“[Here] are a few paragraphs I wrote two weeks ago. It takes place in 1937. Needing to escape the tedium of life, with her maiden aunts, my 17 year old protagonist Lydia secretly absconds to New York City with her friend Mary Ellen to meet up with Mary Ellen’s older cousin. Their plan is to attend a weekend dance marathon. After sneaking on a train from Cincinnati, they arrive at Penn Station.”
New York, October 1937
Mary Ellen’s cousin Freddie met them at Pennsylvania Station. Or rather, they met him. They had to step off the train and into the main waiting area before seeing him leaning against a marble pillar, hands in his pocket, a half-smoked cigarette cornered in his mouth. He was wearing a russet-brown suit and a chestnut fedora that was tilted toward his left ear. He barely straightened up when the girls approached him. He nodded toward his cousin, a “Hi ‘ya” barely escaping from under his cigarette. He looked Lydia up and down, nodding in apparent approval.
“This way.” He turned without offering to help them with their suitcases. Outside the station, the noise and sheer amount of people was staggering. It made Cincinnati seem like a small farm town. It was nearing five in the afternoon and already getting dark, cold in the shadows between the buildings. But Lydia barely felt the chill. She inhaled the smells of car exhaust and construction dust and hot dogs and Chinese food, all seemingly wrapped around the soles of leather shoes. She absorbed the honks of taxis, the shouts and yammering of jackhammers. New York was big and noisy and dirty and dangerous. She was so entranced she nearly lost sight of Mary Ellen and her cousin. What was his name again? Freddie?
After twenty minutes or so, he led them inside a brick apartment building on East 15th. Lydia was hoping for a view of the streets, but Freddie channeled them downstairs to a basement apartment at the end of the hall. Apartment was overstating it. There was one decent-sized room with a window that looked out onto a broken concrete patch broken up by weeds and a dead lilac bush. The light filtering in gave everything a bruised, leaden cast. One side of the room was fitted with a refrigerator and a small electric range that was crusted with what was probably dried spaghetti sauce and who know what else. To the right was a narrow hallway with a bedroom door on each side.
To Lydia’s surprise, there were already six or seven people in the room, mostly her age. Freddie introduced them quickly: Neil, Roberto, and Carter, Jocelyn, Tilly, and Gwynne. They were the kind of names you never heard of in Cincinnati. Lydia had the feeling they were also not the kind of people you met in Cincinnati, at least not the ones she knew. No one seemed to pay them much mind, though before she knew it, Freddie had placed a martini glass in her hand. The drink was the color of sunset and smelled slightly of oranges. He had a glass for himself as well, though the liquid inside it was colorless.
“Cosmopolitan,” he said, turning so that he flanked her on her right side.
Lydia had drunk alcohol before of course. Stolen gulps of sweet wine at home and pilfered swigs of Crab Orchard Kentucky bourbon behind the school bleachers. Neither was particularly pleasant except for that feeling of euphoria. She tilted the glass and sipped.
“Hokey smokes. This is really good.”
Freddie smiled, arching his right eyebrow. “Everyone is drinking them.”
“I prefer straight vodka.” He sipped his drink, staring at the top of her dress. “You do know you’ve popped a couple of buttons, don’t you?”
She laughed. It sounded so funny from him, the way his mustached twitched when he said it.
“It’s a long story,” she said, not wanting to get into what happened with the train cop. “Mary Ellen and I will them sew back on.” She looked around. “Where is Mary Ellen anyway?”
Freddie tilted his head toward the hallway and bedrooms. “Back there. Taking a nap, I guess.”
Lydia drank more of her cosmopolitan, turning her attention to the animated conversation in the larger room. Neil and Roberto were arguing as to whether Amelia Earhart could still be alive, Roberto sure that she was.
“Roberto, you’d masturbate to that photo of her in Life,” Tilly laughed.
“So would I,” Jocelyn quipped.
They all laughed, but no one seemed aghast to hear her say it. Someone mentioned the Japanese and Chinese fighting somewhere. Everyone seemed worried about the rise of fascism and nationalism, though whether or not these were one and the same, Jocelyn and Carter thoroughly disagreed. It was also dizzying.
About Dan Berne
DAN BERNE grew up in a working-class family in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked in his way through college, with jobs in drugstores, warehouses, U-bolt factories, and cement plants. He moved to the west coast in 1979, settling in the Portland area in 1990. He has been an active member of a select writing workshop led by author Karen Karbo for ten years. His short stories and poetry have been published in literary magazines and has won a literary award from the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. Dan owns a market strategy consultancy and is currently writing a book on market transformation. He lives with his wife Aliza in Portland, Oregon. The Gods of Second Chances is his debut novel. More can be found at his website danberne.com.
Nothing energizes me more than the art and craft of writing. Shape. Sound. Sensuality. For me, a well-crafted sentence or paragraph is umami on the page. Storytelling is a deep part of what makes us human, of what binds us together down through the generations.
I seek to create compelling tension in every scene, in every chapter, and in the spaces in-between. I then try to marry that with language that lifts off the page.
I love sharing the craft of writing with others. There’s always something new to experience. I conduct a weekly writing work group, as well as writing workshops and seminars. I also coach individual writers.
Much of my writing focuses on character and landscape, and how those interact to create a narrative. My current novel, The Gods of Second Chances, is set in eastern Oregon during the late 1930s. The protagonist is a young woman. As a male writer, it’s been a good creative challenge to bring this character fully into life.
The Artist in Residence (AiR) program in sponsored in part by the Cook Foundation. To learn more about the AiR program click here.
Interested artists may inquire about the program via email: Mollie Stewart, Director, Artist in Residence Program at Arts on Main: firstname.lastname@example.org