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.

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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.

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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:”

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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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Smoke: Flash Fiction

It was the way she held her cigarette that I would remember. Her hands were always so small, the fingers so thin. You could not see from one end of the kitchen to the other , the density of smoke from cigarette after cigarette had nowhere to go. It choked the room. It obscured the cabinets, the floor of the room she had waited so long to redo.

It was very nearly the hand of a child.

I don’t want you to come anymore, she said. I want this to be the last time.

Was there gray in her hair when we first met? I was trying to recall. But always the pale, slender hands , the plain gold wedding band, the narrow silver watch whose face she could no longer read without her glasses, which she detested and never wore.

But I want to come, I said.

She could no longer see the cabinets, nor even the beloved built-in breakfast nook where the two of us sat. It was not the smoke. She had not seen much of anything around her for a number of years. Not since Jeff jumped.

I mean it, she said. Please don’t.

 

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As I work on the final draft of my novel, I have been playing with several new ideas, and it’s possible that one has taken hold! I have long been intrigued by writing a full-length work that takes place within a time frame that is less than 24 hours (think Mrs. Dalloway, Ulysses, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, etc.). I have recently become intrigued by the possibility of telling the entire story in separate pieces of flash fiction — each of which would be entirely free standing, but all of which together would tell the tale. The piece above is the latest flash.

A Dinner

Oops, I missed last Friday due to connectivity issues in Tulum, Mexico (!!).  Here, then, is the third installment from the “September” section of my novel PUSHING THE RIVER.  Watch for the fourth next Friday!

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A Dinner

“Now, exactly what is our role here, Madeline?” Auggie was barely able to contain his delight. “What do you need from us?”

After the walk with Ellie, Madeline’s renewed burst of enthusiasm for the prospect of Living in the Moment manifest in the form of shooting off a text to Dan: “Hey, no idea what you’re up to this evening, but having some friends over for dinner. Join us later if you’re free. I made pie.” He had texted back that he’d love to come by, but didn’t want to infringe on her time with good friends. He suggested he stop by around eight-thirty.

“Auggie, you’re being weird,” Madeline said.

“No, no. I’m serious. We want to be there for you. We just need to know what our role is.” Auggie radiated a decidedly boyish quality, in the best sense. And in his unbridled enthusiasm for the task at hand, he was adorable. Beth nearly always found him adorable, and made this obvious in frequent, glowingly loving glances at him. Across the dinner table from Madeline, the two of them radiated exuberance, good will and love. It delighted Madeline, and made her misty, and wistful, and, as her son would have said when he was a little boy, sickenated.

Auggie continued: “I mean, are we chaperones here? Do you want us to stick around until after he leaves? We would love to do that for you.” He put his arm around Beth, and pulled her head over to lean against his own. “Wouldn’t we, babe? Chaperones!” He caught Beth mid-sip with her wine, and as she gurgled an assent into her glass, he said, “Or wait. Do I have the wrong idea here? Maybe you want us to leave right away! Maybe you’re dying to be alone with him! Maybe the whole ‘why don’t you come over while I have friends here thing’ is just a ruse to make it seem innocent.” Beth could barely get her wine glass safely onto the table, she was laughing so hard.

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“Auggie, seriously, don’t do anything one bit differently than if Dan wasn’t here. Really. Stay as long as you want to stay. Leave when you want to leave! Like always!! ”

“What about a sign? Maybe we should come up with a sign – two signs – one if you think it’s going well, and you want us to leave so the two of you can be alone; one if it’s not going so well, and you want us to stay.”

“It really doesn’t matter what I say, does it? You’re deep into your own thing here.”

F I N E,” Auggie said. “Mission aborted.”

“More pie, Auggie?”

“You betcha.”

By the time Dan tumbleweeded through the front door and into the dining room, Auggie and Bess had pushed their chairs back from the table in healthy respect of keeping a certain distance from the remaining rubble of pie. Auggie and Bess looked Dan up and down while Dan looked the tumult of plates up and down, and before fifteen minutes of interesting conversational tidbits had criss-crossed the dining table, Auggie turned squarely to face his wife and said, “Well, honey, we really need to get going.”

“What?!?” Madeline said, nearly before the words were fully out of his mouth. “Really?!?”

“Really. Come on, babe.” And with an incredible efficiency of movement, he grabbed Bess’ hand, pulled her up from her chair, and led her towards the front door while both of them exclaimed the virtues of the food and the wine and the company, until the door shut behind them and their continued words drifted into the evening air. On the other side of the door, the entire atmosphere inside the house shifted by the time Madeline took the twenty or so steps back to sit at the dining room table, side by side with Dan.  He gave a faint chuckle. “Nice folks.”

“The best.” Madeline said.

They sat facing the table laden with the evening’s detritus.  As if he had read the crusted plates like so many tea leaves, Dan said, “This house is so you.  You are everywhere.”

“Really?” Madeline retorted, more than a tad skeptically, as he had arrived less than a half hour before and seen only two rooms.  “How’s that?”

“It’s so clear what this house is.  It’s the place that you created, and have worked hard to protect – a haven to encircle all of the people you love.”

“Geez,” Madeline thought to herself.  “Just how much longer do I have to wait to fuck this guy?”  But what she said aloud was, “Huh.”

“There is love everywhere,” Dan said, still looking down at the plates.

“Maybe not quite yet,” she considered.  “But soon.  Very, very soon.”  The thought exhilarated her, thrilled her, yet also filled her with quiet apprehension.  She said in a pitch that was tauter and higher than usual. “Would you like a house tour?  Want to see the rest of the Haven of Love?”

Strolling the myriad of rooms, Dan remained decidedly quiet.  Madeline ran her fingers along walls and gestured with giddy abandon as she dug up tidbits of historical facts about the 100-year-old house, and recounted treasured memories of her thirty years within the confines of its walls.  Dan nodded once or twice.  He knit his brow now and again.

The house tour completed, Madeline plopped down beside Dan on the sofa, their thighs pressed together.  The arc of the evening – the deep pleasure of Auggie and Bess, the astonishment of Dan actually getting it about her house, the chance to tell its stories – had left her in woozy, buoyant spirits.  She sighed aloud and rested her head against Dan’s shoulder.  He reached his arm to encircle her, kneaded her shoulder, then withdrew it.

“Are you feeling it?  Are you as totally uncomfortable as I am?”

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For a split second Madeline thought he must be pulling her leg.  An attempt at a bit of ha-ha hipster ironic humor; but one quick look at his face persuaded her that this was not the case.  “What?” she said.

“You can’t tell me you’re not feeling the same.  How completely different this is from last night.  How awkward.”

“No…I…I’m so sorry that you’re feeling uncomfortable.”

“Last night just flowed.  Every minute.  Flow.”  Dan sat forward on the couch, leaning as if ready to spring.

“You look like you’re thinking pretty seriously about leaving,” Madeline said.

“I am.  Thinking about it.  This is just so…weird.  I’m not sure what I should do”

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, like her, want to stay, want to hold her, want her.  She was also aware of a flash of rage, an intense desire to slap Dan’s flow-spouting face.  Inside, a part of her screamed, “Fuck you, you arrogant fuck!”  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.

With swift and precise movement, Madeline pushed Dan backwards on the couch, threw her leg across his lap so she fully straddled him, and gripped his head between her two hands.  “Want to know what I think you should do?”  Madeline moved in, her lips, tongue, teeth showing all of the threat, and all of the promise, of a wild and starving animal.  She threw her head back, panting hard.  “Any questions?” she asked.

Taking Dan’s hand, she led him to the staircase.  With her back to him, Madeline ascended with measured, deliberate steps, resting their entangled fingers against her ass, with every intention that he pay keen attention to it.  She took her time lighting the two candles on her bedside table, her back still to Dan, waiting for the match to burn all the way down before she blew the slightest puff of air.  Standing behind her, Dan reached one hand out to caress her buttocks, took a step forward, and cupped her breast with his other hand.  They stood for a time, motionless, listening to one another’s breathing; and that marked the last instant of anticipation, or of anything languorous.  Madeline ground her ass into Dan’s pelvis, hard, and rocked it from side to side.  His fingers dug into the crotch of her jeans.

Clothing flew.  Hands could not explore fast enough, could not cover enough ground.  Lips, tongues, saliva were everywhere, all at once.  The air in the room thickened to a fecund hothouse from the blossoming of body parts and ooze of fluids.

Dan gripped her haunches and pulled her onto him, astride him as she had been on the couch.  Madeline ran her hand along his cock as she slid him inside her, and shut her eyes tight to block out any thought, any hint of any sensation, that was not the feeling of his cock reaching into her.   Dan seized her hand and enlaced his fingers with enough force that Madeline’s eyes snapped open.  Her first inclination was to gasp. She had never seen a look quite like the one on his face.  His impossibly blue eyes wide open, his body trembling, Dan looked right at her, right into her, with a hungry yearning that pronounced there would be no place for a single part of her to hide.  A sound arose from deep in her gut, a sound she was not even sure was her own.  And when that sound reached up through her body and spilled from her mouth, she was gone.

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A first draft of this chapter was originally posted in 2013, in three installments.

A Walk

This is the second chapter from the “September” section of my novel PUSHING THE RIVER.  Watch for the third chapter next Friday!

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A Walk

“Ellie, what in the world am I doing?” Madeline said.

“You,” Ellie said, “are taking a much-needed break from what you’ve been trying to do ever since Dick left – secure a ‘forever’ future.”

“Huh.”

“And I, for one, am damn glad.”

“Huh.”

“You need the break.”

“Huh.”

“ I think this is a great thing.”

“Huh.” Madeline added, “I think you need the break.”

“OK, Maybe we both do.”

How many walks just like this one had Ellie and Madeline taken over the past ten years, Madeline wondered. How many times had they clipped along on some pathway, beachfront, nature preserve, botanic garden; how many cups of coffee had been sipped in little cafes, student centers, large malls, bookstores, while they deconstructed Madeline’s latest date, possible romance, new romance, budding relationship, full! rosy! cheeked! blush! of ! love! first stagger,

swaying, reeling, crumbling, dissolving, dissolving, dissolved.

The thought of all this exhausted Madeline. She was utterly bored with herself. Bored and worn-out and miserable about how much time, and brain space, and thought, and conversation the whole subject of dating and relationships had consumed, had sucked from her life. 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. The blades of grass would soak up the late summer sun and caress her with their easy warmth. She would watch the wispy clouds drift lazily across the sky, she would search for the pictures in them, then make stories out of the pictures. The air would turn cool, the leaves would start to change, just barely at first, a tinge of color lost. Cyclists would whiz past her, thinking, “Huh. I don’t remember that sculpture being there before.” The first tiny, barely perceptible flake of snow would drift onto her cheek—

“You’re not re-thinking this, are you?” Ellie said.

Madeline considered for less than half a second telling Ellie what she had been thinking, but said, “Nope. Not.”

“Good. Be here now,” Ellie said.

“I’m all about it.”

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A first draft of this chapter was originally posted on August 5, 2013 with the same photos.

Quantum Leap

The bulk of my novel Pushing the River takes place within the confines of a house, over the course of four months.  As promised, I will be posting a chapter each Friday (oops) from the “September” section of the book.  Here is the first chapter:

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Quantum Leap

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

And then there isn’t.

After a time, she would be back online, pouring over profiles, scrutinizing descriptions, gathering courage.

There were less than a handful of people in the “neighborhood bar,” each one sitting at a measured distance from the others, making the throbbing lights and disco music seem thoroughly pathetic. Even the bartender looked as if she would rather be somewhere else. Anywhere else.

A first glance around the room didn’t turn up anybody she thought resembled his online picture. Certainly nobody came close to what her daughter-in-law Marie had called The Underwear Model upon seeing his photo. “Oh! My! God! He’s an underwear model!”

“Do you know if there’s anybody here waiting for somebody? A guy?” she screamed at the bartender, leaning as far as she possibly could over the bar in order to be heard.

“Are you kidding?” The bartender retorted, “Everybody here is waiting for somebody.”

She gestured with her arm, waving her hand around the room in a need-I-say-more sort of way.

“I mean, not that I know of. You’re just gonna have to look.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

And then she saw him. QuantamLeap. Standing in a dark shadow, pressed against the back wall as if pinned there, minutely nodding his head in time to the music in a good-soldier effort to not look as thoroughly uncomfortable as he clearly was. Off-white, baggy, mid-calf length shorts that could have passed for gangsta, could have passed for j. crew. Collared shirt.

(“Collared shirt?” she thought. “I did not see that coming.”) She had pictured: T-shirt. Definitely. Very faded. Possibly with the name of an early punk band, but more likely touting some esoteric, highly left-leaning thing. Noam Chomsky, maybe. But nope, collared shirt it was. And striped. (Striped?)

“Dan?” she yelled.

He was tall. 6’3”, maybe even 6’4”, so had to lean way, way over to get his ear in the general vicinity of her mouth. He nodded, minimally, in time to the music, as if he were not sure he wanted to acknowledge his identity to the person who had chosen this particular bar.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said. Knowing full well that he couldn’t hear a word, she made exaggerated pointing gestures toward the door.

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With the last beam of blue light evaporating across his arm, Dan emphatically pushed the bar door closed behind them. The instant the door was closed, they stood unmoving, still on the stoop, as an exhilaration of relief – to be outside, out of the blue light, out of the inescapable throb of long-forgotten music, out of the scene of utter desolate encroaching loneliness — washed over them.

Madeline said, “Oh my God, I am so sorry,” and laughed out loud. “Oh! My! God!”

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. Thank God, she thought, or he would be too impossibly good looking.

She suggested they walk to a nearby place that she ardently wished she had remembered in the first place — a low-key homage to the 60’s that still sold tie-dyed shirts, incense and bumper stickers in a little shop adjoining the restaurant. It also boasted a lovely outdoor area, a giant screened-in porch strewn with twinkly lights that was heavenly on a summer night.

Though she was less than two miles from the house she had lived in for nearly 30 years, she got lost. Damp with fretful sweat that grabbed at her mauve silk blouse, she surreptitiously scrutinized him for any sign of frustration aimed at her. They had met in person less than fifteen minutes before, so she had no cache of information that could tell her whether his good-natured reserve was just that, or if, perhaps, he had already decided that these two particular people, him and her, would not be seeing one another for much longer on the evening of September 1, 2013. Or ever again.

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A version of this chapter was originally posted on 7/23/13 with these same pictures.

And John Makes Seven

The following is a NEW chapter from the novel PUSHING THE RIVER.  This chapter will be the LAST new one that I post while I write the remainder of the book.  BUT, for those of you who have been confounded and frustrated by my writing –and therefore posting — the chapters out of order: surprise!  For the next ten Fridays, I will post an entire section of the book, one chapter each week, IN ORDER!  I sincerely hope the section will pique your interest and whet your appetite for the completed version!

 

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John and Marie went back and forth – over the phone, via text, and in emails of varying lengths – about how to get John back from Boston. The good news was: John had wrangled a way to do an internship in Chicago in lieu of his final semester of music school, and he would be able to live with his wife once again. The bad news was: this meant he, as well as all of their mutual possessions still residing in Boston (including three feline companions) needed to find their way back to Chicago somehow, just two short months after Marie had made her solo move there. And, all of this had to be figured out around John’s last days to do everything that needed to be done to finish his degree while still in Boston, as well as Marie’s schedule with two jobs plus the full-time job of her family.

For about a week, Marie would dash into whatever room Madeline and Dan inhabited, and plop down beside them. Among a general flurry of accompanying movements and gestures, Marie would say something such as, “What do you think about me renting a U-Haul here in Chicago, driving to Boston to help John pack up and move, then driving back here together? I think the mileage charge might actually be less than the one-way drop-off charge.” But before either Dan or Madeline could form a thought, Marie would jump up, again with a flurry of waving arms, and say, “Never mind! It’ll never work! I can’t take that much time off work. Let alone being gone from…you know…here.” By the time Marie reached the final word of the sentence, she would be at least two rooms away from wherever Madeline and Dan remained, still having uttered not one word.

This happened at least once each day.

Finally, the day came when Marie said, “There’s no other option at all whatsoever except for me to fly out there, one way, rent a truck in Boston, and drive back here together with John.” Madeline and Dan had become so accustomed to Marie’s abrupt departures that they stared at her, blankly and without speaking. “Well?! Come on, you guys. What the hell is wrong with you; what do you think?”

All went according to plan, and the reunited couple arrived one week before Christmas with three cats, four bikes, two banjos, two guitars, two bass guitars. John had a suitcase full of clothes, and his backpack. The remaining space in the truck was filled with an impressive array – and poundage – of amplifiers and sound equipment.

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The closets filled up. The storage rooms filled up. All of the spaces under the eaves in John and Marie’s living space filled up. And with John home for Christmas and for good, seven people went to sleep under Madeline’s roof each night.

When Madeline descended the stairs the morning after his return, John had set up one of his bikes on a stand in the living room, right between the piano and the Christmas tree. “Still on Boston time,” he said. “Couldn’t sleep. Hey, I couldn’t really figure out any other place to set up a bike ‘shop.’ Is this OK with you?”

Madeline did a quick survey of the open tool boxes – two of them – and the assortment of wrenches, bolts, screws and general what-nots that lay strewn across much of the floor. “Of course,” she said.

“No, I mean, I knew you were going to say ‘yes,’ but it is really OK?”

“Yes,” Madeline said. “Really really.”

bike

My beautiful baby boy, Madeline thought. “You are all growed up,” she said.

“Well. Sort of,” John said, gesturing to the surrounding detritus with his wrench.

What a crazy thing, Madeline thought. You bring these little tiny people into the world, you care for them day and night, day after day, you love them with a power and a ferocity you never could have imagined, you would move worlds to protect them from pain. You do this for years and years. And then you let them go.

You watch them live their own lives with limitless, awed joy. But from a greater and greater distance, because this is the way it is supposed to be.

Madeline is transported years into the past. John has just come home from a day at high school. He takes the gallon of milk from the refrigerator, hoists himself to sit on the kitchen counter, and removes the cap to drink it straight from the jug. “Mom,” he says to Madeline, “will you make me a PB & J?”

She regards the 6′ manchild in front of her, torn between her feeling that perhaps a good parent would chastise John for drinking straight from the milk jug, or would a good parent let it go knowing that John was the only one who drank whole milk in the first place.

“Please,” he added, and the sheepish, ironic expression on his face told her he knew this was an unreasonable request for an seventeen-year-old, yet he relished making it. “Yours are always better than when I make them. Yours are the best.”

Sometimes you have no idea, none at all, which of the most simple, everyday, completely non-exceptional moments might be one that gets emblazoned in your mind for the rest of time. A snapshot of an instance, a place in your life that remains in exceptional, vivid detail – no blurring around the edges of a picture that never fades. Other times, you do know. Madeline knew, right then and there, that the peanut butter sandwich request was one of the moments she would remember all of her life.tay

Top and bottom photos of Taylor Hales, the inspiration for the character of John

Amplifiers pictured with their creator, Jim Marshall

No idea who the bike guy is

 

 

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Know When to Walk Away

Picassos-Child-With-A-Dove

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

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

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

Alas, Merle will not be coming back.

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

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

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

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

 

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

–Jack Kerouac, On the Road

 

image by Pablo Picasso

“Rice Pudding,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

koons

“Oh, my God! Look what Marie got! This is my favorite!! MadMad, Look!” Savannah stood back from the refrigerator and held something out in her hand.

“What the heck is that?” Madeline said.

“What is that? That is rice pudding! Rice pudding!!”

Savannah held out a little plastic cup, the kind that she used to put in John and Kate’s lunch boxes, filled with applesauce. Savannah peeled off the silver top and dipped her finger in the lumpy ivory goo. “Oh, my God, that is good. You gotta try it. Go ahead! Dip your finger!”

“Um, no thanks, I don’t really like rice pudding. Never have.”

“Ah, are you sure? This stuff is awesome!”

The truth was: Madeline loved rice pudding.

When she and her husband first moved into the house, and John was a baby, they loved going to a neighborhood diner run by a Greek family that prided itself on its homemade rice pudding. Every time they came through the door, the middle-aged, mustached Greek owner with the sad eyes called out from the far side of the main dining room, “Johhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-Neeeeeeeeeeeeeee” in a booming and festive voice, as if the party could now begin. He snapped his fingers for someone to bring a high chair for John, and reached into the pocket of his permanent press slacks for a balloon. While Madeline and Dick settled John into the high chair and situated themselves in the booth, the owner blew the balloon into a long thin tube, and with a few deft twists and turns, produced a balloon creature of shocking complexity – to John’s enormous delight. He placed the creation on the tray of John’s high chair with a ceremonious flourish and vanished to the nether regions of his domain.

balloon crab

John had been a breeze to take to restaurants, because his young appetite was, quite frankly, enormous. He was content to sit and eat for as long as the adults cared to stay, so Madeline and Dick tackled their Big Food, as they called it, with leisurely relish. There was no question that rice pudding would finish the meal, and a glorious finish it was.

They groaned in satisfaction the entire walk home, doing their best to navigate John’s stroller with one hand so they could clasp their own hands fast together.

Savannah said, “Shit girl, you’re missing it. I’m telling you, this is the best stuff ever. Last chance before I finish it off.”

Savannah again held out the little plastic cup. “Thanks, sweet pea. You finish it. I really don’t like rice pudding,” Madeline said.

Savannah’s smile was hugely content, the crown atop her immense belly. Madeline wobbled, struggled in a way that was not visible, in order to remain standing. I wish I wish I wish I could believe this. I wish I could believe that there is some possible happy ending here. That this baby in front of me can somehow take care of a baby. That there will be balloon animal rice pudding moments in their lives.

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Top: Jeff Koons