Redbone’s interpretation is slightly off-kilter: the intonation struggles in places, and there are extra beats sprinkled throughout. But I love it. Its off-balance rhythmic irregularities, the nasal grit in Redbone’s voice, the imperfect instrumental tones and pitches feel fresh and authentic. They transform a great song into a greater one.
My mother was a perfectionist. Today we would likely say her attention to detail was compulsive. But that compulsiveness got her far, made her successful at everything she did. Although I’ve spent most of life as an unapologetic underachiever, I have no doubt that some of her “perfectionism” rubbed off on me. You can’t spend hours practicing scales and arpeggios, isolated musical passages over and over without being at least a little compulsive. It’s the only way to train the brain, develop fine motor skills, make the muscles remember.
But it’s not always enough.
Along with compulsive tendencies, creation demands an oblique and often fractured perspective, a willingness to look at subject matter, construction, sideways and through a prism.
When I think of the thousands of books I’ve read, pieces of music I’ve played, I realize most of them contained errors and/or irregularities, some degree of strangeness in small or large ways that established the works as fresh and unique, that transformed and elevated them.
So I keep my error in place, because in important ways, it acts as a type of cipher. And to reinforce its importance, I put a prism in plain view.
I returned to New York in August of ‘91 with five hundred dollars to my name (all that was left from the royalties on my surrealism film, money I’d saved while teaching, and a surprisingly large option on a Jungle Thriller I’d written as a joke), direct from my breakup with Ricky Mahoney, looking for God-knows-what from the city and my family. I’d say I was thinking that a change from L.A.’s brand of insanity might do me good, or that my mother’s homemade chicken soup, Max’s good-natured pep-talks, and Lisa’s insistence that having my hair colored and styled would make me feel better, but that would be a lie. The sad fact is, when I left the West Coast for the East, I wasn’t thinking at all. All I had going for me was brain-stem activity, and even that was minimal. The only reason I managed to get on the right plane was because the same friend who had convinced me to fly out to L.A. put me on it. I vaguely remember an arm around my waist and the feeling of falling into a seat and seeing someone’s hands fussing with a clasp in the vicinity of my crotch. I also remember telling the person who was fussing not to bother with the chastity belt because I knew how to pick the locks. The next thing I recall is coming to in a hospital room. Max was standing at my bedside and Lisa was pacing madly beside him.
“You should have left her on the plane.”
“I couldn’t. They would have taken her to a state hospital. You don’t want her in a place like that.”
“No, Max. I’m sick to death of the way she keeps dragging us into her messes, and the way you get Crusher to leap into action to save her. For once, she could have at least had the courtesy to get strung out on the other side of the country.”
“Keep your voice down.”
“Who’s listening? The nurses? The doctors? They have better things to do.”
“What about Ida Mae? She might hear you.”
I quickly shut my eyes.
“Or your mother. She could show up any minute.”
Lisa said, “What?”
“I said, your mother might hear you.”
“You told our mother?” she said. “My mother that Ida Mae was here? In the hospital? That she was….”
“Don’t worry. I didn’t tell Edna why Ida Mae was here. I just said she collapsed at the airport, probably from exhaustion. I thought your folks would want…”
“Of course. I mean, Ida Mae is their darling, isn’t she? Why wouldn’t they want to know why she didn’t come to see them the second she landed? Exhaustion. I protect Ida Mae and myself and end up being a schlemiel. They’ll carry on about how sensitive she is and I’ll get shoveled away like a pile of soaked kitty litter.”
“That’s not true.”
“Oh, no? You wait and see what happens when they get here. You wait.”
And then I caught a whiff of Chanel and stuffed cabbage, and heard my mother’s voice slice through the room. “How is she?”
I opened my eyes. My mother was bending over me, laying her palm on my forehead, and grasping my wrist to check for signs of life.
“She’s slee…” Lisa moved next to her and got a look at me. “I guess she’s awake.”
“Mom, Lisa, Max.” I smiled weakly. “Hi.”
My mother leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, nearly smothering me with her chest in the process. Then she sat on the bed. “Look at all these tubes. Gevalt. So why didn’t you come home before you got sick?”
“I’m sorry.” I looked past her to Max. He had this sad, lopsided smile on his face. Lisa’s back was to me. “Where’s Dad?”
“Looking for a spot.” Lisa swiveled around. “Why didn’t he just go into the lot?”
My mother turned so she could see Lisa. “I told him that, but you know your father. ‘What? I’m going to pay twenty dollars to a hospital to visit my daughter there? Don’t they charge enough already for the room?’ Who can argue with him?” She shifted her focus back to me. “So, are they feeding you enough? You look so tired. What did you have for lunch?”
“I don’t know. What does it say on the bag I’m hooked to?”
Max laughed and Lisa shot him a glare. “That’s not funny.”
“Sure it is, Leese. C’mon.”
I took Mom’s hand just to annoy her. “So, Max, did you guys get a cat? I thought I heard Lisa say something about kitty litter.”
“What’s this?” Mom pulled away from me and zoomed in on Lisa. “A cat with the baby? Are you meshugah? It could smother her.”
“Ma, the baby is five years old.” I swear, if Lisa had had a gun at that moment, she would have used it on me.
Max cut in. “Edna, Lisa told me you went to see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Met yesterday. How did you like it?”
“It was wonderful.” My mother, who could be distracted no matter who was in the hospital, said, “We loved it…and we would have seen the whole thing, but we were parked at a half-hour meter.”
It was about then that my father showed up, having found a great spot two blocks away at another half-hour meter. As a result of the parking situation, I didn’t see much of them while I was in the hospital, which is just as well. It made it easier to sustain the lie.
I’m looking forward to digging into this collection and seeing Martin Espada’s poem from (AFTER)life, published by Purple Passion Press, inside!
Welcome to the latest Pushcart Prize collection: 71 selections from 50 presses illustrating the diversity of topics in today’s fiction and nonfiction. With a turn of the page, readers are taken from a kitchen table in Minneapolis to a country club neighborhood in Atlanta, and on to a library in Texas. The working poor, the rich, the ambitious, the dedicated, and the uninspired are all represented in the essays, short stories, and poetry. The exceptional quality of writing has earned each author, whether emerging or established, a seat in the Pushcart arena. Doug Crandell’s essay “Winter Wheat” chronicles his youth working in his family’s fields and the relationship he and his brothers build with Kenny, a new neighbor, who dies in a farming accident. “Dr. J” by Kalpana Narayanan explains the author’s experience returning to her parent’s home where she and her father each decide to write books. Lisa Taddeo’s short story “Forty-Two” introduces the philosophies of a self-described beautiful older woman, Joan, who prefers younger men. Poetry selections include “Hurricane Song” by Cecily Parks, which focuses on love and safety in the forest. VERDICT As always, this annual publication is highly recommended for literary collections as a celebration of talent and creative expression.—Joyce Sparrow, Kenneth City, FL
Sept. 7, 2016
Forty-one and counting: the latest installment of the literary prize volume delivers, as ever, with abundance and occasional splendor.The Pushcart franchise fires on all cylinders, bringing in work by relative newcomers as well as old hands. Sometimes this causes a bit of whiplash. How, after all, can a novice fictionist compete with the likes of “He lived in a world of grease, and no matter how often he bathed, which was once a day, rigorously—and no shower but a drawn bath—he smelled of carnitas, machaca, and the chopped white onion and soapy cilantro he folded each morning into his pico de gallo”? That’s T.C. Boyle, exulting in the pages of Kenyon Review in gritty details and food porn, and his precisely observed approach sets a standard that not all of the pieces gathered here meet. On the nonfiction side, originally writing in Granta, Barry Lopez sets a similarly high bar, earnest and instructive: “Over the years traveling cross-country with indigenous people I absorbed two lessons about how to be more fully present in an encounter with a wild animal.” Those two lessons might save someone’s life, worth the price of admission of the prize anthology, or they might simply inspire some other fine writer on nature and/or fact. One such scribe is Eric Wilson, whose memoir of an eccentric Faroese writer is restrained but affecting; allowing for the rather flat short story that precedes it, it makes a good start to a long and overstuffed volume. Indeed, that flatness seems a desideratum in the workshop-ish phylum (“After seven weeks at college, it still felt funny to Chandra to wear shower shoes, which were highly recommended to avoid fungus”), but nothing some time with the likes of Martin Espada, Elizabeth Scanlon, and Jenn Shapland can’t take care of. There’s something for everyone here, and anyone with an interest in contemporary letters will want to see the venerable Pushcart’s picks.