Grand Canyon

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Here is another section from the “When I Was 4, 1960” section of my current novel.

Way before we got to the Grand Canyon, I was pretty sure my mother was just making stuff up. So by the time she was making exuberant wide gestures while talking about time, and a river, and layers of rock, and millions of years, millions and millions of years — I just felt sad and confused.  My neighbor Patsy had already told me about the whole world being made in just seven short days, well six really, cause God took one day off to rest. She had learned this at church, and this story was from God himself.  They said so at church, a Presbyterian one, but my other neighbor Carrie was an actual Catholic; and Carrie confirmed this was, without question, the truth.

I felt a little better when my brother and I were allowed to feed some peanuts to the chipmunks that were running around everywhere. I was scared they would bite me, but they didn’t, and their teeny little claws felt creepy and good all at the same time when they crawled into my hand to get the nuts.  I had to keep very, very still.  I felt like there were my personal friends.

But back in the car, as we drove away from the Grand Canyon, there was a whirl going on inside of me.  Kind of like when you make those whirly paintings at carnivals, the ones where you squirt bright, beautiful colors from ketchup bottles, and then the whole thing spins around, and you think it’s going to be so so pretty; but it’s a mess. An ugly, dark mess.

Why would my own mother tell such whoppers?

After the Grand Canyon, I was cranky, and I stayed that way the rest of the return trip, heading east once again on Route 66.  Pancakes and hotel swimming pools had lost their allure, and hours upon hours bumping along in the back seat – with nothing supposedly dazzling to look forward to – were pure torture.  After the mountains flattened out in the vast, monotonous and scorching prairie, there weren’t even any more roadside attractions to bring us to a precipitous halt.  My mother packed away her movie camera one afternoon, and the next day her regular camera, and took to staring silently out the window, turned away from all of us.  My father stopped pulling over to rest and smoke a cigarette; instead he lit up seemingly continually, sending endless clouds of choking smoke to add to our back-seat agonies.

My brother and I knew that we would get in big trouble if we fought or argued out loud, so we traversed a couple thousand miles of the United States by perpetuating a stealth war of silent punches, kicks, and the occasional pinch.  It was the only entertainment we could muster.

When we got back home, I began to secretly believe that I had been adopted, that I had come from different people entirely than these two grown-ups who ping-ponged between sphinxlike impenetrability and riotous, nonsensical laughter.  I started to have bad dreams.  In some of them, we were back on our road trip vacation, and they had left me behind at one of the endless places where we had stopped.  In others, I was trying as hard as could to run away from something awful, but my legs wouldn’t work.  It was as if I was in super slow motion, while the rest of the world – and the awful threat – came closer.  And then, I died.  For the first time.

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.

The Woman in the Orchard

Please enjoy this continuation of what I expect to be my fourth novel.

orchard

 

Mazie stood behind the chair that had always been her mother’s place at the porch’s outdoor dining table.  She ran her hands along the welted seam of the – what was it called…Naugahyde? – chair, the miracle synthetic material that supposedly lasted forever.  Mazie smiled down at the gray, marble-patterned Formica table.  Her parents would be astonished to know that the chairs and table they had carefully chosen with their eternal vigilance to thrift would one day be precious collector’s items for scores of retro-crazed home decorators.  Neither the word “chic,” nor the value it represented would ever had entered her parents’ lexicon.  They insisted that their furnishings and possessions be practical and durable enough to weather children, animals, friends and the vicissitudes of life in general with a minimum of worry or bother.

Mazie ran her hand along the Formica, and once again along the welting at the top of the chair before lifting her gaze back to the orchard.  She thought she saw a flicker of movement between two of the old apple trees on the far slope, and she unconsciously rose up on her toes to get a better look.

It was mid-morning, not a time of day that one would expect to see a deer.  It was also unlikely that a deer would decide to amble through a relatively open orchard well before the time of year when any apples could have ripened enough to fall.  Mazie saw a flash of red, high enough above the ground that she reckoned it could only be a person, one who seemed to be plodding in slow motion through Mazie’s orchard.

old-woman-stands-in-flowers-near-his-house-and-looks-at-the-camera-ukrainian-elderly-woman-in-red-headscarf-stands-near-wooden-hut-and-looks-at-the-camera-female-looks-at-the-camera-and-

Mazie stood and watched fixedly, shock, wonder and suspicion whirling within her, as an elderly, snow white-haired woman came into focus.  The woman wore a cotton print dress, much as Mazie’s grandmothers and their various sisters had worn most days, with ankle socks and well-worn walking shoes.  Around her neck she wore a red bandana, the flash of red that Mazie had seen from afar.  The woman carried a cane in one hand, or perhaps it was a walking stick, which she leaned on heavily.  She watched her feet intently, making her way among the multitude of rocks in the thoroughly uneven, hazardous orchard.  The woman had gotten all the way to the near end of the orchard before she chanced a glance upward, at which point, she immediately saw Mazie standing behind the chair at the outdoor table on the porch.

The woman raised her cane in the air, a kind of salute.  “Oh!  Hello, dear!”

Mazie was not sure what else to say besides, “Hello!”

“I’m not used to seeing anyone!” the woman said. “You gave me rather a start.”

“It’s my place,” Mazie said, “my family’s place.”

“Oh, I’m sure it is, dear, seeing as you’re standing there on the porch.  But I walk through here every day, through your orchard there.  So, you’re what’s different for me.  Never saw anyone before.”

“I was just thinking about the orchard,” Mazie said.  “Wondering why anyone would choose such rocky, uneven ground for an orchard in the first place.”

“Well, I can’t answer that one,” the woman said.

“What I’m wondering is, why you would walk through such an… inhospitable orchard, when the road is right there.”  Mazie pointed.

“The road gets a little boring after a while, lovely as it is.  I do walk on it.  This is my little foray off the beaten path, as it were.  Just through your orchard and back on up to the road.”

“You know, when we first bought this place, my parents were intent on trying to mow it, you know, tame it into a nice, grassy meadow kind of an orchard.” Mazie laughed.  “You can’t imagine the sound when a ride-on lawnmower hits a rock.  The lawnmower engine stops dead, and this…enormous…noise reverberates through the woods in every direction.  Oh my gosh, I can still hear it clear as day.”  Mazie laughed.  “Except that one time, the whole lawnmower rolled right over, right on top of my father.  That wasn’t so funny.”

Mazie observed herself, talking to a total stranger, who was technically trespassing on her old family farm.

The woman smiled.  Mazie regarded her.

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“Oh.  Perhaps you’d rather that I don’t walk through it,” the woman said.

Mazie considered. “Well, I’m not sure that makes any sense,” Mazie responded.  “Seems kind of mean-spirited and arbitrary, out here in the middle of all this land.  No, you go right on walking through the crazy, rocky orchard any time you like.”

“Very kind of you, dear.  I suppose if you’re up and about, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Where are you headed, anyway?”  Mazie asked.

“That way.” The woman pointed up the road, the opposite direction from the one she had come, and began walking without another word.

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Bottom photo is of Emma Rowena Gatewood, better known as Grandma Gatewood (October 25, 1887–June 4, 1973), an extreme hiker and ultra-light hiking pioneer who was the first woman to hike the 2,168-mile (3,489 km) Appalachian Trail from Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine solo, and in one season.

 

That Thing We Call Inspiration

InspirationMuch has been thought, and written, and even researched about the nature of what we call “inspiration.”  My Oxford online dictionary defines it as “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.”  The second definition listed is: “the drawing in of breath; inhalation.”  What a magnificent concept.

Most writers have various little rituals and incantations we perform in order awaken the Muse.  Most of us also find that, however we may try, that crazy thing that we call inspiration, that deep inhalation of fresh, creative air, finds us at the most unexpected times.  Never did I imagine that, recovering from a total hip replacement surgery, an image would pop into my head, and I would know that it was the foundation of my next novel.

Here, then, is the beginning of what I have tentatively entitled “The Rocky Orchard:”

__________________________________________________________

orchard“What a strange place to put an orchard,” Mazie thought to herself.  Mazie stood at the exact spot on the wrap-around porch — the one that covered two full sides of the old farm house – where she could see the farthest in three different directions. “I never could figure out why there.”

There was not all that much to see to her left, as the stone path leading from the porch door was steep enough that you had to stoop down just a tad to see the old dirt road at the path’s end.  To her right sat the old shed, and the small, spring-fed lake her parents had dredged, and the wide expanse of field that abruptly ended at the edge of the thick woods.  In the spring, if you listened very carefully, you could hear the little creek that lay just beyond the farthest edge of the field, at the very beginning of the trail into the woods.  Full and ripe with the winter’s runoff, the freezing water tumbled over the rocks in rushing abandon.  You could hear it, even from such a distance, before it began its languishing journey from bursting its muddy banks, to flowing in a steady and patient stream, to trickling in ever-shifting paths between the mossy stones, to its eventual disappearance in the flush of summer.

Where Mazie came from, it was a point of contention whether the proper way to say the word was “creek” or “crick.”  Feelings ran strong about this.  Weekend people, people who did not live there full-time – like Mazie’s family – generally said “creek;” locals said “crick.”  But if you tried to say it like they did, to be nice when you were talking to them, they assumed you were making fun and immediately got quiet or mean.  It made Mazie tired to think about.

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PUSHING THE RIVER teaser quotes

PUSHING THE RIVER releases one week from today!  Here are some teaser quotes from the novel to whet your appetite.

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“I have lived in the company of ghosts. I have known this for a long time – that I rattled around among specters and spirits and wraiths.  But I also knew that they were, indeed, my company.”

“He shook her toe a few more times and then went over and sat down on his own side of the bed. It occurred to him that maybe if he got back under the covers and shut his eyes and then opened them up again, it might all be different.”

“When Jeff first left — fourteen years ago today –  I could read without glasses, even the smallest print on the train boxes.  When my hands reached up to dust those boxes, the craggy blue veins did not stand out starkly against my sallow hands.  The skin did not pucker into fascinating, horrifying patterns.”

“She had a nearly overwhelming desire to lie down in the grass right then, halfway along the trail, right there, in the middle of the sculpture garden, and resolve to stay there, not move, not continue, until something changed.”

“I was a Natural Woman.  I told my mother she had given me her last Toni home permanent, thank you very much, and gathered up my bras for a ritual burning.”

“There was something just a little goofy about him, the stoop of his shoulders, the enormity of his feet in the ultra-white gym shoes she later learned he had bought that day at Costco.  A mortal after all.”

“Something old and very deep within Madeline felt a profound shame.  She tamped down the instinct to apologize over and over, to do anything, to do everything, that might possibly make Dan feel better, want to stay, want to hold her, want her.”

“Alongside the shame and the blind anger, the most profound feeling of all was a wish that something, just one thing, could be simple.  Clear.  Easy.  Known.”

“Even the wildly striped hair did nothing to dilute the impact of seeing a child – a very small, very young, very sad, and very scared child – standing there.  A child who happened to be seven months pregnant.”

 

Pushing the River: FLASH flash

It was not her first foray into the parallel universe of online dating. Madeline had been divorced for more than ten years. She had braved a string of relationships that progressed from interest, to the first tingle of excitement, to the exhilaration of genuine possibility, to the frightening, heady, joyful moment when the roller coaster passed the peak of its climb and in that split second, there was no going back: momentum had taken over; it was utterly and completely out of anyone’s control, because at that moment, there was love. There was real love.

And then there wasn’t.

Madeline took time to lick the wounds of disappointment. She allowed the lesions of dashed hopes to scab over. She understood that persevering was an ongoing matter of keeping one’s optimism just enough ahead of the injury of experience to keep going.

After a time, she would go back online, pouring over profiles, scrutinizing descriptions, gathering courage. As crazy a universe as online dating was – she recalled a friend aptly calling it The Wild West – it was essentially the only path to meet people. Since Madeline worked alone, had never buddied up to a man in a bar, and didn’t attend church, she reconciled herself to the necessary methodology.

Madeline worked hard to extinguish the flame she had carried for Jeff. But the feeling of being part of something larger than herself – everything from the ongoing sense that life was bigger and mattered more, to the immeasurable joy of small, everyday moments – was a living spirit inside of her.

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I am up to my eyeballs in re-writing/editing my novel Pushing the River.  The above snippet is excerpted from an early chapter. The first paragraph remains from the original draft; the remainder was written yesterday.  It struck me that it could stand on its own as a Flash.  It also struck me as being remarkably similar to the Flash I wrote entitled “January 2,” which suggests that I still endeavor to get it right.  WATCH FOR THE RELEASE OF PUSHING THE RIVER THIS SUMMER!!!

photo by Garry Winogrand

Conversational Vortex

It’s June, it’s Friday, and it’s time for another chapter excerpt from my novel PUSHING THE RIVER.  In the two weeks since I last posted, and with the help of dedicated readers/friends, I conceived of a new way to structure the book and have been hard at work.  I say with hope and fear, it’s possible that I am within striking distance of a completed new draft!!

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Conversational Vortex

Claire, along with every other member of the family, had an irrational but intense distaste for Madeline’s coffee maker. Claire’s very first job had been in the coffee house directly across the street from her apartment, a place she had such a deep and abiding affection for that she still found any reason to drive past it more than ten years later. In the years and the motley assortment of coffee joints in the time since then, she had babied and cajoled her fair share of finicky machinery in order to produce the sumptuously rich shots of espresso and foam flourishes that kept customers standing in line for her creations.

She would not even go near Madeline’s useless behemoth.

The thing had been a gift from a long-gone beau and held no particular sentimental place in Madeline’s heart. Still, it was there; and Madeline had been raised by a woman who said “I’m too Scotch to throw it away and get a new one” enough times that it had stuck, especially considering that her mother had no Scotch ancestry whatsoever.

Each and every part of the coffeemaker required precise handling and placement – the handle of the filter basket needed to be facing forward for brewing; the lid of the basket assembly then had to be positioned just so; likewise, the lid of the coffee pot itself had to be screwed on to an exact point and then placed meticulously under the filter assembly. This so struck Madeline as an apt metaphor for nearly all aspects of her life – that great effort and painstaking care were requirements—that she never questioned the coffeemaker, nor felt put upon in carrying out the steps each morning that resulted in an excellent and deeply satisfying pot of coffee. After all, wasn’t it her own daughter who had said, “Not everything that’s really hard is also good; but everything that’s really good is also hard.”

No one could ever figure out whether it was one specific thing, or a compounding of smaller things that tipped the scales for the old coffee pot. Every so often, the scoundrel would simply refuse to allow the brewed coffee to flow smoothly into the carafe below, but would erupt like a volcano, spewing a scalding muck of boiling water and coffee grounds across the entire kitchen counter, sending rivulets down the cabinet doors and dark streams across the floor.

It had happened to everyone in the family at one time or another, and each of the family members had their own unique response: it happened to Madeline only once. When it happened to Kate, she practiced putting the various parts and pieces together over and over and over, until she was certain that she had mastered it. But once satisfied that mastery had been achieved, she promptly forgot every step of the procedure and needed a refresher course each time she started anew. John managed to be someplace else, nearly always, when a pot of coffee needed to be made — he so relished the cared-for feeling that came from someone placing a freshly-made, wonderfully warm, aromatic cup in his hand. On the other hand, if elected, he held no rancor nor possessed any fear about the crusty old pot; he approached it with an even, calm attitude, expecting that everything would turn out just fine.

Claire gave it a very wide berth. She snarled at it, scowled in its direction when she went about the business of her cooking. Truth be told, she preferred to not even pour herself a cup from a fully-finished batch, so convinced was she that the diabolical device could not be trusted under any circumstances whatsoever and was, in fact, capable of genuine Evil.

Claire’s distaste of the wicked pot was so great that she did not budge from her treetop, arty nest until she heard Madeline’s feet hit the floor of her bedroom below at approximately 6:58. Even then, Claire did not move a muscle until a safe period of time had passed, and she could descend the stairs with certainty that the morning’s fresh pot of coffee awaited. Which she generally did not drink, although she usually agreed to have Madeline pour her a cup, noting the obvious pleasure it gave her mother-in-law; but Madeline would later find the stone-cold, untouched mug squirreled away in a corner of the kitchen.

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After years of managing the opening shift in coffee joints, Claire had long ago lost the ability to sleep in. She awakened each day sometime between four am. and five, and having her life spread out before her in one large room enabled her to accomplish a great deal in the hours before Madeline opened her eyes to the new day. By the time “good morning’s” passed from each of them to the other, Claire had: read passages from a variety of books that recent events brought to mind; corresponded, both on paper and via email, with people across the world who had stirred her soul into a permanent, unmovable, ferocious loyalty; written in her journal; scanned vintage anatomical drawings; continued the eternal process of organizing her thousands and thousands of photographs taken from world travels; jotted down ideas for a new children’s book she was writing; and curled up in the corner of the room so she could manage a long, impassioned, whispered conversation with her husband in a voice so hushed that Madeline would not even have the barest murmur invade her dreams.

“I have so much I need to get done today.” Claire squeezed herself into a small corner of the sofa that was closest to the door, as if the proximity to an exit and the sheer discomfort of her position would magically propel her. She cradled the cup of untouched coffee between her two hands and blew across the steaming surface.

Claire alternated between two mood states that Madeline thought of as more or less “off” and “on.” In the “off” times, Claire walked with her eyes cast on the floor. She moved with such stealth that it was nearly impossible to know where she may be in the house, or if she was even there at all. She shrugged in response to any communication directed at her. She gave the ardent impression of wishing to be invisible, or perhaps to disappear entirely. During the “on” times, she could be stunningly talkative. The shifts came as a bit of a jolt to Madeline, when the same young woman who had slunk around in the deep shadows for a time suddenly plopped down on the sofa and became downright chatty, mustering an astonishing string of words, sentences, paragraphs, ideas that were not only exceptionally articulate, but were also delivered so blindingly goddamn fast that Madeline had to concentrate especially hard on the content lest she get carried away by the breathtaking delivery itself.

She had an assortment of expressions that she peppered frequently through any and every subject she happened to be addressing, a trait Madeline found so utterly charming she waited for each new occurrence and was brought very nearly to tears by them. These included:

At all whatsoever
Nonsense
I mean, I feel like
Incomparable boob
I mean, are you fucking kidding me?
Ninnyhammer

and Madeline’s personal favorite:
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“Did you hear my big fight with John last night?” Claire asked.

“What!? No!” Madeline responded.

“Nonsense. I can’t believe you didn’t hear it. I was seriously screaming at him. Because
he was being a complete ninnyhammer, I mean, I feel like he started it because he was actually screaming into the phone at me, I don’t even remember a time when he’s yelled at me like that, ever, before, when he was that mad and yelling so loud I actually had to hold the receiver away from my ear a couple of times, I mean, are you fucking kidding me? Seriously, Madeline, it’s a little hard to believe you when you say that you didn’t hear any of this.”

“I seriously didn’t. Are you OK? Is everything OK?”

“It’s fine, it’s fine. We talked again this morning. For a long time. That’s why I’m running so late and I can’t do this, I can’t do this right now. I can’t sit down on this spot on this couch and next thing I know some sort of thing has taken possession of me, hours of our lives have passed, and I realize that once again I have fallen into the conversational vortex that exists in this room! I do not have time for this today at all whatsoever.” She paused. She shifted just slightly from her previous position of being bashed against the arm of the sofa.

“Possibly, it’s already too late,” Madeline said.

“Nonsense,” said Claire.

George Brassaï - Girls at a Café

bottom photo: Brassai