Apr '03 [Home]

Bookshelf: First Chapters

Stan Friedman's God's Gift to Women

The first thing I've got to do . . . is to grow to my right size,
and the second thing is to find my way into that lovely garden.

                                                            —Lewis Carroll

. ...
A road is a clock laid over the land, a mechanism of ramps and lanes and accidents. Speed into Distance, our surest measure of Time. It is the day before Easter, 1976.
          The back roads of mid-April have sat untended, unprotected, and now, like a trick doormat set out for visitors, a sheet of black ice covers a swatch of this narrow two-lane bridge on the outskirts of Princeton Junction. Two strangers approach at once through the thick fog. Angie, who fails to see it coming and then panics when she feels the bulky Lincoln Continental that belongs to her mother start to slide so that her foot, the high-arched and red toe-nailed foot which would tease Scott under the table when they sat across from each other at lunch, instinctively slams the brakes and the car begins its spin in a clockwise direction. Time and gravity speeding up, the headlights reeling like an electric minute-hand and the vein pulsing in her delicate neck counting the seconds. Now the path of the man in the opposing lane is blocked by the full broad width of Angie's mother's car, so he strikes it. Going 70 miles per hour he crashes into her at a perfect right angle, forming for half a second the ideal tension of a vertical crossing into a horizontal before the metal and the chrome, the plastic and the flesh, have a chance to twist or crumple. With the life speeding out of her counterclockwise, this unexplained element in a particle accelerator, the atomic Angie, the girl Scott will never see again, is propelled by the collision's force through the windshield. Her corpse and a small gift she has bought for him are pulled from the bridge's gravel shoulder.
          No. It is November the 12th, 1995 and here at the start, at this other bridge, Scott is trying to keep his mind off the finish: the crowds with Wendy somewhere among them, her big brown eyes full of hope, her fists tight with worry, clutching a bag that holds a plastic Chinese take-out container filled with homemade chicken soup. And he is trying to forget the present he has hidden away back at home that he will give to her this evening. It is not yet 8:00 and already thousands of runners have amassed here, mainly involved in the effort of not freezing to death. They are sipping hot decaf or hot chocolate, carbo-loading their systems with bites of bagel and energy bars, massaging each other's legs. Scott is standing by himself, back to the wind, this memory of Angie, which is not even a legitimate memory, just a version derived from what the radio had to say, again burnishing itself into a three dimensional nightmare, making it's daily appearance as it has without fail for the past two decades.
          The trip he has ventured upon to get here this morning had him leaving his Upper West Side apartment at six and catching the subway to Times Square. He then power-walked to Fifth Avenue to join the others who had pre-paid their nine bucks and were waiting for the bus to take them to Staten Island. All told, less than two hours. That is, of course, not counting the four days per week training he has pushed through over the past four months. Starting just after the Fourth of July when he smoked what he promised was his last cigarette, he kicked his 10-mile a week habit up to fifteen. Up to 20 by his birthday in mid August, maxing out at 35 by the end of September, and virtually coasting through a strong 25 last week. Now, the effort to put a week's worth of running into a single day, a single moment for which he has waited all summer. There is a sudden, cold dousing of rain and it just as quickly vanishes, a little wink from a nasty God above. The heavens play just as they please. He imagines Angie high up on some impossibly tall bleacher, ready to urge him on at the start. Her long red hair braided with green yarn that nearly matches her eyes; her clear, throaty voice shouting, "Go! Go! Go!" as in her cheerleader days. Then he curses himself again for this failing, the inability to leave her behind despite the list of lovers he has since assembled, despite the ring he will probably surprise Wendy with tonight.
           Just as the runners know to keep their eyes on the solid blue line painted down the street, Scott heeds the markings of the path he has taken away from Angie, the torn relationships of a dozen complex women, bread crumbs on a trail. Many who were close to Angie's weight and size, or who grew their hair in her style. Some the opposite extreme, nearly boyish. One that deflated in a month, and another which lasted just a night but nonetheless refuses to recede from his memory. Donna, Nancy, Jamie, Rachel, Faith, Gina, Marcia, Jane, Patricia, Patty, and—God help him—Diva28. Tracing this path backwards in his mind he arrives at Angie's front door. It is 1974, early morning of a clear September Saturday in their hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey. Angie has forgotten they had made a date for breakfast. Her mother, always kind and quiet, answers the bell then toddles off to wake Angie. It is the sound of running water, the shower being turned on, Scott hears in the core of this memory, and the empty stairs leading up to where she bathed. When he projects the path forward into the near future, it is to the bathtub he will find himself in tonight, with Wendy. Number 12, the even dozen, the pot of gold at the end of his arch of lovers. The one at which he will stop.
          Scott is wearing a torn, bright orange windbreaker and a pair of plain gray sweats worn over his running clothes. Though resembling nothing as much as a flattened traffic cone, he feels handsome and strong, knows that when the women volunteers leer at him or when a female runner brushes past on the pretense of getting a drink, they are looking through his jacket and imagining his bare chest and solid arms. Nonetheless, he is shivering. It is the coldest day ever for the marathon and he cannot keep his muscles loose. He feels the hamstrings cursing him, his calves are gooseflesh, and he longs for the puddle of sweat that he knows will slowly envelop his sleeveless shirt in just about an hour, how it will start as dabs of salty water like rain dripping from his skin. Then the moisture will gather to form a large and ugly stain down his chest. Scott thinks of it as pouring out his heart, as if the muscle were a slug and the upcoming 26 miles a steady stream of salt.
          But for now, in the shadow of a giant inflatable bottle of Gatorade, he stretches his chilled legs against the cool wind coming off the river, clasps his hands behind his head like a convict being cuffed and flexes then relaxes the muscles of his arms. This ritual preparation always strikes him as just so much preening, akin to the way he would prepare for a date when he was a teen. With Elton John or Styx masking the silence of his room, he would stand in front of the mirror and look deep into his own reflection, become lost in the gaze coming back at him, the cool blue-gray eyes, the curly, thick brown hair (how he misses this, hair so dense and wild he could hide a half dozen pencils within, then send them flying at his cackling classmates with a sharp twist of the head). When he finally managed to pull himself away from his own image, he would slip on a tee shirt and a button down, his pair of blue Levi's over the white Fruit of the Looms his mother picks out, and a pair of black Converse High-tops over bare feet. A splash of his father's Old Spice, and Scott was ready to roll. It was just that easy to be prepared. Just that innocent to think that hair and muscle tone and the awkward glee of a date would never succumb to attrition. But now, standing in the cold among thousands of aging bodies on the verge of a marathon—thousands of hearts ready to pump like the pistons of a giant engine gone crucial, so many contained raceways of blood at full tilt—Scott's quarter-sized bald spot is chilled, his left tricep aches and Angie flies through the cornea of his eye again and again against his will, falling in through the iris, etching her damaged body onto his retina.
          Scott is on his belly atop his big plastic sled and he has begun the descent down the steepest hill in the park. Angie is lying on top of him, squeezing his shoulders for dear life and screaming directly into his ear.
          "Beam me out of here, Scotty. You're going to kill us both!"
          "I can't hold her, Captain. There's too much gravity in the anti-gravity chamber."
          "Scotty, I'm depending on you."
          "All hands abandon ship!"
          With that, Scott lifts the left side of his body from the sled and their combined weight is enough to finish the job. They go rolling into a foot of packed snow as the sled drives itself headfirst into a tree. Scott is 17 and this sweet girl is clutching him for warmth and laughing so hard she can barely get her words out.
          "Next time, I do the driving." He can feel her breath on his face and her hands seeking his coat pockets. "Get that dumb smile off your face right now," she says. But he cannot.
          Scott wishes he could find a quiet moment alone somewhere so he could slap himself back into reality. A couple hard strikes to his chilled cheeks would do it. But he has not earned the privilege. The so-called 'elite' men and women runners have their own places to prepare, away from the quotidian. In large quiet rooms in nearby buildings, the big money athletes are, he suspects, deep in meditation or sneaking a smoke or already running the race in their minds. But the staging area for the masses is a cacophony of large tents, body types and utterings of every conceivable language. A twelve-piece band is playing Sousa. Beneath one of the canopies a group of about twenty men are preoccupied with davening and Hebrew chanting, their tefillin and tallesim wrapped over their warm-up outfits, their words to God lifted out and over the crowd, making a beeline for the heavens, while only yards away, two male runners are tight in an embrace and beyond them, four women are tossing around a bagel like a Frisbee, laughing and licking butter from their fingers as they do what they can to stay calm.
          The distant surroundings are vintage New York. In one direction, the Parachute Drop at Coney Island rises like a poor man's Eiffel Tower. Manhattan, Staten Island and Sandy Hook are all part of the panorama should Scott bother to sweep around and view the vista. Instead, he partially unzips his jacket to examine his abs and straighten his shirt. He stares down at his bib number, 7021. When the starting gun finally goes off, his group will converge with the others, falling in step behind those who are being paid to participate. Like ketchup from a bottle, 28,000 individuals will ooze forth through the bottleneck Verrazano bridge over Upper New York Bay and, for what Scott hopes will not be much more than four hours, his body will supersede his mind in an exercise of pure endurance until Central Park materializes and Wendy finds him in the throes of exhaustion, bent double. She will kiss him on the small of his back, sit him down on the curb and spoon-feed him his soup.
          He re-zips the windbreaker slowly, hearing each nylon notch melding into the other, a simple protective scar working its way up his chest, catching just below the Adam's apple. A little womb, he thinks, a bright orange cocoon he will soon discard so to fly out over the city. But he barely feels the tab of the zipper between his fingers his hands are so numb with cold, so he is nostalgic to be back at home. To have just been startled out of a dream he can no longer remember by the heinous 5 a.m. shriek of his alarm clock, to feel Wendy's hands as she, half-awake, pushes him out of bed and covets the entire mattress, to have stepped inside the small confines of his warm bathroom he enjoys so much, the cheery shower curtain he picked out on his own with its bipedal pigs in various swimwear, voguing. This being Sunday, Scott planned to neither shower nor shave, in keeping with his family's tradition of performing no extraneous grooming on the weekend. An extended Sabbath. "Sabbatical from bath" is the pun that plays itself out in his mind when he realizes that his ability to rationalize any lazy act is still his strongest suit. A marathon run is one thing, but the smallest of cleansing chores is too exhausting to contemplate.
          In a corner of the bathroom an amazingly large dust-bunny, well, hair-bunny, sits staring up at him, ready to pounce, and he is sure if he were any less religious he'd actually bend down, take the creature by the tail, toss it into the wastebasket and laugh. Let it live one more day. The act of reaching down to retrieve it would be sacrilege; he would not even be bending toward the East. He'd be pointing North, paying homage to the Arctic, bowing to Santa Claus. Blasphemy. Lost in such inane thought, Scott is not even conscious of his urination, this mindless secondary function. Not until the bathroom echoes with silence does he come around. As it was six hours before, his urine is clear, a sign he is well hydrated, a full tank of wet. As he contemplates flushing, he is skimming his tongue across his furry cuspids and incisors, squares of bone with the powers of a Chia Pet to spontaneously grow stubble after soaking a night in the one beer he allowed himself, countering the adverse effect of alcohol with the mother lode of carbohydrates the brew provided. The Pepsodent is nearly shot and Scott has to squeeze his tightest fist to get the last splat of paste. A milestone. The fifteenth tube he and Wendy have completed together. And in total, this was the fiftieth in a row he has had help with using up. In fact, the number he is solely responsible for can be counted on one hand. From grabbing it away from his brother, to the long string of roommates, and the run of women who have borrowed his brush before a morning kiss, and now her; this shared intimacy has always been a comfort, a strange proof to Scott that he is loved, a fossil tube of dents made by familiar fingers.
          In the six months it took to get over Faith, Scott worked through a family-sized by himself. Like a twisted Hanukah miracle, the paste would regenerate over night. For every bit he took into his mouth to scrub away a day's loss, the next morning a nearly full tube glistened. In addition, the space in the medicine chest that had been Faith's (and, before that, Jamie's) could not be filled. Scott tried to put the shaving cream there, or the deodorant, but somehow each found its way to the shelf above, or was simply left on the sink. On the shelf, water marks from bottles of contact solution and perfume refused to be wiped away. But now they all have vanished. So, after Scott spits the dregs into the sink, he reaches beneath to find a fresh tube, which he pops from its box and places mindfully on the very spot where Faith once kept her pills. A magic vessel waiting to be rubbed, the stem of the clock of Scott's passion.

[Stan Friedman's collection, The Dirty Truth About Toast, was a finalist in the 2002 Big City Lit chapbook contest.—Eds.]

(Image:  Robert Dunn)