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Authors: Sarah Schulman

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People in Trouble

BOOK: People in Trouble

People In Trouble [067-011-5.0]


By: Sarah Schulman




from Boston , April 22, 1998, 4 out of 5 stars Great Book- The basis for RENT? Sarah Schulman is one of my very favorite writers in the world. Heck, just the fact she's on the planet makes me smile. In People in Trouble, Schulman returns to themes in all her books, Queerness, loss, and being lost. Incidentally, the plot of this novel is a heck of a lot like that musical RENT. So similar that it can't be a coincidence. And this book came first....


E P Dutton;


ISBN: 0525248358


Copyright 1990




Different friends read this book in various versions.
Each had a wholly unique and personal set of criteria that they brought to the project.
I thank them for their time and attention, especially Maxine Wolfe, Bettina Berch, Abigail Child, Christie Cassidy, Meg Wolitzer, Julia Scher, David Leavitt, Shelley Wald, Michael Korie, Stewart Wallace, Beryl Satter, Robert Hilferty and Ana Maria Simo.


People in Trouble was financed, in part, through generous grants and loans from Charlie Schulman, Susan Seizer, my parents, Jennifer Miller, Abigail Child, Rachel Pfeffer, Beryl Satter, Diane Cleaver with Sanford Greenburger Associates, the MacDowell Colony, Cummington Community for the Arts, and the Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund.
I thank them for their support and patience.


My editor, Carole DeSanti, engaged this book with a high level of concentration and creativity.
I am grateful for her input.


It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but their social being that determines their consciousness.




It was the beginning of the end of the world but not everyone noticed right away.
Some people were dying.
Some people were busy.
Some people were cleaning their houses while the war movie played on television.


The cigarette in the mouth of the woman behind the register was cemented with purple lipstick.
She had lipstick smeared on her smock.


Tiny caterpillars of gray ash decorated the sticky glass countertop.


"I'll take these two," Kate told her, holding each bra in a different hand.


"You'd better try them on," the clerk answered with a quick professional assessment.
"These are too big for you, miss, and after a certain age you can't count on growing any more in that direction."


"They're not for me," Kate said, enjoying herself thoroughly.


"Cash please."


Which one would Molly wear first?
She held them in her hands absentmindedly running the material through her fingers.


Kate would see them on Molly's body before she touched them in place.


There was the demure lace that opened from the front, like walking in through a garden gate.
Then there was the really dirty push-up that didn't need to open.
Kate could lift Molly's breasts right out over the top.
Kate held them in her hands.
She could run her fingers over the lace and feel its texture as she felt Molly's nipples changing underneath.


"Leopard-print crotchless panties on sale," the woman added, folding ashes into the wrapping paper.
"Maybe your friend would like a pair of these too.
Great with skirts."


It would be three days before she saw Molly again.
Kate climbed the stairs to her lover's apartment and left the package by the front door with a private note.


When they did meet on schedule, Kate felt a certain nervous eroticism wondering which one Molly had chosen, which one was waiting for her under Molly's soft blouse.


"You're sexy," Kate told her at dusk.
"You have languid eyes and beautiful breasts.
I gift wrap them as a present to myself.


Your breasts are beautiful, creamy and sweet."


She pressed her hands from Molly's face to her chest and felt the shape of the lace underneath, but then kept going back to that wisp waist and the sloping shelf at the end of her back.


"But it's your ass that turns me on tonight.
Tonight it's your ass that's hot."


Then she thought Am I really saying these things?


Molly pulled her out of the early streetlight and into a shadow, so the gypsy reading fortunes in the storefront across the way wouldn't have to push her kids into the back room out of sight.
Molly arched her ass, sliding over Kate's flesh so that Kate felt her lover's warm body against her chest and the cool brick wall on her back.


"Let's go up on your roof," Kate said.


"You really want to do it, don't you?"
Molly laughed, her neck smelling like cucumber.


"Guess so."


"Let's go," Molly said, looking sparkiy and quite lovely.


"Besides, there's not that much time left."


There was a change, then, to a quiet happiness and a certain sense of contentment that accompanied them up the stairs.
On top of the building there was only heaven and a radio rising from illuminated shapes.
A man was smoking somewhere-they could hear him cough.
The radio was a thin reed.
There was a child to the right and silverware clattering, all below.
There were undiscernible cars, frequently, and a chime and a voice.


There was a fight in the coffee shop that morning that got out of hand very quickly.
Then Peter walked an entire block to avoid some kind of turf war between two young black men who were probably selling crack.


We New Yorkers always have something else to fear, he told himself, turning up
University Place
First it was herpes, this year it's crossfire.


Originally he'd just been wandering, but was seduced, on the spot, by the idea of a bowling alley occupying two floors of an office building, and decided to duck in.


Where he grew up, bowling alleys had always been white stucco boxes with a giant-size pin towering over the parking lot.


The bowlers had been divided into two groups; league competitors and amateurs on dates.
Anyone could pick out the regulars because they looked so serious.
The women had that lacquered hair, teased and dyed red, bleached or frosted.
They wore oversize bowling jackets with their husbands' names embroidered on their backs.
The men had regulation jackets that fit, regulation shoes and little personalized carrying cases for their bowling balls.


City people, on the other hand, didn't take tenpins to heart.


They had a thousand other fascinating ways to occupy their time and so retreated, one rainy Sunday a year, to broken shoes and chipped balls.


In Manhattan, bowling is symbolic.
It is nostalgia for a simpler life.


Peter stepped into an elevator that was two by three with a skinny Chinese operator chain-smoking Kents.
There was no ventilation, so passengers held their breath until the old contraption clanked to the second floor.
There, the hand-operated iron-grate door creaked open to reveal a faded hall of crashing pins and a few timeless Italian kids yelling "Joey."
Most everyone else, though, seemed too modern to be bowling.
It wasn't a sport to them, it was only a kick.


When Peter was growing up in New Hampshire, the light had been delicate, not globbed on like wet plaster New York style.
Night in Manhattan is never dark, only the days can be.


But New England nights were black underneath, covered with a layer of starlight and then midnight blue.
That elusive color showed itself only twice a year; once during the rainy period of early April that felt like fall and then in the clarity days of October that smelled like spring.
It was a symbol of sensual confusion.


As a child he'd ride on his bike or be in a car at night and every so often he'd pass a house in which there was a yellow glow for someone to come home to.
He would sit in it later, wearing pajamas, waiting for two headlights, more pale yellow than the kitchen's straw.
They threw shadows on the driveway that were followed by the crunch of gravel.


That was how he remembered his mother most clearly.
She would step out of the car in her pink uniform and white shoes, kicking them off first thing.
Then she'd count the tips.
Every night until he went to work himself Peter watched his mother divide up all the change, starting with the pennies, saving the

quarters for last.
She'd lean back in her chair so they could stare at the coins together.
She knew exactly what the stacks could and could not do for her.


After Peter was put to bed, his mother spoke briefly to herself.


She'd talk back to a customer, list everything that had gone undone, recall or invent conversation.
Then she'd pour a whiskey.


He could hear the ice clinking in the kitchen.
She'd turn on the radio a shade too low and that was the last sound in his head when Peter fell asleep at night; the murmur of the radio with his mother's occasional duet.


The particular yellow that brought her home from work was the first chapter in his lifetime of light and stayed strong as a memory until he I d finally applied it thirty years later to a small musical uptown.


In the third act the hero, having escaped over a prison wall, burst into song.
After the last note of the final refrain, the police switched on their ignition, trapping him in the eye of their headlights.
It pleased Peter every night to see the convict's expression of fright, hearing the audience gasp, when he knew all along that it was only his mother driving home from work with an apronful of nickels.


Memory, he thought, is part of what light means to me.


The rented bowling shoes matched the pins; white, with red stripes.


They smelled of leather and foot sweat and disinfectant spray.
They were too big.
Peter walked through the place picking up balls as he went along, trying them out.
He needed one that was heavy enough, one that had grip.


In the next lane was a teenage girl in tight brown curls who was also bowling alone.
He saw her sleepy brown eyes and the moles on her face.


She dressed the way girls do who don't realize how beautiful they are because they don't have enough experience in the world to compare.
She wore everything so tight he wanted to touch her all over.
The name on her scorecard said Shelley.
Peter watched her approach.
She always turned her wrist at the last minute and each bowl went directly into the gutter.


"Keep your wrists straight," he said.
"And you'll hit the pins."


"I don't really care about that," she said.
"I'm just wasting time."


She had a purse, like girls do, and sticking out of it was a book Peter would not have associated with a girl like that.


He bowled a strike.


"You're reading O'Neill," he said.


"It's for school," she said.
"I'm not really reading it.
I'm just carrying it around."


"My first design was a college production of Mourning Becomes Electra," he said, thumbing through the pages.
"Here, see."
He pointed to a particular spot on the paper and placed it in front of her.
"O'Neill, sitting comfortably on a Provincetown beach decided that the piece should be played in a luminous mist.
That's a hell of an introduction to basic design."


"I'm going to the bathroom," she said.


Shelley came back with a new pack of Marlboros.
She hit it against her palm so the tobacco would tighten up and burn more evenly.
Then she pulled off the cellophane wrapper.


"Do you know what's written on a Marlboro box?"
he asked.


`Cigarette smoking can be hazardous to your health'?"


"Besides that."


He took a step toward her.


"Look here, in Latin, it says `Veni Vidi Vici."
I came, I saw, I conquered."


"That's a peculiar thing to have on a cigarette box."


He brushed his hair over to the side where it looked fuller.


"It's from Julius Caesar."


"Oh," she said, "that makes sense," and started to pack up her bag.


"I gotta go," she said.
"I gotta go to work."


"Where do you work?"


"At a Xerox store.
I gotta go."


"Wait," he said, feeling so vulnerable that his chin sank low pulling his mouth all the way open.
"Don't you want to be friends?"


"I gotta go," she said.
And so she did.


Peter felt all right stepping out of the smoky elevator, scorecard folded safely in his wallet.
Kate was not the only one with a secret life.
Sometimes he couldn't imagine how he had stood living with her for so long.


Their home was small, tidy and rent-controlled.
They both cooked.


Kate was better at it but he left the kitchen cleaner.
When she did the wash she'd throw everything jumbled into a drawer.


They both swept the floor, but only he mopped it.
There was something in Kate's teeth that he still noticed.
They were smoother than most and more blue.


Peter had looked closely at many women.
Most actresses were light-conscious but not light-sophisticated.
They wanted to be in the center of it without realizing how that concentrated visual energy transformed them.
Most women had high expectations of pink.
They thought it made them rosy and youthful

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