“The Elephant in the Room,” new excerpt from novel “Pushing the River”

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The Tumbleweed lay sleeping in Madeline’s bed above when she arose 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 sierra as soon as i knew she was pregnant… that i should’ve stayed in chicago two summers ago and fought for custody and maybe sierra 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 new york and stay there without sierra. 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 new york 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 sierra 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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“Sierra Arrives,” excerpt from novel “Pushing the River”

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Marie hardly ever called.  She apologized on a regular basis for being a lousy long-distance correspondent, feeling helpless as she watched all of her cherished Chicago connections eluding her grasp, her own ardent desire to keep them close set against a paralysis at doing anything that might stop them all from receding more and more into her corners.  So it was particularly unusual for Madeline to see Marie’s name, and her pixie-of-steel face flashing across the phone screen at 10:00 pm.  No way this can be good, Madeline thought to herself.

            “I don’t know what’s going on exactly.  Sierra sent me a text yesterday saying that Mom was acting weird, and now she’s just texted me saying that she’s not safe.”

            “Oh, shit.”

            “I think Sierra’s locked herself in the bathroom.  I think my mom’s talking to Uncle Steve.”

            “Oh, shit.”

            “I know this is a lot to ask, but is there any way that you can go and pick her up?  Bring her to your house?  I’m so sorry.”

             “Problem is I’m working tonight.  Til midnight.  I’m on phone duty, so I can’t leave.  Let me think.”

            “She doesn’t have any minutes left on her damn phone, so I can’t call her.  Can’t talk to her.  This is all through text.  Madeline, you’re not the first person I called.  I called everyone else I can think of.  I can’t reach anyone.  No one.”   Marie took a breath and said, “I’m so sorry.  I so didn’t want to drag you in to all of this.  I was so hoping my mom could hold it together just a little while longer.  Just til I move back.”

            “It’s OK, Marie.  If Sierra’s not safe, that’s all that matters.

            “I think she needs to get out of there now.  Like, now.  If I can get a ride for her, can she stay with you?  Can she come up there?  Tonight?  Right now?”

            “Of course,” Madeline said.

            “I might have to call a cab.  I might have to see if I can charge a cab, if they’ll take my credit card from here.”

            “What!?  That’s insane.  That’s gonna be a fortune!  I’ll be off work at midnight…”

            “Too long.  As long as I know it’s ok for her to come up there, I gotta go.  I gotta take care of this.”

            “It’s fine.”

            “I’m so sorry.”

            “You’re gonna really piss me off if you keep apologizing.”

            “Bye.  Sorry.”

            At fifteen minutes after midnight, Madeline opened the door, and only then did it occur to her that she had not seen Sierra for  two full years, four years since she had seen her without a heavily and carefully painted face.  Even the wildly striped hair did nothing to dilute the impact of seeing a child, a very small, very young, very sad and scared child standing there.  A child who happened to be seven months pregnant.

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            All Madeline could see in front of her was the giant-eyed little girl sitting in her big sister’s lap the night they met, rocking crazily back and forth on the floor in utter jubilation.

            “Whoa, you’re pregnant!”  Madeline quipped gamely.

            “Ha ha.  You’re hilarious.”

            “Look, you must be exhausted.  We’re not going to talk about anything tonight.  Not a thing.  You’re going to get a good night’s sleep.  Your sister told me you can’t make any phone calls cause you don’t have any ‘minutes,’ so I charged up my phone for you.  I’ve got unlimited minutes, so go wild.  Call anyone you want to.  Are you hungry?  Do you want something to eat?”

            “I’m pretty tired.”

            “Want to just go to bed then?”

            “Yeah. Well. Do you have any milk?  Not the weird organic stuff you used to get, just regular old milk?”

            “I still swear you cannot tell the difference in the milk.”

            “That’s what you always said about the gummy bears, so ha.”

            “I only have organic.”

            “Do you have chocolate I can put in?”

            “I do.  Your sister left about a gallon of it.”

            “Can you make it for me?  Can you warm it up?”

            “Gawd, you’re high maintenance.”

            “Can you bring it upstairs when it’s ready?  I gotta make a call.”

            “Sure.  You go on up.”

            Halfway up the stairs, Sierra stopped for a second, turned part way around, and said very quietly, “Thank you, MadMad.”

            “Yeah, yeah.”

            “A lot of chocolate, OK?  Really a lot.”

            A thousand memories merged when Madeline heard, deep in a hard-won sleep, the sound of faint, small footsteps coming down the hallway towards her room.  For many years, the Boy believed that his mother never slept a wink, but lay there all night doing nothing more than observing some quaint custom; how else to explain that by the time he reached her bedside– each and every time for a whole childhood — by the time he got close, she said in a full, wide-awake voice, “What’s wrong, honey?”  Not a drop of sleep remained when Sierra whispered into the darkness, “MadMad.  I’m really sorry.  Marie said I had to wake you up.  She’s on the phone.”

            “Madeline, my mother called the police.  She reported Sierra as a runaway, and that means you’re harboring a runaway, and that means you’re gonna get arrested.  The policeman is there with my mother right now.  I have him on the phone.  In my other ear.  While I’m talking to you.  You have to take Sierra home right now, or the police are gonna come arrest you.”

            “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding.”

            “No.  Most definitely not.”

            “Does this cop know about Uncle Steve?  Does he know that Billie is talking to Uncle Steve?”

            “Yes.  He knows.”

            “Does he know that Uncle Steve has been dead for fifteen years?”

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“This Is,” new excerpt from “Pushing the River”

 

Greetings to all new followers.  THANK YOU so much for your interest and support of my blog and my writing.  Thank you for helping me reach more than ONE THOUSAND FOLLOWERS!

 

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            There was something about that particular time.  They lay together afterwards for a very long while, not one word passing between them, wide awake.  Occasionally she would bury her fingers in his chest hair, or inhale deeply the scent of his skin.  Their breathing did not slow down, long after it should have.  When one of them finally said, “I’m starving,” they both leapt up, and stood facing one another across the bed, breathing heavily, eyes fixed on one another in the gathering dusk, neither moving, as if rooted to the spot, the moment, one another.

            “You know what this is, don’t you?”  Dan said.

            “What?”

            “I mean, you know what’s going on here, right?”

            “What?” Madeline said again.

            “This is love,” Dan said.  “There is love here.”

            “W H A T ? ! ?” Madeline shot back.  “I mean, W H A T ? ! ?”

            “Stop saying ‘what.’  You know there is.”

            “Shit!”

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            Madeline paced along her side of the bed within a roughly two-foot square, more  like a crazy dance, while Dan gazed into the now-dark room with a thousand-mile stare.

            “That was most definitely not the plan!” Madeline said.

            “The plan was to have no plan.”

            “Yeah, but the plan was definitely not…this!”

            “It’s not in anybody’s control here.  It just is.”

            “Well aren’t you just the zen fucking master.”

            Dan laughed, and Madeline said, again, “Shit!”

            “Come on.  I thought you were starving.”

            “I thought you were starving.”

            “Let’s get some food. You. Me. Us.”

            “For the record, I feel compelled to state that I am not happy about this.”

            “Duly noted.  How about Chinese?”

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“Nikita,” an excerpt from my novel “You, in Your Green Shirt”

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I have longed to be the title character in the film La Femme Nikita.   She  decides one day that from that minute forward, she has no past.  She refuses to discuss it.  Ever again. 

One afternoon, she stops at a local grocery store.  The man at the check-out counter makes a shy attempt  to engage her in conversation.  She can see a genuine kindness in him, a fundamental openness.  She invites him to her apartment and they prepare dinner together.  He never leaves.  They love one another passionately and devotedly.  He yearns to know more about her, about her past.   The yearning shows as an expression of worried expectation on his face when she is not looking.  But he knows he can never ask her, that she will never tell him.

This seems like the best possible solution to me, every part of it.    I go to five different grocery stores in the area, including two supermarkets, a warehouse club and two small neighborhood stores, at all hours of the day and night, needing only one or two things at a time but full of hopeful possibility.  If ever the line between reality and fiction were clear, believe me, it’s in the difference between Nikita’s paramour and the real people manning the check-out lines in suburban American grocery stores. 

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Nikita resolves to start a whole new life, and she does.  A life with no past.

There’s a man on my block, around my age.   He moved in to an apartment down the street when he left his wife of nearly thirty years.  He has a whole new life.  A younger, long-legged, smiling inamorata whom I see driving his car around, or I see the two of them getting out of the car with bags of groceries for the evening’s meal.  Just like Nikita.  They are always smiling at one another, and though there is somewhat of the tentativeness and gentleness of a new love, there is also the ease. 

 “Is it really so easy?  Is it  as easy as you make it look?  This business of having a whole new life?”  I am dying to ask him this.  But I don’t.

Sometimes I study him.  The way he bounds out of his apartment when he is running late.  The way he balances his brief case, gripping it confidently and tightly in one hand while swinging the other arm briskly back and forth, back and forth.  I study his movements, his gestures, as if I am a student of method acting.  As if I believe that perfectly adopting every nuance of his behavior will hold the secret, will open up my own doorway to a whole new life.

That the next time those glass and silver doors at one of the five grocery stores whooshes open to welcome me, and I stroll in, confidently gripping my purse in one hand while the other arms swings briskly back and forth, that it will happen.  There he will be at the check-out.  He will make a shy attempt at conversation, and I will see his kindness.  We will make dinner with the fresh groceries I have just purchased, and he will never leave.

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This is what I am thinking: that maybe one day I can be Nikita.  Maybe if I go back once more, just once more.  If I can put it all in order.  This is what I need you for, to go there with me, to be my witness. 

I read something recently.  It said that the hardest part, the most arduous hurdle, is not learning how to trust a man again.  It is learning how to trust yourself.  And I thought: yes, that’s it.  That’s exactly it.  How can I be sure there was not something that I missed.  Something that I failed to see, failed to understand.    Maybe early on, maybe even right from the beginning.  Maybe not even from the beginning of my marriage, but from the beginning of my very life.

“Pushing the River” excerpt introduces Auggie and Bess

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“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.”  8069027891_3e0726af21_bHe 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.

            “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.  Bess 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.

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            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 Bess, and pulled her head over to lean against his own.  “Wouldn’t we, babe?  Chaperones!”  He caught Bess 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.”  Bess could barely get her wine glass safely onto the table, she was laughing so hard.

            “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.”

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“Pushing the River” — new chapter snippet

Well, I did warn everyone that, despite my prior resolutions, I am writing this book out of sequence.  I am also writing, um, several chapters at the same time — yet another thing I resolved not to do, once upon some hypothetical time.  At the worst times, it does feel quite scattered and schizophrenic.  But, I have found that, to my surprise, this “strategy” also creates a deep sense of closeness to the characters, and the story, and deepens the way that this lives inside of me as I plod along.

Based on feedback (yeah, blogging!  yeah, feedback!!) , posting these chapter snippets has been really successful in creating a lot of interest in “Pushing the River,” while generating total bewilderment about where this is all going.  Mission Accomplished!

Without further ado, here is a new snippet:

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The first time my Lady ever saw Sierra, she was plunked in her sister’s lap at the one and only performance of the Boy’s music group.  Marie sat on the floor in the middle of the open room as the musicians set up, both arms bear-hugging Sierra as she rocked the little girl back and forth in exaggerated swings.  And she was a little girl, too.  Ten years old back then, and small for her age.  She was all eyes – immense pools of deep blue that flashed out from behind chin-length brown hair that gave the very strong impression it wasn’t going to follow anyone’s orders no matter how hard they might try to maneuver it into place.

            She exuded scrappiness, just like her mother and her sister; and whether this was a learned, shared response to all that life had thrown at them, or a trait embedded in the strands of their DNA, it was most certainly there.  She looked like she should be a literary character in a series of books that generations of children would adore, or the star of some adventurous, clever, educational TV show.

            My lady didn’t see her again until the next summer, when the Boy married Marie.  Sierra was not much taller, but still managed to show the signs of gangly, awkward early adolescence, her arms and legs getting in her way all the time, and little, high-up breasts poking out from her T-shirt.  Once in a while she could be caught with a far-off look on her face, as if she were gazing way, way into the future.  Other times, she was a little girl; one of those legs would get in her way and she’d take a tumble and need her mama to carry her around for a while.

            Sierra didn’t make her annual trip to visit her mama the following year, so the next time she came for the summer, she was thirteen years old.  If she stood up straight as a die, she would still not reach 5 feet; but in that two years, everything had changed.  Instead of being all eyes and a hank of hair, she was all eyes…and absolutely enormous breasts.  In an effort not to look like some cruel joke had situated a little girl’s head atop a very-much grown woman’s body, she had begun wearing makeup and coloring her long, still-wild hair.

            No one knew quite what to make of her when she first arrived that summer – whether they should talk to her just the same as always or treat her like the entirely different creature that she looked to be.  But other than spending sizeable amounts of time trying to straighten out and generally tame her long mane, she proved very much the same.

            At least that’s what everybody thought at first.

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