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Archive for the ‘Short Fiction’ Category

INDEX: Short Fiction

Short stories and humorous pieces by David Lefkowitz

THE CHINESE RESTAURANT
(sad-humorous short story, 1986)
https://wp.me/pzvIo-G2

EVERY SINGLE THING
(darkly comic short story, 1987)
https://wp.me/pzvIo-Fg

GREAT QUOTATIONS AND THEIR ORIGINS
(humorous mock homage to Barlett, 1986)
https://wp.me/pzvIo-FM

JOHN SMITH UNIVERSITY
(humorous spoof of a university curriculum devoted to the life of one unimportant man, 1984)
https://wp.me/pzvIo-H6

TOWARDS A VERY POOR THEATER
(humorous satire of avant-garde theater, 1985)
https://wp.me/pzvIo-Gw

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EVERY SINGLE THING

This short story was written in 1987 by David Lefkowitz.

November is a lousy month. The trees are bare, the streets are grey, and every face you see looks like a corpse. Darkness comes at three in the afternoon, bringing with it a sudden and vicious drop in temperature. I hate the wind and I hate the rain and I hate this miserable city. I live in New York.

Last Tuesday I turned thirty, a milestone which I celebrated by paying my annual visit to Dr. Molina. She’s a jovial woman with a kind face and the coldest fingers this side of the Equator.

“Everything seems to be in working order.”

“Peachy,” said I, hurriedly throwing my gown over my knees. I felt like a raw tuna on the slab at fisherman’s market.

“Of course, we won’t know everything until the x-rays come back,” Molina smiled (doctors love to keep you in suspense). “Still smoking a pack a day?”

I was waiting for that. My “yes” was bold, defiant.

Molina leaned back on her backless stool. “And then you’re going to come here on your fiftieth birthday, riddled with heart disease and cancer, and you’ll say, `But doctor! What did I ever do to deserve this?’”

“What makes you think it’s the cigarettes?” I pointed to the x-ray machine. “Maybe it’s the hundred zillion gamma rays you keep zapping me with.”

Molina ignored me—a tactic she usually employed when confronted by logic. “You’re still young, and you have ample time to undo the damage to your lungs.”

“True,” I replied. “I could also walk out this door and get hit by a bus.”

I almost did, in fact. I was halfway across the street when a city bus driver making a left turn decided he’d rather go through me than around me. I froze—a tactic I involuntarily employ when confronted by danger—and the bus swung wide, missing my by inches and leaving behind a cloud of noxious filth.

Not wishing to straight home after such a perilous episode, I scooted into a nearby cafe to drown my sorrows in a cup of hot coffee and a danish. Neurotically concerned about my weight like any other normal adult woman, I bypassed the sugar bowl and requested several packets of my favorite artificial sweetener.

    WARNING: THIS PRODUCT HAS BEEN TESTED AND PROVEN TO CAUSE CANCER IN     LABORATORY ANIMALS.

Well, I thought, if you inject a mouse with a gallon of anything, his cheese-eating days are over.

I sipped my coffee slowly, taking in the sight and sound of my wretched fellow diners bracing for the chill outside. One conversation asserted itself over the din. Two men in business suits sat at a nearby table and discussed work.

“Are you back in your office?” one asked.

“Not yet.”

“Still renovating?”

“They’ve gotta take out the whole ceiling. It’s all asbestos tile from the 1950s.”

“The company finally woke up and realized it was a health hazard? What if this was too little, too late?”

“Oh, we’re all doomed, there’s no question about that.” The businessman smiled sarcastically and speared a burnt french fry that crumbled underneath his fork.

Coming home that evening, I felt I had two options. Either I could seal all the windows and turn on the gas, or do something constructive. Since my stove is electric, the first choice was instantly discarded, and I racked my brain for a positive counterattack against the death sentences that seemed to lurk in every food, textile, and crevice.

It was then that my best friend called to wish me a happy birthday. “And how have you been celebrating such a momentous occasion?” she asked expectantly. I told her.

“What?” my friend gasped. “You’re not even having a party?”

I was about to make a devastatingly cynical reply when an idea hit me with the force of an atomic blast. I spoke quickly into the phone, “Could you round up half a dozen jars of instant coffee, six cases of soda—the real stuff, not ginger ale or the stuff you can see through—uh, fifteen TV dinners, fifteen thick steaks, a double rack of pork ribs, potato chips—“

“What are you—?”

“It’s a surprise party.”

“But how can it be a surprise if you know about it?”

“Just do it,” I ordered.

I spent the next hour on the phone calling everyone I knew. Each was instructed to bring a food or beverage that was generally considered detrimental to a person’s health. My next-door neighbor promised to whip up a batch of heavy cream. My ex-husband said he’d bring three cartons of unfiltered cigarettes.

After some last-minute shopping, I arrived home to find my best friend already waiting in the hallway. We helped each other in with our packages and set to readying the apartment for a party.

Two friends from work showed up a little after seven carrying a bucket of fried onion rings and some far-from-all-beef frankfurters. Other friends soon arrived, most of them bearing alcoholic beverages. My sister and brother-in-law came by with a large shopping bag only to produce—to my horror—fresh milk, eggs, and butter. “How could you?” I screamed. “You were supposed to bring bad food.”

“These are bad,” my brother-in-law maintained. There’s enough dairy fat and cholesterol here to choke a rabbit.”

I relented and complimented my brother-in-law on his inventive choice and colorful description.

By 8:30, the party was in full swing with people chomping steaks, sharing frozen entrees, and quaffing liberal amounts of rancid domestic beer. A minor note of panic set in when we prematurely ran out of napkins. Apparently my best friend hadn’t taken

into consideration the sheer greasiness of the food being consumed. My sister ran and got some bath towels, and the orgy continued.

A little while later, I walked to the front of the living room and signaled for everyone to quiet down, “My friends,” I began. “I’d like to thank you for sharing my birthday surprise with me.”

“What’s the surprise?” piped up a friend’s inebriated date.

Another guest volunteered, “We’re all gonna wake up dead in the morning!”

“At one point or another,” I continued, “every single thing in this room has been proven hazardous to our health.” I moved dramatically along the buffet-style table. “Look at these spare ribs. Pure fat. Trichinosis if you cook `em wrong.” I marched on. “Deep dish frozen pizza—yum! Artificial flavor, artificial color, artificial preservatives. Cheese is the fourth ingredient!” I pressed forward, fired with moral outrage. “And to wash it all down, a strong cup of caffeine and a cancer stick.”

I lit a ciegarette and observed my audience whose mood was decidedly less boisterous than before. Someone coughed. I apologized for ilghting up, doused the cigarette in a glass of gin, and sprayed the air with a pungent aerosol deodorant. “So long, ozone layer,” I chirped.

This released a floodgate of nihilistic suggestions. One guest proposed that we all sit very close to the color television set and let the rays hit us. Another recommended that we all go to a mediocre seafood restaurant and order tainted clams. My favorite idea, though, came from my best friend who said, “Hey everybody! When the clock strikes twelve, let’s all take birth control pills and wait for the hair to grow on our backs.”

My ex-husband slid by me and put his hands on my shoulders. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” I laughed, surprised by his concern—a trait I had not detected during our four years of marriage.

“Are you depressed about something?” my ex persisted.

“She’s depressed because everything we do is fatal!” My sister jumped to my defense: “The whole world is one big carcinogen; we’re all gonna die.”

My brother-in-law nodded. “After twenty years of using a product, they tell us to stop using it because it’ll kill us. Nobody knows what to believe.”

“Which is why,” I said, “starting tomorrow, I turn over a whole new leaf. I’m giving all this up for one year. My doctor says I should stop smoking—I’ll stop smoking. Scientists say I should avoid red meat—fine, it’s chicken and veal city. Health experts tell me to eat only natural foods—no problem. I’ll exercise every day. Anything so I don’t have to listen to a million people tell me how I’m digging myself an early grave. For one year, I’m going to be good. Anybody like to join me in my little experiment?”

The silence was deafening. “Don’t you think you’re being a bit hasty?” squeaked a friend from the office.

“You don’t know my sister,” said my sister.

My brother-in-law scooped up a handful of salted popcorn, then opened his hand and let the kernels gently fall back into the bowl. “I’ve eaten fried foods, red meats, candy bars, and colas for 36 years,” he began, “and I don’t intend to stop now, no matter how many rats and monkeys keel over to prove me wrong.”

“Coward!” I yelled merrily.

My best friend scratched her head. “If you’re giving all this stuff up, what are you going to eat?”

“There’s lots of things. Fruits, vegetables—“

“But they’re covered with pesticides and chemicals,” my brother-in-law observed. “You might as well eat bug spray.”

“So I’ll grow my own!”

“In this soil?” he countered. “Half of New York is built on swamps and toxic dumps.”

“I can eat fish. Very healthy.”

“Unless they’re full of mercury and pollution.”

I felt myself weakening and sipped some water for strength. My ex-husband snatched the glass out of my hand. “Unpurified tap water? You won’t last a day drinking that sludge.”

Proudly, I raised my head. “I know what you’re tying to do,” I said sympathetically, “but I’ve made my mind up. I’m going to get healthy if it kills me.”

My determination garnered some mild applause, but the party never got back up to speed. The last guest left at about two A.M., and I started cleaning up. Soon, three bulging trashbags lay near the kitchen sink, each filled with coffee grounds, empty boxes, crumbs, and bones.

I sat down at the kitchen table and made a shopping list. It was the same as my usual list, minus all the things I enjoyed. I braced myself for a year of goat cheese, sunflower seeds, and bee pollen.

All through college, I’d been known as a daretaker, jumping into challenges at the slightest provocation. But this didn’t seem like some silly dare. Success could turn me into a kind of bionic health goddess, and failure would only put me back where I started.

I opened the window and looked out upon a dying city. Taking a deep breath, I felt somehow superior, as if I were keeping a magical secret all to myself. That night I went to bed with a sense of inner strength and hope that I hadn’t felt in years.

I drove to work the next day. The air was damp but not unbearably cold—or maybe I just felt too good to notice. I turned the radio on, only to hear some inane Top 10 tune about young love. I didn’t feel that good, so I hurriedly spun the tuning dial and came to the round-the-clock, all-news station.

“…The body was found in the back seat of an abandoned car on 135th Street. There are no suspects…” I chuckled—always something going on in New York. “…Turning to national news, Congress is expected to approve a bill giving the go-ahead to the construction of ten Stabilizer defense missiles at a cost of over fifty billion dollars per missile. Vermont Senator John McCormick had this to say about the bill…”

The Senator then rambled on about how the missiles were a shocking waste of taxpayers’ money, howe we need to build bridges instead of barriers, and how the United States and Soviet Union can already blow each other to pieces in less than five minutes.

I turned off the radio and drove to the same coffee shop I’d visited the day before. I bought a cup of black coffee and a greasy donut, filled with ersatz chocolate and covered with processed sugar.

A fellow diner pointed to my breakfast and gently cautioned, “Watch out. That stuff’ll kill you.”

“Maybe.” I smiled and dunked the donut in the coffee. “Then again, maybe not.”

******


NOTES & BACKSTORY:

I’ve written very few short stories over the years, and on the basis of this example from 1987, the world isn’t exactly missing much. A couple of lines still give me a smile, though the overuse of adjectives and the unconvincing party scene wouldn’t exactly make this prime New Yorker fodder. I remember writing this while I was working at Playboy magazine (go ahead, make your jokes) and showing it to a young woman working there, hoping to impress her. Her reply was that she could tell instantly that a woman didn’t write this and that I knew very little about women’s behavior and p.o.v. A date was not forthcoming.

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category: short fiction

THE CHINESE RESTAURANT

(c)1986 by David Lefkowitz

 

The clear, open smile that radiated from her face assured Simon Wood that she had never lost any relatives in the Second World War. Her slivery darts of eyes and puffed yellow cheeks were too content, too free to be genetically inherited from a work camp detainee. Simon went so far as to reason that Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant more to him as key events in his fascination with historical tragedies than they ever had to her. He approached the fifty-year-old woman without guilt or trepidation and noted that her face looked like a tangerine behind wax paper; a puckering moon with muted wisps of clouds that were the gray tinges delicately aging her hair.

“Can I help you?” she said. Just like they talk in the movies.

Simon leaned against the counter and enjoyed the feeling of cold, smooth metal against his palms. “Do you have a special. Today. Of some sort?” Out of habit and politeness, Simon felt compelled to keep talking until the other person seemed ready to answer.

The finger she pointed at the homemade cardboard `n’ marker sign might have seemed rude had a patient smile not accompanied and, therefore, overwhelmed its dispassionate boldness. The handwriting was as neat, concise, and yet immature as the language:

SPARE RIB (2)

Egg Roll,

Shrimp Fry Rice…….$3.25

For all his previous thoughts and ruminations, it took this simple, frank little sign to jar Simon’s mind into making the distinction that a CHINESE restaurant would not have a JAPANESE waitress. His embarrassed subconscious replaced black-and-white stills of Iwo Jima with luminous, full-color slides of Chairman Mao.

“Um, what else do you have. Do you have anything else . . . uh, on the lunch menu?” Simon would show her that American Catholics could be humble, too.

With automated grace, the increasingly Chinese woman handed him a tiny list of inexpensive combinations, laminated in clear, flexible plastic. The Shrimp Lo Mein instantly caught his eye, though he went through the trouble of reading the entire list in order to avoid any guilty feelings about putting the woman through more trouble in requesting and obtaining the list than in his actual utilization of it. Simon even turned it over, though he instinctively knew it would be blank.

“Lemme have the, uh, shrimp lo mein . . . that’s letter D.”

“That comes with soup. Hot and sour or egg drop?”

“Egg drop.” Why would anyone want to order something that immediately came right out and told you it was hot and sour?

“Three seventy five,” she smiled and gently retrieved her prized menu. Her foreign accent was easily apparent, although somehow she pronounced her “l”s and “r”s with sufficient accuracy. “Will be ready in a few minute. Please have seat.”

After he had received his change, Simon sat down and discreetly checked his wallet. On paying the woman, he noticed uncomfortably that he was carrying less than he thought he was; less than he felt he needed in case minor emergencies or whims cropped up. He’d spent the better part of a twenty in the local drug store earlier that morning, and Simon’s mind flashed to the unopened bag he tossed onto the kitchen table before he went out again. “Eighteen bucks,” thought Simon. “The richest men in America and they can’t even write legibly.”

The Chinese woman was not looking at him. Natural instincts had trained her to stare at anything else in the room besides her customers. Simon observed this same courtesy towards her, though without a meal in front of him, there was nothing much to see, unless one counted oneself a chronicler of the obligatory: the stark white formica table, complete with gold-tinted cardboard ashtray, one gooey bottle of hot sauce, and one near-empty bottle of soy sauce, both made of glass and topped with a red plastic periscope-hole dispenser.

Simon made a mental note to grab three or four napkins from the front counter when he went to get his lunch. He also felt better about his decision to come here as opposed to Wong’s Wok across the street. If the difference between fast and cheap vs. moderate and moderate was an eyedrop of tea in a china cup and a pair of chopsticks, Simon could easily live with his economically based choice.

In their concentrated attempts not to look at one another, Simon and the Chinese woman exchanged glances at least twice, during which Simon smiled the weak smile that says, “Hi. Everything’s good. I’m not rushing you,” to which her broader smile answered in turn, “It will be ready in a minute. My looking at you was a mistake. Please don’t be self-conscious.”

Two attractive Oriental girls, obviously college students, rose from the next table, wiped their mouths, and deposited their respective trays in the nearby wastepaper—no, garbage can—not garbage can—“what do you call those things?” thought Simon, “with plastic tops and the lids that flap back and forth. It’s not garbage cans; those are metal. Receptacles? No, a place like this doesn’t have `receptacles.’”

The girls passed him on their way out, and one had really pretty long black hair. Shiny, as if she had just washed it. Before Simon could engage in any harmless daydream fantasies, they were out of the restaurant and gone. He followed their figures in the mirror that reflected the street and watched them walk a few steps before they disappeared magically into the mirror’s edge.

They had left their table remarkably clean, and it only took the Chinese woman two wipes with her wet rag to finish the job. Simon watched her as she threw the rag on a stool behind the counter and receded into the dark, shabbily curtained hallway which led to (he imagined . . . and hoped) the kitchen. Had he been a dog, Simon figured, this would have been the moment for him to begin his conditioned salivation. The time on the wall clock corroborated to the minute the time on Simon’s wristwatch, yet he check both repeatedly and would check them again throughout the meal.

Upon seeing the Chinese woman return with a lightly steaming tray of colorful food, Simon uncontrollably flashed back to the menu and suffered the mild panic of wondering whether he had really chosen the right dish after all. The possibility of substituting beef for shrimp had not occurred to him then and, happily, passed quickly and left no disappointing impression on him now. Neither did the tempting spare ribs, which, he reasoned, were probably greasy and devoid of more than one mouthful of meat if scraped together collectively.

Simon delicately lifted the tray from her small rough hands and nodded the way he nodded to all bearers of service, especially Oriental ones. “Enjoy your meal,” she said, making the phrase sound only vaguely like a cliche. As nice as the woman was, it didn’t stop the unspoken response that usually popped into Simon’s head upon hearing that phrase from reintroducing itself: “Well, you prepared it. If it’s any good, I’ll enjoy it. Don’t make your preparation my responsibility.”

“Thanks,” was the only word that actually left Simon’s lips.

It was exactly 2:47.33 when Simon began his meal. He had forgotten the napkins, and his instant correction of that error added 25 seconds to his starting time. Not that he was really in a rush; rather that to Simon, fast food restaurants were for eating fast as well as being quickly served. Any other combination of speed and pace would be jarring and unsettling the type of food that needs all the settling it can get.

Simon dipped a plastic spoon into the soup, expecting it to melt into a curvaceously Dali-esque creation. Not to be second-guessed, however, the spoon obstinately maintained its shape and filled itself with the runny yellow consommé. He blew twice onto the soup and gingerly let it slide into his mouth, vowing thereafter to blow three times. After the sting had left his tongue, Simon decided that the soup was excellent. He would have called it “authentic” had he been able to distinguish authentic originals from their American copies.

As he waded through the murky soup, Simon fixed on authenticity as a time-passing topic of contemplation. He tried to invent distinguishable boundaries: loneliness being authentic, as is lust; boredom and passion being only carbon copies of real emotion. Despair is wholly authentic, ennui not at all, and angst is the misbegotten son of their marriage. Occupied with these pointless intellectual pursuits, Simon Wood finished his egg drop soup quickly, sipping the last quarter cup the way people eating alone always do.

The first thing Simon noticed about his shrimp lo men was the surprising number of shrimp in it. They were small—assuming that anything called a shrimp could be large—like the shriveled pinkies of emaciated old men. Simon glanced at the mirror to view a street that seemed somewhat darker, colder looking, than when he had first entered the tiny establishment. A stocky Hispanic whizzed by on a bright red Schwinn, the kind Simon had had when he was a child, only blue. A couple in their mid-twenties strolled by, never taking their eyes off each other. The woman wasn’t terribly attractive, but when she moved to kiss her lover, Simon snapped his head back to his plate and forced himself to think about something else

Picking off a severed bit of noodle that tenaciously clung to his lower lip, Simon devoted a few seconds to answering honestly how he felt about American foreign policy. Dismissing the problem as too complex to fathom over lunch, and the solution too simple to bother with on this particular afternoon, Simon dropped the subject, forked a shrimp, and turned his head to the waitress. She had piled before her several dozen fresh stringbeans and was deftly removing her tips and tops. She never looked at the particular green she was cutting—she obviously didn’t have to—and she didn’t look at Simon, either. He was therefore able to stare at her for a few seconds before restoring his gaze to his half-finished plate.

Although his stomach began to feel the mellowing sensation of fullness, Simon obliged his habit of eating as much as he could, within reason, when he paid to dine in a restaurant or on those rare occasion when he played the guest to a friendly host. The portion wasn’t huge to begin with, and Simon began to see the white of the plate beneath the greasy cellophane strings of lo mein. “Adequate, if dry and somewhat bland,” thought Simon. All things are, to an extent.

Because he had forgotten to ask for duck sauce early on, Simon felt foolish about asking the Chinese lady for some now, as he was so near the completion of his meal. He shook a little soy sauce onto the neuron-like tangle of noodles that remained, and it helped a bit. The clock read one minute after three o’clock as Simon eased the final ounce into his mouth. It had been a satisfying meal, and Simon congratulated himself on spending his precious time and money so wisely.

For some reason, the Chinese woman seemed more like a stranger to Simon now than when had first walked in. And when she called to him from behind the curtain, asking him with her eyes if the meal was good, and with her voice if he wanted any dessert, he reacted as if some unknown force had inexplicably intruded into the private world of his thoughts and planned actions.

“Thanks,” Simon raised his palm and timidly cast his eyes to the floor. “It was very good.”

The woman smiled the same broad smile with which she had greeted her customer thirty minutes before and then vanished into the black hallway, assumedly to collect another pile of stringbeans.

Simon rose and pulled the heavy down jacket off the back of his chair. The zipper caught several times before he could close it properly, and Simon cleared his throat authoritatively when he had accomplished the task. Bussing his tray, Simon decided on “garbage” as the operative word for the special lid-capped waste bin and gripped the plate tightly so as not to let it fall irretrievably beyond his reach.

It wasn’t as if he was waiting for the Chinese woman to return—she didn’t—when he stopped at the door and took one last quick look around. What was there to see that he hadn’t already observed in his short tenure at the restaurant? The stack of take-out menus, the simple, framed-ink drawings discreetly placed on the walls, the absence of table cloths, the profusion of metal surfaces, smooth and cold, the bright light, the sudden quiet. Simon gripped the door handle and pushed.

Not more than two seconds later, the Chinese woman returned, carrying not stringbeans but refills for the napkin holder. Without so much as a glance at the slowly closing door, she put the bending pile down and snatched the washrag. Silently, she moved to his table and wiped it until nothing remained to hint that anyone had ever been there.

Simon walked quickly back to his apartment, making good time despite a troublesome light on the corner of the Chinese restaurant’s block.

He needed only one glass of water to swallow the pills, though he gagged a little in the beginning. Simon lay down on the couch and tried not to think about anything. This failing him, he closed his eyes and tried to picture the woman in the Chinese restaurant. Already her features had become vague, her movements indistinct. It was twenty minutes to four when Simon Wood finally fell asleep.

When his heart stopped beating an hour later, it was almost as an afterthought.

*

NOTES & BACKSTORY:

The first draft of the story was completed Feb. 5, 1984, with revisions done two years later and the final draft completed Jan. 24, 1986. Despite a preponderance of unnecessary adjectives, there is much about this story I still like, 30-plus years later. I can read through it and find felicitous phrases I actually remember writing—always a good sign. And I like how the minutiae always have an undercurrent of both comedy and dread. Whether it’s New Yorker-worthy… ehhhhmmmm… I wouldn’t say no if they asked.

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TOWARDS A VERY POOR THEATER (Notes to Grotowski’s production of Fiddler on the Roof)

©1985 by David Lefkowitz

Translated by David Lefkowitz

Note: The first (and only) performance of Fiddler on the Roof as directed by Jerzy Grotowski at the Theatre Laboratory in Wroclaw, Poland, took place on 29 February, 1985. The performance, which ran just under six hours, was viewed by an audience of about fifty Poles, dragged in at random off the streets.

The following is Grotowski’s own explanation and appraisal of this major event. – D.N.L.

*

The first obvious question, of course, is why Fiddler? The Teatr-Laboratorium had been planning a musical version of Prometheus Bound, and Peter Brook was suggesting we tackle Oklahoma! and cast a deaf mute in the Joel McCrea role. We’d even gone so far as to call Orson Welles and ask if he wouldn’t mind playing the entire state of Oklahoma.

These were appealing ideas, but they seemed far removed from the emotional and psychological needs of 1980s Poland. I felt we needed something with a soul, something about basic human longings—love, freedom, a home—and about current human tragedies: existential doubt, exile, oppressive governments breathing down your neck until you don’t know what society is coming to and those bastards tear down everything for the good of the state and because they have no conception of how important a free and radical voice is in any society and furthermore —

Sorry.

My natural choice for Tevye was Ryszard Cieslak, who I knew would bring an intense physicalization to the Jewish milkman. Just watching the subtle twitching of his fingers, we sense the wistful frustration of a man who can only sing about being rich and who finds himself poised precariously between the world of today and the world of his fathers. Also, Ryszard has a big nose and never picks up the check in restaurants.

Some controversy was set off by my casting five old and somewhat senile men as Tevye’s daughters. My intention was to stress the ever-crucial link between the vagaries of youth and the mental dissipation inherent in old age. I’m not sure what that link is, but so convincing was the youthful transformation of these decrepit old men, I was sure that if they had walked offstage and out the door during the performance, they would immediately have been molested.

The set, bare except for a backdrop wall made completely of matzoh, was lit with ordinary, fifty-watt light bulbs in order to evoke the dingy everyday world of these Russian peasants. Ryszard suggested sprinkling a layer of sawdust on the floor for authenticity, but I told him, “Ry baby, if you give a truthful performance, the audience will be able to feel the sawdust.” And besides, we had already overshot our twenty-dollar budget on the edible backdrop.

Defying convention, we had the audience seated “on the roof,” as it were, and the fiddler moved through and around the seated spectators as he played the violin (an instrument specially constructed by Nam Jun Paik out of deerskin and whitefish). The audience, therefore, looked down on the action, giving them some sense of distance and superiority, while at the same time knowing that they were in a much more physically precarious position than the actors below. There were some complaints that we made the roof unsteady, but these are just people afraid of risk. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had subconsciously willed the canvas to rip and send the audience and violinist hurtling to the floor, just so they could say, “See! This is what happens when you go too far.”*

Act One. Tevye appears. He is clean shaven and naked, except for a fake Chassidic beard worn over his genitalia. I found this to be a stunning visual metaphor for the earthy, fecund quality of Tevye.

The opening number, “Tradition,” was voiced entirely in grunts and squeals, accompanied by rhythmic, tonal dissonance from the Teatr Orkestr—2 accordions, 3 bongos, and a kazoo. Research and experimentation have proven these to be the most expressive instruments in music, and who can deny the mythic quality of a well-tempered accordion? I certainly can’t.

The villagers join Tevye in his song, only to begin fighting about the story of the horse/mule transaction. Zbigniew Cynkutis, playing the animal, was symbolically torn apart by the arguing villagers, his blood smeared on the doorways of the theater. This overt allusion to the brutality of sacrifice left many people gasping, including Zbigniew, who turned out to be a hemophiliac.**

More violence occurs later on at the wedding of Tzeitel and Motel. Since they actually turn out to be minor characters in this scene, I had them represented on stage by two large pieces of gefilte fish (Motel’s with horseradish). The wedding guests dance around, tossing the fish back and forth. The gaiety continues until the Russian authorities arrive—those evil, cold-hearted scum who think that all art should serve the state when they don’t understand that they’re destroying the state of art and those vicious Soviet martial lawmakers with their —

Sorry.

Anyway, the Russian police arrive and begin the pogrom. It is a harrowing scene: women scream and men cry out in anguish as the strangers overturn chairs, threaten audience members, and spraypaint obscenities on the giant matzoh. As a final metaphoric symbolic gesture of man’s inhumanity to man, the head Russian officer deliberately places the two gefilte fish on the ground and crushes them with his boot heel. Blackout.

Then followed a two-hour intermission in which the audience was not allowed to leave the auditorium, strongly driving home the feeling of being trapped by one’s circumstances and at the mercy of one’s captors. Gefilte fish was passed around from the actors to the audience in a sort of transubstantiatory communion with the souls of these young Anatevka newlyweds.

The second act begins with Tevye standing halfway up a ladder between heaven and earth: the ground and the roof. He moves up or down a few rungs, depending on the decisions he makes regarding Hodel and Chava, his other daughters. I saw audience members weeping openly when Tevye made that one painful step upward and rejected his daughter for marrying a goy. The only time Tevye got off the ladder was at the very end, when Russian authorities force him to tread on the lowly ground and leave his home forever.

Some critics objected to my having the song “Anatevka” played off-stage on a tape recorder, and performed by the American rock and roll group, Twisted Sister. But this is nothing more an a logical extension of the idea of modernism, in both its good and bad incarnations, devouring the old and pressing forward towards the future.

When the show was over, we let the audience out and asked for their comments. Surprisingly, they remained quiet. Even after repeated coaching, they refused to respond. What was heartening, though, was when I woke up the next morning to find that a Jewish star had been burned on my front lawn.

Obviously, I had touched a nerve, a resonant chord. Some inner truth had been mined and caused people to react in similarly theatrical fashion. My only regret regarding this production was not being able to get Zero Mostel. I had applied for a permit to dig up his corpse and hang him on wires from the ceiling, acting as the deity looking down on the proceedings below. This would also have made a devastating social comment on traditional, commercial forms of theater being replaced by the newer, poorer, more experimental theater of today. However, as I said, the permit was denied.***

Right now, I am deeply involved in my next project. I plan to travel to America and stage Alban Berg’s atonal opera Lulu, featuring Jim Henson’s muppets. The Circle Repertory in New York has expressed some interest in the piece, as long as I stay within the realm of lyric naturalism.

We shall see.

___________________

* I am unable to comment on this matter any further as lawsuits are still pending. 

** I am unable to comment on this matter any further as lawsuits are still pending. 

*** I am unable to comment on this matter any further as lawsuits are still pending.

****************

NOTES & BACKSTORY:

From my 1985 promo sheet on the story: “This short story tackles the `What If’ question: what if experimental Polish director Jerzy Grotowski directed an avant-garde production of Fiddler on the Roof?

Here, in his own words, Grotowski takes us through the process of selecting the play, staging it, and coping with the rather violent reaction to it. After all, who else would give us Tevye’s daughters represented on stage by pieces of gefilte fish? Who else would construct an entire backdrop out of matzoh? And who else would give us the touching farewell ballad, `Anatevka,’ as performed by an American heavy-metal rock band

You don’t have to be familiar with Grotowski’s book, Towards a Poor Theater, to appreciate this good-natured ribbing of the radical avant-garde. This story is for anyone who’s ever been to a play they didn’t understand, weren’t supposed to understand, and who found themselves sleeping through `great art.’

`Towards a Very Poor Theater’ is a hilarious peek at the Theater of (Extreme) Cruelty. If only the plays were this much fun.”

In posting this piece years later on this archival website, I did make one change. The second footnote (about Zbigniew) originally read “He is recovering nicely and has absolutely no regrets about giving his all for his art. As he put it, `What the fuck?’” But now I think it’s just funnier to restate the line about the lawsuits.

I still enjoy this piece a lot and find it funny how much closer to reality the absurd directorial conceits in the story have come. Recent liberties taken—on Broadway, no less—with King Lear, Oklahoma!, King Kong and by auteur directors like Ivo van Hove show that some of the spoofery here was really just ahead of its time.

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FICTION – SHORT – HUMOROUS: John Smith University

JOHN SMITH UNIVERSITY

(c)1984 David Lefkowitz

 

JOHN SMITH UNIVERSITY

Bulletin

a private person in the public service

The birth of JOHN SMITH in 1940 was an event generally overlooked by the world at large. His founders, Joseph and Jane Smith, intended to create a well-rounded individual who would eventually grow to make his mark upon society.

What significance, if any, Mr. Smith has had in this regard is subject to ongoing debate and study. This university is committed to the challenge of understanding this man via the facts and factors of his life. It is in this way, and in this way only, that we may hope to have some small insight into the phenomenon that was JOHN SMITH.

CALENDAR

1939: Joseph Smith and wife Jane copulate, resulting in

1940: Birth of John Smith. Staten Island, NY.

1941: First word: “mommy.”

1943: Party for third birthday. Eats too much cake and is sick.

1944: Enrolls in P.S. 146.

1947: Transfers to William Henry Harrison Elementary, a private school.

1951: Two-month quarantine for hepatitis.

1953: Family moves to Queens, NY. Enrolls in Queens Junior High School.

1954: First date. Wins class Math Bee. Fails Spanish.

1955: Passes Spanish. Fails geometry. Second date.

1956: Enrolls in Queens High School North. Part-time job in local candy store.

1957: Caught stealing candy bar from store. Reprimanded but not fired.

1958: First car. Wins award for excellence in Spanish.

1959: Satisfactorily completes high school course of study. Enrolls in University of Florida. Majors in Liberal Arts.

1961: Changes major to Communications with a minor in Languages. First sexual experience.

1962: Graduates from University of Florida. Gains weight. Takes minor position at small company in New Jersey.

1965: Gets engaged to Mary Williams.

1966: Marries Mary Williams. Major promotion. Suffers hernia.

1969: Death of mother.

1971: Takes important position at small company in Boston. Tests show wife Mary to be infertile.

1973: John and Mary separate. Gains weight.

1974: John and Mary reunited.

1975: Becomes Vice-President of Housewares, Inc.

1979: Listed in Massachusetts Who’s Who.

1981: Death of brother in car accident. First grey hair.

1982. Second honeymoon in Bahamas.

1984: Brief affair with unmarried lawyer. Death of father.

1987: IRS investigates back taxes of Housewares, Inc. Stock plummets but slowly recovers.

1988: Undergoes root canal.

1990: Undergoes minor depression. Stops smoking. Gains weight.

1991: Housewares, Inc. featured in article in business section of the New York Times. Stock takes off.

1992: Purchases land in Florida.

1993: Heart attack. Death of John Smith.

COURSE OFFERINGS

JS39-0001: INTRODUCTION TO JOHN SMITH

General survey of pre-birth family history and conditions. Embryonic-fetal period. Birth.

Christening. Fundamental sensory and motor development. Genetic makeup.

Midterm and Final.

JS39-0002: JOHN SMITH: THE BEGINNING

In-depth analysis of conception, gestation through birth. Problems posed: Why Caesarean? Was conception intentional or due to laziness or a subconscious mix of both? What was John Smith like as a fetus? Breastfeeding: did it lead to strength or weakness of character?

There will be several required screenings.

JS40-0003: JOHN SMITH: THE EARLY YEARS

(pre-requisite: JS39-0001 or JS39-0002 or the equivalent) Attempts to trace early patterns and traits to their subsequent fruition later in life: weight problem, ease with the tactile, need for affection, onslaught of words, contact with peer group.

Required reading: Mother Goose, My First ABC Book.

JS41-0004: FUNDAMENTAL OF LANGUAGE

Covers the first five hundred words understood and enunciated by John Smith. Special emphasis on syllables, guttural sounds, and short vowels. Words include: mommy, daddy, no!, hot, stop, don’t, please, TV.

JS41-0004B: SEMINAR: LANGUAGE ARTS

One-day seminar in conjunction with JS-0004. Deals with John Smith’s first use of the word “fuck” and its consequences. Selected readings from the work of David Mamet.

JS44-0005: EDUCATION I

Overview of the William Henry Harrison years, including the following: nap time, the Pledge of Allegiance, constant disappearance of chalk, papier mache, fire drills, crush on Mrs. Merrow.

Special guests will include: Mr. Wurtner, the yeller; Nice Mrs. Pegner, Mr. Connelly, the mean gym teacher.

Field Trip (optional) to Gimbels in Staten Island (constructed in 1968 after the school was torn down).

JS45-0006: BLONDES, BULLIES, AND BATHROOMS

Freeform class discussing Smith’s first heartthrobs and nemeses. Also covered: Smith’s fear of public bathrooms and embarrassing incidents in class.

JS51-0007: INTRODUCTION TO DISEASE

Visiting Doctor Saul Cohen will cover in depth Smith’s weight problem and bout with hepatitis, and how they may have taken their physical toll much later in life.

Required reading: A collection of “Get Well” cards from Mrs. McCollom’s class.

JS55-0008: THE LEARNING PROCESS

(open only to juniors and seniors)

Cursory overview of Math, American History, Spanish, English, Industrial Arts, Biology, and other subjects studied by Smith.

Preparatory work before the first day of class is recommended.

JS56-0009: CRIME – RING AROUND THE WHITE COLLAR

The sociological causes that led John Smith to steal six Hershey Bars in 1957. Was the punishment too lenient? Did it lead to a later erosion of values? Why Hershey Bars and not the more expensive Charleston Chews?

Midterm and Final. Failure will result in criminal prosecution.

JS56-0010: EDUCATION II

Overview of the Queens High School North years, including: free mods, Advanced Pledge of Allegiance, overhead projectors, report cards, green macaroni with grey cheese.

Special guests will include: Tom Kelloran – bully, now member of United States Senate; Loretta Salroy – cute redhead. Mr. Feltonblau – the mean gym teacher.

JS61-0011: SEX EDUCATION I

In-depth probes: first kiss, masturbatory guilt, erections during European History, casual touching of female breasts.

Some questions asked: Why not? Can I use my tongue? Your parents won’t be back until when? Couldn’t you just, like, touch it? What’s wrong with the couch? W-H-E-N???

Screenings and photo exhibition.

Note: Early registration advised as this course is usually filled quickly.

JS62-0012: BUSINESS I

Survey of Smith’s career as secretary at Palomo, Inc., New Jersey, manufacturer of shoe and sneaker laces. Concentrates on Smith’s development because of and despite such colleagues as: the boss, the boss’s son, the boss’s nephew, the entire payroll department.

Field trip to Palomo, Inc. for their annual Christmas party.

JS63-0013; COMMITMENT I

Psychological examination of John Smith’s choice to marry Mary Williams. Why did he wait until he was 26 years old? Was living together an option? Did Smith’s parents approve? Was it true about Mary and the school football team?

Short essays, Final.

Relationships helpful but not required.

JS63-0013B: SEMINAR – CEREMONY AND CELEBRATION

Weekend seminar in conjunction with JS63-0013.

Screenings of MOS films covering John Smith’s marriage ceremony and the catered reception that followed.

Topics covered: the undercooked roast beef, sociology and seating arrangements, Uncle Bill’s disgusting jokes. And why was the band so loud?

Refreshments will be served, but students are requested to bring their own cake.

JS69-0014: MORTALITY I

The death of Jane Smith left a profound effect on her son’s life. Special stress on the funeral, the burial, price of the coffin, the mourning process, overcoming grief. Attendance is mandatory.

JS70-0015: JOHN SMITH: THE MIDDLE YEARS

(pre-requsite: JS40-0003 or the equivalent)

Uses 1966-71 as turning-point years in the life of John Smith. His mother’s death is seen as foreshadowing his own, his marriage is compared and contrasted to that of his parents, and his hernia will be carefully examined.

Required reading: Selected works of John O’Hara, Dr. Spock’s Baby Book, Infertility: An Explanation.

JS74-0016: COMMITMENT II

Psychological examination of John Smith’s separation from and subsequent reunion with his wife Mary. Where was the problem and what was its resolution? When did they stop sleeping together? Was it true about Mary and the local Knights of Columbus?

Short essays, oral reports, and extended fights about nothing in particular.

JS75-0017: BUSINESS II

Covers John Smith’s rise through the ranks at Housewares, Inc. The move from New Jersey to Boston was a successful one, but did the marriage suffer because of it? Did John Smith ever actually buy anything from Housewares, Inc.? Was he the prime candidate for the vice-presidency, or was he just in the right place at the right time?

Required reading: Tax returns for Housewares, Inc., 1971-1987.

JS81-0018: PERSONHOOD

John’s recognition as an S.I.P. (Somewhat Important Person) and the death of his brother Jack were minor events in his life, yet they help define his character and place in society. Professor Gannitz analyzes why John Smith felt the most alone when the most people knew his name.

Field trip to a funeral in Staten Island. Dress optional.

JS84-0019; SEX EDUCATION II

Job stress and infertility are emphasized as major factors leading to the separation of John and Mary Smith.

In-depth probes: halitosis, performance anxiety, lack of desire, weight gain.

Some questions asked: Why not? What’s wrong with a little kinky? Do you ever feel like it? Why bother?

JS84-0020: FULFILLMENT

Four major events in John Smith’s life are covered: his second honeymoon, his affair, the death of his father, the tax investigation. Professor Caldwell makes broad generalizations in a vain attempt to tie these events together. Special emphasis given to how cheating on one’s wife and cheating on one’s taxes are essentially the same.

Required: vivid imagination and long attention span.

JS85-0021: COLLOQUIUM: ETHICS

(open only to those who have successfully completed JS75-0017 and have attempted something illegal within the last four years)

What makes a man steal from a candy store? What makes him steal from the government? Was John Smith committing anti-social acts, or was he just getting ahead the best way he knew how?

No attendance taken because we trust you.

JS88-002: HEALTH

(pre-requisite: JS51-0007)

Plagued throughout his life by physical ailments, John Smith, in his later years, confirms the connection between external events and internal ability. Visiting Professor Karsenblatt traces Smith’s rotting tooth to his tax difficulties at Housewares, Inc. Achieving this, he hopes to prove that a harrowing root canal led to Smith’s bout with depression, which in turn led to a generous weight gain, which inevitably let to a fatal heart attack which inevitably killed him.

Note: Students are advised that Professor Karsenblatt will not tolerate any concepts that do not directly support his thesis.

JS91-0023: INTRODUCTION TO JOURNALISM

Twice in his lifetime, John Smith’s career (if not his emotional well-being) received a tremendous boost from the printed medium. A mid-life listing in “Who’s Who: forever removed him from the ranks of utter anonymity, and the famous New York Times article of 1991 allowed him to live his last years in financial security.

Many consider these events to be the ultimate assessment of John Smith’s standing in society. Associate Professor Jenzi goes even further by asserting that Smith never achieved fame or contentment because he never appeared on television.

Required reading: McLuhan, Warhol, TV Guide.

JS93-0024: JOHN SMITH: THE LAST DAY

On May 8, 1993, John Smith woke up, put on his slippers, went to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, took a shower, went downstairs, kissed his wife and ate her scrambled eggs, took several vitamins with his juice, went back upstairs, and got dressed, went back downstairs and kissed his wife again, forgot his lunch, drove to work, paid the toll, typed three memos, dictated two letters, went out to lunch, probably left too big a tip, held a short meeting, made half a dozen phone calls, drank two cups of black coffee, argued with a sales rep, went to the bathroom, paid the toll, drove him, forgot to kiss his wife, ate her spaghetti, opened the mail, wrote three checks, had a snack, watched an hour of television, went upstairs, undressed, went to the bathroom, got into bed and watched another hour of television, fell asleep, and never woke up.

The aim of this course is to examine these events individually and collectively to discover in what ways they not only foreshadow Smith’s death but mirror his entire life. (Course open only to Advanced Seniors.)

JS93-0025: MORTALITY II

The death of John Smith. Who and what was left behind? Did he really die “young?” Was he prepared for the end? Did it really matter in the great scheme of things?

Field trip to the cemetery where John Smith is buried.

(Bring a boxed lunch.)

***********************

ALMA MATER

O, man among men

Unspoken, unspoken

O spirit of mortals

Unbroken, unbroken

One brief, earthly sojourn

A bright shining star

We hail thee, John Smith,

Whoever you are.

O. hero anonymous

Ever forever

Your light cannot die

Never forever

One life in the world

that time can’t undo

Thee still we remember
John Smith,

who are you?

**************************

UNIVERSITY LOGO

John Smith university is open to anybody. Anybody at all.

****************

NOTES & BACKSTORY:

From my original notes to the piece: “The format of this short story is, quite literally, that of a college catalogue. We learn about the life of John Smith, a run-of-the-mill everyman, in dry, perfunctory detail, from a calendar of major events in his personal history.

The University’s course listings follow, each class examining an aspect of John Smith’s psyche and career. It soon becomes clear that his life has been almost tragically average and empty, despite the outer trappings of success.

The story closes with the school alma mater (where would a college be without one?), a biting send-up of the Latinate dirges we all know and love.

My Synopsis: John Smith University takes an unusual approach to an age-old literary question— the examination of life—and comes up with some funny, sad, all-too-human answers.”

Creepiest thought: Reading this piece, finished on Nov. 18, 1984, in 2019, I realize I have already outlived John Smith.

NOTE: I can’t draw the university’s logo on here, but it’s the Mars symbol with a question mark inside it and an arrow pointing out of it. 

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