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Bad Times To Be Peddling a Book
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My mother, Elizabeth Jean Joyce, left, with Jane Palcewski Hubler, my aunt, circa 1940.


Before I resume posting excerpts from WITNESS, my memoir-in-progress, here is an email from a major New York agent regarding my roman a clef, FELLINI’S ANGEL. He’s saying what many others are as well—that these are bad times, indeed, to be peddling a book. Unless, of course, you are Stephen King. Or Sarah Palin.

Dear John,

Nice presentation. Thank you for considering our agency.

At this time, due to pressures of work (work load, specifically) and market evaluation, we are not currently looking for a book of the appeal you submitted. This in no way is meant as a reflection of either your project’s worth or merit, but we are not able at present to evaluate your submission further. And there is another matter: the economics of our job have changed as well. As the publishing world goes through the transition to e-books (much as the music industry went through the change to downloadable music) – a transition I expect to see at 95% within 10 years – everyone is nervous and want “assured bestsellers” from which to eke out a living until they know what the new e-world will bring. This makes the sales rate and, especially, the advance royalty rates, plummet. Hence, our ability to take risks and take on new client’s work is increasingly difficult.

We wish you the best of luck,

Sincerely,


* * *


In September 1945, I was in grandma’s bedroom watching her fold clothes and listening to Edward R. Murrow on the radio when we heard the front door open and a man shouting, “Hey ma! I’m home!”

She dropped the straw basket onto the floor and hurried down the steps. I sat behind the railing of the staircase, gripping the narrow white posts like bars of a jail cell, watching a tall thin man in Army khakis with a web belt with a gleaming gold buckle pull out from his olive green duffel bag what looked like a bunch of dried grass, which was exactly the color of the front porch’s straw carpet. It made a faint sound like when gusts of wind rustled the branches and leaves of the trees. A swishy sound.

He eagerly explained to grandma this was what the wahines wore when they danced the hula. He said they did the hula at luaus, where everybody sits on mats and eats poi with their fingers. Poi is a white pasty stuff that doesn't taste very good. But boy, do those Hawaiians know how to play a ukelele! Now it's funny about these wahines in the grass skirts at luaus. When you first arrive on the island they are fat and ugly and disgusting, you know? But—get this—the longer you stay, the better they look.

Ha, ha, ha!

Grandma frowned.

Oh, his dark dancing eyes and his flared nostrils! A triumphant warrior returning from the great Allied victory over the Nazis and the Japs. Well, OK, as a clerk corporal at the Schofield Barracks post office he may not have ever seen combat, but he was nevertheless a true American hero! Wasn’t he?

He pulled out two big brown bottles with pale yellow labels that bore the word Seagram’s in an old-fashioned typeface, with the big red number 7 with a crown on its top. Grandma frowned again, and shook her head. The war hero said that as soon as he was finished unpacking, he was going to celebrate. Yep. At the Polish Legion of American Veterans, on Colonial Drive. There will be drinks all around, on the house. And then there will be dancing at the Avalon Ballroom. Hey, he had a lot of catching up to do, you know? Lots and lots of people to look up.

“Chester, say hello to your son,” grandma commanded. He turned, saw me hiding behind the posts of that staircase railing.

Rising from his crouch next to his duffle bag he extended his arms said “Hey! C’mere!”

I shook my head. No, no, no. I didn’t want to go to him because he was a stranger, and I didn’t like him. My refusal to obey annoyed him. He again ordered me to come to him, and I again refused. His eyes flashed. His angry gaze penetrated me like the butcher’s knife grandma used to cut off chicken heads. I ran upstairs, crawled under the bed.
My breath made the dust bunnies move.

I could hear grandma and my father talking. I couldn’t make out most of the words. But then grandma’s voice rose. “Put all those filthy clothes in the basement,” she said.

“Okay, ma,” war hero said.

He left, and was gone a long time.

One morning grandma announced it was time for me to go to my first day of school. At St. Casimir’s. I said I didn’t want to go, I wanted to just stay there. She said no, come on, get ready and she dressed me, and took my hand and walked me down Superior Street, then over to Jefferson. I resisted. She got angry, and pulled me along until I walked fast to keep up with her grim, purposeful stride.

The Ursuline Sisters of the Roman Union looked weird in their starched white linen head and breast covers, and black cloth of their hoods and floor-length habits, and the rosaries hanging from their belts that clicked faintly when they walked. This order of Catholic nuns was founded in 1535 in Brescia, Italy, and they were strict disciplinarians and very quick to anger. One of them, Sister Regina, clapped her hands to get our attention, and ordered us to sit at a big table with lots of brand new stuff on it, like Crayolas, and colored chalk, and jars of paint and brushes, and building blocks and lots and lots of modeling clay.

Ignoring the other wide-eyed children I gathered up the blocks and a large lump of clay and began to make a replica of a cinderblock wall. I pushed down on the blocks and the clay oozed out. I used a popsicle stick to carve away the excess so that the wall looked just right.

I called Sister Regina over to see what I’d done, fully expecting her to remark what a clever little boy I was, but when she saw it she freaked out. “Oh, you bad, bad, BAD boy! Look what you’ve done! You’ve stained and ruined those new blocks!”






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