Know When to Walk Away

Picassos-Child-With-A-Dove

Those of you who have been following my blog closely – and have you two met, by the way 😉 – have witnessed the birth and development of my third novel, entitled “Pushing the River.” Over the course of the past three years, the novel has endured several structural changes, a complete change of narrator and voice, and the completion of an early rough draft just weeks ago.

“Pushing the River” was inspired by the real-life event of a baby being born. During the fall of 2012, my house swelled from a population of 2 – if you count my dog – to an assemblage of seven people and four animals. Originally, the house itself intended to tell the story of the most astonishing four-month period in its 100-year history.

One time previously, I put this novel aside for a time; I paused, unsure how – or if – to proceed. Ultimately, I decided to change the narrator from the house’s boiler to a regular old third-person omniscient narrator. I heartily missed Merle the Boiler, and always wondered if he might return.

Alas, Merle will not be coming back.

It is with a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting mixed feelings that I have decided to put this novel to rest for good.  The current situation with this now three-and-a-half year old child renders it impossible to continue a work of fiction based on his entry into the world.

There is much good work, and good writing in the would-be book, and the deep, unparalleled satisfaction of having put into words some things I had set out to say. What more, after all, can any writer hope for?

“I was trying to feel some kind of good-bye. I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-bye or a bad good-bye, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t you feel even worse.”

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

 

What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

–Jack Kerouac, On the Road

 

image by Pablo Picasso

Thinking of a New Year, from the novel “Pushing the River”

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She glanced at Dan’s note, not reading the words, but taking in a general impression of the handwriting, the pattern of the markings on a torn page of paper. She sighed deeply, and inhaled the exhilarating, still-fresh aroma of the delicious Christmas tree. No question that Frasier Fir is the way to go, she thought: it smells as if it were chopped down yesterday. She pictured the Brawny Paper towel guy, axe slung over one shoulder, wearing nothing but his flannel shirt, ancient jeans and worn boots as he trudged through the powdery snow in search of their tree.

She would leave it up until after New Year’s. Maybe another week after. Taking down the Christmas tree struck Madeline as one of the saddest things in the world. Even when Dick had been around, she had always done it herself. He insisted that he couldn’t trust himself to stow away the ornaments handed down from her mother’s family, as well as those from her own childhood; although this was miraculously not an issue when he dove into the tissue-wrapped antiquities with childlike glee when they decorated the tree each year. So be it. Yet another year when she would do it alone. It allowed her a degree of ceremony she would not have otherwise. Time when she could hold the oldest ones – the ones her mother had painstakingly dated, going back to 1919 – and try to picture her long-dead mother as the gangly, sickly, big-eyed child that she had seen in photographs. Carrying an equally skinny, frightened-looking doll with her everywhere she went.

Taking down a Christmas tree was like a death. The death of another year. Pack up and put away whatever was special, or memorable, or lasting. Throw away the rest. Turkey feather. Christmas tree.

xmastree

Perhaps, Madeline thought, perhaps I have lived long enough.

It seemed to her, quite suddenly, that she had seen a great many Christmases. That around the tree had gathered so many, many people whose lives had touched hers, and who were now gone. Like a long Dickens novel, where the sheer volume of characters who paraded through the pages was impossible to comprehend.

When she eventually dragged this perfect tree out to the curb, leaving a trail of needles she would find herself sweeping up well into the summer, Dan would be gone, too. I have had so many different lives, she thought. Different little universes, created one conversation cup of coffee glass of wine walk along the lake whispered tender words caresses orgasms at a time. One at a time, day after day, and a world is constructed. What was it Octavio Paz said?

if two kiss
the world changes, desires take flesh
thoughts take flesh, wings sprout
on the backs of the slave, the world is real–

Oh shit, she thought. I must be seriously fucking stressed. Quotes are popping into my head. Bad sign.

bodybag

“Turkey Feather,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

Here is the scene it its entirety:

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Madeline thought she was hearing a kerfuffle of footsteps running up and down the stairs as she folded the clothes in the basement laundry room. Weird, she thought.

Madeline believed tenaciously in the power of simple pleasures. Folding freshly cleaned clothes into an architecturally-arranged, enormous pile that she could carry in one trip always tickled her. She had to rest her chin on the top of the heap and bear down, sniffing deep into the fragrant laundry, in order to manage the load. Her arms carefully cradling the bottom of the stack and her chin planted, she began her ascent of the first of two flights of stairs between her and the laundry’s final destination in her bedroom.

Rounding the landing on the second flight of stairs, saying to herself: hahaha, nearly there and not a single sock teetering, Madeline caught a glimpse of the wild turkey feather, lying on the sofa, where Savannah had been running it back and forth across Dylan’s cheeks while she wrinkled up her nose and cooed at him.

The turkey feather. A souvenir from the day she and Dan drove to the Lake Michigan dunes and took a magnificent hike. They were walking single file on a narrow path, with panoramic views of the forest, the water, the rolling hills, on both sides of the ridge. Dan walked a bit ahead, and they were mostly silent as they looked back and forth, drinking everything in. It was a warm day for the season, with the heavy, thick sunlight of late fall that Madeline had loved all her life. Dan was nearly at the top of the hill when he stopped walking and turned to face her. He smiled at her, and his blue eyes shone.

She breathed a little heavily from the climb through the sand. They stood a good twenty-five feet apart, saying nothing. Dan looked a million miles into the distance, then had his attention caught by something lying on the ground. He walked a little way off the trail and into the thick undercoating of the forest floor, reaching down to pick something up. He walked over to Madeline and held out a long, thin striped feather.

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“A feather!” Madeline said.

“A wild turkey feather,” Dan said.

“Really? Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. I grew up around here.”

“I will keep it forever,” Madeline said. “A souvenir.”

“Of course you will,” Dan said. Everything about his face belied the fact that he loved her, and that this fact made him proud, and shy, and embarrassed, and profoundly confused.

Madeline cajoled the laundry up the final flight of stairs, down the short hall and into the bedroom, where she immediately noticed…some lack. Something not-there that had been there before, the empty space shouting at her. It took her a moment to realize what was absent. Dan’s various paper bags, there in the corner since he had unexpectedly taken up residence a month earlier, were gone.

Before Madeline had time to ponder any further, she saw a single white page, its ragged edge clearly ripped out of a school notebook, lying in the center of the bedroom chair.

Dear Madeline,

I’ve never known anyone like you before, nor any people like your family either. You guys are all amazing – your incredible openness and energy for one another, your devotion, the intensity with which you communicate and love each other. I have truly never seen this before. Frankly, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. I need a break. You guys are awesome, but it’s all a little much for me. You may have noticed that my stuff is gone; I’m going tohang out with my family for a while and chill. I’m really sorry for the abruptness of all this, but I just need to go.

Love always,

Dan

What? Madeline thought. I mean: WHAT!?!?!!!

Her thoughts went approximately like this:

–You son of a bitch, who asked you to MOVE IN HERE IN THE FUCKING FIRST PLACE?

–You total asshole douche bag, WHO THE FUCK SAID YOU COULD LEAVE NOW?

–Wait. Seriously?! You couldn’t even fucking wait until I was finished folding the laundry? You seriously had to rush around and sneak out before I even came upstairs? You chicken shit slime bag coward, YOU COULDN’T EVEN FUCKING FACE ME?

And finally:

–LOVE ALWAYS?!?! YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME. LOVE. ALWAYS.

dunes

“Turkey Feather,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

2127_1wild_turkey__merriams_08634d

Madeline thought she was hearing a kerfuffle of footsteps running up and down the stairs as she folded the clothes in the basement laundry room. Weird, she thought.

Madeline believed tenaciously in the power of simple pleasures. Folding freshly cleaned clothes into an architecturally-arranged, enormous pile that she could carry in one trip always tickled her. She had to rest her chin on the top of the heap and bear down, sniffing deep into the fragrant laundry, in order to manage the load. Her arms carefully cradling the bottom of the stack and her chin planted, she began her ascent of the first of two flights of stairs between her and the laundry’s final destination in her bedroom.

Rounding the landing on the second flight of stairs, saying to herself: hahaha, nearly there and not a single sock teetering, Madeline caught a glimpse of the wild turkey feather, lying on the sofa, where Savannah had been running it back and forth across Dylan’s cheeks while she wrinkled up her nose and cooed at him.

The turkey feather. A souvenir from the day she and Dan drove to the Lake Michigan dunes and took a magnificent hike. They were walking single file on a narrow path, with panoramic views of the forest, the water, the rolling hills, on both sides of the ridge. Dan walked a bit ahead, and they were mostly silent as they looked back and forth, drinking everything in. It was a warm day for the season, with the heavy, thick sunlight of late fall that Madeline had loved all her life. Dan was nearly at the top of the hill when he stopped walking and turned to face her. He smiled at her, and his blue eyes shone.

dunes

She breathed a little heavily from the climb through the sand. They stood a good twenty-five feet apart, saying nothing. Dan looked a million miles into the distance, then had his attention caught by something lying on the ground. He walked a little way off the trail and into the thick undercoating of the forest floor, reaching down to pick something up. He walked over to Madeline and held out a long, thin striped feather.

“A feather!” Madeline said.

“A wild turkey feather,” Dan said.

“Really? Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. I grew up around here.”

“I will keep it forever,” Madeline said. “A souvenir.”

“Of course you will,” Dan said. Everything about his face belied the fact that he loved her, and that this fact made him proud, and shy, and embarrassed, and profoundly confused.

West-Beach-Portage-11

“There Is No Formula,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

This is the 3rd posting for this continued chapter.  The final paragraph of the previous post is repeated for continuity.

diane-arbus-teenage-couple-on-hudson-street-n-y-c-1963

“Really?” Madeline said. She did delight in this man who had never been around a baby, never held a baby in his entire 55-year-old life. She had watched him stand at a terrified, awkward distance when he came to the hospital after Dylan was born. She had watched him thaw, gradually at first. She had seen him become mesmerized. She had heard him say, more than once, that maybe, no definitely, if he had met her earlier in his life, the two of them would have would have made a family together. Fuck. What do you say to that? And here he was, offering to mix a bottle of infant formula for a baby whose 15-year-old mother was catching up on her sleep with some lost boy named Jose, because she was pissed at her baby daddy who had flirted with another girl thousands of miles away.

Dan left the room and returned a few brief seconds later. “There’s no formula left. None.”

He retrieved the empty container from the kitchen and held it out to her, shaking it around for emphasis.

Madeline sighed heavily.

“She needs to figure this out,” Dan said. “She insists she wants this baby, and she needs to figure this out.”

“She’s fifteen years old,” Madeline said. “She ain’t gonna figure out shit.”

“Well, as long as she’s here, she’s gonna try.” Dan turned on his heels and sprang up the stairs to the second floor. Madeline held her breath, picturing Dan clenching and unclenching his jaw in her head. The lightness of his knock on Savannah’s door surprised her, as did the gentle voice that matched it.

“Savannah?” Dan said. “You need to get up. We’re completely out of formula. You need to go get some.”

After a short pause, Savannah’s groggy voice replied, “OK. I’m up. OK”

Dan remained at her door until he heard a general stirring of activity, then said, “Try to hurry up. Dylan’s already hungry.”

Dan rejoined Madeline in the sun room, where Dylan had drifted into a light snooze on her shoulder. “Nicely done,” she said. “You handled that well.”

“I think we would have made really good parents,” Dan said.

“To a 15-year-old unwed mother? Great.”

“No. You know that’s not what I meant. You make all of this look so…appealing. Like no other choices or other kinds of lives make sense to even consider,” he said.

A highly disheveled Savannah appeared in the doorway, joined at the hip to a skinny wraith of a boy who brought to mind the word “wan” despite his Hispanic heritage.

arbus.teens

“I guess we’ll have to walk over to the Walgreen’s to get some,” Savannah said.

“OK. He’s fallen asleep. He’s fine for now,” Madeline said.

“I mean, Marie usually takes me to that place where I can get the formula for free, but there’s no way to get there cause she’s at work, right?” Savannah offered.

“Right,” said Dan, before Madeline could answer.

“So I guess we’ll walk over to the Walgreen’s.”

“OK.”

“So…I need to borrow the money for it,” Savannah said.

“You need to borrow the money?”

“Don’t worry; Marie will pay you back as soon as she gets home. It’s usually, like, $25 for a container. Can you believe it’s so expensive? God, I’m SO glad we get it free.”

“I’m not worried,” Madeline said. “Let me rephrase. I’m not worried about getting paid back by Marie.”

Dan reached into his pants pocket. “I’ve got a 20 right here. Do you have the rest, Savannah? Five bucks or so?”

“Um, no, well, I can count up my change,” Savannah said. “I might have it.”

“Never mind counting change. You can get the rest out of my wallet,” Madeline said.

“OK. Thanks,” Savannah said. “Hey MadMad, can I borrow your jacket? Again?” She giggled.

“So I guess you want us to watch Dylan while you two go off to the store,” Dan said.

“Oh. Right. No, we can take him.” Savannah looked over at the silent, sunken waif at her side.

“Except I think he barfed all over the carrier. I think I need to wash it.”

“No reason to wake a hungry baby to take him outside in a barf-covered carrier. If you guys hurry, I’ll have enough time to get to work,” Madeline said. “So hurry.”

With a general kerfuffle and Savannah making approximately ten times the number of movements as The Wraith, the front door closed behind them. Dylan moved his head and frowned slightly in his sleep.

“Talkative chap, isn’t he?” Dan said.

“Jose? Yeah. He’s grown about a foot and is otherwise unrecognizable from the kid I met a couple of years ago; but I don’t remember him saying a single word back then either. He just sort of followed Savannah from room to room. She ate it up at first, but then she got more and more annoyed and ending up treating him pretty much like shit – calling and texting other guys the whole time he was around – until he vanished. It was an interesting ‘relationship.’”

“Ah. Well, it makes sense then that they’ve hooked up again,” Dan said.

The two of them chuckled softly. “It’s kind of not funny,” Madeline said.

“It’s not funny at all,” Dan said. “That’s why we’re laughing.”

arbus.tenns2

photos by Diane Arbus

Stories of My Mother, #2

hero-winogrand

 

My mother thought of herself as a beautiful woman. I’m not sure how I knew this, but I was sure of it: she went through each day of her life with the confident certainty that her beauty was a given. She never spoke of this, and referred to it only once that I can remember. When I was a mid-range adolescent, maybe 14 or 15, and boys had begun to sniff and circle around our house, my mother said one day, out of the blue: “You definitely have the better body, but I believe that I have the prettier face.”

Even then, in my dewy youth, I thought: what a weird ass thing to say.

winogrand

winogrand_garry_253_1984

photos by Garry Winogrand, from his book “Women Are Beautiful”

I Am Just As Surprised As You Are

baby

Those of you loyal and intrepid souls who have followed my blog posts of “Pushing the River” – my third novel-in-progress — well, undoubtedly you have noticed the rather vast silence of the past couple months.

It was nearly two years ago when I was enjoying a glass of wine with my friend Mary, regaling her with the latest tales of my extended family and trying to make some sense of it all. The number of people residing in my home kept growing, and with it an increasing quiet chaos and sense of foreboding, inescapable doom. Between sips (or perhaps gulps, by that point) of wine, I told Mary that I was seriously considering beginning a third novel sparked by the events taking place in my house. Without missing a beat she said, “Ha! And it should be told from the point of view of the house itself!”

odence-surprise-100276339-orig

Viola. Inspiration. As it usually occurs – as a completely unexpected bolt from the blue in the form of an idea I could steal outright from someone else and make my own.

Life has thrown some pretty good punches since I began work on “Pushing the River” – just as life is wont to do. I have a decent one hundred or so pages, much of which I am reasonably pleased to re-read and know the words are mine. But the strangest thing has happened. I seem to have lost interest. In all of it! Even stranger – my friend and fellow writer Rita apparently saw this coming, and told me this recently over a shared glass of wine.* (*Obviously, there is a critical causation at work here; I must heed it and continue to drink wine regularly with good friends.) Rita (correctly) had the belief that this book, as I originally explained its conception to her, would need to be written quickly, almost breathlessly, to pour out a first draft while the fire of the original idea was hot within me. In some sort of shaman-like wisdom, Rita foresaw that if I couldn’t churn it out fast, the combination of me and the idea would lose momentum.

Well, here I am, just as surprised as you are.

asian

A Look Behind the Scenes: Writing “War, and Peace”

To write is to encounter continual surprise.

Even those of us who plot scrupulously, maintain note cards with excruciating details of our principal characters’ habits, gestures, obsessions, or plan a careful arc of increasing dramatic tension, climax, denouement – even we (ok, they) get surprised.

The idea for this chapter struck me — in one of those rare and delightful moments – as a bolt from the blue. It came from nowhere. When I was in the shower. An idea that had never occurred to me before blazed through my mind, and I understood immediately how well it fit into the novel-in-progress, how economically it conveyed an ever-increasing complexity of feelings and tensions inside the main character.

Originally, I had the idea that this chapter would be considerably longer than it currently is. I conceived of it going into lots more detail about the sex itself, and what went on in the character’s mind before/during/after that sex. The following version was written as a sort of schematic, almost like an outline that I intended to keep filling in. But, surprise! The schematic turned out to be everything that was needed. I think.

goya104

By the second week of December, my Lady felt as if she had fast-forwarded through a twenty-year marriage in just slightly more than three months.

Dan continued to spend long, lazy days in the kitchen, carrying on animated conversations with himself while he fussed over his bean concoctions. This charmed her immensely in September; by mid-December the noisy stream of words made her seriously question his sanity as well as provoking the hairs on the back of her neck to stand at full attention.
The ticket had been purchased – the ticket for the airplane that would whisk him away to tropical paradise for all of the brutal winter that lay ahead. January 4th. He would be gone, poof. Madeline teetered precariously on the brink of wondering how she could possibly tolerate three more weeks of his off-key humming, his utter failure to get her jokes, his flossing ritual. When he shuffled off to the bathroom each night to brush and floss, knowing the absurd amount of time that he would be gone set her own teeth on edge to such a degree she felt certain her back molars would shatter into bits.

In the evenings, the two of them would sit together on the sofa. Sierra and the baby dozed together in the Boy’s old bed upstairs. Marie worked one of her two jobs, or ran hither and yon trying her best to manage her own and several others’ lives. Dan invariably began his kneading of Madeline’s thigh, or his massaging of each individual finger – a perpetual motion machine of continual buzzy movement. The sadistic mosquito who senses when you are just about to drift off, and whispers in your ear. “For crying out loud,” Madeline thought to herself. “No wonder this guy meditates. This is a man who hasn’t known one moment of stillness in his entire life.”

She set her jaw against his very existence, calculating how she would bear the number of minutes until she could suggest that they call it a day, go upstairs for the night. At least the flossing ritual would offer her peace. And then, the solace of a lonely sleep, with Dan’s inhumanly perfect profile on the pillow beside her.

Madeline sighed. She rested her hand on Dan’s thigh for a second – a friendly gesture – and told him she was heading upstairs. “Be right up,” Dan said, without turning his head from the TV. “I want to catch a bit more of this, if you don’t mind.”

Madeline was out of the room when she said, over her shoulder, “not a bit.”

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When Dan entered the bedroom, she was idly leafing through a magazine. In a different mood, she would have endorsed this particular journalistic effort as a “guilty pleasure,” a concept and a reality which she wholeheartedly supported. Tonight, leaning against the tower of pillows on her bed, she despised its banality, its endlessly recycled topics meant to appeal to the dark recesses of shame and anxiety amalgamated into the creature known as the American Woman. Which meant, of course, that she hated herself for reading it. For falling prey to its sunny, adjective-laden, exclamation-point-heavy!!!, bold and stylized font loaded B U L L S H I T about how to eat, dress, exercise, cut, coif, bleach, dye, tweeze, think, and talk as one’s best possible self, including, needless to say, fucking like a goddess.

“Are you in for the night?” Dan asked her.

“Yup.” She pretended intense concentration on her hated rag.

Dan switched off the overhead light, and began to undress. He undid his pants, which were baggy enough that they dropped immediately to the floor. Madeline unconsciously looked up at the sound of their thunk against the wood. She was confronted with the silhouette of his body, naked now from the waist down. Somehow the fact that Dan did not wear underwear – ever – still gave her a thrill, like an exquisite finger had touched a spot deep inside her belly. “God fucking damn it,” she thought to herself.

Dan crossed his arms, grabbed the sides of his shirt and pulled it over his head, rocking his hips first forward – just slightly — and back again along with the movement of the shirt as it climbed his abdomen, his chest, and down his arms to the reaches of his fingertips. He gathered his clothes from the floor, and stood in the dim light of the room with such an utter lack of self consciousness or guile that the ridiculous word “swoon” actually flashed across Madeline’s mind.

As if pulled by some string attached to that inner finger, Madeline’s foot inched up towards her other knee and fell to the side, leaving her legs open, wide, facing toward Dan.

Sometimes it is a smell, the particular angle of the sun’s light, the sound of a door closing – some thing that makes its way through the store of our life’s memories and touches something deep, far, previously lost. In this case, it was the movement, the precise position of her legs.

It was years before. Her still-husband Dick had come – had made an appointment to come — to the house while the children were at school in order to gather some of his things. She had not known exactly what to do with herself, and had gone into the bedroom to escape, to stay out of the way of this stranger she had married to for more than 20 years.
He came into the bedroom. He asked some question or other.

She had no idea what it was. The slight stoop of his shoulders she had not noticed before. The fact that he wore his glasses all the time these days. The awkward boyish uncertainty that made him speak just a bit too loud. The words were out of her mouth without her own knowledge, it seemed.

“Dick. Let’s make love.” And when thought re-entered her head, she added, “Please.”

Her leg had moved up, her knees had fallen open, into that exact position as the words escaped her mouth.

Dick sighed. “I can’t.” He shook his head and looked at the floor. “I just can’t.”

“Twenty-one years, Dick. Twenty. One. Years. I have no idea, no memory, of the last time we made love. It seems like this is something I should have. We should have.”

He sighed again, shook his head again, looked suddenly much smaller, much older.

“You mean because of her.”

Dick said nothing.

“That’s what you mean, isn’t it. You mean because of her you will not make love with me. With your wife.”

“I don’t want you to think for a second that our marriage unraveled because of her. I can’t have you think that.”

“That’s an interesting choice of words. You can’t have me think that.”

“Madeline, for god’s sake.”

“It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable thing to ask. To know it will be the last time. To have a memory of it.” She added, “ We are still married, you know. Meaning that you’re already a cheater. Meaning that if you’re trying to avoid thinking of yourself as a cheater, well, too late.”

Dick walked out of the room and left the house.

Madeline remained on the bed, in the position with her legs open, for a long time.

No.

That’s not what happened.

That was what a large part of Madeline had wanted to happen. Part of her still wanted to believe that the man she had spent the past twenty-some years with was somehow an honorable man, a man who had strayed into a new love, and who had declared his undying loyalty to it, in the same way that he once had to her.

The truth was this. The minute her knee dropped, her legs parted, she called out her still-husband’s name, “Dick,” — who had come in to ask one question or another –he took one step closer to the bed. And then he took another.

She remembered the tentativeness of their first touches. The awkward reaching of their tongues, venturing for the first time in a long while inside the surface of one another. Her head awhirl in a cacophony of recalled experience, a blur of lightning-quick images. The two of them making love. Fucking. Doing both at once.

“Dan,” she said. “Come here.”

She ran her fingers lightly along the underside of his penis from the base to the tip and back.

He leaned his head back and said, “Ah, Madeline. Your touch.”

No.

That’s not what happened.

She and Dick did not make love. She would never know, would have no memory, of the last time. A tear ran down her cheek into the pillow. She wiped it away to the sound of Dan’s gentle snore.

reclining-woman-1922

art, top to bottom:   Goya. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Bela Czobel

War, and Peace

images

By the second week of December, my Lady felt as if she had fast-forwarded through a twenty-year marriage in just slightly more than three months.

She set her jaw against his very existence, calculating how she would bear the number of minutes until she could suggest that they call it a day, go upstairs for the night. At least the flossing ritual would offer her peace. And then, the solace of a lonely sleep, with Dan’s inhumanly perfect profile on the pillow beside her.

Madeline sighed. She rested her hand on Dan’s thigh for a second – a friendly gesture – and told him she was heading upstairs. “Be right up,” Dan said, without turning his head from the TV. “I want to catch a bit more of this, if you don’t mind.”

Madeline was out of the room when she said, over her shoulder, “not a bit.”

When Dan entered the bedroom, she was idly leafing through a magazine. In a different mood, she would have endorsed this particular journalistic effort as a “guilty pleasure,” a concept and a reality which she wholeheartedly supported. Tonight, leaning against the tower of pillows on her bed, she despised its banality, its endlessly recycled topics meant to appeal to the dark recesses of shame and anxiety amalgamated into the creature known as the American Woman. Which meant, of course, that she hated herself for reading it. For falling prey to its sunny, adjective-laden, exclamation-point-heavy!!!, bold and stylized font loaded B U L L S H I T about how to eat, dress, exercise, cut, coif, bleach, dye, tweeze, think, and talk as one’s best possible self, including, needless to say, fucking like a goddess.

frida_kahlo_living_nature_postcard

“Are you in for the night?” Dan asked her.

“Yup.” She pretended intense concentration on her hated rag.

Dan switched off the overhead light, and began to undress. He undid his pants, which were baggy enough that they dropped immediately to the floor. Madeline unconsciously looked up at the sound of their thunk against the wood. She was confronted with the silhouette of his body, naked now from the waist down. Somehow the fact that Dan did not wear underwear – ever – still gave her a thrill, like an exquisite finger had touched a spot deep inside her belly. “God fucking damn it,” she thought to herself.

Dan crossed his arms, grabbed the sides of his shirt and pulled it over his head, rocking his hips first forward – just slightly — and back again along with the movement of the shirt as it climbed his abdomen, his chest, and down his arms to the reaches of his fingertips. He gathered his clothes from the floor, and stood in the dim light of the room with such an utter lack of self consciousness or guile that the ridiculous word “swoon” actually flashed across Madeline’s mind.

As if pulled by some string attached to that inner finger, Madeline’s foot inched up towards her other knee and fell to the side, leaving her legs open, wide, facing toward Dan.

Sometimes it is a smell, the particular angle of the sun’s light, the sound of a door closing – some thing that makes its way through the store of our life’s memories and touches something deep, far, previously lost. In this case, it was the movement, the precise position of her legs.

It was years before. Her still-husband Dick had come – had made an appointment to come — to the house while the children were at school in order to gather some of his things. She had not known exactly what to do with herself, and had gone into the bedroom to escape, to stay out of the way of this stranger she had married to for more than 20 years.

He came into the bedroom. He asked some question or other.

She had no idea what it was. The slight stoop of his shoulders she had not noticed before. The fact that he wore his glasses all the time these days. The awkward boyish uncertainty that made him speak just a bit too loud. The words were out of her mouth without her own knowledge, it seemed.

“Dick. Let’s make love.” And when thought re-entered her head, she added, “Please.”

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artwork by Frida Kahlo

A Look Behind the Scenes: Writing “The Story’s Told”

I have struggled with how to write this chapter since the earliest moments of conceiving this novel overall.  I knew there would be a character in the story who struggles with significant mental illness, and that her lifelong struggle was a large part of the landscape that produced two very different sisters who are pivotal in the book.  In the novel “Pushing the River” overall, the character of Billie Rae is relatively minor and remains mostly apart from the action.  But her impact on the sisters — both past and present — is looming and ever-present.  I wanted the description of her illness to be minimal, but memorable.  I wanted to write one chapter, and one chapter only, that gave a glimpse and glimmer of her back story.

I have previously posted two excepts from this chapter; and it has taken me as long to complete this brief passage as it has to write much longer sections.  Here, then, is the first draft of the completed section.

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The story’s told that Billie Rae was the quiet one in the family, the youngest, and a good girl. She didn’t give her mama and pap any trouble whatsoever, while her older sister was raising hell with one boy after another, and her big brother was puffing cigarettes and chugging beers and playing rock and roll music in every dim lit, smoke choked, sticky floored, ear splitting feedback wailing, hole of a place that pretended to be some sort of a Big Deal in the way-too-far-away from the city sorts of joints that littered the flat Midwestern landscape like May fly carcasses around the middle of June.

Billie looked at them like any big-eyed, solemn youngster looks up to the sister that braided her hair and played schoolteacher and cleaned off her bloody knees and wiped her tears when their mama wasn’t around, and the big brother who’d pretend he didn’t know that she was tagging along behind him and act all mad when he caught her, and he’d put them wriggly worms on her fishing hook while she wrinkled up her nose, and would tease her and tease her that she was too scared to touch the fish except with one poked-out finger on its slimy scaly belly, and she would holler like she done been stabbed, and he would laugh and laugh but then give her a big squeeze.

So a course she looked up to them like they was the be all and end all. Why they pretty much raised her up, her pap mostly gone and keeping company elsewhere, her mama spending long days shut up in her room and shuffling around her own house like a ghost when she came out a’tall. Billie Rae was still too little to understand all the hollering and fist-pounding that happened now and again. Once in a while, she’d hear the clatter of something being thrown, or the terrible sound of a glass or plate breaking. She would pull the covers up around her ears and she would whisper into the darkness, “Angel of God, my Guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this night be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.”

She didn’t understand why all of a sudden, after a whole bout of hollering and stomping feet and loud wailing cries, her pap was saying that her big sister had to move away, had to go live with some aunt up Wisconsin way that Billie Rae had never even heard tell of. Billie stood around with her blue eyes wider than ever while her sister threw her suitcase onto the bed and pitched articles of clothing into it like each and every single one of them had done her unspeakable harm. Her sister took a pause now and again to wipe a steady stream of tears from her own face and from Billie’s as well; then with a hug so hard she thought it would crush her bones and a general slamming of doors, her big sister was gone.

She waited til the next time her mama came out of her room, and Billie asked her when her big sister would be back. Her mama said, “Don’t you never mention her name to me again, Billie Rae. Do you understand me?”

Still, Billie came home from school every day and stood at the window so she could be sure she’d be the first one to catch a glimpse when her big sister came home one day. She knowed from school where Wisconsin was, and that it wasn’t too far away at all, being as it was the state right next door to her own. She felt like her sister was close. Sometimes she felt like her sister was right there inside of her, and she swore she could feel her small, gentle hands running through her hair or hear her breathing in the empty bed next to her own. She would just wait.

Course not a one of us knows how our lives mighta turned out entirely different cept for one thing that turns us on our head.

It hadn’t been all that many days of Billie looking out the window for her big sister, and nights of her whispering her prayers in the bedroom she had all to herself. Her big brother did not come home one night. He weren’t in Wisconsin, neither. Billie knew he would never be coming home, or anywhere else, ever again.

The story’s told that Billie Rae was never quite the same after her brother Steve drove off the road that night. She never saw the old car setting upside down with one wheel completely off and another turned on its side. She never saw Steve, neither, and didn’t have any way of knowing how smashed up he was, or if he maybe went peaceful without so much as a scratch on him. Still, the sound of the car tires squealing, and the crash of metal flying apart, and most of all, the picture of her big brother with streams of blood trickling all down his face haunted Billie’s dreams for the entire rest of her days. Sometimes when she weren’t even sleeping.

Billie Rae was twelve years old, and in the junior high school then. Her big sister was 18 years old, and a married woman. Once in a while she took the bus down from Wisconsin and spend the afternoon. She looked like someone who was trying to look all growed up, and was putting a mighty big effort into it. She took Billie to a movie, or out for ice cream. She would brush Billie’s hair and fix it in all kinds of fancy new styles, and she’d make her close her eyes while she led her over to the mirror, then say, “Open your eyes! Why, just look at you, Billie Rae! I swear you are getting prettier every single minute.”

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Billie felt like her sister was making her play a game she didn’t have no understanding of. She would get all excited when she knew Carol was coming, but always ended up feeling confused and sad and like she had done something wrong. “When are you gonna come home?” Billie would say. “At least for a little longer?” At least.”

Carol would give a long sigh, partly like she was sad, but partly like she was mad, too. “I’m sorry, kiddo. You’re on your own here now. You’re just gonna have to do the best you can.”

Carol would sigh again, and look towards their mama’s bedroom door. “Tell her I said good-bye, OK?” Then she would get all soft and touch Billie ever so tender on her chin, or stroke at her hair a few more times. “You’re my beautiful baby sister, Billie Rae.” She barely made a sound as she went out the front door and closed it behind her.

Billie went over to the mirror, trying to figure if she was beautiful like Carol said. She turned her head this way and that, checking the fancy hairdo Carol had pinned up from all different angles. “How lovely you look today, my dear,” she said to her reflection, and burst into giggles. She ran to the bathroom and dug through a pile of things that had not been touched for many years, pawing and turning til she reached in and grabbed up an old tube of coral-colored lipstick that belonged to her mama. Filled up with boldness that come from her sister’s visit, Billie plucked the top off and peered at the waxy crayon of color deep inside. She held the tube up so close to her face while she slowly swiveled its bottom that her eyes crossed. Billie balanced hips on the edge of the bathroom sink so she could lean way in, her toes dangling in the air, and drew a precise outline of her mouth. Patting her lips together just like the movie stars she seen on TV shows, she batted her eyes at the reflection that looked back at her, and jumped down from the sink to stand back and admire her handiwork.

Billie pretended to take a couple of puffs from an imaginary cigarette, and in a fake English accent, said “Really, darling, that new hair…”

She stopped in her tracks. Right there in the middle of that sentence. “This is wrong, she thought. All wrong. I am all wrong.”

She stood there stock still, and a whisper of a word came out of her mouth: “no.”

Billie Rae unrolled a fistful of toilet paper and went to feverish work on her painted lips, wiping and scrubbing at them over and over. Not even thinking or caring about the walloping she might get later on, she tore the lid off her mama’s cold cream, thrust her fingers into the jar and slapped a heap of the goo all around her mouth, scouring at it with a fresh wad of toilet tissue. Looking back into the mirror, she let out a faint wail at what she saw.

Fetching a spanking clean wash cloth out of the hallway closet, Billie Rae covered her entire face with a think daub of cold cream. She swiped at her face, rinsed the cloth in the cool running water, swiped again, until all trace of the cream was gone and her skin shone dewy and pink, little droplets of water beaded up and scattered across her forehead and cheeks.

Maybe something’s wrong with the mirror, she thought. Maybe that’s what’s going on here.

She fetched another clean cloth from the closet, and the window cleaner from under the kitchen sink. She cleaned that silver glass with the tender care of anointing a newborn baby, pausing after each polishing to look at herself once again. Time passed. Evening fell. And still Billie Rae polished the glass.

“Steve,” Billie said. “Something’s wrong. My face doesn’t look right. What should I do, Stevie?”
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Artwork, top to bottom:

photo courtesy of Huffington Post, M C Escher, Salvador Dali