A Shower in Winter

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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.

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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.

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Squalor and Stairs

Soon to be immersed in the final editing of my fourth novel, The Rocky Orchard, I continue to work on a possible fifth, tentatively entitled The Reading.  Here is a recent snippet:

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That school was trying to crush me.  Right from the very first day, that school wanted my soul.  My mom and I had checked the map the college had sent before we set out that morning.  We had marked the exact route and the exact place that the official literature had said was the closest place to park for my particular freshman dorm.  When we drove down the squalid city street, we pulled the car over to check the map again.  The juxtaposition of boarded-up buildings and heavily gated storefronts set against a backdrop of lush, towering elm trees fascinated me.  The way the sun glistened from a million shards of broken bottles that lay in clumps was beautiful enough that my road-trip woozy brain considered that they may have been placed intentionally.  But it did not seem like we could possibly be close to a university, let alone on the campus itself, as the map indicated.

It hadn’t registered that all of the freshmen were housed on a campus that stood separate from the rest of everything.  Meaning, along the edges of a monstrous quadrangle.  Meaning, a killingly long distance from the closest place that we could park.  My mom pulled up to the curb at the end of a long line of cars lit up with emergency flashers blinking in a dazzling display of orange.  Mom gave me a weak-but-brave-smile, and we opened the doors of her little red station wagon to a day that would go on record as one of the most wretchedly hot days I ever experienced.  Meltingly, inexcusably hot.  I thought this well before I learned that Wren Hall Room 545 was on the fourth floor, the fourth floor of a building that had no elevator.  And, there was a flight of stairs up to the “first” floor.  I was not even slightly charmed by the European sensibility, nor by the staircase that appeared to be genuine white marble, the edges of the steps rounded by the footfalls of generations.  I was incensed, indignant that such a thing as a fourth floor walk-up that was actually a fifth floor walk-up even existed, let alone that I was destined to spend a year planning my days around not returning to my dorm room more than absolutely necessary.

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But first, my mom and I had to get the sundry possessions that filled the back of the station wagon up all of those stairs.

Thank heavens I was more or less of a minimalist.  I hadn’t brought all that much stuff.

Meaning, thanks heavens I was poor.

I said hi hi hi to all the kids and their family members who were lugging endless numbers of suitcases, quickly scanning the faces of my classmates for any hints of who they may be.  I noted as well the high-end stereo equipment and the boxes with the names of stores I had only read about in novels.  The families seemed impermeable to the heat. I surreptitiously checked their brows for beads of sweat.  I inhaled as they passed, trying to catch a whiff of rank, locker room worthy sweat.  My mother and I were dripping puddles well before we reached the top floor for the first time.

The stereo stuff, the store names, the careful way that the parents carried various lamps and desk accessories – it was all a clue.  But nothing so much as their shoes.  I looked at the shoes of my classmates’ parents as they made their way up and down the marble staircases with the lacquered ebony wood trim, and I knew for certain that I was the only person among this group who was at this school on scholarship.

At some point two young women came out of their first-floor room and introduced themselves as my resident advisors.  One was quite tall and willowy and the other relatively short and not-so-willowy;  they both had long, very blonde hair, oversized blue eyes, bland smiles, and eyebrows that were slightly raised in a perpetually expectant expression.  I disliked them immediately, and decided I wasn’t even going to bother to try to tell them apart.

My roommate Carrie popped out of her room at one point to introduce herself.  When my mom took a potty break, I popped into Carrie’s room to have a peak.  She had arrived before I did.  From the looks of it, Carrie seemed to have arrived weeks before, as her tiny bedroom already bore the look of having been lived in for a while.  She had covered her walls with posters of two things: big cats, as in lions and jaguars and cougars, and huge tomb rubbings of medieval knights.  The rest of the room was decorated in a mishmash of floral prints – lampshades, throw pillows, sheets and blankets all with different sizes and colors of flowers.  Carrie herself wore her clearly-wild hair parted with razor-like severity straight down the middle and braided in two tight braids.  She had an overbite and kind of bad acne and looked both bewildered and ironic all at once.  She wore a plaid cotton shirt, and a quick peek into her closet revealed a seemingly unlimited supply of plaid cotton shirts.  I liked her immediately.

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Bran Muffin

I’ve signed the contract (!!!) for my fourth novel The Rocky Orchard.  While my editor works on it, I’ve continued to play around with the idea for novel #5.  Here is a new excerpt:

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“Seriously, you’re about the tenth person I’ve run into in the four blocks from the art building,” I said to Rob.

“Well, hello to you, too, Sunshine,” Rob said.  He shuffled his feet, just once, like he always did, then combed his fingers through his amazingly thick hair, like he always did.  It was that gesture – the fingers through the hair – that got me.  Every time.  It brought out something weird and maternal that I didn’t even know was there.  I just wanted to… I don’t know, hug him or adopt him or follow him around and make sure that nobody hurt him, ever.

“Seriously, I think I belong at a bigger school.  I think I yearn to be anonymous,” I said.

“I don’t think the coat is doing you any favors,” he said.  “Not if you want to be anonymous.”

“Oh my God.  Not with the coat again!  Haven’t you gotten enough mileage out of this coat?”

“I think the horse got enough mileage out of the blanket before they even made it into a coat,” he said.  “Really, I’m counting on an early spring.”

“It’s a good thing I’m not sensitive or fragile or anything cause this would be deeply wounding to me,” I said.

“Are you taking an art class, by the way?  I didn’t know you were taking an art class.”

“No, no art class.  The art school cafeteria has these amazing bran muffins.”  He stared blankly at me.  “They warm them up for you.”  I fought back a tear.  Crazy that I was so powerfully moved by the idea of someone warming a muffin for me.

muffin

“Bran muffins,” he said, deadpan, as if to indicate this was one of the most puzzling things he had ever heard.

“Don’t judge the muffin.  You can judge the coat, but you cannot judge the muffin,” I said.  There was another “me” that stood outside of myself.  I watched myself as I stood on that exact spot near the far corner of the freshman quad, under the eternally gray sky, wrapped in the coat that Rob loathed.  I found it amazing that I could appear so normal.  The whirl inside of me did not show.

“Promise me that you’ll give me the coat as soon as the weather warms.  I’m going to personally donate it to Salvation Army.  No way I can face the possibility of looking at that coat again next winter.”

Next winter.  It was when he said “next winter” that I knew.  Right then, I knew.

There would be no “next winter” for me.  I would not be coming back.

I thought of the painfully poignant play “A Memory of Two Mondays” where Arthur Miller tells the story of a young man who goes to work in an auto parts factory to save money for college.  The young man is passing through, working alongside an entire group of people who will remain.  He and another co-worker are charged with cleaning the filthy factory windows.  The passage of time is told by the light on the stage set, which gets incrementally brighter as more of the windows get cleaned. The light shines into the dismal scene. The young man’s mood, like mine, gets brighter and brighter as the light changes and he knows that the end of his time is near.  He also knows that those he leaves behind – the bitter, the resigned, the angry, the uncertain, and even the completely content – have a bond, a sense of community, that has never included him.

“See you at dinner?” Rob asked.

“See you at dinner,” I said.


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Bottom photo: from Chicago Critic, “A Memory of Two Mondays”

Goodbye, goodbye

As my editor works on my novel, The Rocky Orchard, I may have been struck with a possible idea for my next book…

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I hated that school.  That hated school in that dreadful town.  That dreadful town in the part of the world where winter was not even winter.  Not the light snowfalls that dusted each twig of each tree and lay spread out across the hills where I had grown up.  Where the tiny footprints of birds and chipmunks and squirrels left their perfect imprints across our yards.  In this feckless land, winter was nothing more than an endless gray sky that spit intervals of drizzle.  The drizzle froze on the ground, making the school an ugly and hazardous wasteland of ice.  A wasteland that tripped us and made us fall down and spit on us as we lay on the ground.

A year so bad that I passed the time mainly by drinking too much.  A year so bad that I got an ungodly amount of pleasure from barfing out the window of my fourth-floor dormitory room.  I didn’t plan this, and was likely too far gone in my misery to have thought of such a magnificent metaphor.  I had drunk most of a bottle of Southern Comfort and was, quite simply, too drunk to make it to the bathroom.  Being that drunk also meant, as it turned out, that I could not lean my head very far out of the beautiful Gothic window without losing my balance.  I held on to each side of the window frame to steady myself and leaned my chin on the sill.  Hence, the vomit cascaded down the entire length of the side wall, where the winter temperatures froze it in place.

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And where it remained for a very long time.  A slight warming of the temperature, or a sleety mix, would cause sections of the whole to rain down, creeping its way through the brick and ivy as the mass oozed farther down the wall.  Sometimes, a larger chunk would break off all at once and hit the ground below.  I checked my vomit every day, as if it were a pet, as if it were something precious whose care was my honor and responsibility.  By early spring, the last vestiges of the only Southern Comfort I would ever drink were gone.

I wanted to leave so much that I had been counting down the days, making large X’s on an enormous wall calendar like a child marking the time until Christmas, or the end of a school year with a teacher whose dislike of teaching was only surpassed by their hated of children.

It was my last night on campus.  All I wanted to do was say goodbye.  Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.  It was time; it was finally time.  I had nothing left to do but take my victory lap around the campus and hug hug kiss kiss the assorted souls who had weathered the winter of my discontent along side of me.  I was gleeful.  I was drunk.  I was pressed for time.

I could not find my friend Patrick.  John hadn’t seen him.  Sandy hadn’t seen him.  Brent had seen him earlier, but…. Charlie said, yeah, he was just here. I’m pretty sure he’s in the bathroom.  As I mentioned, I was drunk.  And pressed for time.  I flung open the door to the men’s bathroom on the floor of his dormitory, and found Patrick unzipped and just beginning to eject an impressively forceful stream from what seemed to me, having little to no experience here, to also be an impressive distance from the target.

Patrick turned his head at the recognition of my voice, as I began the delivery of my goodbye message.  Then the overall nature of the situation seemed to occur to him, as he registered – in rapid succession – shock, surprise, perplexity, amusement, and all-out mirth, as evidenced by an open-mouthed belly laugh.  My own emotions, amazingly enough, ran much the same gamut, but in reverse, as Patrick had continued to pee an enormous, unwavering stream the entire time that I had been talking and he had been laughing.

I was amazed, and felt like it was one of the most interesting and significant and noteworthy things that had happened to me in that entire year.  I remarked on this to Patrick, who continued to both laugh AND PEE.  A small crowd had gathered in the men’s bathroom, as word passed about this event; so there was, in fact, a group of people watching me watching Patrick Killarney pee while I said my last goodbye.  He zipped up and we hugged and I practically skipped back to my room knowing I would leave this awful world behind me the next morning.

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How was I to know that forty-five years later, Patrick Killarney would tell me that I had changed the course of his life.