mother it did for a predictable, tedious, complacent kind of sense.  Every family on her block had its housekeeper, its Christmas tree, its lines of laundry hung thick and moist in the summer with various and sundry undergarments stretched and worn in lank testimony to the various and sundry bottoms of the wearers, and yet here was the very thing that transpired in the presence of no one but Lisel herself.  Though she was but a little, little girl, her hands gripped the tablecloth in anticipation of the very thing unfolding before her for which she had found words.  Her father did not love her mother.  This was the reason for his lateness, not a promotion which was but one of those external features of his life she could not, because a daughter, be privy to.    She looked down at her frightful white knuckles and the growing scales of her new piano piece soared high above her mother’s inevitable, stinging reply.  The criticism of criticism.  The fire for which the only fuel  and the only cessation was fire itself.  At night, the highly punctuated shouts of anti-aircraft guns aimed into the exploding, destructive havoc of Allied bombers, and, above it all, the small, forgotten trills of birds, those few still left in Northeim, escaping up out of burning trees and the swiftly falling eaves of stone edifices which once held the nest of these others, these immigrant populations, these flight-filled inhabitants, in the false permanence of their very outward faces.  Who but Lisel heard this?  Who but Lisel could counter her mother’s shrill scorn and her father’s inexplicable anguish with the sounds of Chopin and Debussy?

“Maybe you should eat there tonight, too.  How do you expect me to buy anything differently when I can’t find all of our ration coupons.”

“Books are expensive where I buy them,” her father retorted.

“So are cigarettes and cognac.  I have a nose, Karl.”

“And such a lovely nose it is.  Not a straight German nose, not a French profile either, kind of big and curvy, almost…Jewish.”

Her father tipped his chair forward from where it had been leaning on its back two legs, the way the boys in school––the ones that always got bad marks––leaned their chairs to provoke the teacher, and emptied it of himself.  “Cigarettes?!  Cognac?!”  Lisel followed his gestures, his candid display with her eyes.  He was speaking to her.  He was speaking at her mother.  He was speaking to her mother through her.  She was captivated a thousand times over by her father as he glided every evening to the large armoire at the head of the room and produced from it yet another bulbous glass, this time to be filled with a dark, red wine.  Her father was funny this way.  He often forgot, one way or another, where he had lain his last glass, and, come the end of the night, several glasses were left about, filled to the half way mark and below with liquids the color of silks, the golden brown and wine red of robes in fairy tales, the ones the kings and queens wore, they caught the light from the last candles, still burning after bedtime, neglected and spilling wax over the tablecloth and running in hardened tallow streams across the carpet.

He cupped this particular glass in his hands as if it were a ripe plum at the market.  This thought made Lisel’s mouth tingly with longing, and she began thinking about how long it had been since she had had a decent piece of fruit.  Her tongue poked around the dry roof of her mouth like a worm in a jar.  Her spit tasted of nothing.  “Why, Kathryne, a man must have drink, even a father, even in the middle of a war!  What, would you drive me to drink!”  This was funny to him.  He said it a lot before the first swig, sometimes in between swigs, sometimes under his breath, but never to Lisel alone.  She laughed.  Her mother cleared the table and withdrew into the kitchen.  Lisel was aware that she could get up from the table but was unable to decide what to do with herself.  She seemed best right where she was.

“So,” her father called after her mother, “so you would have yourself keep your present while Lisel has to walk around in ragged and too small shoes with her toes sticking up and a hole in one side! Does that not cause you shame, woman?”

Lisel curled her leg up under the chair and tried to run her finger along the side of her left shoe without her father noticing.  She barely felt it, but it was there.  She wondered  if the girls at school had noticed and perhaps chosen not to say anything.  Where she went to school a hole in the shoe was truly a curiosity.  That tiny exposed part of her foot felt like the thumb of someone who had just come in from outside pressed against the back of her neck, cold and conspicuous and accusatory.  She imagined that it would go numb if she did not cover it up.  Why should it be there? she wondered.  Why should a hole ever be there, unless it was put there on some purpose?  Why did anything ever fall apart unless it was abused in some strange way?

Perhaps, perhaps, she thought, it was from walking along streets that had been bombed, from playing after school in those areas she was forbidden from but which all the children gravitated toward, the streets paved over in rivers of sprawling glass and rubble and the scattered madness of possessions that could not be pirated away in time.

Her father was a very tall and very thin man.  As he leaned against the radio and twisted his neck in the direction of the open doorway, his hipbones protruded slightly beneath his black uniform trousers.  From the kitchen came the sounds of hissing water and dishes colliding in the sink.  With a flick of his head, her father beckoned Lisel to take the books from the table to her mother.  In the excitement of the new shoes, they had all overlooked the books.  The books were, like the shoes, old and used.  But Lisel knew this was an acceptable thing in books and not in shoes.  The spines that lined the family’s parlor shelves were likewise old and had a musty, decrepit smell to them, a smell of dust and stasis, a smell that permeated their home even as they had moved from Leipzig to Hanover and to Northeim, from big houses to small, decaying ones, a smell that informed Lisel Don’t touch, for they were written in languages other than German, mostly French, and reserved for her mother’s hunchbacked, scholarly, desperately quiet hours.  These were the only kinds of books her mother read anymore, and they had to be got from somewhere––only her father knew where––somewhere other than the bookstores, most of which were closed down now with big signs, written in bleeding black painted letters, that said they would reopen when the war was over and there was time for repairs.  Lisel had been waiting most of her life for this time for repairs, and she was scared of it.  What would become of her music and her play when she had to go to school every day?  When there were no raids to cancel school and take away the good teachers, would she have to do her homework every day?  Would she be able to lie and say it was not due till the end of the week?  Would she still be believed when her father had no job and her mother could teach French literature again at the university?  When there were no concentration camps, would they have to move again from the sleepy pillars of this forsaken hamlet to the big city of her birth?  What would be expected of her when all their promises were no longer promises?  And what would they all say to each other then?  Beating back all these scattered thoughts, she took the books and tried not to look at the faded gold titles.  Le Chanson de Roland and Voltaire, she noticed anyway as she went.

Her mother was standing in a shroud of steam and puffing away at the cigarette she had stolen from the lining of her father’s coat.  In the steam, her face looked even older, more haggard by contrast, the way it looked when Lisel would occasionally interrupt her at her studies and translations.  Lisel almost hesitated to give her the books.  It only meant more secluded hours, more work that did not pay anymore, more tears to be shed over pages already salted by an understanding of that which Lisel, in her littleness, was spared from comprehending.

Her mother paused as Lisel set them on the counter.  The books, like cognac to her father, like cigarettes to them both, were irresistible.  She leaned over to study the titles and let her hands be still from their rustling about in the hot water.  In the calm, the sound of someone outside, the sound of ice shattering on the pavement, rose up and penetrated the walls of the house.  Their house had high, long eaves off of which hung long molars of ice.  It had become a favorite pastime of some neighborhood boys to dash at the icicles from below and have mock battles with them.  Lisel’s mother sighed furiously, deeply, and her breath got caught up in all the steam and smoke.  “What are they doing out past blackout?  Lisel, go tell those noisy, Nazi boys to stop, for the love of God.”  The word God broke up into a spasm of breath, that exhaustion of having to deal with things outside of the house, another characteristic coughing fit.

Lisel did not want to go outside.  She was afraid of the boys who were much older and bigger than she was, and it was cold.  But how could she plead?  How could she protest?  She was young and strong and her mother had a condition and her father’s condition was he worked all day.

The boys, when they did notice her, one by one ceased their clacking and jumping about.  Because the weather had been slightly warm that day, the icicles had begun to slacken and drool and, as the boys lowered their arms and turned to stare at her with the territorial opacity of children interrupted at their play, they became less swords than teeth, white, dull, defunct.  One boy passed his from his left hand to his right.  Another boy dropped his, but the two closest to her, they kept theirs.  All of them had bare, bristly, red knuckles and runny noses.  They were not the usual boys.  They all had metal badges on and black short trousers and white stockings and short red scarves tied like gashes across their throats.  She did not recognize them from school, although they looked only a little bit older than even the highest graders in her school.  They had a rough way of standing, the oldest and the biggest and the meanest looking one stood with his ankles crossed and his right hip thrust out, exaggerated but nonchalant at the same time.  It was clear that they had not expected a little girl and this was causing great indecision on everyone’s part.  Lisel, too, had been prepared for someone or something else.  No one spoke for an eternity of seconds.  Finally she said, her mother’s copy of Le Chanson de Roland held steady  with both hands over her head, poised for flinging, a bluff, “No horseplay is allowed here.”  The oldest one cast a glance backward––the others were getting antsy, spitting on the pavement and making wide, sloppy circles with their feet––and slowly diluted his grim expression with a fulsome grin.  They all began to laugh, a forced, constrained, but sinister laugh.  Lisel stammered from her elevated stance on the porch.  She swayed backward, toward the door, but did not, ultimately, shift her feet.  “What are you doing here?”  she said.  “It’s after blackout.  Please do leave.”  This only made them more gleeful.  They danced around her on the pavement, drawing up their swords, swooping them around their heads.  Then, suddenly, they stopped and grew fiercely solemn again.  The oldest one held out his icicle to her, letting it slide from his wet fingers slowly and smoothly, in one long, protracted motion which was no motion at all.  As it hit the ground it shattered into perfectly congruent pieces and Lisel realized that, as if under a spell, her right arm was half extended though she had kept poised there above them.  She fled inside.  The boys ran shouting unintelligible threats and slogans down the length of the street, running out of breath until they became only the vacant clatter of feet in the distance.

Her father wanted to know who was that.  “Pirates,” Lisel said wistfully.  Her mother was in the parlor lighting a fire with old students’ essays, muttering to herself.

“Vandals, she means vandals.  Oh, pity that, that was a good one.”

“It wasn’t mine, was it?”  her father asked.

“No, dear, it wasn’t yours.”

They were sort of chuckling together.  The fireplace crackled and hissed as her mother fed it crumpled passages from her former life.  Her father sat down in his chair, crossed his legs, put his cigarette out on the roof of a brass reproduction of the Arc de Triomphe.

Her mother stretched her legs out on the floor, massaging her stiff, withered calves and ankles, and sighing, said, “Fie! You piece of filth!  That was a wedding present from my father.  Oh, dear, this used to be a house of culture!”

They were giggling now, her mother holding her slight mound of belly with her other arm.  “Ja!” her father cried hysterically, “And I never liked the thing.  Now, my dear, this is a house of pirates and spirits!”

“They’re gone now,” Lisel said timidly, from the doorway.  Her parents remembered themselves.  Her father gestured for her to come sit in his lap, and she went to him.  Underneath her she could feel the hard cylinder of his leather flask against the soft cheek of her bottom.  She squirmed to get her balance over it, and her father held her closer, kissing the back of her neck and saying how little girls always smelled so sweetly, like blossoms in the spring, or something like that.  Lisel was still clutching her mother’s book, when he reached around and undid her shoes, slid them off as easily as a doll’s.

“Here,” he said, taking the book from her with the same ultimate ease.  “I’ll hold this while you go get your new shoes from the table.”

And Lisel did.  “Lisel, wait!”  her mother interjected. “Go ahead and take them upstairs instead.”

And Lisel did.  In her closet, next to her baby chair, the discarded porcelain heads of dolls she never played with anymore, Natasha’s first communion dress––a sentimental gift since Lisel would never have a first communion day––and the upright troop of her school pinafores, the shoes looked impoverished and out of place.  Like hollowed out potato skins, wrinkled and empty, they sank over their own soles, having no laces to hold them together.

On the inside edge of the closet door frame, there was a little trail of nicks where Lisel had been keeping track of her own growth.  She used a meter stick to measure any marks she made and wrote it in her calendar next to the date.  She did this every night after her mother sent her to bed and every morning when Natasha got her up.  When the black out came, it was hard to see pencil marks in the dark, so she had started using a carving knife which she had smuggled out of the kitchen.  The marks leveled out after only a few inches and there became a deepening chunk of missing wood which was darker than all the rest of the door frame.  If she looked carefully at her diary entries, she could trace all the days since last winter, the one when the bombs came not once or twice a month, but almost nightly, right to the blackening mark on the wood.

She had reached again the top of the staircase when she thought to steal the laces from her old shoes.  Yes!  They would do until there could be some new laces––in the springtime, when everyone said the war would be over, but they never said which springtime, this one, the next or any of the other springtimes after.  She crouched at the top of the stairs, thinking how to do this theft without either of her parents observing her.  Both her shoes were in the parlor.  But both  her parents were still in the parlor.  She could hear their voices rising and tangling.

As she listened, she contemplated the paper on the stretch of wall above the stairs.  It was the same print as in her bedroom, a nursery scene of fairies gathered round a patch of mushrooms, fanning and sunning their slender, childlike selves and smirking on their giant settees of fungus.  At the bottom of the wall, there hung an oval lithograph leftover from the previous family.  It must have been a Catholic family, Lisel thought, for the lithograph was of a woman, Madonna-like, her face just a half-moon of creamy complexion sheltered by a navy head cloth, and cradling a baby, a bald, pink bloom on her shoulder.  Lisel studied this curious relic, the calm, dim pastel center of the house.  Difficult, but not impossible was this task, she decided.

“It’s a dangerous thing you’ve done, you keep doing.  You’re more than a prison guard, you’re a smuggler for your family.”  Again that high, chirpy voice, strung out over the raspy, deepening loom of a smoker’s lungs and throat.

“So I take it you don’t want your present either.  I suppose I should stop bringing you both presents if you’re going to be ungrateful about it.  It’s a shame, too, a real collector’s item, first edition I think he said or some other such thing like that.  I can’t remember anymore.  It hardly seems fair that she should not get to keep her shoes and you get your silly book!”  Poor, silly man, he did not even know when a woman was trying to say thank you.

A half-murmur of defense came from below.  Lisel moved down one step and crooned her neck toward the voices.  From her perch on the stair, she could peer through the bars of the railing and sometimes see her father or her mother move in and out of view, pacing, dueling, as if on a stage.  As if from a balcony seat in a puppet theater, she disowned them for a moment.

“Voltaire, Balzac, Remarque.  What’s next?  Marx?  Freud?  Your young scholar protégé, Hannah what’s-her-name––God forbid such garbage ever be published.  How is it different, a book written by a Jew, shoes made by a Jew?  Are Jews not also fathers and mothers?  Do their children not also wear shoes?  What is the line, ah hell, prick me do I not bleed, ya-da, YA-DA!!! You tell me.  You are the intellectual.”

An old woman drew her breath, and, in the space of that breath, derailed all the vituperations of the moment and the coming moments.  The actors forgot their lines.  Lisel lowered herself one, two more steps, to just beyond that curtain of shadow the parlor door cast on the carpet.  Even there, the conversation had become the province of this passionate, this young, this confused leading man that was her father.

“It just is!  What is that?  What school of philosophy is that?  It just is.”

Don’t sob, woman, Lisel whispered.  Take the scissors.  Stand on your chair.  Make him listen.  Stab him in the back.  Why should a woman only clap and cheer, only cry and throb, extraneous and supine on the stage as in parades and academies and pictures in museums and beer halls?

“Shut up!  Shut up!  Don’t you understand?  They came that day to tell me, to get out, quick, quick, Herr Chancellor Gesling himself was there, Karl, Karl, saying ‘Quick take what you can.  You have disgraced us with your philandering.’  Philanderer they called me.  Because of you, my dear one.  ‘You don’t work or belong here.  You can’t.  Get what you can.’  And there were my books in my arms when the police came and the quadrangle green was burning and they took them like vultures as I was dropping them, and they threw them on the pile.  There were my students holding signs.  I knew their faces.  I knew their capabilities.  And they were the sign holders.  ‘Filth literature!’  ‘Indiscriminate reading’ ‘Down with communists’  ‘Un-German filth’  And not a one could look me in the eye, except you.  You know I was not part of it.  I was just a teacher!  I wasn’t feminine or democratic.  I wish to God they had burned me instead.  I mean, that’s when I realized––I realized that they were right.  There could be no more teachers because there were no more students in Germany.  I mean, if they wanted to have an auto-da-fe, it could have been me.  It was me they hated, me and you, too.  You, too.  You Aryan rake, you.  You, with your crooked smile and, and…intelligent blue eyes behind cracked spectacles and your ash blond good looks.  I wish to God it had been us, us not these, not these silly books, our daughter’s only inheritance.  She will live and die in these books, these un-German things!”

Her mother was on the floor, writhing, gasping, rubbing her exhausted throat.  Her light blue skirt twisted.  Flowers and leaves and bony, bristly legs meshed all around in the firelight.  Her father knelt and swept her face up to his, fixing her chin fast in his hand.  He whispered to her, as she heaved and shoved and convulsed against him.  Lisel stood up.  Was he smothering her or merely calming her?  She bolted up the stairs to the bathroom, rifled through the baskets of medicine bottles, dark green and maroon and with thick rubber stoppers, and the empty jars, a few grains of smelling salts and the greasy residue of ointments stuck in the bottom of each.  She found the dark green bottle with the white label, Morphine suspension, and walked, resolved to slowness, down the stairs.

“Shut up.  Stop it.  Don’t you unders-s-stand the danger-ger?  Suppose someone sees her, Karl, think of my-my father, my f-f-father’s father, think, Karl.  You always were so stupid.  It’s not about Jews.  It is about Nazis.”

“Shhh, shhh, my Pangloss love, not everyone is as shrewd as you.  Not everyone cares.”

“You could lose your position.”

“Fuck my position.  I mean it.  If only I would be so lucky.  It’s done all the time.  There’s a stack to my thigh of gold teeth, fucking gold teeth, Kathryne.  It’s done all the time.  It was all for you, you and the baby.  I’m not a soldier.  I’m just a sorter, like a postman.  I was once a layer of carpet.  I was once a layer of carpet, that’s all I ever was.”

Lisel handed her father the medicine.  He laughed and held her mother close, till she was so limp she moved inside his chuckles.  Then he took the medicine and meted out a few drops into her open mouth.  She pushed herself up with her arms, looked once at Lisel, once at her father, once at Lisel again, and said, perfectly still, “Now you are a layer of corpses.”

She stood, one hand against the mantle, brushed herself off, dusted her hands and announced that she was going to bed.  “It’s black-out time for mummy, I’m afraid.  Good night, dear.  Good night, Lisel.”  She kissed them both on the forehead.  Her father was kneeling at the fire.  She glanced at the bust of Hitler on the mantle, the laurel leaves around his neck so old they were black and crisp.  Lisel knew what her mother would do next.  She stood on tip-toe, leaned close to the Fuhrer as if to bestow a kiss.  Then she spat into her palm and rubbed the dust around on Hitler’s head.  She had done this so many nights before, there was now a thick brown paste where Hitler’s hair should have been.  But tonight she said, “Good night, you fucking, low-class, Austrian mime-king, you!”

She made it all the way to the stairs without faltering, and added.  “Karl, make sure Lisel does her lessons.  And please  wash yourself before you come to bed.  You stink like a chimneysweep.”

Lisel was paralyzed for a moment by all that she had witnessed tonight, and by all that she had witnessed, ever.  Her father had not moved or blinked.  It was possible to see the fire in the gloss of his eyeballs which was growing, unthinkable, dampening.  She moved softly to him, and hugged his neck, which was just level with her arms.  The perfect height.  She was the perfect height.  She wished she would never grow again and said a vow inside her mind that she would forget all about the marks on the closet door frame if only he would move or speak, if only he would be as he was before.

His cheek was hot and red and stinging on one side from the fire.  Finally, he spoke, and Lisel was relieved to hear: “Lisel, do your lessons.  I have to go fetch Natasha.  I think it’s going to snow tonight, and she won’t come all this way alone if there are drifts.”

He left.  He forgot his coat.  Lisel went to fetch her lessons from her satchel.  She read a history chapter.  It was about Pompeii, the great Roman city which Vesuvius had swallowed up.  She wondered if there was not some mistake.  If maybe, all the bombs and all the ashes and smoke in the air, and all the disappearances were not the product of some great volcano, slowly and voraciously sweeping Northeim into its fiery mouth.  She would ask Natasha and her father when they got back.

Natasha was the housekeeper who took care of her when her mother was ‘indisposed’ which was often.  Sometimes, in the winters, Natasha slept on the couch.  Lisel liked this.  If there were an air raid, Natasha would help her get dressed.  Natasha always slept in her clothes.  If not, Lisel sometimes would slip downstairs and sleep between Natasha’s plump breasts and sometimes, when Natasha was not feeling cranky, she would let Lisel play with her long, blond hair.  They would pick pretty styles for Natasha to wear when they went out together, and afterwards, Lisel would try to braid her own hair, but it was usually too fine and dark to be of any use at all.

Now was the time for Lisel to let go of her fine hair and to write her dreaded composition.  There could be no more gambling, no more hoping that bombs would drop on the school, or maybe the Frauline’s house, no more wicked thoughts like that.  She wished that she had mathematics homework instead.  She prefered the precise drafting of equations, the numbers shuttling back and forth like tiny armies across equal signs and realigning themselves into one perfect final sum, for the positive or for the negative, it didn’t matter so long as there were only one number for one problem.  Mathematics was like the fluid notes of music, metered and divided out regularly across the black bars and scrolling staffs.  If only all time could be like music time.  If only Natasha were here, she would help her with her composition.  Natasha was good at expressing things in a happy manner.  Her mother had died and her father was a poor railroad man, but Natasha was never sad.  Natasha had many siblings to care for and never went to school.  If only her mother were awake, she might write her a sick note.  She might not.  If, if only, if, enough!  Lisel sat in her father’s chair and tried to banish the ‘if’ thoughts.

She stood up in the chair and studied the room for inspiration, the mantle piece with the unpainted Hitler, cheap and ethereal at the same time, the tacky collection of beer steins her parents were always getting as presents and her mother was always trying to throw away or hide, but which her father kept hauling out of boxes in the attic to use when there were no other clean glasses around––some of them still had the warm, fomenting contents of past parties sitting in them and Lisel was for the first time conscious of the way the bitter, stale smell was spreading itself out in the room, was the smell of the room, was the instant greeting, the very flavor in the walls and furniture, which the house impressed on those who entered it, she was full of a mute shame at this––and, at the very end of the mantle, edged away by all the bric-a-brac, a picture of her mother in her wedding dress, a black background and a vivid white dress, possessing of that imperial curiosity of all objects older than herself, and made only more noble by the chipped, tarnished frame.  The thin silver plating was rubbed off around the corners to reveal the baser metal it was made of.  The picture was arresting not only to Lisel but to all who saw it and who saw her mother.  People always remarked on the ‘traditional’ dress, ‘traditional’ she gathered, because it was somehow not representative of her mother––the scholar, the invalid, the misanthrope.  But it was even more than that.  The woman in the picture had hips and pale pink but full lips, a modest bit of fat on her cheeks, a nose that could be called comical but not unfortunate in such an aquiline, aristocratic face, a smile as fresh and winsome and slight as the thin string of fake pearls at her neck and the jumbled spring bouquet that hid her hands.  And though the veil in the picture obscured it, Lisel felt sure that her mother’s hair had been longer.                        But none of this was making words come out of her pencil.  She looked at the lines of books, books full of poetry, books which her mother said would be her life and death, but which she dared not, because of this, touch, open, taint.  She looked at her father’s leather flask.  That had poetry on it, of a sort, with little animals etched on it as pictograms.  Don’t be an…it had a picture of a camel.  So kick some…it had a picture of a donkey.  Don’t be…it had a picture of a rooster.  Lisel could read the English, but she did not understand the pictures and the rhymes on the flask.  Her father did, but he was not here.  On the back, a faded poem said, When you’re something , something…When your wife is pretty and your children cute, When everything in life is a hoot, When the good times get the best of ya, Then you’re drunk! drunk! drunk!  Hallelujia!  But this was not poetry.  It was more like nursery rhymes, but not like nursery rhymes at the same time.  Lisel wished that she would never again have to hear another nursery rhyme so long as she lived.  Even the kind like this one on her father’s flask.  Even if it was a witty thing intended for adults.  The world was sick and dying, she felt, and it was all on account of nursery rhymes like this one.

She looked again at the Fuhrer, at her mother’s photograph, and scribbled the only thing that came to mind.  “The Fuhrer is the lifeblood of Germany.”  Line 1.  “He is the father and husband of all the German people.”  Line 2.  “He knows best, though he does not always say.”  Line 3.  “If he beats his wife, it is for her own good and the good of all his children.”  Done.

Now she had no poem to worry about, but she still had the shoes.  Hannah’s shoes.  The shoes of Hannah were there, but had there been a Hannah?  Hadn’t there been, wouldn’t there have had to have been a real Hannah?  Yes, yes, that was logic.  There had even been a Hannah Goldstein at her school before the Jews left to have their own schools, in a far-off land beyond the forest.  Yes!  She remembered Hannah now, older by a year or two, a soft, quiet girl with curly, unruly hair she had to keep tied back at recess and which was her habit, even when it was tied back to brush away from her big, inky eyes.  Tomorrow!  Tomorrow she would find this Hannah and give her back her shoes.  Say her father had brought them by mistake.  She would ask Frauline where Hannah’s school was and take them, after school, Natasha would help her find the address, it would have to be past the church row, past the 1910er Zelt and all the meeting halls, past the railroad station with its tattered, wind-blown movie posters and political ads, past the terrace of city hall where the big red flags, with their huge crooked arm crosses, waved in the maniacal wind and cast fluttering cape-like shadows, past all this familiar terrain, Lisel was sure, there was a place for the reeducation of Hannah and where Hannah might be even now, barefoot and wondering where her shoes went.  She hoped that Hannah had not outgrown her shoes and that she might be grateful for Lisel’s profound trouble.  That way she could say she was practicing charity and neither her mother nor her father could say she had been wrong to do it.  It would be beautiful in the morning.  It would be like Cinderella.  It would give her day a sense of purpose.  It would be beautiful in the morning.

*          *          *


Natasha was there, her beaming, vapid face in the morning light materializing like the skin on warm milk.  Lisel had fallen asleep at the piano again.  In her dream, they were having a party.  Everyone she knew was there and playing parlor games and eating cupcakes and strudel and the piano was playing, Lisel was playing the piano, everyone was in costumes and dancing, her father was dancing with Natasha, everyone was laughing, screaming for Lisel to play a dancing tune but instead of waltzes all that was coming out of the piano was Mozart’s requiem, people were frowning at her and throwing things around the room in protest as in Vaudeville, but when she tried to recall the good music, she looked down at her hands and saw all these little puppet strings tugging at her fingers, holding them fast down, busying them over the somber line of notes like sparrows falling on stones.  The notes became a siren.  Everyone ran out of the room breaking things as they went.  The bust of Hitler tumbled into the floor and laughed at her.  Lisel was moving her lips, dumb shouts pouring out, “Where is Hannah Goldstein?  Someone must wake my mother!” but the sirens were so loud, they sucked the air and all the words right out of the room and through the shattering windows, and then Natasha was shaking her shoulders hard.

Lisel rubbed her forehead where the piano had left a line because she had been leaning against it all night.

“Natasha,” she said.  “We should wake my mother.”

Natasha said there was no time. There was school today.  She would be late.  There was only time to get her satchel, put on her shoes.  The shoes had a hole in them.

“Natasha, my shoes have a hole in them,” she said.

Natasha said, “Can’t have that.”  It was that way Natasha had of making things seem all right for a time.

Lisel went upstairs, gathered her things, kissed her mother good-bye.  Her mother did not move.  There was a sweet, sickly smell in her breath.  Her face was smeared with lipstick, a puffy, implacable mess.  Lisel decided to tell Natasha about the shoes on the way to school.  She and Natasha went out the door, past the rancid coat of her father, into the impossible, dizzying daylight.  She told Natasha about the shoes, and also that she was hungry, that everyone had forgotten about breakfast, that it wasn’t right that she should have new shoes and no breakfast.  Natasha, for the first time ever, was visibly vexed.  She apologized for Lisel’s not having any breakfast in that way of hers that deflected any fault.  She was, for the first time, just a girl, a stupid girl of fourteen, but she took the shoes out of Lisel’s satchel and, when they came to the footbridge at the Ruhr, she dropped them into the river.  Lisel watched them flow outward until they were but two floating pieces of debris, two dark, moving pixels in the swarm of water and sunlight.  She hoped in the most childish quadrant of her heart that the river would take the shoes to where Hannah was camping, but she knew better, she knew the shoes would go the way of water and ruination and she knew that Hannah too, was moving somewhere fast and steady down the line, her inky eyes dissolving in the swollen currents.  And she did not care.  There had been no breakfast this morning.  She did not even think what would she tell her father.  And she thought, too––she could still have been dreaming––that she saw her father walk past them––wearing his glasses again and out of uniform, in a blue pullover and trousers, his clothes somehow clumsy, out of date––walk past them and not say anything, but it could have been just another man to whom they were just another girl and just another, smaller girl.  And it occurred to Lisel that it was not November at all but April again.  The birds fluttered up out of the small trees on the other side of the river, trying with their cacophonous, shrill outcries to make sense and music of another springtime in Germany.

Reading “The General”, Handing the Right their A—s, Raising $$ for Charity

So, my agent is making me do this thing for charity…

Just kidding. It is an honor to help this great organization and to read with these two talented authors. 

To donate directly, click here. Please specify it is because you saw this post. 

Help A Homeless Shelter

Make Rent

Sunday, Nov. 18, 1 to 3 p.m.

The Outer Space, 295 Treadwell St., Hamden, Ct

League of Women Voters &

Occupy New England

present readings by


Norm Pattis and Linda Urbach and Penelope Gristelfink

Help those who need it most!! Story time and dance party!!!Donations of any amount accepted. All proceeds go to Columbus House, a local homeless shelter.

Norm Pattis is a Ct-based trial lawyer who focuses on high stakes criminal defense, discrimination and civil liberties. He writes columns for The Connecticut Law Tribune and for Journal Courier newspapers. He will read from his new book, Juries and Justice. Check out his blog at

Linda Howard Urbach, a contributor to the Huffington Post is the author of Madame Bovary’s Daughter (Random House Summer 2011) and two novels published by Putnam’s (Under the name Linda U. Howard) The Money Honey and Expecting Miracles. Her one act play “Scenes from A Cell” was a finalist in the 2002 New England One Act Festival. She is the originator of “MoMoirs: The Umbilical Cord Stops Here!” a theatrical production in conjunction with Theatre Arts Workshop of Norwalk, She’s also the creator of MoMoirs-Writing Workshops For and About Mothers.



Penelope Gristelfink is a personal trainer, former journalist, writer and political activist. She will read from her short story “The General,” a dystopic vision of an anarcho-capitalist society run amok. “The General” is live in the current issue of Eclectica Magazine, She maintains a blog: Bring your laptop or smartphone to follow along.



Call me a dope, but I don’t get what’s wrong with it

When pictures of Michael Phelps smoking pot were leaked to the press, Saturday Night Live did a great skit hitting back at Kellogg’s for dropping their sponsorship deal with Phelps. The link is above.

Writer and actor Seth Meyers put it this way to parents outraged at the fallen idol: “If your kid says, ‘Michael Phelps smokes pot, why can’t I? Just say, ‘You can! Right after you win 12 gold medals for your country.

I take a similar view of the totally true but also totally irrelevant charges against Lance Armstrong and all the backpedaling, Indian-giving, ruthless extortion brought on by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). When you survive testicular cancer and win seven Tour De Frances and raise $470 million for cancer research/survivors, you can tell everyone to kiss off and take a corticosteroid, too.

If you feel like it. 

I think it would be an interesting experiment to see how many of the banned, illicit substances listed in the 202-page report are in fact in the medicine cabinets of the litigious vultures and media schadenfreude- artists who concocted the campaign to shuffle back the millions based on unprecedented athletic performance. Ever had a cortisone shot for your aching knees after lugging legal briefs around in a swank Hermes? Ever been susceptible to nagging doubts about declining sex drive and been tempted to buy into the new testosterone supplementation being peddled on TV? Ever had allergies so bad your doctor prescribed prednizone?

Ever been threatened with the loss of your balls and then your entire endocrine system, then bounced back to train seven or eight hours a day to climb steep hills with the sleek grace of an Alpine monorail?


Okay, then shut the hell up.

While I can see that many would be outraged by Armstrong’s overt lies, and while the pages of circumstantial evidence are overwhelming, you know that it’s a school-for-scandal dust-up and nothing more ethically substantial when British people start burning effigies. Yep, when it devolves into bumfuck, tabloid-addicted wankers putting on a show in
Edenbridge, then you know you can officially move on.

First of all, Armstrong did not do anything illegal. There is nothing in the report even akin to Andre Agassi’s use of amphetamines and narcotics, later disclosed in his confessional autobiography. Although sponsors have come out on CNN and decried his “perjury”, the legal basis for their claims is all going to be drawn up in civil proceedings, as it is not a criminal act to take these drugs or to blood dope.

Furthermore, the naivete of sports fans and the shattered innocence of his one-time supporters is steeped in an hypocrisy and an ignorance of both biomedical ethics and sport-specific training techniques.

When the average joe hears the term “blood doping,” they may conjure something like shooting up. The procedure does involve withdrawing blood with needles and reinjecting it, but there is nothing artificial or harmful in it. It is basically a way of holding an athlete’s natural tissues in reserve—and I contend that all people have an inherent, legal right to their own tissues—so that they can be used to up the natural, oxygen-delivering capacity of the blood supply during competition.

May the best bleeder/reinjector win, in my opinion. I mean, body builders, who are essentially functionally useless creatures, are known to take ice baths and expose themselves to cold for prolonged periods of time, in order to stimulate the brown adipose tissue command centers to greater fat-burning and thus get themselves leaner for competition.  Football players use barometric chambers to simulate high altitudes and enhance lung capacity.

We live in a society where both vanity and mediocrity and an unhealthy disregard for physical activity are fueling needless, expensive hormone replacement therapies and elective/cosmetic surgeries such as gastric bypass for no higher purposes than consumeristic cravings. Yet we cannot wrap our heads around the perfect storm of high-stakes endorsement deals and the parasitic, politically motivated “governing” bodies such as the USADA.

In its own indictment/reasoned decision, USADA quotes Armstrong’s biography. He describes his scientific approach to training: “I tackled the problem of the Tour as if I were in math class, science class, chemistry class and nutrition class, all rolled into one. I did computer calculations that balanced my body weight and my equipment weight with the potential velocity of the bike in various stages, trying to find the equation that would get me to the finish line faster than anybody else. I kept careful computer graphs of my training rides, calibrating the distances, wattages and thresholds.”

The report goes on: “Interestingly, the mathematical approach described by Armstrong in his autobiography, and which he ascribes solely to his own personal innovation and to his having ‘geeked out,’ is exactly the approach that the documents USADA has assembled indicate Michele Ferrari takes with his clients. As demonstrated by the documents capturing Ferrari’s own communications with Armstrong and other clients, Ferrari’s focus is unremittingly upon the numbers, upon the calculation of power ratios and wattages and thresholds.”

So, to recap, what USADA has brought to light is an athlete conspiring with a medical doctor to use math and science “unremittingly” to win a race that is also all about the numbers. How dirty. How damning.

The New York Times called Armstrong’s methods “cunning and farcical” and cited the fact that USADA had 38 blood samples reanalyzed by Christopher J. Gore, the head of physiology at the Australian Institute of Sport. Gore’s findings were that the chances that Armstrong’s hematocrit levels were naturally occurring were “one in a million.” But again, we are talking about concentration of red blood cells, not an artificially produced chemical substance. Something the body does on its own. Even erythropoeitin (EPO) and testosterone are native substances to the body, not uppers or stimulants, such as ephedra (common in Jillian Michaels’ type product lines) or even carcinogenic or kidney-killing steroids like HGB or creatine. This last is commonly available in certain protein powders sold at GNC.

How about, instead of stripping Armstrong of his seven medals and opening him and his foundation up to charges of fraud in civil courts, let’s have MIT start an exercise science program and make him a full professor? Or better yet, USADA should ask him to be their new chairman so that he can strengthen testing procedures and give them validity. It’s like when the makers of safes pay thieves to tinker with their new products. You want quality control, ask a proven expert.

Blood doping is hard to prove because it doesn’t trace back to an alien substance. Blood is blood. If you can’t establish an explicit standard for concentration or volume, and these are even subject to natural, non-doping fluctuations, especially in female riders, then stop trying to impose artificial standards in an effort to “police” a sport extra-legally.

The report is a testament to the agency’s own superfluity and moral weakness. The cover-up should have been on USADA’s end, to suppress the circumstantial evidence against Armstrong, not out him, because they failed to deliver on their own raison d’etre: a purely theoretical clean, level playing field that can never exist in practice. Instead, their report belabors USADA’s own inefficacy in page after page of what is otherwise an intimate portrait of a sophisticated network of trainers, athletes and doctors who are in no wise violating the Hippocratic oath.

From the report: “Twenty of the twenty-one podium finishers in the Tour de France from 1999 to 2005 have been directly tied to likely (my emphasis) doping through admissions, sanctions, public investigations or exceeding the UCI hematocrit threshold. Of the forty-five (45) podium finishes during the time period between 1996 and 2010, thirty-six were by riders similarly tainted by doping.”

Even though USADA lays the conspiracy at Armstrong’s feet, claiming he pressured other riders on the US Postal Service Team to cheat, if he had not, apparently the organization was so byzantine and effete that some other cheater would have won. So, in a sense, it was a level playing field. Also, there is not direct evidence anywhere in the report. It is a giant story-telling effort and a good piece of sports reporting, but not a legally valid document.

As Trevor Butterworth, a contributor for Forbes, pointed out in his article “The Kafkaesque Trial of Lance Armstrong: A Former Federal Prosecutor on the US Anti-Doping Agency’s Disregard for Due Process”, the testimony of Tygart, Landis, and other teammates against Armstrong doesn’t hold water and smacks more of arm-twisting and back-door immunity deals. Sour grapes, to say the least.

And what of USADA’s methods: admissions, sanctions, public investigations of highly public people with millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of career investment on the line. Hardly unbiased prosecuting.

In his own lawsuit against USADA, Armstrong has his lawyers put the issue of money, and the political motives of self-justification, front and center. The suit claims within the first two pages that USADA wasted taxpayer dollars coercing testimony from discredited, losing teammates, which it absolutely did.

According to, USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency are non-profits, but like all non-profits they are continually dependent on grants from the government and from organizations such as the Olympic Committee. The mere link between USADA and the federally funded Office of National Drug Control Policy, once headed by Joe Biden, ought to give us pause as I think the nation has bigger drug problems than endurance athletes. I would rather see a witchhunt directed at Perdue or big dairy farmers for the injection of a noxious and abnormal level of growth hormones into the food supply. Schoolchildren reaching puberty earlier and earlier and obesity run amok among the population of mediocre couch potatoes that are the rest of us is of more concern to me. Or the spread of meth out of Appalachia. Or the bloody, violent implosion of Mexican politics around drug cartels that have made El Paso a gated community over the maw of hell and mayhem that is Juarez. Give me destitution and bloodbaths and graveyards of mules as  reasons to splurge on enforcement, not little, spry jockeys on bicycles.

In the meantime, Lance, from one native Texan to another, this chaps my hide.

Sending Love and Cortisone,


Beware the Talk

The question was raised on Facebook by Bob Christian, editor and publisher of The Weekly Press: Is A. J. O’Connell‘s main character in Beware the Hawk based on me? I can only presume this is because of my involvement in Occupy and because O’Connell and I once shared a newsroom.

I think these questions are best answered by the author, fabulous author herself, but I wanted to outline some of the most glaring differences.

1. Occupy is not a secret society. Everything we do we do openly in public spaces and on the web. We believe in transparency. To the extent that exercising one’s constitutional freedoms and blowing bubbles in the park are increasingly considered a threat to the corrupt order of global multinationals and clueless, spineless,  money-grubbing politicians, then it might be a terrorist society.  Certainly, the NDAA, and the chiseling away at the writ of habeus corpus it represents, is a step in that direction.

2. A J.’s main character is a pedestrian courier. I am a half-marathoner and a cook. See my favorite food blog. See my favorite  fitness blog.

2. A. J.’s main character gets paid for her activities. I am a broke grad school drop-out.

3. A. J.’s main character does not care about the issues and sleeps with an undercover cop. I care about the issues and sleep with my cat and a nightguard because I have TMJ.

4. A. J.’s main character has pink hair. I have a red thing going on right now, but it’s just the fadeout from a previous dye job.

5. A. J.’s main character gets caught. 

Not to mention, A. J. wrote this book before Occupy started, and it was unfinished for nine years before being published! How prescient of her. See her latest blog post on the subject. 


Special thanks to the editors of


Am planning a reading of my short story “The General” and fundraiser for a New Haven homeless charity around Thanksgiving. You can read the short story in the current issue of Eclectica magazine.

Special thanks to editors Tom Dooley and Anne Leigh Parrish for choosing the story, as well as for their praise and for creating an exquisite source of inspiration with their completely free online magazine.

fr. Anne Leigh Parrish:

“The General” by Penelope Gristlefink depicts a future where people seek revenge and justice just as they might today, yet under circumstances so harsh that the ability of the 14-year-old narrator to preserve her own humanity moves us profoundly. We conclude with “Grave Robbers” by Jerry McGahan, a story we love for its exploration of compassion in a world run on power and greed, and underscored by the danger of expressing any opinion that goes against established doctrine. These stories are strong, daring, and brave. Their authors don’t shy away from passion, pain, or ugly truths. Rather, they meet them with open eyes and open hearts. We hope you will, too.

Fear and Trembling in the Garden and Borderline Personality Disorder

This essay was written two years ago. My mother and I have since reconciled by phone. More on that forthcoming.

I haven’t spoken to my mother in nearly three years.  This is not something I feel in a rush to change. In fact, I can scarcely imagine my life without this supportive reality.  My mother has borderline personality disorder. The defining features of this mental illness are, ironically, a fear of abandonment and a simultaneous inability to sustain relationships.  This inability to sustain relationships encompasses even the bond between mother and child, although the burden of the estrangement is largely mine.
To the rest of my family and even to some of my friends, it is difficult to explain my estrangement.  They do not see the strings attached to casual contact that I do because they have never felt the emotional lacerations of such strings.

When I was sixteen, I moved out of my mother’s house and into my father’s. I thought of this as a “divorce.” In reality, it was far from the separation I thought it was. It wasn’t estrangement because I fully expected my decision to change her.  There was an element of punishment and revenge in it.  There was also the fervent hope of a very lonely and abused girl for a loving relationship that had never existed.

Two weeks after I left, my mother called.  Her voice was small, high and wheezy.  She sounded like a child speaking into a tin tube.  She had consumed an entire bottle of wine and overdosed on the prescription tranquilizer Xanax.  She told me she had done these things.  She called me a “nasty, little, rotten, spoiled, stupid bitch” and said her state was all my fault. Then she said she would blow her brains out with the loaded gun I knew she kept in a bedroom drawer if I did not come over. In the background, I could hear the pounding of police and paramedics on the front door. She, or someone else in the family, had called for help before she had called me.  (It would take me years to come to grips with the loaded significance of that fact.)

I went cold and hung up the phone. Later I would tell people that what I actually said was, “Call me when you get through with all that. I have homework to do.” But this was just after-the-fact bragging, the subjective zinger thrown over silence.

I understood  that not reacting, not getting angry, not calling 911 and not calling any other relative to let them know what was going on, was a profound act of self-affirmation. I knew there was a slim chance that she could actually kill herself, but did nothing to prevent this. I felt myself renouncing a responsibility I had carried for as long as I could remember.

Still, it would take several more years and her actually physically attacking me before I was ready and emotionally mature enough to permanently cut it off.

All in all, my refusal to have a relationship with someone who has caused me undue suffering and pain and fundamentally threatened my sense of self-worth never fails to provide complex dilemmas and social discomfort, but has taught me a lot of valuable lessons.

Even into my twenties, I nurtured the childish belief that my mother, a respiratory therapist, had special powers. I thought she was a sort of spiritual medium, a marked person. Because she could be as sweet and self-effacing as she could be nasty and horrible, I thought that angels and demons competed for control of her. I carefully observed her when she walked through the door, gauging which force––good or evil––had her in their arbitrary grip.  I realize now this superstitious paradigm was nothing more than a childish metaphor for how powerful and enslaving her mood swings were.

When you are the child of a mother with borderline personality disorder, you are taught that your value lies in your ability to interpret, absorb, receive and respond to your mother’s emotions. Having your own feelings, having a separate identity even, can get in the way of this, can cost you her love and her attention. In a way, estrangement started as a backlash against this irrational fear, as a way of taking it on by invoking it. I do not remember a distinct point in time when I looked at my mother, raging, raving or in the throes of some deep, almost physically crippling depressive mood, and said, I do not love you any more. However, I remember that when she threw me to the kitchen floor and tried to strangle me with my iPod laniard such considerations became suddenly and completely irrelevant, as when you are forced to leap from a burning building you do not weep that you tore a good skirt.

I spent two years seeking out therapists and telling my story, repeating my justifications, looking for absolution.  I followed an emotional arc similar to grief.  I went through an infantile revenge phase. Then I went numb.  Even now, there are good days and bad days.  It is a constant test of psychological health, and a course in the meaning of detachment.
During watershed events–––graduation, divorce, a new job, a job loss, holidays, life’s typical highs and lows––I don’t call my mother.  Often I don’t call my stepmother or any other surrogate, not because these individuals are inadequate, but because I have come to accept that in this respect my life defies the natural order. I don’t have a mother, yet my mother is still living. Our society puts such a high value on the mother-child relationship that to eschew it, even when a deep spiritual purpose is involved, invokes an automatic taboo. This estrangement will cost others, too. I will never have a boyfriend who can rest secure in the knowledge that his girlfriend has a good relationship with her mother.  My future children will be half as spoiled by half as many grandmothers.

Estrangement is culturally controversial. Friends and acquaintances, people I deeply respect, often advocate that I forgive my mother and would take as necessary evidence of this a rapprochement.  They mean well; they think they have my best interest in mind. But I recognize that their naive framing of the situation in simplistic, moral terms issues from a kind of ignorance of my mother’s disorder and the disruptive behavior it causes.

Estrangement incorporates and necessitates such psychological work as self-forgiveness and the patient tolerance that comes with knowing not everyone will always agree with you or think you are right.  My mother’s mother deeply disapproves.  My love for her is not diminished.

I had to learn also to forego the self-pity that gushes into the void in those days and moments when any normal person would call their mother and to not listen to the false voice that says, you do not deserve this. People mistakenly think that detachment confers an absence of pain. While it is true that I do what I do not to hurt or manipulate my mother but rather to protect myself from needless pain and disappointment, estrangement does not provide freedom from the pain of the past or from the absence of a functional relationship. A healthy estrangement does not provide relief from these things because it is not designed to.

There are limits to what estrangement can do. I think that many people who attempt estrangement and fail––either by falling into a kind of bitterness which is the opposite of the appropriate detachment or by collapsing back into the same relationships with the illusion that they can somehow, after an absence, control the other party––fail because they place too grand expectations on the estrangement. I do not expect the estrangement to carry me, to hurdle me over all or even any of life’s hurts or to solve all the personality flaws that were sowed by the damaging relationship I had with my mother.

A healthy estrangement is a means, not an end.  As the daughter of a mother with borderline personality disorder, I finally had an opening, into a vast field of pain and freedom in which I was allowed, even forced, to achieve an individual identity. These past few years have been fraught with failure and loss and, at times, very lonely. I find solace in the knowledge that the fear and trembling of finding oneself is so basic and universal as to be written into Western creation myths. The shame of nakedness Adam and Eve felt in the garden, listening to God’s voice after having bitten into the apple, I take to be an allegory for the hard but liberating realization of an imperfect self, however late in life this is achieved. For better or for worse, as far as my mother, my biological creator, is concerned, I am like a disobedient Eve, one who abandoned, one who ran.  Or even worse, a Lucifer, one who refused to serve.

I can live with that.

Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”  The same principle exists in nature. Gardeners prune below the flowering line at certain times of the year.

Such cuttings encourage new growth.

There is much to be learned from the quiet gulf that is estrangement. It can be a meditative abstinence in cases where past experience secures the conviction that there is no other viable way. The healing and self-discovery that results from the use of this last resort is often as good as that achieved by any other means. This fear and trembling in the garden is bitter indeed, but, I find, good medicine.

‘Hook-Up Culture’ & Crime: Where the Rubbers Meet the Road

Recently, Hanna Rosin, senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, picked a fight with Caitlin Flanagan, author of Girl Land, in an article meant as a preview to her book The End of Men.

In the Rosin/Flanagan debate, Rosin sticks up for a culture she sees as liberating to women because it reinforces the ‘post-feminism’ societal leveling, i.e. women making as much or more money than men and having greater access and leverage in high status career fields, while at the same time treating them to dick, delicious dick. Flanagan rallies around working class girls who, by their squeamish refusal to participate in the ‘grown-up’ world of casual sex in the academic world, often retreat to marriage and relationships and away from school.

No big surprise here, I am decidedly down with Flanagan’s Girl Land, and anyone who knows me will tell you that my own life history echoes that of her working class subjects who enter college and feel estranged from their more upwardly mobile, callous and achievement-oriented peers. I got engaged before my freshman year, married between freshman and sophomore years, and transferred to a Seven Sisters school because I was fixed on the naïve notion that it would be more appropriate and allow me to focus on my studies.

I was entirely confused when my refusal to participate in school rituals cost me. It did not cost me in terms of my GPA or my relationships with faculty, but in terms of peer support. People would say things like, Aren’t you coming to May Day?!

Every spring these women would reenact the arcane dance of vestal virgins around a giant pole. I would merely smirk. Why are you sluts putting on airs? I like Isadora Duncan, too, but this is too much.

One semester, I split up from my husband and ended up cocktail waitressing in a pool hall in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania  for a couple of weeks. The owner tried to impress me with big fish tales of being in the Philly mob, because I told him I was a writer. He said I could interview him, but that I would have to do it in the nude so he could make sure I wasn’t wearing a wire. The dean had cautioned us against getting retail jobs at places like The Gap because working represented a distraction from studying and a lack of priorities. I had planned to double major in English and psychology, so that I could pursue social psychology. I was particularly interested in pursuing criminal psychology post-graduation, but I was told that I was on too much financial aid to double major.

No matter how I played it at school, I was always cast as stuck-up and strange. But occasionally my fellow students would come to me and ask for guidance about love when relationships approached a serious enough level. One very bright,  ambitious friend of a friend sidled up to me one day and said in this deep, worrisome tone,“Penelope, how do you know when you are in love?”

“I don’t know, Ahmara” I said. “Do you really, really like the way he smells?”

Another semester, a group of students I barely knew but who knew me as “the married girl” came to me and asked me if I would meet with a senior whose Muslim family had just arranged for her to marry. They were concerned about how she would make the adjustment. When I did meet with her, it was evident that she and I were worlds apart. Both families involved were extremely wealthy, as was the case with many of the school’s international students, and she and her husband were tracked for post-graduate careers in law and finance. She was already commuting from a penthouse in Manhattan, and the diamond studding her finger could have put my eye out. We had a very cordial conversation. Mostly it involved her apologizing obliquely for the culture of arranged marriages and my listening, stunned, searching for the proper level of political correctness and tact. I left feeling like I had somehow let her down, and I resented the gaggle of students who had so misread our lives as to put us in this awkward circumstance.

All this talk about sex and economics is very accurate, but it is also boring and ahistorical. I want to know what senior citizens would say about these books. I have a feeling they would roll their eyes and say, “What, you people think you invented sex and jockeying?” Read Margaret Atwood. Read John Barth. Or Holinshed, for that matter, or Wycliffe or the Bible.

For Rosin fans to contend that women weren’t equally savvy, savage, sexual aspirants in the pre-Title 9 days of diaphragms and corsets is like saying that football was less interesting in the days of leather helmets. Impact forces were less, but finesse and agility were more highly prized. If what is lost to us on the male side is chivalry, ferocity and cunning on the female side have certainly, in my estimation, taken a blow as more and more women go passively through their day at the office enduring a blitz of what has apparently become a pornographic level of small talk, doing the intellectual work of the day, crunching numbers, writing policy, researching foreign affairs, and not questioning their own lives and surroundings enough. They do not seem to understand that, if we have entered a new economically driven phase in sexual relations, and I’m very skeptical here (such is a uniquely insular, domestic view—for an excellent overview of some of the increasingly prevalent forms of sexual violence against women, see this article by global health science expertsCharlotte Watts and Cathy Zimmerman ), we may be condoning new norms of behavior the way we condone hazing for marching bands, fraternities and sororities. But unlike hazing, it isn’t an initiation rite; rather, it’s  a constant standard.

The central problem with all this analysis is that it blanketly equates money with power. It excuses what is still in legal terms sexual harassment on the basis that paygrade status and rank in the office offer clearcut directional channels and that as long as women are able to flourish by manipulating these channels all things are equal and okay.

After the recession went full-blown, and when I was still working as a reporter, I had a very nasty, eye-opening encounter with the culture of finance grads in a bar in Stamford. An extremely drunk recent graduate kept slapping my ass on the dance floor in a way that I considered rather violent. There was a wind-up involved. He told me that he had expected to get a job with one of the firms in the area, but there were none available. He asked me what I did, and I told him.

“I don’t have a job yet,” he said, “IS THAT ALL RIGHT WITH YOU?”

He kept saying it, in between slaps, and I kept saying, “Hey, I have a job, and I’m still broke. Cool it.”

A few months later, he was on the local news. He was an up and coming amateur boxer who dedicated all his fights to his deceased mother. He was working an entry level job at one of the firms. He came across as a lovely, pugnacious, triumph-over-tragedy kind of guy, which, maybe, in his sober state, he was. My point is that Rosin and Flanagan and recent commentators ignore the age old truth that female dominance breeds contempt, and contempt breeds violence.

Global statistics tell a vastly diferent story about how women and girls who aren’t even afforded the opportunities to achieve power in the workplace are increasingly subject to violence, intimidation, rape, torture and abduction. The old standard, oft-quoted statistic that 1 in 3 women are subject to an attack of a sexual nature, still applies. Can we afford to showcase the United States as a global economic superpower but not draw links between an increasingly sexually crass culture in the academies and institutions at the top and the spread of sexual violence worldwide?

In her article, Rosin reported that sexual violence in the country is on the decline by a whopping 70 percent. Oh, really? I mistrust these statistics. A side effect of all this upward mobility of women in the workplace and in the halls of academia has been that women have clearly stopped reporting incidences of minor sexual crimes because they have been reprogrammed to construe this behavior as innocuous attention seeking and to therefore feel proud of it being leveled against them. Or, if not proud, nonplussed in a very dumb, unreflective way.

Cynicism is a form of intellectual laziness.

Plus, why sleep with people when you can just seduce and intimidate?

I have some firsthand experience with this. A week before I started a graduate program for creative writing, I was startled awake by my roommate, with whom I’d already been having issues of missing or bounced rent checks and what I considered churlish, uncouth behavior. He groped me. I asked him to stop and leave, and he did. I reported it to the police, but found it difficult to concentrate on my studies when I was tasked with getting a restraining order, evicting him from the premises and potentially testifying in court. Almost everyone I talked to at school and subsequent social engagements said, “That happened to me in college” or “that happened to my friend in college” or “that could happen on any college campus in America.” The comments, no matter how well-intentioned, felt belittling to me. So, too, did the process of seeking a deferment, especially given that I’d slyly, indirectly hit on a male professor by cc’ing him on a page-in-my-diary email to my second cousin describing myself more or less as a personal trainer who is bad with money but who loves to cook and give blowjobs. The email bounced back as marked UNDELIVERABLE, probably due to the inappropriate nature of its contents. (I maintain my doubts/hopes.)

I’m reminded of how ruefully I greeted this new term ‘metrosexual’ when it first came out, and how I groaned inside when I realized that subjecting men to the rigors of consumerist image construction did not represent a diminishment of psychological pain worldwide but an expansion of it. When I was in personal training school, I would laugh off the idea of dating a fellow trainer or a gym rat. Why would I want to date someone as vain as me? I told my friends. Similarly, to see myself and other women adapting to using sex for workplace gains, or using the workplace to make sexual gains, is a sad, antihumanistic trend. Making women pigs and men prissy is not progress; bad behavior in reverse is still bad behavior even if it makes Americans more money or is commonly practiced by the increasingly elite and tight subset of Americans who make a lot of money. Let us not let the rich set the table for all of us.

I decided not to pursue the charges against my roommate in court. I wanted no further grievance between us, but I am pretty sure that I was also reacting to the underlying just-get-over-it-tone of my new peers. Also, I was being cynical. I thought that no prosecutor or judge would be interested in my analysis of my roommate because in my written statement asking for a restraining order I cited my work experience as a police reporter for credibility and described my roommate as a “sexual predator.”

By the time I am faced with going to court, I back down because in my experience people in the legal field have nothing but contempt for the insights/judgments of journalists, and I don’t even have a job in journalism anymore. It’s an ingroup/outgroup thing. From being a journalist, I know that an even more contemptible category is wannabe cop.

The most grating post-incident conversation I had was with a pair of graduate students, the son and daughter-in-law of a friend. Both graduated with honors from Yale. The woman earned a degree in psychology and has worked in clinical settings as a counselor of the poor and underprivileged in New Haven. She is currently working on a doctoral thesis in performance studies at another Ivy League university. Her subject: ‘the legal system as theater.’ When the incident comes up on our way to dinner, and I tell her that I didn’t even go to court, that I was myself engaged in graduate studies, she misses the point. I instinctively feel that she has greater sympathy for my roommate, who immigrated from Haiti when he was fourteen. Maybe if I’d been inured to these encounters by going to Yale, I would not have so overreacted?

When I tell her the charges were fourth degree sexual assault, she quavers.

“Is there any way you could have resolved it amicably?” she asks.

I want to scream at her…I threw the case, M. IS THAT NOT AMICABLE ENOUGH FOR YOU?

I referred her to the work of Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist I interviewed in Philadelphia for a community news weekly and whose work deals with the ways in which crime, even violent crime, in the ghettos of Chicago is actually a sophisticated, multi-layered system of mediating economic disputes.

Of all the cat calling and sexually charged board room talk , Rosin writes:

The sexual culture may be more coarse these days, but young women are more than adequately equipped to handle it, because unlike the women in earlier ages, they have more-important things on their minds, such as good grades and intern­ships and job interviews and a financial future of their own.”

I find this staggeringly stupid and insensitive, especially to women of previous generations who also had those things on their minds in addition to darning socks, birthing children, helping construct the atom bomb and designing the spread spectrum communications system used by the military during World War II which laid the foundations for later computer/radar technologies and is still used to remotely operate garage doors. See Hedy Lamarr. Good grades and internships and the trappings of external achievement are no consolation against naked aggression, however sophisticated the aggressor appears. And it really doesn’t matter what the economic status of the aggressor is.

I have twice been exposed to porn at work by a male superior or manager. The first time I was working as a waitress. The second time I was manning the circulation desk at a paper that my husband had launched with a stockbroker turned publisher in Philadelphia. When the managers of Orlando’s Italian restaurant in my hometown viewed porn on the office computer, they’d do it openly, try to find the most outlandish, stomach-churning shit possible, then ask the female staff what they thought about it, and we’d weigh in.

When I went to ask my husband’s boss a question after working eight weeks without pay because staff were abandoning the fledgling paper like rats off a sinking ship and he was having trouble making payroll and found him watching a nude cartoon woman on his computer jumping up and down, we both pretended like nothing was happening, two violinists on the Titanic. Neither of these encounters fit neatly into Rosin’s high-ceilinged, high-financial stakes worldview, but of the two, I prefer the former because it is at least inclusive of my point of view.

That women benefit “in the long run” by making economic gains over and through this supposedly new system of power arrangements ignores psychological cost. The Atlantic Monthly also recently published “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a long complaint about the impossibility of work-life balance of this “new” breed of female overachievers exemplified by the likes of Hillary Clinton.

So progress is making women unhappy because “they can’t have it all.” Where does this sense of needing/wanting to “have it all” come from? And when is someone going to stick up for people not having it all? When I was working in Fairfield County, I initially felt sorry for the wives of CEOs and lawyers and bankers because they had about them an air of desperation. They expected me to keep them current in this sexual marketplace by helping them be slender and attractive into middle age. My sympathy ran one way, until I realized that if their husbands came home to them and reported that they’d decided to give up their six-figure incomes for, say, teaching high school or social work, that the wives would have pushed the speed dial function on the phone for the divorce attorney.

Once again, the slick social commentators turn to money, not happiness, as a measure of progress and find that men and women are equally “progressive” and equally “unhappy” now a days. Yea for gender equality!

While I was working for an all-female fitness studio in Westport, Connecticut, one of my clients, a woman who billed herself as a feminist therapist who specialized in helping women empower themselves, especially post-divorce, tried to recruit me into a dating service. She was a paid consultant. The men had to pay $110,000 to belong to the service.

I can only bring in 9s or 10s, Penelope,” she told me. “You’re a 10.”

I just about threw up in my mouth.

But, wait, it gets worse.

When I tell her that I don’t think I would do very well in this ‘service’ because I am only the manager of a fitness studio, and I don’t think I can relate to these other candidates, she says, “Oh, no, they like it when you have a career. They like it when you have things of your own that you’re doing.”

My cousin is a Marine. She served two tours in Iraq. When she entered the service for the second time, my mother said, “I think something must have happened to Morgan to make her want to do this” in this tone that implies my cousin’s hutzpah is rooted in sexual trauma.

I’m pretty sure you’re right about this, Mom,” I said. “And I’m pretty sure that something was junior high.”

I have been in and out of many male-dominated settings. I have been teased and eyed up and cajoled and have understood it all and suborned it all when there is a measure of real, intellectual respect and more writing to be done. Now I would say work is no different, but there is a layer of respect based on physical as well as mental prowess. Training a male client is not easier or better than training a female client, but sometimes it can be more time-efficient as when I encounter resistance and say, “Do you want me to do it with you?” and find that a male client will respond to this challenge by completing whatever sets I’ve asked without further ado.

I work in a gym and wear tight Spandex pants all day. I can hardly complain about light sexual banter when I expect people to pay me for advice on how to manipulate their bodies to a particular aesthetic. The personal training office is just off the free weight section which myself and my female clients jokingly refer to as “the pit.” Every gym has a pit, the place where the men tend to work out, where the equipment facilitates heavy lifting and where many women are reluctant to go. I won’t take a female client into the pit until she is ready to do pull-ups or push-ups or until I have a notion that she is really focused enough on herself to benefit from the environment.

Somehow, at this gym, I have only once been exposed to the level of crude, denigrating banter Rosin cites in her article, and the man who directed it to me also happened to be a North Haven police officer. After I’d pleaded illness due to anxiety attacks stemming from my roommate incident and complained in an essay circulated among my friends in Occupy about my past issues with decongestants as well as my father’s small time exploits as a pot dealer, this member of the gym comes into my office and makes a lot of amped up, cheesy and disgusting comments about my ass and about our similarly “high metabolisms” without disclosing that he is a cop. Nevertheless, I suspect he is fishing for information about my personal habits. Also, many trainers make a side income in supplying performance enhancing drugs. I do not do this.

I just look at him as if to say, Do you have a specific question about training or did you just want to rattle on about your day? And he goes back to the work out floor.

(As if half of special services isn’t on supplements, and no one there has ever had a bad fucking day due to roid rage.)

Anyway, my point is that I seldom expect this kind of thing from the men in the gym. Of course, it is a safe, public place, but once again, apparently, this is an inverted class privilege that does not extend to Yale or to corporate offices.

Tell me why it is that I held my own as a police reporter but would never survive at an Ivy League school where fraternity men chant outside a freshman dorm room: “No means yes! Yes means anal!”?

I got something for that:

“The first no means no. The second no means Krav Maga.”

When I was reporting, one of the problems I encountered was the disjuncture between the language of the police and the language of the newsroom. When I complained that my editors were giving me mixed messages or that I had an ethical dilemma, a public information officer would often say things like, “If you’re not getting much guidance from your leadership, maybe you should take your time to contemplate your predicament.”


In the newsroom, the archaic language of “character” and “honor” was often greeted with snickers and read as sentimental palaver, but it is precisely this kind of language that addresses the humanistic values that the field of economics does not. It is also the core of what the women in Flanagan’s book opine about missing, the “chivalry” of it, but which Rosin says is a dead paperweight of history, an albatross to women on their way to the unhappiness of “having it all.” Or trying to.