Aggressively Iconoclast

I’m so excited to have just received my Advance Proof copy of THE ROCKY ORCHARD as we make our way to the JUNE 2 RELEASE!  Meantime, here is a new excerpt from novel #5, THE READING.  This passage begins where the previous post stopped.

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Tom continued around the circle making introductions.  I decided to preempt the possibility of tanked-up frosh teetering to a standing position and shaking my hand by saying, “Hey, really, don’t get up.  No need.”

“This is Pauly,” Tom said. Over there is Nathan.  The tall guy is Chip.  And right here is Natalie.  She’s from Texas.”

I had no idea why Tom singled out the Texas information, or what I was supposed to do with it.  I waved kind of lamely at everyone and said, “Hi, all.”  I turned to Natalie.  “Yeah…Texas.  Cool accent, I’m guessing.”

Natalie laughed and said, “Well, I’m thinkin’ it pegs me pretty quick as not being from around here.”  She was right.  Her drawl was leisurely and thick – to such a degree that it seemed like it must be deliberate.  Natalie had very long, disturbingly unhealthy hair.  She was quite lean, with long legs and big boobs that she seemed intent on displaying, as her polo shirt was a good couple of sizes too small.  Wait.  Polo shirt, again.

“Oh,” Tom said, “Oh, God, I’m so sorry.  This is Adele.”

I felt like an awful person for taking one look at Adele and understanding completely why Tom would have forgotten about her.  She was little, with hair and facial features that appeared to be all one color.  She seemed to blend into the background so much that I had a difficult time focusing on her.  I thought that this was probably the story of her life – not even being noticed, not significant-seeming enough to be overlooked because she hadn’t been seen in the first place.   It made me want to like her, to hope that I would. “Adele!”  I said.  “Cool.  I’ve only known one other Adele in my life.  She was the piano teacher for my ballet class when I was a kid.  She was a riot.”

“Yeah, it’s not a very common name,” Adele said.  I felt an enormous sense of relief that I was able to overcome my initial inclination to laugh when I heard Adele’s voice.  High-pitched, squeaky, nasal in a way that seemed to go straight from her mouth to that spot on your forehead, right between your eyes.  Instant headache.

“Adele the pianist chain smoked the entire time she was playing classical ballet pieces for us little girls.  The ashtray on the edge of her keyboard would be filled by the end of an hour long class. Her voice was so low, and so raspy-hoarse that I’m pretty sure she must have been hitting the whiskey pretty hard, too.” I pantomime like I’m taking slugs from a bottle.

I am trying too hard.  Way too hard.  I probably have been for a while, certainly since that idiotic remark about “who’s with me, brothers?”  I’m some exaggerated version of myself.  Aggressively iconoclast, or something.  Thank God it’s gotten too dark for everyone to see me blushing.  I can feel the heat in my cheeks.  The pulsing at my temples.

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I do this thing sometimes where I sort of turn off the sound.  I stop listening —  just for a minute — to what people are saying.  I shut out the words.  I watch them then, their gestures and their movements.  With the sound track off, I can see different things.  I saw that everyone was trying too hard.  Every person sitting around in this random little group collected by the super extroverted Tom on our third full day of our first year at college.

We had a clean slate. We were all brand new. Each of us understood this in our own way, and the knowledge was at once thrilling and terrifying.  We had no idea, none whatsoever, what we were meant to do. We introduced ourselves to other brand new people who knew nothing about who we were before we arrived here.  Whether we were the one who spent every Saturday night in the bathroom, leaning into the mirror as we squeezed the zits under the harsh lights. Whether we were the one who left behind a sweet and tender first love full of breathy whispers and dreamy sighs.  Whether we were the one whose parents travelled the world and left us completely alone while we rode a unicycle through the maze of our hallways.  Whatever we had been, whatever triumphs and suffering lay behind us, we began anew.

trying too hard

 

 

 

The Tommy Twins

THE ROCKY ORCHARD (coming June 2nd) has moved into the cover design and final formatting phase!  Take a look at a new section from my next novel, tentatively titled THE READING.        ffet.grass2I called them the Tommy Twins.  They were sprawled on the grass together on one of the endless stream of unbearably hot evenings that festered our entire first week on campus.  Most of the freshman class was sprawled across the grass; the need to escape dorm rooms that clutched the day’s heat and would not let it go made the need to lay in the cool grass feel urgent.

Most of the my fellow freshmen lay about, but only one of those freshman called my name as I navigated a diagonal path from one far corner of the massive lawn to the other.  I didn’t really know where I was going.  Or, more accurately, I wasn’t going anywhere. I was walking.  For its own sake.

My third day at college had been one of nonstop meetings, panels, discussions, information sessions, etc., that the college had amassed and assembled for our orientation week.  I don’t know, maybe they thought everyone would be consumed with paralyzing homesickness as well as fear and dread of the academic brutalities that lay ahead, but they kept us very busy.  I felt like I was at some sort of summer camp where none of the activities made any sense.  All of us freshman marched around to the places that our individualized schedules indicated, on time, with our notebooks open and our sharpened pencils in our hands.  When the time was up, we gazed down at a solidly white page and were perplexed that there had been nothing whatsoever to record.  Unless we doodled; then we had something to show for our time, at least.

Walking – albeit from one far corner of the quadrangle to the other – gave me a weird sense of purpose that had been sorely lacking.  Piercing through my overheated, dreamy daze, a voice rang out from a fair distance, “Jo! Hey, Jo from Pennsylvania!”  I looked around the general direction that the shout seemed to have come from and saw a guy who shot up from the grass and continually waved a very long, very pale arm in the air as I navigated my way through the bodies of my fellow freshman.  There were a number of guys sprawled around him in a haphazard circle, each of whom had their ever-present red cup filled with varying amounts of beer.

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“Oh my God,”  I said.  “Are you seriously sitting here with the freshman directory seeing if you can recognize people from their tiny little pictures and then yelling at them?”

He laughed.  His Adam’s apple bounced up and down on his long neck as he did, which I found completely disarmingly charming.

“Well, yeah,” he said.  “I guess that’s pretty much exactly what I’m doing.  I’m Tom.”

I took a quick glance at the motley group that surrounded him and said, “Did you start out all be yourself tonight and gather this whole group of people already? Pretty impressive work.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly right,” Tom said.  “Actually, not really.  I’ve met them over the past few days. Hey,  Jo, let me introduce you to everyone.” Tom said.

“Oh, right,” I said.  “You already know my name from the directory thing.  And where I’m from.  I feel like I’m at such a massive disadvantage.  Having not studied my directory.”

He pointed to a body on the grass, “this is Tom.”

“Tom and Tom?”  I said. “Great. Easy to remember.  If all of you guys are named Tom, that would be awesome.”

young-man-smoking

The other Tom stood up, with some effort, put his cigarette in his mouth, rubbed his hands together to shake loose the grass and dirt, and held his hand out for me to shake.  “No, just me.”  He shook my hand, put the cigarette back in his hand after taking a very big drag, and plopped back down on the lawn.

“Wow,” I said. “A hand shake.  Formal, if brief, introduction.”

The first Tom put his hands on his hips and looked up towards the heavens.  The second Tom gestured toward him with his cigarette and said, “He hates me.  Well, to be fair, we probably hate each other.  Equally.”

“Wow,” I said again.  “That’s quick work.  How long have we all been here – is it three days now?”

“We went to the same high school,” the first Tom said.  “We weren’t really friends, but I don’t think anyone actually hates anyone else.”

“OK, well, really glad to hear that,” I said.

“Different crowds.  Different friend groups.  We didn’t really know each other very well,” first Tom said.

“Then we drove here together.”  It was second Tom who said that, and with his words, he shot a highly withering look at first Tom.  “Longest eighteen hours of my entire fucking life.”

enemies

Tom the first laughed heartily, as if this was genuinely funny and we were all enjoying mirthful, lighthearted banter.  The Other Tom sprang up like a shot, jabbed a finger in my direction and said, “Want a beer? I’m gonna get more.”

“Hey thanks,” I said.  “I was actually thinking I’d swim way against the tide and demonstrate my radical side by not having any beer this evening.” I shot my fisted arm high above my head and mock-shouted, “Who’s with me, brothers!?”

Tom laughed.  Tom the original.  A beautiful, genuine, head-thrown-back, open-mouthed laugh.  They stood there for a moment, side by side, the two young men named Tom.  They both had curly hair, but all similarity ended there.  The laughing Tom not only had an infectious and unfettered laugh, but a huge, ready smile as well.  He was tall and rangy and slightly uncomfortable in his own body like a growing puppy.  It made sense that he was the one person, of everyone I had met thus far, who had called out to me.  He was putting himself out there, reaching and stretching his energy outside of himself, seeing if it would land on others.

Cigarette Tom was compact and muscly.  Dark brown hair, even darker eyes, deeply tanned skin.  He was turned entirely inward, intense energy coiled over and under itself, swirling around and around.  It seemed an effort for him to form words, more effort to speak them.  And once he had made the effort, the sound of his own voice tormented him.

I loved them both.  Immediately.

A History of Polo Shirts

Lots of news coming soon for the June launch of my novel, The Rocky Orchard.  Meanwhile, full speed ahead with the next novel, tentatively titled The Reading.  Here is a new snippet:

 

students

Tom gestured to a one of the guys who lounged at his feet.  “This is my roommate, Dave.  He’s a genius.  Certified.  148 IQ.”

Dave tilted his chin very slightly, made a nanosecond of eye contact, and uttered a barely audible “Hey” while neither opening his mouth nor moving his lips.

“Hey, Dave,” I said back.  Giving him the once-over, I had no trouble believing that he may well be a genius.  I just wasn’t sure what that meant, in the real world, I mean.  It made me think of one of the college visits that I’d gone on.  I don’t know what in the world about me, at least as it had been translated onto a college application, said to the folks in charge, “Let’s put her with the engineers!”  After the official meetings and tours were completed, I was supposed to head off to one of the dorms for a slice of authentic college life – in this case, having dinner in the cafeteria and hanging around afterward with a group of freshman engineering students.  I don’t even know where to begin.  Honestly, it seemed as if they must have been sent by a casting agency, because a more universally pale, socially awkward, tic-laden, mismatched plaid-wearing group of young men (and one virtually silent woman) could not possibly have come together without someone pulling the strings.  I loved them.  I wished that they could stay on that floor of that dorm for the rest of their lives, because I understood that they would never again, once they left their mutual companionship behind, they would never have a community of people who got them – who accepted their quirks unconditionally and who spoke their language.  It made me want to adopt them.  But because I knew it was completely unrealistic for a seventeen-year-old to adopt a group of engineering students, I wished for them to stay right where they were.  I settled for staying up most of the night playing a highly odd game with the one guy who everyone referred to as the certified genius.  We moved little pieces of purple plastic back and forth on a palm-sized triangular playing board.  I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but the magnitude of Ken’s delight at having a willing partner – well, it seemed like the very least I could do.  You don’t see that kind of unbridled joy every day, even if the bearer of that joy had never worn a pair of matching socks in his life.

Dave had a similar look.  He would have fit right in with the engineers, though they had been – within the limits of their own world – loud and gregarious and very friendly to me, though a lot of their friendliness lay in the range of unselfconsciously batting around math jokes at one another.  Dave looked as if he had never been comfortable anywhere, at any time.  He was doing his best to appear as normal as he could manage.

play-girl-kicking-ball

Also, Dave was wearing a polo shirt. I had literally never seen a kid my own age wearing a polo shirt.  Well, except for Danny, the kid who lived across the street diagonally from Mom and me.  Every so often, his grandpa would take him out to dinner at the grandpa’s country club.  I didn’t have much of an idea what a country club was, but all of us neighborhood kids had a highly unfavorable impression.  Danny would have to break off the from the neighborhood scene when his mother called him.  A while later, he’d come back out with his strawberry blond hair neatly combed and plastered to his scalp.  He’d have on a bright white polo shirt that radiated the pungent smell of bleach.  Worst of all, he’d had to trade in his worn and beloved sneakers for a polished pair of penny loafers.  We’d all stand around with him while he waited for his grandpa to pick him up and take him to dinner at the club.  We kept a respectable distance – bouncing our balls, straddling our bikes, kicking little pebbles – while Danny stood stock still for fear of getting a single speck of dirt on himself. We felt deep solidarity with his misery for being forced to give up a beautiful summer day, but more, for being forced to be someone different than the Danny that we knew.

shirt.danny

 

 

Fine Print

writer

I had always wanted to be a writer; that’s why I had chosen that school.  The college had a special program for people who knew, right from the beginning, that they wanted to major in English literature.  That was the closest you could come to studying writing in those days – you could become an English major and take as many creative writing courses as you could cram in along the way.  No more than ten people were accepted into this program each year; then those ten embarked on a double credit, year-long journey with a single professor.

I got caught up the picture.  Me, hunched over a worn, time-darkened wood desk that generations of eager students had used before me.  I would be accompanied by the gentle hum of my Sears portable electric typewriter, bolstered and enthused by continuous cups of rich, black coffee.  I would dream up characters as iconic as Big Chief and Nurse Ratchett.  I would send the characters on journeys as epic as those of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.  I would devise endings as satisfying as those of Charles Dickens, but with structure and prose as thrillingly avant garde as Virginia Woolf.

I would find my voice.  I would ferret it out from the bricks and the stone and the ivy.  I would find my voice, and I would let it sing.

Turns out, I really should have read the fine print.

dishwasher

 

I came from a place where dreams were small.  Not small because folks lacked the courage, or the vision, to dream bigger, but because small dreams were a great pleasure, a gentle way to approach a life of contentment.  The people across the street from mom and me lived in a tiny little house.  As a family of five, they were crawling all over one another just going about the business of living their lives.   They made giant bowls of popcorn and watched TV together.  They whipped up batches of frosting for no special reason and made them into dessert sandwiches with graham crackers.  They had loud arguments.  They laughed all the time.  When the older two children were already teenagers, they were able to afford their first dishwasher.  They rang our doorbell to tell us the news.  They invited us over to see it and offered us frosting sandwiches.  They walked on air, such was the level of their glee.

When it was time for their oldest boy to go to college, he didn’t look past our home state.  No one did.  There were a million colleges to choose from as well as the state universities, and desiring to reach further than the many options at hand seemed ungrateful somehow, a muddle of priorities.

My high school made a big deal of me being the first student ever to be accepted to this college.  I’m pretty sure that I may have been the first person who had ever applied. In many ways, I embraced – and even idealized – the life of small pleasures and measured dreams.  It was a big stretch for me to think about applying to this college in the first place.  In truth, I couldn’t even begin to picture what it might really be like to be so far away, in so many different ways, from anything I had experienced.

As I said, I should have read the fine print.

 

Four months until the June launch of my novel The Rocky Orchard!. Meantime, onward with my newest novel, tentatively titled The Reading.  I hope you enjoy the excerpt above.

There Is A Crack

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The harbor has frozen solid in the bleak, squat days of January.  Geese trot along in formation where water rippled just last week.  The thin sheets of ice have formed fissures, cracks that divide the harbor into tectonic plates of distinct islands with amoebic coastlines.  I think of the Leonard Cohen song: there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.

I think of Leonard Cohen, the last time I saw him perform, late in his life.  His smooth rapport with his audience and with his bandmates. Understated, pithy, casually eloquent.  I learned later that Cohen carefully scripted every single word that he said during his stage performances, and he repeated that same script at every show for an entire tour.  Every word of that seemingly casual banter had been laid out, edited, rehearsed, repeated.  I felt cheated at first, when I learned this.  Betrayed by the knowledge that he said the exact same things to us, this audience that he seemed so genuinely enchanted by.  His vintage sports coat and natty fedora beautifully mirroring the magnificently restored theatre that he was performing in, he had said these identical things to countless others.  And then it hit me.  He wasn’t a dick; he was a writer.  A lifelong believer in the power of words.  While studying Zen teachings, he took a vow of silence to see what could be learned from a lack of words.  His entire life was centered on words – their presence or their absence — arranging them to reflect our dreams and our agonies.

The harbor is what I see out my window now.  Beyond the harbor lies the vast lake, stretching to, well, stretching to forever.  To the horizon and to the idea of the horizon.  I am well above the treetops, well above my old view where I looked out my windows to the street, to the earth. It grounded me, being at the same level as lives lived, just outside my old window, people rooted to the earth in their comings and goings.

The ground vs. the sky.  The near at hand vs. the boundless.  I think about how my view – the world in front of my eyes each time I glance up – affects the things that go on inside of me.  How am I changed by being high up, far away, by having a vastness before my eyes?

My dog is old now.  It was a hard thing to ask of her, the magnitude of a major move at this point in her life.  Plagued by joint problems from an early age, the dog’s elbows have eroded in some places and sprouted the unwanted growth of severe arthritis in other places.  Her walk has slowed.  Her limp is often pronounced.

Her spirit remains undaunted.  Each day, I ask her if she wants to see “the ducks,” our catch-all term for the sundry waterfowl that populate the lakefront.  I am asking if she is feeling well enough to make the two-block journey to the lake.  When we cross the street and reach the ramp that leads down to the underpass, the old girl breaks into a trot.   She has figured out that, on the downward incline of the ramp, gravity will do enough of the work that she can feel as if she is running.  It thrills her; the lift in her entire being shines out.  She is able to run, just as she did for so many years in her youth.

Perspective is everything.  On a downward slope, you can feel as if you are flying.  From a birds eye view, the scope makes it possible to see a larger slice of one’s own world.

I had always thought of it as the worst year of my life.  The year that I was robbed three times.  The year that I had a stalker, before we had the word or the concept of such a thing.  The year I flirted with the temptation of drowning my sorrows in alcohol as a possible future plan.  The year I finally acknowledged that my father did not abandon my mother and me,  not in the way she had always said, anyway.  The year I acknowledged that my father had committed suicide.  The year I finally told my mother that I knew, that I had always known.

And then, a million years later, someone comes to a book reading and tells me that I changed the course of his life that year.  That same year.  That worst-year-of-my-life year.

Perspective is everything.  Perhaps it’s worth going back there, to revisit the story.  You’re thinking: but wait, you’ve already given it away.  You’ve told us everything that happened that year.  Ah, but stories are never about the events.  Never.

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My fourth novel, A Rocky Orchard, will release on June 2 (Amika Press)!  Watch for lots more news as launch events unfold.  In the meantime, I am grappling with book #5.  The sample above is a recent excerpt.

 

 

Imposter!

Leonid_Pasternak_001

Writer and literary agent Nathan Bradford said in an article, “Nearly every writer I know is afflicted at some point by the sense that they are a complete and total imposter who does not deserve to be writing a sentence, let alone a whole novel.”

After a writing gap of several weeks on my fifth novel – due to the holidays, a major move to a new home, and getting my fourth novel into production for its June 2nd launch, I was not surprised to re-read what I had just written this past Tuesday and believe that it was possibly the worst, most amateurish, trite, overreaching piece of trash that anyone had ever wasted time on.  Grandiose, perhaps; but when I go into self-loathing mode, I go all in.  It’s completely consuming at the time.  Paralyzing.  Soul-wrenching.  But it is also familiar.  Which, I am sad to say, does not make it any easier.  Just more familiar.

By the time Cheryl Strayed wrote her second book, Wild, doubt and self-loathing were so familiar to her that she thought, “Okay, so this is how it feels to write a book.”  There’s nothing to do but push through, as best you can. A contest of will with one’s self.  A contest where the need to write edges out the paralysis of doubt, even if the margin is a slim, fragile hair.

That same Tuesday, I came up with a totally different idea about how to begin the chapter I was working on.  A bit later, I realized that the original material could work well as a later addition to the passage.  That’s how any given day of writing can go.  The entire gamut from despair to satisfaction, many times over.

Here is a sample of the passage from my fifth novel, tentatively entitled The Reading:

galway2

 

Rooms have stories to tell.  Some hold on to their stories; the rooms are grim and tight-fisted and fearful that their stories, their precious histories, will be stolen from them and they will be left with nothing.  Other rooms are dying to tell you about their past.  It leaks out everywhere – the place where broken paneling reveals the tattered stuffing within the walls  where a chair toppled during a drunken argument.  The chip on a faded picture frame of an equally faded painting holds the memory of an exuberant toast given during a bachelorette party, though the marriage was fraught with deception from well before the wedding itself.  The exact places where much-varnished wood has been rubbed raw by a bartender who polishes endlessly when conversations sadden him past the point of endurance.  He sidles along the bar, moving away from the words.  He rubs, and he rubs.

This was a friendly room.  Old, tired even, but welcoming.  A room that stretched out its hand and let you know it was pleased that you had come.  Nonetheless, I was nervous before that reading. No rhyme or reason to it.  No way I could ever uncover something that explained why I was so  nervous sometimes – jumpy and clammy and hands shaking – and other times, I wasn’t nervous at all.  I would feel comfy and relaxed, and like every single person staring at me was a kind and kindred soul who wished me nothing but the best.

This was one of the nervous times.  I got there early. I always get there early.  I like to check out the room, feel the feel of it for a time.  Because rooms do hold their histories, and they do tell their stories, if you take the time to pay attention, look around, and  listen to the walls.

I sat down at a table near the far back of the lengthy room.  But the far back turned out to be the far front,  as it was right next to the spot where a tall, wild-haired woman was setting up a microphone stand.  I supposed that I was sitting a few short feet away from where I would  be standing when I read from my latest book.  That’s why I was there, in that room, trying to settle into the accumulation of what had occurred in all the time before I was due to stand in front of the microphone, which was still in the future as I was thinking all of this.

 

 

A Shower in Winter

dorm.shower

Seven o’clock on a Thursday night.  Early.  A seemingly random time to take a shower, but I had drawn out dinner as long as I could with endless cups of coffee, and I wasn’t ready for the evening – meaning either gathering folks to head to the bar, or possibly studying something.  It was mid-winter, and the icy gray relentlessness had dug its claws deep into me.  I took showers at all kinds of haphazard times, when I needed to feel the profound warmth that only full immersion can bring.  Growing up, I relied on baths.  But there were no such things as bathtubs at college.  Nor were there children.  Nor dogs.  There were all kinds of things that you never saw; they simply disappeared from one’s landscape for years.

I had worked up a bountiful cloud of steam.  The shower’s intense heat within the cold of the marble bathroom cause the column of steam to shoot toward the ceiling in a swirling frenzy.  I closed my eyes and luxuriated in the feeling of my fingertips massaging the shampoo all through my scalp while the water fell on my abdomen and cascaded down my legs.  With my eyes still closed, I turned around, threw my head back and rinsed the shampoo from my hair, feeling the rivers of suds tumble down my back and pool around my feet.

shower.feet

When my hair was fully rinsed, I opened my eyes.  A pair of dark brown eyes stared straight at me, framed by the fingertips of two hands.  The top of his head, encased in a ratty dark blue stocking cap, poked up from the back wall of the shower stall.  The eyes.  All I could see were the eyes.  I couldn’t figure out what in the world he was standing on, that he would be able to look over the top of the shower wall.  I couldn’t figure out what the hell he was doing, meaning, what, exactly, was his plan?

He vanished.

The silence was deadly.

I whipped around to face the other direction.  Part of his body was raised over the opposite shower wall.  He seemed to be hoisting himself.  He seemed to be trying to crawl over the top of the shower wall to get inside the stall with me.  It didn’t seem like a good idea to scream.  I knew there was no one else around.  I figured he was probably carrying – if not a gun, then certainly a knife.  From what I could see, he seemed huge.  Six feet three, maybe six-four. It just didn’t seem like a good idea to scream.

Intruder with Knife

In the few seconds I took to weigh my options, I saw him out of the corner of my eye.  That eye again.  One eye this time.  Looking at me.  Looking through the slight space between the shower door and the door frame.  The bulk of his body was directly behind the shower door.  I put the full force of my weight into it and pushed the shower door right into his face.  Right into his fucking face.  Fast thinker, he turned out to be.  He shoved the door back toward me, and he ran like hell out of the bathroom and down the five flights of stairs and out the freshman quadrangle gate and into the night.

I stood in the bathroom, with the shower still running, shivering head to toe.  My teeth chattered.  My body, bright pink from the scorching water, felt like it had no blood in it at all, as if the terror had leached it right out of my skin.  At some point I turned off the water but felt swallowed by the silence, terrified by the absence of the sound.  I turned the shower back on, focused hard on the sound of the stream so I could hold it inside of me, then turned the handle off again.

I wrapped myself in my towel and looked at my reflection in the mirror above the perfectly polished sinks.  I needed to see myself.  I needed to make sure that I was still there, still me.  Though I had seen the man with the huge, bloodshot brown eyes bolting down the stairs after he tore out of the bathroom, I couldn’t trust what I had seen.  I stayed in the bathroom for a long time, then tentatively, slowly, cracked the bathroom door open a bare sliver and looked around for any sign that he may still be close.

Nothing.  The polished marble of the common area on the fourth-floor landing, the old staircase, four closed doors.  Wait, not all of the doors were closed.  The door to my dorm room was ajar.

intruder

 

Squalor and Stairs

Soon to be immersed in the final editing of my fourth novel, The Rocky Orchard, I continue to work on a possible fifth, tentatively entitled The Reading.  Here is a recent snippet:

squalor

That school was trying to crush me.  Right from the very first day, that school wanted my soul.  My mom and I had checked the map the college had sent before we set out that morning.  We had marked the exact route and the exact place that the official literature had said was the closest place to park for my particular freshman dorm.  When we drove down the squalid city street, we pulled the car over to check the map again.  The juxtaposition of boarded-up buildings and heavily gated storefronts set against a backdrop of lush, towering elm trees fascinated me.  The way the sun glistened from a million shards of broken bottles that lay in clumps was beautiful enough that my road-trip woozy brain considered that they may have been placed intentionally.  But it did not seem like we could possibly be close to a university, let alone on the campus itself, as the map indicated.

It hadn’t registered that all of the freshmen were housed on a campus that stood separate from the rest of everything.  Meaning, along the edges of a monstrous quadrangle.  Meaning, a killingly long distance from the closest place that we could park.  My mom pulled up to the curb at the end of a long line of cars lit up with emergency flashers blinking in a dazzling display of orange.  Mom gave me a weak-but-brave-smile, and we opened the doors of her little red station wagon to a day that would go on record as one of the most wretchedly hot days I ever experienced.  Meltingly, inexcusably hot.  I thought this well before I learned that Wren Hall Room 545 was on the fourth floor, the fourth floor of a building that had no elevator.  And, there was a flight of stairs up to the “first” floor.  I was not even slightly charmed by the European sensibility, nor by the staircase that appeared to be genuine white marble, the edges of the steps rounded by the footfalls of generations.  I was incensed, indignant that such a thing as a fourth floor walk-up that was actually a fifth floor walk-up even existed, let alone that I was destined to spend a year planning my days around not returning to my dorm room more than absolutely necessary.

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But first, my mom and I had to get the sundry possessions that filled the back of the station wagon up all of those stairs.

Thank heavens I was more or less of a minimalist.  I hadn’t brought all that much stuff.

Meaning, thanks heavens I was poor.

I said hi hi hi to all the kids and their family members who were lugging endless numbers of suitcases, quickly scanning the faces of my classmates for any hints of who they may be.  I noted as well the high-end stereo equipment and the boxes with the names of stores I had only read about in novels.  The families seemed impermeable to the heat. I surreptitiously checked their brows for beads of sweat.  I inhaled as they passed, trying to catch a whiff of rank, locker room worthy sweat.  My mother and I were dripping puddles well before we reached the top floor for the first time.

The stereo stuff, the store names, the careful way that the parents carried various lamps and desk accessories – it was all a clue.  But nothing so much as their shoes.  I looked at the shoes of my classmates’ parents as they made their way up and down the marble staircases with the lacquered ebony wood trim, and I knew for certain that I was the only person among this group who was at this school on scholarship.

At some point two young women came out of their first-floor room and introduced themselves as my resident advisors.  One was quite tall and willowy and the other relatively short and not-so-willowy;  they both had long, very blonde hair, oversized blue eyes, bland smiles, and eyebrows that were slightly raised in a perpetually expectant expression.  I disliked them immediately, and decided I wasn’t even going to bother to try to tell them apart.

My roommate Carrie popped out of her room at one point to introduce herself.  When my mom took a potty break, I popped into Carrie’s room to have a peak.  She had arrived before I did.  From the looks of it, Carrie seemed to have arrived weeks before, as her tiny bedroom already bore the look of having been lived in for a while.  She had covered her walls with posters of two things: big cats, as in lions and jaguars and cougars, and huge tomb rubbings of medieval knights.  The rest of the room was decorated in a mishmash of floral prints – lampshades, throw pillows, sheets and blankets all with different sizes and colors of flowers.  Carrie herself wore her clearly-wild hair parted with razor-like severity straight down the middle and braided in two tight braids.  She had an overbite and kind of bad acne and looked both bewildered and ironic all at once.  She wore a plaid cotton shirt, and a quick peek into her closet revealed a seemingly unlimited supply of plaid cotton shirts.  I liked her immediately.

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Bran Muffin

I’ve signed the contract (!!!) for my fourth novel The Rocky Orchard.  While my editor works on it, I’ve continued to play around with the idea for novel #5.  Here is a new excerpt:

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“Seriously, you’re about the tenth person I’ve run into in the four blocks from the art building,” I said to Rob.

“Well, hello to you, too, Sunshine,” Rob said.  He shuffled his feet, just once, like he always did, then combed his fingers through his amazingly thick hair, like he always did.  It was that gesture – the fingers through the hair – that got me.  Every time.  It brought out something weird and maternal that I didn’t even know was there.  I just wanted to… I don’t know, hug him or adopt him or follow him around and make sure that nobody hurt him, ever.

“Seriously, I think I belong at a bigger school.  I think I yearn to be anonymous,” I said.

“I don’t think the coat is doing you any favors,” he said.  “Not if you want to be anonymous.”

“Oh my God.  Not with the coat again!  Haven’t you gotten enough mileage out of this coat?”

“I think the horse got enough mileage out of the blanket before they even made it into a coat,” he said.  “Really, I’m counting on an early spring.”

“It’s a good thing I’m not sensitive or fragile or anything cause this would be deeply wounding to me,” I said.

“Are you taking an art class, by the way?  I didn’t know you were taking an art class.”

“No, no art class.  The art school cafeteria has these amazing bran muffins.”  He stared blankly at me.  “They warm them up for you.”  I fought back a tear.  Crazy that I was so powerfully moved by the idea of someone warming a muffin for me.

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“Bran muffins,” he said, deadpan, as if to indicate this was one of the most puzzling things he had ever heard.

“Don’t judge the muffin.  You can judge the coat, but you cannot judge the muffin,” I said.  There was another “me” that stood outside of myself.  I watched myself as I stood on that exact spot near the far corner of the freshman quad, under the eternally gray sky, wrapped in the coat that Rob loathed.  I found it amazing that I could appear so normal.  The whirl inside of me did not show.

“Promise me that you’ll give me the coat as soon as the weather warms.  I’m going to personally donate it to Salvation Army.  No way I can face the possibility of looking at that coat again next winter.”

Next winter.  It was when he said “next winter” that I knew.  Right then, I knew.

There would be no “next winter” for me.  I would not be coming back.

I thought of the painfully poignant play “A Memory of Two Mondays” where Arthur Miller tells the story of a young man who goes to work in an auto parts factory to save money for college.  The young man is passing through, working alongside an entire group of people who will remain.  He and another co-worker are charged with cleaning the filthy factory windows.  The passage of time is told by the light on the stage set, which gets incrementally brighter as more of the windows get cleaned. The light shines into the dismal scene. The young man’s mood, like mine, gets brighter and brighter as the light changes and he knows that the end of his time is near.  He also knows that those he leaves behind – the bitter, the resigned, the angry, the uncertain, and even the completely content – have a bond, a sense of community, that has never included him.

“See you at dinner?” Rob asked.

“See you at dinner,” I said.


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Bottom photo: from Chicago Critic, “A Memory of Two Mondays”

Goodbye, goodbye

As my editor works on my novel, The Rocky Orchard, I may have been struck with a possible idea for my next book…

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I hated that school.  That hated school in that dreadful town.  That dreadful town in the part of the world where winter was not even winter.  Not the light snowfalls that dusted each twig of each tree and lay spread out across the hills where I had grown up.  Where the tiny footprints of birds and chipmunks and squirrels left their perfect imprints across our yards.  In this feckless land, winter was nothing more than an endless gray sky that spit intervals of drizzle.  The drizzle froze on the ground, making the school an ugly and hazardous wasteland of ice.  A wasteland that tripped us and made us fall down and spit on us as we lay on the ground.

A year so bad that I passed the time mainly by drinking too much.  A year so bad that I got an ungodly amount of pleasure from barfing out the window of my fourth-floor dormitory room.  I didn’t plan this, and was likely too far gone in my misery to have thought of such a magnificent metaphor.  I had drunk most of a bottle of Southern Comfort and was, quite simply, too drunk to make it to the bathroom.  Being that drunk also meant, as it turned out, that I could not lean my head very far out of the beautiful Gothic window without losing my balance.  I held on to each side of the window frame to steady myself and leaned my chin on the sill.  Hence, the vomit cascaded down the entire length of the side wall, where the winter temperatures froze it in place.

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And where it remained for a very long time.  A slight warming of the temperature, or a sleety mix, would cause sections of the whole to rain down, creeping its way through the brick and ivy as the mass oozed farther down the wall.  Sometimes, a larger chunk would break off all at once and hit the ground below.  I checked my vomit every day, as if it were a pet, as if it were something precious whose care was my honor and responsibility.  By early spring, the last vestiges of the only Southern Comfort I would ever drink were gone.

I wanted to leave so much that I had been counting down the days, making large X’s on an enormous wall calendar like a child marking the time until Christmas, or the end of a school year with a teacher whose dislike of teaching was only surpassed by their hated of children.

It was my last night on campus.  All I wanted to do was say goodbye.  Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.  It was time; it was finally time.  I had nothing left to do but take my victory lap around the campus and hug hug kiss kiss the assorted souls who had weathered the winter of my discontent along side of me.  I was gleeful.  I was drunk.  I was pressed for time.

I could not find my friend Patrick.  John hadn’t seen him.  Sandy hadn’t seen him.  Brent had seen him earlier, but…. Charlie said, yeah, he was just here. I’m pretty sure he’s in the bathroom.  As I mentioned, I was drunk.  And pressed for time.  I flung open the door to the men’s bathroom on the floor of his dormitory, and found Patrick unzipped and just beginning to eject an impressively forceful stream from what seemed to me, having little to no experience here, to also be an impressive distance from the target.

Patrick turned his head at the recognition of my voice, as I began the delivery of my goodbye message.  Then the overall nature of the situation seemed to occur to him, as he registered – in rapid succession – shock, surprise, perplexity, amusement, and all-out mirth, as evidenced by an open-mouthed belly laugh.  My own emotions, amazingly enough, ran much the same gamut, but in reverse, as Patrick had continued to pee an enormous, unwavering stream the entire time that I had been talking and he had been laughing.

I was amazed, and felt like it was one of the most interesting and significant and noteworthy things that had happened to me in that entire year.  I remarked on this to Patrick, who continued to both laugh AND PEE.  A small crowd had gathered in the men’s bathroom, as word passed about this event; so there was, in fact, a group of people watching me watching Patrick Killarney pee while I said my last goodbye.  He zipped up and we hugged and I practically skipped back to my room knowing I would leave this awful world behind me the next morning.

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How was I to know that forty-five years later, Patrick Killarney would tell me that I had changed the course of his life.