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:”

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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.

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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 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.”

 

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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Canyon (flash fiction)

Then there was the whole Grand Canyon thing.

On the way back from California, the long, dust-bitten journey slouching toward Pennsylvania, my parents decided we should stop at some natural wonders along the way. Death Valley.  Joshua Tree.  The Painted Desert. My mother maintained a hawk-like vigilance as she continually scanned the landmark scenery through the car window.  She wore sunglasses, very dark green ones. Wearing glasses always caused her to hold her mouth funny, as if that were completely essential to keeping the glasses in place.  Every so often her hand shot out and grazed my father’s arm. “Stop the car!”

The words came out with palpable enthusiasm; but it was, nonetheless, a command. The second the car came to a full stop – amid a great spray of gravel and dust – my mother leapt out the door. She stood by the car, with her hands planted on her hips and her feet wide apart, surveying the scene. Around her neck hung her still camera; wrapped tightly around her wrist was the thin, worn shoelace cord of her wind-up 8mm movie camera.

It seemed to take her a minute to remember that the other three of us were there. She swung the top half of her body around and looked at my brother and me still sitting in the back seat as if our folly could not be grasped. We shuffled along behind her dutifully, slowly, willful in our disinterest.

My father stayed by the car. He lit a cigarette, and smoked it as if it was a great chore, but one that must be done.

My mother knew a lot about a lot, which of course made me suspicious. How can you go to all these different places, and the same one person knows so much stuff about all the trees, and the flowers, and the cactuseses, and the birds, and on and on, every single place you go.  Plus, my father staying by the car and not even coming along to see these great sights added considerably to my suspicion.  If this stuff was so wondrous and important, why would he want to stay by the car and miss it!

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

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Photo by Samuel Silitonga on Pexels.com

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

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Photo by Nicholas James Singh on Pexels.com

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 nut.  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?

 

 

 

Dangers of Reality (flash fiction)

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3:48 am.  I am not certain if I was already awake.  It is possible that I was, as I sleep lightly and wake up many times each night.  Perhaps I was in the middle of a dream.  Perhaps the sound injected itself into the dream, becoming a part of it. This happens often as well; the real and the imagined blur and blend and intermingle themselves.

My nighttime wakings are often accompanied by the sound of my refrigerator, as my bedroom lies right off the kitchen, and it is most certainly one of the loudest refrigerators in the history of the appliance.  Of course I could close my bedroom door; but I prefer it open.  I look forward to hearing the sounds of my apartment, and noting the different levels of quiet, for the few seconds before I fall back asleep.  Besides, the phenomenon of my refrigerator never ceases to fascinate me.  I can hardly believe how invasive the sound seems when I read in my bed before sleep.  But when I awaken in the night, it is a lullaby hum that soothes me.

Anyway, at 3:48 am there is a bird singing.  One bird.  I check the luminous red numbers on the clock again and do a broad calculation. The sun will not rise until 5:16 am, so this bird is, indeed, very, very early.  I concentrate on his song, blasting loud and strong into the darkness.  I imagine, in my sleepy state, that he must be bursting with song; he must possess a need to hail the day with an immense bounty of hopefulness.

I listen.

His song does not sound joyful.  He sounds stretched, strained.  If he were a person, he would be just at the point of his voice breaking, or giving out entirely.  The veins would be standing out on his neck. This bird is trying way too hard.  This bird is a wreck.

It’s hard to know what’s real when noises blend into dreams, and the same exact sound can be either a clatter or a hum, and a one should be able to count on a bird’s song being joyful, and it turns out the bird is a fucking disaster.

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