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Good Narrative Principles

February 2, 2016
by Lee Eiferman
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POTUS Wrote Us

POTUS Wrote Us

IMG_8452You might not know this about Woodrow Wilson but he was a hot-head. The man had a temper. Not over all things. In fact, his temper, the thing he’d fixate about tended towards the unusual, the out of the ordinary. He was, for instance, very particular about his collars. The starch sawed into the fold of his slender neck, sometimes drawing blood. But, his secret passion, the issue that he cared about more than joining the League of Nations or fighting the impending Volstead Act was the sorry sanitary habits in his home state, Georgia.

At a time when he should have been seeing to more pressing issues, Woodrow took to the road. It was summer. The hot summer of 1919. The heat blanketed our town, sapping all desire to move from hammock to house let alone to hear the President speak in the town gazebo.

Despite the heat, our town of Gum Branch went all out. The high school marching band reassembled and practiced deep into the night. The bunting committee got to work. Word had it that the Mayor had contracted a Notable Preacher to put in a good word so that the weather might cooperate.

We lined up, each carrying our canvas chairs and freshly baked cakes and filed past the row of Johnny-on-the-spot moldering in the summer sun. I held my breath. I had brought along a fan made from one sheet of paper that I had recently learned how to fashion and thought myself clever.

When President Wilson took to the stage, the band struck up a jaunty tune. We applauded long and hard. We applauded what we believed would be a highlight of our life.

President Wilson then spoke for quite a while as was the fashion back then. He spoke about the need for the South to join the rest of the country. We needed to catch up. He was coaxing us the way a father urges on a recalcitrant child. He spoke at length about the virtues of clean hygiene, pleading with us to install indoor plumbing.

Mid-sentence, with a thought hanging between start and resolution, our President spied the line of Johnny-on-the-spot in the back of the park. He froze as his outrage shot straight out. President Wilson leapt off the stage. Strode long paces to the back of the park. Somehow a sledge hammer was thrust into his hand. Our President swung it high in the air where it hovered just for a lick and then slammed into the side of the Johnny-on-the-spot.

Shit, piss spewed straight out. Splashed the President square in the eye. The door of the President’s car flung open as if anticipating his next thought and he flew inside. The door slammed shut and he was gone. Just like that.

A month later we received a note from the White House signed by the President asking for our forgiveness. He spoke movingly about the unsanitary mess he had made as a result of his explosive temper. He went on at length about the particulars of that moment.

It was not a moment my family cared to revisit. However, as it was our only letter from the White House, it sat throughout my whole childhood perched on the mantle. In a place of honor.

(Title Provided By: Tim Duch)

June 17, 2015
by Lee Eiferman
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Psycho: The Untold Tale

IMG_6500Back during the war years, Patricia O’Connell (née Hitchcock) was restless. Despite the fact that her family moved to Los Angles two years before, and were now living in the lap of luxury (no winter, no food shortages), Pat couldn’t escape the pull of Queen and Country. Her mother Alma grew increasingly alarmed as her daughter went about researching, and then ultimately signing up for active duty with the WRNs “wrens” (Women’s Royal Naval Service). Her father on the other hand, seemingly too distracted by the political wranglings at the studio, wished her well and headed off to work.

However, the great Director did have some pull back home and worked his contacts to secure her a relatively cushy job. Ready for action, to be of use to her country, young Pat learned that she was assigned to Operation Outward, which sounded like just the sort of important work that she had dreamt of securing poolside in LA. But the job quickly lost its luster, it’s gravitas, when she was deposited in front of a golf course and ordered to walk to the clubhouse to report for duty. She lodged an official complaint with her Commanding Officer, but he assured her that the barrage balloon unit she had been assigned to was indeed hazardous and honorable work. A fan of her father’s film and therefore eager to keep her around, Officer Jack showed her the flash proof jacket and hood, then demonstrated how she must apply the thick protective cream to her face and hands. There was the “beer, jelly and socks” that would fall from the balloons and set the forests of Germany ablaze. There were the trailing wires dangling from the balloons that would short out the electric lines of the enemy.

Despite how silly it all seemed, Pat did her bit. The thick cream she slathered onto her face and hands meant that every night she had to wash it off. Whereas, the other wrens in her unit were content to simply wipe off the cream, Pat suffered through frigid showers in the hope of saving her fragile and delicate complexion. Only Alan, a Royal Navy Officer, was equally fastidious about his personal hygiene.

On this one particular frigid night, her shower was pleasingly warm. Pat, when she shared the story with her parents, recalled that right before the moment in question, she was singing a simple ditty that was playing on the radio before she left LA. She stepped out of the steamy shower. Emerging suddenly through the dense fog was Alan. His head was wrapped in what looked like a gingham tablecloth. He wore a rose colored robe, cinched at his slender waist and held something shiny in his upraised right hand.

Before Pat could register that it was a wet toothbrush, she screamed.

And then she screamed again.

May 18, 2015
by Lee Eiferman
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The Art of Gentrification

IMG_4222Ten years after the official beginning of climate change, Pat and Anise were still trying to get pregnant. They now lived, to their great delight, at a beach house abandoned after the great floods of last fall. The house was quite a find. It had everything; a generous second floor patio, rosewood detailing and working solar panels to heat the house and power the downstairs sauna. Best of all, the house sat on stilts.

They purchased a dependable sea kayak (just in case) and tucked into their next adventure. At first they were the only ones on the block. No one in their right mind would go near this stretch of infamous devastation; the pictures of bedframes and lawn furniture floating out to sea were still too raw and vivid. But gradually, word of Pat and Anise’s sweet setup proved irresistible and friends showed up to claim the houses nearby. Planning and hosting dinner parties and communal art projects occupied their vacant days while the threat of the rising ocean added a spice of immediacy. It was, in short, a perfect time to be full of ideas and daring.

Despite the comforting sounds of the pebble beach, now feet from their bedroom, Anise’s insomnia came roaring back to life. Her stomach was in turmoil. Anise was secretly convinced that she was being punished in some fashion for not making more of her life or not following the trend to migrate north. After a particularly tough breakfast where she fought the urge to puke, Anise realized she was pregnant. The fact that she and Pat would soon be parents set into motion the next chain of events.

May 18, 2015
by Lee Eiferman
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Parting the Red Sea

IMG_5818The relentless need to adapt, to speak a new language, to find a new supply of cigars, irritated Sigmund. Unhinged him. Recently, in the lull of late afternoon, Sigmund made it a habit of slipping away from the prying eyes of his wife, his children and staff, to take his grandson, Lucian, for a walk among the nearby gardens. Lucian was indeed a wild child and required a daily walk the same way a golden retriever needed exercise least it chew up the furniture. But Freud’s insistence on taking his irascible grandson to the park had little to do with familiar obligations. Conversation among the family at dinner invariably drifted to the subject of Lucian and the need to enroll him in a respectable boarding school. But Freud would not hear of it.

With his grandson’s mouth running in pursuit of lost thoughts, Freud was finally able to relax a bit. Freud hoped that by free-associating in concert with Lucian, he might finally find a way to process the monumental loss accruing around him. His four sisters were still in Vienna, as were his beloved books and precious antiques, all of which grounded him in the truth of his ideas.

More than anything, Sigmund longed for the early days, when his most promising adherents elevated his stature to that of a genius. He wished he could trade in today’s hard won security for just one honey-glazed Wednesday afternoon, when the sharpest minds in Europe gathered to chew over his latest insights, smoke a cigar and share a strudel (preferably millirahmstrudel, Freud’s favorite).

He had underestimated the hunger for Thanatos that fed the rising Nazi party, just as he had underestimated the cancer now chewing up his left jaw. How could he have missed so much?

Lucian was swinging a large stick, delighting in its heft and ability to annihilate all enemies in his path; be it Japanese knotweed or the innocent koi swimming in the pond nearby. Lucian shouted some gibberish in English about Moses parting the Red Sea. The idea of Moses, his early success as a liberator and then his forty years of wandering in the desert with nothing to occupy him but the gathering of manna (which Freud pictured as cotton candy) and settling endless squabbles among the tribe, appealed to Freud.

Yes, here was an historical precedent that might help him come to grips with his own dilemma. Before their return from the park, Freud had already sketched out the first chapter.

And with that, he sent Lucian packing. A year later, Lucian would be expelled from boarding school for disruptive behavior. But that story belongs to Lucian not his grandfather.

(Painted by: Tim Duch)

May 13, 2015
by Lee Eiferman
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PR Picasso Learns French

IMG_6236After the suicide of his dear friend Carlos Casagemas, Pablo was feeling blue. He banished all color from his palette save for chilling shades of blue and slate gray which he used to paint gaunt women, bony men and children whose faces were etched with fear and hunger.

He was now living in Paris, the city of light, of color, the city of the future. His future. He had expected the move to be tough but joyous. Instead, he walked the streets mute, taking inventory of all that he saw. Unable to say much beyond a few useless French phrases like “The postman brings the letters” or “That whore has beautiful breasts”, Pablo’s depression consumed him.

While he had an uncanny facility with line, foreign language did not come easily to him. It’s been said that Max Jacob taught Pablo French in that tough winter of 1900 when the two shared a cramped apartment. The truth is that Max had intended to teach Pablo French, but their schedules rarely overlapped. Max, like the rest of us, slept at night, whereas, Pablo painted furiously at night and spent most days sleeping. Gregarious by nature, Pablo felt like a starving man seated at a feast with both arms tied. He had dreamt of moving to Paris since age fourteen when, bored by his strict classic arts education (Michelangelo, Botticelli, the Greeks blah, blah, blah), he roamed the streets and haunted the museums of Madrid. But now, surrounded by artistic might, he remained an outsider.

It was five in the morning. Max, Pablo’s designated French language teacher and roommate, slept soundly on the couch. The room was frigid. Pablo’s latest painting curled to ash in the fireplace. Reluctant to burn yet more work to heat up the room, Pablo went for a walk.

He heard the familiar sounds of the Milkman making his rounds, the clink of glass hitting metal and the clump of horse hooves. Following behind the cart at a comfortable pace, Pablo stole sips of still warm milk to quell his raging hunger. A harsh voice rang out, saying what he imagined was some variation on “Stop thief” as he ran away. The next night, at around five a.m. the memory of the warm milk drew him to the street. But this time, the Milkman spotted him mid-sip and hauled him up by his collar. Pablo dropped the bottle of milk. It shattered. The Milkman, face beet red, waved his beefy fist in the air. Pablo tried to explain how he was hungry, lonely and most of all, haunted by the death of his friend. The Milkman didn’t understand him. Instead, the Milkman pointed to the broken bottle and held out his palm, demanding in that universal language, that he be paid. Pablo showed him his empty pockets and shrugged.

The Milkman hauled him to the cart and put him to work. In this way, from the hours of three to five thirty every morning, young Pablo learned French and discovered the hard way that he was lactose intolerant.

May 8, 2015
by Lee Eiferman
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Hot Stuff

IMG_6154It should be noted that Kibwe came to live with Derrick on the filthy, fifth floor walk-up, (let’s be honest here, slum) only once he asked, begged, pleaded with her to move in. He declared his love, then recited a poem or some romantic nonsense he had picked up in the old country and Kibwe was a goner.

They lived together through the hot summer and into the fall. The cool weather was slow to arrive and the fever that gripped the neighborhood continued to percolate.

They did not get married because it was against the law. They stayed together because they could, because neither had an older brother, sister or parent nearby to disapprove of their union. Each had suffered loneliness to get here, but each also had tasted the crazy joy that comes with fearlessly claiming your life.

They met this way: he was about to steal onto a boat when he spotted her lurking around the docks. Kibwe knew only a handful of English words. Derrick showed her the ropes. Not that he knew the actual ins and outs of how to stow aboard, but growing up near the water, he had a feel for the boatyard’s rhythm.

Just prior to their eventual break-up, Derrick was teaching Kibwe her ABC’s. Always. Be. Carrying. By that he meant that after Kibwe traveled down the five flights of stairs to get to the outhouse and waited her turn, she should always carry back a pail of drinking water. Always. Be. Carrying. Don’t travel upstairs empty-handed.

But Kibwe forgot. Or she didn’t want to get her shoes wet. Or. Or. Or. And Derrick, annoyed, saddled by a disposition that was easily bored, asked Kibwe to leave.

Once she was gone, he missed her singing to him. Just as he begged her to move in with him, now he begged her in vain to come back. But Kibwe was now with a certain Mr. Summer who had long beautiful hair.

Maybe it was the return of demon loneliness or that he was cooked, stewed, woozy, but, on this one fateful night, as he opened the door to his building, he heard a peculiar thump, thump coming from the behind the door of the tailor’s shop. It was after hours. The store was dark, but sounds of laughter emanated from inside. He pressed his face against the dark glass and peered into the empty shop.  He heard was a party with this strange music (if you could call it that) playing. He heard the words Hot Stuff repeated, sung as if it were a tribal cry. But what he saw, faintly illuminated in the weak light, was an mannequin standing silent, draped in a half completed tailored jacket of worsted wool.

It made no sense to him. Maybe Kibwe had cursed him.

He waited for Kibwe outside the factory. He sang her the song. Amused, she sang it back to him, declaring that this song was special, one she would never forget. She was all sweetness and light and kissed him solemnly goodbye.

Wherever he went, Derrick would sing a few bars of the song. No one, not his new acquaintances or even the Postman had heard it before.

Towards the end, after he lost interest in life, Derrick lay his head down on his bed in the nursing home and refused all food. His family gathered round to say their goodbyes when he heard that unmistakable thump thump. Faced with the greatest mystery of all, Derrick clung tight and tried to get his mouth to ask the question. His wife leaned in close and thought she heard him asking What is Hot Stuff?

(Installation: Bill Franzen)

April 21, 2015
by Lee Eiferman
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Another True Story (from the archives of Gilligan’s Island)

IMG_1667This story takes place back in a time when the lyrics to theme songs for television shows always explained the show’s premise, as if Americans might forget the basic facts of their favorite programs from one week to the next.

Dawn Wells (Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island) liked to lunch with Alan Hale Jr. (The Skipper) who was kind and didn’t mind talking recipes and family mischief. She never felt that he was mentally undressing her while detailing, for instance, the secret ingredients in his cherished Kansas Chicken & Dumplings dish. And that was a relief. But on this one day, Alan was out sick.

While Bob Denver (Gilligan) was fun, there was always a tumult of energy swirling round him and so Dawn parked her salad and Tab next to the mysterious Russell Johnson (The Professor), who generally preferred the company of the crew to the cast.

Dawn suffered from both shyness and ambition — a tough combination. Her husband kept telling her that thanks to Gilligan’s Island her future was set, but Dawn saw things otherwise. She wanted more than anything a life in musical theater. She had always imagined that she’d be in front of an appreciative audience belting out OK-LA-HO-MA in a flouncy gingham dress. Absolutely, her name would long be associated with gingham, but it was a cute tied blouse number that exposed her midriff to the world every week.

Russell, ever the pragmatist, understood the value of the gig. And while he liked to say he couldn’t fix a hole in a boat, he enjoyed playing the ingenious inventor who had attended MIT. Unlike Dawn, his ambition was perfectly in sync with the show. After being gunned down in the Pacific, an adventure that earned him a Purple Heart, it was all gravy. So you’d think he’d be relaxed about the theme song referring to him and Mary Ann as “all the rest” but it got under his skin and irritated him like a bad case of hives.

As Dawn picked through a sad iceberg salad and nibbled on Melba Toast, Russell broached the subject of rewording the theme song to include both of them. Dawn’s eyes lit up. In front of the cast and crew, she stood up. All eyes fell on her. Then, without preamble, she sang the final verse. In lieu of “all the rest” she sang “Mary Ann and the Professor” which, she had to admit, didn’t quite scan. Bob Denver was the first to break the long cricket-like silence that greeted her impromptu performance. He applauded with such gusto that everyone felt free to join in, including the writers.

February 20, 2015
by Lee Eiferman
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Belated President’s Day Story

IMG_5733There’s a part of the story that you never hear. You know the tree? The cherry tree? The one he chopped down? It wasn’t even on his property. That’s the part they never tell you.

He saw the tree. Something about the tree got under his skin. Made him itch with annoyance. So, he chopped it down. I always pictured him doing the fateful (and, to judge it by contemporary standards, illegal/nasty) in February because that’s the time of the year I think about him. President’s Day, right?

Was he pissed at his neighbor? Had there been some infraction? A slight at a party perhaps, or unintentional lapse in civility? Rumor has it that it had something to do with a blue-ribbon hog and a long rotting fence that ran the perimeter of the barn. Words were exchanged. Heated words that tipped beyond the balance towards…If he was truthful with himself, he’d have to admit, in retrospect, that this “friction” with his neighbor took up way to too much of his time. At night, listening to the crickets, he’d pick at this memory till it hardened like a scab.

And was the next event, the next salvo the chopping of the cherry tree? The President to be and the Farmer had two kids. As luck would have it there was a son and a daughter who grew fond of each other and shared long walks to school. That got longer. And later, lingering deep into the night.

One night the daughter didn’t come home. The President to be, let’s call him “George” went to the Farmer to see what’s what. Sure enough, the Farmer’s son didn’t come home either.

After two months of waiting, George chopped down the cherry tree.

And that’s the real story.

January 30, 2015
by Lee Eiferman
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Hidy-Ho

IMG_5290My husband Henry won’t patch up the hole in our root cellar. As a consequence, each time it rains, could be day or night, I’m running down to the cellar to move our provisions to higher ground. I am having a dickens of a time keeping the potatoes, onions and parsnips from sprouting. Mold is everywhere. Surely that’s not healthy for our children, but still Henry won’t patch up the hole.

I know why. I’m not fool. Though neither Henry nor I have spoken a word of it to the other, I know that the hole joins up with a tunnel leading straight to the banks of the mighty Hudson.

I did promise to stand by Henry not only in sickness and in health but also in my capacity as his law-abiding wife and to support him in his earthly endeavors. When it comes time to meet my Maker I will mention the moldy potatoes as evidence of my dutiful nature.

I am looking forward to that moment as I bristle under his authority. Perhaps “bristle” is too strong a word. Instead, let me say that I wrestle with the daily challenge of how to feed our five hungry and growing children, particularly in this harsh winter where the wind blows off the Hudson and the snow accumulates at a steady and weary pace.

Henry would say that we are all God’s children. But for me, some of God’s children happen to be my children as well. I realize that others suffer under the great misfortune of having been born in slavery. It grieves me to say this and in no way am I hardening my heart against these unfortunate souls but at what point does Henry say “I have closed up the hidy-ho because I have done enough.” Tomorrow? Next month? Never? I fear never.

My needs are simple. All I ask is for one night where strangers don’t come a’ knocking and that a bushel of parsnips are marked only with a modest blush of pink.

January 24, 2015
by Lee Eiferman
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Boom or Bust

IMG_6265Albert arrived in America with his fine degree in Chemistry, an address of a distant relative and a bad head cold. Over the course of the next fifteen years, he acquired a wife, beautiful but a bit distant, a cast iron factory and a raging allergy to the ocean, which is what the head cold turned out to be. The cast iron he produced in his factory was rumored to be the strongest and was purchased by bridge builders, railway and shipping magnets. Soon Albert was a wealthy man.

He was proud of all he had accomplished. His beautiful wife spent her days with other equally wealthy women sipping tea and petting their Pekingese dogs just like Queen Victoria. As the heat of summer descended on the city, Albert’s wife ordered her husband to buy a “camp” up in the Adirondacks, as was the fashion at that time. He hesitated before closing the deal, but his wife’s eyebrows furrowed as his pen hovered above the contract and so he signed despite his misgivings.

She assured him that he would never regret this purchase. At first he had to admit his wife was right. He enjoyed himself beyond measure. He took up canoeing, fishing and a new sport they called tennis. At night, Albert and his wife visited other camps where he closed extravagant deals. All was perfect save for the fact that at night his beautiful wife rebuffed his advances.

His new friends, his neighbors up in the Adirondacks, seemed fond of Albert and for a while he almost believed he had found his place in the world. After Christmas, he and his new friends headed back to the mountains to hunt for game. Albert discovered that he had a talent for shooting guns. But on December 28th he heard news of a terrible accident involving a cast iron bridge in Scotland and knew instantly that his life was ruined. He bade a hasty goodbye, made his way back to the city where he signed over his now failing business to his wife. On New Year’s he set sail for England where rumor had it an engineer had cracked the code for steel.

Despite a roaring head cold, which he now knew was actually allergies, Albert reflected on his time in America. His wealth, his wife, his new taste for guns seemed to slip into a void as the harbor faded from view. With little in his pocket, Albert mood swung between panic and excitement. The only thing he knew for certain was that boredom wouldn’t be one of the challenges he’d be facing in the next few years.