Guiding Star  

By Mark Mazer  

Schnein wanted his wife, Phyllis, to read his stories and insisted that she make critical comments. But experience had taught her that his ambition was greater than his talent, his sensitivity was greater than his ambition and his temper could be greater than the other three combined. So she avoided talking about style, character and plot and tried helping with grammar, spelling and punctuation. But that approach didn't satisfy Schnein who typically complained, "Come on Phyllis! Quit pulling punches."

Trying to keep Schnein at bay Phyllis experimented with various excuses: "I forgot;" "I didn't have time;" "I need to read it again;" and "I'm not smart enough." But after repeated failure she turned to a time-tested alibi: "Honey, I have a bad headache."

Schnein doubted, pouted and finally shouted, "Too headachy for sex - always! For reading - never! Until now and only for my stuff!"

With the feedback argument now linked with the couple's feud over sex, their mutual resentment poisoned every minute they spent together. Hoping that more insight might improve his marriage, and his writing, Schnein decided to study Freud, and before long Schnein's view of things showed the influence of his reading. One night he looked up from his book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and said, "You know what, Phyllis? You don't see me as I really am! To you I'm the reincarnation of your bossy grandmother, the one who made you eat oatmeal even though it made you gag."

Phyllis had told Schnein many times over the years that he had no right to drag her relatives into their arguments, and to blame her and her family for their problems - as if he himself bore no responsibility. She had often discussed with Dr. Fischler, her psychiatrist, the details - good and bad - of her family relationships and didn't need Schnein, Mr. Gentleman "C", to play shrink. Wanting to set appropriate limits - the way Dr. Fischler had taught her - but angry as hell, she told her husband (in a phrase near and dear to his heart) what he could do with his psychoanalytic interpretation and his oatmeal. Then she said, "I've had it! I need a break! I'm going on a cruise - without you!"

"Good!" Schnein said. "The sooner the better! Without you holding me back my creativity will take off like a rocket ship."

Phyllis grabbed the phone, called the travel agency and demanded to speak to her friend. Estelle lent a sympathetic ear but was dying to complain about her own husband. "Believe me," Estelle said, "I'm no stranger to what you're going through. My Morty is just like your Phillip: never satisfied with his life and always blaming me for his misery."

But Estelle's boss, Geoffrey, who had warned her recently about gabbing during business hours, planted himself six inches from her face, placed his hands on his hips and glared into her blue eyes. To let him know what she thought of his antics, and that he should gargle, Estelle pinched her nostrils and made a stinky face. Then in a voice loud enough for the entire office to hear, she told Phyllis, "If I didn't know the truth about Geoffrey I'd think he was making eyes at me." Geoffrey immediately backed off and Estelle rewarded his subservience by lowering her voice: "Phyllis darling. vay iz mir. please give me a few minutes, I'll see what I can do."

Phyllis stayed on hold and her patience paid off - a first-class ticket on a cruise ship leaving the next day for the Caribbean. Estelle regretted that she couldn't go with Phyllis and explained, "Without me looking after him, Morty would sink like a stone. But just think! You're living every wife's dream - two weeks free of a husband's demands."

"Bless you, Estelle. If every woman had a friend like you, fairy godmothers would go out of business."

In high school and college Schnein had been a basketball star. And his brief stint as a professional - even though he was mediocre - had earned him a nice little nest egg. Without a job he was able to live more comfortably than any doctor, lawyer or businessman that he had rubbed shoulders with in school. So why the struggle to become a writer?

"I don't know exactly," Schnein once explained to his wife. "In eighth grade I turned an Uncle Remus story into a play. Read it to the kids, and they loved it. Then the teacher wanted to know what the ruckus was about, so I read it to her. God, did she laugh! So a group of us rehearsed for a few weeks. Made scenery, costumes and stuff. Performed it for the school - and invited the parents too. I was Brer Bear. 'Duh, I'se a Bray'uh Bay'uh.' Like that, I said it in a deep, deep voice. The audience went crazy."

Phyllis relayed Schnein's comments to Dr. Fischler during one of her sessions, and the doctor analyzed Schnein in abstentia:

"I hate to say it, Mrs. Schnein, but your husband is narcissistic. Pari passu, the only time he feels alive is when he hears applause. Adulation is to him what oxygen is to us. And if there's no applause, watch out! Narcissistic rage - tantrums like a spoiled child, maybe even worse. As for writing, it's a grandiose fantasy. He's still trying to win the approval of the brainy kids who, undoubtedly, made him feel like a dumb jock."

Phyllis had tried several times to convince Schnein that Dr. Fischler's interpretation made sense, and that if Schnein would stop trying to please the "intellectual snobs that lived like a tumor in his brain," he could quit writing, take up golf and enjoy life. Schnein agreed that giving up the writing game would have made life easier, but he clung stubbornly to his dream of achieving literary fame:

"First of all Phyllis, your shrink has never met me! Everything he thinks he knows is based on your point of view. And by the way, the smart kids envied me. They fell all over themselves trying to sit next to me in the cafeteria. And second, don't you see that Fischler's theory is self-serving. He was probably a child genius himself. And you know what? I bet ya' he's still jealous of guys like me. But he hides his envy behind a wall of diplomas and a mouth full of big words. And he has the nerve to call me nar. narci. narcistis. a narcissus or whatever. Tell him that Phil Schnein - old number 9 - says he's a pansy. And I don't mean the flower."

"The way you're reacting makes it sound like Dr. Fischler thinks you're stupid. And he doesn't. He's the gentlest man I've ever known. Once I wanted to give him a goldfish but he wouldn't take it. He said it would be torture for him to look at a poor fish trapped in a bowl. Honest, Dr. Fischler would never intentionally hurt your feelings."

"He can swallow a goldfish for all I care! Don't forget that I'm the basketball star who was once the fattest kid in the class. Believe me, I know about doing things that I'm not supposed to be able to do. And Phyllis, I'm telling you, I feel a novel squirming inside me like an overdue baby trying to be born. I just need a little help, that's all - someone bright who'll believe in me and help me along. Look at the old Boston Celtics, for God's sake! Where would they have been without their coach, "Red" Auerbach, bringing the best out of them?"

"What's wrong with the teacher you have?"

"He's a short, fat, sarcastic, red-headed loudmouth!"

"So was Auerbach."

"Yeah, but at least Auerbach was famous."

Later that day Schnein was eating lunch in the local deli when a tall, black man approached his table: "Schnein, is that you?"

"I'm afraid so," Schnein answered, noticing that the overlapping coffee mug stains on his writer's notebook looked like a weathered version of the Olympic logo. "How you doin' Jonesy?"

"Excellent," said Jonesy, pointing to his gold earring. "See that number six - still up to my tricks. Leadin' the old timers' league in scorin' and my old lady ain't findin' me borin'. How 'bout you? Playin' any hoop?"

"No, I'm a writer now."

"Is dat a rough sport?" Jonesy said, playfully exaggerating the dialect.

"Nah," Schnein went along. "Sometimes I jams a finger tappin' on the keyboard or bangs my knee on a table leg, but no career-endin' injuries so far."

"Oh yeah man, dat's cool. Maybe I be tryin' dat when I hangs up my sneaks. Seriously Schnein, what are you doing? Sports writing.?"

"Fiction. Just started a story about a guy named Sol. He's a poor fisherman and can't find his way by the stars."

"By the stars! What's old Sol navigatin' - Noah's ark? Nobody usin' stars these days. Don't be stupid. Hey, Schnein, why don't you read me some of that story?"

"To tell you the truth, I haven't written much yet."

"From the sounds of it, that might be a good thing."

"Right, uh, okay... Well, um, here goes:"

"Oy vay, I have to navigate by the stars. It's so complicated! I always forget which is Mars and which is Antares. They're the same color - red. You 'd think that God would have made them different colors - maybe red and green. Why did he make it so easy for us ordinary fishermen to lose our way? And all those mathematical calculations! What a nightmare! If only I could stay home in bed with my wife and cat."

Schnein looked up to check Jonesy's reaction. Jonesy wrinkled his nose as if he had just smelled a ripe fart. "You got to be kiddin' me. I thought you stunk at basketball but."

"It's really that bad?"

"No, it's worse."

"I guess that's why my wife doesn't like to read my stuff."

"You guess? Man, you should be countin' your lucky stars you ain't been sued for domestic abuse.What you writin' about Sol for anyway?"

"Writing class assignment - write a story about a picture. I found an old postcard in a bureau drawer - a blue-tinted etching of a man and his wife sleeping while their cat looks out the window at a fisherman unloading his boat. And there was something in the title of the picture about nightmares - and Antares."

"I'm no writer,' confided Jonesy, "but I'll tell you. that oy vay stuff has got to go. People who dig that. well, they're too old to even read a story. You got to get excitement into your writin'. Here's the formula: the two S' - Sex and Suspense. It's as simple as a tomahawk jam. Oops, forgot I was talkin' to you. Tell you what. I'll give you an hour. And when I come back you have somethin' good to show your ole teammate, you hear?"

Deadlines brought out the best in Schnein. He ordered another cup of coffee and started writing. Deadlines brought out the worst in Jonesy - he was half an hour late. But Schnein had entered a zone (something he had done a few times playing basketball) and he was temporarily oblivious to time.

When Jonesy finally came back he stood silently next to Schnein for a few moments before interrupting: "Hey Schnein, you in there?"

"Oh yeah, Jonesy," Schnein said, accidentally elbowing his untouched cup of cold coffee while becoming reoriented to his surroundings.

"Okay, show me your stuff," Jonesy ordered. He sat down across from Schnein and helped him wipe up the spreading puddle of coffee.

"Do you want to read or for me to read it to you?" Schnein asked.

Jonesy glanced at the writing, raised his eyes higher than Schnein could jump and said, "You read!"

Schnein gulped the mouthful of coffee left in his cup, cleared his throat, glanced at Jonesy's intimidating full-court press stare and began:

"'It was a starless night and Phyllis was strolling alone in an unfamiliar Caribbean town. When the rain came she took cover in a bookshop not far from the harbor where her cruise ship had docked for the night. Her soaked, clinging short white dress concealed her nakedness about as well as her nakedness concealed her taut, tanned skin.

'The adult magazines, books and videos made Phyllis self-conscious. And when the unshaven sales clerk ogled her she almost ran out the door. But then she noticed the sailor. His golden buttons, like her diamond, glistened in the store's sleazy neon brightness.

'Phyllis strayed down the narrow, cluttered aisle and rubbed against the sailor's back, leaning into him like a cat in heat. He made no effort to let her pass. She squeezed by slowly and pretended to browse, but she was really trying to discover what interested him and if he had become aroused.

'Peeking was something.'"

"Time," Jonesy interrupted, making the familiar "T" gesture with his huge hands. "Don't kid me Schnein. Who wrote that for you?"

"What do you mean?" asked Schnein.

"You just got yourself a slam-dunk without even gettin' off your butt."

"You liked it?"

"You on a roll now baby!" And with that Jonesy stood up, put his right hand deep into his pants pocket and strutted out to the street where he paused to check out his reflection in the deli's front window.

Schnein definitely was on a roll, and not the kind that you eat. He spent the afternoon in the delicatessen writing like a man possessed, and by closing time the story was finished.

He rushed home, dodging the slow walkers, and imagined that he was leading a fast-break, splitting the defense and driving towards the basket - whoompf! He typed quickly, remembering how the sportswriters at courtside had banged out their stories during the games. And when his typing was done, seeing his first good story - his own words - page by page coming out of the printer, was as miraculous to Schnein as the birth of a child is to its father and mother. He tenderly shuffled and stapled the sheets of paper together and placed the story on top of his desk - directly under a beam of light - where it sparkled like a trophy in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Schnein hadn't prayed since he was kid but he was so inspired by the miracle of creation, that he bowed his head and folded his hands. "Please God," he said, "make Phyllis read the story, and make her like it so much that she won't even want to go away."

Phyllis was out shopping for last-minute items and didn't return home until quite late. Knowing that Schnein would be hungry, she bought pizza - smothered with extra cheese - and put it on the kitchen table. Schnein smelled garlic and left his study to greet her. She opened the cardboard box, scraped off the rubbery cheese that had stuck to the lid and spread it back where it belonged.

"Want some?" she asked.

"Sure," he said, taking a beer from the fridge and having a gulp.

Phyllis cut him a couple of slices and handed him the plate.

"Thanks," he said, hook-shooting the bottle cap into the bin and belching loudly when he scored. Then after faking right and pivoting left he imitated Mae West's voice in My Little Chickadee: "Hey cutie, how 'bout some pizza and TV? John Wayne, Ricky Nelson, and little ole me."

"Already ate, gotta pack now," Phyllis said leaving the room.

Schnein heard her galloping around the house and thought that she was gathering enough clothes to outfit a basketball team. He sat in his reclining chair, ate, and drank several more beers as he watched the movie, Rio Bravo, on TV, and became more frustrated with each passing minute. He couldn't stand the heavy thumping of Phyllis's footsteps. The putdown that he wanted to shout had already formed in his mind: Why would a woman of average size gallumph like an elephant? But he didn't want to make her mad and blow the chance of her reading the story.

Schnein kept changing the stations and going back and forth to the kitchen. Finally he decided to heat the last slice of pizza. And as he waited drinking beer, it occurred to him that if he came up with a funny answer to his insult that it might make a good joke. But nothing immediately came to mind.

He took the pizza out of the oven, inhaled deeply, took a big bite and scalded his tongue and the roof of his mouth on the molten cheese. "Shit!" He swigged some beer and swirled it around, making like a Maytag soaking a load of clothes. And as the cool liquid was soothing the burn, he noticed that he had just learned something new: Hot cheese hurt more than failure but only in certain spots and not for long; failure hurt in every molecule of his body, never stopped, and made every other pain feel worse.

Suddenly Phyllis poked her head into the living room. She had noticed the story in its place of glory. And against her better judgment - but wanting to be on reasonably good terms with her husband the night before leaving - she asked if she could read it. Schnein, his burnt mouth re-stuffed with pizza, pointed to his Count Basie-cheeks and nodded yes as he chewed and swallowed. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and said, "Phyllis, guess what. I just invented my first joke. Why would a woman of average size gallumph like an elephant?"

"Because she's carrying her trunk. God, I heard that one years ago."

Phyllis took a shower, put on her nightgown, climbed into bed and read. Schnein - feeling slightly more stupid than usual, but also more hopeful - distracted himself by watching the movie. But after the scene where Angie Dickinson changes her clothes behind a screen, he grew restless, turned off the TV and the lights, undressed and joined his wife in bed.

Phyllis seemed totally absorbed in Schnein's story. She didn't even acknowledge his presence. He assumed that her silence was a positive sign. Anticipating her admiration he felt as if a current were electrifying his body. Instead of asking questions he used his tongue to play with the tiny flaps of skin dangling from the burnt roof of his mouth. But after a few minutes he noticed that Phyllis wasn't turning the pages. He looked into her eyes and she seemed far away. Then it finally hit him that she had taken off her wedding band. He felt hollow - as if he had puked, not just food and drink, but his entire insides into a gooey heap on the bed. Schnein placed his hand lightly on Phyllis's shoulder.

"Don't touch me, you creep."


"At least you could have changed the slut's name."

"I'll change it, I'll change it. It's only a rough draft."

"You're a pig! I don't want you near me. Get out."

"I ran into Jone."

"I said out! Get out of here - now!"

He rose from the bed, went to the living room, grabbed the bottle of vodka and drank as he paced in the dark. He didn't understand Phyllis. Why couldn' t she have said something helpful like the story's good, just change the name? He was feeling more certain that his wife lacked what he needed most in a woman - the knack of saying the right thing at the right time.

Meanwhile the Stolichnaya was proving to be the perfect comrade and Schnein, feeling smarter than Boris Spassky and better coordinated than Olga Korbutt, marched to the bedroom and knocked nine times rapidly on the heavy wooden door. But there was no response.


No answer.

Schnein turned the knob but the door was locked. He knocked three more times, harder. "For Pete's sake, Phyllis!"

"Keep banging and you'll write your next pornographic masterpiece in jail."

"Phyllis! Come on!"


Schnein pictured himself kicking down the door, the wood cracking, the brass lock breaking, Phyllis screaming, swinging the phone at his cheek, him grabbing the cord, curling it around his fist, her falling to the floor and crawling across the oriental carpet. But he was so frightened by what he imagined that his rage dissolved like sugar in hot tea.

Schnein retreated to the living room, killed off the last drops of vodka, faked left, faked right, eyed the wastebasket - the one decorated with the image of the Gloucester fisherman steering through a storm - and clanked a two pointer, underhanded, without smashing the bottle. Then he toddled to the window, pressed his face against the glass and searched the sky for a new guiding star.

Mark Mazer is a Boston native, works in mental health, and has been writing fiction over the past five years while living in England and Canada.

The Wall, Parchment Magazine, 2002-2003, Toronto, Canada
One Winter Night, Wild Child, ezine, March, 2003
The Cup, Cenotaph, ezine, April, 2003
Zetz, Mocha Memoirs, ezine, April, 2003

Contact Mark Mazer at

March 27, 2003
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