The Great Dream: A Plan B Essay
In the Plan B essay series, writers discuss their contingency plans, extraliterary passions, and the roads not traveled.
For my family, Plan B wasn’t the fallback plan for when life went awry. Life was already awry, and they’d already seen their hopes and ambitions compromised. So Plan B—what they would do if they didn’t do what they were doing—was The Great Dream, their private idea of themselves. Moving through their days like miscast actors in a play they didn’t like, they devoted their most creative energies to imagining and refining their true calling, the life they weren’t leading.
My father was a butcher. He owned a poultry market in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, leasing the building at regularly increasing cost from his mother and older brother, paying protection money to the Mafia, watching business dwindle as supermarkets began to appear and the neighborhood became crisscrossed by new highways. Nearing fifty, he was tired of waking at 4:00 in the morning and getting home at 7:00 every night, six days a week. With forces coalescing against him, he resurrected an old dream: founding a line of clothing exclusively for short men. No shirts with horizontal stripes, nothing checkered or plaid, no slacks with inseams longer than twenty-nine inches, no fat ties, no three-button jackets. He talked about this over dinner, night after night, refining concepts, V-neck shirts! No bulky sweaters! while my mother said Not this again. I’m convinced that thinking about what he’d love to do kept him together during the stress of his market’s inevitable failure. Make a fortune dressing five-foot guys like Andrew Carnegie. Though my father ended up managing the daily operation of his brother-in-law’s dress factory until dying at fifty-three, he continued refining ideas for his imagined breakout. Pants and shirts the same color so your shape looks longer!
My mother was a housewife. This was not something to be spoken aloud. She was meant to be an aristocrat or member of the Manhattan haut monde, a famous artist, yet somehow was in Brooklyn with this chicken butcher, a man she couldn’t imagine knowing. She never forgave him for marrying her. My mother’s way of being a housewife involved hiring a full-time maid we couldn’t afford, sleeping behind a closed bedroom door until early afternoon, refusing to entertain her in-laws in her own home, and cultivating an increasingly Zsa-Zsa-Gaborian accent to establish the fact that Lillian Skloot did not come from or belong anywhere around there. Since the life she was living didn’t truly exist for her, Plan B had to be grand enough, expansive enough, and bold enough to cover both her quotidian and fantasy worlds. That was hard work. She spent hours gluing buttons onto blank greeting card stock, drawing red lips on the buttons’ rims, black dots for eyes within the buttonholes, and topping them with chic, elaborate, lofty hats made of bits of feathers and silky cloth she’d collected. Then she would box up a dozen of these Noble Notes and offer them to friends as gifts. In restaurants, she folded linen napkins into the shape of women’s faces topped by turbans, and drew on red lips and the longest eyelashes possible before handing these Princesses over to fellow diners. She drew red lips and long eyelashes on cardboard tubes of toilet paper rolls and designed fancy hats for them too, presenting these Elite Ladies as decorative items to slip over opened liquor bottles. She played and sang a repertoire of six songs on the piano in our living room, acted in community theater productions, and loved costume parties, any activity she could participate in as someone other than herself.
My brother, eight years my senior, was a traveling salesman—envelopes, then pressure-sensitive adhesives, then metal bolts—just waiting for the time when he could step out to become a playboy and card shark. Everything suave and smooth, that was the plan’s underpinning. Hushed and loose where our home had been loud and tight. Life as a game of finesse, not a battle of force. He would fly from New York to Las Vegas or Reno to hone his skills. I have a photo of him diving into a Las Vegas swimming pool beside Pat Boone as four bikinied women on chaise longues watch, hands shielding their eyes from the glare. I have another photo of him, his cards fanned downward, a Kent dangling from his lips, smoke drifting up to conceal his expression. I kept those two photos together on the album’s page, though they were taken several years apart, because I thought they represented my brother coming as close as he could to doing what he was meant to do. But I was wrong. At fifty-seven, dying from complications of diabetes, blind, obese, needing dialysis every few days, he made a final trip to Reno. It was an astounding feat of preparation, arrangement, coordination, and sheer will, and though he had to cut the trip short, I think this was the moment he’d been waiting for. There’s a photo of him there, wheelchair snug against the card table, wearing the wraparound shades he needed to protect his damaged eyes, smiling James-Bondly, debonair, and I see exactly what living the dream, even for a brief moment, looked like for him.
In late 1973, at the age of twenty-six, I was living in miserable accord with my family’s template. The Great Dream, my private idea of myself, had been lost. I was out of touch with what I knew I was called to do, who I knew myself to be. Silent as a writer for two years, I was working as a program analyst for the Illinois Bureau of the Budget, something for which I had neither training nor passion. I’d gained fifty pounds, and to accommodate my expanding body, I wore cast-off, speckled, polyester, sans-a-belt suits sent by my seventy-one-year-old Uncle Saul when he was through with them. Literally and figuratively, it was painful to look in the mirror.
Yet it hadn’t been long since I’d understood, with fullness of heart and mind, that I was meant to be a writer. Not just that I wanted to write, but needed to write every day. Until the age of twenty-one I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. All so-called plans were clichéd and detached from my actual talents: I would be a professional baseball player, despite lack of size or sufficient skill; I would be a romantic actor, despite what I looked and sounded like, which was suited only to comedy; I would be a singer, despite a tendency to change key, drift out of pitch, and be overwhelmed by tremolo; I would be a physical therapist, despite poor academic performance in science and math, and a lack of interest in the profession. Stumped, I began writing my thoughts in a notebook, trying to work out what I truly wanted. Almost at once, the writing shifted away from rational thoughts toward feelings, memories of childhood, fractured images that caught the emerging emotions. This felt like something central to my being. I enrolled in a poetry class. Writing in earnest, reading contemporary poets, I felt as if I had found home, my Place. I went to graduate school at Southern Illinois University to study with the poet Thomas Kinsella, whose work I loved, and began publishing. I knew I would devote myself to writing for the rest of my life, no matter what else I had to do to pay the bills.
Yet here I was, four years later, unrecognizable to myself. I was my father imagining shirts with short cuffs. I was my mother with her fake accents, with less to show for myself as an artist than her toilet-paper-tube bottle toppers. I was my brother losing six months of savings at a pai gow poker table in Reno.
One night in 1973, I dreamt of my grandparents in their Manhattan apartment, Rosie squeezed into her tiny kitchen cooking flanken as Max stood in the doorway kibitzing, unable to fit in the space with her. When I awoke, and before dressing for work, I went into the living room, sat at the rickety roll-top desk where I normally paid bills, and wrote a poem before the images and sounds of my grandparents could fade. That night, I set my alarm for an hour earlier than usual and in the morning went to my roll-top desk.
There would be no Plan B. No fallback into a fantasy of what I was meant to do. My parents and brother had taught me well the consequences of letting life get in the way of their dreams. Over the next sixteen years, writing early in the morning or late at night, writing over lunch hours or on weekends while working full-time in the field of public policy, I managed to complete a book of poems, two novels, a few short stories, and to lose sixty pounds. The writing output was small, and some of it now seems to me rushed, but the practice remained in place.
And when, in 1988, at the age of forty-one, a viral illness targeted my brain, left me permanently disabled, and seemed intent on silencing me, I was saved over time by the long habit of making sense of my world through daily writing.
Floyd Skloot is the author of seventeen books, most recently the poetry collection The Snow’s Music (LSU Press, 2008), the memoir The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life (U of Nebraska Press, 2008/2011), which was named by Poets & Writers as one of seventy-nine essential books for creative writers, and the short-story collection Cream of Kohlrabi (Tupelo Press, 2011). Skloot has won three Pushcart Prizes, and his work has been included twice each in The Best American Essays, Best American Science Writing, Best Spiritual Writing, and Best Food Writing annual anthologies.