Excerpts from Three Part Invention
by Judith Laura
From Chapter 1,
Alexis introduces us to Alice and Izzy
From Chapter 13, Beth goes on a diet
From Chapter 35, Alexis goes to nursery school
ISBN 9780578029948/Open Sea Press/Publication Date: September 2009/Trade Paperback/ 6"x9" / 382 pages/list price $14.95/ Distributed by Ingram /
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From Chapter 1:
hen I play keyboards in rock-jazz fusion bands I go by the name Wind. Ben gave me that name. I could have made it fancier by using another word with Wind, like Windstorm, or Soft Wind, or Wild Wind. But I wanted to just be Wind—that could sometimes blow one way, sometimes another.
When I perform classical piano I go by the name my parents gave me, after both my grandmothers. I like being connected to my grandmothers that way. I feel especially close to my mother’s mother, who was a pianist. I never met her. But I know a lot about her. I suppose some of it’s from what my mother told me. But I don’t think she told me all I seem to know. I could say I found a diary that my mother wrote giving all the details of her life, especially the stuff from the 1960s and ‘70s that people today seem to think is so cool. But my mother’s an artist and doesn’t do diaries. And I could say I found letters from my grandmother revealing what a wonderful, sensitive person she was even though my mother hated her. But Ma says Grandma hardly ever wrote letters.
So that’s not how I know this stuff. Like I said, some of it my mother told me. But the rest of it―
I know this is harder to believe than diaries or letters, but what’s the point if I don’t tell the truth? So here it is:
The rest of what I know comes from what I feel flow through me when I’m playing music, like when I’m practicing the piano. Not when I’m performing at a concert because then I’m too nervous. But I get lots of stuff when I’m at the keyboards with the band, when we’re just riffing for ourselves.
When it comes to me, it feels like memories—but memories I couldn’t possibly be remembering. I guess things my mother told me combine with the stuff I remember from my own life and then the music makes my imagination take off. For example, the way my grandparents met—my mother told me that story so many times I feel like I was there:
Between the Brahms and the Beethoven he asked her to marry him and she said yes.
Taking a break from their music-making, Alice had gotten up from the piano and gone into the kitchen to get some tea. Her parents sat at the kitchen table, Poppa sipping his tea through a sugar cube like in the old country while reading the Yiddish newspaper and shaking his head over what was brewing in Germany with Adolph Hitler, Momma crocheting and wiping her eyes of the moisture she said her allergies put there.
When Alice started fussing with the teapot Momma said in her thick Jewish-Polish accent, “Kindele, let me do that. You go back with Isadore.”
But Alice kept on making the tea, enjoying the feeling of doing something for Izzy. Momma laid aside her crocheting and wiped her hands on her housedress. At the stove, she shooed Alice away.
Izzy in the meantime had begun going over a part in the music he had found difficult when they were playing together. Alice knew he wasn’t aware of her as she stood in the darkened vestibule next to her father’s closed sewing machine, thinking how handsome Izzy looked as he lunged into the piece, his bowing arm moving rapidly and strongly back and forth over the strings of the violin, sweat beading his forehead and glistening above his moustache. Then he stopped, shaking his head in a familiar gesture that meant he had become impatient with his own inability to get a passage just right.
“Momma will bring the tea in a minute,” Alice said, emerging from the shadows. “I’m tired of the Brahms for tonight. Why don’t we do the Beethoven?” She changed the music on the piano music holder.
“Sure,” he said, sighing as he closed his Brahms. “But first let’s sit down on the sofa a minute and wait for the tea.” She sat down next to him. “We play good duets,” he said.
“I don’t know. Sometimes you get so impatient. With me. With yourself even.”
“So I’m impatient. That’s just how I am. That doesn’t mean I’m angry with you. It’s just that I know how it should sound and sometimes we fall short.”
They laughed together and he took her hand. “Alice, I like when we’re together.” And then she knew he was about to say it, although exactly how she knew she couldn’t explain. Except maybe that his hand was trembling a little. “Alice, I think we’re so good together we should be together permanently.”
said nothing. She just found his hazel eyes through the reflection of the
lamplight in his glasses. Was he proposing a professional alliance or something
else? Alice could hear Momma rattling the tea things in the kitchen. Not now,
Momma, she thought. . . .
From Chapter 13:
ommy was a pain in the butt.
“Beth, you should go on a diet.” If her mother said that once she said it a thousand times, and Beth was tired of hearing it. She looked in the mirror above her white dresser and tried to make some sense out of the figure she saw there. She couldn’t really tell if it was fat or thin—just that it wasn’t right. Up top she wasn’t fat. In fact, there wasn’t enough up there. She hadn’t gotten much more after she got her first bra, and even with a padded bra with toilet paper stuffing she didn’t look big enough. But then, below the bust, she wasn’t exactly thin.
Cathy and Kay were the way you were supposed to be and Beth knew they didn’t worry about whether their clothes made them look fat. They could wear stripes going around or a white belt with a dark skirt and what did they care? But Beth knew she had to stick with stripes going the long ways and dark belts. She had gotten a black cinch belt and liked the way it made her waist look even thinner than a black leather belt. The only problem was, it gave her a roll above her waist. And after lunch it pressed her middle together so hard she could hardly breathe.
“Beth, you should go on a diet,” Mommy—who was 5’4” and weighed 180 pounds—kept pestering.
Mommy claimed she hadn’t always been fat, but Beth could never remember her looking any different. Beth was 5’6” and weighed 145 pounds. She knew that was too much, but she didn’t think she really ate more than any of the kids at school. So why did she have to be fat?
Her mother was always going on a diet. Sometimes she would loose five pounds. Then, she would get all excited, go off her diet, and gain it all back, plus, it seemed to Beth, a little more. Still, Beth didn’t want to be fat. So one day when Mommy gave her by now boring suggestion, Beth surprised her by announcing she was going on a diet.
Beth planned to surprise her mother even more by sticking to her diet. She had just toast and some of Mommy’s yucky skim milk for breakfast. For lunch she had just soup and a sandwich, though at school sometimes, when she just couldn’t stand not being able to have ice cream anymore, she skipped the sandwich and got an Eskimo Pie instead. For supper, she ate just meat and vegetables—no bread, no potatoes, no dessert. If she got hungry between meals she ate carrot sticks.
“You’re not eating enough for a bird,” her father said during her weeks of dieting.
“You want me to get thin, don’t you?” she countered.
“Sure. But you have to eat something.”
“I am eating something.”
Mommy kept quiet. Beth noticed her eating potatoes and bread.
After two months, Beth had lost 18 pounds and her mother had no excuse to pester her anymore. One day she was over Arlene’s house after school watching American Bandstand on TV. Beth’s family didn’t have a television because her parents were afraid if they got one she would stop reading and practicing piano. So she was always happy to watch TV at a friend’s. There was a big bowl of potato chips on the coffee table, but Beth was managing not to eat any.
As she and Arlene were trying to master the Stroll along with the Bandstand dancers, Arlene’s mother came into the room. “You’ve lost a lot of weight, haven’t you, Beth?” she said.
“A little,” Beth said. “I guess I should lose some more.”
“I think you look fine now,” Sophie said. “You look just right. I wish I could get Arlene to go on a diet.”
Arlene made a face at her mother.
Her friend did need to go on a diet, Beth thought. She was about an inch taller than Beth, but looked like she weighed about 15 pounds more than Beth before she had lost weight. Of course, Sophie wasn’t thin, either. But she wasn’t as fat as Beth’s mother.
Sophie looked at Arlene and shook her head, but she didn’t yell. She didn’t even pester. She just went into kitchen to make supper. Arlene took a fistful of potato chips and stuffed them in her mouth. Then she turned the TV up louder and they jitterbugged around the living room, Philly-style.
That night after dinner while Mommy was out playing Mahjongg, Beth tried on some new clothes that she and her mother had bought at Carter’s. They were a size smaller than she took before and one was a straight khaki skirt—she would have never dared wear that light color before she lost weight. She went out of her room and into the hall to get further from the mirror and so get a fuller view.
Her father, who was practicing violin in the living room, came over to her. “That looks very nice on you,” he said. “You still have a little tummy though, don’t you?”
Noting the roundness visible through the khaki, Beth felt ashamed. Sophie had been wrong, she realized. She wasn’t thin enough yet. She probably never would be. It was just too hard. How long was she supposed to keep eating such a little bit?. . .
From Chapter 35:
sat at a long table in a strange new place. Ma wasn’t there. Other kids were around the table. A woman I never saw before gave us crayons and told us to draw pictures. Who was she? Why was I here? Where did Ma go?
I was scared but I kept myself from crying. I took a crayon and ran it across the paper like the other kids were doing. I didn’t care how the picture came out, but I changed crayon colors every few strokes so the woman would think I had something definite in mind. The woman kept walking around the table, looking at the pictures and I figured if I looked busy maybe she wouldn’t bother me.
Ma had brought me there and then left. Last night Ma and Dad told me I would be going to nursery school. They told me Ma would go away and come back but I didn’t think it would happen so quick.
It was worse than when my parents left me at home with a sitter. When that happened I could go to bed if I didn’t want to stay downstairs with the person who wasn’t Ma or Dad. I was safe in bed. I went to sleep and when I woke up my parents were home. They had to come back because they lived in our house. Sometimes during the day my parents left me at friends’ houses. That was okay because I had my friends to play with.
But none of the kids in this new place were my friends. As I colored I told myself over and over that Ma would come get me just like she said she would. But I wasn’t sure that would happen. Sometimes I bothered Ma too much and she told Dad she needed time to get some work done. That’s why she had brought me here and left.
I felt sorry I had bothered Ma so much but I kept myself from crying because the other kids would laugh at me. I tried to be careful to keep quiet when Ma was sitting at her special table drawing pictures. I sat next to her at a separate table Dad had made for me that was smaller than Ma’s and closer to the floor. I couldn’t see exactly what Ma was drawing from there, but I always kept quiet by doing my own drawing. Except when I had to go to the bathroom. Then I told Ma because she always wanted to know about that and then Ma would go with me to the bathroom.
When I couldn’t keep sitting at my little table any more and Ma was still working, I would go into the living room and watch Sesame Street. Sometimes Ma would tell me to turn the TV down and I always did. Sometimes I would try to find the notes of Sesame Street songs on the piano that Ma never played. I could still see Ma from the living room so it was all right. Sometimes Ma was concentrating so hard on her work that I was afraid she would forget I was there. When I played the piano sometimes I would sing the Sesame Street songs at the same time. Ma looked up from her work, but she didn’t say anything. That was because she had deadlines. I was afraid to ask what deadlines were because I didn’t want to hear about anyone who was dead. I guessed that was why Ma didn’t like them either and she had to hurry in case someone died before she got finished.
And that was why Ma might not come to get me. She might have a lot of work to do and not have time to come back. Or a deadline might make her forget it was time to pick me up.
Even if she remembered she might not be able to find me. There were so many people there, so many children. When we all got up to go the bathroom, at first all the kids were all around me and I didn’t know where I was. Then we all got in a line and it was better. When I sat down on the toilet, I couldn’t go. I was afraid I would have to go when I got back to the table, but I didn’t.
The woman was standing right next to me, saying something. But I couldn’t concentrate on her words because I was thinking about Ma coming to get me but not being able to find me because I was lost among all the children. Maybe she would take a different child home. I knew I was supposed to say something back to the woman but I just felt like crying and if I started to say something then the crying would come out and the kids would laugh.
A boy sitting next to me started yelling. The boy was so noisy the only word I could make out that he was saying was “bluebird.” Dad had shown me a bluebird once.
“Nice bluebird.” The woman said. “Did you see his picture, Alexis?”
I looked at the boy’s picture. It was blue but it didn’t look like a bird or anything else. The boy kept being noisy while the woman kept talking so I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Maybe she was talking a different language.
Finally I made out the words: “Alexis, what about your picture?”
But I didn’t know anything about my picture. I didn’t know what it was. Would the woman get mad if it wasn’t anything?
“Alexis, I’m asking you something. What’s in your picture?”
My mother probably wasn’t coming back to get me and I didn’t know what was in the picture.
“Alexis, I want you to reply when I ask you something.” The woman was angry. If I said I didn’t know what was in the picture, she would get angrier. It was so hard to find the words in all this noise, in middle of all these children. Even if Ma remembered to come get me, she would probably take one of them home by mistake instead of me.
The woman went away and then came back to the table with juice and cookies. I wasn’t hungry. I had never seen those kind of cookies before. They had raisins where the chocolate chips should be. She gave me one even though I didn’t want it. I crumbled the cookie so it would look like I was eating it. I sipped the apple juice a little because I was thirsty, but then I saw the woman coming towards me so I stopped.
“Alexis, how are you doing?”
I didn’t know how to answer that question. What were the words to answer right?
“Alexis...” The woman’s face was smack in front of my eyes. There was black hair above her red lipstick and her light brown eyes looked mean. “Alexis, I want you to talk to me.”
I now knew that whatever happened I couldn’t talk to this woman who got mad even when I didn’t say anything.
Some of the other kids started being noisy so that got the woman to move away from me.
Finally it was time to go home and we all lined up at the door. I tried to get up near the front so Ma would see me if she remembered to come. The boys pushed themselves to the front so I had to stay behind them, but I managed to get up in front of the rest of the girls. The woman opened the door and all the parents were there. I looked for Ma, stretching my neck, but I still couldn’t see over the boys’ heads. I followed the line of kids out into the hall where all I could see were legs, jeans, skirts and slacks, but no faces. I held my breath, hoping for my mother.
“Ali,” it was Ma’s voice, but I couldn’t see her. I stood still and kept
looking. Then Ma was holding my hand, looking down at me, her hair a red fuzz
around her head. She kissed me. “Did you have a good time?” she asked. . . .
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