2017 Runner-up of the Bechtel Prize
By Eileen Sutton
Author Garth Greenwell selected Eileen Sutton’s “Dear Mr. Doctorow” as the runner-up for the 2017 Bechtel Prize. Teachers & Writers Collaborative awards the Bechtel Prize to the author of an exemplary essay that explores themes related to creative writing, arts education, and/or the imagination.
Greenwell said, “This beautiful story is a record of the truest kind of reading: the wondrous, antagonistic, grateful, hectoring conversation we have with the books that change our lives. What’s more, it’s written with a vividness of voice and command of tone that the great Doctorow would have admired.”
The mind empties itself, Mr. Doctorow. You grow old and year by year a few more things fall out of your brains. When he wrapped the meat the butcher did something in the wrist I can’t recall. In her last hour of life Mama screamed four words at the ceiling that have vanished. The forgetting. It will happen you’ll see. Other memories are in the bones. You turn your thoughts sideways for a thousand years trying to get away but the soul decides.
I am Sadie Wishel from East 2nd Street, one of the last Russians left around here, all of us going fast. I take borscht every Wednesday at Leshko’s and pretend Sasha is still at his cart selling me socks for a quarter. With Sasha I could never tell if just the smile was crooked. He smiled too much. A man with an average wife and five screaming children who rose early and worked hard every day of his short life. No one should be that pleasant but the smile let you in. Maybe I was too tired even younger and too mean to believe in Sasha’s heart. That gangster grin of his, taking cover in his cheeks. He always gave me the right change. I’ll give him that. I’d cut the fat green string when I got the socks home, wondering if they’d been stolen from a warehouse you needed a secret password for, three knocks or something equally ridiculous like you see in the movies with a set of eyes peering out from a little slat that moved sideways. Somehow I saw the women and the men in the sweatshops who had made the socks. Desperate, degraded workers, people like me made humble and apprehensive by a terrible world with cruelty for everyone. I loved wrapping Sasha’s life in a little darkness even though the socks made at least one old woman happy for five minutes or two hours. The stories in my thoughts brought a little adventure and made some of the dull days go faster. But enough of ghosts.
I wish I had better news. One evening after Jeopardy Mr. Doctorow I started your very nice book World’s Fair. I was going along fine but stopped when there was less sweetness. I called my friend Ruth who’s been on 4th Street between C and D for 33 years. She’s not always nice but if I died in my sleep she’d take my dresses to the synagogue and make sure no one said a bad word. Most of the time Ruth is patient and lets me get it out because I need to complain. She knows I’m bitter but would never use that word to my face.
I hate this book, I told Ruth. This little boy Edgar is so vulnerable he hides under pianos. Who wants to read an entire story about a confused, sensitive child who agonizes over a hangnail, so many thoughts his head could fall off? As I talked to Ruth I paced this way and that around my apartment as far as the phone cord would reach and my breathing came faster.
Sadie, relax, she said, you’re hysterical. You sound like the time the man in Tompkins Square Park let the pigeons walk on his head and eat out of his pockets.
Ruth was harsh with me. Impatient. Like I was senile on the Bowery with my hair out to here.
You relax, I said, slamming the phone.
I wasn’t hysterical, Mr. Doctorow. Believe me. Your story gave me a sensation. A plink.
A few days later the book, daring me, I took it up again. I opened it like the teenagers open the closed door in the haunted house on the Million Dollar Movie. We go near things we shouldn’t. We’re idiots. This time I wasn’t annoyed. This time I could see a little better inside Edgar’s thoughts and my eyes filled with tears over his big words and his troubles. A grown woman, watering the pages of a book like my canary had flown into a furnace. Shameful. Thank God I live alone. No one saw. I sat for a long time, the day passing me by but I paid no attention. I was hungry for a slice of the marble rye I had gotten from Moshe that morning but still I sat. You persuaded me, after all, that Edgar was brave. He needed the Bronx to leave him alone so he could be a good boy in peace and quiet. Children know the world can eat them alive. Edgar observed things like a little wrestler, kept his life pinned to the ground with facts and feelings so he didn’t get punched in the head. He tried to feel fine. Every day he started over. Chasing the comfort. So many gorgeous details you have there. Like a photograph almost in Life magazine. I read faster as if a hurricane was coming. But once I started weeping into the pages I knew a pretend boy made of words had broken open my stiff bent bones and out came the grief. A mudslide.
I was born in the Jewish ghetto on Madison Street. Nine of us. Sardines. When I was Edgar’s age there were no soldiers or sirens or ovens. Just a threat. A terror. Said without words. That any ordinary day a sickness could hitch a ride on a coat or a shoe, dangle from the end of a spaghetti the Italian family made next door as they coughed and this sickness on a skinny spaghetti could make a home in my belly, a poor girl from a poor family with nothing. Sometimes during supper I pushed the spaghetti around on my plate and Mama hit me and yelled. Let someone else eat the spaghetti, I whispered in the dark to no one. A banker. A senator. The president of Russia. A mean girl with mean thoughts but the shame had no power. I was a wrestler like Edgar. Trying to win. The meanness gave me hope.
Real things happened to me then. Little details. What I wore to school. What I got for my eighth birthday. Who I hated. How the outhouse smelled. Who put snow down my boots. Which one of Mrs. Adelman’s boys next door yelled the signal out the window so we’d run east in summer when a beautiful wind brought right to our backs the spray of the East River and there was squealing.
But you can’t know. Whatever life was day by day I was pretending. My laughter in the gutter. In my mind I was never not running. Never not anxious. In the candy store. Seeing the grinder with the monkey. My eyes watching. Waiting for something impossible to wait for. This was not normal. Childhood was for freedom. Marbles. Soaring. Not a time to be ravaged by fear. I know it for a fact, Mr. Doctorow, Edgar did not worry like me, his mother who needed him like the sun even if she never said so and his scrawny grandmother with her strange Jewish words and the brother he adored and his father with the beautiful record store, a whole family each day who yelled or held him but still. Love. Certainly Edgar worried. But not like me. I worried better.
I would sit straight up in the stillest part of a bitter winter night, hearing in the street the death wagon downstairs, my tiny heart flying, the horses snorting and stamping cold feet. I would count my family in the dark, blowing on my hands to make sure of my breath. Sometimes my father was already awake. Counting first. He’d wave.
I was born on a pitiful crowded street filled with germs and sorrow. But I was innocent. A genuine pure American girl. Free of phantoms. It was my birthright to sleep. But always in my mind the illness, chasing, with feet and legs. I begged God to let me rest quiet and still, indifferent and blissful, like a baby or the dead.
When she was fourteen my mother hid in a chimney in Odessa. Her tiny village was so poor and desolate even the flies were sad. She stayed silent for many hours so the Cossacks arriving on horseback could not have her and the ash went down her throat and coated her eyes and she struggled not to cough and by the grace of heaven on that day not a single rat found her hiding place as she prayed for the brick and the dust to keep her secret. She would tell us the chimney story with a face so horrible even Satan never meant a human creature to have such a stare. How those soldiers found Mama’s dirt roads and scrawny cows and empty fallow fields to start with or cared less about the handful of Jews who lived there she never knew. But there were no pogroms in the Bronx.
The sentence, hold on, I’m finding, page 266, Edgar and his little girlfriend up on the parachute ride at the World’s Fair, like two little pendants swinging there, no doubt the kind of beautiful clear American night my parents, crammed into those humiliating ships, dreamed of and came for. Getting into bed after finishing the book, my body trembled and shook the sheets when I tried to sleep. I was jealous of Edgar. Resentful. Anxious over his little bit of joy and how terribly thrilled he had been plummeting safely to earth with the beautiful red parachute far above him. In the morning for a distraction I washed the sweat off my blue linens by hand in the middle of the week, even.
Your little Edgar’s luxury in S. Kleins was my outrage. A harried little boy and the gigantic clothes racks and the mother desperately needing bargains and dragging him like a broken suitcase—beautiful truth like the Old Testament in that department store you have there. But normal worry. Normal. A boy’s boyhood agony. I would have traded a lung for a lunatic mother and terror that normal.
Books like yours for Jews like me are little bibles, Mr. Doctorow. Horror stories. Lightning and fury and God’s strange unwelcomed destinies. Such words. Shame on you. But this is what books do. They destroy us.
The sentences in your perfect terrible book, attached close and hard like the locked train cars I never rode, every last one of them made me little again, reunited me with the horror of a room in which the crooked table and my sister’s braid and the fire wood and Papa’s cracked shaving mirror, everything so alive and familiar but far away and not altogether there. The air in our apartment it crinkled, the nights I shook and my mind twisted around itself. Was I mad? Desperate for a sliver of first light, I was overjoyed to see the morning sun despite the burning in my sleepless eyes because I had lived one more day.
Edgar I must say I have come to resent. I could care less about his loneliness that doesn’t hold a candle. I resent books and memories and family. I resent life. I resent you. The pretend Fourth of July grave you made for Edgar’s well-meaning grandmother, I saw myself in a plain wooden box covered in dirt and I shivered, frantic suddenly to start my entire life over again with shiny black hair, impressing a fine boy in a ballroom as we held each other long into the night, everyone, devoured by envy, watching me and the sweet boy dancing, my eyes reflecting the glow of the crystal chandeliers above.
One last thing. Page by page I cut up your World’s Fair. The entire book. Here it is in this envelope. All the pieces. I read better books now, Mr. Doctorow. No children. No offense. I found a very nice story about Jewish pirates. Hard workers. May you be healthy like an ox and a little happier each day for the rest of your life. You broke me in two.
About the Author:
Eileen Sutton is an unrepentant humanist. She writes novels, stories, essays, and memoir, and has a passion for documenting the vigorous collisions of race, class, loss, and love as she works to break new ground in urban fiction. She protects free access to the arts by leading workshops in partnership with the New York Writers Coalition. Eileen holds an MFA from NYU where she was mentored by E.L. Doctorow. Her writing has been honored by The Mailer Review, Salon, Glimmer Train, and the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, among others.
Image (top) credit by Destination Guides