Void

Another excerpt from the novel I am currently writing, tentatively titled “The Rocky Orchard.”  Also an homage to Mary Oliver, and all those who find the natural world transformative.

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The following morning, Mazie looked out the kitchen window above the sink to a dense, gray nothingness.  She filled the ancient aluminum coffee pot with cold water and strained her eyes, but the fog was pea-soup dense. That was what they called it in that neck of the woods, as Mazie recollected, and she had not seen a fog of its like in a long while. Looking out the window, she could not see to the edges of the farm house.  The walls faded and bleached into nonexistence, vanishing into the gray.  Fog as thick as this drank up all sound, except for the intermittent plops of water, the humidity so high that droplets condensed out of thin air and fell heavily to the ground.  It reminded Mazie of being in an airplane, flying through an impenetrable cloud bank, surrounded by an utter void, feeling as if she were being propelled deeper and deeper into nothing at all.

Mazie fretted that she would not be able to see the older woman when she came walking through the orchard.  Or, Mazie thought, the woman may well decide to bypass the orchard altogether, as she would not be able to see the treacherous rocks endangering her path.  In this kind of fog, people and things appeared out of nowhere, without hint or warning, when they came close enough to emerge from the fog’s grip.  They disappeared just as fast.

Mazie wrapped a light sweater around her shoulders and grabbed her coffee cup from the porch table.  She held the screen door and closed it gently behind her, barely making a sound.  The door’s usual slam seemed like it would be an intrusion into this silent, featureless world.  Mazie wandered the short distance to the near end of the orchard, where the ancient apple trees appeared out of the gray, one by one.  She ran her hand along the craggy bark, ran her finger in the grooves between the bark’s scales.

Mazie took a couple more steps into the orchard.  On one of the low-sitting but jagged rocks, she made out the faint remains of white paint.  Even in dim and fog, the old paint produced a chiaroscuro of light and dark in the deep crags.  Her father had painted a number of rocks throughout the orchard, a warning for himself and anyone else riding one of the family’s ride-on lawnmowers through the obstacle-course orchard.  Mazie was fairly sure she had never mowed the apple orchard, never wanted to try. But her father approached it as a challenge, a game, to see how fast he could go, careening around, turning sharp corners, timing himself.  She could picture him in his perennial work outfit – a plain white tee shirt and light blue pants – perched high on one of their two mowers with a whisper of a smile on his face.  He hit various rocks many, many times.  Mazie could never forget the sound.  The noisy, constant engine halting in an instant, giving way to the thunderous scrape of metal against rock that seemed to shake the surrounding woods to their core, then stop dead in abrupt silence.

One time had been different.  The metallic crash was not met by silence, but by the continued whirr of the engine and within it, the sound of her father screaming “Help!  Help me!” with panic in his voice.  On one of his daredevil sharp corners, the mower had tipped completely over, on top of him, and the blades had kept on turning.

Mazie shuddered, though her father had been fine.

She wandered back toward the house, and climbed the path to the dirt road.  Mazie looked in both directions, taking her time, in case she might see the older woman walking along the road.  She saw a slight movement at the very edge of visibility the fog would allow, but it vanished.  It may have been the woman, Mazie thought; but she could not be sure.

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top photo: Ben Woodward

Crazy Boy

I think this section from my new novel THE ROCKY ORCHARD makes an especially good flash piece.

Teenage boy with thick curly long hair blowing in the wind, serious look

Sick. I felt sick, fucking sick, when the telephone rang. I wanted to snatch the old 20-pound, rotary dial monstrosity of a phone right out of the wall and fling it through the window. I wanted glass to shatter and fly in a million directions and create rainbows of light in mid-air. I wanted the shards to rain down razors and cut the room into little ribbons. I’m too young for this, I thought. I’m fourteen years old and I am too young for this. For this shit, for this utter shit.

“Hello,” I said into the receiver.

“I’m pointing a knife at my stomach,” Tim said. “Tell me why you broke up with me.”

Suicide was just a word, a vague concept. Something whispered, read about in books. Nothing that had ever come near my own world, just a specter keeping itself hidden and far away. I had not even read The Bell Jar, hadn’t thought of Sylvia Plath turning on the stove in the apartment where she lived every day. Had not been stuck with the picture of her putting her head into the oven with the gas jet running, her two young children sleeping in their beds on the other side of the wall.

Daddy Mommy, I thought. I don’t know what Tim is going to do. I’m scared. I think he’s going to do something to himself. Help me, Daddy Mommy. I need your help, I thought.

But I didn’t say anything.   Not to my parents, not to anyone.

Tim’s younger sister, the one that was in my grade, the one that I knew, was the first one home that night.  She found him.  Still alive, but unconscious.

It’s a blur after that.  I can picture flashing lights and sirens and a lot of people and a lot of running around, but that doesn’t really make sense, does it?  They wouldn’t have been at my house; all of that would have been at Tim’s house.  Still, I have a sense of a million faces looking at me.  It seemed as if the whole world was staring at me – a vast sea of expressions.  Such concern.  Some people blamed me; I could see it in their faces.  Most people were torn, anguished even, between the part of them that wanted to stare at me, and the part of them that wanted to look away. I’d become scary to people somehow.  So many different things that people felt when they looked at me.

All I’d done was broken up with a boy.  A crazy boy.

 

When I Was Four, 1960

thanksgiving-station-wagons-ford-countrty-squire-trumpetMy aunt and uncle had a new baby.  She was my cousin, they said.  It was a miracle, they said, because my aunt had tried so hard to have a baby and wanted one so much.  They told me that she had lost 15 babies, which I found completely confusing but nonetheless terrifying.  How could anyone lose babies?  The idea made me feel cagey about my aunt, and I guess my mother sensed this, because she kept reminding me that I loved my aunt very much, as was evidenced by the fact that I didn’t shy away from her for even a single second when she had to stick her finger down my throat and made me upchuck because I had eaten cockroach poison.  That was during our last visit to my aunt and uncle.  I was less than two years old; I didn’t know what I was doing.  I just figured that something lying on the floor in a pretty little bowl was something I should definitely taste!  Of course, I have no memory of this myself, being so young at the time, but my mother told that story so many times that it’s like a movie that can play in my mind at the merest mention.  I can picture my aunt’s pin curls flopping in front of her eyes as she held me over the sink.  I can smell the smell of her breath combined with the fragrance of her bright lipstick as she panted with effort.  I guess I didn’t upchuck all that easily, which was all part of the story of my good nature in not holding an immense grudge against someone who hoisted me under her arm and forced her finger into the back of my throat over and over.

We finally got to California, where everything looked unreasonably bright and like the whole world had been bleached into an eerie whiteness.  It didn’t seem like it could possibly be safe to  go outside into that sea of brightness, and I even made sure to keep clear of the windows in mid-day.   My aunt and uncle had just moved into this new house and had practically no furniture, just a lot of empty, freshly-carpeted rooms and a nervous little dog that looked like he’d been given way too tight of a permanent wave for his hair.  As for the baby cousin: I’d pretty much never seen a baby before, and I wasn’t at all sure she was real.  She just sat there doing absolutely nothing most of the time.  Every so often I would pinch her, to see if she was real after all.  She would scream or cry or something, but somehow I still wasn’t entirely convinced.

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Hope you enjoy this re-worked piece from the novel I am currently writing, tentatively titled THE ROCKY ORCHARD.

BANG(s), new flash fiction*

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Besides, it was Friday. Fabulous Friday.  Fucking Friday.  At 5:00 pm on the Friday at the end of her very first week of her very first job, she had gone straight to the nearest Walgreen’s and bought a six-pack of Bud Lite. She had read that it was the number one selling beer in America, and she wanted to feel like an American.  She’d finished college, gotten a job, and worked a forty-hour work week. She was staggered to find herself utterly exhausted from the seemingly straightforward task of sitting behind a desk for all of those hours.  Jesus H. Christ, she had thought, how could I be twenty-two years old and be so f-ing wiped?  From that day on, Friday was a day to go home, pop open a Bud, take off her bra, and veg out for a significant chuck of time even if she headed out later.

She savored a long draught from her beer, saying “Ahhhhhhh,” aloud.  “Thank you, Friday. Thank you for coming,” and raised her bottle in a hearty toast to the empty space of her hallway.  She detoured into her bathroom to pee, took a swig, and automatically turned to her reflection in the mirror to check her hair.  She arranged the bangs that were forever in a state of indecision – hers – as to whether she was keeping them or growing them out.

Her boss had unexpectedly asked her to lunch that day.  Awkward.  She liked him fine, but he was her boss, and at least ten or fifteen years older than she was.  He had a whole plan for his life, which both horrified her and intimidated her.  Stodgy, but clear view ahead.

She was genuinely surprised to find herself having such a good time at lunch.  Her boss was telling her about the remaining – and increasingly torturous – final details of his upcoming wedding. Though the seating charts, and place cards, and party favor bag ribbon colors were driving him completely insane, she remained fascinated, rapt with attention.  Also, his fiancée still hadn’t decided if she wanted to change her name, he told her; and whereas he didn’t actually care one way or the other, he was exhausted by her continual deliberation, over the course of months, out loud and directed at him.

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“Names are kind of important,” she had said.  “They can really mean a lot, about how we think about ourselves, how we think about who we are.”

He looked at her as if suddenly remembering that she was there. “Really? You think so?”

“Yeah, I do.  Are you ready for this?  I actually changed my name.  It used to be Vanya; that’s what my parents named me.  It’s a pretty popular girl’s name in India, a forest deity.  I just got really tired of everyone thinking I was a Russian guy.  Russian.  And a guy.”

“You picked ‘Ananya?’”

“I did.  It’s a common-ish name in India.  But wait til you hear this.  Some say its origin is Hindu, and it means ‘unique, without peer.’  Others say that it’s Muslim and means ‘care and protection.’  Then there’s the group who says it’s from Sanskrit and means ‘terrible misfortune.’  How cool is that? I get to encapsulate a whole regional religious war with just my name! Plus, it sounds like a girl, and doesn’t sound Mexican. Oh, I forgot to mention that not only did everyone think that I was a Russian boy when they saw my name in print; then they assumed that I was Mexican when they saw me in person.  So, yeah.  Ananya.”

She reached up to shift her bangs off her forehead.

That was the moment. When her fingertips grazed her hair, and she felt the strands brush across her forehead.  Oh my God, I forgot to go to the restroom when we got here; I don’t even know if I look ok.  I don’t know if my hair is ok.  I shouldn’t even be talking right now.  What the fuck am I doing talking? What the fuck was I thinking?  I’m drawing his attention to me. He’s looking at me, because I’m talking.  Because I just had to tell him the whole name story.  My bangs.  I think my bangs felt greasy. I should have let him talk.  Kept him talking.  Then he sort of looks around the room and moves his eyes back and forth and doesn’t just stare at me.  Me with the bad hair.  Me with the shit hair that’s never looked right, never.  And greasy bangs! FUCK.  I can’t believe I didn’t check in the mirror.  How can I be so fucking stupid? Stupid and shitty hair.  I gotta get out of here?  How much longer do we have to sit here so it won’t be even more awkward if I say that I need to go.  How long have we been here? I gotta come up with some questions to ask him, keep him talking.  Anything.  Anything to keep him from noticing my hair.

Ananya regarded herself in the mirror, drank the remainder of her beer in one gulp and said to her reflection, “OK, this ends now. Or at least as soon as I pop open another brew.”

She often went to one of her favorite bookstores mid-Friday evenings, and browsed through the newest graphic novels.  A lot of the stores carried esoteric ones that the artist/writer had given the store directly, so she rotated through a number different stores to see different comics.  Plus, that meant that she wasn’t a serious regular at any one store, which would have made her feel like even more of a dweeb; and, none of the well-meaning bookstore folks got all up in her business too much.

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It was a cool evening for summer; Ananya wrapped a long scarf around her neck and over her head.  She was standing at a busy intersection when a waft of breeze whooshed the scarf from the top of her head.  She had an immediate instinct to jerk her arms up and replace it, but she resisted.  What good was her decision to end the tyranny if she just turned around and covered it up.

When she walked through the door of the bookstore, the girl at the counter looked up from her book.  They always did that.  But this time, the girl didn’t look back down again. She sat up a little straighter in her chair.  “Is there anything I can help you with?”

Ananya was already walking toward the graphic novel section and didn’t even make eye contact when she said, “No, thanks. I’m good.”

She picked up a copy of Bad Girls, which she’d heard about.  It had everything:  a crazy pop art style, Fidel’s 1958 Cuba, murder, and well, bad girls.  It also had a whopping $25.98 price tag, which was seriously steep.  But this was a special novel, and it was a special day.  She let out a little whistle under her breath, a mixture of sticker shock and celebration, and walked to the counter.

The girl, except that now that Ananya was closer, and actually looking at her, the bookstore person appeared to be maybe mid-40’s.  She turned the novel towards herself and said to Ananya, “Oh, this is a great choice.  Just a great choice.  I’ve heard so much.”

“Yeah,” Ananya said, having no desire to share a lot of words.

“Did you find everything that you were looking for?”  She scanned the book’s price into the computer, then replaced it on the counter and folded her hands. “And I can gift wrap this for you.  If it’s a gift.  Or I can just wrap it really nicely for you to take it home.”

“No, that’s ok.  Just. Whatever.  A regular bag is fine.” Ananya shifted from one foot to the other, a bit perplexed.

“I mean, if there is anything else that I can do for you.  I hope you’re doing… OK.”

After a nanosecond of thinking that this woman was completely bonkers, Ananya figured it out.

Oh my god.  She thinks I have cancer.  She thinks that I’m totally bald because I’m in chemotherapy.  She’s being extra fucking nice because she thinks I’m dying. OH MY GOD, I shave my head because it’s the only way I can think of to force myself to stop thinking about my hair, like every freaking minute, like the way my hair looks determines whether it’s even ok for me to talk, or to have people look at me, or just walk down the f’ing street, and this is what ends up happening?  People think that I have fucking cancer and that I’m DYING, and now they’re just gonna look at me MORE?  I seriously did not see this coming.  Epic fucking fail.  But hold it.  Hey, I’m not thinking about how my hair looks. So, well, there’s that.

shaved.head

*My novel PUSHING THE RIVER will release in EIGHT days.  THANKS for reading this, and for indulging my need to take a break from the endless and soul-killing marketing of a new book!

The People on the Stairs

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The one from the basement started it.  He crawled up from his underground lair, from the smell of epoxy that he uses for projects, from the array of fluorescent vests that he wears to work.  He took up residence on the stairs.  Early in the morning, he was on the stairs.  Late into the night, still on the stairs.

Others began to gather.  I never knew where they came from.  There would just be another voice, a conversation, coming from the stairs.  Or I would come home, and have to step around and between others, bodies leaning this way and that as I made my way through their habitat.

I didn’t want to hear them, tried to not hear them; but they were on the stairs.  There was really no escape.

Sometimes I would take a long walk go for coffee invent an errand visit a friend drive to the lakefront, all with the hope that when I returned, the stairs would be a dazzling open space — no residents.  No clutter and detritus of citizens who had created their own fiefdom, on my stairs.

In the evenings, the sound of the citizenry would swell like a great ocean storm.  Still, occasional single voices would ring out like a carillon bell, random snippets that made no sense and created ripples of unsettledness: “ …had to escape my marriage in the cover of darkness…”  “…heard you can’t ever get rid of that smell, no matter what you do…”  “No, no, that wasn’t the time I got shot; that was a…”

The voices stop, a crashing silence.  A million eyes turn to me.

“Hey, how ya doing?”

“Doing great, Jason.  You?”

stairs

 

Voice

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“You’re always gonna be lonely, you know that, right?”

That was the voice inside of her head.  That was how it spoke to her – as if another version of herself was sitting in a chair, a few feet away from her, addressing her as “you” from a supposed outside, objective perspective.

She thought of the voice as a separate person.  She thought that person was pretty much a snarky little bitch a great deal of the time.  Although, to be fair, she also duly noted when the voice took on the role of a vigilant cheerleader.  She would leap onto the chair she normally sat on, throw her arms in the air, and fervently exclaim “Good job!”

She didn’t know if all of this was exceptionally odd, or if every single other person who had ever lived had experienced the exact same thing.  It was not the kind of thing people usually spoke of.  “Hey, does the voice inside of your head speak to you in the first person or the second, or perhaps even the third?  Is the voice kind, critical, or frighteningly neutral?”  She could not remember a single social gathering in which this topic had come up.

“So, as I was saying: you are always going to be lonely.  It is your legacy.”

Sometimes, it was not entirely clear if the voice was being a snarky little bitch, or a compassionate companion.

 

Art: Frida Kahlo