I'm curious about them myself. But they all seem to come from that strange place sitting on my shoulders. Here, you'll find a variety of plays, short stories, novels, and screenplays. They were preceeded by 40 years of advertising campaigns for more than 200 major corporations. And before, during and after that, I did a little acting and directing.

However, they're not all fiction. For instance:

 

HARVESTING THE FAMILY TREE
by
Gene Fiskin

 

My mother stood a hair under five feet tall and weighed about 200 lbs. She walked around the house bare-assed, was affectionate and cursed fluently in several languages.  She came off very much like a short, round, longshoreman with voluminous breasts and a gift for hugging.  That was more than 65 years ago and I still haven’t forgiven her for committing suicide. 

For my father’s health we migrated from New York City in 1939 and eventually bought a small house in Los Angeles.  Oddly, it had a chimney but no fireplace.  Just a brick chimney standing above the roof that went straight down through the house – with no openings - and ended in the dirt.  Unless they were under the impression it would hold up the building, I’ve no idea why someone would do that.  Apparently the builder thought a chimney implied a fireplace and that in turn implied some kind of status..  But clearly it was just a waste of good bricks.  We lived in that house a few weeks before any of us thought to wonder why we had a chimney outside which served no purpose whatever.

In this structure there was a single bedroom whose rear wall didn’t quite reach the floor, it moved easily with the slightest breeze.  My parents shared that bedroom with Michael, my younger brother.  He was five at the time and my father adored him, a fondness he didn’t share with me or my older brother, Jay.  Then, when my father was no longer able to walk to the bathroom, we bought a used hospital bed and moved him into the living room, which he was obliged to share with his two least favored sons. 

My father had an enlarged heart and was slowly dying.  In fact, he died in that house.  However, he outlived three doctors in New York who said he’d be dead in six months.

The foundation of this strange little building, we discovered, was comprised of termite-eaten chunks of eucalyptus.  No concrete or stone, just two-foot-tall slices of rotted timber.  Jay and I had crawled under the house to see why the center of the dining room – which was no wider than eight or nine feet – bowed up so that if you dropped anything it slid to one side or the other.  We were under the house when we realized the only thing holding it up was these fragile pieces of tree which were better employed in a fireplace.  With us at the time was our dog, a sweet but genuinely stupid Dalmatian who was clearly no smarter than my brother and I.  A happy beast whose tail was always in motion, that wagging whip hit one of the stumps of eucalyptus and we watched it crumble into dust.  It then occurred to us that while the house was quite old it was also likely quite heavy.   The three of us flew from under this arcane structure destroying more of its foundation on our way out.

After my father’s death and my mother’s suicide, Jay and I decided to do something about the dining room floor which was still a few inches higher in the center.  Since the floor was a series of narrow wood planks we reasoned if we removed one from the center, the remaining boards would settle down and possibly become level.  Extreme optimism?  Perhaps.  Still, to two opportunists it seemed logical.  At any rate, Jay persuaded me to go under the house, and with him above and me below, use tools and a saw to take out that offending  plank.

Let me digress for a moment, it’ll help to understand what followed:  Jay was a very successful chaser and seducer of young women and that ability dominated any and all interests he may otherwise have had.   

Back to the dining room floor.  We managed to remove that center plank, though the floor appeared to retain its arc.  However, while my behind was sitting on the earth beneath the house, my head was now sticking up through the hole in the floor.  It was then I discovered getting my head back with my body was not going to be as simple as I thought.  The floor had settled slightly and now my ears were in the way.  The phone rang, which Jay answered since I was in no position to.  It was a girl, one inviting him to come over and share what she had to offer.  He turned to the head protruding from the floor and said, “See ya,” then bolted away toward a sure thing.

I was struggling to get out when someone knocked on the front door, which was a visual straight shot to the center of the dining room.  Naturally, I said “Come in.”  The door opened, and talking non-stop as usual, our little old neighbor from next door entered, complaining he had almost been run over in Jay’s haste to back out of the driveway.  It was a moment before he realized he was talking to a head apparently resting on the dining room floor.  He didn’t faint.  But he did wet himself.  He fled, bellowing for help.

The police arrived and managed to keep a straight face while helping me extract myself.  The next day Jay finally returned.  Standing over the vast new hole in the floor, we had a serious, if rancorous talk.  It didn’t change anything, but it made me feel better.

A lot of things happened during our relatively brief stay in that house:  my father died, my mother committed suicide, Jay took my younger brother to live with relatives in New York, and at 16, urged on by Jay, I joined the Marine Corps.  Over all,  I’d have to say it was not an entirely pleasant time.

All right, the house was on the strange side.  But so, too, were its occupants.  I loved them dearly, but can’t help but question the sanity of the people I lived with and to whom I am clearly related.  For instance, for most of my life  I firmly believed my father posed for a portion of the statue of Atlas in Rockefeller Center.   Not that the face or body looked anything like my father, but in my youth Jay had declared said modeling a fact.  Since I was nine years younger than him and at the original telling, incredibly naïve, I believed him.  Only a few years ago did he off-handedly mention that that story usually went over well with ladies.  When I said I had always believed the statue legend was true, he laughed in my face and tried to borrow some money.

I originally started out in New York City, of that there is little doubt, my affinity for that place having always been emotional.  It alternates between lust for, and disgust with.  At the moment I am recalling it with favor.  In fact my first memory takes place in a New York railroad-flat kitchen.  I like to think this is a very early toddler memory and not something occurring just before I learned to shave.  Thirst was prompting me to request “bloop bloop” from my mother. Without hesitation she gave me a drink of water.  How she understood my plea is now astonishing to me.  Either she taught me that that odd sound represented something wet in a glass, or I was an acute observer of less than perfect plumbing.  Whatever the answer, if the circumstances were reversed, she would have shriveled up and blown away before I could have translated “bloop bloop” into anything meaningful.

Though my birthday is supposed to be sometime in June, that may or may not be entirely accurate since my older sibling, and possibly my parents, seem to have been somewhat casual in terms of exactness.  For instance, my birth certificate shows a name different than the one I’ve walked around with all my life.  It seems a neighbor supplied the information to the hospital.  Clearly, not a close neighbor.  Still, I’ve come to think of my identify, and the month of June, as somehow being related to me. 

Now, my mother.  She was odd.  That's not as disrespectful as it sounds.  It's simply a loose description of a woman overflowing with affection and profanity.  And, apparently, a strange kind of resourcefulness.  My aunt related the time she and my mother, as young girls, were riding bicycles down a steep hill near their home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. ,It seems the brakes on my mother’s bike failed just as a train was crossing at the foot of the hill.  Opting for the lesser of evils, she turned her two-wheeler into a parked truck.  I don’t know how many stitches it took to put her together, but deliberately taking a header into a large parked vehicle rather than a moving train, clearly requires objective evaluation as well as ballsy determination. 

 

 

 

 

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To   Bridgeport was where my grandmother owned a house with two kitchens, one for cooking in and the other for show. Strange lady.  Hungarian, and one of the few women just after the turn of the century who preferred divorce to staying married to a man she didn’t care about.  That’s got to be where my mother learned to swear in Hungarian,  English and Yiddish.

I’ve mentioned my mother’s size.   Once, after much badgering by her family, she got herself down to a cranky size four.  I recall her being in the process of serving a luscious meal, when she grabbed my father by the shirt and said, “Take a good look, buster because I’m done starving myself.” To everyone’srelief, in no time at all the fat lady hiding in that skinny body came home, and peace once again reigned.

Incidentally, another family story is that she won the title of “Miss Connecticut” when she was a girl.  I’ve seen pictures of her then and she was pretty.  I don’t know if that event is true, but when a short, chubby lady walks into an occupied room wearing nothing but the dust from peanut shells, you know you’re seeing self-confidence that just might harken back to a more attractive past. 

She could also laugh at herself.  One day, before she became depressed and suicidal, she had hung laundry out in the back yard, and was looking through the kitchen window to study the weather.  Apparently, she decided it might rain.  She walked out into the yard and began taking down the clothes.  Unfortunately, she was unaware she was nude.  Our neighboring little old man, however, was also in his backyard and nothing stood between those yards to obstruct the view.  He stared, his mouth open, while my mother chattered away about the weather.  After she came back in and realized she was naked, she started laughing.  She thought what had happened was hilarious.  Later, dressed, she went over and apologized to him, though she said he couldn’t  bring himself to look directly at her.

Some people recall their Moms wearing gingham and smelling of fresh baked bread.  I think of mine bare-assed, and calling me a little bastard.  I never challenged that epithet thinking that if anyone would know, she would.  She also called me a sonofabitch once, and when I agreed with her and pointed out she probably hadn’t thought that phrase through, she tried to kill me with a fly swatter.  One of those old fly swatters with soft-wire handles.  And every time she hit me over the head with it, it bent and shaped itself to my skull.  We both ended up on the floor laughing hysterically. 

And my father?  Now, there is a mystery.  I wish I had known him better, but he died while I was in my teens.  I am told he was the stage manager for Ziegfield.  The truth?  I’ve no idea.  However, that he was an early member of Local One of the I.A.T.S.E. - the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees - is not in question.  It’s been said he was quite important to that organization.  If you’ve no idea who they are, next time look at the final credits of any movie.  Films don’t get made and Broadway shows don’t make it to the stage unless the I.A.T.S.E. is there to run up their production costs. 
That my father was a pioneer union man is an absolute fact, and when later I worked in New York theaters both as a grip and an actor, any number of ancient stagehands spoke of my father and happily provided a variety of Jack Fiskin anecdotes.  I even heard he taught the New York police department to ride motorcycles.  True?  It could have been.  I know he broke a leg in a motorcycle accident that tossed my mother from a sidecar some time before I was born.  The rest of that story is, he was racing a police car when he hit a brick in the road.  It’s claimed before he passed out, he was trying to persuade the cop he had done it deliberately.

Another well known fact is that he was goosey as hell, and once, after being loosely fingered, plunged on stage through one of Ziegfield’s huge powder puff sets.  I’ve always liked that one.  And I’ll vouch for him being goosey and yet going through life with a ready finger.  For a man with a sensitive behind he didn’t mind inviting danger.

I also recall hearing “I don’t know how many times your mother caught him with his hands on Ziegfield’s chorus girls.”  That last is gospel because my mother told me at least one story that bears it out.  It seems he had been pestering an attractive young dancer who gyrated on stage while bare-breasted models paraded about with enormous constructions on their heads.  The story goes, he always teasingly asked this dancer to drop her top, which she refused to do.  Then, one night she stood on the stairs going up to her dressing room and called out, “Oh, Mr. Fiskin. If you really have to see them, here they are.”  She unsnapped her costume top and stood there revealing the object of my father’s interest.   Apparently he quick-stepped toward her, arms outstretched, eager digits at the ready - just as my mother emerged from behind the stairs.  Seeing Mom he whipped around in a blur and started frantically hauling away scenery.  The girl stamped her foot and ran up the steps.  Watching my father, my mother laughed so hard they had to escort her from the theater.  They never found the scenery he hustled away that night and that missing set has become something of a theatrical legend.

Often when my father traveled, my mother went along with him, so probably the stage manager tale is so.  In one particular show the justification was to have her sit on a prop moon hanging about 30 feet above the stage while the electricians lit the scene.  One night she and my father had a terrible row and as she fumed on the moon high above the stage, my father tied it off and threatened to fire anyone who let her down.  She was stranded up there for several hours swearing like the trooper she was.  Five minutes before curtain time some brave soul finally lowered her to the stage.  My father disappeared for three days, which probably was a good thing for me since emasculated men hardly ever father children.
When he finally rejoined the show my mother was walking from the hotel toward the theater when Jack, the Contrite, drove up in an Essex he had recently won from a Pennsylvania sheriff in some kind of bizarre contest, and pleaded for forgiveness.  She stopped a cop and claimed the man in the Essex was molesting her.  My father sat in the Kansas City jail overnight trying to convince the police that the woman who had him arrested was his wife.  They were skeptical and unmoved.  Then around noon the next day she bailed him out.  My parents knew how to have fun. 

There is also the story of a party he threw at their apartment.  ExLax was a new product then and a friend of his was distributing samples.  My father took several pockets-full and carefully unwrapped each square of chocolate laxative before placing them in a bowl.  These he offered around to his guests - singers, contortionists and acrobats with the show.  Then he double locked the front door with a key and bolted himself into the apartment’s only bathroom.  He lay laughing in the tub smoking a cigar while the pleas of his athletic guests’ turned to angry threats.  Ultimately they broke through the front door.  That portal was in place and pretty much back to original within a few days.  The carpet, however, never fully recovered. 

Why all this has come to mind is that another Mother’s Day has just passed and Father’s Day will soon be upon us.  My parents have been gone a long time now and while I know they’ve passed on, I’m not sure death has that great a grip on them.  They may still just be out there somewhere raising hell and having fun.  I’d like to think that’s the case, and this remembrance is as close to a gift as I can give them. 

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(c) 2010 Gene Fiskin, All Rights Reserved