“Fading In, Fading Out,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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Madeline and Dan sat at the dining room table, blowing on their spoonfuls of piping hot, warmed-up lentils.

“So, have you thought about when you’re going to tell your ex that you’re in a new quote relationship unquote?”

Dan’s spoon stopped in mid-air. He leaned all the way back in his chair. “Why in the world would I tell her that?” He looked at Madeline as if she were utterly mad.

It was Madeline’s turn to sit back in her chair. She scanned Dan’s face for some flicker that was not there. “Um, yesterday, you said you had been thinking about it. You said you thought you needed to tell her.”

“I couldn’t possibly have said that, because there is no possible way that I would think of telling her.”

That was the conversation — and the end of any further conversation– during last evening’s dinner.

Madeline was going over it in her head as she nuzzled her cheek against the top of Dylan’s head. She certainly knew by now that Dan had a seriously crap memory; but this seemed to go well beyond the usual. It had been one night before, as they sat in those same chairs at that same dining room table, digging into take-out food from the local favorite Chinese spot. Through a mouthful of Szechuan broccoli, Dan said, “I’ve been thinking about Nancy. I’ve been thinking that I need to tell her about you. I mean, even though the “relationship” relationship has been over for years, her friendship is really important to me. I think it’s the right thing to do. I need to tell her.”

Madeline had said something along the lines of “oh” in response, not actually caring one way or another if Dan told some ex-lover Across the Pond about their…whatever-it-was. Perhaps this would have mattered to her a great deal if times were a bit different, she thought. But when you had police knocking on your door – twice in one night – and child protective services filling out forms in your living room, priorities tended to shift.

A grim picture entered her mind. What if her memory was just as crap as Dan’s? What if she just happened to remember that particular conversation, whereas there were countless others that she did not recall. What if, God forbid, she and Dan actually had the same conversations over and over and over? And, if that wasn’t already the case, was that the inevitable future?

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Madeline saw herself sitting in the chair that her parents let her take from her room at home to her room at college. The super comfy arm chair with the flesh-covered, bizarrely nautically-pattered slipcover. She ran her fingers along the welted seams while she read her way through her college years. The cover of the book was bright red. She had taken an anthropology course on Varying Meanings of Life and Death to fulfill some requirement or other, and had ended up fascinated, pouring over the descriptions of other lands and other people, regaling her roommates at the dinner table with tidbits she could not wait to share.

The one that bubbled up from deep memory just then was this: there was a society in Spain – she was fairly sure it was Spain – where the people believed that life and death are not moments, but rather processes. A person emerges gradually during childhood as life grows; likewise life retreats from a person gradually as they age.

When does that begin, Madeline wondered? Has it already?

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Art, top to bottom: Paul Gauguin, Frida Kahlo, Paul Gauguin

“There Is No Formula,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

This is the 3rd posting for this continued chapter.  The final paragraph of the previous post is repeated for continuity.

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“Really?” Madeline said. She did delight in this man who had never been around a baby, never held a baby in his entire 55-year-old life. She had watched him stand at a terrified, awkward distance when he came to the hospital after Dylan was born. She had watched him thaw, gradually at first. She had seen him become mesmerized. She had heard him say, more than once, that maybe, no definitely, if he had met her earlier in his life, the two of them would have would have made a family together. Fuck. What do you say to that? And here he was, offering to mix a bottle of infant formula for a baby whose 15-year-old mother was catching up on her sleep with some lost boy named Jose, because she was pissed at her baby daddy who had flirted with another girl thousands of miles away.

Dan left the room and returned a few brief seconds later. “There’s no formula left. None.”

He retrieved the empty container from the kitchen and held it out to her, shaking it around for emphasis.

Madeline sighed heavily.

“She needs to figure this out,” Dan said. “She insists she wants this baby, and she needs to figure this out.”

“She’s fifteen years old,” Madeline said. “She ain’t gonna figure out shit.”

“Well, as long as she’s here, she’s gonna try.” Dan turned on his heels and sprang up the stairs to the second floor. Madeline held her breath, picturing Dan clenching and unclenching his jaw in her head. The lightness of his knock on Savannah’s door surprised her, as did the gentle voice that matched it.

“Savannah?” Dan said. “You need to get up. We’re completely out of formula. You need to go get some.”

After a short pause, Savannah’s groggy voice replied, “OK. I’m up. OK”

Dan remained at her door until he heard a general stirring of activity, then said, “Try to hurry up. Dylan’s already hungry.”

Dan rejoined Madeline in the sun room, where Dylan had drifted into a light snooze on her shoulder. “Nicely done,” she said. “You handled that well.”

“I think we would have made really good parents,” Dan said.

“To a 15-year-old unwed mother? Great.”

“No. You know that’s not what I meant. You make all of this look so…appealing. Like no other choices or other kinds of lives make sense to even consider,” he said.

A highly disheveled Savannah appeared in the doorway, joined at the hip to a skinny wraith of a boy who brought to mind the word “wan” despite his Hispanic heritage.

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“I guess we’ll have to walk over to the Walgreen’s to get some,” Savannah said.

“OK. He’s fallen asleep. He’s fine for now,” Madeline said.

“I mean, Marie usually takes me to that place where I can get the formula for free, but there’s no way to get there cause she’s at work, right?” Savannah offered.

“Right,” said Dan, before Madeline could answer.

“So I guess we’ll walk over to the Walgreen’s.”

“OK.”

“So…I need to borrow the money for it,” Savannah said.

“You need to borrow the money?”

“Don’t worry; Marie will pay you back as soon as she gets home. It’s usually, like, $25 for a container. Can you believe it’s so expensive? God, I’m SO glad we get it free.”

“I’m not worried,” Madeline said. “Let me rephrase. I’m not worried about getting paid back by Marie.”

Dan reached into his pants pocket. “I’ve got a 20 right here. Do you have the rest, Savannah? Five bucks or so?”

“Um, no, well, I can count up my change,” Savannah said. “I might have it.”

“Never mind counting change. You can get the rest out of my wallet,” Madeline said.

“OK. Thanks,” Savannah said. “Hey MadMad, can I borrow your jacket? Again?” She giggled.

“So I guess you want us to watch Dylan while you two go off to the store,” Dan said.

“Oh. Right. No, we can take him.” Savannah looked over at the silent, sunken waif at her side.

“Except I think he barfed all over the carrier. I think I need to wash it.”

“No reason to wake a hungry baby to take him outside in a barf-covered carrier. If you guys hurry, I’ll have enough time to get to work,” Madeline said. “So hurry.”

With a general kerfuffle and Savannah making approximately ten times the number of movements as The Wraith, the front door closed behind them. Dylan moved his head and frowned slightly in his sleep.

“Talkative chap, isn’t he?” Dan said.

“Jose? Yeah. He’s grown about a foot and is otherwise unrecognizable from the kid I met a couple of years ago; but I don’t remember him saying a single word back then either. He just sort of followed Savannah from room to room. She ate it up at first, but then she got more and more annoyed and ending up treating him pretty much like shit – calling and texting other guys the whole time he was around – until he vanished. It was an interesting ‘relationship.’”

“Ah. Well, it makes sense then that they’ve hooked up again,” Dan said.

The two of them chuckled softly. “It’s kind of not funny,” Madeline said.

“It’s not funny at all,” Dan said. “That’s why we’re laughing.”

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photos by Diane Arbus

Short. Kinda Sweet. New from the novel “Pushing the River”

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The following is a continuation of the previously posted chapter excerpt. A paragraph is repeated for continuity.

Madeline put her index finger into Dylan’s tiny fist so his fingers would curl around it and grip. With her other hand, she stroked his cheek, causing his eyes to flutter as he fought off sleep. She treasured these moments when she had the baby to herself, when she could lose herself in her fascination with his every minuscule movement, every slight change of expression that passed across his face. It did not happen often, but now and again at these precious times, it was almost as if the specter of her ex-husband Dick joined her. He sat beside her on the couch, and they gazed down together, lost in the miracle of the tiny life before them.

In the “real” world, the very much flesh-and-blood Dan came into the sun room and sat on the side not taken up by Dick’s memory ghost. He grasped Dylan’s other hand, so the three of them formed a bizarre human chain. Whether in response to the complexities encircling him, or strictly the result of his own inner rumblings, Dylan wrinkled his face and let out a parade of little fussy snorts. Madeline put him on her shoulder and nuzzled her face against his own. “He may be hungry,” she said. “I don’t have any idea when he had his last feeding.” She rolled her eyes. “I mean, some guy named Jose is upstairs in bed with Savannah.”

“WHAT?” Dan said.

“Yeah. He’s a friend from a couple of summers ago. I guess she ran into him again when she was hanging out in the park. With the baby.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me. Does Marie know?”

“Yep.” Madeline said. “I texted her at work. She said she’d talk to her and take care of it. Meanwhile…I better make a bottle.”

“I’ll do it,” Dan said.

“Really?” Madeline said. She did delight in this man who had never been around a baby, never held a baby in his entire 55-year-old life. She had watched him stand at a terrified, awkward distance when he came to the hospital after Dylan was born. She had watched him thaw, gradually at first. She had seen him become mesmerized. She had heard him say, more than once, that maybe, no definitely, if he had met her earlier in his life, the two of them would have would have made a family together. Fuck. What do you say to that? And here he was, offering to mix a bottle of infant formula for a baby whose 15-year-old mother was catching up on her sleep with some lost boy named Jose, because she was pissed at her baby daddy who had flirted with another girl thousands of miles away.

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Art: Toulouse-Lautrec

“Low on Formula,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

Happy mother with newborn baby

“MadMad, can you take him, please? Can you come up here and get him?” Savannah called through the closed door of her upstairs bedroom. Her groggy voice wafted down the stairway and through the kitchen, finding Madeline savoring her morning coffee at the sun room table.

Madeline opened the door to find Savannah already holding Dylan with arms outstretched. And – surprise!! — a young man, a boy really, face down and splayed across the mattress in his underwear. “I didn’t get any sleep at all last night. Is it OK for you to take him for a while? Do you have to go to work soon?”

“No, it’s fine,” Madeline said. “It’s really fine.”

Savannah had already plopped down and closed her eyes when she said, “there’s not a whole lot of formula left.”

Madeline grabbed her phone and immediately texted Marie at work:

Madeline: Um. Are you aware that your sister has a gentleman caller who happens to be sharing a bed with her right now? In my house??”

Marie: What?! OMG it must be Jose.

Madeline: Who the fuck is Jose?

Marie: Do you remember that kid she met in the park when she was here a couple of summers ago? That’s Jose. She ran into him again. Same park.

Madeline: Uh huh, terrific. I’m not sure that really explains why they’re in bed together. With Dylan. Except without Dylan now. I have him.

Marie: Do you mind taking care of him?

Madeline: Of course not. But hold on. I thought you guys told me that she had gotten back together with the baby daddy. Which I never understood in the first place since he’s 2000 miles away.

Marie: They broke up again. She’s pissed at him. I guess she caught him flirting with someone else.

Madeline: Caught him from 2000 miles away.

Marie: That’s probably why she’s hanging out with Jose. Cause she’s pissed at baby daddy.

Madeline: Hanging out in a bed.

Marie: I’ll talk to her. I gotta go.

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Madeline’s own words rang in her head. From the conversation she’d had with Marie when the inevitable happened. When it became clear that Savannah and Dylan needed to move into the house.

“I can’t be a mother to her, Marie. I won’t do that. I’ll give them a place to stay and I’ll help out with Dylan however and whenever I can cause I’m totally madly in love with him and because he deserves the absolute best beginning in his little life that all of us can possibly give him; but I’m not gonna be her mother. Not in any way. You’re gonna have to set the rules and whatever else. I’m not getting into any of that with her.”

Madeline put her index finger into Dylan’s tiny fist so his fingers would curl around it and grip. With her other hand, she stroked his cheek, causing his eyes to flutter as he fought off sleep. She treasured these moments when she had the baby to herself, when she could lose herself in her fascination with his every minuscule movement, every slight change of expression that passed across his face. It did not happen often, but now and again at these precious times, it was almost as if the specter of her ex-husband Dick joined her. He sat beside her on the couch, and they gazed down together, lost in the miracle of the tiny life before them.

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“Rice Pudding,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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“Oh, my God! Look what Marie got! This is my favorite!! MadMad, Look!” Savannah stood back from the refrigerator and held something out in her hand.

“What the heck is that?” Madeline said.

“What is that? That is rice pudding! Rice pudding!!”

Savannah held out a little plastic cup, the kind that she used to put in John and Kate’s lunch boxes, filled with applesauce. Savannah peeled off the silver top and dipped her finger in the lumpy ivory goo. “Oh, my God, that is good. You gotta try it. Go ahead! Dip your finger!”

“Um, no thanks, I don’t really like rice pudding. Never have.”

“Ah, are you sure? This stuff is awesome!”

The truth was: Madeline loved rice pudding.

When she and her husband first moved into the house, and John was a baby, they loved going to a neighborhood diner run by a Greek family that prided itself on its homemade rice pudding. Every time they came through the door, the middle-aged, mustached Greek owner with the sad eyes called out from the far side of the main dining room, “Johhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-Neeeeeeeeeeeeeee” in a booming and festive voice, as if the party could now begin. He snapped his fingers for someone to bring a high chair for John, and reached into the pocket of his permanent press slacks for a balloon. While Madeline and Dick settled John into the high chair and situated themselves in the booth, the owner blew the balloon into a long thin tube, and with a few deft twists and turns, produced a balloon creature of shocking complexity – to John’s enormous delight. He placed the creation on the tray of John’s high chair with a ceremonious flourish and vanished to the nether regions of his domain.

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John had been a breeze to take to restaurants, because his young appetite was, quite frankly, enormous. He was content to sit and eat for as long as the adults cared to stay, so Madeline and Dick tackled their Big Food, as they called it, with leisurely relish. There was no question that rice pudding would finish the meal, and a glorious finish it was.

They groaned in satisfaction the entire walk home, doing their best to navigate John’s stroller with one hand so they could clasp their own hands fast together.

Savannah said, “Shit girl, you’re missing it. I’m telling you, this is the best stuff ever. Last chance before I finish it off.”

Savannah again held out the little plastic cup. “Thanks, sweet pea. You finish it. I really don’t like rice pudding,” Madeline said.

Savannah’s smile was hugely content, the crown atop her immense belly. Madeline wobbled, struggled in a way that was not visible, in order to remain standing. I wish I wish I wish I could believe this. I wish I could believe that there is some possible happy ending here. That this baby in front of me can somehow take care of a baby. That there will be balloon animal rice pudding moments in their lives.

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Top: Jeff Koons

“Stocking Circle,” new excerpt from the novel “Pushing the River”

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In the middle of the night, Kate had awakened from a sound slumber, eyes wide, face to face with the hairline crack that ran along her west wall. “Shit damn,” she thought to herself. She threw her mountain of winter covers aside and tiptoed down the stairs.

On Christmas morning, Kate found her mother in the kitchen, babysitting the coffee pot as it burbled away.

“Mama! Merry Christmas!” She threw her arms around Madeline and simultaneously said: “Don’t even think about touching that pot until it’s all done.”

“Oh for god’s sake, I do this every morning! Every morning I pour myself a cup. That’s why there is such a thing as stop-and-pour. So we don’t have to wait! So civilization can march forward!”

“It will totally ruin the rest of the pot. No touch.”

“On this of all days! It’s Christmas. Mama needs her coffee!”

Kate decided it was easier to simply place herself between her mother and the brewing pot.

“You’re a terrible human being,” Madeline said.

“Stockings first? Same as ever? Then breakfast?”

“Of course,” Madeline replied. “Same as ever. Oh, no!! Shit!!!!! I didn’t even think about a stocking for Savannah. Didn’t even enter my head! Assuming she comes out of her room. At all.”

“Of course Savannah has a stocking,” Kate said. “Santa would never forget Savannah.”

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“Oh my God,” Madeline said. “Oh my god.”

“I forgot, too. Until the middle of the night.”

“What did you do?” her mother asked.

“Go look,” Kate said, while continuing: “I thought I was going to have to use one of those nasty ones you’ve kept all these years from your childhood – even though that creepy angel keeps losing more and more parts of her body like some pathetic leper – but anyway, there was a pretty new one in the box, too. Do you even remember why we got that one? I had to empty out all of the stockings, and rifle through everything, and take a little bit from everybody else’s stocking. Even my own. Sorry. Most of the stuff, though, I had to take from your stocking. Things I got for you. I think it will be OK. It’s not totally even, but I think it’ll be OK.”

“Oh my God, Kate, that’s amazing. You’re amazing.” Madeline teared up and hurtled towards Kate with outstretched arms, intending an enormous hug. But Kate took a step backwards.

“Not that I expect it will make any difference. But I thought I would try. I thought somebody should at least try.”

Hours later, when the herding of cats had at long last been accomplished, the group gathered to open their Christmas stockings. Looking around the stocking circle, Madeline began to feel as if she were in some sort of Twilight Zone improv class, a twisted parallel universe where each person had been given an exaggerated character trait that they’d been instructed to act out, and to hang onto that one trait for dear life, no matter what anyone else may be doing.

Savannah: I WILL sulk, pout, sigh, disappear at regular intervals, and broadcast dark depair.

Marie: I WILL stick with Savannah. This is blood. If she’s in despair, I’m in despair. Don’t fuck with me.

John: I WILL remain completely oblivious to anything out of the ordinary going on here. Completely. Oblivious.

Kate: I WILL HAVE A GOOD CHRISTMAS. I WILL. I WILL. I WILL.

Dan: I WILL act as if every single thing this family has created as part of their Christmas tradition is without question the most fucked up, lame assed, terrifyingly inauthentic piece of dysfunctional lunacy that I have ever witnessed in my life.

Madeline: I WILL do everything humanly possible to make sure that every one of these people is happy, happy, happy. I can do it! I can!

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photos by Mary Ellen Mark

“Cozy, Cozy” new except from the novel “Pushing the River”

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Madeline glanced over at Savannah’s face and thought: “it’s slumped. Her very face is slumped, not just her body. I did not know such a thing was possible.” Not only that, but she managed to radiate jaw-clenched, seething malcontent like waves carrying forth from a gigantic ocean liner. It was impossible to be in the room, which was quite large, and not know the intense level of her well-broadcast suffering.

Madeline’s phone rang in the other room. When she saw the name on her caller ID, she walked to the back of the house to answer. “Hi,” she said.

“Don’t tell anyone that it’s me. Please. Please, Maddie.” Billie’s voice was so soft, so nearly not there at all.

“What’s going on, Billie? How are you?”

Billie cried quietly on the other end of the line for quite a while. “I am so sorry, Maddie. So so sorry. I’ve let everybody down. Again. I’ve let everybody down again.”

“Everybody wants you here,” was Madeline’s first lie. “But everybody understands,” was her second.

Billie’s gentle crying turned to great, racking sobs; she audibly snorted the torrent of liquid that poured from her nose. “I just can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t I can’t I can’t.”

“Are you OK, Billie? Are you someplace safe?”

“I can’t I can’t I can’t. I’m so so sorry.”

“Your sister is worried about you. Can you call her? Or text her? Can you text Savannah? Wish her a good Christmas? Can you think about doing that? Try to do it before the end of the day tomorrow. Just think about it. Please just think about it, OK?”

“Don’t tell anyone I called,” Billie said, and abruptly hung up.

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Madeline remained in the back room, weighing the pros and cons of keeping the call to herself. Talk about your lose-lose, she thought. Marie counted on knowing every single thing, all the time, even when the information made her infinitely more miserable.

Just then, Marie stealthed into the room and said to Madeline, “Who was that? Was that my mother?”

“I’m not sure,” Madeline replied. “Depends on: what’s the right answer to that question?”

“God damn it!” Marie said. “What did she say?”

“Not much. She doesn’t sound good. I think it’s a safe bet that we won’t be seeing her. I tried to get her to think about talking to her sister, and to Savannah.”

“Where is she? What else did she say?”

“She didn’t say much, Marie. Mostly she cried. And repeatedly apologized. Repeatedly.”

The two women looked at one another across the dark expanse of the room, saying nothing. Marie stealthed back out, leaving Madeline to gaze out at the back yard, the fat colored lights ablaze in the neighbor’s tall pine.

Right after Madeline returned to the living room and took her seat on the couch, the front door opened, and Dan came in. “Fuck, I should have known,” Madeline thought. She knew well by then that any time Dan spent with any piece of his family entailed a heavy amount of drinking on his part – plenty in their presence to manage the togetherness, and even more in the car as he drove to his next destination. A particularly tough family gathering could end up being a three-to-five-cans-in-the-car adventure. Not until he walked through the door did Madeline realize it: she had held out the hope that Christmas Eve would be different, that maybe there would be warmth and traditions and laughter and such that would have him sipping daintily at a homemade toddy instead of slugging back brew after brew.

Dan still perplexed her as a drunk. Large amounts of alcohol seemed to render him both woozy and intense. There was a coiled-snake vibe, ready at any second to strike, hard, unless he happened to slip into a peaceful stupor instead. He plopped onto the couch next to her, but sat at the very edge, so he needed to turn his head to see her. “Wow,” he said. “Look at this cozy family scene.”

“Yep,” Madeline said. “It is.” It was both a command and a plea.

“Cozy, cozy.”

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center photo of F. Scott Fitzgerald and family

“Nativity,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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It was long past the time when Madeline made an entire village of gingerbread houses for each room of the first floor –gumdrop streets lined with gingerbread men and women, M & M rooftops with chocolate Santa’s waving from chimneys, forests of festooned trees, and front yards with cheery snowmen. Still, she thought to herself, this Christmas will not be a shit show. It can’t be.

Christmas Eve was always her favorite. The calendar wound relentlessly down to the shortest days, the barest amount of daytime to illuminate a bleak winter landscape; yet a day that seemed to stretch out with the bright promise of going on forever, as a day in the middle of July.

Dan had wandered off to spend some time with his family. Savannah had been holed up at her Aunt Carol’s with Dylan for several days, and Marie had left early in the morning to join them. The only ones in the house that morning were Madeline and her two children.

Madeline was finishing the frosting on the Christmas tree-shaped cakes that had been an unbreakable traditional for years. The tin foil pans had likely been designed for one-time-then-toss-them-away use. About twenty years ago. Each year, Madeline consulted her kids for Christmas Eve menu planning. Each year, she asked them what they wanted for dessert. With cheery over-enthusiasm, she mentioned a few yummy possibilities she’d been wanting to make for them. Even if the two of them were on the phone, Madeline could hear Kate’s face fall; she could see the tears that threatened at the corner of Kate’s eyes. Each year, Madeline babied the weary pans into a shape that reasonably resembled a Christmas tree, and filled the ever-increasing holes with scraps of aluminum foil so they had a reasonable chance of holding the batter.

Madeline hummed a medley of carols to herself as she swirled the finishing touches of bright green frosting. She imagined the conversation that was about to take place–

“OK, guys, the cakes are ready for you to decorate!”

“Come on, John!” Kate would say.

“Ah, you do both of them this year, Kate. I’m in the middle of trying to finish this (fill in the blank, critically-important thing).

“No no no no no no. Come ON! It’s your cake! Your CAKE!”

This would go on for a bit, John resisting, Kate getting increasingly filled with flustered affectionate pique.

In the end, John would create a masterpiece in a shockingly short amount of time. Kate would take her time, study, plan, go back to her work again and again for fine tuning. In the end, they would both be so pleased with their work that they would carve and gouge around their favorite bits of decoration until the last few bites at the bitter end.

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Before Madeline could call out to signal her final flourishes, caught right in the transition between her humming of “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night,” the sound of Kate and John tuning up their instruments in the living room drifted in. “Yeah!!!” she said.

“Surprise!” shouted Kate. “Impromptu Christmas carol serenade!”

Madeline went into the living room with a knife full of frosting still in hand, holding it out first to Kate, then to John, as they plucked strings and turned pegs to tune.

“Let’s do ‘O Holy Night’ first cause it’s my favorite and Mom was just about to sing it,”

Kate said.

“OK,” John replied. “I don’t really know it, so you start, and I’ll come in and follow.”

“What do you mean you don’t know ‘O Holy Night?’ That’s, like, blasphemy or something.”

“Are we gonna have this conversation again?”

Madeline plopped onto the couch, happier than she could remember being in a long, long time.

“Oh man. This is the greatest. I suppose I should think about starting to get dinner ready. Did Marie give you an idea of what time she’d be back here?”

“Um, I’m not sure she’s gonna make it back for dinner,” John did his very best to sound casual, but his head remained turned and his eyes on the floor as he answered his mother.

“What?” It was nearly a whisper.

“I don’t think things are going real well there. At Aunt Carol’s. I don’t think anybody’s in a very good mood.”

“What’s going on, John?”

John sank into a chair and ran his fingers through his hair, still looking at some point on the floor, then at the ceiling as he combed his fingers through his hair a few more times and let out a big, audible puff of breath. “I guess I mean that Savannah’s really, really down, so Marie is really down, too. Because her sister is. You know?”

“What’s up with Savannah?”

“I guess she’s spent all this time out there with her aunt thinking about how it’s Dylan’s first Christmas and how important that is, and well, she’s gotten more and more convinced, every day, that her mother was going to be able to get it together and have Christmas with all of them together.”

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“Oh shit.”

“Yeah,” said John.

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, what’s happening now?” Madeline asked.

“I don’t know. Savannah just really convinced herself that her mother would be there. Every day that Savannah’s been out there, every day since she left here, I guess she’s gotten her hopes more and more wound up. Now everybody has been calling Billie all day long – they started this morning – and she hasn’t picked up. They’ve texted about a hundred times, too. Anyway, finally Uncle Bob drove down there because Carol was losing her mind not knowing what was going on with her sister. So Bob gets down there and the apartment is totally dark. No lights. No nothing.”

“Perfect,” Madeline said.

“The poor guy is walking around the outside of Billie’s apartment peering in the windows and tapping on the glass. On Christmas Eve. Anyway, when he got back home, Savannah crashed and burned. She got really, really down and went pale and handed Dylan over to Marie and hasn’t said a word since then.”

Kate looked John square in the eye and said, “Do you want to play a few more, or go decorate the cakes now?”

John met her stare, held it. “So like I said, I don’t think anybody out there is in a very good mood.”

“Seems like that would be rather an understatement,” said Madeline.

“Marie is trying to talk Savannah into packing up Dylan and coming here. But I don’t know if that’s gonna happen,” John said.

“Well, what should I do about dinner? Should I hold off starting to cook?”

“No, don’t hold off,” Kate broke in. “We told them what time dinner was going to be.”

Both Madeline and John looked at her. “It’s Christmas Eve!” Kate said. “If they make it for dinner – great. If not, they’ll be here later on.”

“Well,” Madeline said, “looks like it may be just the three of us for dinner!” Her children knew her well enough to glean the carefully-disguised elation in her voice.

“Make a lot of food anyway, Ma. Please? They might be hungry when they get here.”

If they get here,” Kate said, with unapologetic accurately.

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Winter Approaches: new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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Madeline watched two squirrels chasing one another across the top of the fence in her yard. They knew in their squirrel way that winter was coming, and what would have been playful frolicking a month or so ago had turned to ferocious rivalry over the last seeds and acorns that could mean the difference between a thick padding of pudge to burn for a whole long winter, or a skimpy layer of fat, and a squirrel that was cold, shivering and desperate long before the frozen world melted away.

She remembered the day when she had been sitting in the same spot, looking out the same window, at the exact moment when a squirrel lost its balance and dropped like a shot from the branch. “Arrogant acrobatic bastard,” she said aloud. She would have expected a frantic scrambling of legs and claws and limbs as the squirrel plummeted, but it immediately assumed the spread-eagle position of a sky diver in free fall; and in that same position it landed with an abrupt stop, right on top of the fence, where it lay panting and dazed.

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“Oh for god’s sake, squirrel bastard, are you really gonna do this? Are you really gonna make me worry about you?”

All afternoon, the squirrel lay atop the fence, all spread out, the ends of its limbs dangling. Madeline checked every hour or so. The squirrel seemed to be panting less, she thought; of course, maybe that meant that he was dying.

Just as the sun sunk low enough to cast the juicy, sumptuous golden glow she loved so much, the squirrel stood up on all four legs and walked the length of the entire fence as if nothing in the world had ever happened. When he reached the end, he scampered down and hopped across the yard and back up the tree.

The whole thing was so utterly bizarre that Madeline wondered for a second if it really happened. She would have been the only person, among the billions inhabiting the earth, to see it. It was an event, a moment, that belonged to her and her alone. But really, it was the same with everything, right? She was the only one who saw from behind her own eyes. Every one of the times she had looked out the windows of this room, every daring squirrel, blowing branch, falling leaf, every play of light and shadow, every every every thing was a vision, a moment of her life, that was hers.

“Hey MadMad,” Savannah called from the kitchen, “how much pain do you think a baby really feels? Like if I wanted to get him a tattoo, for instance? I mean, they cut the ends of their penises off, right?”

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