One day's perfect weather : more twice told tales /
Daniel Stern.
1st ed.
Dallas, Tex. : Southern Methodist University Press, 1999.
xii, 202 p.
0870744453 (acid-free paper)
More Details
Dallas, Tex. : Southern Methodist University Press, 1999.
0870744453 (acid-free paper)
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A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

The Taste of Pennies

Inspired by "The Oven Bird"

a poem by Robert Frost

It was the long bad time after the long good time.

    Stocks a puzzle, real estate stalled, the bond market iffy, Wall Street firms down to half their size. Two of his former associates under indictment: Sorkin and Menninger, Menninger probably guilty. To Lee Binstock, good times had always come like sunshine on a holiday weekend; a feeling of surprise but of pleasure deserved. Now that the bad times had come, he was out of work for the first time in twenty years, and he felt the unpleasant surprise of being caught and punished in spite of feeling innocent. And, of course, there was the matter of Binstock's mouth.

    Always, he'd been able to make his own extracurricular comfort; the clarinet's woody breath of independence--his horn of romance. He had partners in crime. Callahan, advertising copy, ruddy, volatile, on the violin, with his quiet academic wife, second fiddle in more ways than one; Menninger, mutual funds, intense, humorless, on viola; Sorkin, arbitrage, smooth but folksy, controlling the pulse on cello. No "civilian," as they called those who could only listen, could know what a Sunday afternoon spent summoning the Brahms Quintet could do; a single-minded song to ransom the frustrations of buying too much and selling too little, to pardon the mistakes of the week, the wrong choices of a lifetime.

    You can see why, once it was clear that he could not make a clean, steady sound on the clarinet anymore, might never again, Binstock was thrown into despair. He had actually--at rock bottom one night--called a Suicide Hot Line advertised in the Village Voice . The woman on the phone had answered, "Suicide Hot Line--please hold." And then clicked him off onto recorded music for waiting. By the time seven minutes had gone by, the idea of being put on hold to wait for a suicide counselor seemed so absurd that his mood began to clear. Also, the music they played was a Marcello Oboe Concerto, sublimely lyric even on the phone, and he made plans to buy the recording as soon as he could get to Tower Records--which he supposed was the same as saying he'd decided to live and had not been really serious about dying.

    Nevertheless, the misery returned the next day, apparently to stay. Binstock supposed he should be grateful that he never had to play for a living. But it didn't help when Eugenia suggested he try to switch over to the piano, since after the bloody fight the clarinet seemed to be finished for him.

    "It's nothing you did, Lee," she said. "Don't forget that. Those guys in the car--they did something to you."

    "I could have kept my mouth shut," Binstock said. "I might not have a job but at least I'd still have a mouth."

    She kissed him quickly on that cue. His lips were askew since the surgery--hence the difficulty in forming a proper embouchure and getting a clean sound out of the clarinet--but he could still taste a kiss. It tasted cool and sweet--a hint of some cherrylike lipstick flavor.

    "Where the hell do you think you're going?"

    "Move your ass. I've got the light.

    "And I've got the right of way."

    "Hey, we got a walking lawyer here. Right of way ..."

    "I just meant that you're such a good musician you shouldn't waste it. It's always been more than a hobby to you. You were never just a businessman."

    "Disgusting word."

    "Which? Musician, businessman--?"

    "Hobby. What a word to use about music."

    "I knew you'd say that."

    "We've been married too long. You know everything I'm going to say--"

    "Married talk is like music. Just because you know how a Mozart sonata goes doesn't mean it's not going to surprise you every now and then."

    "Don't be clever and charming. I'm in pain."

    "Mouth pain or life pain?"

    "Same thing."

    "Think about trying the piano. We'll always keep body and soul together. But you have to care for your soul. LA didn't help with either."

When the market had collapsed, when the open possibilities of the last few years all seemed to turn into dead ends, Binstock had taken them to California. Eugenia, New York to her bones as only an out-of-towner can be--Connecticut-born--objected to the choice of LA. But Binstock was in need of hope and hid behind a joke--somebody's remark that Hollywood was the only place in the world where you could die from encouragement That was the one commodity he needed, he told her, after most of the other commodities in his world had failed him. They escaped to the Beverly Hills branch of Dean Witter, in search of hope, of encouragement.

    Eugenia could do her work on either coast. She ran a newsletter for educators from home; wrote, edited, mailed--the works. "I'm pre-Industrial Revolution," went her running joke. "The last cottage industry." This made for laughter at parties but said nothing about younger ambitions, about newspaper jobs not landed, about magazines not created. The newsletter won journalism awards. It gave a modest income and it could be moved with the luggage. They waited a few weeks because the gynecologist thought Eugenia might be pregnant, but it was another false alarm.

    In Los Angeles they economized: one car for the two of them. On weekends, Eugenia out playing women's doubles, Binstock took a small aristocratic pleasure in noting how cars slowed down for you when you walked across Santa Monica Boulevard, a rare West Coast bird, a pedestrian. Even so, Los Angeles gave little comfort, less encouragement. They were back in New York in seven months.

    "If you're such a tough guy get out of the car."

    "Just move, buster. I get out of this car you're going to be damned sorry ..."

    Then the comedy of errors on upper Broadway, a car pressing him to move as he crossed Eighty-sixth Street, an angry Binstock deciding to move at his own pace, even not to move at all--then the fistfight--the only such encounter in Binstock's adult years--crunched bone, spitting, choking on blood filling his mouth with the taste of pennies, Binstock dizzy on his knees, the police siren singing in his ears.

    "Son of a bitch didn't even stick around. Broke my mouth and beat it."

    That was what he'd tried to say but it didn't come out clear enough for the cops or Eugenia to understand. He said it to her, carefully, after the operation.

    "Blame it on LA," Eugenia said. "The cars there slow down when they're a mile away from a pedestrian. You got used to that. You forgot how they drive in New York."

    Binstock murmured, stiff-mouthed, "I was born a pedestrian. When this bastard started to push me with his damned BMW I just got pissed off. I was too tired of being pushed."

    "Because he was pushing you--or because it was a BMW?" They'd sold theirs the year after the big slowdown when they sold the house in East Hampton. They were city mice, again; reacquainted with the IRT, the Crosstown bus.

Back from the hospital, too weak to look for the next job, he looked over the mail one day, sitting on the bed, only to find a disturbing letter from Sorkin. It was a rambling note full of regrets: "I guess I did wrong things but, in some strange way, not bad things. I don't know ... I should have known better ... don't care about myself ... ashamed to face Ruthie and David--I read a poem the other day, `The Oven Bird' by Carl Sandburg. You should read it--we should all read it ..."

    These days, postoperation, Binstock was exhausted by midday and it was two P.M. He fell asleep lying on top of the covers, right where he was. The instant his eyes were closed he thought--the letter from Sorkin sounded like a suicide note. He'd never seen one but the notion troubled him. He would call as soon as he woke up to see how the poor bastard was doing. But it was the phone call from Sorkin's son, David, that woke him an hour later.

The funeral service WAS mercifully brief, though Riverside Chapel was crowded. The rabbi made no mention of suicide, speaking only, a little tactlessly Binstock thought, of temptations and sin. Binstock did not linger. The letter in his pocket was on fire--and the only way to put it out was to find out what Sorkin had meant about the Sandburg poem. You couldn't put off acting on instructions from the grave. Look what had happened to Hamlet. The trouble was, Binstock had a pretty decent library, but Sandburg was not a writer he'd ever cared enough about to keep. So the poem would have to be searched out.

    Before he could find a bookstore he actually passed a public library. There was something about a public library in the middle of the afternoon that mingled convalescence with the flavor of childhood. The library was half empty, but he remembered the libraries of the past exactly that way. The computer showed all of Sandburg but there was nothing called "The Oven Bird."

    Binstock found it hard to believe that Sorkin, hard-nosed, sharp-edged Sorkin, had actually read poetry. The one person in their group who busied herself with poetry readings downtown, maybe even wrote a few poems, had fallen out of touch as soon as the going got rough: Jenny Maslow. It was worth a shot, a quarter from a phone booth on the corner.

"Lee, I'm over here."

    The bar in the Carlyle was blindingly dark after the cold autumn sunlight and Binstock blinked and blinked until he saw her. He said, "I can't believe I called you out of the blue and there you were."

    It's hard to know who was more nervous, Binstock or this slender, almost anorectic-looking young woman--younger than he remembered.

    "It just means that now I'm one of those people at home during the day. But calling about a poem! Who's going to believe that?"

    When he told her about Sorkin's letter she believed it. "The tough ones melt down the quickest. I read the obit this morning, but I couldn't get myself to go."

    The drinks came, a Coke for him and the real thing, something with tequila, for Jenny. "Not settled anywhere yet?" he asked.

    "Ah, well," she said. "I had a good long ride. I put some away and I'm back to school. Are you still having those wonderful chamber music evenings of yours? The Mozart Quintet ..."

    It was the time to tell her about the fight and the operation and to show her his mouth a little more closely. He was grateful now that bars in the afternoon were dark.

    She braved it out. "I haven't been this close to your mouth in years. Kind of nice."

    Jenny had happened just before he'd met Eugenia, and Binstock had been the one to break it off. That's why he'd been too embarrassed to just ask her for information about a poem on the phone, why he'd suggested a drink when it was much too early for a drink and much too late for Jenny. When it was clear he was not picking up on her auld lang syne she said, "I'm sorry those bastards hurt you and I'm sorry about the clarinet. I know how much you loved playing. I found out in high school that I loved poetry--but I can't write worth a damn. At least you can play."

    "Could," he said. "You probably know this poem Sorkin wanted me to read."

    She giggled, a nervous tic more than laughter. "The answer from the grave?"

    "Or a warning."

    "Sorkin was wrong. `The Oven Bird' isn't Sandburg. Can you imagine your cold-blooded partner turning away from his computer running the price of gold in Tokyo, and reading a poem to try to understand his life? He even got the poet wrong. It's by Robert Frost. My God! I mean, I'm sorry about what happened but Jesus--Sorkin, of all people."

    "No soul?"

    "Whatever passes for that these days--yeah, that's what I meant. But it's not Sandburg." She laughed. "This bird is way beyond old Carl Sandburg--Chicago, Hog Butcher to the world, et cetera. You know, Frost is really a dark poet--and God knows `The Oven Bird' is one of the darker ones."

    "Let's hear it." Binstock sipped his Coke carefully. He was using his mouth very carefully these days.

    "Oh, I don't know it by heart." She raised her glass. A few seconds' wait and she said, "I live around the corner on Eighty-fourth Street."

    "I know," Binstock said.

    "Come on back and I'll dig it out and you can read it yourself."

She read quite beatifully, a low husky voice without sentimental cadences, just right for this strange little item. He sipped a vodka--it was now late enough for a drink--and listened. It was not easy to get, for most of the way, a small poem, a sonnet, Jenny said it was, surprising him--Binstock didn't think people wrote sonnets after Shakespeare. It began:

There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird.

It was not difficult, just hard to focus on--what the hell could Sorkin have had in mind? Then, with the last two lines, it was painful, it was clear.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

Jenny put the book down. "Poor bastard," she said.

    "I liked him," Binstock said. "But I never quite trusted him. What kind of a man goes into arbitrage? After playing the viola in high school. Buying and selling money. Weird."

    "You sound like Ezra Pound."

    "What do you mean?"

    "It doesn't matter," Jenny said. "Look at these lines--this was his mood when he--" She read:

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words ...

    Binstock murmured the last line: "`Is what to make of a diminished thing.' Jesus, you know I could have done without this. Some favor from old Sorkin."

    Jenny started to stand but instead leaned over him, the book in her hand. "I remember when I first read it. It makes your insides jump. Each time. It's always a shock. The question is when you read it. At what point. Sometimes you find those lines when you're ready for them. Other times they jump at you--a sad surprise."

    "I guess Sorkin was looking for answers--and he found this."

    "Found another question."

    She traced his wounded mouth with a temporary caress. The kiss surprised them both. Not knowing what to do when their mouths separated she dropped the book into his hands. "Here," she said. "Take it. You can return it when you're done."

    Binstock was torn--borrowed books had to be returned--usually in person. Her finger touched the scar above his lip.

    "Is this where ...?"

    Binstock stood up. What he didn't want was a mercy-fuck. Nor anything from Jenny, he realized, except the poem. Anyway, now it was his as much as hers--a dubious acquisition.

* * *

Back at his apartment, Eugenia was still out--the books on the shelves were waiting. But by this time Binstock was in a fuming rage. What was this shit about a poem that Sorkin was trying to pull on him? Was he implying that the two of them had been in the same boat, the same bag, the same scam, choose any crummy metaphor you want, he thought, running his fingers along the spines of books. He'd been such an idiot that between Sorkin and Menninger, he'd always assumed that maybe it was Menninger who deserved the indictment--had done something tricky, just beyond the law in some gray area of right and wrong.

    Menninger had such a smooth style, while Sorkin was all sincerity. Mister Straight in his collection of tattersall vests, the country boy come to Wall Street who just got lucky--then luckier--then, very quickly, out of luck--finished. Was this poem by another country boy written in some code Binstock was supposed to break, a code that would reveal the truth of what had happened to all of them--and all the others who'd been laid low after riding so high?

    The problem was: Binstock didn't feel he belonged with the others. He'd been like the child at the grownups' party, only half understanding what they were talking about when their lunch deals got cryptic, mysterious. Maybe a broker who played the serious musician on weekends was not to be trusted with secrets full of dirt and danger. In which case his clarinet may have saved his ass. Who knows what he would have done given the opportunity. In any case, he wasn't knocking himself off. For Christ's sake, he wasn't forty yet--why should he read a fucking poem about diminished things?

    Binstock pulled the book out so violently that a batch of neighboring books tumbled to the floor. Then, without understanding what he was doing, he grabbed the blue-covered Frost book and tried to tear it in half. He'd never imagined what it might feel like to try to rip up a hard cover book, but he was sure it would be easy. It wasn't. The top part detached from the spine, pages ripped and dangling, but the whole thing stopped around halfway. His right hand hurt like hell and he felt like an idiot. He stood there, wondering how he would explain this scene if Eugenia walked in at that moment.

    The ragged Frost was on the floor next to his foot as he kneeled trying to pick up the books in time but of course Eugenia arrived in the middle of it all.

    "What's going on?"

    "I don't know," Binstock said.

    She zeroed in on the ripped-up Frost before he had a chance to hide it.

    "My God, what is this?" She picked it up. It dangled from her hand, a wounded bird, survivor of some terrible accident.

    "I'm sorry."

    "It's not even yours. It belonged to Richard."

    "I didn't think of that."

    "Maybe you did. Are you still weird about him?"

    Richard was Eugenia's first husband, an architect, first divorced, now dead in a plane crash three years ago.

    "I was never weird about Richard."

    "You acted like a crazy person whenever I mentioned him."

    "Maybe you did that a little too often."

    "Oh, for God's sake, Lee."

    "Anyway, this is about Sorkin, my ex-partner, not your ex-husband."

    She pushed her coat off her shoulders and let it fall among the books.

    "I forgot about him mentioning some poem. Is this it? I thought it was Sandburg."

"It was Frost. Sorkin didn't know anything about poetry. Neither do I. But I don't go around writing letters scaring people--and then dying--not just dying--killing myself."

    "Did that scare you?"

    "Well, it freaked me."

    She walked the torn and flapping book into the living room. Binstock did not follow her. He knelt among the books and started replacing them on the shelves. Then he hung up Eugenia's coat. When he was finished he went into the living room. He lay down on the couch and picked up yesterday's Wall Street Journal , half scanning it, half hiding behind it.

    She was quiet a long time. He heard her exhale, a long, slow breath.

    Binstock has been hoping she would get to the lines in question--and just read them, in some cool and detached grown-up Eugenia way. Instead she seems taken out of herself.

    "Diminished thing ...," she breathes. "How did he know?"

    Binstock puts down the paper. Eugenia is leaning back, her finger marking the last two lines of the poem. He asks her what she means--how did he know what? She tells him she'd always counted herself as reasonably happy, lucky, but if you think about diminished things, how could she not count up all the times, the lessening, the shrinking, the losing ...? "My God," she murmurs.

    "What do you mean, exactly?" he asks, all innocence. "Be specific."

    "It's not just now--early middle or whatever I'm in. It's every time--when I was fourteen I thought I would never again feel the heights of the year before when these two seniors, Larry and Bart, competed for me--and I ignored them both and wrote an essay on independence for a school contest, instead, that got published in the Atlantic Monthly , special teenager's section. And do you remember, when you first met me, how I played tennis with a natural backhand motion out of Balanchine? Now, I have to think carefully, `Get the racket back, bend your knees' ... Diminished things ..." She gently folds the torn book closed.

    It was a strange moment--she'd taken the whole question from him and made it her own; had gone from surprised anger to introspection so quickly. All it took was a few lines of a poem. At the same time, she took the idea of diminishment so lightly; just a minor joke played on us all; took the Oven Bird's song down to questions of a fourteen-year-old's essay ... of a tennis backhand.

    "Let's eat out tonight," he said.

    "I have veal defrosting."

    Eugenia had been cooking home every night for months, avoiding the hefty restaurant checks of the good old days.

    "If I'm tearing up books you can melt some veal."

    She left the Frost on the couch, torn and helpless, open to the Oven Bird's page.


Copyright © 1999 Daniel Stern. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-10-04:
In some respects, Stern is a writer's writer: his impeccably crafted stories gracefully incorporate literary references and demonstrate a reverence for language and the arts. As in two previous volumes (Twice Told Tales and Twice Upon a Time), these seven short fictions "reflect the inspiring passions and concepts" of specific poems and stories by Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Borges and Yeats. Each of these middle-aged protagonists is a Jewish New Yorker, though some live in exile (in the Midwest, the South, etc.) from the culture that sustained them in Manhattan. Several have been divorced, but their second wives are valiant and compassionate; a mentor who has died is another recurrent motif. The central component of three stories is classical music. In "A Man of Sorrow and Acquainted with Grief," Jewish high school music teacher Ben Kraft, picked up for speeding on a Texas highway, lies to the trooper that he was carried away by the spiritual message of Bach's St. John Passion blaring on his tape deck, and then is horrified when he's celebrated in the community as a born-again Christian. Jerry Reubenfine in "Duet for Past and Future" mourns his youth; he thinks that the cellist in a chamber music concert in Indianapolis is playing the instrument he sold in Manhattan when he quit being a poor musician and went to law school. An out-of-work stockbroker in "The Taste of Pennies" is anguished because an injury to his mouth keeps him from playing the clarinet, the source of his spiritual sustenance. The characters in every story have found life more complex than they had ever imagined; among their many losses, they particularly rue their loss of faith in the future. The protagonist of the title story has run out of time; dying of cancer, he convinces his new wife, herself suffering from a painful arthritis-like virus, that they should both leave bed and spend one perfect day in Manhattan together. While the plot here is rather far-fetched, it catches the sadness of diminished expectations with exquisite poignancy. The remaining three stories are weaker, but the collection as a whole offers rewarding insights, as the characters deal with life's disappointments with quiet resilience. Stern's gentle epiphanies double the resonance of the texts that inspired him. Agent, Georges Borchardt. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, October 1999
New York Times Book Review, December 1999
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Unpaid Annotation
In this collection, Stern's third, he returns to the literary adventure he began in Twice Told Tales (Norton, 1990) and continued in Twice Upon a Time (Norton, 1992) -- weaving fresh modern tales from the thematic threads of great texts of the past. His premise is that a classic work by a writer or artist one loves "could be basic to a fiction: as basic as a love affair, a trauma, a mother, a landscape, a job, or a sexual passion." Each of the seven tales in One Day's Perfect Weather uses elements from an earlier work. Each story is independently vibrant and vital but, infused by the energy and creative tension of the backdrop work of art, it takes on added reverberations of meaning: rich, entertaining, and wise.In "Duet for Past and Future, " inspired by Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken, " Newman, a lawyer in Indianapolis, having lost his musical career (along with his wife and child), thinks he recognizes the very cello he had sold to finance his legal education and new life. He and the young woman wh plays that cello become involved in a relationship that threatens to tie them together for a moment or forever.In "A Man of Sorrows and Acquainted with Grief, " inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach's "The Passion According to St. John, " Kraft, an exiled New Yorker and a Jew, is the conductor of a high school orchestra in a small Texas town. He talks his way out of a traffic ticket by telling the born-again state trooper of his own special relationship with Jesus; Kraft tells the credulous lawman that the reason he exceeded the speed limit was that he'd been carried away by Bach's "Passion" on the car radio. The resulting comic imbroglio tums Kraft's life upside down.In the title story, inspired by Frost's "Grievances and Griefs, " a dying stage director and his new Russianborn wife, who has acute but temporary arthritis, are confined to a sickroom from which only one of them will ultimately emerg
Publisher Fact Sheet
"Stern weaves source texts into his fiction as seamlessly as favorite books insinuate themselves into our imaginations ... lively reading ... ebullient praise for the necessity of fictions in our lives." And from the daily New York Times: "Engaging & entertaining ... [Stern] absorbs the force of 'old received images' & spins them into his own truths fluently." --Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.
Table of Contents
Author's Notep. xi
The Taste of Penniesp. 1
A Man of Sorrows and Acquainted with Griefp. 27
Duet for Past and Futurep. 67
A Philosopher's Honeymoonp. 91
The Dangerous Stream of Timep. 115
Questions and Answersp. 153
One Day's Perfect Weatherp. 173
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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