A Writer’s Life



Jerome Turken

On his way home from work Lou Morris stopped by his folks to drop off the vacuum cleaner bags his mother had asked him to pick up for her.

“Stay for supper,” his mother said. “I’m making lamb chops and french fried.”

“I already ate, ma,” he said.


“Where do you eat?  In a restaurant.”

“You and your restaurants.”

“Me and my restaurants.  I eat all right, ma.”

“You can eat all right all you want,” his mother said.  “It doesn’t stop ptomaine poisoning if all your eating all right is done in restaurants.  And you don’t get nutrition.  Margo called.  She said to call her back right away if you happen to come, it’s important.”

“What is she calling here for?” Lou said. “I told her never to call here.”

“You’re afraid she’ll tell me something I don’t know?”

“Yeah, I’m afraid she’ll tell you about all our sex orgies.”

“Don’t be such a comedian,” his mother said.

“Where’s daddy?”

“He went down to get the papers.”

“He shouldn’t do too much walking in this heat,” Lou said.

“You know how many times I told him?” his mother said.  “But you know your father.  He has a head like a rock.”

He went to the foyer to make the call.  As he was dialing his father came in.  Lou raised a forefinger that said he’ll be right with him.

“Were you thinking of me?” Margo said.

“I think of you plenty,” he said.  A pause.  “Margo?  Are you still there?”

“You know what I’m doing right now?” she said coyly


“Playing with my nipples,” she said.

“That’s what you called to tell me?”  Another pause.  “My mother and father are within a few feet of me and you’re getting me all worked up?” he said.  “Saturday I’ll play with them.”

 “Call me when you get home?”

His father had lit a cigar and was parked in his chair reading the papers.

He looked up when Lou hung up.  “How are you doing?”

“I’m doing all right, dad.

“How’s your job going?”


“How’s your car running?” his father said.

“Like a charm, dad, everything’s fine with me.

“So did you make any money off of your stories yet?” his father said.

“Maybe your father wants to be your financial advisor now,” his mother said on her way to the bedroom.

“Will you listen to the things your mother comes out with?” his father said.

“I just started submitting, dad,” Lou said.  “I only wrote four stories so far, and they’re probably not as good as I think.  Besides, you only get a few bucks if they accept a story.  Sometimes they don’t even pay.”

A little dip of his father’s head with diverted eyes. More of my mishugoss, eh, daddy?  Change the subject.

“How are you doing?” Lou said. “You’re taking your blood pressure pills like clockwork, aren’t you?”

“Sure I’m taking them,” his father said.  “What’s the matter with you?”

“Just remember what Dr. Spector said.  It’s important, dad.”  He went to his father and bent to half-hug him.  “I gotta run.  I have something doing tonight.”

He went into the small bedroom to say good-bye to his mother.  She was folding some sheets and pillow cases on his old bed.  In a corner at the foot of the bed his Taylor Cub was still hanging, its white craft paper aged and sagging.  Spent hours upon hours on those things, going half blind cutting balsa wood slivers that kept on breaking on me.  Think it was the smell of the glue that gave me the stamina to deal with all that delicacy for all those hours. To finally get a lopsided Taylor Cub covered with stained craft paper.

“So long, mom,” he said.  “Maybe I’ll drop over Sunday for lunch.  I’ll call you.”

She extended her cheek for him to kiss.

Outside there was a long, low roll of thunder and the cool gusts were refreshing after the heat of the day.  Before starting the car he again fingered the delicate sheerness of the multi‑colored kerchief that Margo had left behind on the front seat.  He brought the kerchief to his nose and sniffed the lingering smell of her hair and instantly conjured up the flesh scent of her warm, ready body. The scent that can’t be denied, the harbinger of good things to come.  .  Riding along Eastern Parkway the rain came in a sudden downpour.  He left his windows open.  Aspects of Margo.  The cool spray seemed to vivify the pictures of her in his heat-dulled head.  Her lips softly skin‑grazing my face.  It’s so nice, don’t stop.  Going upstairs, tickling the backs of her knees, wiggling and giggling, then laughing straight from the gut with that resonant cluck.  Goosey.  In the movies crossing her legs and guiding my hand. On the toilet seat peeing.  Last night on the kitchen ladder reaching for the wine glasses in the cupboard, her dress rising on her thighs as she stretches and my hand rising to the dimples behind her knee like an insect drawn to light.

Why do you always keep them so high up?

To look up your dress, why else? grazing and stroking her abundant, yielding thigh upward, higher, higher.

Where are you going, you’re tickling me, wait till I get down, her body limp, grasping the shelf to steady herself.  Wait.  W—  Silence.  Then a faltering murmur: I have my period.

You do?

That night with the lox.  Margo, would you do me a little favor?


Wash your hands?  And then I’m holding a rock in my arms.


They have a smell of lox.

I washed them.

Wash them again?  They still have a slight smell.

She gets up and I watch that jiggly movement of hers as she walks to the bathroom.

He picks exactly the right moment to tell me my hands stink of lox.  Boy, you are quirky.

Your smell is important to me when we’re making love, Margo.  It acts like an aphrodisiac.

Oh, I see.

She’s still in her panties, stockings and pumps and I think half the reason I asked her to wash her hands was, it turns me on watching her walk around half naked like that, her ass shifting and quivering in her panties.  Margo, Margo, Margo, under me, on top of me, getting undressed, dressed, pulling her stockings up, straightening their seams.

In my arms, her back to the full‑length mirror in the bathroom, watching the reflected heft of her restless buttocks, her legs semi‑buckled, the seams of her stockings not quite straight.

Red light!  He was almost in the intersection when he noticed it.  He hit the brake, and then the squeal of tires on pavement behind him and the sickening bang and his head whipped back. “Sonofabitch!”  He sat a moment cursing.  Now damage and hassles with insurance companies and accident reports.  He put the car into neutral and pulled the hand break and got out.

The driver was already out of the car, a late model Cadillac, looking at his grille, his hands cupping his head, wailing, “Motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker.  James is going to kill me.”  The grille and a headlight of the car were smashed in.  The rear of Lou’s car seemed to have no damage at all.

“So what do you want to do?” Lou said. “You want to exchange licenses and registrations?”

“James is going to kill me.”  He was a black kid, no more than fifteen, sixteen.  He was nodding, as if to corroborate his own words.  “He’s going to kill me, he’s going to kill me.  I’m a dead man, a dead man,” half crying now, ”Motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker.  He’s going to put a knife right through my head.”  He seemed in a swoon, his eyes rolling, his body swaying.  “I’m a dead man.  I’m a dead man.”

Lou stood there watching him go on like that.  By now both were soaked.  Suddenly the kid broke into a run.  He dashed across Eastern Parkway and disappeared into a side street.

What do I do now?  Just ride away?  A bit of a jam had developed behind him by drivers changing lanes to get around the accident or slowing down to gape at it.  He got into his car and sat there and waited.  It took about ten minutes for the cops to show up.  They parked behind the other car with their lights flashing.  He explained what happened and one of the cops proceeded to fill out a report.

“What do I do now?” he said.

“Go home and wait,” the cop filling out the report said.

“For what?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe for nothing.  Maybe James’ll find the kid and actually kill him for all we know.  It could happen.  In that case you’ll hear from the District Attorney.”  He winked at the other cop.

“Are you going to file a claim?” the other cop said.

“I didn’t get hurt and my car wasn’t damaged.”

“You better report it to your insurance company in case the other guy turns up and makes a claim,” the first cop said.  “He’ll probably report the car stolen.”

“You don’t have to worry,” the second cop said.  “If you get hit in the rear it’s never your fault.  The kid probably didn’t even have a driver’s license.”

At his apartment house as soon as he entered the hall the super’s door opened and his short, round hulk appeared in underwear.  “I gotta talk to you about something,” he said. “Mrs. Insler says your typing at night still disturbs her.”

“It still disturbs her?” Lou said. “I put a cushion under the typeweiter.”

“Well, she says it don’t do much good.  It still disturbs her.  I know she’s a pain in the ass, but do me a favor and cut it down a little.  I don’t want no trouble from no one, so use a little more discretion.”

“All right,” Lou said.  “I’ll use a little more discretion.”

“Please,” the super said.

Upstairs he got out of his damp clothing and took a shower.  Margo’s paraphernalia was all over the place. Have to talk to her about that.  Her shampoo on the shower rack, three different hair conditioners, her hair this and her hair that.  Her brushes on the water tank cover, a spare diaphragm, her tampax.  Last night.  Gets even hornier.

So what?  It’s almost over, there’s hardly any  bleeding.  Come on, you can use a condom.  You have condoms, don’t you?  Sometimes goes into such a frenzy of heat and orgasm it amazes me.

Margo, what is it like?  What do you feel?

Why do you want to know?

I just want to know, I have a writer’s curiosity.  I might use it some time.

It’s like a nice, like things—it’s indescribable. Can you describe how yours feels?

Brownish blood on the rubber, nothing fazes her.  It’s sooo nice.  She’s in ecstasy.

Her douche was hanging on a hook over the bathtub. Keeps me busy.  Putting away, putting back.  Her own drawer, her things hanging in the closet. Complete changes of clothing.  Casual wear, dress wear.  A few weeks ago he had put her stuff out of sight on the possibility that he might meet someone interesting at a concert he went to—who knows, things happen.  Then when he put her things back he forgot the douche.  Comes out of the bathroom, something is on her mind.  Gets quiet, doesn’t  look at me.

Is something the matter?


What is it?

Nothing.  But on her face is a betrayed expression that in a matter of seconds resolves to defiance with a little hurt in it.  Now she’s looking at me with eyes of steel.  Listen, you better tell me if you’re seeing someone else.

What are you talking about?

You’re seeing another girl, aren’t you?

How did you come to that conclusion?

Why did you take my douche out of the bathroom?

For crissake, Margo, what you think, no one is allowed in my apartment but you?  My mother dropped by with something I had to sign.  That’s all she has to see is a douche hanging in my shower.  It’s in the second drawer from the bottom.

He got into pajamas and took the cover off his old Underwood.  Use a little more discretion.  He put the pillow under it and folded up his blanket and stuffed it around the sides and back, then sat down.  His last page was still in the carriage.  ‘The stairs squeaked and groaned as they went down.  Coming up she hadn’t noticed it.’ Are you a writer?

The door bell rang.  When he opened the door a plump half bald man was looking at him with a growl in his eyes under a heavy growth of black brow.

Lou regarded him a moment.  “What can I do for you?” he said.

“Are you the one who’s doing all the typing?” the man said.

“Who are you?” Lou said.

“My name is Sol Insler,” the man said. “Mrs. Insler downstairs below you happens to be my mother.”

“What can I do for you?” Lou said.

“I’ll get right to the point,” Sol Insler said. “My mother says you make so much noise all day with that typing you’re driving her crazy.”

“She told you that?” Lou said.

“That’s what she told me,” Sol Insler said.

“That’s not true,” Lou said.  “I’m at work during the day.”

“My mother don’t lie.”

“She may not lie, but it’s not true that I type during the day,” Lou said.  “On weekdays I go to work.  And when I do type I make every effort to muffle the sound.  I put a pillow under my typewriter.”

“Well, it looks like a pillow is not good enough,” Sol Insler said.

“A pillow is not good enough?” Lou said.

“A pillow is not good enough,” Sol Insler said.

“How old is your mother, Sol?” Lou said.

“Eighty‑one.  What’s that got to do with it?”

“Eighty one,” Lou said.  “She’s not a youngster anymore, Sol.  You know, when you get older the mind gets a little rickety.  It happens to everyone.  The mind slips a little, some of the marbles loosen up and roll away and get lost.  Little sights and sounds seem annoying to an unreasonable degree.  Sometimes even, the eyes see things that aren’t there, the ears hear sounds that were never made.  And they get unreasonable about it, especially if they’re anxious, or depressed over something, especially if they’re going through a difficult period.  Is your mother going through a difficult period, or something, Sol?”

“My mother ain’t going through no difficult periods,” Sol Insler said.  “Money is no problem.”

“Money is no problem,” Lou said. “How often have I heard that?  Money is no problem.  Sol, let me tell you something.  Money may not be a problem, but do you think money is the only problem in the world a person could have?  For instance this man standing in front of you, this man has a problem that doesn’t concern money at all.  This man is a writer.  He lives for writing.  Writing to him is like food to you.  If you don’t eat you die, right? Well this man, if he doesn’t write he may as well be dead.  That’s right, that’s what I said.  Dead.  His blood stops flowing.  He can’t breathe.  His heart stops beating.  He’s dead, like in a cemetery.  Now you look like a practical man, so you must know that a carpenter, in order to cut wood a carpenter needs a saw, doesn’t he?  In order to hammer a nail he needs a hammer.  A butcher needs a knife to cut meat, a baker needs an oven to bake bread.  Well in order to write a writer needs a typewriter.  And here your mother—”

“Listen, my mother—”

Lou broke in.  “Just a minute.  Hold it.  Here’s what I’m going to do.  I’m going to buy a noiseless typewriter and still put a pillow under it.  I think that will satisfy everyone.  And if your mother is still not satisfied we’ll discuss it further.  Is that agreeable for now?”

Sol Insler didn’t seem ready for such an abrupt departure from the matter of his mother’s stability.  He stood looking at Lou for a long moment.

“We’ll see,” he finally said.  He started to leave then turned and looked at Lou for another long moment.  “I ain’t finished here yet.”  He went downstairs.

Lou called down, “What do you mean you ain’t finished yet?  What do you intend to do?”  He got no answer.  He put the pillow and blanket back and got into bed and picked up Timon of Athens from his night table and opened it to the book mark.  Am I a writer?  Lichtman speaks: Anything that can be learned can be taught.  After all, if you want to improve your tennis game tennis lessons are a good idea.  Favor realism over experimentation.  Imitate rather than innovate.  Imitation is the surest route to originality.  Place Stephen Dedalus in Yoknapatawpha County, and Flem Snopes in Dublin.  How would Stephen react to all those spotted horses running around wild?  How would Flem react to that terrifying sermon on hell?  Watch out for self‑expression, self‑discovery and all those inward facing projects that fail to acknowledge the outward‑faced aspect of prose.  Do not emphasize the edgy, the new.  Emphasize substance.  Testimonials: ‘With someone with an eye and an ear like Lichtman’s you can learn a lot about your talents and how to use them.’  ‘Success at finding and shaping gifted writers.’  ‘An enormous frame of literary reference.’  ‘Old‑fashioned in the best sense.’  ‘Comes out of the classical tradition.’  ‘Has a sense of the guild, of the community of writers.’  ‘I was rejected from 27 writing programs.  Lichtman met me, looked me in the eye and took me. He gave me confidence when I had no confidence.  He told me I could be a writer.  He taught me the selflessness that elevates our selfishness to the level of art.’  So get all ideas out of your head.

You listen to that horseshit of his and all you’ll learn is how to fuck up like he did.  I will quit that class.

Mr. Morris, I’d like to take issue with something you wrote in your novel, The Hen of Bergen County.

What’s that?

That a woman gets her orgasm in waves.

Did I write that?

Yes, one of your characters describes it that way.

Which one?

The hen.

So what do you want from me?  Why don’t you go take issue with the hen.  Yes?

I know it’s an imposition, Mr. Morris, but we’d all be so happy to hear you read an excerpt from The Wisdom of  Shimmel.


I took the liberty of bringing along the book.  It’s the passage in Part I where Professor Betty Boop tries to define wisdom to Shimmel.

Give me a minute to find it.  Boy, this is a heavy book.

It’s on page 4,382.

Let’s see.  Yes, here we are.  This is a very emotional passage.  Ahem.  Wisdom, young man, is when you realize that certain things exist only in your head, while certain other things exist only outside your head.  A corollary to that is: Earth food is starting to show up on menus, so you’d better watch those fish and loiter with utmost care.  Now misery is happiness that’s always played dirty.  And happiness is misery that got kicked in the ass and told to go fuck itself.  There is no conclusion to this, so I will just say this: as far as wisdom goes, Shimmel, tissues are everything. That’s all you will ever have to know.  Here, take one.  Wipe your tears and blow your nose and give us a little kiss.  Now go on, Shimmel, go the schoolyard and practice your handball.  Maybe you’ll get a 99 in Physical Training.  Thank you.  Please!  Please!  No need to applaud. Just drop a few bucks in the pishka on your way out.

Am I a writer? Or is a lot of mishugoss like my father thinks.  Hey, dad, did you know the very first story I wrote was about you?

Mrs. Walker sitting at her desk smiling at me kindly, my composition in her hands, looking at me with those pink eyes of hers through rimless glasses.  Was your father really an admiral in the navy, Louis?  And me trembling with mortification.  Well, I must say, Louis, this is an excellent composition as always.  You know, imagination is a wonderful gift, but for this composition I would like you to put imagination aside and be very truthful.  So why don’t you think a little more about it and write it over again?  Will you do that for me, Louis?

What’s the matter, Mrs. Walker, a 37 year old Jewish man who came with his family from a shtetl in Russia when he was six, whose mother and father owned a fruit and vegetable store on the Lower East Side and slaved from five in the morning until eleven at night to eke out a living, who quit school when he was twelve to help out, and legged tvillin every day for 4 years straight until he was bar mitzvahed and then put them away and never used them again, who left home at sixteen and became a cab driver, are you trying to tell me this man can’t be an admiral in the navy?

His eyes were closing.  He was tired.  He put Timon of Athens back on the night table and shut the lamp.  It didn’t take long for him to feel a release from wakefulness and he knew that any second he would be sleeping.  Jesus, Margo!  She got livid the last time.

You’re still miffed about last night, aren’t you?”


It was awful of me not to call, I know that, and I’m very sorry about it and I apologized, didn’t I apologize?  You don’t accept apologies?”

Oh sure, your facile apologies.  You hand them out like free candy samples.

How can you say something like that?

Because it’s not a matter of apologizing.  Sometimes a person’s true attitude toward someone is revealed by what they forget.

Look, I got involved in this complicated paragraph and I lost track of time. It wasn’t as if I was sitting around watching television or something. Before I knew it it was already after one and too late to call.  I couldn’t sleep all night over it.

You’re such a bullshit artist.

You don’t believe me?

Oh go make love to your typewriter.

He reached for the phone but he couldn’t get up the will to turn the light back on to dial.  He couldn’t even keep his eyes open.  Aah go back to sleep.  Tomorrow’s another day.