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

“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.

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.

Top: Jeff Koons

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

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.”

“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!

photos by Mary Ellen Mark

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

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.

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.

paintings by Andrew Wyeth

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