Cast List for Collected Stories
Ruth Steiner – Character Study
Hello. My name is Ruth Steiner. Why yes. THAT Ruth Steiner. Ruth Esther Steiner, to be precise. I was born on May 24, 1935 in Detroit, Michigan. Actually, Oak Park, Michigan if you really want to be accurate. My parents were Hershel and Sarah Steiner. After years of praying for a child, BINGO! At age 40, my mother – emulating her name-sake Sarah from the Bible – brought forth her first born and only child. Me. And talk about your Jewish American Princess! Oy! Every educational opportunity that Papa heard about, he look for a way to make it available to me. He had hopes and dreams for his little Ruthie.
As the only child in the family, I spent a lot of time playing by myself. Under the dining room table was my favorite place. I could observe my world – a series of legs both human and wooden – through the safe scrim of Mama’s lace tablecloth. When I outgrew that small haven, I found another shelter, this one somewhat larger, with boundless possibilities. The library. I devoured books, even dictionaries. Words, words, words were my nourishment, and eventually they became my bread and butter. During high school, I had an off-again-on-again job at that local library, just as a page helped with shelf reading, but I always knew when the new books came in and had the honor of setting them up on the “new books” shelf. Oh, the glorious feel and smell of a new book, to say nothing of the intoxicating thought that I could be the first person to read it!
Maybe it was in all those books that I found the “smart mouth” that my mother always frowned upon. But Papa always laughed, then coughed and put on a serious face when Mama glared at him. I was his little Ruthie, after all. He would tell me about his job at the bank; not about all the money he’d see move around between teller windows to the formidable steel vault, but about the people who came in. Their stories: why they needed help managing their money or making their dreams come true. A new house, tuition for a child going off to college. He liked to watch people as much as I did. I wonder. Did he ever play under HIS mother’s table and just observe? And remember? To Mama’s credit, she taught me how to make a tasty mondel bread and to be a gracious hostess.
College was a blur. More books and learning! I was a sponge; but a restless sponge. When I didn’t bring home a nice Jewish boy after graduation, I convinced my parents to let me go to New York City and try my hand at writing. I wanted to make Papa proud. AND I had dreams of someday see one of my own books on a library shelf. Papa had friends who had friends in New York and they helped me get that little walk up apartment on Grove Street above the Café Alfredo. Thank goodness I liked garlic because every breath I inhaled in that apartment was fragrant with that pungent aroma. My hair, my clothes, my bedding were all infused with that scent. And thank goodness, also, for my roommate Elaine. She was also from Detroit, but she had her head and heart in the clouds, hoping to be “discovered” by some local theatre director. She also kept me grounded and held me together when I got the news that my parents had been killed in a car crash on a wintry Michigan night. So, there we were: two young women from Detroit, she seeking the glare of the footlights and I longing only for the glow of a reading lamp that would someday illuminate my own words on deckle-edged bound paper.
Before Elaine married her wealthy prince charming, years before she had any portent of the cancer that would claim her before her fortieth birthday, she helped me pluck up the courage to apply for a job in the neighborhood. Oh, not just ANY job, but at The Strand, a local bookstore with the promise of “18 miles of books.” Sounded like heaven to me. And I got the job! It was a good job, the perfect job for a girl whose dreams took form of ink on bound paper. I was able to save enough of my earnings to eventually enter the Master’s Program at NYU, in writing, of course. But that came after what I’ve always called my “shining moment,” the year I met and fell in love with the brilliant, mad, doomed poet Delmore Schwartz. I don’t really want to talk about that. It sustained me and crushed me, educated me and shamed me. But Elaine, my imagination and my smart mouth got me through it, and my job among books and the celebrities who frequented the bookstore helped me finish my degree, and even get some work published. Then a collection of stores; then another collection, and my credibility was solid enough for me to be hired by NYU as a professor of creative writing.
Was it that brief, incandescent affair with Delmore Schwartz or just my own tendency to be an introspective loner that isolated me from the everyday world of long-term love and a family to go along with it? Whatever it was, “the years passed and the years passed” as Delmore wrote. Decades of selling my own writing - first to literary journals and then collected into several books that actually made it to library shelves - kept body and soul together. Thirty-two years of teaching brought me the “children” that were never really mine, though one young woman – Lisa Morrison - came within a breath of being almost real. We had only a few years together as mentor and protégé. Afraid of being hurt, as well as being afraid of the pain to come, not really envious of her success but rather envious of all the years she had ahead of her, I pushed her away, just when I really needed her generous nature, her innate kindness. Anonymous, impersonal caretakers cleaned up my mess, washed my dishes, held spoons of clear broth to my lips when I was too weak to do for myself. One of my last clear memories of Lisa Morrison was her smile, as she triumphantly held up the kitchen spatula that she used to unstick my window on that first day of her first tutorial. She said, “Hey, no problem. I do windows!” Oh, Lisa, you did so much more than that. I wish I had had the words or the grace to tell you so.
Lisa Morrison - Character Study
My name is Lisa Morrison. I guess you could call me an aspiring author but I’ve never liked that phrase. “Aspiring” sounds out of breath to me and, while I’m often a bit frantic and fidgety, I like to give the impression that I have my shit together. My life up to this point has been the typical angst-ridden American saga - a couple of optimistic kids out of “the silent generation” had a pair of twin sons early in their marriage. A decade later, in response to the uniquely tragic events of 1968, I was conceived the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and was born prematurely in December. My mother felt that the fates were trying to fit every horrible thing they could into that one year. The beginning of my life was also the beginning of the end for Mitch and Glenna Morrison. My parents.
Glenna was very pretty, but delicate inside and out. She always seemed so hopelessly breakable and even as a young child I resented her for it. I wanted my vulnerability to be precious to her but she herself was so fragile and afraid most of the time. I responded to this by trying, in the wholly unconscious way children behave, to break her. I joyfully made scenes in public. On the rare occasion that she would hug me, I would hug her back so hard. I spent 10 years waiting for her to shatter. In the winter of 1979 my father walked out and a year later Glenna, swaying and swollen with vodka, fell through the front window of our little blue, perfectly manicured suburban home, and subsequently spent 6 months in a rehab facility in Phoenix. I went to live with my father.
Perhaps beginnings are always met with beginnings of endings for when at last they began to rebuild Glenna, the end of my childhood was just months away. I was 12 years old with my feet, in pink high top Chuck Taylors, hanging out the passenger-side window of my father’s suburban. He was drumming out the beat to “Born to Be Alive” on the steering wheel and looking happier than I’d ever seen him. God, I want to still be in that car, on the drive across the desert with a stomach ache from eating Twizzlers and drinking Coca Cola. I want to still hear my father’s voice singing out, and the faint sticky thwacking of his thumb and forefinger beating on the hot vinyl steering wheel. I want to watch him swaying back and forth in his seat, smiling out at the road, up at the sky, occasionally over at me. I want back all of the joyful combustion of that afternoon. But that was also the day I would discover his eyes had been brighter and had been looking at me but his mind had been on something else. Not the magical kingdom and the polaroid with Mickey Mouse that I thought we were both dreaming of, but on a simple, unremarkable motel room and a woman who was waiting there to meet us - to meet him. It’s funny all these years later it’s still not a story I’m ready to tell.
After years of loathing and several injurious habits I formed to punish them, at least I can think of my parents now with some gratitude. Without them I’m not sure I would be a writer. But, of course I would still want to be - I would truly be “aspiring” - drowning in the voice of Ruth Steiner. I was assigned to read The Business of Love my junior year of high school. Her voice, straightforward and unsentimental, connected me to strong single mothers, men with everything to lose, families divided by jealousy and manipulation - to poets of backstreets and playboys of privilege. I read every published word of hers and ultimately now I sit in her class at New York University - 20 feet from the only person I ever looked up to. Can you imagine!? What she has taken out of herself and shared with the world has reached me, brought me here and she walks back and forth not knowing. I’d like to know why her eyes are a little sad, why she is distracted from time to time in her lectures. What would it be like to truly know her? I feel like I am on the verge of another monumental beginning - and perhaps the beginning of another end.