Earliest memory: The jolting CLACK, CLACK, CLACK of my stroller slamming over the cracks in the sidewalk, on our way home from the park.
It was always nearly dusk when the gravity suddenly overcame my mother, of how much of the day—all of it—had slipped away while she’d mused and pondered, excitedly jotting phrases and lone words, connecting them with bold arrows labeled with instructions. At night she was agitated, frustrated, dejected, imprisoned in her typewriter chair. I usually fell asleep under the desk, instead of in my real bed—a giant cushion in a corner sectioned off by a jungle-printed curtain.
Daytime she was happy, relaxed, dreamy, ordering cappuccino. Occasionally we shared a piece of cannoli. I played under the sidewalk café table. I had two rabbit finger puppets—a mom and baby. I pretended they got separated, desperately searching for one another in the mountainous folds of my mother’s bag. Then, always just before it was time to go, they were reunited—overjoyed relief.
“What are you working on these days?”
“I’m on my third book of the series.”
I can tell you this now: The “series” is a series only in that my mother’s ten short novels are identical in voice, setting and plot formula. The stories, however similar, are not connected—they don’t feature or reference each other’s characters, fictional circumstances or events; there’s no apparent advantage to reading them in date-published order.
In theory, all ten stories could be taking place simultaneously, never intersecting, in the same unnamed, unremarkable high school which could be her own, from her small-city New Jersey of the late fifties and early sixties—school dances and birthday parties, party dresses, milkshakes, radios, street corners and spring daffodils are peripherally mentioned, though her high school-aged readers in the eighties perhaps could have perceived the time period as their own. It is a clean-cut teenage universe—no drugs, cigarettes, alcohol or swearwords; no sex; no violence, though certain characters might inspire readers’ own fantasies.
When she was struggling desperately to get a publisher, her characters had names seemingly chosen out of mere obligation to distinguish one character from the next—Mary, Susy, Judy, Billy, Jimmy. Finally, her eventual agent bothered to point this problem out to her. My mother didn’t take offense to this criticism as she had to others; she’d been fully prepared, unconsciously perhaps, to change the names to whatever the hell a publisher wanted them to be. So, she set to work rectifying the problem, becoming obsessed with magazines and baby-name books full of perfect names to be discovered—Michelle, Nicole, Courtney, Heather, Amanda, Jason, Jeremy, Brian, Corey, Justin, Trevor, Travis, Melissa, Jenna, Kristen, Caitlyn, Alexis.
“What’s it about?”
Each story inhabits its own high-stakes, all-consuming extracurricular institution—School Newspaper, Yearbook Staff, Student Government—which provides the ideal circumstances for the ultimate perfect clash between the always-female protagonist and antagonist.
The antagonist is a vociferous proponent of teamwork because without collaboration to direct she would serve no purpose, as there is no other responsibility she wants. Or because through teamwork she can artfully offload the consequences of her sloppiness or selectively hoard easy, soothingly monotonous tasks within larger processes. The protagonist is fiercely independent and determined that the final product, or at least any part that is a reflection on her, will be protected from the antagonist’s susceptible collaborative methods or unaccountable contributions. The antagonist, a self-misdescribed perfectionist, has only one mode of counterattack which is to resort to her tiresome mantra about the importance of high standards as the reason why the stubborn protagonist must learn to accept the imperative of hard, sometimes inconvenient, sometimes unexpected, sometimes confusing work: the quality of the final product is a reflection on the institution; everyone is expecting high quality and will be unsympathetic, highly critical and unforgiving if that expectation is not met, and the failure will be remembered. She prescribes smarter practices to help the protagonist avoid becoming frustrated and hindering progress.
The protagonist ensures, through cleverly choreographed reasonable misinterpretations and blameless oversights, that the antagonist’s precious workflow arrangements produce a crescendo of hilariously ironic, illuminating mishaps. She then heroically prevents catastrophe just in time. To preserve her own role the antagonist must prove the protagonist’s calculated sabotage. She insists the protagonist is not of the caliber required for the work of the institution and therefore must sow perpetual diversion to prevent this otherwise inevitable discovery. Or she claims to have already taken the protagonist to task for demonstrated deficiencies and that this is why the protagonist has it in for her. Or, unable to deny the protagonist’s brilliance, she urgently sounds the alarm that the protagonist selfishly seeks personal stardom at the expense of shared achievement. The protagonist is refreshingly candid about having no vested interest in the success of the imposed teamwork. But she is devious enough to not correct the antagonist’s reasonable misconceptions, knowing the antagonist will present verifiably false information and in doing so confirm the vulnerabilities in her workflow arrangements and so the necessity of their dismantling.
“There are check and checkmate moments,” one astute critic caught on after about the fifth or sixth book.
Helplessly enraged, the antagonist ominously prophesies the disgraceful demise of the institution’ integrity, prestige or relevance, or simply perceives it. The protagonist steps out of the stuffy meeting room and into the bright, all-but-forgotten outside world of the school which is all a-bustle with excitement over the end of the schoolyear. She walks out into the glorious sunshine or refreshing drizzle, wonderfully alone. Or, a boy has asked to walk her home and she has obliged, but her quiet, distant contentment is palpable when he suddenly stops and, with a puzzled expression, asks why she is smiling.
The times when my mother had finally just finished a book, we got to take the subway above ground to places we’d never been, tried new foods, strolled all over the city, hand-in-hand, singing our favorite songs—“My Boyfriend’s Back,” “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun”—and talking, about Vietnam, Watergate, Reagan and AIDS.
Later memory: We were invited to a daytime party at a fancy apartment on Riverside Drive. Our elderly hostess asked my opinion regarding one of the main characters in one of my mother’s books. I had never read any of her books, I must have revealed through my suddenly self-conscious answer, though I was old enough, at least ten and reading a lot; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was my favorite. When we got in a taxi to go home, I remarked something about the hostess, thinking my mother would find my criticism clever and funny. But instead, she berated me, as she never had before, as had been unimaginable to me up until that moment. “You could have at least read one of them.” Then silence for many minutes, then grumbling: “You’d think my own daughter…”
I lay in bed facing the wall, heaving deep, silent sobs. Her books had always been in our apartment, but it had never occurred to me to even open one, that she wanted me to.
Years later, as an adult, I found out how my mother knew that hostess, when she came across the woman’s prominent obituary and remarked, “Huh,” with keen interest and titillation brought about by the sudden memory of a long-passed era.
A few years before I was born, my mother rented a room in the woman’s grand apartment, after answering an ad that offered supremely secluded quiet, privacy and comfort for almost-free rent charged by the semester instead of the month. The room was even more spectacularly quiet than my mother had imagined, with a nest-like window seat overlooking towering treetops, a bathroom with a cathedral ceiling and luxurious tub.
The woman never ceased making it known, though never in so many words, what a disappointment my mother was, what a bill of goods my mother had sold in claiming to be a writer. The woman’s previous tenants were foreign, scholarship students—future surgeons and diplomats, world-class musicians—who performed cooking demonstrations for her guests, gave traditional cultural gifts their poor but respectful families sent for her, kept in touch and visited her when they were in town to give lectures or receive honors—allegedly. My mother never actually witnessed any such contacts.
My mother locked herself in the room, venturing out only for long, rapid walks, cups of coffee and one cheap daily meal. She tip-toed swiftly between her room and the front door. On the rare occasion that conversation took place, the woman reminisced wistfully about one lovely previous tenant or another, recalling gifts she still had and exotic recipes she still used, flaunting snippets of tedious knowledge she’d acquired, mispronouncing foreign-language figures of speech she’d adopted. Though any topic of conversation would have been less excruciating to my mother than that of her own unwritten work in progress.
Once, haggard, bedraggled, famished, with cash she’d just been paid from one of her unsteady odd jobs, my mother dragged herself into a candlelit Italian restaurant. There, she noticed only too late, was the landlady, dining with a friend, their expressions a mixture of wincing and chuckling at my mother’s ridiculousness. Having already ordered, my mother had to stay and endure.
Surely the sound of a typewriter had never bothered the landlady before—several of her previous, beloved tenants must have had them—and it must have been barely audible through the room’s thick door at the end of a long hall, even with my mother’s tormented, dead-of-night hammering on the keys. But suddenly it bothered her. My mother landed in a crumby one-room apartment with paper-thin walls, amid ceaseless noise—sirens and car horns below, screams and slaps next door—but free again at last.
Years later an esteemed mutual acquaintance was having lunch with the landlady, when, lo and behold, there was my mother with her cappuccino, and me, perhaps, with one of my favorite books I was reading for the second or third time. The acquaintance jumped to introduce the landlady to one of his “favorite people.”
“What are you writing now?”
“I’m all done! I finished the series.”
“So…what are you up to these days?”
The van trips to New Jersey and Philadelphia: Noisy arcades, basketball courts, parking lots. Girls with large earrings and long polished nails, a few pushing baby strollers, cracking huge bubbles with their gum. Boys with boomboxes balanced on their shoulders.
“Are you almost-eighteen-or-older, yet?” my mother would ask when she’d managed to corner one.
The answer was usually nodded rather than spoken.
“You are?!!” she’d reply in an overly enthusiastic voice most people reserve for very young children. “Well, are you registered to vote?”
She hated doing this and was lousy at it, worse than anyone else in the van-trip group. But she had to, to provide an alternative to all the “dopey reasons” young people were being given for voting: you have the right to; other people don’t have the right to; it gets counted.
“Your rights are on the line,” she implored them desperately.
Not that she wanted the dopey reasons abolished altogether.
“‘Whatever gets you to the party’ is my motto,” she boasted brassily, after years of failure had hardened her.
A much later era: the final election night my mother would ever see, though we had no idea at the time. Her clunky television was wiped clean with an old damp sponge and set up on the kitchen table for the ritual occasion. The cats were gently shooed away from walking in front of the screen. It was 2008, my third presidential election since turning eighteen. Spending election night with my mother was a choice.
That long-ago election night, and at least one other long before it: my mother, approving in a low, commanding grumble, “Get rid of the holy-rollers.”
Apolline Slipper was born in 1981 in New York City and lives in Washington, D.C. She enjoys reading about social histories of the 1980s and 1990s, left political movements, and modern epidemiology. This is her first published fiction.