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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt.

8 Brooklyn NY 11215

The Truck Across From My Apartment Is Not A Metaphor

That Korean-war-era Army dump truck must have come while I slept. It has a parking ticket on its windshield, probably from the alternate-side rules, 8:00 to 11:00 this morning. Something covered by a tarp sits in its bed, a mound of dirt or possibly bricks. I'm not sure why it didn't wake me. I sleep lightly and my bedroom faces on the street, and a truck as heavy and old as that should be loud. (I could sleep in the room at the back of the apartment—the apartment's true bedroom, where the closet is—instead of this front room, but I need quiet when I work more than I need uninterrupted sleep.) At two o'clock I go downstairs to check the mail. I've become like an old woman, organizing my day around that little break. On my way through the lobby I ask the super, who's taken the front off the garbage chute to poke down some unseen blockage with a pole, if he knows the story with the truck. He says no, and I carry my credit card bill and magazine renewal notice back to my apartment.

The next day there's a crack in the windshield, one I'm reasonably but not totally sure wasn't


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

there before. Then nothing for three days. The truck collects another ticket but isn't towed. Maybe it's too big for the city wreckers. Meanwhile I collect two rejection letters and a check from my best publishing-house client for the last book I'd copyedited. Much needed but still too small. The rejection letters are for my foodless stories. I write stories with food in them that are sometimes published, but the stories without food never are. The food stories started because a friend of mine, also a writer, likes to complain. He says that the only way to get published is to write about your immigrant parents or grandparents, or about how your parents or grandparents at least migrated from somewhere else in the country, like the South, or rural New England. And it especially helps, he says, if you throw in handeddown recipes and big family meals at holidays. As a lark we each wrote one, and mine was printed. And then another one was as well, and another, and another. The only four acceptance letters I've ever gotten. I'd have liked to keep on looking down on editors' tastes, especially since they were apparently so easy to manipulate. But lately I couldn't help suspecting that the magazines were right, that the food stories were better than my usual. Maybe the discipline of a voice, a theme, and an organizing principle not my own had freed me, the way the structure of a sonnet or a villanelle could do for a poet. If that was true it was awfully depressing, because I don't feel anything for the food stories' characters. If anything I dislike them a little. They're all young Jewish women rediscovering their identities through borscht and matzah brei, and they're all insipid. They're trapped in dilemmas whose ultimate resolutions, achieved some time after a


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

final, portentous period, bore me, and I find their fascination with their heritage an obvious attempt to deflect certain basic existential questions into bubbling pots of tsimmes and comforting childhood memories. They also make me feel guilty, because after all, to make them I mine my own Jewish childhood for details. I'd rather they weren't my best creations. Nevertheless, I am proud of them; it's impossible not to be at least a little proud of anything I made. The next street-cleaning morning I go to the window to see whether my truck has gotten a third ticket, and it's gone. The police must have finally called in one of those big wreckers made for semis. A minute later, though, I see that's it's only moved to the other side of the street. It's off to the right now, facing away, and I can see into the bed. It is bricks under that tarp, a cubic stack of them. Again I can't understand how I could have slept through that 50-year-old engine starting right under my window, and through all the gear-gnashing back-and-forth when it turned around and reparked. I also can't understand how the driver could have been so lucky as to find alternate-side parking for that behemoth, in this neighborhood, on the night before sweeping.

Three days later the truck switches again, back to its original side of the street, and then once more a few days after that. I take my latest copyediting job, a new selection of the letters of D.H. Lawrence, to my bedroom, so I can sit on the bed and watch for the truck's owner. I still go to


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

the back room to work on my latest story, but it turns out I can stand to copyedit through the street noise. It still bothers me, but only the way rough fabric worn too long on a hot day bothers the skin. When I'm writing I have no skin. The discovery pleases me. I must be a serious artist if my art is the only thing I can't stand disturbed. Lawrence could write particularly nasty letters, and my new story is inspired by one the nastiest, a reply to a fan written when Lawrence was 27:
I can see all the poetry at the back of your verse – but there isn't much inside the lines. It's the rhythm and the sound that don't penetrate the blood – only now and then. I don't like the crackly little lines, nor the 'thou wouldest' style, nor 'mighty hills' and garlands and voices of birds and caskets – none of that. I can remember a few things, that nearly made poems in themselves... The first stanza of 'Adventure' is so nice, and I love Now – go thy way. Ah, through the open door Is there an almond tree Aflame with blossom! A little longer stay – Why do tears blind me? Nay, but go thy way. That's a little poem, sufficient in itself. Then you go off to the 'Love did turn to hate' business. And fancy anybody saying 'Boy, whither away?' Then I like I think you must have died last night For in my dreams you came to me – then the rest isn't good. Do them in better form – put them in blank verse or something. Your rhythms aren't a bit good… Excuse this horrid bit of paper. And thanks so much for letting me read the poems. I suppose you are between 30 and 40 years of age? Do you mind your papers being squashed into this envelope?

The story has no food in it, so I don't expect it to be published. In it, an unnamed protagonist superficially but not noumenally unlike me has mailed a much-admired writer a sample of his work. In return he receives a letter like Lawrence's, condemning every part of his artistic vision,

Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

attitude, and method, and praising only a few accidental bits, mostly having to do with Jewish identity. The protagonist takes the criticism seriously, and alters the direction of his efforts so that now he writes about his heritage and its small community politics. His work begins to find an audience. His first novel describes forty or so Jews who come to Savannah in the mid-seventeenth century, and how they build a functioning Jewish community from nothing. They license a shochet and a mashgiach so that they can have kosher meat, and a mohel so that their sons can be circumcised. They consecrate a cemetery, build a ritual bath, and eventually build a synagogue. All without a rabbi, who would have been the community's authoritative guide back in Europe, meaning that together they have to find new ways to decide who will pay for what, and who will be in charge. The people at my protagonist's book-signings are overwhelmingly Jewish, and their reactions dismay him. What interested him in writing the book were not his characters' religious needs but their new American polity. But his admirers only say how important it is to them to see that the ritual of centuries ago was so similar to that of today; its constancy comforts them in the face of the slow dissolve of American assimilation. He feels totally unlike them, and as a result less connected to his own Jewishness. Then, ten years after that first fan letter, the protagonist comes across an interview with his idol. In it the idol admits that while he occasionally reads his fan mail himself, his grad students deal with most of it.


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

That's as far as I've gotten, although I have some idea of what comes next. I'm going to shift the point of view to the idol, watching as he suffers through the letter-writer-protagonist's elaborate revenge. It is a revenge premised on small, inexplicable disruptions of the idol's daily life: the idol invariably moves his bowels after his morning coffee; every night all the toilet paper disappears from his house. All of his mail, not just the junk but all of it, even the personal letters, arrives with his name slightly misspelled, always in the same way. The name on his checks changes too, and on all his credit cards and his driver's license and his birth certificate, so that he begins to wonder whether his name isn't really spelled that way after all; and then one day they all change back. And of course, because I borrow details from life, a new truck appears on the protagonist's suburban street, a big, ugly truck, which none of his neighbors will admit even to noticing let alone owning.

The Army truck shuttles back and forth for weeks, and eventually I notice that the pile of bricks has gone down by about two thirds. It throws me. My story goes nowhere for days as I spend hours crosslegged on my bed, looking out the window and pretending to edit.

Spring comes, a mild fifty degrees at noon and a fresh smell. I abandon my window and go


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

for a walk by the river. A couple of years ago Donald Trump built a row of luxury apartments along the river, cutting off everyone else's view, and in compensation the city made him build a park on a wasted stretch of waterfront, aluminum-rod-and-concrete jetties and boardwalks. I haven't been down there since fall, even though it's barely a three-block walk and winter wasn't bitter. It's full. Rollerbladers cruise the bike path in spandex and fishermen lean against the rails, buckets at their feet. Dogs are everywhere, big ones behind joggers and tiny ones, their legs spinning like sanderlings', behind rich women or the embarrassed husbands of rich women. A little downtown, just before the park dives under the highway, I find a pile of what might be my truck's missing bricks. It's hard to be sure, since bricks all look similar, but I think that if I take one back and compare it I might be able to tell. But when I put my hand to one to take it, I discover it won't move. There's cement hidden in there somewhere, which means that even though it looks like a big jumbled pile, someone made this on purpose. I walk around it a couple of times. It's longer than it is wide and humped, like half a potato lying on its cut face. In some places the bricks are parallel so that there seem to be ridges, and it sits right at the tip of one of those bright green arrows street crews paint on the asphalt to mark buried sewer and power lines, with the arrow pointing to it. Finally I see what it is: a six foot brick challah. The ridges are the three braids wrapping around one another. I go home.


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

When I get to the front of my building I notice another painted arrow, the same color as the one by the challah, pointing toward the park, and when I lift my eyes in that direction I see another fifteen feet on, pointing the same way. I backtrack to that one and see another, and then from the next another, until they lead me all the way back to the brick sculpture. There's no sewer line they could be tracing down here, not down that hill and bike path and along the edge of the water; they're supposed to lead someone from my apartment building to this spot. Maybe me. If so I have to think it has something to do with the Jewish food stories, although I can't imagine what.

I've decided that in my story, the idol will stake out the truck by sleeping in it. The only problem is one of suspense: as soon as the idol goes for his sleeping bag, the reader will expect the truck to drive away with him. I can drag it out as much as I want, describing the storage space under the stairs where the idol has to find the bag, the dew on the neighbor's lawn at midnight, the metallic rattle of the truck's rear bumper when he climbs it—I could even, for the sake of plausibility, not have the truck carry the idol off the first night but say instead that the stakeout lasts a week or more. In any case the reader will see the end coming, because the reader knows from a hundred movies and stories that trucks always drive away if you sleep in them. It's their function. If they were supposed to stay put they wouldn't be there. The only way to get around the suspense problem, I think, is with another point of view shift. The letter-writing protagonist comes back to his truck and discovers the idol sleeping in it.


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

Let's say the letter-writer has a problem. In the interview the idol didn't say he never answers his own fan mail, he said he does it rarely, so there's a small chance that the long-ago advice came from him after all. If that's true, the letter-writer should stick with the Jewish thing even if it's frustrating. If it's not true, the letter-writer has made his success out of his own talent, not the idol's wise advice, and he'll be successful no matter what he writes about. Objectively, he knows, he should be able to decide for himself. Objectively it doesn't matter who answered his letter, what matters is the effect. But this objective understanding hasn't helped him start his next book; he's had writer's block for weeks, and every day is spent vacillating between being poised, dry, on the edge of crying, and a horrible crawling feeling like his nerves are writhing in their sheathes. So when the letter-writer sees his idol in the truck, I think I'll have him decide to kidnap him and make him read again that old sheaf of bad stories (it wouldn't be fair to put the old stuff up against anything new; he's gotten much better), to see if the idol again praises only those few passages. The story could end with him driving, thinking ahead to his idol's choice.

I don't sleep in the truck bed. I think about it, even take my own sleeping bag down from the top of the closet, but I can't. Sleeping in a truck bed in a suburb and sleeping in a truck bed on West 66th Street are very different propositions. Instead I just keep watching, hoping to see the driver. I don't. Eventually the truck disappears. I have to resign myself to not solving its minor mystery. If


Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

this were a story I might have that eat at my protagonist, but the fact is I will probably forget about it pretty soon. In real life something may obsess me for a while, but if I stop seeing it every day I usually let it go. I haven't even asked anyone about the truck, except my super that once, or about the challah, and although I tell myself I've been vigilant by my window I probably haven't. When I send the new story out for publication I do it with this cover letter:

Dear ———, This story is about writing, and I know no one likes stories about that; worse, it contains no recipes. The first defect cannot be corrected, but I'd be more than willing to address the second if that makes the vital difference between publication and not. I've even picked out the recipe. Mom's Spinach Kugel (for Passover, from my actual mother) 2 pounds fresh spinach 4 matzohs 7 large eggs 1½ tsp. salt ½ tsp. black pepper vegetable oil for pan Wash and chop spinach. Soak matzohs in warm water until soft, then squeeze out as much water as possible. Combine eggs, salt, and pepper with matzoh pulp, stir into spinach. Pour oil into 9X13" baking pan to about ⅛" depth. Turn pudding mixture into pan and brush a little more oil over top. Bake in middle of oven at 350° for one hour.


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