Grand Canyon

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Here is another section from the “When I Was 4, 1960” section of my current novel.

Way before we got to the Grand Canyon, I was pretty sure my mother was just making stuff up. So by the time she was making exuberant wide gestures while talking about time, and a river, and layers of rock, and millions of years, millions and millions of years — I just felt sad and confused.  My neighbor Patsy had already told me about the whole world being made in just seven short days, well six really, cause God took one day off to rest. She had learned this at church, and this story was from God himself.  They said so at church, a Presbyterian one, but my other neighbor Carrie was an actual Catholic; and Carrie confirmed this was, without question, the truth.

I felt a little better when my brother and I were allowed to feed some peanuts to the chipmunks that were running around everywhere. I was scared they would bite me, but they didn’t, and their teeny little claws felt creepy and good all at the same time when they crawled into my hand to get the nuts.  I had to keep very, very still.  I felt like there were my personal friends.

But back in the car, as we drove away from the Grand Canyon, there was a whirl going on inside of me.  Kind of like when you make those whirly paintings at carnivals, the ones where you squirt bright, beautiful colors from ketchup bottles, and then the whole thing spins around, and you think it’s going to be so so pretty; but it’s a mess. An ugly, dark mess.

Why would my own mother tell such whoppers?

After the Grand Canyon, I was cranky, and I stayed that way the rest of the return trip, heading east once again on Route 66.  Pancakes and hotel swimming pools had lost their allure, and hours upon hours bumping along in the back seat – with nothing supposedly dazzling to look forward to – were pure torture.  After the mountains flattened out in the vast, monotonous and scorching prairie, there weren’t even any more roadside attractions to bring us to a precipitous halt.  My mother packed away her movie camera one afternoon, and the next day her regular camera, and took to staring silently out the window, turned away from all of us.  My father stopped pulling over to rest and smoke a cigarette; instead he lit up seemingly continually, sending endless clouds of choking smoke to add to our back-seat agonies.

My brother and I knew that we would get in big trouble if we fought or argued out loud, so we traversed a couple thousand miles of the United States by perpetuating a stealth war of silent punches, kicks, and the occasional pinch.  It was the only entertainment we could muster.

When we got back home, I began to secretly believe that I had been adopted, that I had come from different people entirely than these two grown-ups who ping-ponged between sphinxlike impenetrability and riotous, nonsensical laughter.  I started to have bad dreams.  In some of them, we were back on our road trip vacation, and they had left me behind at one of the endless places where we had stopped.  In others, I was trying as hard as could to run away from something awful, but my legs wouldn’t work.  It was as if I was in super slow motion, while the rest of the world – and the awful threat – came closer.  And then, I died.  For the first time.

The Woman in the Orchard

Please enjoy this continuation of what I expect to be my fourth novel.

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Mazie stood behind the chair that had always been her mother’s place at the porch’s outdoor dining table.  She ran her hands along the welted seam of the – what was it called…Naugahyde? – chair, the miracle synthetic material that supposedly lasted forever.  Mazie smiled down at the gray, marble-patterned Formica table.  Her parents would be astonished to know that the chairs and table they had carefully chosen with their eternal vigilance to thrift would one day be precious collector’s items for scores of retro-crazed home decorators.  Neither the word “chic,” nor the value it represented would ever had entered her parents’ lexicon.  They insisted that their furnishings and possessions be practical and durable enough to weather children, animals, friends and the vicissitudes of life in general with a minimum of worry or bother.

Mazie ran her hand along the Formica, and once again along the welting at the top of the chair before lifting her gaze back to the orchard.  She thought she saw a flicker of movement between two of the old apple trees on the far slope, and she unconsciously rose up on her toes to get a better look.

It was mid-morning, not a time of day that one would expect to see a deer.  It was also unlikely that a deer would decide to amble through a relatively open orchard well before the time of year when any apples could have ripened enough to fall.  Mazie saw a flash of red, high enough above the ground that she reckoned it could only be a person, one who seemed to be plodding in slow motion through Mazie’s orchard.

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Mazie stood and watched fixedly, shock, wonder and suspicion whirling within her, as an elderly, snow white-haired woman came into focus.  The woman wore a cotton print dress, much as Mazie’s grandmothers and their various sisters had worn most days, with ankle socks and well-worn walking shoes.  Around her neck she wore a red bandana, the flash of red that Mazie had seen from afar.  The woman carried a cane in one hand, or perhaps it was a walking stick, which she leaned on heavily.  She watched her feet intently, making her way among the multitude of rocks in the thoroughly uneven, hazardous orchard.  The woman had gotten all the way to the near end of the orchard before she chanced a glance upward, at which point, she immediately saw Mazie standing behind the chair at the outdoor table on the porch.

The woman raised her cane in the air, a kind of salute.  “Oh!  Hello, dear!”

Mazie was not sure what else to say besides, “Hello!”

“I’m not used to seeing anyone!” the woman said. “You gave me rather a start.”

“It’s my place,” Mazie said, “my family’s place.”

“Oh, I’m sure it is, dear, seeing as you’re standing there on the porch.  But I walk through here every day, through your orchard there.  So, you’re what’s different for me.  Never saw anyone before.”

“I was just thinking about the orchard,” Mazie said.  “Wondering why anyone would choose such rocky, uneven ground for an orchard in the first place.”

“Well, I can’t answer that one,” the woman said.

“What I’m wondering is, why you would walk through such an… inhospitable orchard, when the road is right there.”  Mazie pointed.

“The road gets a little boring after a while, lovely as it is.  I do walk on it.  This is my little foray off the beaten path, as it were.  Just through your orchard and back on up to the road.”

“You know, when we first bought this place, my parents were intent on trying to mow it, you know, tame it into a nice, grassy meadow kind of an orchard.” Mazie laughed.  “You can’t imagine the sound when a ride-on lawnmower hits a rock.  The lawnmower engine stops dead, and this…enormous…noise reverberates through the woods in every direction.  Oh my gosh, I can still hear it clear as day.”  Mazie laughed.  “Except that one time, the whole lawnmower rolled right over, right on top of my father.  That wasn’t so funny.”

Mazie observed herself, talking to a total stranger, who was technically trespassing on her old family farm.

The woman smiled.  Mazie regarded her.

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“Oh.  Perhaps you’d rather that I don’t walk through it,” the woman said.

Mazie considered. “Well, I’m not sure that makes any sense,” Mazie responded.  “Seems kind of mean-spirited and arbitrary, out here in the middle of all this land.  No, you go right on walking through the crazy, rocky orchard any time you like.”

“Very kind of you, dear.  I suppose if you’re up and about, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Where are you headed, anyway?”  Mazie asked.

“That way.” The woman pointed up the road, the opposite direction from the one she had come, and began walking without another word.

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Bottom photo is of Emma Rowena Gatewood, better known as Grandma Gatewood (October 25, 1887–June 4, 1973), an extreme hiker and ultra-light hiking pioneer who was the first woman to hike the 2,168-mile (3,489 km) Appalachian Trail from Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine solo, and in one season.

 

That Thing We Call Inspiration

InspirationMuch has been thought, and written, and even researched about the nature of what we call “inspiration.”  My Oxford online dictionary defines it as “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.”  The second definition listed is: “the drawing in of breath; inhalation.”  What a magnificent concept.

Most writers have various little rituals and incantations we perform in order awaken the Muse.  Most of us also find that, however we may try, that crazy thing that we call inspiration, that deep inhalation of fresh, creative air, finds us at the most unexpected times.  Never did I imagine that, recovering from a total hip replacement surgery, an image would pop into my head, and I would know that it was the foundation of my next novel.

Here, then, is the beginning of what I have tentatively entitled “The Rocky Orchard:”

__________________________________________________________

orchard“What a strange place to put an orchard,” Mazie thought to herself.  Mazie stood at the exact spot on the wrap-around porch — the one that covered two full sides of the old farm house – where she could see the farthest in three different directions. “I never could figure out why there.”

There was not all that much to see to her left, as the stone path leading from the porch door was steep enough that you had to stoop down just a tad to see the old dirt road at the path’s end.  To her right sat the old shed, and the small, spring-fed lake her parents had dredged, and the wide expanse of field that abruptly ended at the edge of the thick woods.  In the spring, if you listened very carefully, you could hear the little creek that lay just beyond the farthest edge of the field, at the very beginning of the trail into the woods.  Full and ripe with the winter’s runoff, the freezing water tumbled over the rocks in rushing abandon.  You could hear it, even from such a distance, before it began its languishing journey from bursting its muddy banks, to flowing in a steady and patient stream, to trickling in ever-shifting paths between the mossy stones, to its eventual disappearance in the flush of summer.

Where Mazie came from, it was a point of contention whether the proper way to say the word was “creek” or “crick.”  Feelings ran strong about this.  Weekend people, people who did not live there full-time – like Mazie’s family – generally said “creek;” locals said “crick.”  But if you tried to say it like they did, to be nice when you were talking to them, they assumed you were making fun and immediately got quiet or mean.  It made Mazie tired to think about.

1200px-White_Deer_Hole_Creek_near_4th_Gap

 

 

Hip, Hip…Hooray?

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I cannot predict the future, but I do know what will happen.

This morning, when I set out for my morning dog walk, my calendar told me that the date was November 10, 2018.  The sunlight that shone through my window was vast.  The air that hit me in the face when I opened my back door was not the bracing, invigorating air of late fall, the chill that brings a healthy rose to your cheeks and energizes your step.  It was the unwanted, unwarranted, unexpected, entirely RUDE slap in the face of mid-winter.  21 degrees.  I could sense the sun laughing at me.  Hahaha, fooled you.

Here is what will happen.

One hundred nineteen hours from now (seven thousand one hundred forty minutes, four hundred twenty-eight thousand four hundred seconds), a man will hold a brutally sharp knife just above my skin.  He will have marked the spot.  Possibly with a Sharpie.  He will slice my skin on a precisely drawn line, and he will watch as six or more inches of my skin separates into parts.  Copious amounts of blood will spread from the split.  People, ones who are not holding the knife, will have prepared for this.  They will mop up the streams and rivulets with highly absorbent sponges.

The fall has lingered this year.  It has taken its time, languorous and slothful in showing its colors, the trees refusing to let go of their flaming displays.  But after a blustery rainstorm, many trees gave up all at once, raining a thick carpet onto the ground.  When it dropped well below freezing last night —  for the first time —  another miracle.  Trees and leaves can no longer cling to one another.  Emblazoned leaves let go, one at a time, in a slow motion and silent shower.  They spin, twirl, dawdle in their descent, and they come to rest among the thick carpet of their brethren.

Once the myriad tissues have been cut through or pulled to the side, the man will put down the knife.  He will remove my femur from my acetabulum, or in simpler terms, he will dislocate my thigh bone from my hip socket.  He will then take a bone saw and cut off the top portion of my femur – the largest bone in the human body.  He will cut it entirely off.

Perhaps I can predict the future.

On the morning of November 10, 2018, I watch the leaves drift one at a time to their resting place on the newly-frozen ground.  Their crunch underneath my feet, even as I walk along with my cane, is one of the glorious sounds on earth.  My dog sniffs for the perfect place to plop down and roll back and forth in the leafy carpet.

When I walk among the leaves a year from now, I will not need a cane.

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PUSHING THE RIVER

My newest novel, Pushing the River, released yesterday (Amika Press)!!

In honor of its official entrance into the world, here are some additional teaser quotes.

The early reviews have taken my breath away.  Check them out, below!

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“Madeline stood in the street and gaped into the vast cavern of space as if it were a true miracle, as if an outline of the Virgin Mother would undoubtedly appear on a side wall, like Jesus on a piece of toast.”

“That’s my heritage, the stock from whence I come, I will put on my gloves and I will get out there in that garden and I will take no prisoners and I will damn the torpedoes and I will full speed ahead.  My family is in need.”

“Madeline became passionately attached to Jeff’s body.  She scanned its surface for changes to memorize.  She took note of differing thicknesses of the hairs comprising his beard, ran her fingers alone the crevasses of scars from a bad car accident, studied the calluses on each of his fingers from years of playing guitar.”

“My head is gonna explode, she thought. It is going to detach from my body and flay apart into a million, icky-gooey-oozy little pieces.  What’s the movie where that happens?  It’s going to splatter against the walls and slap Savannah upside the face.”

“…they would be swept up in a great salty tide [of tears] and whisked down the corridor, past roomfuls of astonished new mothers cradling infants, while Madeline swooped up Dylan and saved him.”

“By the second week of December, Madeline felt as if she had fast-forwarded through a ten-year marriage in just slightly more than three months.”

“When he shuffled off to the bathroom each night to brush and floss for an absurd amount of time, it set her own teeth on edge to such a degree she felt certain her back molars would shatter into bits.”

“Sometimes it is a smell or the particular angle of the sun’s light or the sound of a door closing – some thing that makes its way through the store of life’s memories and touches something deep, far, previously lost.  In this case, it was the movement, the precise position of her legs.”

“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.”

“I knew that we were in a race against my grandmother’s remaining time.  I thought about the possibility that she might die while we were up in the clouds, and I wondered if I might be able to see her, making her trip to heaven, if I concentrated very hard on the clouds.”

“The really gory detail is how I turned out to be a hopelessly shallow person who fell for a handsome lunatic.”

https://www.goodreads.com/b…/show/41020153-pushing-the-river

PUSHING THE RIVER teaser quotes

PUSHING THE RIVER releases one week from today!  Here are some teaser quotes from the novel to whet your appetite.

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“I have lived in the company of ghosts. I have known this for a long time – that I rattled around among specters and spirits and wraiths.  But I also knew that they were, indeed, my company.”

“He shook her toe a few more times and then went over and sat down on his own side of the bed. It occurred to him that maybe if he got back under the covers and shut his eyes and then opened them up again, it might all be different.”

“When Jeff first left — fourteen years ago today –  I could read without glasses, even the smallest print on the train boxes.  When my hands reached up to dust those boxes, the craggy blue veins did not stand out starkly against my sallow hands.  The skin did not pucker into fascinating, horrifying patterns.”

“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.”

“I was a Natural Woman.  I told my mother she had given me her last Toni home permanent, thank you very much, and gathered up my bras for a ritual burning.”

“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.”

“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, want to stay, want to hold her, want her.”

“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.”

“Even the wildly striped hair did nothing to dilute the impact of seeing a child – a very small, very young, very sad, and very scared child – standing there.  A child who happened to be seven months pregnant.”

 

BANG(s), new flash fiction*

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Besides, it was Friday. Fabulous Friday.  Fucking Friday.  At 5:00 pm on the Friday at the end of her very first week of her very first job, she had gone straight to the nearest Walgreen’s and bought a six-pack of Bud Lite. She had read that it was the number one selling beer in America, and she wanted to feel like an American.  She’d finished college, gotten a job, and worked a forty-hour work week. She was staggered to find herself utterly exhausted from the seemingly straightforward task of sitting behind a desk for all of those hours.  Jesus H. Christ, she had thought, how could I be twenty-two years old and be so f-ing wiped?  From that day on, Friday was a day to go home, pop open a Bud, take off her bra, and veg out for a significant chuck of time even if she headed out later.

She savored a long draught from her beer, saying “Ahhhhhhh,” aloud.  “Thank you, Friday. Thank you for coming,” and raised her bottle in a hearty toast to the empty space of her hallway.  She detoured into her bathroom to pee, took a swig, and automatically turned to her reflection in the mirror to check her hair.  She arranged the bangs that were forever in a state of indecision – hers – as to whether she was keeping them or growing them out.

Her boss had unexpectedly asked her to lunch that day.  Awkward.  She liked him fine, but he was her boss, and at least ten or fifteen years older than she was.  He had a whole plan for his life, which both horrified her and intimidated her.  Stodgy, but clear view ahead.

She was genuinely surprised to find herself having such a good time at lunch.  Her boss was telling her about the remaining – and increasingly torturous – final details of his upcoming wedding. Though the seating charts, and place cards, and party favor bag ribbon colors were driving him completely insane, she remained fascinated, rapt with attention.  Also, his fiancée still hadn’t decided if she wanted to change her name, he told her; and whereas he didn’t actually care one way or the other, he was exhausted by her continual deliberation, over the course of months, out loud and directed at him.

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“Names are kind of important,” she had said.  “They can really mean a lot, about how we think about ourselves, how we think about who we are.”

He looked at her as if suddenly remembering that she was there. “Really? You think so?”

“Yeah, I do.  Are you ready for this?  I actually changed my name.  It used to be Vanya; that’s what my parents named me.  It’s a pretty popular girl’s name in India, a forest deity.  I just got really tired of everyone thinking I was a Russian guy.  Russian.  And a guy.”

“You picked ‘Ananya?’”

“I did.  It’s a common-ish name in India.  But wait til you hear this.  Some say its origin is Hindu, and it means ‘unique, without peer.’  Others say that it’s Muslim and means ‘care and protection.’  Then there’s the group who says it’s from Sanskrit and means ‘terrible misfortune.’  How cool is that? I get to encapsulate a whole regional religious war with just my name! Plus, it sounds like a girl, and doesn’t sound Mexican. Oh, I forgot to mention that not only did everyone think that I was a Russian boy when they saw my name in print; then they assumed that I was Mexican when they saw me in person.  So, yeah.  Ananya.”

She reached up to shift her bangs off her forehead.

That was the moment. When her fingertips grazed her hair, and she felt the strands brush across her forehead.  Oh my God, I forgot to go to the restroom when we got here; I don’t even know if I look ok.  I don’t know if my hair is ok.  I shouldn’t even be talking right now.  What the fuck am I doing talking? What the fuck was I thinking?  I’m drawing his attention to me. He’s looking at me, because I’m talking.  Because I just had to tell him the whole name story.  My bangs.  I think my bangs felt greasy. I should have let him talk.  Kept him talking.  Then he sort of looks around the room and moves his eyes back and forth and doesn’t just stare at me.  Me with the bad hair.  Me with the shit hair that’s never looked right, never.  And greasy bangs! FUCK.  I can’t believe I didn’t check in the mirror.  How can I be so fucking stupid? Stupid and shitty hair.  I gotta get out of here?  How much longer do we have to sit here so it won’t be even more awkward if I say that I need to go.  How long have we been here? I gotta come up with some questions to ask him, keep him talking.  Anything.  Anything to keep him from noticing my hair.

Ananya regarded herself in the mirror, drank the remainder of her beer in one gulp and said to her reflection, “OK, this ends now. Or at least as soon as I pop open another brew.”

She often went to one of her favorite bookstores mid-Friday evenings, and browsed through the newest graphic novels.  A lot of the stores carried esoteric ones that the artist/writer had given the store directly, so she rotated through a number different stores to see different comics.  Plus, that meant that she wasn’t a serious regular at any one store, which would have made her feel like even more of a dweeb; and, none of the well-meaning bookstore folks got all up in her business too much.

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It was a cool evening for summer; Ananya wrapped a long scarf around her neck and over her head.  She was standing at a busy intersection when a waft of breeze whooshed the scarf from the top of her head.  She had an immediate instinct to jerk her arms up and replace it, but she resisted.  What good was her decision to end the tyranny if she just turned around and covered it up.

When she walked through the door of the bookstore, the girl at the counter looked up from her book.  They always did that.  But this time, the girl didn’t look back down again. She sat up a little straighter in her chair.  “Is there anything I can help you with?”

Ananya was already walking toward the graphic novel section and didn’t even make eye contact when she said, “No, thanks. I’m good.”

She picked up a copy of Bad Girls, which she’d heard about.  It had everything:  a crazy pop art style, Fidel’s 1958 Cuba, murder, and well, bad girls.  It also had a whopping $25.98 price tag, which was seriously steep.  But this was a special novel, and it was a special day.  She let out a little whistle under her breath, a mixture of sticker shock and celebration, and walked to the counter.

The girl, except that now that Ananya was closer, and actually looking at her, the bookstore person appeared to be maybe mid-40’s.  She turned the novel towards herself and said to Ananya, “Oh, this is a great choice.  Just a great choice.  I’ve heard so much.”

“Yeah,” Ananya said, having no desire to share a lot of words.

“Did you find everything that you were looking for?”  She scanned the book’s price into the computer, then replaced it on the counter and folded her hands. “And I can gift wrap this for you.  If it’s a gift.  Or I can just wrap it really nicely for you to take it home.”

“No, that’s ok.  Just. Whatever.  A regular bag is fine.” Ananya shifted from one foot to the other, a bit perplexed.

“I mean, if there is anything else that I can do for you.  I hope you’re doing… OK.”

After a nanosecond of thinking that this woman was completely bonkers, Ananya figured it out.

Oh my god.  She thinks I have cancer.  She thinks that I’m totally bald because I’m in chemotherapy.  She’s being extra fucking nice because she thinks I’m dying. OH MY GOD, I shave my head because it’s the only way I can think of to force myself to stop thinking about my hair, like every freaking minute, like the way my hair looks determines whether it’s even ok for me to talk, or to have people look at me, or just walk down the f’ing street, and this is what ends up happening?  People think that I have fucking cancer and that I’m DYING, and now they’re just gonna look at me MORE?  I seriously did not see this coming.  Epic fucking fail.  But hold it.  Hey, I’m not thinking about how my hair looks. So, well, there’s that.

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*My novel PUSHING THE RIVER will release in EIGHT days.  THANKS for reading this, and for indulging my need to take a break from the endless and soul-killing marketing of a new book!

The People on the Stairs

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The one from the basement started it.  He crawled up from his underground lair, from the smell of epoxy that he uses for projects, from the array of fluorescent vests that he wears to work.  He took up residence on the stairs.  Early in the morning, he was on the stairs.  Late into the night, still on the stairs.

Others began to gather.  I never knew where they came from.  There would just be another voice, a conversation, coming from the stairs.  Or I would come home, and have to step around and between others, bodies leaning this way and that as I made my way through their habitat.

I didn’t want to hear them, tried to not hear them; but they were on the stairs.  There was really no escape.

Sometimes I would take a long walk go for coffee invent an errand visit a friend drive to the lakefront, all with the hope that when I returned, the stairs would be a dazzling open space — no residents.  No clutter and detritus of citizens who had created their own fiefdom, on my stairs.

In the evenings, the sound of the citizenry would swell like a great ocean storm.  Still, occasional single voices would ring out like a carillon bell, random snippets that made no sense and created ripples of unsettledness: “ …had to escape my marriage in the cover of darkness…”  “…heard you can’t ever get rid of that smell, no matter what you do…”  “No, no, that wasn’t the time I got shot; that was a…”

The voices stop, a crashing silence.  A million eyes turn to me.

“Hey, how ya doing?”

“Doing great, Jason.  You?”

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Putting the FUN Back In…Fiction

PUSHING THE RIVER —  my third novel, set for release this October by Amika Press —  currently lay in the trusty and capable hands of their graphic designer/production person Sarah Koz.  If you are a writer yourself, and you are reading this, you know exactly what this means – that I am wandering around the various circles of Marketing Hell in a bleary daze, waffling between dutiful determination and dejected drudgery (and stooping to the lower depths of ill-advised alliteration).

How to bring the FUN back into writing – that has been the challenge I have posed to myself.  And as I cast around with the beginning of the beginning stages of Writing a New Novel, I have been “trying out” various characters, almost in the same way a director might audition actors.  Here follows a character who, out of the blue, inhabited me and began to tell his story:

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First time I was over at Bert’s place, he yelled at me right through the screen door.  “YO!” He yells, “come on IN.”  Didn’t get up or nothing, just hollered.  I was a little shook by that, to tell you the truth, cause all I could see was nothing – just like total blackness on the other side of the door, that’s how dark it was inside.  I sort of followed the sounds, the music and rustling and all, down this hall til I could make out Bert like some dim faraway spirit.

Bert was sitting in the nicest chair, meaning the one whose stuffing was sprouting out of big gashes in both arms, and had seat cushion that didn’t even fit in the frame any more – that’s how caddywhompus and old and tore up it was; still, it was a damn sight better than any other place to sit in the room.  Bert’s own dad, in fact, was sitting on the arm of what must have once been a couch.  I figured it was his dad, because I knew Bert lived with him and because the guy on the arm of the chair was a lot older than anybody we hung around with.  Anyway, Bert was sitting in the quote nicer chair, which I also thought was a little weird, because I mean, come on, it was his dad.

Once my eyes started to adjust to the near-darkness, I could make out that Bert was rolling a joint on his lap, using a greasy old magazine to hold his paraphernalia.  I looked at his dad, and back at Bert, and Bert looked up for the first time and seemed to register that I was there, also for the first time, in the middle of this living room, I guess it was, while he was rolling a joint and shooting the shit with his dad.

“Oh, hey,” Bert said.

Man, I have never before felt like a stick-up-my-ass, stick-in-the-mud conventional, conservative prick, but I’m suddenly feeling all disapproving.  Jesus, the one time my dad wanted to prove that he was as open-minded as the next guy, and to demonstrate it he was going to go get a marijuana cigarette that he’d been given by a friend ages before, and that he’d been keeping all of this time, and wouldn’t it be fun to get it right now, at Thanksgiving, and pass it around the table before dessert and coffee.  I thought I was going to seriously lose my shit, partly because, needless to say, I was already high due to spending Thanksgiving with the fam in the first place.  And when my aunt said, “Do we have to share the same one?  I really think I’d like my own,” then, really, that’s just a Twilight Zone-type situation you can only hope comes to a swift and relatively painless end.

So, yeah, I’m feeling kinda judgy of Bert for taking the best chair in the room and for rolling a doob right in front of his old man and not thinking a thing of it, and also feeling pissed at myself for feeling judgy in the first place, and like of jeez, who knew, turns out I’m just a regular old middle-class honky white boy right along with the rest of them.  So I’m kinda testy when I say to Bert, “I thought we were having a party here, man.”

“What do you think I’m doing here?” Bert says, holding up the doob, which is just about the size of one those small little cigars. “I’m getting ready!”  He says this with some element of triumph.  “Already mixed up the punch.”  He gestures towards the fridge, which is, in fact, not very far behind him in this same room.  “Grain alcohol and grape juice.”  And he adds, with a giant ass smile, “Ohhhh, yeahhhhhh!”

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Tennis Racket Banjo and Other Unexpected Encounters

construction

I was living in a space that was approximately 4’ x 10’, with a ceiling of the usual height.  During the daytime, I would put my feet on the floor and gaze out the window.  At night, I put my legs up and my upper body down, rearranging the pillows so there would be one for my head.  I would close my eyes,  facing away from the windows, and sometimes I would sleep.  For the first few nights, I pulled the drapes closed, blocking out the lights from the enormous construction project as well as the blazingly-lit buildings that surrounded my location in all directions.  By the fourth night, I stopped closing the shades, finding the idea of the lights gleaming just behind my head to be strangely comforting, a presence I wanted to maintain.  Even with the sense of being immersed in a constructed reality – my own personal Truman Show – the lights of this Stepford world flickered just as prettily.

In a city known for its unreasonable hills, perennial fog, and enchanting Victorian architecture, my couch home existed in an area that lay completely outside the farthest bounds of expectation.  It was, in other words, completely flat, continually drenched in blinding, bright California sun, and so utterly brand new that the majority of the area was a cacophony of rebar and beams and gridwork.

I knew that I would awaken the following day well before the natural light of morning flooded the room.  Sometime between 5:30 and 6:30 am, a voice would pierce the pre-dawn by saying, simply, “I’m awake.”  This would be followed by complete silence – unusually complete, for the general layout of the area made for an absence of the routine sounds of early morning, such as birds chirping, dogs barking, a stirring of the natural world. Perhaps ten to fifteen minutes later, once again, “I’m awake.”  The tone was neutral, not pressed, or irritated, or perplexed at the lack of response – simply a statement made into the dark void.  Then silence once again.  Ten minutes later, when the voice returned, there was a difference.  Factors had been weighed.  Conclusions had been drawn.

Unable to reconcile the possibility that the voice may have been heard, but not responded to, the conclusion was that the voice must not have been heard in the first place.  Thus, when the voice cried out again, it was outstandingly loud, and crisply clear, and delivered in the slow, exaggerated way that we often speak to people who are hard of hearing, or have a different native language, or whom we are openly dissing by acting like they are total cretins.  “I AM AWAKE.  I AM READY TO GET OUT OF MY BED.”

The brand new fake wood floors muffle every iota of sound.  There are no footsteps, no shuffling scraping warnings.

A moment later, I open my eyes.  A very small person stands two feet from my face.  He holds a spray bottle in his mouth, his lips closed around the nozzle while the bottle hangs down.

“You’re starting with the saxophone today, I see,” I say to him.

“Saxophone first.  Then tennis racket banjo.”

“What song are you playing?”  I ask him.

“Bump.”  He says.  “After that: Chick Habit.”

And with the naming of his two favorite songs from his most favorite band – a Chicago Punk Marching Band – my day with my 2-year-old grandson begins.

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