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

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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.

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Art: Toulouse-Lautrec

“Low on Formula,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

Happy mother with newborn baby

“MadMad, can you take him, please? Can you come up here and get him?” Savannah called through the closed door of her upstairs bedroom. Her groggy voice wafted down the stairway and through the kitchen, finding Madeline savoring her morning coffee at the sun room table.

Madeline opened the door to find Savannah already holding Dylan with arms outstretched. And – surprise!! — a young man, a boy really, face down and splayed across the mattress in his underwear. “I didn’t get any sleep at all last night. Is it OK for you to take him for a while? Do you have to go to work soon?”

“No, it’s fine,” Madeline said. “It’s really fine.”

Savannah had already plopped down and closed her eyes when she said, “there’s not a whole lot of formula left.”

Madeline grabbed her phone and immediately texted Marie at work:

Madeline: Um. Are you aware that your sister has a gentleman caller who happens to be sharing a bed with her right now? In my house??”

Marie: What?! OMG it must be Jose.

Madeline: Who the fuck is Jose?

Marie: Do you remember that kid she met in the park when she was here a couple of summers ago? That’s Jose. She ran into him again. Same park.

Madeline: Uh huh, terrific. I’m not sure that really explains why they’re in bed together. With Dylan. Except without Dylan now. I have him.

Marie: Do you mind taking care of him?

Madeline: Of course not. But hold on. I thought you guys told me that she had gotten back together with the baby daddy. Which I never understood in the first place since he’s 2000 miles away.

Marie: They broke up again. She’s pissed at him. I guess she caught him flirting with someone else.

Madeline: Caught him from 2000 miles away.

Marie: That’s probably why she’s hanging out with Jose. Cause she’s pissed at baby daddy.

Madeline: Hanging out in a bed.

Marie: I’ll talk to her. I gotta go.

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Madeline’s own words rang in her head. From the conversation she’d had with Marie when the inevitable happened. When it became clear that Savannah and Dylan needed to move into the house.

“I can’t be a mother to her, Marie. I won’t do that. I’ll give them a place to stay and I’ll help out with Dylan however and whenever I can cause I’m totally madly in love with him and because he deserves the absolute best beginning in his little life that all of us can possibly give him; but I’m not gonna be her mother. Not in any way. You’re gonna have to set the rules and whatever else. I’m not getting into any of that with her.”

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.

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“Elephant Lullabies,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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“That was when you taught me about sex, Marie, remember?”

That’s what emerged from Savannah’s mouth just as Madeline entered the room. Savannah laughed a hearty, open-mouthed laugh. Her great round belly bounced up and down, requiring her to arrange it. “We were just talking about that time Marie told me all about SEX. Don’t you remember, Marie?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. This is nonsense,” Marie countered.

“No. It’s true. We’d been waiting for Mom for so long, don’t you remember? It was, like, hours and hours,” Savannah said.

“Waiting for her where?” Madeline asked.

“At the casino,” Marie said.

“What do you mean?” Madeline asked.

“Well, wait, let’s get back to the story here,” Savannah said. “I can’t even believe you don’t remember this, Marie. We were sitting on the curb, cause we’d already played in the car and taken turns playing taxi driver, and then you went all through your purse trying to find all the little crayon stubs, and you let me draw pictures on all the little scraps of paper you picked off the floor of the car and from the glove box, and you made a story up about every picture, and still we were waiting. So we went outside and sat on the curb, and you had me drawing pictures using just my toes in the dirt, and you’d guess what they were. And you were being silly and making me laugh, guessing that the pictures were crazy things like a bunch of angels gathered around a brand new baby elelphant singing it lullabies so it could sleep through the roars of the angry lions. I mean, I drew something like a circle, and that’s what you’d guess.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Cha-U-Kao_ Chinese Clowness_ Seated

“Angels singing to a baby elephant?” Madeline arched her brow.

“Whatever. Shut up.” Savannah said.

“We’d been waiting a really, really long time. I just remember being so sleepy. It was dark already. And then I said: ‘Marie, this girl in my school said her older sister is gonna have a baby. And my friend asked her sister where the baby came from, and her sister said that her husband stuck his wee-wee inside of her and went pee pee, and that’s where the baby came from. And I said, is that true, Marie? Is that where babies come from? Is that where I came from?’ And you said, I swear to God you said: ‘Well, that’s close enough.’” Savannah wrinkled up her nose and laughed loud.

“Nonsense,” Marie said. “Never happened.”

“Oh my God, you’re the worst,” Savannah said, picking up the sofa pillow and tossing it at her sister. Both of them burst into unfettered laughter.

“That’s what I thought for years, Marie. Years!”

“You were a little kid! What was I supposed to say?” Marie said.

“Like, how old?” Madeline asked.

“I don’t know.” Marie considered. “Probably 4 or so by then. This kind of went on for a long time.”

“This what went on for a long time?” Madeline asked.

“We’d all be out running errands, or getting food, or whatever, and my mother would just sort of…drive over to the casino and say that she’d be right back. And she’d leave us there. In the car.”

Marie’s tone was strangely untroubled, but her voice became softer. She shrugged one shoulder. “She was basically bringing me along to watch after Savannah. Savannah was pretty little when this started.”

“Little…like…?” Madeline asked.

“Oh, one and a half? At least one,” Marie said.

“So you were taking care of a baby inside of a car in the parking lot of a casino. By yourself,”

Madeline said.

“Uh-huh,” said Marie.

“It was fun!” Savannah said. “Marie made it really fun.”

“How long would she be gone? In the casino?” Madeline asked.

“Sometimes not very long. You know, an hour. Sometimes…pretty long. That time Savannah’s remembering is probably the longest. I think my mom drove us there right after lunch. It was dark when we left.”

Savannah laughed. “It’s all your fault, Marie,” she pointed to her enormous belly. “You ruined me with that story.”

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Art: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

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

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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.

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

 

“Cozy, Cozy” new except from the novel “Pushing the River”

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Madeline glanced over at Savannah’s face and thought: “it’s slumped. Her very face is slumped, not just her body. I did not know such a thing was possible.” Not only that, but she managed to radiate jaw-clenched, seething malcontent like waves carrying forth from a gigantic ocean liner. It was impossible to be in the room, which was quite large, and not know the intense level of her well-broadcast suffering.

Madeline’s phone rang in the other room. When she saw the name on her caller ID, she walked to the back of the house to answer. “Hi,” she said.

“Don’t tell anyone that it’s me. Please. Please, Maddie.” Billie’s voice was so soft, so nearly not there at all.

“What’s going on, Billie? How are you?”

Billie cried quietly on the other end of the line for quite a while. “I am so sorry, Maddie. So so sorry. I’ve let everybody down. Again. I’ve let everybody down again.”

“Everybody wants you here,” was Madeline’s first lie. “But everybody understands,” was her second.

Billie’s gentle crying turned to great, racking sobs; she audibly snorted the torrent of liquid that poured from her nose. “I just can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t I can’t I can’t.”

“Are you OK, Billie? Are you someplace safe?”

“I can’t I can’t I can’t. I’m so so sorry.”

“Your sister is worried about you. Can you call her? Or text her? Can you text Savannah? Wish her a good Christmas? Can you think about doing that? Try to do it before the end of the day tomorrow. Just think about it. Please just think about it, OK?”

“Don’t tell anyone I called,” Billie said, and abruptly hung up.

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Madeline remained in the back room, weighing the pros and cons of keeping the call to herself. Talk about your lose-lose, she thought. Marie counted on knowing every single thing, all the time, even when the information made her infinitely more miserable.

Just then, Marie stealthed into the room and said to Madeline, “Who was that? Was that my mother?”

“I’m not sure,” Madeline replied. “Depends on: what’s the right answer to that question?”

“God damn it!” Marie said. “What did she say?”

“Not much. She doesn’t sound good. I think it’s a safe bet that we won’t be seeing her. I tried to get her to think about talking to her sister, and to Savannah.”

“Where is she? What else did she say?”

“She didn’t say much, Marie. Mostly she cried. And repeatedly apologized. Repeatedly.”

The two women looked at one another across the dark expanse of the room, saying nothing. Marie stealthed back out, leaving Madeline to gaze out at the back yard, the fat colored lights ablaze in the neighbor’s tall pine.

Right after Madeline returned to the living room and took her seat on the couch, the front door opened, and Dan came in. “Fuck, I should have known,” Madeline thought. She knew well by then that any time Dan spent with any piece of his family entailed a heavy amount of drinking on his part – plenty in their presence to manage the togetherness, and even more in the car as he drove to his next destination. A particularly tough family gathering could end up being a three-to-five-cans-in-the-car adventure. Not until he walked through the door did Madeline realize it: she had held out the hope that Christmas Eve would be different, that maybe there would be warmth and traditions and laughter and such that would have him sipping daintily at a homemade toddy instead of slugging back brew after brew.

Dan still perplexed her as a drunk. Large amounts of alcohol seemed to render him both woozy and intense. There was a coiled-snake vibe, ready at any second to strike, hard, unless he happened to slip into a peaceful stupor instead. He plopped onto the couch next to her, but sat at the very edge, so he needed to turn his head to see her. “Wow,” he said. “Look at this cozy family scene.”

“Yep,” Madeline said. “It is.” It was both a command and a plea.

“Cozy, cozy.”

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center photo of F. Scott Fitzgerald and family

“Nativity,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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It was long past the time when Madeline made an entire village of gingerbread houses for each room of the first floor –gumdrop streets lined with gingerbread men and women, M & M rooftops with chocolate Santa’s waving from chimneys, forests of festooned trees, and front yards with cheery snowmen. Still, she thought to herself, this Christmas will not be a shit show. It can’t be.

Christmas Eve was always her favorite. The calendar wound relentlessly down to the shortest days, the barest amount of daytime to illuminate a bleak winter landscape; yet a day that seemed to stretch out with the bright promise of going on forever, as a day in the middle of July.

Dan had wandered off to spend some time with his family. Savannah had been holed up at her Aunt Carol’s with Dylan for several days, and Marie had left early in the morning to join them. The only ones in the house that morning were Madeline and her two children.

Madeline was finishing the frosting on the Christmas tree-shaped cakes that had been an unbreakable traditional for years. The tin foil pans had likely been designed for one-time-then-toss-them-away use. About twenty years ago. Each year, Madeline consulted her kids for Christmas Eve menu planning. Each year, she asked them what they wanted for dessert. With cheery over-enthusiasm, she mentioned a few yummy possibilities she’d been wanting to make for them. Even if the two of them were on the phone, Madeline could hear Kate’s face fall; she could see the tears that threatened at the corner of Kate’s eyes. Each year, Madeline babied the weary pans into a shape that reasonably resembled a Christmas tree, and filled the ever-increasing holes with scraps of aluminum foil so they had a reasonable chance of holding the batter.

Madeline hummed a medley of carols to herself as she swirled the finishing touches of bright green frosting. She imagined the conversation that was about to take place–

“OK, guys, the cakes are ready for you to decorate!”

“Come on, John!” Kate would say.

“Ah, you do both of them this year, Kate. I’m in the middle of trying to finish this (fill in the blank, critically-important thing).

“No no no no no no. Come ON! It’s your cake! Your CAKE!”

This would go on for a bit, John resisting, Kate getting increasingly filled with flustered affectionate pique.

In the end, John would create a masterpiece in a shockingly short amount of time. Kate would take her time, study, plan, go back to her work again and again for fine tuning. In the end, they would both be so pleased with their work that they would carve and gouge around their favorite bits of decoration until the last few bites at the bitter end.

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Before Madeline could call out to signal her final flourishes, caught right in the transition between her humming of “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night,” the sound of Kate and John tuning up their instruments in the living room drifted in. “Yeah!!!” she said.

“Surprise!” shouted Kate. “Impromptu Christmas carol serenade!”

Madeline went into the living room with a knife full of frosting still in hand, holding it out first to Kate, then to John, as they plucked strings and turned pegs to tune.

“Let’s do ‘O Holy Night’ first cause it’s my favorite and Mom was just about to sing it,”

Kate said.

“OK,” John replied. “I don’t really know it, so you start, and I’ll come in and follow.”

“What do you mean you don’t know ‘O Holy Night?’ That’s, like, blasphemy or something.”

“Are we gonna have this conversation again?”

Madeline plopped onto the couch, happier than she could remember being in a long, long time.

“Oh man. This is the greatest. I suppose I should think about starting to get dinner ready. Did Marie give you an idea of what time she’d be back here?”

“Um, I’m not sure she’s gonna make it back for dinner,” John did his very best to sound casual, but his head remained turned and his eyes on the floor as he answered his mother.

“What?” It was nearly a whisper.

“I don’t think things are going real well there. At Aunt Carol’s. I don’t think anybody’s in a very good mood.”

“What’s going on, John?”

John sank into a chair and ran his fingers through his hair, still looking at some point on the floor, then at the ceiling as he combed his fingers through his hair a few more times and let out a big, audible puff of breath. “I guess I mean that Savannah’s really, really down, so Marie is really down, too. Because her sister is. You know?”

“What’s up with Savannah?”

“I guess she’s spent all this time out there with her aunt thinking about how it’s Dylan’s first Christmas and how important that is, and well, she’s gotten more and more convinced, every day, that her mother was going to be able to get it together and have Christmas with all of them together.”

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“Oh shit.”

“Yeah,” said John.

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, what’s happening now?” Madeline asked.

“I don’t know. Savannah just really convinced herself that her mother would be there. Every day that Savannah’s been out there, every day since she left here, I guess she’s gotten her hopes more and more wound up. Now everybody has been calling Billie all day long – they started this morning – and she hasn’t picked up. They’ve texted about a hundred times, too. Anyway, finally Uncle Bob drove down there because Carol was losing her mind not knowing what was going on with her sister. So Bob gets down there and the apartment is totally dark. No lights. No nothing.”

“Perfect,” Madeline said.

“The poor guy is walking around the outside of Billie’s apartment peering in the windows and tapping on the glass. On Christmas Eve. Anyway, when he got back home, Savannah crashed and burned. She got really, really down and went pale and handed Dylan over to Marie and hasn’t said a word since then.”

Kate looked John square in the eye and said, “Do you want to play a few more, or go decorate the cakes now?”

John met her stare, held it. “So like I said, I don’t think anybody out there is in a very good mood.”

“Seems like that would be rather an understatement,” said Madeline.

“Marie is trying to talk Savannah into packing up Dylan and coming here. But I don’t know if that’s gonna happen,” John said.

“Well, what should I do about dinner? Should I hold off starting to cook?”

“No, don’t hold off,” Kate broke in. “We told them what time dinner was going to be.”

Both Madeline and John looked at her. “It’s Christmas Eve!” Kate said. “If they make it for dinner – great. If not, they’ll be here later on.”

“Well,” Madeline said, “looks like it may be just the three of us for dinner!” Her children knew her well enough to glean the carefully-disguised elation in her voice.

“Make a lot of food anyway, Ma. Please? They might be hungry when they get here.”

If they get here,” Kate said, with unapologetic accurately.

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Billie Calls Marie — new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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“I saw this shit storm coming a mile away, I fucking did.

You’ve always been out to ruin my life, always, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why, you ungrateful little fuck.

Savannah and I, we don’t need your ‘help,’ we don’t need it at all, not one bit of your fucking, condescending bullshit like you are so much better than me and you have everything all figured out and we can’t possibly get along for another second without you and without your help, and you are SO FULL OF SHIT it makes me sick.

Don’t move back here Marie. No one wants you here. Savannah doesn’t want you here. I don’t want you here. We are doing just FINE on our own here, we are doing great, and she is having a healthy pregnancy and I am making sure that she takes good care of herself and I am taking care of her, and we have a PLAN and we’re getting together a lot of things for the baby and NO ONE NEEDS YOUR FUCKING HELP like you are always so sure that we do, like we can’t get along without you and your meddling fucking bullshit.

Stay the fuck away from us, Marie.”

Just a few seconds after that, Billie left a second voice mail:

“Seriously, just leave us the fuck alone. Don’t call us. Don’t move back here.”

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And a third:

“You are so full of shit. You have ruined, completely ruined, my life.”

And next:

“We are doing GREAT. Savannah is doing GREAT. You lie about every single fucking thing, and you need to just LEAVE US THE FUCK ALONE. I was so happy before you ruined my life with your constant BULLSHIT and your lies, and everybody knows that when I knocked Savannah’s teeth out it was an accident, a total accident, but you won’t let anybody fucking forget about that, will you, you are determined to keep ruining my life and make me wonder what I ever did to deserve such a worthless, awful, mean daughter. A so-called daughter who keeps trying to knock me over and knock me down every time I get back on my feet and moving forward and making good things happen for myself, you’re right there, knocking me down. STAY OUT OF MY LIFE, MARIE.”

All was quiet for about twenty minutes, and then:

“STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME.”

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photos by Diane Arbus