Copyright 2005, David J. Bookbinder
There are two blogs here
curled around each other.
I like to think they are
the inside and outside
of some great Nautilus
abandoned at high tide
after the last winter storm.

Endless Words is my jewel book.
Small prose and poems
salt and pearls
Logopoeia, which begins below, is a collection
of longer pieces that come and go -
a workshop for poems and prose under
construction and a place
to hang up things
I am still fiddling with:
see the writer at her desk.

Sunday, March 30

The Poet's Tale

Yes, ma'am.  Time, time, time for something new.  As usual you are reading a piece in transition -- between nothing to something worth reading.  We may be at the halfway point.  Then again, we may have simply inched off the start line.  Cheers readers!

We are sitting in a restaurant in Hoboken, New Jersey and Nick is attempting to convince the writer that her story will look just fine 20 feet high. 


After BJ has left the room it occurs to Nick that the reason for his departure had little to do with contracts and everything to do with friendship.  Who else but BJ would know that the act of joining the writer’s book to the actor’s film would require a degree of intimacy almost impossible for Nick?  Self-revelation isn’t something he enjoys.  It’s masks that intrigue him and the act of hiding deep inside a character.  But it’s clear the lady wasn’t going to share what she has without a heap of unburdening by Nick.  And BJ’s gesture therefore is more about one man knowing the limits of another man, and graciously making a space possible.  

 While all of this is running through Nick’s head, he has been joking back and forth with Bebe.  Just teasing comments, a ball tossed here and returned there.  Practice volleys for what comes next.  The light in the room, warm and low, is just right.  Bebe is half lit, her face glows in the light of the candles, her hair remains in shadow.   Nick leans back in his chair, hands behind his head.   He notices that the gesture draws a tiny smile from her.

 "So, the manuscript.  Are we ready?” Nick asks. 

She acquiesces with a small nod.  The cat-like smile remains in place.

Immediately it is clear that every word he says will be weighed and examined for flaws, for any reason why he is the wrong person to take this on.   So the pitch isn’t going to be about the movie but about the book.  She must be convinced that what he wants to do will add something necessary to her vision in the same way that the drawings he found with the manuscript expanded his sense of the muse.

“You did say together,” he pushes lightly, referring back to her comment to Paul.

 “I did.”

There is a quick exchange of glances. Balls across the net are neatly returned.   Nick leans back so his legs are extended and his elbows supported by the chair’s armrests.  His hands are now tented together; two fingers reach and lightly touch his lips.  This is a position Nick often unconsciously adopts in front of a woman, perhaps because he thinks it maximizes his physical presence and therefore introduces a subtle touch of sensuality.  At the same time this is also a posture he adopts when he’s alone.  Maybe that is because when Nick is alone he is mentally on a stage, and an audience just beyond his range of sight is watching every move.  

 “You know,” he says, “there are books we read that go no deeper than our skin.  We travel with the author, we meet his characters, take in the action and then we move on.  You’ve read such books, haven’t you?”

She nods again. Her eyes are careful and watchful.   If he has been waiting, so has she. 

He continues, “Then there are the books that enter our belly, books that infect our brain.”  He pauses, “Yours is such a book, but I think you know that already?”  He glances at her for acknowledgement.  Another quick nod. "Your muse hypnotized me.  She is a delicious yet fearsome character.” Nick speaks softly.  “I know Rhys in my bones.  He is bold, fearless about his craft and passionate about what it is he is trying to do.”  He pauses.  “There’s more.”

 “Keep going,”

He swears there is softness in her expression as if his words had called up her own memories of creation, that first sweet moment when a character raises his head or looks out across the horizon.  Every writer loves his creatures. “I don’t know what you had in mind when you wrote your book.”  He shifts in his seat.  “I don’t know if you were thinking beyond a poet who loses his passion to fame, but you spoke to me.  You spoke to anyone who has been bedeviled by the limelight, by the seductive force of sustained public attention, that blight that consumes one’s original soul and deposits in its place a copy that is as phony as a two dollar bill.”He shifts again, tense with nervous energy.

 At first she says nothing.  He holds his breath.

Then, “You surprise me Mr. Reed.  I didn’t expect this.”

“What did you expect?”

“I am ashamed to say that I expected some Hollywood guy ready to grab hold of what he thinks will be the next hot thing.”   She gives him a wry smile then leans her elbows on the table.   Her voice is low.   “Can I tell you what I want?” 

“What do you want?” The question makes it feel that they are back in the car again – it is the second time today that he’s asked her what she wants.   

Her eyes glitter.  “I’ll give you rights if you make me your partner.”


“Common wisdom suggests that the writer bow to the guidance of her agent if the agent recommends going the movie route.  Go alone to get along.  I am not cut of that cloth.”  She smiles.  “I will hold this manuscript out of any development if I am not satisfied that I’ll get exactly the deal I want.”  The steely determination he saw in the car has returned to her face.

“So, why a movie?”  He asks and when she makes no response he adds, “What’s your vision?”

She makes no response.  So, we have come to the nub of the matter, thinks Nick.  Two people, one book, opposing visions. 

After a long wait Bebe sighs and says, “Because I want to see the poet on fire.”
The observation surprises Nick who continues to find the poet's death traumatic even if it can be said that the poet deserved such a fate.  Death may be a fair judgment but it is also difficult to accept.  Fame does crazy things to the head. 

 "Up on the screen stuff, huh?”

 She nods. 

 “A movie focuses attention well, but at the risk of excluding other things a writer may want to say,” he pauses, “that was one helluva fire.”  

"Self-immolation is always shocking.   It was a form of redemption, of course.”

Redemption, he thinks.  Is that what it was?  He is at the back of the roiling crowd at the moment the column of flames rears its head above them, the mad rush backward, people tumbling onto the pavement, others scrambling over them, the frantic screams.  “You chose fire…”

“Fire cleanses the soul.”

“So does mending one’s ways.” 

“It was a heroic act.  It redeemed his work.   But none of this what you wanted, is it?”

The question is a door, a pause in the action.  Where before her objective had been to hold him off, to confound his plan with her wishes now she is curious.   

“There is no right answer.  I want your vision, that’s all,” he says.

“You are so refreshing Mr. Reed.  How did we manage to find each other?” 

“Maybe your book found us.” 

 She tilts her head to one side. “An interesting thought.”

Another small opening.  Nick wedges his way in.  “Can you give me your muse?” 


“Give me where she comes from, how did you..?” He stops, recognizing he is in tender territory here because her muse is never far from his thoughts, and he is never free of her whispered greeting, the feel of her firm thigh under his open palm.   So even discussing the muse raises the level of heat for him and he’s not sure that would be useful at the moment.  Nick rubs his lower lip with the side of his thumb.

“She’s an enchantress, isn’t she? “  Bebe says, “She’s based on the Greek goddess Erato, guardian of erotic poetry.”

“One of the nine muses, daughters of Zeus and the lovely Mnemosyne” adds Nick.

 “Yes, how very literate of you.”  

He ignores her remark.  “Mnemosyne was a titan, the goddess of remembrance.   “And again, he loved Mnemosyne with the beautiful hair: and of her the nine gold-crowned Muses were born.” From Hesiod’s poem, Theogony, where he describes the origins and birth of the gods, 700 BC I believe.”

She nods her head. “I’m sorry.”

"Don’t be.  Did you know that Erato is also the goddess of mime?”

 “Yes, of course.”

 “Something fitting about that, don’t you think?  Your muse clearly has her arrows out for the two of us:  a poet and an actor.” 

He is instantly assailed by memories of the muse.  The flames that flickered along her heels, the rolling waves that sparkled with blue luminescence, and the nights he woke breathless after dreaming of her.  He is in the dunes and she has removed his clothes and bound his hands.  He is in the ocean drowning in a flood of sea water as he tries to catch her while iridescent fish wander through forests of sea grass.  

“Once again Mr. Reed I have underestimated you…” She begins.

 "Call me Nick.  May I call you Bebe?”

 “Of course.”

“Are you thirsty Bebe, because I could down a small pond at this point?”

"If I say “of course” one more time I am liable to turn into a toad, don’t you think?”  She wrinkles her nose at him in mock distress.

He winks at her.  “Red wine okay?”  

She dissolves into laughter.  “I refuse to say it!”

“Then madam I will have to impose my choice on you.”  He wraps his knuckles on the table playfully. “We shall have red!  Besides,” he leans closer,” the color red compliments you so very well.  Your hair and the light of the room.  You are red for me, a lush fruity red.”

"You are a horrid tease, you know that?”

“Of course I am.  Be right back."

Behind the door there is a large pot belching steam on the massive stove and a wall of ovens and a sudden memory of Paulie’s father standing in front of an open oven and grinning at Nick, his white chef’s hat making him appear at least seven feet tall.  A grin like a beacon, like a white light from a protected past shining forward into this moment in time when nothing is certain and everything up for  grabs.  When all progress is dependent on artifice and expedience.  For a moment Nick is certain he hears the click of his mother’s heels coming down the hall; the boom of his father’s voice. Then he is back in the present looking into the questioning eyes of a small man also clothed in a chef’s hat, this one looped over onto one ear.  

“Can I get you something, sir?”

“Yes, two bottles of your best red and two glasses.  But wait for me.”  Nick pats the metal counter with his hand.  Then without another glance at the cook, he is down the hall, which is wooden, as it has always been, and now barrel shaped by age.           
BJ is seated at the old wooden desk that has always been here.  It is piled high with folders, menus and incoming mail.  Several half-buried photo frames show off Paulie’s wife Joann and his three lovely daughters, all blonds.  BJ is on the phone, finishing a conversation with Lew. Nick leans into the door with one hand on the jam.  

"Is he still hammering on about writers?”  Nick says.

BJ nods and puts up his finger, “I’ll explain everything.  Okay then buddy, my regards to Sherry.”   He puts down the phone and leans back in the chair putting his feet up.  “Your face is flushed.  What are you doing, son?”

Nick leans his back into the door frame.  “We are making slow progress but we are moving in the same direction.”

“How is Ms. Della Bocca?”

 “She is lovely.”

“I see that.  Why are you here?”

“Getting some wine and I thought I’d check on you.  What’s up with Lew?”

“Wine?  Maybe I should chaperon?  Lew has been researching Bebe’s background.  It seems that her father was an art dealer and Lew's talking about some fire that caused the art dealer's death. A fire in his townhouse about twenty years ago. Suggesting….”

“A fire?”  Nick wipes his forehead with his shirtsleeve. He is sweating more than he realized.  “Suggesting what?  No, I won’t ask.  This is why you do the research, not Lew.  The guy is a fucking paranoid.”

“Do you want me out there?” BJ asks.

“Nope.  We are just about toe to toe at this point.”

“Just as long as you don’t get mouth to mouth.”

 Nick chuckles, “We are talking partnership,” He hits the door jam with his palm. “Back to the trenches. ”  

The candle-lit room appears darker than before.  The old black and white photos that have graced the walls for several decades –windows on a world long gone-- seem to have faded into the wallpaper.  Nick slows to a stop.  He knows these photos by heart.  Straight ahead, his grandfather and Niccolo back in the Twenties.  Over there three different shots of the entire staff encircling Niccolo and his young wife Marie, just after the restaurant was opened.  And far back in the darkest corner of the room there’s a picture of Nick’s father standing behind his mother at a New Year’s Party.  His mother is in her red sequined dress; his father has his jacket off, all suspenders and starched white shirt, holding a tumbler of whiskey in his hand.   Circa 1940 – Nick guessed he was two, and probably home with the nanny.  He reflects on how long has it been since he sat half-asleep in one of these chairs, his feet dangling in the air, a half-eaten plate of spaghetti  in front of him with a heavy linen napkin stuffed under his chin.  If any place is home now –home being a place of comfort and shelter—this is it.  Home as a photograph, home as a chair or even as a barrel -shaped wooden floor. 

When he sits down again opposite Bebe and leans back she mentions nothing about his time out of the room or that, upon returning, he appeared lost in thought for several moments. He likes her silence. Her face remains illuminated by the table candle’s flame, a warm glow that suffuses her skin with ruby tones. Her eyes seem darker however, that green pool dark he remembers from the girl’s face on the bridge. 

"So, more vision sharing.”  He starts then, “Will you humor me for a moment?  I want to talk more about the muse?”

A graceful nod. The waiter arrives with the wine and two glasses which are ceremoniously placed in front of the couple.  He opens one bottle and hands off the cork to Nick who sniffs it and sips the small offering of wine the waiter pours into his glass.  

"It’s a pleasure to watch you,” she says after the waiter has gone and then, “please don’t take that the wrong way.  It’s just that you…”

"I am practiced at the art of presentation, sweetheart.  Let’s just leave it at that.”

“So how would you present the muse?”  The imperious expression is back but her eyes still hold their sparkle. 

He resists the urge to play, which he is convinced he could do for hours with this woman.  Instead, fingertips at his lips again.  “I fell in love with your muse before I read the book.”  He skirts carefully around what he would tell her if he was able. “Who did the artwork?”

“Me, of course but you knew that.  I see it in your expression.”  Her tongue peeks out between her lips. 

“Are you trained?”

“In art, yes.  In other things, I am fast learner.  What is it that you are trying to ask?”

“Beautiful portrait of a woman.  Her eyes so exotic, cat-like, no?  Where did you get that?”

“When you paint there always a picture in one’s head.”  

“No real woman then?”

“No, the muse is enchantment.”   Her gaze is patient and measured.  She knows he isn’t finished.

"From what I understand, you also wanted to make a movie?”

"I did, I do.” 

At this point Nick is convinced that she is aware he is drowning in words that serve no purpose but to delay a question he is afraid to ask. “When a writer writes what she creates comes from her, you agree?”

“Yes.  So you are asking where inside of me is the muse?”

Nick hesitates but they are already in so deep he sees no point in stopping.  “Yes.”

“Every writer is a quilt maker.  We piece all sorts of things together.”

“But the muse?  Who do you have in mind when you think about this creature?”

“Mr. Reed that is where you come in.  I have no idea who should be the muse. But you are not really asking me that either, are you?”

She is leaning on the table, her chin on her small and neatly tucked fists. Of course he has been asking her two things and therefore if she has any sense at all he is now open before her, a man totally entranced by what her words can do.  But is that wrong to admit?  

“I want to make this film because I am entranced by your muse.  No, obsessed by her.  And if you want the audience to see the poet on fire, then I want the audience to experience the muse in all her bounty.”

Bebe blushes and glances down.  Of course, Nick thinks, she knows exactly what the muse can do to a man.  "I don’t mean any offense.” 

“None taken.  If you must know…” She stops and puts her head back for a moment, obviously deciding how much she wants to share with him, and he finds himself staring at her neck, which is beautiful.

 “If you must know,” she begins again, “I don’t know where the muse comes from.  Her arrival surprised me as much as anyone.  To have a character appear on stage like that when you already know exactly where you are going.  She shifted everything for me.” 
She smiles.  It is one of the tiny smiles each of us reserve for private moments when something so true catches us suddenly. So, he thinks, should he regard them as even in the department of revelations about the muse?  She knows but what does she know? Can a writer discover such a flaming presence at the center of her work with no sense as to where the creature comes from?  Or perhaps there is a desire to remain ignorant?  But why? The voluptuous being that is the muse must belong to this woman.  Must be knotted at her core even if she denies it.  If anything the writer’s reveal that is no reveal at all, and that intrigues him even more.

“Another glass?”  He asks.

She nods; he pours.  They have already gone through one glass each.

"I assume you want to direct?”  The lovely head tilt again.

“No.  I want to play your poet, Rhys.  Let’s just say I have some insight into his issues.”  Full stop. He has no intention of exploring this with her now.  Later, yes he will have to, but later. 

"He is bigger than you, taller and wider, but I bet you could pull it off.” She purses her lips. 

Then without thinking Nick says, “So he is real.  Did you know him well? A lover perhaps?” The whole thing rushes out faster than he intended.  He wanted to ease it out, so that the request would seem no different than his first questions about the muse.  Instead the speed of his words, the insistent tone in his voice, he has played his hand too fast.  He releases his hold on his glass and slips back against the chair’s wooden lathes.

She looks at him wide eyed. The question is has he lost her?  He’s been on the trail of the poet for a while now. Sometimes late at night he makes lists.  Little scribbled ones on bits of paper that he crushes into the wastebasket the next morning: all the dates he’s found in the manuscript, all the cities mentioned, the street names, all the establishments the poet visits, anything to give a bead on Rhys and who he might be.  As if an assembly of facts could unlock the secret.

Somewhere in the writer’s past there’s a fire rocket of a man who has been used as a reference point for the poet or perhaps was the poet, and he wants that name.  In fact he needs to know everything he can about the man.  Because it will deepen his own portrait of the poet.  An actor creates from stray bits and pieces.  Often they are ragtag things, imagined and puffed up stand-ins for reality.  But real men are buzzing hives of contradiction eminently more potent, more grounded the eternal than anything an actor can conjure.  To dip into the life of a real man – to take him up and put on as much of him as possible-- is to hit a vein of gold, to unleash magical power that allows you to inhabit a soul other than your own. 

So he is not surprised when she decides to ignore his question, going instead in a different direction.  “We haven’t talked about the beginnings of the story yet, and that is very relevant here.”

He nods his head in agreement having decided that it is pointless to attempt to steer this ship.  Besides he wants to know where she is going.

“It started as an attempt to explore creativity.  The role of passion...” She starts.

 “Essential.” He murmurs.

 “But also the poet’s engagement with his world.  Do you believe that all artists have a responsibility to their audience?”

“Actors do, I don’t know that I can speak for poets or artists.”

 "I think we need each other’s visions to become whole, don’t you?” She asks. 

 “You ever heard of the writer Michael McClure?”  he asks.

 She nods.

“The role of the poet is to maintain the thoroughfares, the pathways of the imagination.”  But McClure also said “And the measure of his greatness will be the depth of his insight and courage in realizing his own vision. Demands for communication are presumptuous and irrelevant.” He downs his glass.

She glares at him and he wonders how it is that he’s got himself into the breach again.  

He continues, “You are communicator, as is the actor.  We exist in dialogue.  I need my audience as much as my audience needs me.  My grandfather was always saying “I gotta feel it too, Nicky, I gotta feel it too. You understand?”

But she is not going to leave it alone. “The poet violated his responsibility to his audience.  And that quote is actually Clyfford Still, not McClure.” She says.  "Hymns to St. Geryon,"  I believe."

“Touché.  But I think we both agree that the poet forgot that creativity demands passion.  He turned his back and spilled his passion someplace else, didn't he?”

He pours another glass for himself.  “Of course the poet owes something to the world.  Truth—just like an actor.”

“Perhaps we are on the same side in this question.”

“Let’s say we’re kissing cousins.”  He winks at her, chancing another fall.  

“Mr. Reed you are incorrigible.”  With that she drains her own glass.

“I don’t know that a woman has ever said that to me before.”   He’s back in his favored mode, body extended, feet crossed at the boot his arms balanced on the edge of the armrests. He grins at her and pushes forward. “Who is Rhys to you?”  Clearly this is the most dangerous question he can ask her. 

"I’m not sure what you mean?” She counters.

“Would you let him screw you?” he presses.  If they were standing his arm would be on one side of her head so that her path would be blocked. 

Apparently unnerved she pushes her glass toward the almost drained bottle without comment.  He refills it. “You’re very insistent about this, aren’t you?”  She begins, pushing her hair off her face.  “I’ll give you what I can, nothing more.  I had a lover many years ago who was a poet.  He was editor of a major poetry journal.  How’s that? Enough?”

So he’s annoyed her.  “Is he Rhys?”

“Yes….no” she shakes her head and sighs.  She begins to massage her temples.  He takes her frustration as an indication that he has pricked her memories. Good. But he has also caused her distress.  He blames his eagerness.  It’s not like him to allow someone to be unprepared for the intrusions he must make in order to understand a character. But this one is different.  He wants this one more. 
“Is this how it will be then?”  she asks with resignation.  “If I decide to….”

“Somewhat.  I need as much as I can from your imagination, from your recollections of the real man, and I am assuming there was one.  It allows me to build a most complex portrait.  Otherwise it‘s two dimensional and not that interesting.  I pull from everyone and anything to create.  Whatever I can get  hold of to capture a man. Who is he?  Always, who is he at the root.”

 “What if he’s no one?  What if I just made him up? Can’t you use your own resources to create him? “ She asks.

“I’m sitting opposite the creator.  You know him and everyone else in your book.  You have stuff about them you’ve never shared with anyone, things you needed to create them but things you left out of the book.  Maybe they’re too personal.  Give me what you can, help me make my portrait deeper, more complete.”

“I think I understand,”   Her voice has diminished in volume.
"Do you ever share how you create?” he asks.

“I keep notebooks.” She says with a shrug.

“Can I see them?”

 She hesitates. “Maybe, but they aren’t particularly linear,” she laugh. “I’m not used to this sort of thing.”

“Like you’re being dissected?” he asks.


He takes several sips of his wine glancing at her over his glass,  “Well, we both want to see this guy brought to life, right?”

She leans back and doesn’t respond immediately.  He keeps talking.  "If you let me in, we can bring him to life.  It’ll be like we’re walking through the book and you’re introducing the characters as we meet them.”  

She shifts her position and he is able to look directly in her eyes. Those green pools again, and her chin tilted slightly forward in the same manner as that of the girl on the bridge.  But she is not aware of him, she is lost in thought, looking past the table into the dark corners of the room.  He takes a large gulp of wine.

“You folks decent?”  It’s BJ ambling across the room, a tooth pick rolling along his lip. “It’s getting late, brother grasshopper.   Does the lady need to get somewhere tonight?”  He looks at the empty bottle and the second one in the process of being seriously eroded.  “Didn’t I tell you not to drink the girls under the table, Nicky?”

Nick’s attention is on Bebe who is sitting with her back to BJ and obviously flustered by his arrival.  Just moments before she was on the edge of something that is lost now. He watches as she turns her head and looks up at BJ, as smiling and as light as she was earlier in the afternoon.  “I’m afraid I abused him into it.  Left to his own devices he probably would have ordered iced tea.”   Her eyes back to Nick as if to say, don’t give me up.

"I don’t believe that for a second ma’am.  My brother in arms is as disreputable as they come…”

Nick interrupts.  “Your timing sucks, brother.  I was about to convince the lovely lady that another glass was just the ticket.”  He raises his glass in salute and downs it.

Bebe looks down at the table with a smile on her face.

"When’s your plane, sweetheart?”   He asks. “And no, our conversation isn’t over by a long shot.  The question is, how do we keep it going?”

“Lew has a draft ready.”  BJ says.

 "Let me look that over first.”  Nick says to BJ as he studies Bebe’s expressionless face.  When she looks in his direction he asks. “Do you have a lawyer?  Or will Elaine handle that?”

She shrugs.  “I do have a lawyer but of course Elaine needs to see this.  I want you to know,” she starts her face suddenly bright red, “I have ample resources.  I would like to put some money into this also.  Say a million or a little more.”

“Jesus honey!  New York girl with no back story, mmmm.”  He grins at her.  “Elaine knows you..”

 “Want to put in money, of course.”  She smiles.

“Yes ma’am." He responds and then, "Let the lawyers mess with this.  You and me got more important matters, right?” He peers across the table at her.  Her studied coolness. She has him dead to rights once more, and she knows nothing about any muse.   

Copyright 2014. D Kramer

Friday, May 17

All Things Must Go

I feel as though I am in a tunnel, which is perhaps a fitting metaphor, given all the flooding recently.  Things are moving faster and faster.  Things expected have dropped off and the unexpected looms beyond my vision, outside the tunnel where I can’t see.   We are rapidly approaching some end with the divorce but that end is still very uncertain.  One minute I have a secure base of what I’ll be left with, and the next minute something intervenes, like tax considerations or the availability of an apartment or, this past week, a basement flood that has soaked the carpets throughout my tenant’s home, and all spins wild in the wind again.  It is sort like a slow motion disaster.   Again and again I have to remind myself that in the end it will work out, no matter what, it will.

I am struggling now with what I want to take, hoping that my wishes and his wishes for this or that don’t collide.  We still have no apartment to go into so I have to ‘imagine’ how much space we’ll have.  I have made the girls full partners in the decision about where we will live, as it is important that they feel invested.  It will be the new home, and I think the notion of ‘home’ is very central at their age when your sense of self is so in flux.   

I don’t want too big a place.  In fact, I am determined to go small in order to free us from the past.  But what room dimensions, will there be carpets, will the girls beds and chests fit, should we bring the TV?  I keep ranging through the house looking at things and asking:  do we want this, can we donate or sell it, does he want it? There are also requirements:  the girls need public transportation close by, and we are trying to stay within the school jurisdiction.  It’s endless and drifts around me at all hours. 

Things.  A constant never ending process of ferreting them out of the imagination.  The simultaneous shock of withdrawing from objects that once defined you and watching them suddenly become utterly meaningless. Who knew how powerful our imaginations were?  If I wish for anything it would be for a counselor whose eyes I could look into when I am overwhelmed with trying to make one right but difficult choice after another.  Someone Gandhi-like who would be smiling and gently shaking his head.  “It will be fine, you are doing well.” I am often terrified.   I am afraid that my “precious” will be his “precious,” or worst, that he needs a piece as much as I need it: a sofa, a dining table.  I wish for a glimpse into the new home, the new peace, the new beauty, something to hold out in front of me and move towards. But there is nothing on the horizon right now.   It will be okay.

I have signed up to start a writing class on Saturdays right through the middle of this insanity.  I thought a lot about it.  I signed up last fall but the instructor had to cancel and none of the remaining choices were exactly right.  So I waited.  Then in the winter my brother was so ill we weren’t sure how long he would be alive, whether one or more of us would have to travel to California.  So I waited.  This spring I hemmed and hawed.  No course spoke to me.  I waited.  Summer, the divorce.  The uncertainty. So I waited.  All the time I am thinking that being in a class will give me the access to others who are doing this strange thing.  Their work, our conversations, will inspire, answer questions, clear up uncertainties.  Maybe. But above all else, it’s a matter of desire.  I simply need this connection to the source, as though being in a writing course is being immersed in some life-giving water, or sitting down at a long table to partake in a great feast.   The name of the course:  Beginning or Revising Your First Novel.   It starts Sept 24th.

Simultaneously, of course, a swirl of fear.  What if?  What if not a single person understands why I've persisted in unearthing these characters and their story?  A writer and an actor, how prosaic.  Will they think I am the writer, I am Toni?  Oh no how horrifically embarrassing – the stumbling block of the inexperienced writer who is so unsophisticated she can’t see the enormous boo-boo she has created.  I fear being dismissed as yet another purple prose writer of syrup, or as a dilettante, overly conscious of every word she writes, naively aping the serious craft the great writers.   I want to be examined and pass some credibility test.  My writing can need much work, the ideas can require some additional moving around, but what I have must be deemed worthy of the additional work. 

I am probably not supposed to admit this degree of anxiety around my writing.  It should help that I know all writers have these same hidden fears.  But every day I have to re-commit to doing this thing.  I have to re-assign the highest value, to review the words and say: yes, keep doing this.  I have to agree to push the insecurity aside and plunge in.

I took several writing courses years ago, one on poetry that was enormously significant for me, although it took many years for me to realize that.   What is different?  I believed then I had a lot to learn.   I wasn't a writer; I was a student becoming a writer.  But now I have put on the cloak of the writer.  I have named myself, claimed the title as my own.  It’s daunting to face this first audience.  But oddly enough, I think even if everyone there says I’m not a writer, I will still believe I am.  I will go back to my desk and try again.  One heck of thing to launch while shooting your old life to smithereens. 

So the writing is idling.  We are in a car parked by the side of the road and the motor is running as we search for the road map.  According to the class description, all of us will be bringing our first chapters to share with the class. And of course I am still ruminating about how deep I should go.  Deep is a significant concept here.  We have light and racing across the surface writing like AC, very readable.  Then we have the big boys and their descendants.  They go deep even when the words are plain.  I struggle to keep what I am writing in perspective.  I can’t be AC.  I can’t write for that length of time on that level.  I've told myself that repeatedly, but wistfully too.  I am sure AC doesn't angst.  She gets on with it, slams it out, turns off the screen, and hits the bed.  I am in the corner nibbling at my nails: do I have the talent to go deeper?  Deeper?  Construct not just a story but a story that says something about things, that lays out ideas and uses the characters and their words to explore them deeply.   I think about this constantly.  Where does my story belong?

 Why does it matter?  It has something to do with how the whole story stretches out in front of me.  It’s like wandering around with one of those level things for hanging shelves.  Straight on, a story that knows what it is.   And then, circle back folks: can a story with heft be centered on a woman trying to get a manuscript turned into a movie?  Forgive the ribbons of questions, but this is what I've been sifting through for weeks.  I am hoping that meeting others who are writing will release this angst.   I think of writers whose work I love.  What choices do they make when positioning a story?  Do they ever say to themselves the things I say?  Do they say:  it’s enough to write a good story, never mind anything internal? 

But then:  what I write is all about the internal, isn't it?

This is why I need other writers.  Not for their answers, but the assurance that hearing their questions will provide. 

Anyway.  This is where I am.

Tuesday, December 30

The Bells

Note to the reader:  This story was written three years ago, and came in a sudden rush.  I woke up in the middle of the night with three-quarters of it stuck in my head.  I spent the entire following day pulling it out and typing it down. I am always concerned it is simply too sweet.

New York

My first bells were outside her building. Maybe that’s why the memory has remained so clear. The cab door opened and the sound --steady, simple, welcoming—drew me out into a frigid evening. My grandmother had dressed me in the frilliest outfit she could find: black patent shoes, a pink lace dress with matching socks and one of those petticoats that hold a skirt almost straight out. I looked more like an ornament than a kid but maybe that was the idea. I felt like an icicle. Not much of a fan of dressing up to begin with -- I preferred the snug warmth of my overalls—I’d already experienced the bone numbing chill of the cab bench and saw no good reason for exposing my legs to the blast of arctic air. So it was the bells –calling over and over-- that got me out. I slid along the seat grabbed the door handle, and put my feet down on the wet pavement and craned my neck to find the source of that wonderful jangling.

The cabdriver had overshot the clearing and stopped in front of a large mound of rock hard snow, the kind common on city streets in the winter. I'm sure my grandmother assumed I would stand and wait. Instead, with the enthusiasm of someone still eager to experience snow in all its forms I began climbing the hill in front of me. My shoes were new and the soles shone. I fell halfway up the hill and slid down fast getting slush up my back and a bath of icewater on my bottom. I gave a startled whoop.

The bells stopped, replaced by my grandmother's sighs as she fought her way out of the cab. These were familiar sounds; she was a large woman. Something else caught my attention--a rapid crunch, a fumbled slide, splashing water -- something approaching rapidly. I tried furiously to get up, an upended creature flailing to right itself. Whatever it was edged closer to my head. As I began to wail I was unceremoniously pulled to my feet. A red-nose under a hat, ear muffs and several rolls of scarves, he raisheld out his hand to me, eyebrows raised in worry. While my grandmother fussed in the background, he spun me around wiping the remaining ice and snow off my coat and legs with his bare hands. The bell ringer. He let me clang his bells as a reward for not crying and of course, he held open her door for us.

They were double doors. Heavy swirls of iron and thick glass, they opened on a set of marble steps and another set of doors. My grandmother located the brass nameplate on the wall and pressed the button. We climbed the steps and waited. A sharp buzz, we pushed the door and entered the lush warmth of a sumptuous hallway. We took an elevator shining with brass hand rails and bright crystal lights. Her apartment was high above the street, her entrance down another hallway. My grandmother let me push this buzzer and the door opened onto a room full of people - polished gentlemen in tuxedos and elegant women in graceful dresses. A fine cloud of cigarette smoke drifted past talking heads. My grandmother took me by the hand and parted a path through the crowd. I was the only child. Someone patted me on the head and helped me out of my coat and hat. I was wearing one of those slinky fur hats with pom-pom ties and a white rabbit muff. Someone held high both the hat and muff, prompting cooing murmurs and giggles from the crowd. I bent my head in embarrassment, This resulted in another round of cooing.

After that I was deposited on a sofa in the center of a large room, my legs sticking out twig-like, a small wayfarer clinging to an island of pillows in a sea of adults. Someone was playing a piano. Ahead of me a wall of windows looked out on lights shining in other rooms for other people and further into the night - small stars on roads and bridges and buildings far away. My grandmother came by on a regular basis and fussed at me but otherwise I was left to my own devices and spent most of my time trying to find my angel in the crush of people swirling through the room.

I found Harry first, not an unimaginable feat given the way his voice carried and the crowd of admirers that encircled him. That night he was a statue off a wedding cake and she was next to him. Harry was laughing and holding her hand above her head.

“I want a round of applause for the most beautiful actress in the most successful play on Broadway tonight!”

She threw back her head and laughed. A cheer went through the crowd, then the murmuring stilled and even the pianist stopped to hear the rest of Harry’s comments.  Harry had a way with words.  But whatever he said that evening I can’t remember because I was intent on watching her.  And she was just as he said - the most beautiful woman in the room. I wanted to run to her and bury my face in her dress, feel the faint press of her hands on my head. Instead I waited as I had learned I must – waited until she was ready to notice me.

It never happened quickly. The room had to clear out some; people with cameras had to leave. I sat on the sofa, looking as busy as I could, eating olives and cheese balls pretending my attention was held by something across the room but checking carefully, always aware of where she was, returning again and again to her glimmering shape and following her with my eyes for as long as I thought was prudent. And finally, she looked back, smiled and motioned me over. I tried to walk gracefully, not run, but in the end I tore across the room and literally jumped at her. I suspect Harry knew I was on my way because, even with his back towards me, he turned at the last moment and caught me and held me up to her. I leaned out of his embrace and put my arms around her neck, felt her warmth, breathed in the scent of her perfume, laid bare my skin to the fluttering glance of her fingers. I was always afraid to hug her tightly. She was so doll-like and seemed too fragile to withstand my excited grasp. But Harry could hold me fine and his arms became my safe way to be as close to her as I could. That night she was especially radiant: enveloped in a cloud of light.

We always spent time together at Christmas but even though I clung on her every word, afterwards I could never remember a single thing she said. That night she probably asked about school, grandmother, and what I wanted for Christmas. I know she showed me Harry’s present: holding out her arm so I could see it. He had given her a charm bracelet made up of bells – all sizes. She twisted her wrist back and forth so I could hear them ringing. I was mesmerized by their sound. And leaning over I caught the bracelet with my hand wanting only to touch it for a second. One tiny bell flew off as my fingers brushed against it. I heard her exclamation of sorrow, saw her face fall and I was sure I’d destroyed this precious gift. As usual Harry saved the day. Depositing me firmly on the carpet with one swoop, he bent further to scoop up the bell and place it in his pocket. From my position on the carpet I watched as he patted the now sheltered bell and winked at her. She smiled down at me and I was redeemed.

Two Christmases after that she was in another play. This time she sent a limousine to pick us up. I spent the entire ride counting bell-ringing santas much to the dismay of my grandmother who was trying to impress on me the importance of acting lady-like. Needless to say I have no recollection of anything that occurred except her entrance resplendent in a rose gown. At the end of the play, the audience cheered and stood and I remember her grace and the fact that, unlike me, she didn’t seem at all embarrassed by the attention.

The dressing room was small but stuffed with flowers and guests. I saw Harry briefly. He came by in his tuxedo with a bouquet of white flowers tucked under his arm. He winked at me before he bent to whisper in her ear. She smiled up at him and nodded. Before he left he smiled directly at me and waved at grandmother. She was impressed by the acknowledgement we both merited.

After that I fell asleep on a small couch and woke to the hushed voices of women speaking in that cautious round of question, pause and murmured reply which signaled a grown-up conversation. I turned and sighed in pretend sleep pricking my ears to hear them better. By this time I was old enough to understand that the beautiful actress wasn’t an unspecified relation but my mother. That I lived with my grandmother and not her, and that we saw her only on rare occasions, had not yet become a thing to ponder. I accepted it as given: our special way of being family. But the back and forth of this conversation hinted at realities I hadn’t begun to consider.

“Maggie hush. She will stay with me, especially now that you and Harry back together," my grandmother’s voice.

Maggie was my mother.

“I’m not sure” Maggie whispered. “ I think about it all the time" and then a pause, "......Harry’s a dear man but I’m not sure he would be especially tolerant.”

“Ain't that’s right. But then Harry's a man,  a stunning man at that and while we know he has an amazing propensity for siring baby girls, I don’t think I would gamble on his sustained interest in parenting them. How many is it now?”

Even as a child I knew whatever my grandmother said was certain, as true as true can be.  There was authority in her tone, a confidence in her bearing.  So if Mamere was citing facts on Harry she knew what she was talking about.  Eyes closed I held my breath. 

“Two at least, maybe .....”  my mother responded.

Maybe three?  I couldn’t help myself. My eyes opened in wonder and my mother chirped.

“Oh, if it isn’t our very own little Bo Peep!”

That was the end of the conversation.

This event marked unequivocally the first time I'd wanted to understand the intricacies adult conversation. It was also the first I'd heard of Harry not always being in my mother’s life. That was shocking to a child dependent on small but brilliant points of togetherness. And for as long as I remembered Harry had been included. The fact that he had something to do with other baby girls was also disturbing. I was immediately jealous as I still saw myself as small enough to occasionally wear the tag of 'baby girl.' But more significantly, at an age when I still had no understanding of the role of men in the reproductive process and knew no one I could assign the title of “father”, Harry wore enough of the guises of protector, friend and bestower of special treats to allay any concerns I might have had. If there were other baby girls however? I folded this question up inside me and didn’t share it.

That Christmas also marked the only time the three of us – Mom, Harry and I—celebrated by going out together.

It began with a simple plan. Mom wanted to take me to see the Saks Fifth Avenue windows. Given the crowds the display always drew and my mother’s bird-fragile grace, it was an unlikely pick. The day was intensely cold and my mother had on her full length mink. She had dressed me herself in a new coat, red with a fur collar. As soon as the limousine stopped I knew we were in trouble. The crowds were larger than I had imagined but she gamely got out with me in tow. We tried weaving our way as close to the windows as possible. But the closer we came, the harder it was for me to see anything above the waists of spectators. Mother looked down at me; I looked up at her.

Of course I knew what the solution was but we had no history of that kind of physical undertaking. I had leaned out of Harry’s embrace into her arms, but she had never bent down and wrapped herself around me and swung me up. It takes a considerable amount of effort to pick up a seven year old while wearing stiletto heels. But she did it. Her coat was cold and tickled my bare legs and I think I was more excited to be in her arms than to see the animated characters in the windows. Her expression was as exultant as mine. We were doing something commonly done by mothers and daughters and without the help of anyone else.

I first heard the whoop behind me, and then felt the arms around my back. Harry. I don’t recall ever seeing a more satisfied expression on that man’s face: it was a gentle 'I told you' and a proud 'see how wonderful it is' look. He buried us in a bear hug. He swirled us around. He stopped and kissed her right on the lips. Her body tensed in response, and I swear her bracelet, the one with the bells, began to ring.

Harry had always intended on surprising the two of us. And he quickly set me on his shoulders, yammering on about how we also had to see this other store and another one up the street. He took us to both. He took us to the Wolman ice rink also. All the while he balanced me on his shoulders and she tucked her arm under his, holding tightly to him. To anyone we were the perfect image of the American family at Christmas. Later he took us to dinner at the kind of restaurant both of them frequented but neither my grandmother or I had ever seen from the inside. I had a Shirley Temple and the most wonderful ice cream pie: baked Alaska. Someone came to the table and took our picture. I was afraid that my mother wouldn’t allow a photo but she was so relaxed that night. I still see it: me between the two of them their arms around me like a supporting throne.

Friends have asked me if this special day changed my expectations about our life together. I don’t think so. I was very young. The day was a treat and I like to believe I took it at face value, one more glittering chance to be close to her. Someone asked me if I would have wanted everyday to be like this. I don’t think so. My life was organized a certain way and this organization encouraged extraordinary treats. If it was everyday, who knows? But if I had known it was the last day? There was no way to imagine that: no way no Harry, no way no three of us.

But that's exactly what happened. Not immediately. No, the three of us as an “item” sailed along for at least another two years, trailed slowly, wandered and then shuffled off and stopped. Ride over. I don’t remember why we didn’t have another celebration the next year. She was still with him. The following year she was on the west coast for Christmas, her first movie and her schedule was too busy. I saw Harry several times during those years but the sightings were fleeting, quick hellos and pecks on the cheek. He developed a habit of tickling me under the chin and then buzzing me behind the ear. It made me laugh but in hindsight it was distancing behavior. He was more and more a favorite uncle you rarely see, less and less someone who lifts you when you need lifting. No longer someone who protects, intervenes, and takes joy in all that you are.

As I grew my desire for a father expanded exponentially. Dads who flipped pancakes with abandon, fathers who laughed uproariously at their daughters' pranks, who cheered performances and encouraged tom-boy pursuits that included trees and frogs and fishing poles  --  I had to have one, even if only to lead me awkwardly around the gym dance floor on "father daughter" night. One enchanted evening.

Perhaps it was only natural that I come round to Harry again -- a memory then a wish and soon a preoccupation as the importance of Harry as father became a singularity. I pestered my grandmother, already too old for such persistence, with questions about him. If I wasn’t staring in the mirror trying to prove I was Harry’s, I was daydreaming how it happened. Why didn’t I just ask my mother? In part it was fear. I didn’t want to learn my true father was only a shadow of Harry, some smudge of a man without distinction. I wanted the best father I could have and I could think of no better man to covet than Harry. Beside the fear there was also consternation. That overhead conversation in the dressing room years before had fueled a resolute belief that I was at least Harry’s second if not first daughter. But why had my mother never explained ? Did no one think I might want to know?

My last childhood encounter with Harry occurred when I was eleven. We both attended a wedding of the stars, or, the joining one beautiful ass to another as my mother put it sardonically. We were there with my mother’s latest boyfriend, a Basset hound of a man who showered her with over-the-top gifts: jewelry, cars, even houses. He was a mild-mannered guy and utterly lacking the frank boyish delight that was Harry. I don’t know what my mother thought of him because we had less to say to each other as I got older. There was no Harry to intervene and pull her out of her comfort zone.

On the day in question I was making a forlorn tour of the gathering, looking for someone my age that I both knew and could talk to—not an easy assignment when you are an awkward pre-teen. I saw him talking with my mother and I went numb. He sat opposite her in a small collection of chairs. His back was towards me but I instantly recognized the way he held himself, the way he leaned in to pay close attention to everything she was saying. I came running over and just as in the past, he turned his head to smile at me at the last minute but this time he didn’t move quickly to put an arm around me. When I came around the front I saw why. There was a small girl on his lap. She was the spitting image of him: coloring, hair, even that damn cleft in the chin. She had those dimples too. He was holding her around her tummy, gently rocking his leg back and forth. Her feet swung in time with his movements; the expression on her face was total contentment. I don’t think she was more than four years old.

Baby girls.  Instantly my body filled with an blinding rage: a fire that flared full bore through me. I hated her on sight. He filled me with contempt. How could he so completely abandon me? How could she so totally mock me, being all that I was and so much more? My mother must have seen my face because she stood and came around behind me and put her arms around my shoulders and I pushed up against her seeking protection. Harry saw it too. He motioned to someone who came forward and took the offending party away.

“She’s my daughter.”

He said it quietly. I remember watching as a range of emotions flickered across his face: embarrassment, sorrow, joy, compassion.

I am sure my face registered only horror and anger. I couldn’t speak. Inside I raced through every encounter we’d shared, trying to compare how he had acted towards me with how he acted towards this dumb creature. Time seemed to slow down and then crawl to a stop.  I realized I was waiting for him or her to announce that I was Harry's daughter too. But no such thing happened. Instead, the three of us remained fixed in place: two sorrowful adults gazing at a child on the verge of tears. 

I considered throwing myself down in front of them and insisting that reality be transformed to agree with my dream.   Instead I turned and ran. It was a night of retribution. I paid him back by ripping my fancy dress playing tom boy in a tree, by shamelessly kissing a boy I'd never met before and, as if to seal the deal, I threw myself in the central pool my beautiful dress a sopping mess of pink nylon. No enchanted evening; I was beyond redemption.

After that night my mother clammed up tighter than ever and I became more obsessed than ever with finding out the truth. But I no longer dreamed it was Harry. Instead my dreams were filled with terrible visions --- criminal dads, first cousin papas and other questionable pairings. At one point I decided that she had been impregnated by her father and that is why we lived apart: she couldn’t bear to be close to someone as filled with deviance as I must be.

Then I gave up and began creating my own fathers, small disposable ones I could pull out when required to present my model for group review. For the longest time I named him Paul and told everyone he was a New York stockbroker way too involved in his job to ever show his face at any event his daughter attended. Paul was tall, good-looking, and gave me a wonderful bracelet when I was twelve that I proceeded to describe in exacting detail: each small gold bell. I explained that we didn’t live with Paul but he definitely cared for me. I carefully wrote up letters he’d sent me and would read them over the phone to whoever expressed even the slightest interest.

At fourteen, I was sent away to boarding school because Mamere was too frail to care for me. It took me only the time required to unpack my little suitcase to determine that the school was an enclave of the fabulously wealthy.  This added fuel to my fatherly fire.  See, my mother was doing okay as an actress, but not so well that she could afford the tuition of this place on her own. The Basset hound was long gone so who footed the bill? I concluded that all I needed was learn the name on the check and I would finally have my dear lost papa. It proved difficult to run down the checks. It took at least two different holidays home and a long summer vacation. What I found was a bank account: money came in regularly in the form of bank transfers but the checks themselves were all written by her. I remember tracing the transfers back to a bank in New York and a certain vaguely named account, but beyond that I couldn’t go.

Within the year, perhaps because all my searching led nowhere and with the encouragement of my mother's sister Sherry, a dedicated reader of romance fiction with a penchant for happy endings, I once again contemplated the odds that Harry was perhaps 'the papa' after all. I shamelessly followed news of him in the tabloids and I was quite happy when I learned he had left his second wife, mother to that limp little rag doll I had met. I clipped out countless pictures of him with starlets and news of his latest project.

I had belatedly come to understand that Harry was a money man, a producer. My aunt Sherry was a continual font of Harry news. It was Sherry who helped me track back and uncover the identity of Harry’s baby girls. We agreed I had to be at least seven the night I over-heard that conversation. If I was eleven when I met the ragdoll that meant she was not the baby they were alluding to that night but rather baby two or three. She might have an older sister.

Sherry said Harry had been a fixture in my mother’s life from the time I was born. She’d even seen a photo of Harry holding me in a christening gown, but she had had no more luck than I in getting my mother to own up to the details of my paternity. By then I was old enough to have frank conversations about the couplings of my mother. I knew for example that she started seeing Harry while he was still married to his first wife – someone he stuck with until long after the three of us parted. We couldn’t turn up any confirmation of a child from this marriage, only that Harry was steadfastly loyal to her, showing up at her side for countless charity events. So he was around when I was conceived but committed to another. At the same time there was also evidence that my mother was also seeing a ballet dancer during the Harry years (and I did like to dance). I found a photo of him and we learned he was tall and red headed: not me.

I remember Sherry lifting my chin with her fingertips, and tilting her head first to the side, then up and down.

“You still look like Harry to me” she laughed. “You have his shoulders, his smile and although you don’t believe me you do have those dimples.”

She grinned as she poked me gently in each cheek.

I don’t know if she realized how seriously I took all of this. Only those who are truly fatherless can comprehend the vast emptiness inside you when there is no anchor to hold you in place. We tracked at least one more pregnancy conceived around the time I was perhaps six years old --that would coincide with the time he was apart from my mother but before he came back to us.

It was a vague reference in a tabloid rumor mill about the time I was born: "what bright young producer has sired a little bit of heaven" was the question asked. There was no answer but this happened in the late 1950s and out-of-wedlock children were largely invisible.

So, you are wondering, what did I finally choose to believe? And assuming you included the word “choose” you definitely understand the nub of the issue. I had enough circumstantial information to weigh down the Harry side of scale. At the same time, when the two key players were present neither one of them owned up to it. I knew my mother well enough to realize that she wouldn’t hold information from me then decide to spill it in front of a man who had left her, but I thought I knew Harry well enough to sense his compassion for children. It was difficult to believe he would have withheld something like this, especially if it would have prevented the pain I experienced at that day at the wedding.  But I had to choose – take a final decision and play it as it lay. With no good reason I chose to assemble and hold tight in my hand a small collection of ambiguous facts and to ignore Harry's inability to claim me.

Over the years that followed I came with rafts of reasons why he failed me at that moment but my all-time preferred choice was always that he'd promised my mother never to tell (and it was so Harry to be loyal like that).

My life went forward; I entered my twenties. I became an actress like her. We rarely saw each other. As she got older she failed to attract the roles that were available for actresses her age. She appeared in regional theatre. I depended on Sherry to keep me posted regarding my mother’s latest wanderings: her new beau (she always had one) and what was on the horizon in terms of work. When I was approaching thirty Sherry called to say mom was sick and, as usual, refusing to recognize it for what it was. We stayed in close touch for the next several months. My mother was in and out of hospitals: she always refused visitors and I, angry at her resistance, kept my distance, But when Sherry called and told me I had to get to the hospital as soon as possible if I wanted to see her again, I ran. I loved her despite our difficult relationship.

Ironies of ironies, it was Christmastime again, but it was LA, the land of infinite sunshine.  No ice mountains, no red cheeks, but in keeping with the sacred past there was some silly ass bell-ringer in the downstairs lobby. Imagine that.

She had a private room and it was obvious that she was being well cared for. When I entered the room she was asleep, her hair tied back off her still beautiful face: illness seemed to have gilded her features, not broken them. Someone had put make-up on her, rouge and lipstick. It was so like her to want to be ready at all times to perform. She woke as I pulled up a chair next to the bed and turned her head towards me. Her eyes were still that deep shade of soft brown (Bambi eyes I used to think.) For a moment I wasn’t sure she was going to recognize me. Then she smiled.

“My baby girl!” she exclaimed.

I hadn’t been thinking at all about Harry, not in the longest time actually, but when she called me baby girl the old confusion of anger and love came rushing to the front and I was lost in time.  My mother gingerly lifted her hand and put it on mine. It was cold. She wasn’t wearing her usual assortment of rings so it was easy to close my hand around hers. She was weak and lethargic but nothing that confirmed my aunt’s estimation that she had no more than days left. Talking was a strain however, so I did most of it and she nodded a lot, smiled and threw in an occasional “oh yes.” I can honestly say we’d never talked like this before that day. For as long as I remember my mother had tried so very hard to be present to her child but it usually came off as tentative or forced. This time it was neither. I told all about my own exploits in the industry. I was actually having some small successes, and my own base of friends had grown so I had more chances than ever to get the roles I wanted. Although she couldn’t verbally respond as she might have wished, her eyes said everything : I felt supported in a way I never had before.

I got her to sit up a bit when her lunch came but she wouldn’t eat anything just sip a mouthful of tea. She appeared to tire considerably after that, and I decided I was going to stay with her -- be there when she awoke again. I helped her lay back; I smoothed the sheets watching her fall peacefully to sleep. Neither one of us deserved the luxury of this day having ignored each other for so long.

Her doctor came by and we went out in the hall to talk. His message was bleaker than I had expected. They had done everything they could to help her and nothing remained at this point except to make her comfortable. He suggested I could take her home with me if I wished. I must have blanched visibly at the prospect because he quickly backed off and spoke soothingly about the continual attention to comfort she had at the hospital. Then he told me not to leave, that she had weakened considerably since the previous day, that she hadn’t eaten in several days and that her kidneys were closing down. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear but I counted it as good luck on both our parts: we were together and able to declare our love.

When she awoke again the sun had faded from the sky only a red glow remaining. She was a good deal less focused than earlier and while she knew I was there she seemed uninterested in following a conversation so we sat. I spent a lot of the time just looking at her, holding her hand and even briefly laying my face against her chest and listening to her breathe. When we looked directly at each other her eyes were rapt with devotion. We were reverting to those long ago days of worshipful dependence --only the terms of engagement had reversed.

Early evening came and went and we headed into the deep night aware we were climbing a steep slope. I found her room had an excellent stereo and there, tucked against the wall, a cardboard box filled with her CDs and tapes.  It was like heaven.  I rummaged excitedly through the box finding anything that featured music from plays or movies she had been part of. She seemed deeply appreciative. I even played an audio version of a play from years ago. It took a while for her to recognize it but when she did she followed right along smiling gleefully in the right places.

 At the very bottom of the box I found what I had been looking for: an old recording of the play she’d been in back when I was five – the play Harry had been so excited about. I put it on prepared to immediately cut it off if she wanted that but it had the opposite effect. If anything it woke her up and returned her to me as she had been earlier in the afternoon -- perhaps even stronger.

We talked about Harry then, and she admitted that he had been the love of her life. She talked mostly about their life together and not the three of us which made sense; so little of that time actually included me. The more she talked the more she traveled back in time and at some point I became less her daughter and more a very good friend from all those years ago. It was wonderful to learn so much but even at this moment I mourned my inability to ask about her pregnancy: whether Harry was my father.

It finally occurred to me that she probably didn’t know herself. She had been young and a bit wild. He was ten years older than her and a married man. Perhaps it was easier for everyone to just accept things the way they worked out. Maggie had a baby and her mother took care of it. All those years of waiting to unlock the answer only to find out that it wasn’t black and white but shades of gray that had worked very well for all involved. And while it definitely made sense to handle a small inconvenience this way, how was it that no one understood the problem a young girl might have with an ambiguous assortment of stray pieces? Sitting there next to her that night I felt utterly bereft once again, no answer to the central question of my life.

She died as the first glow of an orange dawn lit the room, died in my arms just as I wanted it. She called out for Mamere several times, Sherry at least twice and for Harry, of course for Harry. I cried as I never had before, cried for the mother I hadn’t had until this night, for the father I would clearly never possess. I cried because I knew she had tried to do what made sense only to have society change and the old rules slip away. I finally understood that she had not deliberately denied me a father. More than anything it was a simple question of timing: by the time it became acceptable to have out-of-wedlock children the principals were scattered to the four winds.

I saw Harry at the wake and the funeral. I was impressed that he took the time to come to both. I wanted to talk to him about that final night but every time I tried to steel myself for the conversation I fell apart inside. I guess I was truly my mother’s daughter: the idea of losing control and publicly humiliating myself was not something I was prepared to even consider. So we waved past each other several times and at least once he tried to get my attention. I turned to see him looking at me from across the room, his face so completely Harry in its wide open gentleness. I started to cry and bowed my head in embarassment. When I looked up he was gone. He left me a small stack of my mother’s letters to him tied with a lovely pink satin ribbon. Along with it was a brief note:

Please call me if you get a chance. Would love to talk about Maggie with you. Love, Harry.

I didn’t call. It isn’t clear to me now why I didn’t. I know I did an interview about her with a national news magazine looking back on her life. We talked about her work, the men in her life. I told the reporter they probably knew a lot more her love life than I did. When she specifically asked me about my father I answered in a way that surprised even me. It was a flippant remark, grandstanding almost. I told her archly that I had no specific father because I hadn’t been “claimed” and I laughed. I recall that the reporter seemed startled by my cavalier treatment of parenthood. Don’t you miss not knowing him she had inquired. Not the least I insisted. I am probably a better parent to myself than any man could have ever been. I read the final version of the interview once then promptly threw out the magazine. How stupid you are I thought, to believe for a second you don’t want some form of acknowledgement.

It’s been another fifteen years since her death and I was shocked to hear of Harry’s passing six months ago. Once again the unanswered question came thundering back: the simple desire to be claimed. I am a mother now myself and I can no longer comprehend how any parent could turn away from their child’s need to be recognized. Parenting is an overwhelming experience that shakes us to our core. It has been my sense that children love unconditionally and are capable of lighting that same flame in our hearts. I would claim my children even if it meant I would be stoned for doing so.

So, several weeks ago when a parcel was dropped off, and I found I was a part of Harry’s will I was surprised.  No more than that:  I was shocked. When I read how I was in the will I broke down.

Here is what I read:

To my daughters Nicole and Sara I leave the contents of the main house exclusive of any personal documents, and to Grace Black, I leave all my papers, my books and all my love. If anyone can teach a man to parent a daughter, it’s my Grace.

I am Grace Black.

I had to call my husband to pick my daughters up I was so overwhelmed by what I read.  I spoke over the phone with the estate lawyer.  I considered reaching out to Harry's family but that old uncertainty clung to me.  What exactly had Harry meant. 

Then about a week ago I received a call from Nicole, the daughter I remembered meeting so many years before. She turned out to be a delightful woman, warm and forthcoming. We had a long tear-filled conversation and finally I felt totally accepted. She asked me to come out and look at the material she was finding in the house. The lawyers needed some way to organize the papers. After a brief lunch on a terrace overlooking the hills she took me into Harry’s office. Undoubtedly it was exactly as he had left it. The walls were lined with pictures of his daughters Nicole and Sara: family times, fun times.  I expected that.  It was lovely to see him with his children that he so obviously cherished.  I circled the room once, then Nicole motioned me over to what was appeared to be Harry's desk.

There on the desk, pictures of me, pictures of me and Harry:  the famous christening dress photo, a picture of me in a Halloween outfit even I didn’t remember and the very faded and worn picture of the three of us in that restaurant so many years ago. It was obvious that my photos had been integrated into the collection after the fact and I asked Nicole about this. She explained that the two of them always knew that I was important to their father, but they didn’t understand why until my mother died. Up until that point Harry had kept the restaurant photo in his wallet, the reason for its bad condition.

According to Nicole, the death of my mother was traumatic for Harry. She knew their ties were deep. But he seemed so shaken when she died telling Nicole that he had shared something larger than either of them with Maggie. That blood ties were important but sharing the love of child was even more sacred. Both girls did some investigating themselves and soon there were new pictures in Harry’s study. The upshot was I was claimed, not just by Harry but by his daughters as well.

My life has changed since Harry died. I have two sisters and I am writing a book: Harry and his impact on New York stage from 1950 – 1975. In my preliminary research I've turned up some more personal stuff. Harry did send me to that school. He took care of my grandmother and he personally made sure that Maggie’s stay in the hospital was fully covered. He stayed within the bounds Maggie gave him: he honored her wishes to the end. I should have known that the man I knew as a child could only continue to protect, intervene and take joy in my family’s life. That was Harry after all.