“This surreal mid-century tale of a mom who feels like “Lucy gone bad” and the family left in her wake entertains as surely as a parallel-universe episode of Ozzie and Harriet.”
LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW
“Klein’s book is more magical realism than science fiction. She expertly conjures the bittersweet story of a blue-collar family in distress of lost dreams and a young girl’s coming of age. TEST PATTERN is a marvelous, clever, and funny and sad novel.”
BOOKLIST (starred review)
“I devoured this compelling, funny, and bittersweet story. I can’t wait for Klein to write another one.”
DAVE BARRY, MIAMI HERALD
“Energetic, imaginative, and laugh-out-loud funny…all the charm of your favorite I Love Lucy rerun with all the supernatural strangeness of an X-Files episode.”
“Many novels reflect the pernicious influence of television on American society, but few openly acknowledge it. Marjorie Klein’s affecting debut, TEST PATTERN, goes a step farther, using television’s harmful effects as her theme…Klein’s more serious achievement, though, is in eliciting true pathos from the doomed parents and their ingenuously spiritual daughter, all of whom are painfully betrayed by the teasing promises of television fantasies.”
“TEST PATTERN proves Klein’s promise as a novelist and showcases her considerable talent. Her descriptions are deliciously detailed; her dialogue is energetic and credible.”
“[brings] new meaning to the phrase ‘must-see TV.”
“…a fable worthy of THE TWILIGHT ZONE…”
“Zingy and fun, the novel’s first half feels so familiar, like “Nick at Night” reruns…In the book’s second half, [Klein] breaks through the screen with a highly original conclusion. Humor turns to near tragedy. An undercurrent of disappointment and pain gives depth to the characters, and they surprise us. Klein creates a complex connection between cultural history and individual experience. Ultimately, TEST PATTERN poses serious questions about how television gives people both the strength to persist and the power to change.”
SUN SENTINEL, FT. LAUDERDALE
TEST PATTERN Excerpts
When Lorena was in her ninth month the circus came to town. The Little Top Traveling Circus wasn’t big, but it was big enough to have two tightrope walkers, a gorilla that rode a bicycle, and a bunch of either midgets or dwarfs, she never could remember which was which.
And it had a freak show.
She stood outside the freak-show tent and stared at the poster of the Half Lady and the Penguin Girl and the Alligator Man. “Come on,” Pete said. “Let’s look.”
“I don’t want to,” Lorena said. She could smell sawdust, candy cotton, and the pork-rind breath of the man behind her who was pushing her in line. She felt her belly stretch and shift until it seemed to inflate and surround her like a life preserver. She felt very far away, as if she were floating above the shoving crowd. No, she didn’t want to look at the freaks.
“Come on,” Pete insisted, and propelled her inside, flipping a couple of quarters to the sideshow barker, who snapped off two red tickets from the big roll. Inside, the tent was murky and dank. When she became accustomed to the dimness, she realized she was standing right in front of the half lady, whose shiny satin dress ended at the hips and so did she. Even though she was perched on a stool, she came up to Lorena’s chin.
Lorena planted her feet in the sawdust and gawked. The half lady’s hair was rigid with ringlets, rather stylish for a freak. She lifted her face to Lorena’s, a face that could have been anyone’s face, nothing special, nothing strange. Wide flat cheeks flamed with dots of rouge. Small pointed chin, its dent a shadow in the weak spotlight. Her soft dark eyes focused on Lorena’s belly as she reached out and touched it with tiny, rosy fingers. Lorena felt the baby move.
Suddenly the half lady sprang from her perch and landed on her hands on the sawdust-scattered floor. Lorena shrieked, grabbed at Pete, who staggered backward. “Jeezus!” he said. The half lady pranced around on her hands a bit, did a flip, and bounced back up on the stool, where she calmly patted her ringlets back into place.
“Let’s go,” Lorena said to Pete, yanking on his sleeve.
He ignored her. “Look! Baby Thelma!” he said. Baby Thelma weighed 655 pounds. “Six HUNNERD and FIF-ty-five POUNDS!” bellowed the barker, his undershirt translucent with sweat. Baby Thelma was piled into a chair that sagged dangerously beneath her. She wore a dainty nightie of a dress sprigged with flowers and lace, and flipped it flirtatiously above pale fleshy tights. She had a sweet face, small, benign features embedded into a bow-topped global head that tipped and nodded just slightly at Pete’s astonished comment: “Jeezus!”
“I want to go. Now.” Lorena tugged at Pete as she waddled toward the exit, but he yanked his arm away to stare at the lobster boy’s hands, the monkey woman’s beard, the alligator man’s skin, the porcine features of the pig-faced boy. He steered Lorena to the front of the crowd, where a child with a crusty scalp burrowed between them until he was the only thing between Lorena and Herman the Human Blockhead.
The Human Blockhead was preparing his instruments on a little table just beyond the rope that separated him from the crowd. Precise as a surgeon, he laid out a screwdriver, tipped his head back, stuck the screwdriver all the way up one nostril and plucked it out again in a graceful swoop.
Lorena felt her knees melt. “Pete,” she whimpered, but the Human Blockhead had more in store. “Just warming up,” he said with a grin. He looked like a marine with his close-cropped head, his square-set jaw, his blocky little body. He picked up the spike and stuck it in one nostril. Then with the silver mallet, he banged the spike up his nose.
BONK. BONK. BONK.
He drove that steel spike all the way up his nose until it disappeared into his head.
Afterward, when they laid Lorena flat on a tarp outside the freak tent with a cold towel over her forehead, she said it was more the sound than the sight of that spike disappearing into the Human Blockhead’s nose that made her throw up.
She went into labor before they got home. She had the baby the next day. The hospital was four blocks from the shipyard. All day long, she could hear its sound, metal on metal, the tattoo rhythm of the shipyard.
Bonk. Bonk. Bonk.
They named the baby Cassandra, after Pete’s grandmother, and called her Cassie. Lorena deflated rapidly, lost almost all the weight except for a soft roll just above her waist that never went away. Her belly button went back in, folded into a stretch-mark-scarred pocket, star-shaped. Pete poked it with his finger. “Now stay there,” he said, and it did.
Cassie grew and life settled into a rhythm. She and Lorena fused into one, each dependent on the other, while Pete seemed to exist in a parallel world that touched theirs only when he needed to eat or sleep. After dinner he would listen to the war news as it spilled from the cathedral-shaped Philco radio, muttering to himself, Boy I’d show those Krauts a thing or two, damn this bum leg, I’d mow those Japs down, too, if it wasn’t for this bum leg. Then he would fall asleep, mouth open, snore rattling deep in his throat, head thrown back against the lacy doily that protected the lumpy green chair.
Lorena had crocheted doilies for each piece of furniture in the living room, even the ottoman where Pete’s feet, splayed out into a V, rested, one toenail threatening to knife through a threadbare sock. She crocheted doilies for her mother, her aunts, for the neighbor lady who waved to Cassie when she took her for walks in her buggy. Snowflakes that would never melt, the delicate webs of lace spun from beneath her flying fingers as she listened to Helen Trent on the radio. Her days were filled with useful toil. Still, something was missing.
It started like a hole in her stocking. Tiny, barely there. She didn’t even notice it at first, the void that pervaded each moment. It was there each morning when she opened her eyes to the spiny ridges of Pete’s back. It was there when she spooned back an eruption of oatmeal from Cassie’s toothless mouth. It was there when, sated from lovemaking, she rolled up like an anchovy in her husband’s arms.
What was it? She had everything she was supposed to have. A husband. A baby. A cozy apartment full of doily-topped furniture. She used to wonder, What more could she possibly want?
Now, after all these years, she knows the answer. She found it on TV, right in her own living room. She’s no longer alone with her dreams, for television is her mentor. It beckons, it teases, it tempts her with her future. Look, it says as she stares at the screen, see who you can be: You can be a dancer. You can be famous.
You can be…a star.
(another excerpt from Test Pattern)
Lorena was seventeen that summer, a summer of long, lackadaisical days spent baking in the sun at nearby Buckroe Beach. Facedown on an old frayed blanket redolent of suntan oil, sweat, and mustard from hot dogs bought at the stand, she lay immobile for hours, lulled by the throbbing pulsation of waves and the bubbling music of the merry-go-round calliope.
From the vortex of darkness behind her closed eyes a recurring fantasy would emerge: being tapped for stardom by a Hollywood talent scout. “You are magnificently gorgeous,” exclaimed the phantasmagorical scout of her imagination, “but can you dance?” And she dazzled him on the spot with the Ginger Rogers footwork.
Prone on her blanket, lost in her dream, Lorena was so certain that fame would come to her that her baby-oil-and-iodine-basted body shivered with anticipation.
It was Della who suggested that Lorena enter the Miss Buckroe contest. Della would have entered herself, but she had broken her elbow doing a swan dive off the high board trying to impress some guy at the Community Center pool and had to wear a cast for most of the summer. She wouldn’t be able to perform her baton twirling for the talent part of the competition. But, she pointed out, Lorena could tap-dance.
“Miss Buckroe?” Lorena’s round nose wrinkled in dismissal at the suggestion. “They don’t care about talent. Besides,” she sighed in a fit of candor, “I’m too flat-chested for any beauty contest.”
“Socks,” said Della.
“Everybody does it. We’ll stuff socks in your bathing suit.”
So, sock-stuffed chest held high on the Fourth of July, Lorena lined up with nine other sweating girls on the flag-draped plywood platform in front of the balloon-dart concession. Although she could tell from the wide grins on the faces of the judges that her tap-dance routine had gone flawlessly, she knew that her appearance in a bathing suit was what really counted.
Clutching her cardboard with the number “3” painted on it, she posed like the others: front toe of her high-heel shoe angled forward, hips tilted one way, head tipped the other. Mayor Gupkie, Councilman Bunting, and the editor of the Daily Press made notes, chewed gum, and studied with narrowed eyes the rigid bodies of the contestants.
She felt their gazes scrape over her body like a trio of razor blades, peeling away her white Jantzen from the top of its argyle-plumped bosom to the bottom of its modesty-paneled skirt. She gritted her teeth, froze her smile, and stared way, way up at the Ferris wheel. It turned slowly against a sky blackening with carbuncle clouds, lumpy and rumbling with muted thunder.
She looked down. Behind the three huddling judges was Della, waving at her with her cast, giving her the okay sign with her good hand, thumb and forefinger joined in a circle. Della—corkscrew curls escaping from a wide headband, soft round bosom mounding over her bathing suit like generous scoops of ice cream over a cone—Della, Lorena thought, should be up here, not I. And she felt a sudden rush of love for her friend who was smiling and waving bravely, cheering her on.
Lorena’s frozen smile broke into a grin; her whole face beamed and melted. In that instant the three judges looked at Lorena, her eyes soft with affection, her mouth wide with love, and they knew who would be Miss Buckroe Beach of 1938.
When they called her name and she teetered out from the line of girls with their quivering smiles to slide under the shiny red winner’s sash, her grin was genuine, a twin to the grin of Della, who stood on tiptoe to applaud, her cast swinging wildly. And when the crown of paste and glitter was placed upon her head, Lorena felt as though time had stopped and she had been transported to another dimension, a realm of singular adoration where she would reign as queen.
Big bullying clouds eclipsed the sun as Lorena shone in all her royal splendor. It took the cosmic crack of thunder to startle her back to reality. Judges and audience disappeared in a rumbling stampede for shelter as a curtain of rain closed the show. Lorena remained alone on the platform, staring numbly at the suddenly vacant arena where just a moment ago she had been the star.
She felt the crown crumble like a cookie in her hair, now streaming water and sticking to her face. She looked down and thought she was bleeding. The red sash hung limply from one shoulder, the color leaching onto her new white bathing suit, mottling it with pink. The argyle socks bunched into multicolored lumps visible through the soaked-through fabric of the suit. Her golden moment had been reduced to a flash of glory, now just a memory seen through mascara-tarnished tears.
Later that summer, she relived her crowning moment when she saw The Wizard of Oz. Forever after, she identified with the good witch Glinda, who, glitter crown and all, ascended to the heavens in a bubble. In the theater, Lorena wept as she longed to recapture that feeling of enchantment, that magical moment that had eluded her ever since.
Time In A Bottle
When Lorelei’s new well taps into the fountain of youth, her once-mundane life entwines with that of Juan, her Cuban well-digger; Winona, a 500-year-old Native American woman; and the legacy left by Ponce de Leon.
Lorelei is a 60-year-old virgin who owns a Miami lingerie shop, eats organic food, and minds her own business. She never considers alternatives to this life until the day her well runs dry, when Juan the well-digger plunges its depths and taps into the flow of hidden water from an underground spring. She attributes her awakening sensuality and increasingly youthful appearance to her healthy lifestyle.
Her business partner, Sharleen, suspects that the water has more to do with Lorelei’s changes than the ingestion of kale and quinoa, and embarks on a campaign to sell it from the shop.
Someone else is interested in this water: Winona, a 500-year-old Native American woman who has been following the spring through the ages in her eternal search for youth, and has lost its trail. She finds it in Lorelei’s back yard, and is desperate to claim it once again for herself.
The story evolves from there, to Juan’s linked ancestry to Ponce de Leon, to Winona’s connection with that history, to the ultimate convergence of all their stories, ending in Lorelei’s recognition that life is measured not in length, but breadth.
Zoe drives a cab in Miami: Zippity Cab is her fifty-year-old pink Cadillac Sedan Deville that she’s kept in tiptop shape until the day that it’s battered by Tootsie, the elderly mother of a Miami Beach commissioner, Hal, who is having career problems of his own. The vehicular conflict leads to a resolution of sorts when Hal hires Zoe as a driver for his father, Max, a once-powerful developer whose driver’s license has been revoked. Max discovers that his most famous hotel, the legendary Louis Quinze, will be demolished and replaced by a glitzy new condo, and that his son Hal had a role in this.
Max’s decision to salvage his legacy exposes the mid-life delusions of Zoe and Hal. Unhappily on the cusp of fifty, Zoe ditches her once-beloved but now-mangled Caddy for a flashy new BMW. Fifty-something Hal, desperate to regain his place in a political and social climate that has left him behind, sells his soul to a developer and chases youth in the form of Staci, a comely Cuban who fears it’s too late to achieve her own dream of Playboy fame. Each is at a turning point in life, trying to deal with change through the often-mindless pursuit of irrational desires, driven to recoup some part of their lives that may be gone forever—and may never have existed at all.
Excerpts: SHIFTING GEARS
(This one takes place in Epicure, a deli on Miami Beach)
“Eighty-three. Eighty-three.” A guy with a greasy comb-over and high-waisted Dockers waves his ticket. After careful deliberation, he orders the shrimp with pasta salad. He changes his mind in favor of the bean and corn salad, then questions the source of the poultry that gave their lives for the chicken salad. When he debates regular tuna salad versus the low-fat version and asks for a taste of each, Zoe can’t take it anymore.
“Just pick something, doofus,” she mutters.
“What?” Comb-over halts in mid-taste, tiny plastic spoon clenched between tuna-clogged teeth. “You got a problem, lady?”
“You’re the one with the problem,” she says. “Make up your mind. You’re not picking out a ring at Tiffany’s. It’s food.”
“Don’t rush me. I’m not going to be rushed. You’re in a hurry, go to Burger King.” He drops the used spoon into the little bucket on the counter and turns to the deli guy. “I think I’d like to taste the lobster salad.”
Before Comb-over can get the spoon to his lips, Zoe grabs it and shoves it into her mouth. “It’s yummy,” she pronounces. “Now get a pound of it and move your sorry butt out of here.”
“Did you see that?” Comb-over yells at the waiting crowd. “She ate my taste.”
The crowd shuffles uneasily, studying their number stubs with renewed interest.
“Sir,” says the deli guy, an experienced hand at counter-induced altercations, “please place your order so we can move on.”
Comb-over glares at Zoe, turns to the deli meister and in a cold and level voice says, “Give me a taste of lobster salad.”
“Okay, that’s it,” Zoe says, wheeling around. “Come on, Max, we’re outta here.”
But Max is gone. And so is her purse.
(Another excerpt: Watching kiteboarders on the ocean)
He can see them from his balcony, tethered to brightly colored kites that arc against the sky like candy wrappers caught by the wind, lithe surfers balancing on boards that skip the waves at high speed, knees bobbling over frothing waves like skiers over bumps. Graceful as Baryshnikov, flexible as Gumby, focused as a kid thumbing a video game, the kiteboarders leap, spin, and cartwheel beneath the billowing U of their kites. Hal’s body flexes in phantom harmony with theirs, pantomiming the careless freedom he once had when all that mattered was the next move.
Once upon a time he was lithe and muscular, too, before his broad shoulders sank, before his carved legs became stringy, before he lost his nerve. When did that happen? When did the years settle over him like a fog, obscuring all those things he thought he was and would be, leaving him high up here on his balcony watching kiteboarders skim the whitecapped waves as lightly as a cat laps cream?
(Still another excerpt)
“You need the big tow truck,” he says. “It’s got a elevator bed that goes up and down. Maybe it can lift your car from the front. Only,” he adds, studying the height of the wall, “I dunno if it’ll go that high.”
A half hour later, she finds out. It doesn’t go that high. It rises to six inches below the front of the car, and that’s as far as it goes. The new tow truck driver sees this as a challenge. He considers borrowing a nearby cement block that is imbedded with a “no parking” sign to increase the range of the bed. Tootsie is numb by now. She doesn’t care what he does. She walks across the street and uses the bathroom in the gas station. Max, judging from the odor that has arisen within the confines of the car over the past hour and a half, is no longer concerned about his urination situation. He has, however, regained his energy enough to share his thoughts with her upon her return:
“I knew it. I knew it,” he says. “Look what happens when I let you drive. If I miss my appointment, I’ll have to wait another three weeks to get him to take a look at this thing.” He pets the malformation with a knobby forefinger. “What do you care? It’s just a nose to you, but to me, it’s my nose.” He slumps into a cross-armed knot behind the seat belt. “I shoulda driven. I’m a good driver. I passed that test. I can prove it.”
Tootsie sees the bed of the tow truck slowly elevate beneath the front of the car. The cement block is on top of it. It rises until it hits the chassis with a crunch. “I think we got it,” the tow truck driver yells.
“The test guy said I didn’t stop at the stop sign,” Max says. “I didn’t need to stop, I told him. I was going very slowly.” (this is an actual quote from my father)
The car shudders, creaks and moans as its front end lifts away from the ledge, tipping Tootsie and Max back in their seats. “Reverse, reverse,” the truck driver yells, and Tootsie throws the car into gear.
“I’ve been driving for 70 years. How many people can say that?” Max asks.
“Gun it!” yells the truck driver.
The car jerks, tossing them like crash test dummies. The front drops with a thud onto its wheels and the car rolls back several yards. Heart leaping, Tootsie stomps on the brake. The tow truck driver jumps down from his cab and gives her a thumbs-up.
(And one more: the Louis Quinze (i.e. the Fontainebleau) Hotel’s estate sale before it’s imploded)
“See that stairway?” Max points across the lobby. “Lemme show you something.” Zoe has to hustle to keep up with him now as he churns in its direction, dodging blonde furniture, television sets and several determined customers who shove him right back when he pushes them aside.
They arrive at the foot of the grand, gilded double staircase to find it roped off and guarded by a bored security guard who is dabbing away with a glue pen at an elaborately decorated inch-long fake fingernail. “Can’t go up, honey,” she says when he tries to unhook the velvet rope. “It’s off limits.”
“Whaddaya mean, off limits?” Max protests. “We just want to go up and take a look.”
“No can do,” she says, examining her nail work. “Can’t allow anybody up the stairs. Insurance, you know.”
“Insurance? It’s a stairway.” He turns to Zoe. “She ruined the surprise. It’s famous. It’s the Stairway to Nowhere. You go up, you look around, you go down again. The mink ladies liked to make a grand entrance that way.” He grabs the velvet rope again. “Let me show you.”
“Hey!” the guard says. “Don’t touch that rope.”
Max unhooks the rope; the guard grabs it. It’s a velvet rope tug-of-war with Max on the losing end until…
“Shit!” The guard releases the rope and drops to her knees. “My nail!” she says, groping the carpet frantically. Max makes his move. He scrambles up the stairway, tripping dangerously over his baggy pants in his getaway. He reaches the top, Zoe close behind. Below them, the guard is sending for the troops on her two-way radio.
Max surveys the lobby from his altitude. Zoe imagines that he’s seeing–not the spring-sprung sofas; the $72 TVs; the upended coffee tables, legs in the air like dead cats—but elegant women in furs, beehive hairdos braided like challas, and deep-tanned, Dep-gelled men in white dinner jackets. She can almost see him as he was in the photo she’s seen in the Wolfe’s condo, taken at a table in the nightclub of the Louis Quinze the night it opened: a dapper, dark-haired dandy. Now, fifty years later, Max Wolfe, the Hotel King, spreads his arms, Pope-like, and embraces the room of his memory.
(Last excerpt, I promise. On the Miami Beach boardwalk)
It’s Saturday, a cool and sunny day, crisp as a new box of matzah. Hal feels alive for the first time in weeks, every sense tingling with the novelty of being in a place he had always taken for granted. Joggers, power walkers, and leisurely strollers pass him in sound bites: not just English in all its accented forms, but a tangle of languages– Spanish, French, Hebrew, Japanese, German, Yiddish, Swedish, something Eastern European with that guttural ch sound he finally mastered after years of Hebrew school. Their voices are woven into a sound track of crashing surf, boom box music, the snuffle of wind through dune grass. A wave of guilt washes over Hal when he hears the screech of building cranes and the bang of falling concrete as another old hotel is gutted to make way for the new, but his guilt subsides in the clean fresh air.
There’s a section I’ll skip, then:
Hal feels as if he’s been released from prison into a cartoon world sculpted from flesh. When’s the last time he saw so much flesh? Tattoo’ed, pierced, wrinkled, waxed, furry, burned, pasty, veined, scarred, pimply, taut, stretch-marked, navel-ringed, liposuctioned flesh.