The Writers’ Block
- P.S. Ehrlich
Mrs. Franzia had a word with my mother, who had a word with my half-sister, who told me not to be surprised or upset if Rozay ever appeared to get “ill,” but to run find the nearest adult. And very soon I witnessed my first fit: Rozay knocking a flowerbox off her front porch railing as she fell over and flailed about. I duly ran and fetched her mom, who was impressed by such level-headed behavior from someone still in kindergarten. Judging me to be a reliable Nice Boy, she sanctioned my being Rozay’s playmate and (unspoken) caretaker. But since I often suffered from asthma—the attacks were especially bad in those early years—Rozay was able to contend that she was my caretaker, as befitted her eight-month seniority. When I had to stay flat on my back indoors, she would come over and read to me—explaining anything she felt I didn’t understand, even when I said I did.
For a lofty-learnèd girl subject to fits, Rozay was welcome company and seldom annoying. I felt comfortable with her, at ease—fulfilled, even. As if we’d moved here so she could be part of my life: the half-sister I was intended to have all along. Maybe not so much instead of Cassandra, as to make it two-to-one.
Our mothers tried hard not to act too cutesy about Rozay and me, but Cassie frequently wanted to know how hot ‘n’ heavy we were getting, had we set the wedding date and so on. “Now’s your chance!” she told me when we went over one Sunday to behold Rozay in what looked like an extra-petite bridal gown. This (Rozay explained) was a First Communion dress, and wearing it earned her a second middle name, making her Mary Iris Monica Franzia. Knowing that my father had been dubbed Chester Alan Arthur Huffman, I felt equally entitled to a second helping; but Rozay said no.
“You’re Aitch. Just Aitch. I keep telling you.”
(Just as she kept insisting “Rozay” was not spelled with an S and an accented E.)
The Franzias were Catholic, which I thought involved worshipping fish. (They had a large aquarium in their living room, whose occupants Rozay studied attentively.) Catholicism did entail our attending separate schools: I went to Brown Elementary, never knowing whether it had been named after John the abolitionist, or Tom of the schooldays, or Charlie of Peanuts fame—or simply because its bricks and paint were discouraging shades of that color.
Rozay was enrolled at St. Teresa of Avila, which she always called Sane-Trees-of-a-Villa. She disliked most of the other girls there, saying they either “made fun” or were too timidly religious. As for her teachers, she wouldn’t confirm or deny a rumor spread by Snaggle Feist (a dentally-challenged classmate of mine at Brown, who was forever getting hit in the mouth by baseballs or tripping facefirst onto concrete). Snag said if you weren’t a Catholic and ventured too close to St. Teresa of Avila, nuns would come out and beat you up.
“Why do you listen to people like that?” was all Rozay would say.
She debunked a lot of my notions about what young girls, especially pretty ones, thought and felt and did. No interest in playing house or with dolls (though she once cut open a Chatty Cathy to analyze its voicebox). No obsession with clothes or shoes or hairdos, though she was almost always perfectly turned out: every starchy stitch and strand in place. No fear of bugs, worms, or rodents; she took the lead whenever we explored the Woods at the foot of our backyards. She wasn’t a conventional tomboy either—we studied trees without climbing them, and never played catch or ran around screaming. Instead we built immense edifices out of Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys and Legos. (Rozay was the visionary; I handled engineering.) We dug through dictionaries and World Book encyclopedias in pursuit of Rozay’s ongoing “sperriments,” each step of which got documented in its particular Big Chief tablet. Even as a grade-schooler she wrote with a fine minute hand, and kept a voluminous diary that I was not permitted to see (though she sometimes read excerpts aloud, annotating as she went).
We were out minding our business one day, inspecting a dead pigeon at the edge of the Woods, when Jerome Gullip came along to throw rocks at it. Jerome was a big boy, maybe ten years old, and at least that many feet tall and tons heavy. His franchise as neighborhood bully included not only our street but all the blocks surrounding Brown and Sane Trees, whose mingled students would walk to and from school in self-defensive clumps. Not that “safety in numbers” applied where Jerome Gullip was concerned. According to him, an odd bump in the road contained a kid he’d pitched into a cement mixer for trying to squeal on him. No one doubted Jerome was capable of this, or that he wouldn’t miss an opportunity to “crack our skulls open” (his standard threat).
I hated every one of his innumerable guts. He went out of his way to punch me on the arm or give it Indian burns. Nor was Rozay immune from hassle: Jerome would shove her in passing, and if she happened to hit the ground as a result, that was her fault. I am proud to remember springing recklessly to her defense on a couple of occasions. Both times my nose got bloodied, after which I limited my interference to helping Rozay stand up.
Once Jerome used a clothesline to tie Rozay and me to a remote telephone pole, leaving us there while he went off to gather firewood (he said). I knew it was my duty to be a hero and rescue us both, but I only succeeded in proving that rope can abrade human skin. And in worrying that Rozay might have a fit. But she was stoic throughout the ordeal, speculating aloud as to how long we might survive without food or water if Jerome didn’t return to burn us at the stake. (Cassie and her boyfriend drove by and freed us before that question got answered.)
Nothing Jerome ever did or said seemed to ruffle Rozay. He would call her a dago, guinea, goombah, wop; her rejoinder was always “I’m Greco-Roman.” Jerome had a bunch of slurs for me too, some of which required clarifying.
“Dad, am I a Jew?” I asked after one encounter.
My father glanced up from the physics papers he was grading. “If people ask, son, just say you’re Unitarian.”
“What’re Unitarians?” I asked Rozay.
“They live on a planet between Saturn and Uranus,” she said. Not lofty-learnèdly, since it was early summer and we were the same age. Come August she would jump ahead of me and resume the role of elder/mentor; then the following spring I would catch up and be her peer and comrade again.
When Rozay was eight and starting third grade (and I was seven-and-a-half and starting second), our mothers began working at the University—mine on her master’s degree, and Mrs. Franzia as a secretary in the Dean’s office. They coordinated everyone’s schedules so that Rozay and I could go to one or the other of our houses any day after school, and find either a mom or Cassie or Rozay’s grandmother YiaYia there. (YiaYia had high-piled hair tinted blue, and served us exotica like stuffed grape leaves.)
One October afternoon Rozay and I were walking up my driveway, she in her Sane Trees jumper that I’d thought was green plaid till she called it “black watch.” Rozay was explaining exactly how and why she’d been chosen to recite “Tengo un gatito nuevo, su nombre es Pepe,” on educational TV, when she fell silent in mid-Spanish.
I turned and found her staring hard at nothing—then collapsing to her knees on the pitiless gravel—then flopping onto her back. Head striking the pavement, inadequately cushioned by her ponytail. Hands grabbing hold of her skirt and petticoat, yanking both up to her chin. And there she lay with Lollipops exposed to God and the neighborhood: shaking, quaking, doing extraordinarily unstarched things before us all.
I tried to yell for help, but no sound came out.
So I took a rock from beside the driveway and heaved it through my painted-shut kitchen window. The first and only time in my life I ever threw anything that hard, that far, or that accurately.
“WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED??” shrieked Cassandra from her room upstairs.
“doo wah diddy diddy dum diddy doo,” chimed in her transistor radio.
“Rozay’s sick bad!” I managed to croak between diddys.
Cass was at her best responding to any kind of health crisis, so I knew she’d lose no time in calling a doctor, fetching a first-aid kit, and arriving to take command of the situation. Meanwhile I reached out to pull down Rozay’s skirt—and froze. No! If I so much as touched one pleat, Cassie would be sure to catch me in what she’d think was the red-handed act. But if I left Rozay as she was, others who heard me smash the window might come running up and see her. Suppose it was Jerome!! What should I do??
Pull it down.
No one’ll see. Pull it down, NOW.
I wrenched the hem out of her clutching fingers, smoothed the skirt over her poor wounded knees, flung my jacket on top for good measure, and was kneeling at a protective distance when Cassandra burst onto the scene.
Told you so.
“Don’t worry, kiddo, she’ll be okay,” said Cassie. “The doctor’s on his way, and her mom—hey, maybe you better lie down too. You’re white as a sheet.”
That evening my mother rebriefed me on Rozay’s condition and what to expect, while my father delivered a small lecture on alternatives to windowbreaking as a means of summoning assistance.
Rozay herself, slowed but not stymied by convalescent knees, spirited me away a few days later to a secluded spot in the Woods, deep among the locusts and hickories.
“All right,” she said, tablet in hand, “tell me what happened. And don’t say ‘don’t think about it,’ like everybody else does. I need to know!”
What had her face looked like? Did it change expression? How about after she fell down? Were her eyeballs rolled back, all white? Had she frothed at the mouth?
My answers were less than articulate, and I kept skirting certain occurrences till Rozay threw down her pencil. “You’re keeping something from me! They always do, all of them, but you can’t. Now what is it?” Suddenly: “Did you see anything?”
“Oh, er, uh, well…”
“Aitch! Did you see anyth—”
“Yes! Yes, I did!”
Rozay closed her eyes and sat silent for so long I became apprehensive. Then, briskly: “Well, you better go ahead and show me yours. Just so we’re even.”
And there in our sylvan hideaway I dropped trou in front of the Girl Next Door. Who surveyed me for what felt like an hour, and began a fresh page of notes in her tablet.
“What’re you writing??” I demanded as I repantsed myself.
“None of your beeswax!” she replied. Tearing out the page, folding it over, and sticking it down the front of her blouse. Which she then had to tuck inside her belt, so the page would stay put.
We left the Woods and started back upslope. “Did you…?” I began, and faltered.
“Did I what?”
“Did you… say anything to me, when you were… uh, having your… fit?”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” sniffed Rozay.
But then, inside my head: Can you hear me?
I stopped in my tracks and stared at her. “That is keen!” I said (ever hep to the jive). “Do it again!”
If you’re not making believe, tell me what I’m saying.
“Tell you what you’re saying,” I paraphrased.
And Rozay smiled. A thing she did far too seldom for such a pretty girl. Her baby teeth and their permanent replacements were both very small, very white. And could fill her ascetic face with delight, when she let them.
So what did I say when I was having the fit?
“Don’t you remember?”
It doesn’t work that way. More like a dream.
I told her what she’d told me, and what I’d done, and what happened after.
She started rubbing her forehead, but smiled again. I’m glad it was you. I mean, I’m glad you can hear me.
“What does it feel like?”
As if you’re climbing a ladder. I mean, you “(sigh) stay where you are, but your mind goes up or down.”
“Can you show me how?”
“I don’t know. We’ll have to try.”
Living as we did in an age of domesticated witches and genies, talking horses and favorite Martians and dead mothers reincarnated as antique cars, we were excited but not astonished by any of this. If it wasn’t overimaginative hokum and we had been granted a superpower, we figured it was no more than the two of us deserved: I with my asthma and she with her fits.
But until Rozay made me the subject of our grand new sperriment, I didn’t realize what a range of fits she was subject to. Impatient fits, peremptory fits, regarding-me-as-a-guinea-pig-that-wouldn’t-hold-its-tongue (if I ventured to make a suggestion) fits. “We haven’t got time for that!” There were tests to make, trials to run, tablets to fill with data. Could I hear her if my eyes were shut? If I faced away from her? At a distance? How far? Hold this tape measure while she checks. What if I were in a different room, on a different floor, in my house while she was in hers? Could I only receive words, or also pick up music? See any pictures she might send me? And, most critical of all: could I transmit thoughts to Rozay? Use these cards she copied out of a library book—star, circle, square, wavy lines. Bear my mind down on the symbol I see and say its name to her. No; try again. And again. Try this time. Harder! “Oh, you’re not even concentrating!”
I already had a Cassandra in my life, for crying out loud. I didn’t need another one making me learn how to scuba dive without a snorkel.
Finally the day came when I pitched a fit of my own. Conjuring up a vivid Technicolor image of Rozay asprawl in my driveway, and throwing it square between her narrow black eyes. Which snapped wide open as she stepped forward to slap me across the chops with her dainty little hard-as-nails hand.
I’ll never speak to you again.
Whirl on her heel and begone.
What I did next still makes me cringe to remember. Though I was hardly the first or only male to beg forgiveness from a female. At least I restricted my groveling to telepathy, bombarding next door through the night with apologetic penitence and promises to amend. I said she was the prettiest girl I’d ever known personally and the smartest and most wonderful, and I could only hope that when we grew up she might accept me as a genuine authentic boyfriend but knew there wasn’t much chance of that since I was so much younger, so far behind her, and she’d have her pick of all the older guys.
In short, I made an abject wuss of myself. If only in my own mind.
But she reappeared the following day.
“You can be so silly sometimes,” she said primly. “Here, let me see—” Taking my head in her two hands (soft and ladylike now) and leaning in to assess the bruise she’d wrought on my left cheek.
Which she gave a tiny peck.
That’ll make it all better.
And may I be damned if it didn’t. •
[Sadly, The Sidewalk's End is now gone from the Web. Above is a replica of their July 2005 publication.]
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