Void

Another excerpt from the novel I am currently writing, tentatively titled “The Rocky Orchard.”  Also an homage to Mary Oliver, and all those who find the natural world transformative.

beenwoodward.fog

The following morning, Mazie looked out the kitchen window above the sink to a dense, gray nothingness.  She filled the ancient aluminum coffee pot with cold water and strained her eyes, but the fog was pea-soup dense. That was what they called it in that neck of the woods, as Mazie recollected, and she had not seen a fog of its like in a long while. Looking out the window, she could not see to the edges of the farm house.  The walls faded and bleached into nonexistence, vanishing into the gray.  Fog as thick as this drank up all sound, except for the intermittent plops of water, the humidity so high that droplets condensed out of thin air and fell heavily to the ground.  It reminded Mazie of being in an airplane, flying through an impenetrable cloud bank, surrounded by an utter void, feeling as if she were being propelled deeper and deeper into nothing at all.

Mazie fretted that she would not be able to see the older woman when she came walking through the orchard.  Or, Mazie thought, the woman may well decide to bypass the orchard altogether, as she would not be able to see the treacherous rocks endangering her path.  In this kind of fog, people and things appeared out of nowhere, without hint or warning, when they came close enough to emerge from the fog’s grip.  They disappeared just as fast.

Mazie wrapped a light sweater around her shoulders and grabbed her coffee cup from the porch table.  She held the screen door and closed it gently behind her, barely making a sound.  The door’s usual slam seemed like it would be an intrusion into this silent, featureless world.  Mazie wandered the short distance to the near end of the orchard, where the ancient apple trees appeared out of the gray, one by one.  She ran her hand along the craggy bark, ran her finger in the grooves between the bark’s scales.

Mazie took a couple more steps into the orchard.  On one of the low-sitting but jagged rocks, she made out the faint remains of white paint.  Even in dim and fog, the old paint produced a chiaroscuro of light and dark in the deep crags.  Her father had painted a number of rocks throughout the orchard, a warning for himself and anyone else riding one of the family’s ride-on lawnmowers through the obstacle-course orchard.  Mazie was fairly sure she had never mowed the apple orchard, never wanted to try. But her father approached it as a challenge, a game, to see how fast he could go, careening around, turning sharp corners, timing himself.  She could picture him in his perennial work outfit – a plain white tee shirt and light blue pants – perched high on one of their two mowers with a whisper of a smile on his face.  He hit various rocks many, many times.  Mazie could never forget the sound.  The noisy, constant engine halting in an instant, giving way to the thunderous scrape of metal against rock that seemed to shake the surrounding woods to their core, then stop dead in abrupt silence.

One time had been different.  The metallic crash was not met by silence, but by the continued whirr of the engine and within it, the sound of her father screaming “Help!  Help me!” with panic in his voice.  On one of his daredevil sharp corners, the mower had tipped completely over, on top of him, and the blades had kept on turning.

Mazie shuddered, though her father had been fine.

She wandered back toward the house, and climbed the path to the dirt road.  Mazie looked in both directions, taking her time, in case she might see the older woman walking along the road.  She saw a slight movement at the very edge of visibility the fog would allow, but it vanished.  It may have been the woman, Mazie thought; but she could not be sure.

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top photo: Ben Woodward

Crazy Boy

I think this section from my new novel THE ROCKY ORCHARD makes an especially good flash piece.

Teenage boy with thick curly long hair blowing in the wind, serious look

Sick. I felt sick, fucking sick, when the telephone rang. I wanted to snatch the old 20-pound, rotary dial monstrosity of a phone right out of the wall and fling it through the window. I wanted glass to shatter and fly in a million directions and create rainbows of light in mid-air. I wanted the shards to rain down razors and cut the room into little ribbons. I’m too young for this, I thought. I’m fourteen years old and I am too young for this. For this shit, for this utter shit.

“Hello,” I said into the receiver.

“I’m pointing a knife at my stomach,” Tim said. “Tell me why you broke up with me.”

Suicide was just a word, a vague concept. Something whispered, read about in books. Nothing that had ever come near my own world, just a specter keeping itself hidden and far away. I had not even read The Bell Jar, hadn’t thought of Sylvia Plath turning on the stove in the apartment where she lived every day. Had not been stuck with the picture of her putting her head into the oven with the gas jet running, her two young children sleeping in their beds on the other side of the wall.

Daddy Mommy, I thought. I don’t know what Tim is going to do. I’m scared. I think he’s going to do something to himself. Help me, Daddy Mommy. I need your help, I thought.

But I didn’t say anything.   Not to my parents, not to anyone.

Tim’s younger sister, the one that was in my grade, the one that I knew, was the first one home that night.  She found him.  Still alive, but unconscious.

It’s a blur after that.  I can picture flashing lights and sirens and a lot of people and a lot of running around, but that doesn’t really make sense, does it?  They wouldn’t have been at my house; all of that would have been at Tim’s house.  Still, I have a sense of a million faces looking at me.  It seemed as if the whole world was staring at me – a vast sea of expressions.  Such concern.  Some people blamed me; I could see it in their faces.  Most people were torn, anguished even, between the part of them that wanted to stare at me, and the part of them that wanted to look away. I’d become scary to people somehow.  So many different things that people felt when they looked at me.

All I’d done was broken up with a boy.  A crazy boy.

 

Grand Canyon

grand-canyon

Here is another section from the “When I Was 4, 1960” section of my current novel.

Way before we got to the Grand Canyon, I was pretty sure my mother was just making stuff up. So by the time she was making exuberant wide gestures while talking about time, and a river, and layers of rock, and millions of years, millions and millions of years — I just felt sad and confused.  My neighbor Patsy had already told me about the whole world being made in just seven short days, well six really, cause God took one day off to rest. She had learned this at church, and this story was from God himself.  They said so at church, a Presbyterian one, but my other neighbor Carrie was an actual Catholic; and Carrie confirmed this was, without question, the truth.

I felt a little better when my brother and I were allowed to feed some peanuts to the chipmunks that were running around everywhere. I was scared they would bite me, but they didn’t, and their teeny little claws felt creepy and good all at the same time when they crawled into my hand to get the nuts.  I had to keep very, very still.  I felt like there were my personal friends.

But back in the car, as we drove away from the Grand Canyon, there was a whirl going on inside of me.  Kind of like when you make those whirly paintings at carnivals, the ones where you squirt bright, beautiful colors from ketchup bottles, and then the whole thing spins around, and you think it’s going to be so so pretty; but it’s a mess. An ugly, dark mess.

Why would my own mother tell such whoppers?

After the Grand Canyon, I was cranky, and I stayed that way the rest of the return trip, heading east once again on Route 66.  Pancakes and hotel swimming pools had lost their allure, and hours upon hours bumping along in the back seat – with nothing supposedly dazzling to look forward to – were pure torture.  After the mountains flattened out in the vast, monotonous and scorching prairie, there weren’t even any more roadside attractions to bring us to a precipitous halt.  My mother packed away her movie camera one afternoon, and the next day her regular camera, and took to staring silently out the window, turned away from all of us.  My father stopped pulling over to rest and smoke a cigarette; instead he lit up seemingly continually, sending endless clouds of choking smoke to add to our back-seat agonies.

My brother and I knew that we would get in big trouble if we fought or argued out loud, so we traversed a couple thousand miles of the United States by perpetuating a stealth war of silent punches, kicks, and the occasional pinch.  It was the only entertainment we could muster.

When we got back home, I began to secretly believe that I had been adopted, that I had come from different people entirely than these two grown-ups who ping-ponged between sphinxlike impenetrability and riotous, nonsensical laughter.  I started to have bad dreams.  In some of them, we were back on our road trip vacation, and they had left me behind at one of the endless places where we had stopped.  In others, I was trying as hard as could to run away from something awful, but my legs wouldn’t work.  It was as if I was in super slow motion, while the rest of the world – and the awful threat – came closer.  And then, I died.  For the first time.

When I Was Four, 1960

thanksgiving-station-wagons-ford-countrty-squire-trumpetMy aunt and uncle had a new baby.  She was my cousin, they said.  It was a miracle, they said, because my aunt had tried so hard to have a baby and wanted one so much.  They told me that she had lost 15 babies, which I found completely confusing but nonetheless terrifying.  How could anyone lose babies?  The idea made me feel cagey about my aunt, and I guess my mother sensed this, because she kept reminding me that I loved my aunt very much, as was evidenced by the fact that I didn’t shy away from her for even a single second when she had to stick her finger down my throat and made me upchuck because I had eaten cockroach poison.  That was during our last visit to my aunt and uncle.  I was less than two years old; I didn’t know what I was doing.  I just figured that something lying on the floor in a pretty little bowl was something I should definitely taste!  Of course, I have no memory of this myself, being so young at the time, but my mother told that story so many times that it’s like a movie that can play in my mind at the merest mention.  I can picture my aunt’s pin curls flopping in front of her eyes as she held me over the sink.  I can smell the smell of her breath combined with the fragrance of her bright lipstick as she panted with effort.  I guess I didn’t upchuck all that easily, which was all part of the story of my good nature in not holding an immense grudge against someone who hoisted me under her arm and forced her finger into the back of my throat over and over.

We finally got to California, where everything looked unreasonably bright and like the whole world had been bleached into an eerie whiteness.  It didn’t seem like it could possibly be safe to  go outside into that sea of brightness, and I even made sure to keep clear of the windows in mid-day.   My aunt and uncle had just moved into this new house and had practically no furniture, just a lot of empty, freshly-carpeted rooms and a nervous little dog that looked like he’d been given way too tight of a permanent wave for his hair.  As for the baby cousin: I’d pretty much never seen a baby before, and I wasn’t at all sure she was real.  She just sat there doing absolutely nothing most of the time.  Every so often I would pinch her, to see if she was real after all.  She would scream or cry or something, but somehow I still wasn’t entirely convinced.

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Hope you enjoy this re-worked piece from the novel I am currently writing, tentatively titled THE ROCKY ORCHARD.

PUSHING THE RIVER

My newest novel, Pushing the River, released yesterday (Amika Press)!!

In honor of its official entrance into the world, here are some additional teaser quotes.

The early reviews have taken my breath away.  Check them out, below!

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“Madeline stood in the street and gaped into the vast cavern of space as if it were a true miracle, as if an outline of the Virgin Mother would undoubtedly appear on a side wall, like Jesus on a piece of toast.”

“That’s my heritage, the stock from whence I come, I will put on my gloves and I will get out there in that garden and I will take no prisoners and I will damn the torpedoes and I will full speed ahead.  My family is in need.”

“Madeline became passionately attached to Jeff’s body.  She scanned its surface for changes to memorize.  She took note of differing thicknesses of the hairs comprising his beard, ran her fingers alone the crevasses of scars from a bad car accident, studied the calluses on each of his fingers from years of playing guitar.”

“My head is gonna explode, she thought. It is going to detach from my body and flay apart into a million, icky-gooey-oozy little pieces.  What’s the movie where that happens?  It’s going to splatter against the walls and slap Savannah upside the face.”

“…they would be swept up in a great salty tide [of tears] and whisked down the corridor, past roomfuls of astonished new mothers cradling infants, while Madeline swooped up Dylan and saved him.”

“By the second week of December, Madeline felt as if she had fast-forwarded through a ten-year marriage in just slightly more than three months.”

“When he shuffled off to the bathroom each night to brush and floss for an absurd amount of time, it set her own teeth on edge to such a degree she felt certain her back molars would shatter into bits.”

“Sometimes it is a smell or the particular angle of the sun’s light or the sound of a door closing – some thing that makes its way through the store of life’s memories and touches something deep, far, previously lost.  In this case, it was the movement, the precise position of her legs.”

“Taking down a Christmas tree was like a death.  The death of another year.  Pack up and put away whatever was special or memorable or lasting.  Throw away the rest.”

“I knew that we were in a race against my grandmother’s remaining time.  I thought about the possibility that she might die while we were up in the clouds, and I wondered if I might be able to see her, making her trip to heaven, if I concentrated very hard on the clouds.”

“The really gory detail is how I turned out to be a hopelessly shallow person who fell for a handsome lunatic.”

https://www.goodreads.com/b…/show/41020153-pushing-the-river

Tennis Racket Banjo and Other Unexpected Encounters

construction

I was living in a space that was approximately 4’ x 10’, with a ceiling of the usual height.  During the daytime, I would put my feet on the floor and gaze out the window.  At night, I put my legs up and my upper body down, rearranging the pillows so there would be one for my head.  I would close my eyes,  facing away from the windows, and sometimes I would sleep.  For the first few nights, I pulled the drapes closed, blocking out the lights from the enormous construction project as well as the blazingly-lit buildings that surrounded my location in all directions.  By the fourth night, I stopped closing the shades, finding the idea of the lights gleaming just behind my head to be strangely comforting, a presence I wanted to maintain.  Even with the sense of being immersed in a constructed reality – my own personal Truman Show – the lights of this Stepford world flickered just as prettily.

In a city known for its unreasonable hills, perennial fog, and enchanting Victorian architecture, my couch home existed in an area that lay completely outside the farthest bounds of expectation.  It was, in other words, completely flat, continually drenched in blinding, bright California sun, and so utterly brand new that the majority of the area was a cacophony of rebar and beams and gridwork.

I knew that I would awaken the following day well before the natural light of morning flooded the room.  Sometime between 5:30 and 6:30 am, a voice would pierce the pre-dawn by saying, simply, “I’m awake.”  This would be followed by complete silence – unusually complete, for the general layout of the area made for an absence of the routine sounds of early morning, such as birds chirping, dogs barking, a stirring of the natural world. Perhaps ten to fifteen minutes later, once again, “I’m awake.”  The tone was neutral, not pressed, or irritated, or perplexed at the lack of response – simply a statement made into the dark void.  Then silence once again.  Ten minutes later, when the voice returned, there was a difference.  Factors had been weighed.  Conclusions had been drawn.

Unable to reconcile the possibility that the voice may have been heard, but not responded to, the conclusion was that the voice must not have been heard in the first place.  Thus, when the voice cried out again, it was outstandingly loud, and crisply clear, and delivered in the slow, exaggerated way that we often speak to people who are hard of hearing, or have a different native language, or whom we are openly dissing by acting like they are total cretins.  “I AM AWAKE.  I AM READY TO GET OUT OF MY BED.”

The brand new fake wood floors muffle every iota of sound.  There are no footsteps, no shuffling scraping warnings.

A moment later, I open my eyes.  A very small person stands two feet from my face.  He holds a spray bottle in his mouth, his lips closed around the nozzle while the bottle hangs down.

“You’re starting with the saxophone today, I see,” I say to him.

“Saxophone first.  Then tennis racket banjo.”

“What song are you playing?”  I ask him.

“Bump.”  He says.  “After that: Chick Habit.”

And with the naming of his two favorite songs from his most favorite band – a Chicago Punk Marching Band – my day with my 2-year-old grandson begins.

tennis.racket.banjo

 

Boat (new flash fiction)

chris.schenkelWhile we were in California, my aunt and uncle took us out on their boat to fish for yellowtail.  The grown-ups talked about this for DAYS beforehand —  how we were going out into the open ocean, on our very own boat.  They would look at one another every so often and shout out “Yellowtail!” which was invariably followed by raucous laughter, back-slapping, and a big giant gulp from their glass.

When the much-vaunted day came, we set out for the place where their boat was docked. My aunt’s car was so big that the accumulated seven of us had no trouble whatsoever fitting in, and the three kids and one adult still bounced around the back seat with tons of space to spare.  It was like being in a room in someone’s house that up and moved from place to place. Riding in it didn’t feel like any car I’d ever been in.  Usually, when you drove over a bump, you’d feel a bump.  In this behemoth, when you went over a bump, the entire car seemed to take it personally, and became intent on minimizing the blow by rolling from side to side a whole lot of times instead of just hitting the bump and getting it over with.  When I looked over at my brother, the freckles across his nose had taken on a greenish tinge.

The seats were made out of a weird material that felt slippery and a little greasy all at the same time.  I couldn’t stop running my index finger back and forth across the seat beside me.  My mother turned around from her spot in the middle of the front seat and caught me doing this.  “It’s a brand new synthetic!” she chirped.  “It’ll last forever!” Being four years old, I heard it as “SIN-thetic.”  And since I had a limited but wholly terrifying idea of “sin,” and since my mother seemed unreasonably gleeful about the whole car upholstery topic, I thought I better not say any more.

When we climbed on to the actual boat, the adults were in such unfettered good spirits that I felt immediately suspicious and bewildered and like I’d been invited to some party that was celebrating something I couldn’t understand.  It turned out that you have to spend a whole lot of time on a boat, doing one thing and another that was also incomprehensible to me, way before the boat ever moves away from its place at the dock.  But that whole time, the boat sits in the ocean heaving up and down and back and forth.  Somebody decided that we children would be more comfortable “below;” so we – my aunt and the baby, my brother, and me — were relegated to the little enclosed room below the part of the boat that was outside and open to the air.  The minute the door closed behind us, my brother did a quick look around, spotted a tiny little bench alongside a tiny little table, curled up, and went immediately to sleep.

I didn’t know what to do – where to sit, or stand, or look at, or anything.  My aunt was holding the baby and cooing at her.  That baby looked right at me, staring a hole.  And without so much as a fuss or wiggle or even slight change of expression, she just opened up her mouth and spewed a gigantic amount of puke that ran all the way down her body and my aunt’s as well.

My aunt had a mess on her hands, and she got very wrapped up in wiping at the baby and herself with whatever she found at hand, all the while cooing and comforting her.  Then the baby upchucked again.

I looked at my shoes.  Partly because I still couldn’t figure out what to do, and partly because I thought the puke probably splattered onto them; and I was very proud of my saddle shoes.

What the heck were my parents up to?  I stared at the door to make sure I’d see them coming, whenever they did.

alex.scott

Painting are by: Chris Schenkel (top) and Alex Scott.  Chris and Alex participate in Chicago’s Arts of Life program. “Arts of Life advances the creative arts community by providing artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities a collective space to expand their practice and strengthen their leadership.”

How I Met Anne

Anne bounded through the door of the second-grade classroom like the Connecticut-bred thoroughbred that she’d been born. A giant-eyed toddler moppet trailed well after her, a baby bottle filled with Pepto Bismol-pink liquid gripped between her teeth as she strangled a blankie with both hands.

“I’m a little early!” Anne announced to the room in general, raising her arm as if to hail a cab.

“I hope that’s OK!” Only after she said this did her eyes cast around to land on the two people – the teacher and me – who stood at the front of the classroom.

“That’s ok, we were just finishing up. I think,” I said. She saw that my eyes had been drawn to the freakish pink inside the bottle.

“Strawberry Quik!” she said. “It’s the only way I can get her to drink any milk!”

She was loud. Every sentence had an exclamation point at the end. She wore Doc Martens and a long skirt on an airless, sweltering summer day. I liked her immediately. Even before she parted her lips into a mischievous smile and belly-laughed.

“Do you have a kid in this class?” she asked me. “Any chance it’s a boy? My son’s gonna be in this class!” Before I could answer, she laughed again. “Or am I talking to the wrong person? Which one of you is the teacher and which one is the other parent?”

I introduced myself. I always introduce myself as “Barbara.” I don’t believe Anne ever called me “Barbara.” Not even once.

“OK, Barb! Great to meet you!” she said. “So you must be Ms. Mahoney,” she announced to the teacher. “Hey, Barb, if you have time, is there any chance you could keep an eye on the baby while I talk to Ms. Mahoney? She’s kind of at that age…”

Until then, I had been under the impression that Anne was oblivious to her daughter’s careening destruction of every single thing in her path. But she wasn’t oblivious. She saw it all, and let it happen anyway.  Not out of neglect, but rather, by design.

2ndgrade.JPGAs I work on getting my third completed novel Out There, I am playing around with several new ideas — such as the one above.  Perhaps one or more of them will come together into the next long[er] work.  Stay tuned!