The Red Rows

by Amy Bernstein



From the back of the houses called The Red Rows, one can look out at the ocean.  It is not close. One can only hear it right after very stormy days, when the wind has died down but not yet the surf. At least a quarter mile of small company houses and then the low dunes, which cover the old coalmines sit between you and the ocean.  But it is there, out there all the time just the same.  There are no windows on the seaward sides of the Red Rows.  Bad weather comes from the ocean side and so, in a more practical and less beauty conscious time such as the one in which these houses were built, there were no seaside windows.  Pretty much, if you want to look at the view of the ocean, and it is an exceptionally beautiful view, you have to go outside in back, say to have a smoke, or to hang up the wash.  Or even just to stand in your yard with your hands on your hips and a bottle in your pocket looking at it.  

They were built in 1893, to house the higher ups at Inverness Coal Mine Number 1, the bosses and their families. The fronts of these old company houses still face the main street of the little town of Inverness. Each house is really two houses connected in the middle. They were originally exactly symmetrical, each a mirror reflection of the other. They were once all painted red with grey roofs.  They ranged all down the street and behind them were more identical rows sloping down toward the sea.  They each had the same flat roofed dormer in the front, centered, with two windows, one for each home.  They had another flat roofed dormer on the side of the roof, to left and right, with two windows each, the same narrow black front doors next to each other below the center dormer, and the same side doors with a mud porch to the left and right of the house. In the ensuing hundred and 18 years the  owners of each side of each house have adapted them to their individual needs. Some have been repaired and improved, while others have been neglected and worn down.   Now, no two opposite numbers are identical, and each double house is entirely different from all the others. Now they look like a row of fraternal twins at best, more like a family group actually, not even seeming to be the same age anymore. 

There are 14 of them left on the main street now.  There were once over thirty. The last mine closed down in the 1950s, after a long decline.  A few of the houses along the main street have been demolished over the years, which leaves gaps in the row like missing teeth.  Last spring one half of an end one of them burned to the ground. The owner had to tear the other half down.  It couldn’t stand on its own.  The owners put up a trailer.  Some in town said that ruined the appearance of the street and tried to pass an ordinance about it.  But they were outvoted.  Many felt that it was their land, it had been in the family for four generations and they had been burned out to boot.  Who should be able to tell them what to do with it?  

There was once an identical row across the street from these, in the days when the coal mine was in operation and the main street was dirt. But these were torn down in the 1920s. Now the shops of the town face the Red Rows, and the highway that takes a tourist all around Cape Breton Island passes down the middle.

In one house near the center of the row live Ann and Steve. Ann has lived there all her life. She grew up in the house with 4 sisters and three brothers as well as her mother and dad and dad’s father who lived there most of her growing up years.  The girls shared one of the three bedrooms upstairs, the boys one of the others, their parents the last.  The old man slept on a cot in the alcove in the upstairs hall.   Anne’s brother Johnny now lives in another of the houses, two down the row, and her sister Eve is in town between the times when she is too ill to be home and stays at the hospital. Eve stays with their mother at those intervals in the senior assisted living apartments up the street.  Everyone else is either dead or moved away to somewhere where they can make a reasonable living, which they certainly can’t do here, she has to acknowledge. Anne herself moved away for many years for the same reason.  She had a husband, and a daughter out in the Western provinces.  They both stayed out there when she moved back home but the daughter visits sometimes in the summer with the grandchildren.   She and Steve are not married.  They are “living in sin.”  Though they are not able to manage nearly as much sin as they used to these days. Ann is 77 years old and she has macular degeneration and glaucoma.  She is, for all extents and purposes blind, but she can still see shapes and colors and she watches TV now, since she can’t read.  Steve is 80 and has lost a leg to diabetes.  He still get around though, on his little tractor and has the truck fixed up so that he can drive them places. He also has an oxygen tank that he periodically sits next to while taking deep breaths.  In between, he smokes, to Ann’s fury, and still drinks too, occasionally, which he is not supposed to do. That, Ann doesn’t know about because she can’t see him do it.

As Ann puts it, “We are both just a total mess at this point.” Ann rarely bothers with her false teeth and Steve rarely wears his prosthesis, so her description is pretty accurate, but that is also in part of her view of life.  Ann is like her father.  He spent the last five or six years of his life sitting in the back corner in an old armchair by the wood stove chewing tobacco and glaring at the world. He thought the world had done him wrong by letting him get old and be poor and he was never going to forgive it for doing so.

Women do that, why?

by Amy Bernstein

I have been thinking a great deal lately about the way that women treat each other. Not just in general, but about the way women I know have ended friendships, or had other women do that to them. 

I had it happen to me many years ago, my dearest childhood friend suddenly stopped speaking to me.  There was no explanation or reason given.  it was just, suddenly, over. And, not being one to let go of anything over a mean 30 years, I still wonder about it.  Although, in the last year, I wound up talking to this woman's brother who said she had done it to him as well.  This made me feel a tad bit better. Maybe it was about her and not me at all? 

The same thing happened to my mother, who lost her dearest friend this way and wondered about it for years. By the time she called when my mother was dying, saying she had to "rush over and take care of her," it was too late. 

I have never heard of a man doing this.  Other things, sure, but not this. I recently wrote a short story about this.  Any thoughts?

Not being treated nicely

by Amy Bernstein

Most of the time, literary magazines try their best to treat us writers well, but sometimes, we happen upon an exception. Sadly, I had an exception experience with a new Lit magazine recently. There are several literary magazines that pride themselves on their respectful treatment of authors; apparently, Pangyrus does not aspire to be one of these. A new magazine, they have already shown that being respectful to authors is not their top priority.  I am writing to let other authors know what happened, so that they can consider these facts before submitting their work to this magazine.

I met the editor of this brand new magazine at GRUB street’s Muse and the Marketplace conference.  I have been a member of GRUB street for ten years, and have always found them to be a great writer’s community, concerned and helpful towards writers and their work.  Naturally, then, I assumed Pangyrus was probably a reputable concern if it was allowed a booth at the conference.  I sent them a story.   Pretty quickly, I received an E-mail saying that the editor liked the story, but thought it needed some rewrites and it was completely up to me if I wanted to make changes.  I wrote back, saying that I was open to suggestions, and if I agreed with them, would make changes.  My only condition was that, he would state that if I made the changes, the story would appear in his magazine.  I was unwilling to rewrite on a maybe.  He assured me if I could fix what he saw as some problems with the story, it would appear.

            There followed a period of nine months in which I made changes(they seemed like mostly good ideas to me, they didn’t change the story in any way that bothered me,) sent them, and then badgered the editor for a response. Since he didn’t answer my E-mails, (which should have been a tip off, right away, but I figured he was so busy…) I found a phone number for him at his office and called until I reached him.  He then sent the story back with some needed smaller changes.  I rewrote, and went through the business of trying to get feedback again, and again. Somewhere in there, he invited me to a party for the magazine.  There, I was introduced as “someone who was putting a story in the next issue,” which was nice. This all went on for almost a year. I was patient.  Several times I asked to be reassured about my story’s eventual publication in the magazine, and was reassured.

            You have undoubtedly guessed the end.  When the story finally satisfied him, he submitted it to another reader…months passed…then he wrote to tell me that- oops, sorry, she hadn’t liked it and so the magazine would not publish the story.  Mind you, I didn’t even get a phone call, just an E Mail to tell me this and apologize for his “mistake”.  He guessed he hadn’t really understood the process, he was new, etc.  A year was wasted not sending this story to other magazines, hours and hours were spent on writing changes most of which would now not be used. 

I guess I learned something, though. I think it is important that we ask for assurances of publication to be made in writing before agreeing to spend our time and effort on rewrites or changes. And I know I am going to stay away from this particular magazine in future.

(Letter published in The Review Review, 1/10/2-17)

So glad the Memorial Service for my mother is over: Something I wrote for it.

by Amy Bernstein

This summer, when I arrived at the beach that we used to call “Frank MacDonald’s” beach and then just “Frank’s Beach,” and later “The Climb Down Beach,” but which should have rightly been called “Margery’s Beach,” because she loved it so much more than anyone else, I told the cliffs and the sand and the ocean that she had died.  I had to tell them. How could such wild things know about a death that had taken place within the confines of the machine that is New York City? When I shouted this dry fact from below, the red clay cliffs did not fold heavily inward, tumbling to the sea, the grey granite did not burst apart, exploding from within, the white limestone didn’t collapse, or crumble to powder bringing the green grasses which clashed as always with the blue sky down into the grey sea and onto the white sand beach.

 The cliffs and the beach and the green kept on standing.  They remained beautiful and wild. How?  How can that be?  How can that place continue to be and to be beautiful without her love?  Even when she was far away, her love sustained it.

            Every day I ask myself, how can I do it?  Live and love and read and write and sleep and work and cry and laugh without her love to sustain me?  Even while I am asking, life goes on, the beach goes on.  I don’t understand.