More than fifteen thousand years ago, late Stone Age man fashioned hollow tubes from wood, bone, and plants. Using these tubes, they blew pulverized pigments against the vast cave walls now known as Lascaux. Others dug and gouged the walls to engrave them. Before there was language, before there was writing, man told stories.
Every story serves a purpose, even if it is to simply relay a message. Without stories, there would be no history, we would not learn from mistakes, nor would we honor past heroes. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others.
For sixty-four years, stories have swirled within me. They circled around in my head, and when they had taken enough shape inside of me, I wrote them down.
There have been no stories inside of me since the Sickness. They have stopped.
I move from room to room in my new home. I sit in different chairs, at different desks and tables. I try out both the east view and the west. I end up on the couch — the one I brought from my home of the previous five years – in the room that possesses the most effortless blend of Gino and me. The room is comfortable and embracing and breathtaking, all at once.
I sit on the couch resolved to not move until a story – a skeleton of a story, the outline of a character who may later tell a story, any kernel whatsoever – gathers itself from the swirling mists of gray nothingness and gives me the barest hint that something will take shape.
I have been a writer all my life.
I sit on the couch. I scratch at tiny particles of dried food on the upholstery. I switch from the velvet pillow to the chenille one, giving it a number of sturdy punches to fluff the filling. I sit for so long – perfectly still — that I wonder if I no longer have the ability to make any part of my body move. This seems possible to me. It seems like an explanation for my paralysis.
*I am actively working on my fifth book, a novel with the tentative title The Reading. The book opens with an older author named Esme reading her work to an audience. An unexpected — and unrecognized — visitor attends her reading and brings events of forty years past squarely into her present. The foreground story of Esme reflecting on a year of her life is loosely based — in theme and in structure — on the J.D. Salinger short story for which the character is named (“For Esme — with Love and Squalor”). Running in the background is the idea that the author bore witness to things in that one year of her past that she believes foretold the awful mess we are in today (Trump, divisions and their resulting strife, inequity, the handling of Covid-19, etc.). Hence, the title The Reading also implies an experience that divines the future. The J.D. Salinger short story and The Reading are ultimately tales of hope and recovery, though set against a background of loneliness, alienation, and trauma.
The excerpt above is from the Introduction section of The Reading.
THE ROCKY ORCHARD (coming June 2nd) has moved into the cover design and final formatting phase! Take a look at a new section from my next novel, tentatively titled THE READING. I called them the Tommy Twins. They were sprawled on the grass together on one of the endless stream of unbearably hot evenings that festered our entire first week on campus. Most of the freshman class was sprawled across the grass; the need to escape dorm rooms that clutched the day’s heat and would not let it go made the need to lay in the cool grass feel urgent.
Most of the my fellow freshmen lay about, but only one of those freshman called my name as I navigated a diagonal path from one far corner of the massive lawn to the other. I didn’t really know where I was going. Or, more accurately, I wasn’t going anywhere. I was walking. For its own sake.
My third day at college had been one of nonstop meetings, panels, discussions, information sessions, etc., that the college had amassed and assembled for our orientation week. I don’t know, maybe they thought everyone would be consumed with paralyzing homesickness as well as fear and dread of the academic brutalities that lay ahead, but they kept us very busy. I felt like I was at some sort of summer camp where none of the activities made any sense. All of us freshman marched around to the places that our individualized schedules indicated, on time, with our notebooks open and our sharpened pencils in our hands. When the time was up, we gazed down at a solidly white page and were perplexed that there had been nothing whatsoever to record. Unless we doodled; then we had something to show for our time, at least.
Walking – albeit from one far corner of the quadrangle to the other – gave me a weird sense of purpose that had been sorely lacking. Piercing through my overheated, dreamy daze, a voice rang out from a fair distance, “Jo! Hey, Jo from Pennsylvania!” I looked around the general direction that the shout seemed to have come from and saw a guy who shot up from the grass and continually waved a very long, very pale arm in the air as I navigated my way through the bodies of my fellow freshman. There were a number of guys sprawled around him in a haphazard circle, each of whom had their ever-present red cup filled with varying amounts of beer.
“Oh my God,” I said. “Are you seriously sitting here with the freshman directory seeing if you can recognize people from their tiny little pictures and then yelling at them?”
He laughed. His Adam’s apple bounced up and down on his long neck as he did, which I found completely disarmingly charming.
“Well, yeah,” he said. “I guess that’s pretty much exactly what I’m doing. I’m Tom.”
I took a quick glance at the motley group that surrounded him and said, “Did you start out all be yourself tonight and gather this whole group of people already? Pretty impressive work.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly right,” Tom said. “Actually, not really. I’ve met them over the past few days. Hey, Jo, let me introduce you to everyone.” Tom said.
“Oh, right,” I said. “You already know my name from the directory thing. And where I’m from. I feel like I’m at such a massive disadvantage. Having not studied my directory.”
He pointed to a body on the grass, “this is Tom.”
“Tom and Tom?” I said. “Great. Easy to remember. If all of you guys are named Tom, that would be awesome.”
The other Tom stood up, with some effort, put his cigarette in his mouth, rubbed his hands together to shake loose the grass and dirt, and held his hand out for me to shake. “No, just me.” He shook my hand, put the cigarette back in his hand after taking a very big drag, and plopped back down on the lawn.
“Wow,” I said. “A hand shake. Formal, if brief, introduction.”
The first Tom put his hands on his hips and looked up towards the heavens. The second Tom gestured toward him with his cigarette and said, “He hates me. Well, to be fair, we probably hate each other. Equally.”
“Wow,” I said again. “That’s quick work. How long have we all been here – is it three days now?”
“We went to the same high school,” the first Tom said. “We weren’t really friends, but I don’t think anyone actually hates anyone else.”
“OK, well, really glad to hear that,” I said.
“Different crowds. Different friend groups. We didn’t really know each other very well,” first Tom said.
“Then we drove here together.” It was second Tom who said that, and with his words, he shot a highly withering look at first Tom. “Longest eighteen hours of my entire fucking life.”
Tom the first laughed heartily, as if this was genuinely funny and we were all enjoying mirthful, lighthearted banter. The Other Tom sprang up like a shot, jabbed a finger in my direction and said, “Want a beer? I’m gonna get more.”
“Hey thanks,” I said. “I was actually thinking I’d swim way against the tide and demonstrate my radical side by not having any beer this evening.” I shot my fisted arm high above my head and mock-shouted, “Who’s with me, brothers!?”
Tom laughed. Tom the original. A beautiful, genuine, head-thrown-back, open-mouthed laugh. They stood there for a moment, side by side, the two young men named Tom. They both had curly hair, but all similarity ended there. The laughing Tom not only had an infectious and unfettered laugh, but a huge, ready smile as well. He was tall and rangy and slightly uncomfortable in his own body like a growing puppy. It made sense that he was the one person, of everyone I had met thus far, who had called out to me. He was putting himself out there, reaching and stretching his energy outside of himself, seeing if it would land on others.
Cigarette Tom was compact and muscly. Dark brown hair, even darker eyes, deeply tanned skin. He was turned entirely inward, intense energy coiled over and under itself, swirling around and around. It seemed an effort for him to form words, more effort to speak them. And once he had made the effort, the sound of his own voice tormented him.
Writer and literary agent Nathan Bradford said in an article, “Nearly every writer I know is afflicted at some point by the sense that they are a complete and total imposter who does not deserve to be writing a sentence, let alone a whole novel.”
After a writing gap of several weeks on my fifth novel – due to the holidays, a major move to a new home, and getting my fourth novel into production for its June 2nd launch, I was not surprised to re-read what I had just written this past Tuesday and believe that it was possibly the worst, most amateurish, trite, overreaching piece of trash that anyone had ever wasted time on. Grandiose, perhaps; but when I go into self-loathing mode, I go all in. It’s completely consuming at the time. Paralyzing. Soul-wrenching. But it is also familiar. Which, I am sad to say, does not make it any easier. Just more familiar.
By the time Cheryl Strayed wrote her second book, Wild, doubt and self-loathing were so familiar to her that she thought, “Okay, so this is how it feels to write a book.” There’s nothing to do but push through, as best you can. A contest of will with one’s self. A contest where the need to write edges out the paralysis of doubt, even if the margin is a slim, fragile hair.
That same Tuesday, I came up with a totally different idea about how to begin the chapter I was working on. A bit later, I realized that the original material could work well as a later addition to the passage. That’s how any given day of writing can go. The entire gamut from despair to satisfaction, many times over.
Here is a sample of the passage from my fifth novel, tentatively entitled The Reading:
Rooms have stories to tell. Some hold on to their stories; the rooms are grim and tight-fisted and fearful that their stories, their precious histories, will be stolen from them and they will be left with nothing. Other rooms are dying to tell you about their past. It leaks out everywhere – the place where broken paneling reveals the tattered stuffing within the walls where a chair toppled during a drunken argument. The chip on a faded picture frame of an equally faded painting holds the memory of an exuberant toast given during a bachelorette party, though the marriage was fraught with deception from well before the wedding itself. The exact places where much-varnished wood has been rubbed raw by a bartender who polishes endlessly when conversations sadden him past the point of endurance. He sidles along the bar, moving away from the words. He rubs, and he rubs.
This was a friendly room. Old, tired even, but welcoming. A room that stretched out its hand and let you know it was pleased that you had come. Nonetheless, I was nervous before that reading. No rhyme or reason to it. No way I could ever uncover something that explained why I was so nervous sometimes – jumpy and clammy and hands shaking – and other times, I wasn’t nervous at all. I would feel comfy and relaxed, and like every single person staring at me was a kind and kindred soul who wished me nothing but the best.
This was one of the nervous times. I got there early. I always get there early. I like to check out the room, feel the feel of it for a time. Because rooms do hold their histories, and they do tell their stories, if you take the time to pay attention, look around, and listen to the walls.
I sat down at a table near the far back of the lengthy room. But the far back turned out to be the far front, as it was right next to the spot where a tall, wild-haired woman was setting up a microphone stand. I supposed that I was sitting a few short feet away from where I would be standing when I read from my latest book. That’s why I was there, in that room, trying to settle into the accumulation of what had occurred in all the time before I was due to stand in front of the microphone, which was still in the future as I was thinking all of this.
Seven o’clock on a Thursday night. Early. A seemingly random time to take a shower, but I had drawn out dinner as long as I could with endless cups of coffee, and I wasn’t ready for the evening – meaning either gathering folks to head to the bar, or possibly studying something. It was mid-winter, and the icy gray relentlessness had dug its claws deep into me. I took showers at all kinds of haphazard times, when I needed to feel the profound warmth that only full immersion can bring. Growing up, I relied on baths. But there were no such things as bathtubs at college. Nor were there children. Nor dogs. There were all kinds of things that you never saw; they simply disappeared from one’s landscape for years.
I had worked up a bountiful cloud of steam. The shower’s intense heat within the cold of the marble bathroom cause the column of steam to shoot toward the ceiling in a swirling frenzy. I closed my eyes and luxuriated in the feeling of my fingertips massaging the shampoo all through my scalp while the water fell on my abdomen and cascaded down my legs. With my eyes still closed, I turned around, threw my head back and rinsed the shampoo from my hair, feeling the rivers of suds tumble down my back and pool around my feet.
When my hair was fully rinsed, I opened my eyes. A pair of dark brown eyes stared straight at me, framed by the fingertips of two hands. The top of his head, encased in a ratty dark blue stocking cap, poked up from the back wall of the shower stall. The eyes. All I could see were the eyes. I couldn’t figure out what in the world he was standing on, that he would be able to look over the top of the shower wall. I couldn’t figure out what the hell he was doing, meaning, what, exactly, was his plan?
The silence was deadly.
I whipped around to face the other direction. Part of his body was raised over the opposite shower wall. He seemed to be hoisting himself. He seemed to be trying to crawl over the top of the shower wall to get inside the stall with me. It didn’t seem like a good idea to scream. I knew there was no one else around. I figured he was probably carrying – if not a gun, then certainly a knife. From what I could see, he seemed huge. Six feet three, maybe six-four. It just didn’t seem like a good idea to scream.
In the few seconds I took to weigh my options, I saw him out of the corner of my eye. That eye again. One eye this time. Looking at me. Looking through the slight space between the shower door and the door frame. The bulk of his body was directly behind the shower door. I put the full force of my weight into it and pushed the shower door right into his face. Right into his fucking face. Fast thinker, he turned out to be. He shoved the door back toward me, and he ran like hell out of the bathroom and down the five flights of stairs and out the freshman quadrangle gate and into the night.
I stood in the bathroom, with the shower still running, shivering head to toe. My teeth chattered. My body, bright pink from the scorching water, felt like it had no blood in it at all, as if the terror had leached it right out of my skin. At some point I turned off the water but felt swallowed by the silence, terrified by the absence of the sound. I turned the shower back on, focused hard on the sound of the stream so I could hold it inside of me, then turned the handle off again.
I wrapped myself in my towel and looked at my reflection in the mirror above the perfectly polished sinks. I needed to see myself. I needed to make sure that I was still there, still me. Though I had seen the man with the huge, bloodshot brown eyes bolting down the stairs after he tore out of the bathroom, I couldn’t trust what I had seen. I stayed in the bathroom for a long time, then tentatively, slowly, cracked the bathroom door open a bare sliver and looked around for any sign that he may still be close.
Nothing. The polished marble of the common area on the fourth-floor landing, the old staircase, four closed doors. Wait, not all of the doors were closed. The door to my dorm room was ajar.
I’ve signed the contract (!!!) for my fourth novel The Rocky Orchard. While my editor works on it, I’ve continued to play around with the idea for novel #5. Here is a new excerpt:
“Seriously, you’re about the tenth person I’ve run into in the four blocks from the art building,” I said to Rob.
“Well, hello to you, too, Sunshine,” Rob said. He shuffled his feet, just once, like he always did, then combed his fingers through his amazingly thick hair, like he always did. It was that gesture – the fingers through the hair – that got me. Every time. It brought out something weird and maternal that I didn’t even know was there. I just wanted to… I don’t know, hug him or adopt him or follow him around and make sure that nobody hurt him, ever.
“Seriously, I think I belong at a bigger school. I think I yearn to be anonymous,” I said.
“I don’t think the coat is doing you any favors,” he said. “Not if you want to be anonymous.”
“Oh my God. Not with the coat again! Haven’t you gotten enough mileage out of this coat?”
“I think the horse got enough mileage out of the blanket before they even made it into a coat,” he said. “Really, I’m counting on an early spring.”
“It’s a good thing I’m not sensitive or fragile or anything cause this would be deeply wounding to me,” I said.
“Are you taking an art class, by the way? I didn’t know you were taking an art class.”
“No, no art class. The art school cafeteria has these amazing bran muffins.” He stared blankly at me. “They warm them up for you.” I fought back a tear. Crazy that I was so powerfully moved by the idea of someone warming a muffin for me.
“Bran muffins,” he said, deadpan, as if to indicate this was one of the most puzzling things he had ever heard.
“Don’t judge the muffin. You can judge the coat, but you cannot judge the muffin,” I said. There was another “me” that stood outside of myself. I watched myself as I stood on that exact spot near the far corner of the freshman quad, under the eternally gray sky, wrapped in the coat that Rob loathed. I found it amazing that I could appear so normal. The whirl inside of me did not show.
“Promise me that you’ll give me the coat as soon as the weather warms. I’m going to personally donate it to Salvation Army. No way I can face the possibility of looking at that coat again next winter.”
Next winter. It was when he said “next winter” that I knew. Right then, I knew.
There would be no “next winter” for me. I would not be coming back.
I thought of the painfully poignant play “A Memory of Two Mondays” where Arthur Miller tells the story of a young man who goes to work in an auto parts factory to save money for college. The young man is passing through, working alongside an entire group of people who will remain. He and another co-worker are charged with cleaning the filthy factory windows. The passage of time is told by the light on the stage set, which gets incrementally brighter as more of the windows get cleaned. The light shines into the dismal scene. The young man’s mood, like mine, gets brighter and brighter as the light changes and he knows that the end of his time is near. He also knows that those he leaves behind – the bitter, the resigned, the angry, the uncertain, and even the completely content – have a bond, a sense of community, that has never included him.
“See you at dinner?” Rob asked.
“See you at dinner,” I said.
Bottom photo: from Chicago Critic, “A Memory of Two Mondays”
As my editor works on my novel, The Rocky Orchard, I may have been struck with a possible idea for my next book…
I hated that school. That hated school in that dreadful town. That dreadful town in the part of the world where winter was not even winter. Not the light snowfalls that dusted each twig of each tree and lay spread out across the hills where I had grown up. Where the tiny footprints of birds and chipmunks and squirrels left their perfect imprints across our yards. In this feckless land, winter was nothing more than an endless gray sky that spit intervals of drizzle. The drizzle froze on the ground, making the school an ugly and hazardous wasteland of ice. A wasteland that tripped us and made us fall down and spit on us as we lay on the ground.
A year so bad that I passed the time mainly by drinking too much. A year so bad that I got an ungodly amount of pleasure from barfing out the window of my fourth-floor dormitory room. I didn’t plan this, and was likely too far gone in my misery to have thought of such a magnificent metaphor. I had drunk most of a bottle of Southern Comfort and was, quite simply, too drunk to make it to the bathroom. Being that drunk also meant, as it turned out, that I could not lean my head very far out of the beautiful Gothic window without losing my balance. I held on to each side of the window frame to steady myself and leaned my chin on the sill. Hence, the vomit cascaded down the entire length of the side wall, where the winter temperatures froze it in place.
And where it remained for a very long time. A slight warming of the temperature, or a sleety mix, would cause sections of the whole to rain down, creeping its way through the brick and ivy as the mass oozed farther down the wall. Sometimes, a larger chunk would break off all at once and hit the ground below. I checked my vomit every day, as if it were a pet, as if it were something precious whose care was my honor and responsibility. By early spring, the last vestiges of the only Southern Comfort I would ever drink were gone.
I wanted to leave so much that I had been counting down the days, making large X’s on an enormous wall calendar like a child marking the time until Christmas, or the end of a school year with a teacher whose dislike of teaching was only surpassed by their hated of children.
It was my last night on campus. All I wanted to do was say goodbye. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. It was time; it was finally time. I had nothing left to do but take my victory lap around the campus and hug hug kiss kiss the assorted souls who had weathered the winter of my discontent along side of me. I was gleeful. I was drunk. I was pressed for time.
I could not find my friend Patrick. John hadn’t seen him. Sandy hadn’t seen him. Brent had seen him earlier, but…. Charlie said, yeah, he was just here. I’m pretty sure he’s in the bathroom. As I mentioned, I was drunk. And pressed for time. I flung open the door to the men’s bathroom on the floor of his dormitory, and found Patrick unzipped and just beginning to eject an impressively forceful stream from what seemed to me, having little to no experience here, to also be an impressive distance from the target.
Patrick turned his head at the recognition of my voice, as I began the delivery of my goodbye message. Then the overall nature of the situation seemed to occur to him, as he registered – in rapid succession – shock, surprise, perplexity, amusement, and all-out mirth, as evidenced by an open-mouthed belly laugh. My own emotions, amazingly enough, ran much the same gamut, but in reverse, as Patrick had continued to pee an enormous, unwavering stream the entire time that I had been talking and he had been laughing.
I was amazed, and felt like it was one of the most interesting and significant and noteworthy things that had happened to me in that entire year. I remarked on this to Patrick, who continued to both laugh AND PEE. A small crowd had gathered in the men’s bathroom, as word passed about this event; so there was, in fact, a group of people watching me watching Patrick Killarney pee while I said my last goodbye. He zipped up and we hugged and I practically skipped back to my room knowing I would leave this awful world behind me the next morning.
How was I to know that forty-five years later, Patrick Killarney would tell me that I had changed the course of his life.
I always wanted to get married at the farm. From the very first summer after we bought it. When the wildflowers and the mountain laurels burst out that first spring, and the ferns came out of nowhere with their fragile, curled fiddleheads pushing through the still-cold ground and towering toward the sky. This is the place, I thought, where I want to join another person’s life. I will gather an armful of wildflowers as I walk to meet my future husband. The orange of lilies, the creamy white of Queen Anne’s lace, the vibrant gold of black-eyed Susans, the lavender of wild Phlox. Maybe I will weave a crown of flowers to wear around my head as well.
I will to stand at the “crossroads” of the farm for the ceremony — the patch of sloping lawn between the front and the side of the house, the small patch of grass that links the orchard, the meadow, and the path that leads to the copse of old pines. And beyond the pines, the wide lawn that leads to the creek. The ramshackle springhouse stands at the lowest point of this patch, built over the natural spring that feeds our pond. Ungodly amounts of intestine-like tubes of tadpole eggs appear each spring, another astounding harbinger of life. Of rebirth.
The crossroads-lawn is a mere few steps from the house, so I can be barefoot. I will feel the grass underneath my feet, the blades that I will tamp down with the soles of my feet; but they will stand again. They will feel the sun’s rays, and they will grow. I want to be in touch with the ground, with the earth, when I marry. I want to be tied to the world, to connect with the nature of the things – with my feet touching the grass that is rooted in the dirt that is the top layer of the earth that is part of a universe.
And now here it is, it’s today, it’s today. I am getting married. It’s my wedding day. I will marry Eddie, my Eddie.
I look at myself one final time in the little mirror on the kitchen wall. I grab the orange and white and purple and yellow bouquet of flowers that Eddie picked first thing this morning. He surprised me, tickling me with the tallest flowers while I still slept, then handing me a cup of coffee in my favorite crazy, chipped mug. I ran to the kitchen and put the wildflowers in an old mason jar filled with water and ice to keep them fresh.
I look down at my bare toes. This is so much like I always pictured it. How did I get this lucky? How did I find a man to love, to love me back. A man who not only fell in love with me, but with my childhood wish to be married at my family’s farm? Who got a tear in his eye when I told it to him, who kissed my hand and said: how could I not want to honor this dream of yours?
Eddie, my Eddie. I step across the threshold between the kitchen and the porch, and I get my first glimpse of you. Our families are scattered about the lawn. I hear low voices, laughter. Your brother clears his throat and coughs into his hand. My brother pats him on the back.
As if you can sense my presence, you turn your head. You see me.
I will step off the porch and I will feel the grass underneath my feet and I will say the words and you will say the words and our eyes will stay locked to one another’s and we will be a woman and a man who are united. With our families and the universe watching, we will be united.
I take a deep breath. One last look the scene before I am in the middle of it. Woo picks up his violin and starts to play. It’s time.
I swear I see movement at the edge of the orchard. Moving away from the gathering. Like someone was here and decided to leave, but who in the world would do that? No one; that’s who. I must be more of an anxious bride than I thought. The old scaredy-cat me rearing her ugly little head. Wait, is that fringe I’m seeing? Long fringe, like from a jacket, fluttering every which way? I know that fringe.
But Woo is playing. And I am imaging things. It’s time.
Each of these excerpts from my novel The Rocky Orchard is meant to be a stand-alone snippet that piques your interest. Like the majority of my writing, the past and present intermingle freely; memory and “reality” can be indistinguishable. It’s not meant to be a jigsaw puzzle to figure out, but rather, an aperitif to whet your appetite for more.
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In previous blog entries, I have touched on the ephemeral, ethereal phenomenon that we refer to as “inspiration,” which the Oxford dictionary defines as “The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.”
We know that inspiration can point its magic wand at the most unexpected times; still, I was taken by surprise when the recovery from my first total hip replacement last November transported me to a “place” that became the basis for the novel I am currently writing, entitled A Rocky Orchard. Currently recovering from my second hip replacement, I have a solid start on the novel, and am thrilled to be back at work on it.
You lean your head towards mine. You are going to kiss me. How many times have you kissed me, and my stomach still does a little leap. Your head jerks. “What was that?” you say. “What was what,” I say. I didn’t hear anything. “I definitely heard something,” you say. “You didn’t hear that? Sounds like someone is throwing something — balls or something like that — one after another. Listen, you say. I hear it. Sounds like it’s getting closer, you say. Sounds like it’s coming from the orchard. You hear it, right? You ask me. Yes, I hear it.
Stay here. I’ll check it out, you say. Probably some kid having a little fun, you say.
Don’t be silly. I’ll come, too, I say.
The short step down from the porch, my bare foot on the hot summer grass, I am hit by a wall of humidity. The full, fertile feel of the air that marks a Pennsylvania mountain summer. Thick, wet, ripe with a steaming, green life. “I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul.” That poem, the Pablo Neruda poem that you recited. The humidity reminds me. Down on one knee in an old-fashioned gesture I never would have guessed. Holding my hand and you said, “I love you as the plant that never blooms but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers.” The wall of humidity pushes against me. Your arm reaches out and you tell me to stay back. Please, you say. Please stay back. “Thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance, risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.”
I see him, you say.
Then I see him, too.
I wonder what in the world he is doing here.
Without thinking I start to call out to him. I want to laugh. I want to wave and ask him what in the world he is doing here.
Let’s start out with a new tidbit from my novel-in-progress, The Rocky Orchard:
I am barefoot. My absolute favorite thing. I reach down with one toe, just my big toe, to give us the barest little push to keep the swing going. I feel tiny grains of dirt on the porch floor as my toe kisses against them. The extra length of the swing’s chain clanks against the section of chain that’s holding the swing from the porch ceiling. How long has this swing been here? We have never once had to fix it, or adjust it, or anything. Not like the old wooden swing outside, with its absurdly long ropes hanging from the giant pine. We have had to fix that swing a million times, it seems; but the porch one, never. I toss my head back and look up at the ceiling bolt that holds the porch swing in place, ancient and rusty and painted over so many times. The thought of its strength, its endurance, amaze me. And makes me tired, exhausted. The strain of years upon years of holding up the weight of human beings. I twirl the extra chain through my fingers, I clunk it against the taut chain that is doing the work of holding us up. I look over at you. My Eddie.
A line of sweat is just beginning to break out in the crease of your neck. I want to capture the expression on your face and put it in a jar. I want to carry the jar around with me like precious fireflies from a summer night. I have never seen you so relaxed, so contented. As if you know what I’m thinking, you reach for my hand and you kiss it. I am staring at you and you know that I am staring at you, and I tear up, and you laugh. You kiss my hand again. You have that shy-but-formidable look, the one you had on our first date, our real first date. The look that makes you one dimple sing out. The look that made me think that maybe, just maybe, we might end up right here someday, swinging on this swing.
Your hand in mine is sweaty. The cool moistness of your palm against mine sends a ripple through my body, a shudder of feeling. I reach across your body to trace the line of sweat on your neck with the index finger of my other hand. I taste it. The salt of you. I cannot get enough of you.
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“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is… But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.” — George R.R. Martin
Me, too. I have often wondered if I took my college writing teacher (the wonderful poet Robert Hayden) too seriously when he strongly suggested that I stop trying to be an architect and answer my true calling as a gardener.
After I completely re-wrote my first novel, You, in your Green Shirt, a soul-killing third time –we’re not talking about major editing, we’re talking about a complete re-write – I swore that I would architecturally plan my next novel. I didn’t. When I hit a dead end with A Little Birdie Told Me that stretched out for well over a year, I once again swore that I would never plant a seed again and wait to see what grew.
Though my third novel Pushing the River “showed up” somewhat more intact, as it was inspired by real events, it was, in every way, the result of long years tilling the soil and caring for the seeds. Although I sometimes dream of note cards, and plot outlines, and lengthy character profiles with extensive back stories, I have come to terms with the reality that I am, and will always be, destined to plant seeds, tend them, watch for signs, and let them grow.
Here is the latest snippet from my fourth novel The Rocky Orchard.
Mazie waited at the porch door, standing on her tiptoes and watching for Lula to come through the orchard at her usual time. When Lula was close enough to hear, Mazie called out, “Lula, do you know what I just realized? It’s blueberry time! It should be just about peak blueberry-picking. Right now! You probably haven’t even seen them. They grow along the bank on the far side of the road – the stretch of road that runs right along the length of the orchard! See what I mean? If you’re walking through the orchard itself, you’d never even know the bushes were there!”
Lula turned her body around. “Ah, right as rain, Mazie. Sure enough, I’ve never seen a single bush.”
“That’s because the road at the far end of the orchard – where you come in over yonder — it’s deep in the shade of the woods. The orchard opens everything up. A little patch of sun hits the bank, and Voila! Wild blueberries!” Mazie regarded Lula, noted how heavily Lula leaned on her walking stick. “Are you tired, Lula? Do you want to rest up with a tall glass of water? I was thinking I might go and pick some. Was thinking that I would whip up some blueberry pancakes for us. Have us a true hearty breakfast, if you’re game.”
“My word, that does sound lovely,” Lula said.
“You can wait here, if you want. I’m happy to go and pick them. If you want to sit a spell.”
“Oh, heavens no. Not so tired that I can’t pick a blueberry off a bush. Not to mention, can’t trust a weekender to tell a truly good ripe berry from a bad one,” Lula said.
“Oh, ouch,” Mazie said. “I was wondering how long it would take you to bring up the ‘weekender’ thing, me being an interloper and not true country and all that.”
“Well, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Just meant to say that of course I want to come along,” Lula said. “Assuming you have a proper berry-picking bucket, that is.”
Mazie sighed playfully and did an exaggerated eye roll. “Gosh, let me go look. You stay here and rest; don’t strain yourself trying to think up any more witty-but-caustic things to say.”
“Do you have any idea why some blueberries have that white coating-like stuff on them and others don’t? Should I stay away from the whitish ones?” Mazie asked Lula.
“I do know!” Lula said. That white coating is called the ‘bloom.’ It’s a slightly waxy substance that the berry produces; the bloom protects it from pests and bacteria that might harm the berry. Isn’t that amazing?” Lula’s delight radiated from her. “It’s also a sign of freshness. It’s the other blueberries that we should stay away from. The berries start out with the bloom when they’re beautifully ripe, but it fades as they sit on the bush past their prime.”
“Do you know everything, Lula? Cause it’s really starting to seem like you know everything,” Mazie said.
“Heavens no, dear,” Lula said. “But like I told you, I know a lot about things from around here. I’ve always been here, like I said!”
“What’s the tenth decimal place of pi?” Mazie asked.
“Five,” Lula said.
Both women stopped picking and looked at one another. “Well, I’ve studied a few other things along the way, I suppose,” Lula said. She spread her arms and shrugged her shoulders. “My bucket is getting pretty full, Mazie. How about yours?”