The International Literary Quarterly

May 2009

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Excerpts from Based on a True Life: A Memoir in Pieces (a work-in-progress) by Alan Ziegler  





            Jocelyn is the only female professor in the English department.  I take a contemporary poetry class with her, and she acquaints me with William Carlos Williams and the poetry of colloquial speech (“wassama?” in Paterson). I don’t know it then, but it is my first step toward a life in a direction I never even considered. Her husband, Dave, teaches English at Albany State. When he is turned down for tenure, students protest, to no avail.

            Jocelyn and Dave decide to do what many people talk about in: drop out. They buy land in Barry’s Bay, Ontario, Canada, and re-start their lives as farmers.

            Rich and I make plans to visit them in September, 1970. Early on a Sunday morning, we fly half-fare to Ottawa on expired college ID’s and start hitching from Ottawa at 9:30 a.m. At around noon, we get stuck in an intersection. Cars slow down and look at us and drive on.

            Finally a family picks us up – a man and wife and two kids. The man has a French accent and is drinking beer. He talks about how he’ll pick up anybody because he was in the army for 22 years and was on the road a lot. He curses out the farmers in the area, and says they won’t pick up anyone who looks like a hippie. He drives us around town so that everybody can see he’s picked us up.

            He tells us he is an outcast in that area because “I drink and I’m free. I get money from the army, and people are jealous because I don’t have to work my land hard.” He was wounded several times and his “legs are almost useless.” We share a common ground as outcasts. He drops us off a few miles outside of town.

            When it looks like there is no way we’ll make it to Barry’s Bay by dark, a bus comes along that says Barry’s Bay and we flag it down after looking at each other to make sure we aren’t hallucinating. There are no passengers, and the only reason the driver is completing the trip is to deliver the newspapers. “I don’t know what to charge. How about a dollar?” Deal.

            We get to Barry’s Bay at dusk, but the only cab driver in town has to deliver the newspapers. He gives us directions to a guy who might take us out to the farm. The guy isn’t home but his father-in-law invites us to come in and wait. He is in his seventies and has a horrible smoker’s cough. His whole body convulses when he coughs and the coughs bring no clearing or satisfaction. He is chain-smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. The only thing that interrupts his smoking is his coughing, and vice versa.

            His son-in-law never shows up, so Rich and I head back toward town, to spend the night in the one hotel. We stop at the bar, where we meet some teenagers. They were raised in Barry’s Bay but now live in nearby towns and only come home to get drunk at the hotel.

            The kids volunteer to take us out to the farm in their truck. It is a moonless night, and the driver speeds along the narrow, rough gravel road, mostly on the wrong side of the imaginary white line. Everyone whoops each time the truck skids around a curve. Rich and I say nothing. If another car comes along we have no chance. We choose to risk death rather than be uncool with strangers (who may choose to kill us anyway).

            We make it to the end of the road; we have to go the rest of the way on foot. Rich and I grope toward the light of the cabin, which seems a Christina’s-World away. As we get closer we hear a dog bark, then see a flashlight, which leads us to Jocelyn’s welcoming embrace. I have never hugged a teacher before.

            Things aren’t working out well for Jocelyn and Dave and their three-year-old daughter. They have been working for years on a major anthology of contemporary poetry, and were counting on the royalties to subsidize the farm; but their publisher has been sold and the new owners dropped the project. Some relatives sent them an expensive shortwave radio to link them to the world, but they are going to sell it to get them through the winter.

            Rich and I help harvest the last of the vegetable garden. Dave asks me to ride along with him to shop for some meat at the nearest supermarket. He parks in the back lot and takes me to the dumpster, where we scavenge for sealed packages of recently-expired chicken.

            One morning Jocelyn wakes up to find a bear carcass near the front door. She deduces that a neighbor, knowing they can’t afford meat, left it there. Jocelyn marinates the meat for days, and my mouth waters whenever I pass it. Finally, on our last night there, with winter setting in, the garden barren, and the radio gone, Jocelyn serves the bear meat. I chew and chew and chew until I can swallow, thinking of Chaplin eating his shoelace.

            Jocelyn and Dave labeled their mailbox Gopherwood. When I get home, I look up gopherwood and discover it is from the Old Testament: “Make thee an ark in gopherwood; rooms shalt then make in the ark and shalt pitch it within and without with gopherwood and this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of.”







            In June I meet a couple of Chicago poets browsing in the Eighth Street Bookstore, and we exchange poems during the year, publish in each other’s magazines. They return to New York the following autumn, bringing along three friends, and they camp out in my living room. Five strangers in my apartment, so happy to be together in New York, talking of people and places I don’t know.

            I start to feel like the outsider in my own home. I retreat to the roof, alone, where it is dark and chilly. I withdraw deeper into myself, and I fear going back down, where someone will surely ask me what’s wrong, are you all right? – questions I hate because I fear my face betrays a secret I have not yet told myself.

            One of the visitors – whom I just met – joins me and says, “You must spend a lot of time up here. Wow, you can see the river. There goes a ship.”

            “Yeah,” I lie, having only gone up on summer days to tan, never looking at the river long enough to see a ship.

            We are joined by another, and another, till all five are now with me once again, all of us visiting. They ask questions about my life; no one mentions my sadness, maybe they can’t see it in the dark. I feel my teeth beginning to chatter, but now that we are getting along, I don’t want to go downstairs, which might make them think I am avoiding them.

            Someone appears with wine – I didn’t notice him go back down. A few minutes later, someone else brings me a sweater. When the wine is gone, we return to the apartment, together. Soon they are all asleep in the living room, two on a couch, one in a chair, and two in sleeping bags.

            I go to my room, warm and happy, eager for breakfast.







            I buy my first digital watch – when they are high-tech – through a mail order deal. I pay for the basic $19.95 model, though I lust after the $79.95 version with multiple features. Two months later, I find the coveted attempted-delivery slip in my tiny mailbox. Seconds after leaving the post office, I open the box and am surprised and thrilled to discover the expensive model – a mistake I am willing to live with.

            I spend an hour poring over the directions, setting time zones and calendars and learning how to measure elapsed time (down to the tenth of a second). I start timing everything, from shaving to phone conversations. I am running five or six days a week, and I time my various routes and interim sprints, keeping track of personal bests.

            After running, I usually treat myself to a frozen yogurt, at a tiny store recently opened, the first of its kind on the Upper West Side. In mid-November, a sign in the window reads: Get your treats early in the evening, with bad weather we close early. And soon like all birds, we fly south.

            I go in for what may be my last frozen yogurt of the season, and the guy behind the counter asks to see my watch. He explains that he is in the market for a new watch and he asks what mine can do. I proudly run through all the functions, and he says he wants one, where should he go. I tell him about the mail order.

            “But where would I go to get mine? I can’t wait.”

            “I don't know. I guess Macys is worth a try.”

            He writes it down.

            I get a call from a woman who says she works for a fulfillment house. I tell her that sounds like an intriguing place to work. She replies that the wrong watch has been sent to a number of people, and if I received the wrong one I can send it back for exchange. “Not me,” I say. “If I did, I'd be glad to, but I didn't, gotta run, bye.”

            Later that afternoon, while running in Riverside Park, I fantasize about someone stopping me, asking for today's date and, when I find the answer on my wrist, saying, “You're busted; interstate fraud.” I laugh and pick up my pace. I check my watch: I have a good shot at bettering my four-mile record of 28 minutes and 4.3 seconds. I can hurdle the multiple-seven-minute-mile barrier.

            I pump my legs harder as I approach the tennis courts at 116th Street. A ball comes flying over the fence and bounces into a bush about twenty yards ahead of me. “A little help?” a guy in tennis whites yells.

            When I was growing up in Brooklyn, there was an unspoken vow to respond to any playground call for “a little help.” But I never stop in the middle of a run, fearing that the aerobic chain would snap. Plus, there is a personal best to be had. “Sorry, I can't stop,” I yell, speeding up to show I am a runner, not a jogger.

            “Yeah, run away, you asshole,” the guy screams and waves his racket in my direction. The word asshole coats my guilt with anger. Why should I run an errand for some tennis-playing-venture-capitalist-attorney? 

            On the way back, I keep my head down as I approach the tennis courts. Another ball flies over the fence. “Ooh, can you fetch our ball, please?” This time a sweet woman's voice. Oh hell, I am getting winded anyway; who knows where this retrieval could lead? Then I hear the venture-capitalist-attorney say, “Don't ask that asshole, he doesn't stop for anyone.”

            This guy isn't taking me seriously as an athlete. I turn to face him, and without breaking stride yell, “Why don't you stop your game and tie my shoes?”

            Let him come after me. My third wind is kicking in. I start my stretch run a quarter of a mile before usual. Not used to running so fast on the narrow part of the path, I veer off and feel my arm scrape along the fence, followed by a jolt and a twinge in my arm socket. When I regain stride, I check to see how much time I've lost. The watch-face dangles from the strap; the display is blank. My shoulder aches. I finish my run, dizzy from hyperventilation. I'll never know if I have broken the multiple-seven-minute mile. And I can't send the watch back for repair.


            A few months later I go in for my first frozen yogurt of the spring, and the same guy is behind the counter, in animated conversation with a customer. He points to his wrist and I hear him say: “And look, it's a stop watch, and an alarm clock, and....”





(1991 / 93)


            Nick loves to drive and doesn't mind going out of his way – he once drove from New Orleans to Tallahassee to have lunch with a friend. I am going to visit him at Interlochen, and he tells me about a low fare to Grand Rapids, offering to pick me up at the airport. My plane arrives an hour late, and I meet Nick at the bar.

            We have been driving for about an hour when I ask him how much farther. He says it is another hour and a half. Nick is spending five hours in the car just to pick up a friend at the airport; he's not the only one who would do that, but few do it as naturally.

            There are hardly any other cars on the highway, with darkness on either side, and many miles between exits that lead to deeper darkness. We pass a sign for Lee: One Mile.

            “Have you ever been to Lee?” I ask.

            “Never heard of it,” Nick says.

            About a minute later we whiz past a hitchhiker. “Did you see that guy?” I ask.

            “Yeah, who'd stop here? I'd stop. But I'm not going to back up on this road.”

            “How the hell did he get that far, and no farther?”

            “Guess his last ride was turning off at Lee.”

            “Or he's from Lee.”

            We say it simultaneously: “He is Lee.”

            Lee becomes our code word for anyone physically or emotionally adrift in the world.

            A couple of years later, Nick and I converge in Tallahassee. After my visit, I am to take a bus to Jacksonville, from where I will fly to New York. Nick drives me to the Tallahassee bus terminal. Until the bus actually pulls out, I think Nick may change his mind and drive me to the Jacksonville airport and hang out with me until my 8:00 a.m. flight. But Nick looks tired. As the bus pulls out, I shiver in the back seat and wish the two soldiers wouldn't talk so loud. I realize that Nick and I are starting to get a little old, and I feel a pang of terror.

            The bus station in Jacksonville is bright and busy at 3 a.m. I walk around, squinting in the fluorescent glare, picturing myself in 40 years a lunatic roaming Broadway babbling about how the general downfall has been caused by fluorescent lighting.

            A couple of dozen guys are hanging around, looking like a casting call for a grade-B thriller set in a southern town where a New York Jew is stranded and terrorized. Looking for a taxi, I pass a vending machine. I never eat candy bars, but the Nestlé’s Crunch looks awfully good so I eat one and buy one for later.

            I find the taxi stand, where three guys are playing cards. When I ask if I can get a cab to a motel near the airport, one smiles and says, “It's my turn; I got this one.”

            I find out why he is so eager for the fare when we are going 70 on a highway, darkness completely around us, the meter clicking in a steady staccato rhythm, up to $45 before I see the first glimmer of man-made light – a motel. The driver pulls over.

            “Where's the airport?”

            “Oh, it's around the bend a ways. The motel will take you there.”

            I give him three twenties, which he stuffs with magician's speed into his pocket. I don't ask for change. The cab screeches away and I walk up the path to the motel. By the time I see the No Vacancy sign, the cab's rear lights are extinguished by the distance.

            The lobby is locked. I toss my bag over my shoulder and return to the highway. A cool drizzle starts. How far is the bend? How long is a “ways”?

            The rain feels refreshing after the stuffy bus. The airport can’t be too far away. A few stars make pinholes of light through a clearing patch on the horizon. I remember the Nestlé’s Crunch, and take small bites as I walk. It tastes even better than the last one.

            I hear the roar of a car. I turn around and squint at the brights. I wave. The car doesn’t even slow down.

            I have become Lee, and it isn't so bad.







            My wife and I whisper-argue in the bedroom while my father lies on the sofa bed in the living room watching Family Feud. I would appreciate the irony if my father wasn’t having surgery in the morning for advanced colon cancer.

            He was diagnosed only a week ago, though he was suffering for months – too weak emotionally to go to the doctor but too strong physically to have no choice, until his system started shutting down and he had no choice. The doctor immediately sent him a few blocks away to a surgeon, a rotund, jolly fellow rated by New York Magazine as one of the best. “You’ll be dancing the tarantella in six weeks,” the jolly surgeon told my father, referring to my brother’s wedding. I thought: I’ll be happy if he’s alive in a week.

            I leave my wife in the bedroom, hoping my father hasn’t overheard our quibbling. My father’s hospital pajamas are in a plastic supermarket bag, his blue slacks draped over a chair. He is wearing baggy boxer shorts and a white T-shirt. He is engrossed in The Feud.

            “So that’s the new host,” I say. “It’s hard to imagine the show without Richard Dawson.”

            “Well, he’s been on for a few years now. He’s really grown into the job. I like him.”

            I can tell that my father is rooting for this man who landed a dream job succeeding a popular host on a popular show. The new host chats easily with the boisterous, healthy-looking families, and smiles sweetly when they jump up and down, hugging in celebration of their “good answers.” I start to like him. I sit on the edge of the sofa bed with my cancer-ridden father while my wife fumes at me from the bedroom and my father’s wife is long dead.

            My father will get through the surgery, and he will attend my brother’s wedding (though he won’t dance the tarantella), and whatever is ailing my marriage will dissolve in the suspension of love.

            In subsequent years, I will read in the obituaries that the jolly surgeon died suddenly of a massive heart attack and that the charming new host hung himself with bedsheets in a closet of a psychiatric ward.

            My father will live to mourn them both.