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Echo from Across the Pond
By Frank Foley
How do we define a stranger? A stranger is someone unknown to us. Yes. But how would we answer the question if the stranger was known to us, indeed was our own blood relation?
I live and am writing at this moment in England--Canterbury, to be precise, that old, originally Roman town where Thomas A. Beckett met his death and on route to which Chaucer's pilgrims told their tales. The story of how this article came to appear on the page before you is not a spectacular one. But the repercussions, the reverberations, may have a greater impact. And it is not lost on me the irony of the two nouns I chose to describe this potential future--repercussions, reverberations--and their connotations in a paper called the Noe Valley "Voice."
The Noe Valley Voice. I came across it at my parents' house in Tunbridge Wells, where I was house-sitting while they were on holiday. I was sitting in their kitchen with coffee and a sandwich, thinking about a story I was writing. I noticed a newspaper on the chair next to me and began to read. It was good writing. The writer--this Richard somebody, whoever the hell he was--had achieved the first goal of writing: he had hooked his reader.
I read the piece, and like a hard-hitting linebacker getting smashed by a fullback, the writer in me nodded a grudging respect to this literary competitor and ally. It was all there, the crisp prose, the juxtaposition of humor and tragedy, the nuances and complexities of life conveyed in clear language. In 1,500 words, this stranger had made an impression. We had collaborated in an act of communication--writer and reader--and the words that had resounded in him as an act of artistic creation now resonated in me as an act of creative interpretation 6,000 miles away. Then something happened that completely floored me. At the bottom of the page was a small "About the Author" section. As I read the line "Glen Park resident Richard J. Martin Jr....," the realization clicked in my head. Richard J. Martin Jr. is my cousin--my father's sister's son! This piece was written by my first cousin!
So there was Richard in California, writing. My cousin, whom I know about--in the way one knows about the members of one's family--and yet practically a stranger to me. We share a family history, but we don't really know each other. We are strangers with the same blood. Blood strangers, who have met maybe once in the last 20 years. But the best thing is we're both passionate about writing.
That night I wanted to phone Richard and tell him what had happened. I wanted to talk to him about my love of Hemingway and Raymond Carver; I wanted to tell him that I'm reading for a master's degree in American literary modernism. I wanted to talk to my writer cousin about writing. Then an idea came to me. To make this event truly reverberate, I had to use the Voice.
And that is how I came to write a Last Page piece for the Noe Valley Voice.
But there's one more thing. Sitting in the kitchen that night, I found a rich vein of form and wrote a number of poems and three fragment stories, the latter of which I'd like to present to you below. None of the stories concerns distant cousins, but that doesn't matter. What matters is they came, and whether it was familial competitiveness or just coincidence, I like to think that Richard J. Martin Jr. the writer, and Richard my cousin, had something to do with it. For that, these stories are dedicated to him.
My new cooker was delivered today, but I had to send it back. I needed a new cooker because the old one had little pictures of flames around the knobs for turning the gas up and down...
Emily was at my house making dinner. She put a pot on the cooker and left the gas way up on big flame. Things would always burn on big flame.
"No, no," I said, "you have to put it on little flame, otherwise it'll burn."
Emily stood there looking at me, and I remember the exact shade of her hair and the little pout she had on her lips. Then she was smiling and putting her arms around me. "Little flame," she said. "Oh, you are priceless."
It's difficult to use a cooker that has pictures of little flames and you call them little flames, and you know this makes someone love you because it is innocent and you. In the end I couldn't go near the damn thing. All I could see was the little flame and I could hear Emily saying, "You are priceless," and holding on to me as though we were branded into each other.
When it came, the new cooker didn't have pictures of flames. It just had a zero for when the gas is off and a nine for when you want to burn things.
It wasn't the same.
Softly sleeps the calm.
Give me another shot of that, he said.
I gave him a shot.
Oh, that's right, he said. That's the stuff.
The pretty girl next to him said something I didn't hear.
No, said the man. You've had enough.
Come on, said the girl.
You're done, said the man.
I watched the girl for a while. The old fella down the end started up again, but I took no notice of him. The girl was slumped in her chair. Her hair was scruffed up now and she was sweating pretty hard. Every so often her eyes would close and then she would jump, just a little start, like someone had scared her. I was drinking shots with the man and watching the girl. Her skirt was scrunched up underneath her.
The old fella came over then. He stood there. I'm a fighter, he said. He was holding his pint glass. I'm a fighter, he said, but I don't like fighting.
I looked at the other man and he smiled. Lucky for us then, I said.
A group of people came in. They were types, you know, and they talked to each other as if they were really talking to each other. It took them a while to settle, and while they were settling I had a good look at them.
I thought they looked like insects.
Come on, said the girl waking up. I want some.
Here, said the man.
I gave the man a shot and we ignored the girl. She went back to sleep. She sat there sleeping and eventually a little dribble of something ran down her chin.
She was a very pretty girl.
That's what August is.
Harmonica came into the kitchen wearing a white vest top and nothing else, singing something about Billie Joe MacAllister jumping off a bridge.
You're chirpy, I said.
Things are looking up, she said.
Harmonica had a way of saying things where her eyes would look right into you, and you felt like you were cooking from the inside, like you were in a microwave or something.
Things are definitely looking up, she said, and she started to sing about Billie Joe again, like he was a friend of hers and hadn't jumped off a bridge at all.
She sat on a chair in the kitchen singing that song and I was cooking breakfast. Sausages, bacon, eggs, beans, with honey to put on any leftover toast, and strong coffee with sugar because we were drunk the night before.
We had the windows open and the August morning was pouring in, and just about everything was looking up....
I try to explain this to my wife when she asks me about it, but it's no use. When a song comes on the radio on a Sunday morning in August, and she asks me about it and why I look that way, I try to explain.
I can't help it, I say. That's what August is.
But she doesn't understand.
The Noe Valley Voice invites you to submit fiction, literary nonfiction, or poetry for publication on the Last Page. Please mail manuscripts, which should be no more than 1,500 words, to the Noe Valley Voice, 1021 Sanchez Street, San Francisco, CA 94114. Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't forget to include your name, address, and phone number, and an SASE if you want your manuscript returned. We look forward to hearing from you.