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.”

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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

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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”

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“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.

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you do?” her mother asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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photos by Mary Ellen Mark

“Windows,” in memory of August 26, 2014, and a new except from “Pushing the River”

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You have no idea, none at all, which of the most simple, everyday, completely unremarkable moments might be one that gets emblazoned in your mind for the rest of time. A snapshot of an instant, a place in your life that remains in exceptional, vivid detail – no blurring around the edges of a picture that never fades.

The day is sultry hot, a dazzling sun in the July sky. Madeline stands at the edge of an empty room, the one they have decided will be John’s bedroom. She puts the 6-week-old baby on the built-in desk; she places a fan on one side and adjusts it so it moves from side to side, blowing on John, then turning to blow on her. John reclines in the seat that they take everywhere, the one that bounces with his slightest movement.

Two of the windows are open. They are old and have the original latches on them, covered by a hundred years’ worth of coats of paint. Madeline and Dick immediately took down the cheap, yellowed window shades that had been crumbling on all six of the room’s windows. They had laughed themselves sick when they took up the area rug, surprised that it had been left behind by the previous owners, only to discover the baffling reason – the owners had refinished the hardwood floor around the edges of the room, but not underneath the rug! In the absence of the shades, the amount of sun and light coming in the early afternoon takes her breath away. Since her childhood, she has not spent time in a home, on a second floor, with the tops of trees and the sky and the difference in light.

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She stands at the edge of the room, looking out the windows. The fan is nearly silent as it turns from side to side. John moves his tiny bare foot and bounces now and then.

The tiny toes on John’s foot. The height of summer’s lush leaves on the trees.  The smell of fresh paint. She has no idea how clear the picture of all this will be, will remain, for the rest of her life.

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paintings by Andrew Wyeth