by Ron Merkin
The name should have warned him. Fifty six residents had signed a petition to change their title from its original “East View Senior Living Home”. Strange to make an understatement. But Professor Milcowitz needed the money.
So as twelve people sat around a table in the home’s library he launched his first session by asking what they were hoping to learn in his creative writing workshop.
“I’d like to refine my engineering skills, particularly regarding bridge construction,” said a man sitting three places to the professor’s left.
Bridge construction? There must be a misunderstanding, Professor Milcowitz was about to say. But then another man – facing him from the other end of the table – shot his hand in the air. “How long will each of these classes take?” he asked.
Annoyed, “Fifty eight minutes, twenty two and a half seconds,” Milcowitz informed him.
“Oh… well as long as it’s so close to an hour, why not round it out to sixty minutes?” Milcowitz studied the man. He’s not joking, he realized.
“I tell you what,” Milcowitz decided. “Instead of going around the room to introduce ourselves and indicate what our goals in this writing workshop are, why not plunge right in with an exercise? I see everyone has come prepared with paper and pen or a lap top computer. I was planning to ask you to free-write a scene for ten minutes that describes some situation from your recent or distant past that made you angry. Don’t edit, just let your writing flow. This is the type of raw material you may be able to use to shape your fiction as we meet on a weekly basis.” Professor Milcowitz glanced at his watch. “Let’s start now,” he said.
Milcowitz didn’t participate in the writing exercise. When the ten minutes were finished he asked, “Would anyone like to share what they’ve written?”
A man dressed in a soiled looking flannel shirt halfway around the table raised his hand . “OK.” Professor Milcowitz nodded.
Lowering his eyes to a lined yellow paper pad on the table in front of him, “One day, fifteen years ago, I left my bicycle on a sidewalk, locked to one of those inverted U shaped parking racks,” he read. “When I came back forty minutes later I tried as hard as I could to uproot the pole so I could get my bike. But the pole wouldn’t budge. Somebody walking by who noticed me struggling happened to have an adjustable wrench in his briefcase. He tried unsuccessfully to unscrew the bolts that fastened the pole to the pavement. Finally three more passersby plus myself pulled with all our might. It wouldn’t move. This happened in Philadelphia, not my native city. I’d brought my bike on the plane as a convenient way to get around but had to catch a flight home in an hour and a half. So I walked away and left my bike where it was. I never saw it again.”
A pause. Then, “Why… didn’t you… unlock the bike chain with your key instead of trying to uproot the pole?” The woman asking this seemed genuinely confused
- Raising his head from the page, the man glared at her. “Will you let me finish reading, please?”
“Come to think of it, that never occurred to me.” The man looked at the ceiling. Then oblivious to the laughter around him, “I consulted a lawyer when I got home,” he continued. “But he told me it’s very hard to sue municipal governments, especially over faulty bike racks.”
Another pause. Then, “Is that the whole piece?” Professor Milcowitz asked.
“Yes,” the man said.
“Well, thank you for your contribution…”
“That’s the entire first piece. I wrote two others for this exercise…”
“Well, maybe we should give someone else a chance.” Professor Milcowitz smiled.
From her place two people to the professor’s right, Katherine shot him a skeptical glance. Noticing, he thought that woman’s probably wondering if I really want to give someone else a chance or if I’m hoping that a volunteer with a more lucid text might read next. He also noticed that Katherine was dressed in a prim looking tweed suit and her hair was carefully coiffed. A more promising appearance, so nodding in her direction, “Might you like to share what you’ve written?” he asked.
“Sure,” she answered, then eyes focused on her lap top screen, “When I was a little girl…”
“That’s not an advisable beginning.” A man sitting next to the professor interrupted her. “It doesn’t arrest the reader’s attention right from the beginning.”
“….I was sitting on the front edge of a garden rocking chair in my family’s backyard one day. Jeffrey, my neighbor of the same age, was standing behind the chair and rocking it forward and back. It was a playful motion, but suddenly I felt something pierce my back. ‘Ouch!’ I screamed. I jumped up and ran into the house. It turned out there was a rusty nail that had somehow loosened from a back plank of that chair and was pointed at me. It never occurred to me until writing this today that Jeffrey must have seen that nail. He either purposely aimed it at my back or did nothing to stop it once he saw where it was headed.
“My mother took me to the emergency room of our local hospital. I needed a tetanus injection and maybe some stitches – I can’t remember about the last. I do remember that the doctors said the nail missed my spinal column by less than one quarter of an inch. If it had penetrated there, I might have been disabled for life.” Raising her eyes from her screen, Katherine looked at the man who’d read his sketch about a Philadelphia bicycle rack. “This is not part of what I wrote,” she added, “but I wonder if Jeffrey has ever thought back to that incident and felt remorse.”
No one said anything. Finally, “Male chauvinist!” exclaimed a man in a suit and tie sitting directly across from Katherine.
“Male chauvinist?” Katherine asked.
Standing up, the man threw a handkerchief he was holding onto the table in front of him. “God damned right,” he said, and stormed out of the room.
Katherine’s eyes followed him.
“I feel like I’m in an insane asylum,” said a woman. Shrunk looking, age ninety or older, all heads turned in her direction. Until he saw her, Milcowitz assumed she was reacting to the atmosphere in the room. She wasn’t. She was reading what she’d written.
Head sunk nearly to the table top, her eyes squinted through enormous black rimmed glasses over the paper in front of her, “I never wanted peach pie,” she read. “I wanted toe bells and a tiara modifier! No one gave me these, so what was I to do? I couldn’t manufacture them- it was the days before radio fireside chats had even been invented! Billy made money, don’t get me wrong. My frustration was caused by the fact that he couldn’t understand my tapestry dactofidles!” Glancing up, she looked at her audience.
So this is what I get for agreeing to lead a weekly workshop, Professor Milcowitz thought. “I have to leave early today,” he told his audience. “It’ll be less than the full hour indicated in the description of this course. But why don’t we finish the session by doing what I’d originally planned, at the beginning? Let’s go around the room to introduce ourselves and explain what we’d like to learn in this class.
“We’d better not take too long.” It was the man who’d suggested at the beginning of the workshop that fifty nine minutes be rounded to a full sixty. Glancing at his watch, “We have six minutes, twenty two and two thirds seconds to make it exactly a half hour,”, he explained.
- Professor Milcowitz left the retirement home thinking he might not return next week. While walking to his car in the parking lot a man around sixty, dressed in a red flannel shirt passed him. “Don’t forget to drive forward, not backward,” he said.
“Driving backward is dangerous. You might collide with cars coming in the opposite direction.”
“Oh,” said Milcowitz.
Once home the bizarre events during Milcowitz’s first day discomforted him enough that he went to bed. A nap – some rest from the unbelievable – should calm him, he reasoned. But eleven hours after he’d nodded off, a dream bolted him awake. Catapulting to a sitting position, he re-experienced visions whereby participants in the writing workshop who had read their work were reading it all again. As their recitals moved from person to person each reader looked and sounded exactly like… Milcowitz. Not only that, Milcowitz’s verbalization was so expressive – alternating from sad to glad to angry to deeply moved, it seemed like all the nonsense he’d heard during the first writing session had happened in his – not the class participants’ – life. In fact just before awakening he’d realized it was he, not the workshop participants, who’d written all this “prose”!
Glancing at his watch he saw it was 4:13 AM. Then remembering the pad and pen he always left on his bedside table, – oh my God, he admonished himself. Is it not there to write down my dreams? The inspiration they provided were almost as valuable as a completed completed manuscript.
Reasoning that the time since he’d been jarred awake was short enough to remember his last dream, he grabbed his pad and pen, switched on the light, and started scribbling. But his fingers went slack after “One day fifteen years ago I left my bicycle on a sidewalk…” His hand in midair and not understanding why, he continued with something totally unrelated. A poem, it came at lightening speed:
Can distance be measured?
Can Time be Eliminated?
These questions discomfort me
As I feed my cat oats.
She doesn’t like oats
I don’t like corn meal
Can distance be measured?
It remains to be seen..
Then sensing that something more was straining for expression: Danger is Danger. Don’t underestimate it, he scribbled.
Without pausing to read what he’d written, Milcowitz’s hand raced to the third line of the first stanza. In the sentence “these questions elude me”, he crossed out the word “elude”. Then he substituted “unsettle”. Then he crossed out unsettle and substituted “disturb”. Then he crossed out that and wrote nothing. Hey, maybe despite how insane the writing workshop participants seemed, they might be able to help me decide which of these words to use, he reasoned. The implied faith in their opinions if he asked for their assistance might flatter – it might coax them – toward lucidity, an extra benefit, he thought. Anyway It was premature to cancel the workshop after only one session. The fact that none of his writing had been published for more than a year reinforced his salary motivation to continue teaching the course. That decided, he lay down and fell back to sleep.
Professor Milcowitz was feeling optimistic as he strolled into the conference room the second week. Once everyone was seated, he announced “I’m going to begin today’s session with a new approach. You see I wrote something between last week and this that I’d like to get your opinions about.”
Uncertain about the word he’d kept changing after writing his poem, he used “confuse” when reading to the class. When he finished, there was silence. Thinking this was just as well – it gave him time to ask the woman whose coiffed hair, neat dress, normal seeming demeanor and authentic sounding prose the week before suggested she might provide more coherent feedback than the gobble de gook he’d heard from most participants, he leaned in Katherine’s direction. “Might you have a suggestion you’d like to share?” he asked.
Looking uncomfortable, Katherine didn’t say anything. Then, “Um… I think… your poem’s symbolic. Indirectly it describes the expensive rent we have to pay in this retirement house.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said the oldest looking woman – the one who’d closed the first session by reading her “I feel like I’m in an insane asylum” contribution. “Dr. Milcowiz’s poetry” she continued, “is about the melting, uh… the joining of Time and Space! Like liquid metal – hot- the heat both are experiencing propels them toward each other. They combine as putty, then grow by cooling and solidifying. This causes both perfection and stupefaction – oneness, in other words, but by fusing instead of remaining independent, the transformation gives them unlimited authority. That confuses, it terrifies us humans!”
My God, thought Milcowitz. Could this woman have somehow resurrected from senility during last week’s session to profundity the next? Did her ill-logic last week somehow enable her to interpret phenomena so esoterically lost on just about everyone? “You know,” he told her, “The word I originally wrote after” – Micolwiz glanced at his paper -“ ‘these questions confuse me as I feed my cat oats’ was propel. You,” – because he didn’t want to admit he didn’t know her name, “mentioned ‘propel’ in your analysis. How did you happen to think of that?”
“I don’t know. Incidentally, my name’s not Agnes,” she told him.
“Not Agnes. That’s a strange name, isn’t it?” It was the man sitting directly across from her. Professor Milcowitz did not remember noticing him last week.
The woman looked uncomfortable. “I didn’t mean that my name is Not Agnes,” she said. “I meant that I’m not Agnes.”
Leaning forward, his bow tie inching up his neck, “Do you realize you just contradicted yourself twice? You affirmed both times that your name is Not Alice!”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, can we stop all this bullshit?” Bellowing, a man at the far end of the table stood up. Before anyone could respond, a gelatinous yellow pudding-like substance sailed through the air and splattered in his face. More than one person must have brought dessert in from lunch. Another one hit Professor Miocowitz, then another man got up and threw his randomly. Where it landed Milcowitz couldn’t see. His eyes were coated…..
I’d better get out of here, Milcowitz decided. So hunched over to escape any further blows, he began running to the door. Within three feet of it the edge of a laptop someone had thrown hit him in the back of his head. How could a man my age throw that across the room? the perpetrator wondered. It’s not so light weight.
The last thing Milcowitz saw before losing consciousness was a dollar sign. That must symbolize the amount of money I’ll be able to make from a law suit, he thought. Hopefully it’ll be enough so that I won’t have to lead anymore writing workshops.
It was three days later when Milcowitz woke up. Looking around groggily he realized he must be in a hospital. An oxygen tent stood at the foot of his bed.
Glancing to his left he saw a woman in civilian dress- not a nurse’s uniform – sitting in a chair and reading. “Who… are you?” he managed.
Gasping, the woman turned to face him. “Oh, Daddy! You’re awake! My God,” she yelled. Tossing her book on the floor she raced to him, sat on the bed, and took his hand. “Daddy, Daddy, how do you feel?”
By now Milcowitz was staring at the air.
Eyes closing, “Uh… my name’s Not Agnes,” he slurred.
A second later the door to his room burst open. Five people marched in. All of them dressed in costumes, the two women in the group wore wide pleated skirts that flowed to their ankles. Suspenders securing their waists made them look like German folk dancers several centuries ago. The men were dressed in shorts and T shirts.
“What the…” Milcowitz’s daughter managed.
She was interrupted. “We’re here to pay our respects,” one of the women clarified. “Doing so might make it less likely that your… is Professor Milkowitz your father?” Joyce nodded yes “won’t initiate a law suit.”
“Huh? Who are you? Where are you from?”
“The Last Place You’ll Live Retirement Home.”.
“The Last Place You’ll Live…”
“It was named that way?”
“Well, not originally. We submitted a petition – all the residents – to change the name. Before that it was…”
“But what does that have to do with my father? What are you doing here?”
“For heavens’ sake, your father was teaching us writing!” This from a man – tall, unkempt looking.
Lowering her head, hands supporting it, “Oh, yeah, Daddy told me he’d gotten a job leading a workshop of lunatics…”
Someone started playing a tambourine. Moving toward Joyce, everyone was dancing.
“Get out of here, this minute!” Joyce had stood up.
Hearing her, a nurse rushed to the door.”What’s the matter?”
“I want these idiots… out of here!” Joyce screamed.
“I don’t understand. They said they were your father’s relatives.”
“Oh, golly.” The nurse glanced at Milcowitz. “Yes, you’ll all have to leave,” she said. Waving her arms toward the exit she managed to usher the group out the door. Exiting herself, she glanced back nervously at her patient’s daughter. “I’m awfully sorry,” then: why the hell didn’t I ask if Milcowitz’es daughter wanted visitors, she asked herself?
Hey, wait a minute,” Joyce yelled. And walking into the hallway, “Is any one of you named Agnes?”
“I’m Agnes,” one of the women said. “Why?”
“My father woke up just before you broke into his room. He said ‘I’m not Agnes, then fell back to sleep. Do you know what that might mean?”
Agnes starting giggling. Then guffawing hysterically, she bent over.
“I hardly know what’s funny about this.” But before Joyce could say anything more the nurse started shooing the group toward the elevator. Just as they were about to get in the woman turned around. Facing Joyce, she swept her hand in an exaggerated, upward movement.
“Your father has a crush on me! It’s not because of my money. It’s his obsession about what ‘I’m not Agnes” means! A man in their group grabbed Agnes’s shoulder and jerked her into the elevator. Then the door closed.
Thank God, they were gone. Walking back to the chair next to her father’s bed Joyce pondered why – lunatic or not – anyone in a retirement home would circulate a petition to change whatever the original name of the place was to “The Last Place You’ll Live”…..
Then the possibility occurred to her that contrary to what she’d heard about elderly people making peace with death, the closer they got to it, the more terror they really feel. Maybe anxiety had influenced these idiots to adopt a name that as a daily reminder could enlist the power of thought to hasten the inevitable and therefore reduce the amount of time they had to experience fear. Unconsciously, in other words, had they changed the name of their home to help them get death over with? Then, why am I thinking this? Joyce wondered.
Glancing at her watch she realized she could sit and read for another two hours before the baby sitter she’d left at home had to leave. Maybe her father would regain consciousness before she had to go….
So can distance be measured?
Is time insincere?
Will a cat eat oats
only when a human’s near?
Does death intimidate –
a logical end?
Have species unspecific –
Misinterpreted a friend?
(And P.S! The incident about a boy rocking a chair so that a soiled loose nail would sear through that girl’s back?)
It really happened! (It really did!)