A Call

This is the fourth chapter from the “September” section of my nearly-finished (!!) novel PUSHING THE RIVER.  Watch for the fifth chapter next Friday, and catch up on  previous chapters in my blog entries over the past month.

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A Call

Dan lay sleeping in Madeline’s bed above when she rose at the usual early hour. The blush was still on her cheek from the night before as she made an extra-large pot of coffee and cleaned up the last few dishes from the dinner with Auggie and Bess. When she sat down at her favorite spot in the sun-drenched room to breathe in the scents and sounds of the morning, she opened her computer to see Marie’s name in her email inbox. Strange that Marie would be writing from Asia, she thought.

 i’m sitting in a hostel in kuala lumpur and trying to reconcile the intensity of having stood in a river with my face resting against the temple of a young elephant’s massive head and my hands lost in the playful curling of his trunk with the fact that all i can think about when i’m not engaged in an active pursuit of some kind or a conversation with someone new is that i’m a terrible person and should’ve gone to be with Savannah as soon as i knew she was pregnant… that i should’ve stayed in chicago two summers ago and fought for custody and maybe Savannah and my mom would both be so much better off for it… that i should’ve, should’ve, should’ve… i have not lived my life the way i’ve really needed to over the last three or four years. I love john and our marriage is something i want so desperately to protect, but i don’t know how to be fair to him and our life and also be the person i need to be to be able to live with myself. I suppose i’m asking for your advice… as a friend, as a mother-in-law, as a professional woman. I don’t know how i can go back to boston and stay there without Savannah. I don’t know how john would get by without me. I spent almost the entire time i’ve been gone stressing out about how not to spend money on anything unnecessary and listening to john worry about how he has no money coming in in boston and i can’t help thinking he just wouldn’t be able to support himself without me working full time. but john is a grown man with a massive line of credit and Savannah is my little sister who has no support or resources- how is this even a difficult decision? I need to be in chicago. How does a marriage like ours survive a year apart? Will i only make things worse by being in chicago? Is there any chance my mom will — no, there’s no chance. i don’t know, i don’t know, i don’t know. i’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown all the time- i’m terrified that when i get back i’m just going to fall apart completely. i’m terrified that john needs more from me than i have to give and that i need more from him than he has to give. what do i do? 

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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.

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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A Thousand Paper Cranes

OH BOY OH BOY OH BOY!!!  I have decided (thanks to the quiet suggestion of a friend) to return to writing my previously-abandoned novel Pushing the River.  I re-read the 150 completed pages.  I liked it.  I want to finish it. Here, then is a fresh, new excerpt!!

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For much of that fall, Madeline’s communications with Kate were limited to between three- and five-minute phone calls while Kate waited for the bus. Madeline would answer the phone with an exaggerated “Kate-eeeeeeeeeeeeee” and wait for Kate’s echoing “Mom-eeeeeeeeeee.” A rat-a-tat of rapid-fire bullet point life factoids would invariably be abruptly halted by a loud WHOOOOSSSHHHH that announced the bus’s arrival. Kate would attempt to shout something along the lines of “I gotta go!! Love you….” which trailed into an abrupt click. Not a lot of free time in the second year of medical school.

Kate was a self-described Christmas Elf. She loved the season – everything about it – and drank it all in with tremendous delight.

On the first morning Kate was home for her Christmas break, Madeline sat bolt upright and fully awake — as she did every morning — just before 7 am and tiptoed down to the kitchen. As she calculated how much coffee to make for Marie (who wouldn’t drink it) and herself and Kate, she was surprised to hear Kate cough from the back sun room.

She poked her head around the corner and said, “What are your doing up?”

“I always get up early. You know that,” Kate responded.

“Yeah, but I mean, what are you doing? You look like you’re doing something back there.”

“I’m making some flash cards.”

“Flash cards? For what? And by the way, how long have you been up? Without coffee, is my point.”

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“Since six. I figured I’d get up every morning at six and chip away at this. Didn’t want to take the time to make coffee. I knew you’d get up and make it right around now. And see? I’ve already gotten an hour of work done.”

“You always were an odd child.”

“I know.”

“Flash cards for what, her mother asked, knowing she may well be sorry,” Madeline said.

“For the medical boards. You know. The Boards.”

“Just how many cards are in that box, anyway?”

“A thousand,” Kate said.

“A thousand. One thousand. Are you actually planning to make a thousand flash cards?”

“I have another box.”

“If you were a different person that would be a really good joke.”

“Don’t you remember when I was an undergrad, and I used to study in the med library? Don’t you remember me describing to you when those med students were studying for their Boards? Jesus, that was terrifying! It scared the shit out me! I was trying to mind my own business and study, when all around me people were completely losing their shit, a little bit more, and a little bit more, every day. I remember this one guy just wandering around, shaking all over, just wandering. This other guy kept muttering to himself and twisting strands of his hair. And then chuckling! It was seriously like being in a zombie apocalypse.”

“So, the flash cards ward off the zombie-ism? Is that a word? Zombie-ism?”

“I’m hoping. I figured I’d get a jump on this over the holiday break.”

“Geez. Fun times. Ho Ho Ho.”

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“Besides, it gives me something to focus on, apart from the shit storm that’s going on right in my own living room,” Kate said as she snapped a blank card out of the box.

“Now now, you just got home last night. Don’t you think you might want to wait a little while, give yourself some time to experience the shit storm for yourself before you start getting all despondent?”

“Nope. Don’t you think I’ve been listening to you all fall? I think I’ve heard enough.”

“Well, you gotta admit: there was quite a kerfuffle of bus noise and generally high level of haste,” Madeline said.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Didn’t some old guy from your generation say that?”

“Yeah. Some old guy did.” Madeline continued. “A thousand note cards. You know what that reminds me of?”

“Hmmm,” Said Kate, absent-mindedly.

“The thousand paper cranes,” Madeline said. When Kate was in her second year of college, she had gotten very ill. She left a quickly-scribbled post-it note on her dorm room door, announcing that she had left school, and went home. It was serious, and Kate believed – with good reason – that she may die.

When she and Madeline made a trip to Kate’s dorm room to gather some things, they walked in to the dazzling sight of one thousand origami paper cranes. Some had been hung together in long vertical strings suspended from the ceiling, while others were strung in banners, wing-to-wing, and hung from wall to wall. The sight was breathtaking, and magical.

The students on Kate’s floor of the dorm had gotten together, night after night, to fold cranes.  When the number reached one thousand, they filled Kate’s room with their gift that, according to Japanese legend, would bestow great health and long life to the recipient.

“They’re still in the basement, aren’t they?” Madeline asked. “Do you think they can work a second time?”

“Mom,” Kate said, with great gentleness, “this is way beyond paper cranes.”

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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

“Is It Possible to Fracture Your Penis?” NEW from the novel “Pushing the River”

 

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a reminder to my family and friends with wild imaginations: this is FICTION

She didn’t think about Dick as often as she used to, which struck Madeline as remarkable.

But when she did think of him, she often thought of his…boomerang.

She had long heard the giggles and rumors from the mutual friends who ultimately introduced the two of them. They saw each other every day for two weeks after the evening of their meeting, their words becoming so much chicken scratch, background noise, to a deepening enchanted spell that took hold of them both. Still, in their demure newness, she took the first shower – separately – then waited while he took his. When the sound of the running water ceased, Madeline was unable to wait a second longer.

She opened the bathroom door to an entirely pink-tiled world heavy with steam. Dick pulled back the shower curtain, wiping the water from his eyes, and opened his arms to her.

When she pulled back from their embrace and took his hand to lead him to her bed, there it was. Her eyes widened. “It’s my boomerang,” Dick said.

“Because it always comes back to you? No matter where it’s been?” she said.

Dick laughed. “No. Because that’s what I call it.”

The dazzling sun of the summer afternoon dimmed to dusk and then to dark before Madeline and Dick uttered their next words. “So. Boomerang. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

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Dick laughed and kissed her on the temple. “It got broken.”

“Oh, stop. That’s not possible.”

“Obviously it is. Possible.”

It was many years before the internet. Many years before Madeline was able to type the words “broken penis” into the google search bar and get the following from the Mayo Clinic website:

Is it possible to fracture your penis?

Answers from Landon Trost, M.D.

Yes. Although rare, penis fracture can occur when there is trauma to an erect penis.

During an erection, the penis is engorged with blood. If an engorged penis is bent suddenly or forcefully, the trauma can rupture the lining of one of the two cylinders in the penis (corpus cavernosum) responsible for erections — resulting in a penis fracture. The trauma most often occurs after accidental injury during intercourse, but can also occur due to aggressive masturbation or taqaandan, a cultural practice in which the top of an erect penis is forcefully bent.

A penis fracture is a painful injury. Signs might include a cracking sound, immediate loss of the erection, or the development of dark bruising of the penis due to blood escaping the cylinder. Sometimes the tube that drains urine from the body (urethra) is damaged as well, and blood might be visible at the urinary opening of the penis.

A penis fracture requires urgent medical attention. The injury can usually be diagnosed with a physical exam, and prompt surgical repair is typically recommended.

Left untreated, a penis fracture might result in deformity of the penis or the permanent inability to get or keep an erection firm enough for sex (erectile dysfunction).

At the time, however, Madeline only knew what she had seen. And experienced.

“Does it hurt?” she asked. “Do I need to worry about hurting you?”

“Not at all,” he said.

She giggled, then said, “I’m sorry to laugh. You broke your penis!”

It wasn’t so funny when it happened. It hurt like a mother. And I heard it break.”

“You’re kidding?!” Madeline said. “What in the world happened?!” Dick took a breath in preparation to answer, but Madeline took her index finger and held it to his lips. “No, wait. Don’t tell me. No history. Not right now. Just this moment. Just the two of us. And Boomerang.”

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“Lachrymose.Febreze.Get Shorty,” NEW from the novel “Pushing the River”

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“Nope,” Madeline thought to herself. “Nope, nope, nope. Bathetic, mawkish, maudlin – that’s what I’m being. And, my personal favorite – lachrymose.” Sometimes Madeline was goddamn glad that she had spent part of one summer studying lists of words to expand her vocabulary. “Lachrymose,” she let the word swirl around inside her. It wasn’t every day that you could find a reason to use one of your very favorite words of all time, but when that opportunity was suddenly there, boy howdy, that was a banner day. That could turn a shit of day right around.

“I. Will. NOT. Be. Lachrymose. No sirree Bob.” Madeline marched up the staircase with intent, paused at the top to wiggle back and forth in a little dance, and two-stepped her way into her bedroom. Carefully moving aside the freshly laundered pile of clothes, she proceeded to rip the sheets off her bed with a vengeance, then crumple them into the smallest ball she could. She held the ball in front of her, arms fully extended, the entire length of two stair flights to the washing machine. “Ha. I knew I saved this for a reason,” she thought, ripping open a sample packet of laundry detergent that had arrived in the mail months ago. Tide with Febreze. Guaranteed to eliminate your toughest laundry odors, it said. “Well, then, my detergent friend, be true to your word. Eliminate, eliminate. When I lay my weary little head down on my pillow tonight – alone, in my own bed – I don’t want a single whiff, not one hint of a whiff, not a hair of a tinge of a mite of a pinch of a speck of a trace of a hint. Of Dan.”

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The machine’s lid sang out as it snapped closed, making a slight symphony with the rushing water and the whistling of the hot water pipe.

Madeline decided to slam the lid again. It felt highly satisfying. But when the last reverberation fell silent, it was as if a little bit of the air had escaped from Madeline’s inner balloon. Her footfalls up the stairs sounded slow and shuffling. There was no dance.

Her intention was to put away the laundry. She swung open the side-by-side doors of the primitive armoir she used as her clothes cabinet. She ran her eyes up and down the stacks of clothes, back and forth across the three shelves. She left the doors agape, and went to lie down on the sheetless bed.

Her flat palm grazed across the mattress pad, and with the gesture, an image: Dan. Also lying on his back, the two of them facing the ceiling. Newborn Dylan, tightly swaddled and sound asleep between their two prone bodies. Their hands reaching toward one another, clasping.

Madeline leapt from the bed and threw open the door of the hall closet, tossing years’ worth of accumulated stuff around, searching for something she was certain had been stashed ever since Kate’s first big camping trip. Febreze. Spray. Mountain fresh scent.

Madeline bounded back into the bedroom and went to work on the pillows, nearly soaking them with spray. Then onto the mattress itself.

“Out damn spot!” She thought: “Wait a minute. Macbeth? Shakespeare?? I thinketh not. Waaayyyyy too literary. How about Ellmore Leonard? Get Shorty?? ‘FUCK YOU, FUCKBALL!!’”

Dennis Farina Get Shorty

“Crooked,” NEW from the novel “Pushing the River”

newborn

You could see it right away when he was born. Something strange with one side of his face. Even as a brand new teeny little newborn, barely out long enough to have dried off and gotten the feeling of air in his lungs. Wriggling around, even though he was straight-jacketed inside that hospital blanket, you could see there was something going on. When that little one went to cry, or to yawn, or let out a holler, one side of his mouth wasn’t cooperating with the other side. One side stayed perfectly, utterly still, while the other did every bit of the work.

Of course, lots of things happen when a baby is going through the whole business of being born. They get stretched and squished and crumpled up pretty good sometimes in that short distance between where they come from and life outside. Lots of them creases and folds just go away all on their own, and lightning quick, too. Nobody paid much mind as they paraded in and out to coo at the new baby, not when he was going home with a mama who had barely reached fifteen years of age.

Them nurses coming in and out of that new mama’s room seemed to have their eyebrows permanently raised up. They looked mostly at the floor, stealing quick-like glances at each other as they passed. If anybody noticed that one side of the baby’s mouth was refusing to join forces with the other, not a one of them said a word.fine-art-newborn-portraits

Dylan did all them things that babies do right on time, like he was reading right out of some handbook. He smiled and gurgled and cooed up a storm. Seemed that little cuss was going to have a tidy sum of things to say when he grew, cause he was practicing and testing out different sounds he could muster nearly all of the time.

Thing is, if you’d have hunkered down to look at one exact half of his face while he was chortling away, you’d have seen the whole rainbow of life’s feelings passing through his sparkling eyes and across his laugh-pinched cheeks and through that lively little mouth. But if you’d hunkered down on his other side, the other half of his face would have set there stone still. His eyelid blinking just a hair slower than the other, the cheek laying flat, and the mouth as limp and unmoving as a fish way too long out of the water.

That little baby was born with a couple of nerves not connected up the way they was supposed to be. Sets one to wondering if this was the hand of God – showing a mighty peculiar sense of humor– or some fluke in a very big and random universe. Or maybe Dylan hisself had some sense of his own unfolding life.

The Male Body, new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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When she thought of Dan, she thought of his shoulder. His right shoulder. The one she rested her head on when they lay in bed. Don’t ever get out of the pool Dan, she thought to herself; because that swimmer’s shoulder is worth dying for.

Madeline became deeply attached to bodies. To the body of her lover. The curve of the calf, line of the toes, rises and declivities of the chest, sprout of hairs on the lower abdomen – every bit of it became an imprint deep within her, just as a baby duck becomes imprinted on the first thing it sees, nothing forever after seeming right, or even possible.

She remembered when she first saw Michael – the previous body in her life — naked. He looked like one of the blue people in the movie “Avatar” – stretched to unreasonable tall leggy thinness. But in a short time, his body was the only one that made sense to her. Legs that were not as long, calf muscles that were less taught seemed…mildly distasteful to even consider.

Hands, most especially, stirred inside of her. If e e cummings carried her heart in his heart, Madeline carried his hands.

judith.roth2

Madeline thought of Dan’s hands. The dense, ropey tendons across his palms from that disease she could never remember the name of. The blood-red tips of his fingers.

My problem, Madeline said to herself, is that I want someone at the receiving end of my thoughts. That voice inside of my head. The “me” voice. I like the idea that someone else might be hearing it. Otherwise it’s just me. Me me me. Seems a little overly self-involved. Seems a little pointless to be doing a running narration of my own life to myself, for myself.

That’s where the body comes in, she realized. That’s why I carry his body around inside of me. So he’s there, too.

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Art, top to bottom:  Judith Roth, Judith Roth, Leonardo Da Vinci

Thinking of a New Year, from the novel “Pushing the River”

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She glanced at Dan’s note, not reading the words, but taking in a general impression of the handwriting, the pattern of the markings on a torn page of paper. She sighed deeply, and inhaled the exhilarating, still-fresh aroma of the delicious Christmas tree. No question that Frasier Fir is the way to go, she thought: it smells as if it were chopped down yesterday. She pictured the Brawny Paper towel guy, axe slung over one shoulder, wearing nothing but his flannel shirt, ancient jeans and worn boots as he trudged through the powdery snow in search of their tree.

She would leave it up until after New Year’s. Maybe another week after. Taking down the Christmas tree struck Madeline as one of the saddest things in the world. Even when Dick had been around, she had always done it herself. He insisted that he couldn’t trust himself to stow away the ornaments handed down from her mother’s family, as well as those from her own childhood; although this was miraculously not an issue when he dove into the tissue-wrapped antiquities with childlike glee when they decorated the tree each year. So be it. Yet another year when she would do it alone. It allowed her a degree of ceremony she would not have otherwise. Time when she could hold the oldest ones – the ones her mother had painstakingly dated, going back to 1919 – and try to picture her long-dead mother as the gangly, sickly, big-eyed child that she had seen in photographs. Carrying an equally skinny, frightened-looking doll with her everywhere she went.

Taking down a Christmas tree was like a death. The death of another year. Pack up and put away whatever was special, or memorable, or lasting. Throw away the rest. Turkey feather. Christmas tree.

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Perhaps, Madeline thought, perhaps I have lived long enough.

It seemed to her, quite suddenly, that she had seen a great many Christmases. That around the tree had gathered so many, many people whose lives had touched hers, and who were now gone. Like a long Dickens novel, where the sheer volume of characters who paraded through the pages was impossible to comprehend.

When she eventually dragged this perfect tree out to the curb, leaving a trail of needles she would find herself sweeping up well into the summer, Dan would be gone, too. I have had so many different lives, she thought. Different little universes, created one conversation cup of coffee glass of wine walk along the lake whispered tender words caresses orgasms at a time. One at a time, day after day, and a world is constructed. What was it Octavio Paz said?

if two kiss
the world changes, desires take flesh
thoughts take flesh, wings sprout
on the backs of the slave, the world is real–

Oh shit, she thought. I must be seriously fucking stressed. Quotes are popping into my head. Bad sign.

bodybag