We’re getting up in years, we few forthright men who revealed to each other that we wanted to write back in our youth. It takes a lot for a guy to open himself up that way to another man.
Is it Ed, or Gertrude?
There’s the odor of the effete about sitting down, waiting for inspiration, then scribbling your purple prose out on the blank page. And there’s the sin of ambition. You’re not content to become an accountant or an actuary–you want to become famous, huh? You think you’re better than everybody else?
But we stuck with it with varying degrees of failure, and now find ourselves looking back on what we haven’t accomplished. It’s about this time of year we get together for some wistful bonhomie as we slyly check out each other’s bald spots and paunches.
Faulkner: Gave up a promising career as a postmaster and took the easy way out to become a Nobel Prize-winning novelist.
There’s Ed, the guy who was smitten with William Faulkner as an undergraduate and almost allowed his infatuation with the Mississippi Master’s stream-of-consciousness style to ruin his career as an air traffic controller. There’s Rob, the Hemingway fan who had cosmetic surgery performed on his cat to add a toe to each paw. And there’s me, the Fitzgerald nut with my inflatable Zelda love doll.
Regardless of whom we modeled himself after, we had to admit that four decades later we’d been worn down to the same nub. When we hit our fifties, we all started to look not like our Lost Generation heroes, but like . . . Gertrude Stein. Stoop-shouldered, thick about the middle, not much hair.
“It was *sniff* cruel what he did to us!”
At first we joked about it in a nervous manner; keeping the horrible consequences at bay. But after a few years of channeling the woman known for her sophisticated baby talk, we embraced our inner Gertrudes. We turned competitive–as men are wont to do–and began to hold annual Gertrude Stein Look-Alike Contests.
When word got out there was the obligatory human interest story in the local paper, which got picked up by a wire service. The next year we were overwhelmed, like Yasgur’s Farm by Woodstock. Our little burg of twenty-some-thousand was transformed in a day to a mid-sized city five times that size by 80,000 grumpy, stocky, cross-dressing guys with close-cropped hair wandering around in baggy skirts muttering stuff like “I like this town but I don’t like that I’m in this town.”
“Contestants–if your last name begins with the letters A through M–line up on the left. Everybody else, on the right.”
You had to work to get it just right. Some of the younger squads would come into town with fancy matching embroidered loden coats–”Milwaukee Gertrude Brood”–and then crap out when it came time to complete the phrase “a house in the country . . . “
“Is not the same as a country house!” I’d fairly shout at the laggards from the provinces who thought all you had to do was skim “Tender Buttons” the night before “Stein Time.” Fat chance. As the Great Lady herself said, “Do you know because I tell you so, or do you know, do you know?”
You’d hear guys at the cash bar complaining about the judges as they hitched up their loose-fitting dirndl skirts. “Gimme a break,” I said to one loudmouth, and it wasn’t the absinthe talking. “What did Gertrude say–’The deepest thing in any one is the conviction of bad luck that follows boasting.’” That shut him up.
We went into the men’s room to relieve ourselves before we went on, and I caucused with Ed and Rob at the urinal. “You’ve got to remember,” I said as I cleared a path through the knee-length scarf I’d added to my outfit that morning, “be paradoxical, obscure and repetitive.”
“What was the last one again?” Ed asked as he shook himself.
“Repetitive,” I replied. “Like ‘I who am not patient am patient.’”
“Can I write crib notes on my sleeve?” Rob asked.
“NO!” I snapped, then lowered my voice when heads turned. “The essence of a good gertrudesteinism is errant, antic circularity.”
“Okay,” Ed said over the roar of the hand dryer.
“You guys ready?” I asked.
“I guess,” Rob said.
“You guess?” I straightened him up with a stiffarm to the shoulder. “‘It is funny that one who prepares is not ready.’ Got it?”
“I just don’t ‘get’ this Gertrude gal!”
A look of enlightenment came over him, as if he finally understood calculus, or Avogadro’s number, or the appeal of Kathie Lee Gifford.
“Got it,” he said. “The one who ‘gets’ something is the one who is gotten.”
“Attaboy,” I said with a grin. “Let’s go–in a direction we don’t want to go.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Dead Writers Make More Money.”