The Male Body, new from the novel “Pushing the River”

judith.roth

When she thought of Dan, she thought of his shoulder. His right shoulder. The one she rested her head on when they lay in bed. Don’t ever get out of the pool Dan, she thought to herself; because that swimmer’s shoulder is worth dying for.

Madeline became deeply attached to bodies. To the body of her lover. The curve of the calf, line of the toes, rises and declivities of the chest, sprout of hairs on the lower abdomen – every bit of it became an imprint deep within her, just as a baby duck becomes imprinted on the first thing it sees, nothing forever after seeming right, or even possible.

She remembered when she first saw Michael – the previous body in her life — naked. He looked like one of the blue people in the movie “Avatar” – stretched to unreasonable tall leggy thinness. But in a short time, his body was the only one that made sense to her. Legs that were not as long, calf muscles that were less taught seemed…mildly distasteful to even consider.

Hands, most especially, stirred inside of her. If e e cummings carried her heart in his heart, Madeline carried his hands.

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Madeline thought of Dan’s hands. The dense, ropey tendons across his palms from that disease she could never remember the name of. The blood-red tips of his fingers.

My problem, Madeline said to herself, is that I want someone at the receiving end of my thoughts. That voice inside of my head. The “me” voice. I like the idea that someone else might be hearing it. Otherwise it’s just me. Me me me. Seems a little overly self-involved. Seems a little pointless to be doing a running narration of my own life to myself, for myself.

That’s where the body comes in, she realized. That’s why I carry his body around inside of me. So he’s there, too.

davinci

Art, top to bottom:  Judith Roth, Judith Roth, Leonardo Da Vinci

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

“A Failure of Memory,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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Madeline sometimes exhibited a dizzyingly optimist view of things past, which ranged from sweetly touching to downright frightening. For instance, there was the now-infamous time when John read “Of Mice and Men” for his eighth grade English class. From an early age, John possessed an uncanny ability to predict the outcome of a story from very near the beginning of a book, movie, TV show, etc. He paused the movie, or put down the book, and could not go any further until he asked if the outcome was going to be what he expected. Then he considered whether he wanted to go forward and face the inevitable, or whether to take a pass. He asked Madeline if “Mice and Men” was going to have the tragic, heartbreaking ending he foresaw. And Madeline, over the course of the many years since she had read it, had somehow spun the story into a sparse, entirely lovely Steinbeck tale about the love and devotion of two brothers. Epic fail. Even as a nearly-six-foot, fourteen-year-old who shaved, John took to his bed immediately after dinner the night he finished the book.

Then there was the time Madeline got serious about her responsibility to ensure that her growing children experienced the wide range of world cinema, and not simply the mainstream American extravaganzas that they all loved. Where to start, she thought. Something with a simple story, little dialogue, stunning visuals, and the far slower, languid pace that characterized films from nearly every other country. Got it, she thought, remembering a film she had seen in college: Nicholas Roeg’s “Walkabout.” Somehow, in her memory, the movie had metamorphosed into a lovely, mysterious trek through the outback where two lost children follow a young Aboriginal boy back to home and safety. She would never forget the expression on both John’s and Kate’s faces when they turned to her, five minutes into the film, their mouths slightly open, their faces pale and clearly questioning her sanity. Madeline’s rosy memory had completely erased the part where the dad drives the children into the outback, kicks them out of the car, attempts to shoot them, then proceeds to douse the car with gasoline and set it ablaze before shooting himself. While they watch.

So there was much precedent for Madeline remembering, at least at first, a happy scene where Savannah tickled Dylan’s newborn cheeks with the turkey feather while cooing and giggling at her baby boy. But with the laundry away and Dan’s quickly-scribbled note in her hand, Madeline picked up the turkey feather from the sofa cushion and remembered the rest.

“He’s wonderful, Savannah. Completely wonderful,” Madeline said. Dylan followed the sound of Madeline’s voice with his eyes, and smiled.

“Yeah…” Savannah said.

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“What’s wrong? You sound like something’s wrong.”

“Nah. I was just remembering when my dad used to tickle me…”

“Oh. Are you…missing him?” Madeline wasn’t sure how to read Savannah’s wistfulness.

“Ha! Miss him? Nah. I mean, he was an OK dad, I guess. Sometimes.”

“Was he, Savannah?”

“ I mean, yeah. No. I don’t know. Things got pretty bad there.” Savannah stopped stroking Dylan with the feather and laid it beside her on the sofa. She wrapped her hands around Dylan’s arms and held fast. “You know he called the cops on me, right?”

“Yeah, I heard that,” Madeline said.

“You know they took me away? Put me into juvey? Did you know that?”

“No,” Madeline replied. “I didn’t know that.”

“Yep,” Savannah said. “Cause I was late coming home. He told the cops I was all violent and out of control. Ha! HE’S the one who’s out of control. After a few days, the cops told me I had my choice, I could go home or I could stay there. Guess what?! I stayed. For, like, more than a week.”

“Really?”

“I knew I better than to go home, until he, you know, cooled off.” Savannah shrugged. “I knew he’d just…be all physical with me.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’d…you know…shove me around…a little”

“Shove you around? Like, what are we talking about here?”

“I never had to go to the hospital or anything like that…” Savannah said. “Well, just that one time.”

“Are you shitting me?” Madeline said, loud enough to startle Dylan. “What happened?”

“I got taken away. But they sent me back.”

Madeline’s head was spinning. “ How badly did you get hurt?”

“Oh. Nothing broken. Well, just a finger. Stitches and stuff.”

Madeline did not know what to say. Inside her head, she said, “WHEN DID MY WHOLE FUCKING LIFE TURN INTO THE FUCKING JERRY SPRINGER SHOW;” but the words that actually emerged from her mouth were: “I’m so sorry you had to go through stuff like that, Savannah,” which seemed woefully, tragically inadequate, but she said it nonetheless.

“Yeah. Whatever.” Savannah shrugged again. “Now I got this little guy,” she said, as if that explained, as well as solved, every single thing.

Madeline looked down at the turkey feather and became aware of Dan’s note still clutched in her hand. She pictured the following chain of events that would extend into the inevitable future:

she would put the turkey feather back in its honorary spot on the end table. At some point, Dan would vanish, again, and this time for good. The feather would remain for some amount of time, sometimes striking Madeline as a lovely and poignant token of a person who had stood beside her at an enormously tough time, sometimes as a stab of painful reminder of someone who was prone to vanishing, and would live the entire rest of his life in like fashion. The day would come when the feather was no longer imbued with any particular meaning whatsoever. It would be a detritus. It would get tossed unceremoniously into a large plastic garbage bag, end up covered with coffee grounds and used tissues and egg shells and rotten leftovers. The bag would be hauled out to the alley, and crushed together with other bags. On some Thursday, men would toss it into the back of a truck. It would be squished and compacted and compressed. It would be dust.

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Top to Bottom: Photo of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Vincent Van Gogh

 

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

Here is the scene it its entirety:

West-Beach-Portage-11

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

Last Sunday

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My foster grandson will turn three in less than two weeks. I unexpectedly got to spend the day with him last Sunday. I had planned to attend my longest-time friend’s ballroom dance competition that day, as it was the first time it worked out that I could finally see – and celebrate – what has been her passion for several years now. As grandson D is an easy-going child who sees wonder everywhere, he has accompanied me on many great adventures in his young life. I decided to bring him along.

He was fascinated by riding in the glass elevators at the Hyatt, likewise the oversized lobby furniture he scrambled into with great triumph. As it happened to be the day after Halloween, the lavish costumes of the dancing couples didn’t strike him as particularly noteworthy or unusual. He sat upright in his chair, watching the dancers attentively. After each brief dance was over, he clapped heartily, hopped off of his chair, and said with enthusiasm, “Is it over? Can we go back to the car and go home now?”

Each time, I said, “No, not yet! Just a little while longer, OK?”

On the drive back home, he chatted about the trains we passed, the differences between various construction vehicles, and where the passengers waiting on the train platforms might be going.

He was clearly headed in a philosophical direction at that point. And make no mistake, the following conversation was deeply philosophical, with all the curiosity, underlying wonder, and joy at the ability to reflect that entails.

“Tiabuela (which is what D calls me, as in a Spanish conflation of aunt/grandmother), do you know what I’m doing right now?”

robert.henri

“No, D, what are you doing?”

“I’m picking my nose! Do you like to pick your nose, Tiabuela? Do you do it very often?”

“Um, sometimes I pick my nose. Not very often really.”

“I love to! It’s a really good thing to do! If you don’t pick your nose, how do you get your boogers out! You have to get your boogers out!”

“Well, usually I get a Kleenex, and then I blow my nose into the Kleenex.”

“Hmm. I blow my nose sometimes. It’s way better to pick it.”

“I’ve noticed that you do it quite a bit.”

“Know what I’m doing now, Tiabuela? I’m eating my boogers!!”

“Uhhhhh, D, yuck! Don’t they taste yucky??”

“No! They don’t taste yucky! They taste good in my mouth! I like the way they feel inside my mouth! And they don’t make my stomach hurt! They’re not yucky, and they don’t make my stomach hurt.”

“So, some things make your stomach hurt?”

“Yes, but not boogers!”

There was a brief lull, as D gazed out the window and…seemed to be chewing.

“Well,” he said. “What about eye boogers! Do you pick those?!?”

Picassos-Child-With-A-Dove

art, top to bottom: Henri Matisse, Robert Henri, Pablo Picasso

“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.

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“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.

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“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

Short. Kinda Sweet. New from the novel “Pushing the River”

bed

The following is a continuation of the previously posted chapter excerpt. A paragraph is repeated for continuity.

Madeline put her index finger into Dylan’s tiny fist so his fingers would curl around it and grip. With her other hand, she stroked his cheek, causing his eyes to flutter as he fought off sleep. She treasured these moments when she had the baby to herself, when she could lose herself in her fascination with his every minuscule movement, every slight change of expression that passed across his face. It did not happen often, but now and again at these precious times, it was almost as if the specter of her ex-husband Dick joined her. He sat beside her on the couch, and they gazed down together, lost in the miracle of the tiny life before them.

In the “real” world, the very much flesh-and-blood Dan came into the sun room and sat on the side not taken up by Dick’s memory ghost. He grasped Dylan’s other hand, so the three of them formed a bizarre human chain. Whether in response to the complexities encircling him, or strictly the result of his own inner rumblings, Dylan wrinkled his face and let out a parade of little fussy snorts. Madeline put him on her shoulder and nuzzled her face against his own. “He may be hungry,” she said. “I don’t have any idea when he had his last feeding.” She rolled her eyes. “I mean, some guy named Jose is upstairs in bed with Savannah.”

“WHAT?” Dan said.

“Yeah. He’s a friend from a couple of summers ago. I guess she ran into him again when she was hanging out in the park. With the baby.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me. Does Marie know?”

“Yep.” Madeline said. “I texted her at work. She said she’d talk to her and take care of it. Meanwhile…I better make a bottle.”

“I’ll do it,” Dan said.

“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.

toulous kiss

Art: Toulouse-Lautrec

“Herding Cats,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

herding-cats

The expression “herding cats” does not even begin to cover the travesty of attempting to gather six adults (well, five adults and a 15-year-old mother of a newborn) into one room for long enough to reach in and pull out painstakingly-chosen treasures from Madeline’s hand-knit Christmas stockings.

Pots of coffee were brewed and drained, favorite Christmas CD’s from long years past rang out on the stereo one after another – and still, no more than four people at a time managed to amass in the general vicinity of the tree, the stockings, the waiting slew of piled gifts.

The only person in unfettered good spirits was, as usual, baby Dylan. As a one-month-old newbie who had every reason to express general difficulty in his adjustment to the whole world outside of a warm, dark, wholly embracing womb, he rarely did. The bright lights, noise and general chaos that he had been born into seemed A-OK to him. Madeline regularly said to Savannah: “He’s not a real baby, you know.” Savannah of course had nothing to compare him to. She had no idea that sleepless nights were the norm, not in infant who nestled into his mother’s ample chest and snoozed the night away.

Kate planted herself in the living room, turned off the Mormon Tabernacle Choir mid carol, and opened her violin case. “John,” she shot over her shoulder, “let’s play until everyone’s here.”

“I was just—” John said.

“Let’s play.” Kate’s breathing was faster than usual.

John wandered back and forth in the room, as if trying to remember what her words meant.

“Oh, great!” Madeline said, rushing into the room and plopping down on the sofa. “Best idea ever. More impromptu carols!” She knit her brow and continued, “Hey, anybody seen Dan? What the heck is he doing?”

“What the fuck is anybody doing,” Kate said. “Seriously, what the fuck is everybody doing.”

Herding-Cats

“DAN,” Madeline called out. “DAN!”

A door on the second floor opened. “Yeah?” Dan said.

“Hey, can you come down here?” Madeline asked.

Footfalls on the staircase, Dan standing on the landing, uncommitted to the remaining six stairs and exhibiting slight annoyed bewilderment.

“Whatcha doing up there?” Madeline inquired.

Dan shrugged. “Well, come down and sit with me. Listen to the kids with me. Come on,” Madeline chirped.

Dan padded down the remaining steps and took his place beside Madeline. “Here? You want me here? Like this?”

“What’s up with you?” Madeline asked.

“Nothing. Here I am.”

“Oh my God,” said Kate. We actually have four people here. All we need is Marie and Savannah.”

“I’m pretty sure Marie’s in the basement. On the phone or texting someone. Savannah’s upstairs. Also on the phone.”

“Let me know the next time and place that my services are required,” Dan said, standing.

“No no no no!” Madeline said. “Stay here! I’m gonna see if I can rally the troops.”

“I’m around. Once the troops get rallied, let me know,” Dan countered.

“Hey! Come on! This is fun!” Madeline said.

“Do you know the New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast?” Dan asked.

“Yeah…” said Madeline.

“Cartoon title: Pollyanna in Hell. Cartoon caption: ‘No more down jackets forever!!!’ ”

Madeline made an excellent attempt to demonstrate the expression “shoot daggers” with a glance, but Dan pre-emptively did not allow for eye contact as he left the room.

Pollyanna_in_hell_short_3838

Cartoon excerpt: Roz Chast, originally published in The New Yorker

 

“Stocking Circle,” new excerpt from the novel “Pushing the River”

memark

In the middle of the night, Kate had awakened from a sound slumber, eyes wide, face to face with the hairline crack that ran along her west wall. “Shit damn,” she thought to herself. She threw her mountain of winter covers aside and tiptoed down the stairs.

On Christmas morning, Kate found her mother in the kitchen, babysitting the coffee pot as it burbled away.

“Mama! Merry Christmas!” She threw her arms around Madeline and simultaneously said: “Don’t even think about touching that pot until it’s all done.”

“Oh for god’s sake, I do this every morning! Every morning I pour myself a cup. That’s why there is such a thing as stop-and-pour. So we don’t have to wait! So civilization can march forward!”

“It will totally ruin the rest of the pot. No touch.”

“On this of all days! It’s Christmas. Mama needs her coffee!”

Kate decided it was easier to simply place herself between her mother and the brewing pot.

“You’re a terrible human being,” Madeline said.

“Stockings first? Same as ever? Then breakfast?”

“Of course,” Madeline replied. “Same as ever. Oh, no!! Shit!!!!! I didn’t even think about a stocking for Savannah. Didn’t even enter my head! Assuming she comes out of her room. At all.”

“Of course Savannah has a stocking,” Kate said. “Santa would never forget Savannah.”

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“Oh my God,” Madeline said. “Oh my god.”

“I forgot, too. Until the middle of the night.”

“What did you do?” her mother asked.

“Go look,” Kate said, while continuing: “I thought I was going to have to use one of those nasty ones you’ve kept all these years from your childhood – even though that creepy angel keeps losing more and more parts of her body like some pathetic leper – but anyway, there was a pretty new one in the box, too. Do you even remember why we got that one? I had to empty out all of the stockings, and rifle through everything, and take a little bit from everybody else’s stocking. Even my own. Sorry. Most of the stuff, though, I had to take from your stocking. Things I got for you. I think it will be OK. It’s not totally even, but I think it’ll be OK.”

“Oh my God, Kate, that’s amazing. You’re amazing.” Madeline teared up and hurtled towards Kate with outstretched arms, intending an enormous hug. But Kate took a step backwards.

“Not that I expect it will make any difference. But I thought I would try. I thought somebody should at least try.”

Hours later, when the herding of cats had at long last been accomplished, the group gathered to open their Christmas stockings. Looking around the stocking circle, Madeline began to feel as if she were in some sort of Twilight Zone improv class, a twisted parallel universe where each person had been given an exaggerated character trait that they’d been instructed to act out, and to hang onto that one trait for dear life, no matter what anyone else may be doing.

Savannah: I WILL sulk, pout, sigh, disappear at regular intervals, and broadcast dark depair.

Marie: I WILL stick with Savannah. This is blood. If she’s in despair, I’m in despair. Don’t fuck with me.

John: I WILL remain completely oblivious to anything out of the ordinary going on here. Completely. Oblivious.

Kate: I WILL HAVE A GOOD CHRISTMAS. I WILL. I WILL. I WILL.

Dan: I WILL act as if every single thing this family has created as part of their Christmas tradition is without question the most fucked up, lame assed, terrifyingly inauthentic piece of dysfunctional lunacy that I have ever witnessed in my life.

Madeline: I WILL do everything humanly possible to make sure that every one of these people is happy, happy, happy. I can do it! I can!

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photos by Mary Ellen Mark

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