Aggressively Iconoclast

I’m so excited to have just received my Advance Proof copy of THE ROCKY ORCHARD as we make our way to the JUNE 2 RELEASE!  Meantime, here is a new excerpt from novel #5, THE READING.  This passage begins where the previous post stopped.

college.2

Tom continued around the circle making introductions.  I decided to preempt the possibility of tanked-up frosh teetering to a standing position and shaking my hand by saying, “Hey, really, don’t get up.  No need.”

“This is Pauly,” Tom said. Over there is Nathan.  The tall guy is Chip.  And right here is Natalie.  She’s from Texas.”

I had no idea why Tom singled out the Texas information, or what I was supposed to do with it.  I waved kind of lamely at everyone and said, “Hi, all.”  I turned to Natalie.  “Yeah…Texas.  Cool accent, I’m guessing.”

Natalie laughed and said, “Well, I’m thinkin’ it pegs me pretty quick as not being from around here.”  She was right.  Her drawl was leisurely and thick – to such a degree that it seemed like it must be deliberate.  Natalie had very long, disturbingly unhealthy hair.  She was quite lean, with long legs and big boobs that she seemed intent on displaying, as her polo shirt was a good couple of sizes too small.  Wait.  Polo shirt, again.

“Oh,” Tom said, “Oh, God, I’m so sorry.  This is Adele.”

I felt like an awful person for taking one look at Adele and understanding completely why Tom would have forgotten about her.  She was little, with hair and facial features that appeared to be all one color.  She seemed to blend into the background so much that I had a difficult time focusing on her.  I thought that this was probably the story of her life – not even being noticed, not significant-seeming enough to be overlooked because she hadn’t been seen in the first place.   It made me want to like her, to hope that I would. “Adele!”  I said.  “Cool.  I’ve only known one other Adele in my life.  She was the piano teacher for my ballet class when I was a kid.  She was a riot.”

“Yeah, it’s not a very common name,” Adele said.  I felt an enormous sense of relief that I was able to overcome my initial inclination to laugh when I heard Adele’s voice.  High-pitched, squeaky, nasal in a way that seemed to go straight from her mouth to that spot on your forehead, right between your eyes.  Instant headache.

“Adele the pianist chain smoked the entire time she was playing classical ballet pieces for us little girls.  The ashtray on the edge of her keyboard would be filled by the end of an hour long class. Her voice was so low, and so raspy-hoarse that I’m pretty sure she must have been hitting the whiskey pretty hard, too.” I pantomime like I’m taking slugs from a bottle.

I am trying too hard.  Way too hard.  I probably have been for a while, certainly since that idiotic remark about “who’s with me, brothers?”  I’m some exaggerated version of myself.  Aggressively iconoclast, or something.  Thank God it’s gotten too dark for everyone to see me blushing.  I can feel the heat in my cheeks.  The pulsing at my temples.

trying-hard-th_orig

I do this thing sometimes where I sort of turn off the sound.  I stop listening —  just for a minute — to what people are saying.  I shut out the words.  I watch them then, their gestures and their movements.  With the sound track off, I can see different things.  I saw that everyone was trying too hard.  Every person sitting around in this random little group collected by the super extroverted Tom on our third full day of our first year at college.

We had a clean slate. We were all brand new. Each of us understood this in our own way, and the knowledge was at once thrilling and terrifying.  We had no idea, none whatsoever, what we were meant to do. We introduced ourselves to other brand new people who knew nothing about who we were before we arrived here.  Whether we were the one who spent every Saturday night in the bathroom, leaning into the mirror as we squeezed the zits under the harsh lights. Whether we were the one who left behind a sweet and tender first love full of breathy whispers and dreamy sighs.  Whether we were the one whose parents travelled the world and left us completely alone while we rode a unicycle through the maze of our hallways.  Whatever we had been, whatever triumphs and suffering lay behind us, we began anew.

trying too hard

 

 

 

The Tommy Twins

THE ROCKY ORCHARD (coming June 2nd) has moved into the cover design and final formatting phase!  Take a look at a new section from my next novel, tentatively titled THE READING.        ffet.grass2I called them the Tommy Twins.  They were sprawled on the grass together on one of the endless stream of unbearably hot evenings that festered our entire first week on campus.  Most of the freshman class was sprawled across the grass; the need to escape dorm rooms that clutched the day’s heat and would not let it go made the need to lay in the cool grass feel urgent.

Most of the my fellow freshmen lay about, but only one of those freshman called my name as I navigated a diagonal path from one far corner of the massive lawn to the other.  I didn’t really know where I was going.  Or, more accurately, I wasn’t going anywhere. I was walking.  For its own sake.

My third day at college had been one of nonstop meetings, panels, discussions, information sessions, etc., that the college had amassed and assembled for our orientation week.  I don’t know, maybe they thought everyone would be consumed with paralyzing homesickness as well as fear and dread of the academic brutalities that lay ahead, but they kept us very busy.  I felt like I was at some sort of summer camp where none of the activities made any sense.  All of us freshman marched around to the places that our individualized schedules indicated, on time, with our notebooks open and our sharpened pencils in our hands.  When the time was up, we gazed down at a solidly white page and were perplexed that there had been nothing whatsoever to record.  Unless we doodled; then we had something to show for our time, at least.

Walking – albeit from one far corner of the quadrangle to the other – gave me a weird sense of purpose that had been sorely lacking.  Piercing through my overheated, dreamy daze, a voice rang out from a fair distance, “Jo! Hey, Jo from Pennsylvania!”  I looked around the general direction that the shout seemed to have come from and saw a guy who shot up from the grass and continually waved a very long, very pale arm in the air as I navigated my way through the bodies of my fellow freshman.  There were a number of guys sprawled around him in a haphazard circle, each of whom had their ever-present red cup filled with varying amounts of beer.

happy-man

“Oh my God,”  I said.  “Are you seriously sitting here with the freshman directory seeing if you can recognize people from their tiny little pictures and then yelling at them?”

He laughed.  His Adam’s apple bounced up and down on his long neck as he did, which I found completely disarmingly charming.

“Well, yeah,” he said.  “I guess that’s pretty much exactly what I’m doing.  I’m Tom.”

I took a quick glance at the motley group that surrounded him and said, “Did you start out all be yourself tonight and gather this whole group of people already? Pretty impressive work.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly right,” Tom said.  “Actually, not really.  I’ve met them over the past few days. Hey,  Jo, let me introduce you to everyone.” Tom said.

“Oh, right,” I said.  “You already know my name from the directory thing.  And where I’m from.  I feel like I’m at such a massive disadvantage.  Having not studied my directory.”

He pointed to a body on the grass, “this is Tom.”

“Tom and Tom?”  I said. “Great. Easy to remember.  If all of you guys are named Tom, that would be awesome.”

young-man-smoking

The other Tom stood up, with some effort, put his cigarette in his mouth, rubbed his hands together to shake loose the grass and dirt, and held his hand out for me to shake.  “No, just me.”  He shook my hand, put the cigarette back in his hand after taking a very big drag, and plopped back down on the lawn.

“Wow,” I said. “A hand shake.  Formal, if brief, introduction.”

The first Tom put his hands on his hips and looked up towards the heavens.  The second Tom gestured toward him with his cigarette and said, “He hates me.  Well, to be fair, we probably hate each other.  Equally.”

“Wow,” I said again.  “That’s quick work.  How long have we all been here – is it three days now?”

“We went to the same high school,” the first Tom said.  “We weren’t really friends, but I don’t think anyone actually hates anyone else.”

“OK, well, really glad to hear that,” I said.

“Different crowds.  Different friend groups.  We didn’t really know each other very well,” first Tom said.

“Then we drove here together.”  It was second Tom who said that, and with his words, he shot a highly withering look at first Tom.  “Longest eighteen hours of my entire fucking life.”

enemies

Tom the first laughed heartily, as if this was genuinely funny and we were all enjoying mirthful, lighthearted banter.  The Other Tom sprang up like a shot, jabbed a finger in my direction and said, “Want a beer? I’m gonna get more.”

“Hey thanks,” I said.  “I was actually thinking I’d swim way against the tide and demonstrate my radical side by not having any beer this evening.” I shot my fisted arm high above my head and mock-shouted, “Who’s with me, brothers!?”

Tom laughed.  Tom the original.  A beautiful, genuine, head-thrown-back, open-mouthed laugh.  They stood there for a moment, side by side, the two young men named Tom.  They both had curly hair, but all similarity ended there.  The laughing Tom not only had an infectious and unfettered laugh, but a huge, ready smile as well.  He was tall and rangy and slightly uncomfortable in his own body like a growing puppy.  It made sense that he was the one person, of everyone I had met thus far, who had called out to me.  He was putting himself out there, reaching and stretching his energy outside of himself, seeing if it would land on others.

Cigarette Tom was compact and muscly.  Dark brown hair, even darker eyes, deeply tanned skin.  He was turned entirely inward, intense energy coiled over and under itself, swirling around and around.  It seemed an effort for him to form words, more effort to speak them.  And once he had made the effort, the sound of his own voice tormented him.

I loved them both.  Immediately.

A History of Polo Shirts

Lots of news coming soon for the June launch of my novel, The Rocky Orchard.  Meanwhile, full speed ahead with the next novel, tentatively titled The Reading.  Here is a new snippet:

 

students

Tom gestured to a one of the guys who lounged at his feet.  “This is my roommate, Dave.  He’s a genius.  Certified.  148 IQ.”

Dave tilted his chin very slightly, made a nanosecond of eye contact, and uttered a barely audible “Hey” while neither opening his mouth nor moving his lips.

“Hey, Dave,” I said back.  Giving him the once-over, I had no trouble believing that he may well be a genius.  I just wasn’t sure what that meant, in the real world, I mean.  It made me think of one of the college visits that I’d gone on.  I don’t know what in the world about me, at least as it had been translated onto a college application, said to the folks in charge, “Let’s put her with the engineers!”  After the official meetings and tours were completed, I was supposed to head off to one of the dorms for a slice of authentic college life – in this case, having dinner in the cafeteria and hanging around afterward with a group of freshman engineering students.  I don’t even know where to begin.  Honestly, it seemed as if they must have been sent by a casting agency, because a more universally pale, socially awkward, tic-laden, mismatched plaid-wearing group of young men (and one virtually silent woman) could not possibly have come together without someone pulling the strings.  I loved them.  I wished that they could stay on that floor of that dorm for the rest of their lives, because I understood that they would never again, once they left their mutual companionship behind, they would never have a community of people who got them – who accepted their quirks unconditionally and who spoke their language.  It made me want to adopt them.  But because I knew it was completely unrealistic for a seventeen-year-old to adopt a group of engineering students, I wished for them to stay right where they were.  I settled for staying up most of the night playing a highly odd game with the one guy who everyone referred to as the certified genius.  We moved little pieces of purple plastic back and forth on a palm-sized triangular playing board.  I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but the magnitude of Ken’s delight at having a willing partner – well, it seemed like the very least I could do.  You don’t see that kind of unbridled joy every day, even if the bearer of that joy had never worn a pair of matching socks in his life.

Dave had a similar look.  He would have fit right in with the engineers, though they had been – within the limits of their own world – loud and gregarious and very friendly to me, though a lot of their friendliness lay in the range of unselfconsciously batting around math jokes at one another.  Dave looked as if he had never been comfortable anywhere, at any time.  He was doing his best to appear as normal as he could manage.

play-girl-kicking-ball

Also, Dave was wearing a polo shirt. I had literally never seen a kid my own age wearing a polo shirt.  Well, except for Danny, the kid who lived across the street diagonally from Mom and me.  Every so often, his grandpa would take him out to dinner at the grandpa’s country club.  I didn’t have much of an idea what a country club was, but all of us neighborhood kids had a highly unfavorable impression.  Danny would have to break off the from the neighborhood scene when his mother called him.  A while later, he’d come back out with his strawberry blond hair neatly combed and plastered to his scalp.  He’d have on a bright white polo shirt that radiated the pungent smell of bleach.  Worst of all, he’d had to trade in his worn and beloved sneakers for a polished pair of penny loafers.  We’d all stand around with him while he waited for his grandpa to pick him up and take him to dinner at the club.  We kept a respectable distance – bouncing our balls, straddling our bikes, kicking little pebbles – while Danny stood stock still for fear of getting a single speck of dirt on himself. We felt deep solidarity with his misery for being forced to give up a beautiful summer day, but more, for being forced to be someone different than the Danny that we knew.

shirt.danny

 

 

Fine Print

writer

I had always wanted to be a writer; that’s why I had chosen that school.  The college had a special program for people who knew, right from the beginning, that they wanted to major in English literature.  That was the closest you could come to studying writing in those days – you could become an English major and take as many creative writing courses as you could cram in along the way.  No more than ten people were accepted into this program each year; then those ten embarked on a double credit, year-long journey with a single professor.

I got caught up the picture.  Me, hunched over a worn, time-darkened wood desk that generations of eager students had used before me.  I would be accompanied by the gentle hum of my Sears portable electric typewriter, bolstered and enthused by continuous cups of rich, black coffee.  I would dream up characters as iconic as Big Chief and Nurse Ratchett.  I would send the characters on journeys as epic as those of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.  I would devise endings as satisfying as those of Charles Dickens, but with structure and prose as thrillingly avant garde as Virginia Woolf.

I would find my voice.  I would ferret it out from the bricks and the stone and the ivy.  I would find my voice, and I would let it sing.

Turns out, I really should have read the fine print.

dishwasher

 

I came from a place where dreams were small.  Not small because folks lacked the courage, or the vision, to dream bigger, but because small dreams were a great pleasure, a gentle way to approach a life of contentment.  The people across the street from mom and me lived in a tiny little house.  As a family of five, they were crawling all over one another just going about the business of living their lives.   They made giant bowls of popcorn and watched TV together.  They whipped up batches of frosting for no special reason and made them into dessert sandwiches with graham crackers.  They had loud arguments.  They laughed all the time.  When the older two children were already teenagers, they were able to afford their first dishwasher.  They rang our doorbell to tell us the news.  They invited us over to see it and offered us frosting sandwiches.  They walked on air, such was the level of their glee.

When it was time for their oldest boy to go to college, he didn’t look past our home state.  No one did.  There were a million colleges to choose from as well as the state universities, and desiring to reach further than the many options at hand seemed ungrateful somehow, a muddle of priorities.

My high school made a big deal of me being the first student ever to be accepted to this college.  I’m pretty sure that I may have been the first person who had ever applied. In many ways, I embraced – and even idealized – the life of small pleasures and measured dreams.  It was a big stretch for me to think about applying to this college in the first place.  In truth, I couldn’t even begin to picture what it might really be like to be so far away, in so many different ways, from anything I had experienced.

As I said, I should have read the fine print.

 

Four months until the June launch of my novel The Rocky Orchard!. Meantime, onward with my newest novel, tentatively titled The Reading.  I hope you enjoy the excerpt above.

A Shower in Winter

dorm.shower

Seven o’clock on a Thursday night.  Early.  A seemingly random time to take a shower, but I had drawn out dinner as long as I could with endless cups of coffee, and I wasn’t ready for the evening – meaning either gathering folks to head to the bar, or possibly studying something.  It was mid-winter, and the icy gray relentlessness had dug its claws deep into me.  I took showers at all kinds of haphazard times, when I needed to feel the profound warmth that only full immersion can bring.  Growing up, I relied on baths.  But there were no such things as bathtubs at college.  Nor were there children.  Nor dogs.  There were all kinds of things that you never saw; they simply disappeared from one’s landscape for years.

I had worked up a bountiful cloud of steam.  The shower’s intense heat within the cold of the marble bathroom cause the column of steam to shoot toward the ceiling in a swirling frenzy.  I closed my eyes and luxuriated in the feeling of my fingertips massaging the shampoo all through my scalp while the water fell on my abdomen and cascaded down my legs.  With my eyes still closed, I turned around, threw my head back and rinsed the shampoo from my hair, feeling the rivers of suds tumble down my back and pool around my feet.

shower.feet

When my hair was fully rinsed, I opened my eyes.  A pair of dark brown eyes stared straight at me, framed by the fingertips of two hands.  The top of his head, encased in a ratty dark blue stocking cap, poked up from the back wall of the shower stall.  The eyes.  All I could see were the eyes.  I couldn’t figure out what in the world he was standing on, that he would be able to look over the top of the shower wall.  I couldn’t figure out what the hell he was doing, meaning, what, exactly, was his plan?

He vanished.

The silence was deadly.

I whipped around to face the other direction.  Part of his body was raised over the opposite shower wall.  He seemed to be hoisting himself.  He seemed to be trying to crawl over the top of the shower wall to get inside the stall with me.  It didn’t seem like a good idea to scream.  I knew there was no one else around.  I figured he was probably carrying – if not a gun, then certainly a knife.  From what I could see, he seemed huge.  Six feet three, maybe six-four. It just didn’t seem like a good idea to scream.

Intruder with Knife

In the few seconds I took to weigh my options, I saw him out of the corner of my eye.  That eye again.  One eye this time.  Looking at me.  Looking through the slight space between the shower door and the door frame.  The bulk of his body was directly behind the shower door.  I put the full force of my weight into it and pushed the shower door right into his face.  Right into his fucking face.  Fast thinker, he turned out to be.  He shoved the door back toward me, and he ran like hell out of the bathroom and down the five flights of stairs and out the freshman quadrangle gate and into the night.

I stood in the bathroom, with the shower still running, shivering head to toe.  My teeth chattered.  My body, bright pink from the scorching water, felt like it had no blood in it at all, as if the terror had leached it right out of my skin.  At some point I turned off the water but felt swallowed by the silence, terrified by the absence of the sound.  I turned the shower back on, focused hard on the sound of the stream so I could hold it inside of me, then turned the handle off again.

I wrapped myself in my towel and looked at my reflection in the mirror above the perfectly polished sinks.  I needed to see myself.  I needed to make sure that I was still there, still me.  Though I had seen the man with the huge, bloodshot brown eyes bolting down the stairs after he tore out of the bathroom, I couldn’t trust what I had seen.  I stayed in the bathroom for a long time, then tentatively, slowly, cracked the bathroom door open a bare sliver and looked around for any sign that he may still be close.

Nothing.  The polished marble of the common area on the fourth-floor landing, the old staircase, four closed doors.  Wait, not all of the doors were closed.  The door to my dorm room was ajar.

intruder

 

Different Voices

silhouette-children

The Rocky Orchard will be my fourth novel; it will be the third one of those novels where I have re-written a large section by changing the narrative voice from the third person to the first person, or the other way around.  The voice — whether the story is told from the perspective of “I did this,” or whether it’s told from an outside perspective of an onlooker as “they did this,” is pivotal to everything about how the book unfolds and how the story gets told.  I thought it would be interesting to post the same section of The Rocky Orchard in two different voices.  Let me know your thoughts.

First person version:

It’s been a long time since I’ve stood on this porch.  One of my favorite places in the world.  I take two more steps to my left, and I am at the exact spot where I can see the farthest in three different directions.  Two whole sides of the old farmhouse and the wraparound porch that encircles them. On the front section of the porch the black wooden swing hangs from the ceiling, a few of my grandmother’s old throw pillows still strewn across the back.  The creaky single bed with its blue-and-white embroidered cover – both there since my parents bought this place – takes up the far corner, keeping its lookout into the cave created by the copse of towering pines.  The overflow bed, for times when we had more people visiting than would fit in the ten other sleeping places scattered throughout three of the house’s four rooms.  Or when it was so hot, so unbearably killingly humid, that Woo would opt to sleep on the porch.  I never slept well when he did this.  I missed him being in the other twin bed in our upstairs room.  I felt betrayed.

Beyond the porch itself, through the slight warbly dimming of the screen’s grid, a panoramic sweep of the land outside.  Not all the much to see to the left, as the stone pathway leading from the porch door up to the dirt road runs up a steep bank.  I have to stoop down to get a glimpse of the road itself; otherwise the view is of a vertical slope, covered by a motley assortment of ferns, and a couple of tenacious mountain laurel, clinging to the slope and struggling to keep their grip and survive.

The springhouse, off to the right in its own little valley, with its eternal smell – a pungent mixture of creosote and gasoline and a million leftover pieces and parts of a million abandoned projects that have been there forever.  Long before we got here. Useless tools, boxes of screws, cartons of nails, shell cases, gas cans, broken mouse traps, hoses, pipe sections, caulk.  We kept a combination lock on the rusty hasp on the springhouse door.  I used to test myself each spring, after a whole winter of not coming here had gone by, to see if I could still remember the combination.  But mostly, I was testing myself.  The springhouse was one of so many things I was terrified of.  I would open the combination lock, take off the old hasp, and see how many steps I could walk into the springhouse itself.  I would stand there, just breathing the acrid air, looking at the relics that covered most of the floor space anyway.  Sometimes I would touch a couple of things.  But mostly it was about standing there, forcing myself to face my own terror, maybe a few more seconds each year.

writer

Third person version:

“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.  The steep bank had always been covered with a motley assortment of ferns, with a couple of scrawny mountain laurel struggling to survive on the slope.  To her right sat the old shed, and beyond, 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.

writing2

Middle painting: Cathleen Rehfeld

Bottom painting: Frederic Belaubre

new writing, new newsletter

swing

Let’s start out with a new tidbit from my novel-in-progress, The Rocky Orchard:

Swing

I am barefoot.  My absolute favorite thing.  I reach down with one toe, just my big toe, to give us the barest little push to keep the swing going.  I feel tiny grains of dirt on the porch floor as my toe kisses against them.  The extra length of the swing’s chain clanks against the section of chain that’s holding the swing from the porch ceiling.  How long has this swing been here?  We have never once had to fix it, or adjust it, or anything. Not like the old wooden swing outside, with its absurdly long ropes hanging from the giant pine.  We have had to fix that swing a million times, it seems; but the porch one, never.  I toss my head back and look up at the ceiling bolt that holds the porch swing in place, ancient and rusty and painted over so many times. The thought of its strength, its endurance, amaze me. And makes me tired, exhausted. The strain of years upon years of holding up the weight of human beings. I twirl the extra chain through my fingers, I clunk it against the taut chain that is doing the work of holding us up.  I look over at you. My Eddie. 

            A line of sweat is just beginning to break out in the crease of your neck. I want to capture the expression on your face and put it in a jar.  I want to carry the jar around with me like precious fireflies from a summer night.  I have never seen you so relaxed, so contented. As if you know what I’m thinking, you reach for my hand and you kiss it.  I am staring at you and you know that I am staring at you, and I tear up, and you laugh.  You kiss my hand again.  You have that shy-but-formidable look, the one you had on our first date, our real first date.  The look that makes you one dimple sing out.  The look that made me think that maybe, just maybe, we might end up right here someday, swinging on this swing.

            Your hand in mine is sweaty.  The cool moistness of your palm against mine sends a ripple through my body, a shudder of feeling. I reach across your body to trace the line of sweat on your neck with the index finger of my other hand.  I taste it.  The salt of you.  I cannot get enough of you. 

couple.legs

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