I’m sitting in a workshop at Juniper, UMass, Amherst’s summer writing program, a program I enrolled in solely because Grace Paley was teaching. It’s 2005. For years, I’d become obsessed with two fantasies: one, to hear Ms. Paley say a kind word about my writing and two, to kiss her on the lips. The first part I could understand, as I was hoping for a quotation I could stick on a book jacket. The second, I’m not so sure about. I think I thought maybe I could glean some secret wisdom that way. I’d made a pact with myself: I would slip her the tongue if need be. If our passions were so aroused, and from that point I would play it by ear.
Two years later, she passed away.
Alternet describes a recent NY screening of Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, a new documentary: “The lights were hardly back on when [the audience] started talking, telling stories...about this arrest and that action...the talk continued in the lobby and on the street, and, I imagined, on the subway rides home, and on the phone later, and at some meeting or rally, before too long.”
On the eve of the anniversary of her passing (Aug 22nd, 2007), I’d like to keep the discussion going.
So I’m in her class, like I said, and we’re workshopping my short story. It’s a story I assume she’s going to like, since, after all, I stole pretty much everything from her. I mean it was all in there: the witty spousal banter, the pith, the holocaust ending. It was downright manipulative.
My classmates are saying the usual this and that—the dialogue is confusing; it’s hard to know who’s saying what, etc.—when Grace puts her copy down and looks up and asks me to read a section aloud. And as I do so, her face goes sour. She is clearly disappointed. Moments later, everybody’s making the same face, their features all squished-up and whatnot. What’s going on? I’m wondering, Was my joke about the Hasidim so offensive that they have all joined forces and conspired against me?
Then I pause for a moment and realize there's a strange noise in the room, the buzz of bad circuitry. What the hell is that? A smoke detector? A HAM radio? A spaceship landing at South College?
Ach, not again, Grace says.
She shakes her head, then whacks the side of it a few times, harder than you’d think appropriate for an old broad like her. Finally, she tilts her head to one side, reaches into it by way of an ear, and pulls out something that at first glance looks to be a giant ball of wax.
It’s her hearing aid. And it’s humming like a Hendrix amp. She tries shaking it some more, but to no avail.
Here, she says, handing it to me, You’re a man. Take a look at this, would you? For the last six months it's been making me sound all crazy in my own head. Like I'm talking through a megaphone. Like it's Greenwich Village in the ‘60`s. I can't tell you how unsettling it is.
Even with my Y chromosome, I said, handing it back to her, There’s not much I can do with this. You should probably just get a new one.
Ha! She said, turning it down and sitting it back in her ear, You know how much they want for a new one?
(the answer was thirteen hundred, in case you were wondering, too exorbitant a price, even for New York's first official writer.)
The thing’s embarrassed me many times, Grace continued, It started really taking over my life, you know, intruding on other people’s phone conversations: Grace, pardon me, but could you stand over there? You're beeping on my frequency. Or else I'm out at a party: Listen, listen. Does anybody else hear that? No, no. Grace, are you okay? Have you been taking your medication? Seriously, Grace, have you been taking your medication? What are you talking about? I said, I'm not even on medication! Not that kind anyway, knock on wood. I thought I was losing my mind, the first time it happened. Literally I thought I was going nuts, you know? All of a sudden, a baby, crying in your head? And then footsteps and somebody says, Shhh. Shhh. It’s okay. It’s okay...I thought maybe it was God. I thought maybe this is how it happens. I thought maybe dying is some great eternal shushing. Wouldn’t that be nice? Just like when you're born? Your mother holding you, going, Shhhhh. Shhhhhhhh. So I went to see my doctor. Turns out it was just the lady down the hall. I’m picking up her baby monitor! I told the doctor, Can’t you just give me a pill or something? Pretty soon other things start showing up: police scanners. That was a good one. I’m sitting at home writing, everything's going along great, and suddenly somebody calls in a two-eleven. What the hell's a two-eleven? I’m sorry, where were we?
There was only one drawback to Grace's workshop: she loved everything. She had opinions, sure, but they were all positive. She said it herself: the older you get, the less you give a shit about the small stuff, and the more you appreciate the larger things: the blessing of consciousness—albeit temporarily—and the absurdly profound odds against any of this happening in the first place, given the staggering age and magnitude of the universe and all.
She was perfectly satisfied just being around young writers, all of whom loved her and were overjoyed to share a room with her, to breathe the same air, that she couldn't find it in her heart to say an unkind word about any of it.
Class ended and we all filtered out and I was halfway back to the dorm when I realized she hadn’t chimed in on my story. I biked back to Bartlett and quick as I could and caught her just as she was being helped into her Toyota.
Grace! Grace! I yelled, What’d you think of my story anyway?
She looked at me in a way that made me wonder if she even remembered which story it was. Then she motioned me closer. I released my ten-speed and bent down and inserted my face in her Japanese window, whereupon she proceeded to immobilize me by grabbing my collar with both hands. She had some grip, too! I saw her face begin to rise up and I knew she was coming for me.
All in all, it was a pretty moist exchange, especially considering I kept the tongue action to a minimum.
Honey, she said, her hands still on my cheeks, It’s as good as anything out there.
Steven Brykman left med school to become Managing Editor of National Lampoon. His work has appeared in Playboy, Cracked, Tablet, Nerve, and The New Yorker where he was featured in Talk of the Town. He has written for/appeared on Prairie Home Companion, Comedy Central, NPR, G4TV, and the Food Network. As a writing fellow at the University of Massachusetts, his fiction was awarded the Harvey Swados prize.See other articles by Steve Brykman